Not in the Mood: Clementine Ford on Bettina Arndt

Clementine Ford attended Bettina Arndt’s Lunchbox/Soapbox on Why Sex Matters So Much to Men at the Wheeler Centre last Thursday. She tells us why she vehemently disagrees with Arndt’s views on men, sex and whether women should say yes to their partners even when they’re not in the mood.

‘Life as a hot-blooded heterosexual man isn’t much fun these days!’

So began sex therapist Bettina Arndt, when she brought her particular brand of gender politics to the lunchtime soapbox at the Wheeler Centre last week. If you’re not familiar with Arndt’s work, the Cliff Notes are simple: heterosexual men in married or de-facto partnerships aren’t getting enough sex, because women are too mean and selfish to dole it out to them on a regular basis. Women have this idea that they have the right to say no to sex whenever they want. But ladies, when you won the right not to be maritally raped, it didn’t mean you could withhold sex for the next 20 years. Frankly, men are trapped in a sea of endless negotiation. They’re up against it and they don’t know what to do.

I assure you, I’m not exaggerating. All of these ideas and more form the general basis of Arndt’s politics. In fact, apart from the bit about women being mean and selfish, Arndt said all of those things last week – even the brazenly offensive part about women thinking they have the ‘right’ to say no to sex.

It’s not necessarily surprising that these views exist. When you live in a society that finds it acceptable to seek advice from the Catholic priesthood on the choices women make regarding marriage, you can pretty much guarantee that anything else is par for the course. In her extremely superficial representation of sexual interplay, Arndt is less guilty of reinforcing the status quo than she is of legitimising it.

And it’s not as if she has no experience. Regardless of how vehemently I might disagree with Arndt, I must at least acknowledge that she has a minimum of 30 years’ research under her belt and presumably a mass of subjects who’ve been all too willing to share the details of their sex lives with her. Put simply, I do not disbelieve her when she says her male subjects are dissatisfied with the level of physical intimacy in their marriages, and that they wish they could get more slap ‘n’ tickle.

But the problem is in how limited that pool of subjects might be, and how willing they are to address their own complicity in the matter. Arndt reports that single women do not exhibit the same eradication of sex drive as the married or partnered women in her studies, yet she fails to draw the obvious conclusion. If, removed from a domestic partnership, women remain sexually vital and vibrant (or are, as she shudderingly refers to them, ‘juicy tomatoes’) then surely the problem isn’t the women? Surely, it’s the bounds and interplay of that domestic partnership?

In fact, Arndt doesn’t really seem to acknowledge the reality of most domestic partnerships at all. Rather than ponder what a job plus motherhood plus unpaid domestic labour might do to a woman’s libido – particularly when statistics continue to show that they carry the burden of that labour – Arndt instead wonders why women wouldn’t choose the ‘easier’ option of satisfying their husbands in the sack. Women spend an awful lot of time and energy doing things to make their husbands happy, says Arndt. Things like spending hours shopping for him, trying to find nice underwear, or scrubbing the kitchen floor to make it perfect! Surely ten minutes of letting him do it to them would be easier?!

It’s usually not difficult to find flaws in Arndt’s logic, but this has to be one of the most glaring ones. Not only does it absent women’s sexual desire from the equation, but it’s erected (heh!) on the idea that women primarily make men happy not by being an independent, equal partner, but by performing domestic chores for them. Indeed, it establishes sex itself as a domestic duty that wives are expected to perform in order to placate their menfolk. Now, men are all adrift, grovelling on their knees for a scrap of attention. Frankly, it’s unseemly.

Of course, I can think of nothing less likely to get women going to bed knickerless than the idea that they probably should. But when I asked Arndt if she thought obligation was the enemy of desire, she replied that it wasn’t – because desire could be switched on. ‘If you put the canoe in the water, people will happily start paddling,’ as she wrote in one of her articles. Ladies, lie back and let him frolic in the ebbs and flows of your Lake Titicaca!

While it’s true that desire can be stimulated after initial contact – many people could claim to have begun sex not really feeling like it, and had quite a pleasant time after all – is that really what we should be arguing is the payoff for women fulfilling their duty? And is that really the level of intimacy men are after?

When further questioned as to why she seems to only demand change of women, Arndt argued that she was often pigeonholed by journalists. Apparently, whole reams of discussion about the complexities of men and women, not to mention male obligation, were failing to make it into the final copy of all those people determined to paint her as a woman-hating harridan.

But the last I checked, those journalists weren’t writing Ardnt’s articles. They weren’t delivering her soapbox at the Wheeler Centre. And they certainly weren’t standing before a fair-sized crowd arguing that if men are only having an affair here or there in a 29-year marriage, they’re mostly succeeding at monogamy yet getting no credit for it.

Perhaps the reason Arndt’s men seem to have so much trouble getting their wives ‘in the mood’ is because, in Arndt’s world, those wives have already spent all afternoon on their knees in another position – namely, scrubbing that kitchen floor. Solve that problem, and I think you’ll find that women are a bit more open to some casual frottage.

Until then, I’d rather not take sex advice from a woman whose alternative for me not actually having sex with my husband is to just lube up and give him a quick wristy.

Clementine Ford is a writer and broadcaster who has appeared in the Age’s Daily Life, ABC’s The Drum, as a guest on ABC TV’s Q&A and as a host on Triple R’s Breakfasters. She blogs at

You can view Bettina Arndt’s Lunchbox/Soapbox on Why Sex Matters to Men on our website.

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