One night, my college boyfriend, two of his female friends, and I were driving around aimlessly and stopped at a McDonald’s. He ordered a strawberry milkshake, which he didn’t finish, saying he’d just leave it in his room and drink it tomorrow.
“That’s gross,” one of his friends said. We all nodded.
“I do it all the time,” he shrugged.
“At least refrigerate it,” the other advised.
“Nothing’s happened to me before.”
“Only you can convince him,” the first one said, directing her gaze toward me. She’d tapped into a cultural trope, so I immediately knew what she meant.
“If you drink that tomorrow, I won’t have sex with you,” I blurted out quickly.
I was the woman in the relationship, which meant he always wanted sex, I granted or denied it to him, and I used my power to grant or deny sex to control his behavior.
Except that’s not how it really was at all. I wanted sex more often than he did. It was presumptuous to assume he would want it that night. But admitting that would make me seem undesirable, abnormal, and manly.
Examining pop culture, it’s easy to see how I knew what my boyfriend’s friend meant with the five simple words “only you can convince him” – and why I felt unfeminine for not actually following that script.
In the movie The Hot Chick, the protagonist flirts with a barista to get free coffee as a woman and is disappointed when she can’t accomplish this after a spell turns her into a man. There are even women’s (but, as far as I can find, not men’s) underwear with the words “access denied” scrawled across the front, implying that it’s empowering for women to deny access to their bodies.
Women have lauded this type of power as feminist.
In the video for “Anaconda,” Nicki Minaj slaps Drake’s hand away after she teases him with a lap dance, which one article republished on The Huffington Post claims “shows her power and feminist attitude because as he becomes enchanted by her sexuality, she holds the power.” Another article in Bitch saw Minaj’s rejection in the video as a statement that “her body belongs to her.”
The message that a lap dance is not permission to touch anyone is an important one about autonomy and consent. But a woman shouldn’t need to deny permission to demonstrate her power; having autonomy is power in and of itself. Whether a woman lets someone touch her or not shouldn’t provide any indication of how powerful she is at all.
We could do better to empower women. We could teach them to view sex as a mutually enjoyed activity, not a pursuit of men that women may choose to indulge or reject.
If we really want women to feel their bodies belong to them, we should teach them to explore their own desires rather than merely respond to others’.
If you still think the notion that women can withhold sex to get what they want is empowering, here are some reasons to reconsider it.
1. It Objectifies Women
The idea that women attain control by eliciting men’s desires plays into the age-old notion that women’s worth lies in their ability to produce erections.
“One of the greatest powers a woman has is the power of her sex,” author and speaker Rick Johnson writes in Patheos.
By making looks paramount to women’s empowerment, this attitude reduces them to objects. And by telling women to gain power through their sexuality, rather than their personalities or talents, it teaches them to focus on their looks.
Equating all situations where women are the objects of desire with empowerment has the effect of justifying objectification. “A young woman’s sexual power is effective with both sexes… Advertisers know that and use partially clad images of young women to sell products to both men and women,” Johnson writes.
This statement ignores all the ways women are disempowered by advertisements that use their bodies to sell products, depicting them in passive poses and even presenting them as inanimate objects. There is nothing empowering about dehumanization.
Furthermore, telling women their value lies in their ability to be desirable devalues women who are not widely considered sexually desirable. “Women tend to lose their sexual power as they age,” Johnson admits.
If women’s ability to get what they want is rooted in their demand among men, what about women who aren’t in high demand?
It’s true that people often favor women based on their adherence to ageist, racist, sizeist, and ableist ideals. But that should be challenged, not celebrated.
Placing value on women based on men’s attraction makes those who don’t possess the traits society considers attractive feel worthless, and it makes women of all appearances feel like objects.
We should be prizing inner qualities more important than the ability to provide or withhold sexual pleasure, like strength and wisdom.
And people should honor women’s wants and needs regardless of what they look like or whether sex will ever be offered in exchange.
2. It Feeds into Heteronormative Dating Scripts
When we depict the ideal romance as one in which a woman’s coyness balances out a man’s aggressiveness, we depict non-heterosexual relationships as less than ideal.
And teaching women that their leverage in relationships stems from their ability to exploit dynamics between men and women erases those who don’t date men.
Besides, many women who do date men reject the heteronormative notion that men and women should play opposite roles – one the sexual initiator, the other the responder. There are many women who want sex as often as or more often than men, and regardless of sex drives, many couples simply don’t prescribe gender roles for each other or view the bedroom as a setting for power struggles.
Relationships are supposed to present opportunities to learn about ourselves and others, and that journey should be freeing. Instead of feeling confined to gender roles, people should feel safe enough in their relationships to play whichever role suits them at any given moment.
When we repress traits that don’t align with our gender’s prescribed characteristics, we become less honest with ourselves and consequently with our partners, impeding both self-love and loving relationships.
3. It Encourages Gender Stereotypes
Despite evidence to the contrary, women are supposed to have lower libidos than men and are hence tasked with the responsibility of keeping men’s sex drives in check.
