This issue of E&M looks at democracy in all its beauty as well its pit- and shortfalls. Friederike Sandow takes stock of what democracy in the bedroom looks like.
Ah, democracy! The rule of the people, where everyone is considered an equal. We know people are equal. We know people deserve to be treated equally. And yet, we constantly and consistently fail to do so – in politics, in art, in society, in science and in personal, intimate relationships – and thus, in the bedroom.
Disclaimer: It is not surprising that all of the issues listed below refer almost exclusively to heterosexual relationships.
1. Abortion rights
Women’s rights to their own bodies are never not debated, yet the simple consequence of being anti-abortion is directly translating to being anti-women and thus anti-human rights. 40% of women worldwide have only very restricted access to legal abortions. In some countries women need spousal authorization. In some countries, women are only being granted an abortion in case of incest or rape. And in very few countries the right to abortion specifically mentions mental health. In more than half the countries worldwide, women need to explicitly state their reason for seeking an abortion in the hope that the law (which has been thought up by men) allows them to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. And though over the past decades, there has been considerable progress, there’s no one step forward without one or two steps back. The right to abortion is under attack, for example in Poland and in the past weeks yet again most famously in the US, where the state of Texas has introduced an abortion law so vigorous, it’s maddening and actually unbelievable.
“Because most people don’t realize they are pregnant until after six weeks, the majority of people seeking abortions in Texas were unable to get the procedure. Texas’ law makes no exception for victims of rape or incest. The only exception to the ban was to save the life of the pregnant person in a medical crisis.”
Even if you live in a country where abortions are, technically, legal, the emotional toll it takes, apart from the procedure itself but from getting to the right people to be able to receive a procedure, is gigantic. The shame, the defamation, the guilt, the judgement and the utter lack of information where to go as well as the often mandatory counseling are all signs of a culture that does not grant women the right to their own body and does not trust women to make an informed decision about not only their own body, but their own life.
This knowledge, however detailed it may be, does not stop at the bedroom door. It comes to bed with you. It is next to you when you have sex with a man. It is with you every day of the month, when you keep track of your period. It is with you when you’re trying to be in the moment, but you’re worried that contraception might fail you, that you have put the condom on too late, that you have unprotected sex, for whatever reason.
This is a concern that many people with a uterus carry with them. Everyone does not.
2. Research gap / contraception
It has been widely discussed and addressed that there is a research gap in technology, medicine, infrastructure, and science between genders, but we’re only very slowly starting to understand the extent to which this affects us all in our daily lives.
“It comes from the fact that the male body has always been taken as the standard human being. I don’t think there’s some giant conspiracy and medical researchers all hate women and want us to die. It’s just that this way of thinking is so pervasive that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.”
The research gap, especially in medicine, has for decades led to false diagnoses, information gaps, falsely communicated side effects as well as healing effects, structural underestimation of pain, symptoms and treatment and has brought to light an unconscious bias that costs lives: “Over 10 years, more than 8,000 women in England and Wales died unnecessarily after a heart attack, [a British Heart Foundation report] found. Experts say there are inequalities in diagnosis, treatment and aftercare.”
In the same vein, ‘the pill’, according to today’s standards (which have risen, and that’s a good thing!) would not be considered fit for the market. That is why the ‘pill for men’ has not been made available – the side effects, which are exactly like the side effects women have battled since the revolution of the pill in the 60s, are considered to be too grave.
This still leaves women, for the most part, to be responsible for contraception, especially when it comes to hormonal contraception. And in case of contraceptive failures, such as a condom breaking, not having pushed the sexual partner hard enough to use contraception or hormonal imbalances due to illnesses, temperature or what have you, the consequences of accidental pregnancies lie solely with women: please see point 1 above.
There is no democracy in research, no democracy in contraception. There is inequality, blame-shifting and an unconscious bias that sits next to you when you visit the doctor and that has set up camp next to your bed.
3. The orgasm gap
The fundamental right to equality between men and women ceases to exist for most actually right in bed: “Women are having fewer orgasms than men when they have sex with men.”
The gender specific inequality comes to show when you compare the orgasm gap between men and women to the orgasm gap between heterosexual and lesbian and bisexual women, because the latter have “have significantly more orgasms than heterosexual women. Similarly, there’s an orgasm gap between women when they’re alone and when they’re with a partner. A study found that 39% of women said they always orgasm when they masturbate, compared to 6% during sex.”, writes Forbes magazine’s Alice Broster.
Can we blame pornography? Yes, yes we can. “Far too often, male orgasm is the purpose of most heterosexual pornographic videos with women’s pleasure residing in niche categories.” But… “Does life really imitate art? It sure can. In a 2018 study of newlywed heterosexual couples, 87 percent of men reported consistently experiencing orgasms, compared to only 49 percent of women.”
Whilst we’re at it, let’s take a look at pornography. According to professor and researcher Gail Dines, “the prevalence of porn means that men are becoming desensitised to it, and are therefore seeking out ever harsher, more violent and degrading images.” Everyone knows how it feels to become desensitised to images, to media, to news. We see the world burning and drowning, we see pictures of environmental catastrophes, war, refugees drowning and with one click we can move on to the next news or video of a cat doing something cute. We have grown numb, and in all fairness, I think that’s a mode of survival. But are we still in control of what images do to us? How we think about fellow humans, about people in other countries, about animals, about our neighbours, family, friends – and partners? Sex always had fetishes and fetishes can be healthy, exciting, arousing, fun and pleasurable. But with half the world’s population being degraded on a regular basis in a massive industry like porn, it’s mad to look at it and not question its consequences:
“Images have now become so extreme that acts that were almost non-existent a decade ago have become commonplace. From studying thousands of porn films and images, Dines found that the most popular acts depicted in internet porn include vaginal, oral and anal penetration by three or more men at the same time; double anal; double vaginal; a female gagging from having a penis thrust into her throat; and ejaculation in a woman’s face, eyes and mouth.”
