Tag Archives: sexism

The Arndt of Sex

My latest article for The Drum (2/9/2011), ‘The Arndt of sex’ made a few middle-aged indignant men unhappy when I questioned Bettina Arndt’s logic behind her validation and heroising of men’s supposed monogamous sex-starved experiences. Needless to say, they weren’t going to be the types won over by calls for a mature and non-polarising discussion about heterosexual male and female sexuality.

Thankfully, I hope and I think, many already recognise that Arndt’s views do not represent the values of most Australians in 2011. This was voiced to me by men and women directly via Twitter and in person. It would appear that the majority of comments on The Drum post were made by those whose life foundations were called into question by my arguments and understandably so.

The inherent difficulty with the subject of sexuality, monogamy, heterosexuality, differing sex drives, gender and masculinity/femininity inevitably leads to some emotional, ill-considered and irrational responses. And then there are superficial “puff” responses that reinforce the outdated, circulating social memes we still have to fight against. In an op-ed for Fairfax, one person decided to bypass the content of the carefully constructed argument I made and instead lambasted me for ranting a little. Here is the article, make of it what you will.

I am proud to have written ‘The Arndt of sex’ as it was one of the most daunting and rewarding intellectual challenges I have had to tackle to date. Writing about gender is hard enough, but writing about sex and sexuality is in a league of its own. It’s a personal topic for everyone and hence, it needs to be approached carefully and with respect. Happy reading.

The Arndt of Sex

It is safe to say Bettina Arndt successfully insults both men and women in her latest tirade against society’s maltreatment of the rampant and practically sacred male sex drive.

That’s if they managed to finish reading the article without tearing up the newspaper and throwing it to the floor in disgust. I can only hope no-one read it on an iPad.

Personally, I stomped my feet intermittently, growled a little, turned away in frustration, came back to it a few times and finally, after the fifth attempt, I managed to read it all in one go. Why did it get to me so much?

The first and most immediate reason is the disturbing and unreal images Arndt paints of the typical Australian heterosexual relationship.

Arndt’s picture of Australia is one where men in heterosexual relationships live in a monogamous “sex-starved” hell, honourably struggling to keep their philandering to a minimum and fighting back their uncontrollable natural urges. Meanwhile, women, who barely feature directly, are caricatured in opposition to men as sexual unequals with a low libido, who are naturally disinterested in sex, who selfishly withhold sex from their partners and are dismissive of man’s admirably (because it is caused by glorious testosterone) sustained interest in sex and deviant sexual fantasies.

Here are a few classic lines to get started. Keep in mind that every time Arndt refers to “married” people she draws these opinions together as being universal for all heterosexual men and women in relationships:

“From the outside, life as a hot-blooded married heterosexual man doesn’t look much fun.”

“Faced with the misery of a lifetime spent dealing with the frustrations of monogamous sex-starved marriage, most men don’t leave.”

“The strong male libido remains, even if the inner goat now must remain firmly tethered. Men live with up to 20 times the testosterone of women and that makes it very tough to cope with decades of monogamous marriage, particularly when sex is offered very reluctantly – ‘like meaty bites to a dog,’ as one man put it.”

Who wants a Schmacko? Here boy, here boy! In all seriousness, no, hang on, how can anyone be serious about such an extreme generalisation which claims that married women offer sex “very reluctantly” and must surely view it as a conjugal duty to perform for their adorably earnest dog-like husbands who just want their wife to throw them a bone[r] once in a while? Yes, that’s what I thought.

“Yet most men are doing a remarkable job remaining true to their women. For all the talk about unfaithful men, most married men succeed at monogamy most of the time.”

Well that’s a relief, but men, how do you do it? I mean this is dire. From the way Arndt describes your constant and tumultuous ‘male inner conflict’, that makes you just one hot female work colleague away from losing your sanity. I honestly started becoming concerned for the mental health of all men when I read of their plight, that is, until I snapped out of the hyperbole-induced coma I was falsely lulled into.