As Louis CK rather crudely puts it, “Women have the ability to decide whether or not to have sex with their minds. They get to look at someone and think ‘Should I have sex with this person?’ I have never had that thought in my life. There’s no criteria for us, just ‘She’s letting me!'”
This myth of the sexually voracious man and the picky woman who offers up sex only as a favor to men makes women feel unfeminine for wanting sex for its own sake or initiating it.
It also makes women scared to ask for what they want in bed because they’re not supposed to want much at all, which contributes to our society’s prioritization of men’s pleasure. When women are supposed to have sex to get something external, rather than get something out of the sex itself, women’s pleasure becomes less important.
When we say that women have the power to select whether or not they “let” men sleep with them, we promote this harmful stereotype.
We also imply that women in relationships where they want sex as often as or more than men hold less power than women who fit into this prescribed gender role.
Women indoctrinated into this trope may initiate sex less than they want, and men may feel pressure to initiate it more than they want. Again, however, healthy relationships stem from our abilities to be ourselves, whether we meet cultural expectations or not.
4. It Promotes Rape Culture
“When a man approaches you, you’re the one with total control over the situation – whether he can talk to you, buy you a drink, dance with you, get your number, take you home, see you again, all of that,” Steve Harvey writes in the famous self-help book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.
But this perceived control comes with a price.
Harvey also writes, “A man always wants something. Always. And when it comes to women, that plan is always to find out two things: 1) if you’re willing to sleep with him, and 2) if you are, how much it will cost to get you to sleep with him.”
His use of “cost” is no coincidence.
Rather than having sex with someone because we like them and would have a great time, women are supposed to have sex in exchange for something. This economic model of sexuality has a hazardous implication: If a man pays for enough drinks or walks a woman home enough times, she owes him.
When someone feels like they owe the other person, consent can’t be given fully. Women’s belief that they owe men sex may pressure them into bed before they’re ready.
This assumption also instills entitlement to sex in men and excuses sexual assault under the pretense that sex doesn’t have to be mutual as long as a man has paid his dues.
Another belief implicit in the women-control-men-through-sex trope is that men themselves cannot control their sexual urges. This stereotype contributes to rape culture by painting sexual assault as the result of biological discrepancies between men’s and women’s sex drives rather than an intentional, violent act.
This all may seem humorous when Steve Harvey and Louis CK describe it, but it’s actually dangerous.
5. It Encourages Manipulation
In addition to implying that women owe men sex, the model of sex as an economic exchange implies that if a woman chooses to have sex with a man, he owes her something in return.
Often, in our culture, that thing is money. While women are expected to gift men with sex in exchange for material items, men are expected to financially support women in exchange for sex.
When we believe women should withhold sex to get what they want, sex ceases to be an intimate, loving act and becomes a bargaining tool, the bedroom a tense battleground for couples’ unrelated conflicts.
My threat to withhold sex if my partner drank something I didn’t want him to is one example of manipulative behavior. He knew I didn’t actually mean it, but nevertheless, I should have kept the argument over the milkshake separate from other aspects of our relationship.
Of course, it’s always okay to decline sex, but denying it in attempt to alter a partner’s behavior can feel punitive and upsetting. The threat of losing physical intimacy can feel like a loss of closeness, and it can pressure people into doing things they don’t want to in order to keep the peace.
Using sex as a bargaining tool for bigger things, like commitment, gets even more problematic.
There’s no problem with only having sex within a committed relationship, but if a woman hangs it over a man’s head to try to get him to commit, she is manipulating him, and his commitment isn’t genuine.
6. It Represses Women’s Sexuality
“A woman’s sexual power is strongest before she has sex with a man for the first time,” Johnson writes in Patheos. In other words, if you have sex, you lose power.
Act Like a Lady promotes a similar mentality, advocating that women wait 90 days before sleeping with a man so they’ll have bargaining leverage left when they want to get him to settle down. (The book also promotes the stereotype that women are needy and try to push men to commit to them.)
According to this logic, since men’s motivation to please women stems from the promise of sex, women should hold out so men will offer them commitment and fidelity in exchange.
As the popular saying goes, “Why would you buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
Women are told the same story about abstinence as they are about dieting: Women are pure. Women are ascetic. Women don’t have strong desires. Women can resist their desires.
Whether it’s sex, food, or life experiences, society’s view of the ideal woman as undemanding and self-restrained pressures women to repeatedly say “no.”
What if, instead of telling women to say “no” to everything, we told them their power lies in asserting what they want, even if that means saying “yes?”
What if we taught them that a respectful partner’s feelings will not waver based on their sexual decisions? That their bodies are not treats rewarded to men for good behavior but living, breathing entities housing human beings?
Some women may feel empowered by the notion that they can control a man by giving or denying him sex, but I feel powerful knowing my decisions about my body are my own, that any partner worth my time will love me regardless of them, and that I can freely express my sexual desires and will be just as powerful after I wake up in the morning.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.