“To think that so many men hate women to the degree that they can get aroused by such vile images is quite profound,” says Dines. “Pornography is the perfect propaganda piece for patriarchy. In nothing else is their hatred of us quite as clear.”
By all means, continue to watch porn, continue to revel in your fantasies and fetishes. But take the time to pause and think how sickening parts of this industry are. Becoming desensitised to images of human catastrophes on the news and extremely degrading sexual practices in pornography endangers real, actual lives. This does not scream democracy to me. It screams patriarchy. To be clear: this is not a rant against pornography. It is a reminder to pay attention to what we consume, and how we – albeit subconsciously – translate it into our lives, and, scientifically proven, the bedroom (see point 3).
5. Criminalised sex work
As a rule of thumb, the more anti-democratic a country turns out to be, the stricter the policies of criminalising sex work and curtailing the rights of sex workers. Yet again, it’s not a black and white read – even if the wish to prohibit sex work is being born out of a concern for the sex worker and to specifically stop human trafficking, curtailing the right of sex workers and criminalising sex work puts sex workers in yet more danger: “While there are certainly gendered imbalances in the actual structures of current sex markets, these imbalances are created, reinforced and strengthened not by sex work itself but by laws criminalizing sex work and by treating sex workers as second-class citizens without rights.”
Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has documented that, in criminalized environments, police officers harass sex workers, extort bribes, and physically and verbally abuse sex workers, or even rape or coerce sex from them.
Though a criminalisation of sex work does not necessarily pervade every other bedroom door, it goes to bed with a lot of people worldwide, who fear for their life. Decriminalising sex work, in the end, does more to safely suggest a way out of the profession of a sex worker – if wanted – than criminalising the work ever could.
6. Sex in the media (aside from pornography)
We named one of the biggest political sex scandals of the last decades solely after the woman, as if she was an incubus and Clinton the victim – men, the weaker sex whenever it suits them.
Tabloids love a sex scandal. To be fair, almost everyone loves a sex scandal. It’s raw, exciting, often shows a human side, and it triggers “Schadenfreude”, greed, lust and – shame. Most of all shame. Publicly laid out sex scandals are so, so shameful. Are they shameful to all parties equally? No, of course not. If sex scandals and how certain media portray them were equal and rooted in anti-sexist and anti-misogynist story- and news-telling, avoiding to unfairly shift blame, we would talk about the Bill Clinton affair, and not the Monica Lewinsky affair. We named one of the biggest political sex scandals of the last decades solely after the woman, as if she was an incubus and Clinton the victim – men, the weaker sex whenever it suits them. I dare you to think “well, it takes two to tango”, or “well, she did blow him…”, because not only was Lewinsky very young, she was also caught up in the biggest power imbalance there can be. She was an intern. He was the president. He had means to an end. She had her life absolutely uprooted.
We could talk about a lot more. About Diane Feinstein and having to publicly retell traumatic events of sexual harassment by now supreme court judge Brett Kavanaugh. We have “grab them by the pussy”-Trump. We have “bunga-bunga” Berlusconi. We have the Harvey Weinsteins and the Jeffrey Epsteins, we have the R. Kellys and Andrew, the Duke of York. Speaking of the royal family, we have the abhorrent treatment of Princess Diana by the press, Rihanna being the butt of every joke as soon as the name Chris Brown is mentioned.
And these media reports, they come to bed with us. They come to work with us. They’re travelling with us. They are telling us, that for you to speak up, you better have the thickest skin as well as the most evidence you can muster. These media reports come to show when there’s a lack of consent. When a woman does not manage to say no, but the power at play and the danger of the situation most definitely requires clear consent.
And this, most certainly, comes to bed with women every night. Because every evening, on their way home towards their bed, women have looked over their shoulders and they have clenched the key to the door in their fists, sometimes leaving marks on the palm of their hands, from grabbing the key too tightly.
7. Women’s safety
After all, no, there is no democracy in the bedroom, in a structural sense. Of course there exists democracy within relationships, but a true democracy, that is not only inherently built on each other’s trust, but also reinforced through laws, through access to policies of equality, education and research – that does not exist. I dare say ‘yet’.
There is no democracy in the bedroom, at home, during the commute, at work, at a club or in a restaurant, when women just aren’t safe. The deadliest place for women is their home. In Germany and in the UK, a woman is killed every three days by a man. “An investigation by UN Women UK found that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, with a further 96% not reporting those situations because of the belief that it would not change anything.”
If governments continue to tell women to ‘flag down a bus’, ‘not leave the house after dark’, ‘to dress less provocatively’ and to ‘always be aware’, they, at the same time, tell men to ‘keep going, lads’.
And this, most certainly, comes to bed with women every night. Because every evening, on their way home towards their bed, women have looked over their shoulders, they have texted friends, they have walked up and down the platform, they have changed seats on the bus, they have removed lipstick before going on public transport, and they have clenched the key to the door in their fists, sometimes leaving marks on the palm of their hands, from grabbing the keys too tightly.