Of the men Arndt interviewed who did bolt from the pen and release their “inner goat” she says that, “The overwhelming majority… wanted to be faithful and were succeeding, even though there may have been a lapse along the way – a one-night stand at a conference, a few weeks of illicit pleasure, or even an affair lasting months or perhaps a year or two. But nothing compared with the many years of restraint.”

This is what Arndt considers male success at monogamy to be? A one-night stand and a yearlong affair can be counted equally as mere blips on a man’s otherwise gleaming record? I’m sure we all agree it is OK for people to make mistakes and that both men and women can be unfaithful, but on Arndt’s flaccid account of monogamy the term becomes impotent.

The other disturbing dichotomy that gains traction in Arndt’s article is the idea that most women, in contrast to men, not only spoil the fun but moralise, criticise and shame men about their authentic sexual urges, high sex drives and sexual experiences.

Arndt recounts one anecdote featured in an anonymously-written opinion article, where the now famous “inner goat” man “ruefully acknowledges” that his goat “sometimes… manages to escape and he finds himself mentally undressing a woman as she walks past.” Now I’ve got nothing against men doing this and I haven’t met any women who do but Arndt manages to select the one and only unreasonable and rude comment, written by a “smug woman”, to be the sole representative of the female response to this situation; ”Men, you could put your minds to much better use than fantasising about women you are never going to get … There’s something you can do: you can respect women and learn to control your pathetic, primitive minds. Meditation helps.”

Here’s a novel idea, the loudest voice, especially one in the comments section of an online opinion article, doesn’t often represent the majority view. Most women understand and accept that it’s just what men do, that it doesn’t affect us, men are autonomous individuals and as it’s not doing any harm then frankly, let them be! In fact, I know a few women who would do the same thing when they see a particularly attractive man; it’s just that most women are particularly good at hiding it.

But according to Arndt, these killjoy women don’t stop at thought policing. Supposedly men can’t even legitimately watch porn, one “good” reason being “as relief from the tensions of trying to please women in real-life sex”, without us judging them and moralising at the lectern. Arndt writes, “Harmless pursuits? That’s not, of course, how porn is presented. We are subject to an endless stream of people, mainly women, warning of the dangers of porn.” She then cites Gail Dines as the credible and representative voice of the porn-aggrieved women, who are once again, of course, in the majority. This selective, unbalanced and evidence-light portrayal truly lays bare just how much of a serious conversation Arndt wants to have about Australian women and their attitudes to pornography.

When Dines visited Australia in May this year for the Sydney Writers’ Festival and appeared on radio and television programs including ABC’s Q&A, the collective groans voiced every time she spoke gave me a strong impression that there were more women disagreeing with Dines’s hardline stance on the negative effects of porn.

Putting Dines aside, the women I know who are under-enthused about, but not openly against, their partners watching porn respond that way because deep down it makes them feel inadequate or somehow as being “not enough” for their partners. This may not be true from the male perspective, but the female response to porn in many circumstances comes from a place of sexual vulnerability and is expressed as such, not from a place of ignorance expressed as blunt condescension.

Despite the fact that Arndt’s arguments and anecdotal evidence comes across as exaggerated, absolutist, offensive to men and women who value mutual respect and for the most part appears detached from reality, that is not where the essential problem with the article lies.

It is this:

Bettina Arndt vigorously compares and contrasts two sexes that are completely different. Would you try to compare a banana with a watermelon or the concepts of hot and cold? By placing men and women at opposite ends of the same scale for comparison, a divisive and totally unnecessary conflict arises. It is a cheap and easy tactic for discussing a serious, sensitive and complex topic. Arndt re-embeds conflict back into society by forcing the reader to take sides over what she suggests to be the heterosexual naturally-determined norm; that of the misunderstood and frustrated male perennially stuck in a committed relationship, sexually unmatched by their female partner.

