Truth or dare

Posted: Nov 12, 2003 12:00 AM
Can we get honest about sex? I know it seems all we do is talk openly and honestly about sex. But while we blather on about it on "Oprah," there is one set of sexual truths we have all rather studiously repressed: gender. For 30 years, elite women have insisted we all talk and act as if we believed in androgyny (or the idea that there are no natural differences between men and women). Which, mind you, is a very different matter than equality (which is the idea that social institutions should do justice to both men and women).

Until now. The covers of two esteemed New York magazines have announced an end to all that sexual repression. First, The New York Times Magazine does a cover story on educated, successful women who want to get off the fast track to raise their own children. Why? Not patriarchy, not lack of good child care, but because, well, many women like caring for their babies. Corporate jobs can be a bore, and babies have a way of making their own opinions of day care known that go straight to the hearts of many mothers.

The top two administrators at Princeton University are now women, and one of them muses that she sort of hoped that the ambitious would marry nurturers without regard to gender. But it hasn't worked out that way. Ambitious women marry ambitious men. Why? Because ambitious women are sexually attracted to ambitious men, not nurturers.

"Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?" purred Lorelie Lee. "It isn't everything, but my goodness, it certainly helps." Or if not rich, a brilliant intellectual, or an aspiring artist, or at minimum a big, strong fireman who rescues people from death.

Such is the heretofore unspeakable sexual truth now blaring from the cover of New York magazine. "Power Wives: What Happens to Marriage When SHE Brings Home the Bacon?"

It's not pretty. We are not talking here about co-breadwinner families, but marriages where women make so much more than their husbands that the husbands basically give up on the breadwinning thing. The result is some pretty unhappy wives.

The first thing to go is sex. Anna, whose marriage had once been "very sexual," was blunt about the consequences for her. "Sex is not a problem for him. It was a problem for me. When someone seems like a child, it's not that attractive." It doesn't help that the less men do in the workplace, the less they do around the house, too. (Yes, there is research on this: Full-time employed husbands do more housework than unemployed men.)

The ugliest marriage profiled is Emily's, a senior sales exec married to a struggling photographer. "When Emily comes home, she doesn't always want to be the boss," the magazine reports. "But she says her husband no longer has the authority to take over. 'I want somebody to take that power role away from me,' she explained. '(But) I'm not going to pay the bills -- I feel like his mother -- and then come home and (perform a sexual act unmentionable in a family newspaper, although not apparently in New York magazine).'"

The sexual truth is that women (unless they're lesbians) are attracted to men. And masculinity is not like femininity. It is a performance. It has to be won -- and it can be lost. How to create a strong sense of masculinity that serves rather than oppresses women is the problem feminists never solved because until now, they dared not even acknowledge that it exists.