We have been publicly arguing over male and female sexuality in this polarising way for decades; who is more sexual, who has the bigger sex drive and which sexual qualities are better. Yet, it is only once we have thrashed it out and had the fight that some of us are collectively realising we can’t reach a valid conclusion from impossible comparisons. It is time to support the realisation that male and female sexualities are not the same, that they currently have far more differences than similarities and hence, cannot be compared. As a side note, it is important to recognise the many differences within each sex that are comparable and that both men and women have been known to exhibit behaviour not usually associated with their own sex, like having sex purely for reasons of physical pleasure or for emotional intimacy.

It makes no difference to this discussion whether the cause of differences in male and female sexual behaviour are neurological, hormonal, biological, socially constructed and/or evolutionary. Perhaps in the future there will be more of an overlap and fluidity, as seen in current malleable expressions of gender, but for now it is pragmatic, mature and extremely useful to learn how men and women see themselves and each other sexually by way of open communication. In understanding, we can accept and even appreciate and revel in our differences and in my experience, many men and women already do.

However, please don’t get the idea that acceptance in a relationship means giving into each other’s demands and unbridled urges or a signing up for a loosening of the rules of monogamy, which Arndt argues for. What acceptance does mean is engaging in the creation of an open and honest agreement where compromises are made and a commitment is reached. If that agreement is marriage and entails monogamy then, yes, both men and women will make sexual compromises and recognise there are consequences for breaking it.

Monogamy, when entered into openly and maturely, is not the sexually repressive and anti-male regime Arndt makes it out to be. It is a choice made by two people. If a man or a woman doesn’t want be faithful to the agreement or if they have already broken it then it is just basic courtesy to speak to the other partner and tell them. You might then redraw the boundaries, change the agreement or the compromises you are both willing to make or you just might decide it isn’t going to work and leave it there.

There is a new way to publicly and privately discuss the sexes, the differences in male and female sexuality and how they can and do play out in a heterosexual relationship. This healthier way does not seek to polarise society or generate unnecessary conflict, it does not seek to measure the immeasurable or compare the incomparable, rather, it accepts individual men and women for who they are. Whilst the echoes of the old discourse still remain in public discussion today, it is important that we don’t become complicit in its survival. As much as sexual stereotypes and generalisations can be fun and entertaining fodder, when utilised seriously in public debates, the results are socially regressive and the conduct, plainly embarrassing.

Let’s take the heat out of the debate and begin again from a place of shared understanding. A clear and positive starting point already exists, as speaking openly and more often about an important activity that almost all of adult society engages in is one thing Bettina Arndt and I both wholeheartedly believe in.

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Walk a mile in a man’s social media shoes

It has been an exciting time for me. The article I wrote, ‘Walk a mile in a man’s social media shoes’, published at ABC The Drum on July 8, 2011 created a definite stir, something I honestly didn’t expect.

What surprised me was the overwhelming and very positive response I received from both men and women, equally, saying that the article resonated with their own experiences and/or has made them think and reflect on their own interactions with this gender filter in mind. Many men have happily admitted to me that perhaps I was pretty on the mark with my ‘Twitduel Rules.’

I would like to thank everyone who contacted me about the story and has given me their personal insights. This kind of interaction about posts or publications is what all bloggers and writers most want. Thanks also to Dr. Cordelia Fine for kindly allowing me to quote from her book, ‘Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences’ Please read it, you will not be disappointed.

I was interviewed on the radio station, 4ZZZ 102.1FM in Brisbane on the news and current affairs program ‘Brisbane Line’. The very talented Stephen Stockwell was the interviewer and you can listen to the unedited audio of the interview here:
Radio interview with Amy Mullins on Gender, politics and social media

Walk a Mile in a Man’s Social Media Shoes

We all know how the famous saying goes; “If you want to understand a person, walk a mile in their shoes.”

It sounds corny and it’s pretty much stating the obvious, but it is an important truism.

If I want to understand an intellectual concept or a public issue I can study abstract theories, read articles and pore through books, but nothing is a substitute for experience. If you want to have a revelation, you have to live it and that’s what I inadvertently did when I became a “Twitter man”.

When I opened my Twitter account @Get_Shortened a year ago yesterday on July 7, 2010, I was intending to use it as a way of bridging the communication gap between my newly established blog, Get Shortened, and the people who I hoped would be interested in its content and what I wanted to debate.

It was not a tool to promote the author (myself) or to create a personal focus; actually it was intentionally the opposite. I set out to be an anonymous blogger.

I didn’t share my age, gender, occupation, how lame I thought the contestants on MasterChef were, that I was in desperate need of a coffee or that I was having a productive day. To me, all of that was needless distraction.

I wanted to steer the reader’s focus to the criticisms and arguments I was making on my blog about issues I considered to be of public importance. I set out to do this in a manner that was as objective as possible. The ideas, reasoning and evidence were more important than my personal opinions and should be able to stand alone if I was fulfilling the academic principles I had learnt at university and taken on as my own.

I was, and still am, interested in finding the truth in an issue by analysing the primary sources (political speeches, interviews and policy documents), understanding the political context, sifting through the endless amounts of secondary commentary and subsequently figuring out where the gaps and/or inaccuracies are. In a small way, I wanted to rectify the serious lack of intellectual scrutiny of public policy as exemplified in the media’s coverage of, and hollow public debate during, the 2010 federal election campaign in Australia.

The blog and my Twitter account were a synchronised stream of my criticisms and explorations of the Australian media and federal politics. The only problem with leaving an identity vacuum is that people tend to fill it, something I had not foreseen. And so, with a Twitter avatar of a cartoon man resembling Bill Shorten, my blog’s namesake, I was now assumed to be a bloke.

“Thanks mate”, “cheers”, “how are you dear Sir?”, “thanks bud”… These were the mildly gendered terms I was suddenly faced with. It certainly caught me by surprise but in keeping with my “be anonymous, the author is unimportant” manifesto, I used gender neutral language in my tweets, also something I prefer to do in everyday life.

Yet it wasn’t being referred to in blokey terms that got me thinking about gender. It was when I started having heated arguments over a variety of topics in Australian politics and got to put on my “man shoes” that I was hit in the face with a harsh and disheartening reality.

It turns out that if you’re a man having an-all-in political debate on Twitter with another man, there are certain codes of conduct for this gender exclusive duel. Note: Not every male will partake in one.


Always maintain a stiff upper lip
Don’t get angry, but personal slings are allowed
Remain aloof and unaffected by witty insults
Never lose face
Your pride is always at stake and it is most important
Power is up for grabs, and is the reward
Don’t ever admit absolute defeat even if you realise your argument is flawed
Be overtly rational (assert your ‘masculine’ qualities)
Metaphorically butt heads with supreme Alpha-male confidence
Only another man can increase your public respect by partaking in this privilege.
Oh, and remember to have a laugh about it later.

I had the most glorious fun duelling as a man, with another fairly prominent man, in the #auspol Twitter world. This was in the very early stages before I had even realised there was a gender exclusive game, let alone the rules of the game. We were arguing quite heatedly over the oft disputed political bias of Kerry O’Brien when he was still headlining for The 7.30 Report.

A few impressive insults were flung my way, every argument I put forward (in favour of O’Brien’s impartiality) was bitingly scoffed at, my political adeptness and perceptiveness was questioned and mocked and you know what? I loved every moment of it.

I was astonished and pretty darn energised and invigorated by it. My utter enjoyment of such an intellectual and personal grilling, besides the fact that it even occurred, caught me by absolute surprise. Being taken aback, my response was to deflect the negativity as I don’t believe in engaging in intellectual conflict that becomes personal.

I won’t name my fellow dueller because directing blame is never productive, but a significant time after this duel occurred, when I had outed myself as a female, I was told by someone who knows him well that he would have been “horrified” to find out he had been arguing so passionately, scathingly and proudly about politics with a woman.

Given another chance I have been assured that he would never give me the honour of partaking in another such Twitduel because he now knows my true gender. And that’s a real shame. I didn’t expect to hear that and I must admit, I was a little bit hurt.

This experience opened my eyes to the more subtle sexism that is often not perpetuated maliciously, but rather creeps in as a response to entrenched social and cultural gender norms and stereotypes.

After this particular duel, I paid closer attention to the intellectual debates on Twitter between men and women and I noticed something very off-putting that confirmed my suspicions.

Women who I respect and admire, especially a few journalists, made some brilliantly perceptive observations on issues in Australian federal politics that would rarely be encountered in the public sphere. Yet, they barely got a mention by the other prominent men in the Twittersphere and I wondered to myself, had a man said that, would it have gained more praise or have been taken more seriously? From what I have seen generally, yes it would.

Dr Cordelia Fine, an Australian academic psychologist and writer published a book in 2010 entitled, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. It is a well-written, sharp-witted, thoroughly researched, engaging and academically principled book on the topic of gender and neuropsychology.

In it she dedicates a chapter to how men and women’s professional abilities are perceived through a fixed and subtle lens of sexism. Fine provides some interesting anecdotal evidence and a case study among other things:

“…even today, the evidence suggests that it would be a shrewd career move for a woman to disguise herself as a man.” People who have transformed their identity in this way – namely, female-to-male transsexuals – report decidedly beneficial consequences in the workplace. Ben Barres is a professor of neuropsychology at Stanford University, and a female-to-male transsexual. In an article in Nature he recalls that ‘[s]hortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”


Similar stories cropped up in a recent interview study of twenty-nine female-to-male transsexuals. Kirsten Schilt, a Research Fellow at Houston’s Rice University, interviewed the men about their work experiences both before and after their transition from women to men. Her study reveals that many immediately enjoyed greater recognition and respect. Thomas, an attorney, related how a colleague praised the boss for getting rid of Susan, whom he regarded as incompetent. He then added that the ‘new guy’, Thomas, was ‘just delightful’ – not realising, of course, that Thomas and Susan were one and the same.

Let’s not ignore though that on Twitter I have seen women in debates with men on Australian politics say some outrageous things, displaying a level of ignorance and lack of understanding that I would never have got away with as man. Yet they were not called out for it, their public intellectual reputation was not challenged and they would never have been given the honour to be cut down to size Twitduel-style.

There was a failure to engage by men just as they did before. The first situation because of the woman is “out-of-place”, perceivably masculine objective insight and the last situation because the woman fulfilled gender expectations. Her arguments were written off as mere “opinions” originating from an emotional place, when really they were just ill-conceived intellectual arguments.

There seems to be an unspoken rule in life, that is exemplified by my experiences on Twitter, that men must tread on eggshells around women, dare they briefly put them on a pedestal or upset them!

The science suggests that there is no biological difference between the male and female brain in terms of intellectual capabilities. What hampers both sexes and creates inequalities or perceived differences comes from the sexism we allow to perpetuate socially.

Fine eloquently writes that

“…when we categorise someone as male or female, as we inevitably do, gender associations are automatically activated and we perceive them through the filter of cultural beliefs and norms. This is sexism gone underground – unconscious and unintended…”

This kind of sexism doesn’t come from a place of malice or intent, hence it is much harder to see and change for the better.

On sex differences, to put it simply and somewhat crudely, the only difference between a man and a woman is that a man was born with a penis, a higher level of testosterone and the ability to impregnate a woman, and a woman was born with breasts and a vagina, a higher level of oestrogen and the capability to bear children.

Gender is a truly fluid concept that has been rigidly imposed socially on humans for structurally pragmatic reasons that, whilst they simplify societal structures and interactions, also enforce inequality and discrimination.

Since revealing myself to be a woman, I have missed being treated like a bloke. I miss not being expected to get excited about my new hair colour. I long for my blog posts to be read without the reader’s perceptions being coloured by my age, level of life experience and gender. But what I really miss is having an impassioned and thoroughly critical argument with another man, puffing out my intellectual chest and stalking around in my Italian leather “man boots”.

Given the chance again, I would not decline an offer to walk a mile in a man’s shoes.

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