In Deserving Desire, Women's Stories of Sexual Evolution, sociologist Beth Montemurro takes a wide-ranging look at the evolution of women's sexuality as they age from adolescence through adulthood and beyond.
The book is based on in-depth interviews with 95 predominantly middle-class, heterosexual women, aged 20 to 68. Their fascinating stories shed light on how women develop sexual confidence and how their feelings about sex and sexual desire change as they experience marriage, motherhood, menopause, aging and divorce.
AHB reached Dr. Montemurro at the University of Pennsylvania in Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Ruth Dempsey: What motivated you to write this book?
Beth Montemurro: Actually, my interest was sparked by my previous book Something Old, Something Bold: Bridal Showers and Bachelorette Parties. When I attempted to solicit photographs for the book, most of the women flatly refused. They commented that pictures of themselves with exotic dancers, random men or penis-shaped water bottles were too embarrassing.
Several women added, "I'm married," or "I'm a mom now," as if this explained everything.
I wanted to know why these women felt so uncomfortable about showing that side of themselves and what specific elements of being married or a mother made such displays inappropriate.
This led me to think about how women's sexuality changes as women experience other life course events such as divorce, menopause and aging in general.
Also, few studies have examined women's feelings about sex or sexual desire during mid-life. The research on desire has focused on teenage girls and young women.
I wanted to understand what happens after the teen years and when and how feelings of sexual self-confidence happen.
RD: In your opening chapter, you talk about the importance of sexual scripts. How do they work?
BM: Just as actors follow scripts when they perform, people follow scripts in everyday life. These scripts are not always formally written but are derived from our environment.
Sexual scripts operate on different levels. Cultural scripts are norms for sexual expression played out in everyday life. Images of what is and is not sexy on television, in films or advertisements, for example.
People absorb this information, and it shapes how they think about sex and about themselves as sexual beings.
This, in turn, affects how individuals interact with sexual partners. The idea that men should initiate sexual interaction or a woman's hesitation to talk openly about sexual desire are examples of cultural scenarios that influence women's ways of thinking and acting.
RD: As girls learn about sex, they develop a stance on sexuality. Forty-one of the 95 women in the study developed a negative stance. What are the consequences?
BM: Stances such as "sex is taboo or bad" inhibit girls' sexual self-assurance.
If a girl views sex negatively, she is less likely to see early sexual activity as enhancing her identity and may experience more conflict and anxiety when she does have sex.
Girls reared in families that did not talk about sex, who had conservative religious or ethnic backgrounds and who were born before 1960 were more likely to possess negative stances.
Some women maintained these stances even after they were married and had difficulty feeling comfortable with sex.
RD: In Chapter 2, you look at positive stances women adopted as girls such as "sex is a mystery to investigate" and "sex is natural". . .
BM: These are two of my favourite stances because they were a boon to women later in life.
Of the women I interviewed, 17 set out as girls to investigate and accumulate clues that would help them figure out what sex was about. They viewed sex as a mystery they were determined to solve.
Sometimes they had been told that sex was bad or should not be discussed, but they rejected those messages and looked for information in books, magazine or (for younger women) online. This active search for information was an important step in boosting their self-confidence.
In the case of my interviewees, girls who grew up with a "sex is natural" stance usually had parents who normalized sex and girls' physical development as a regular part of growing up. This attitude encouraged the development of sexual subjectivity.
Sexual subjectivity is about having power to act confidently, power to make decisions about sex with which one feels comfortable and power to say no to sexual advances when one is uninterested. It is about claiming sexual pleasure and enjoying one's body.
RD: Most of the mothers you interviewed said having a baby changed how they felt about having sex . . .
BM: That's right. Many women talked about the responsibility and fatigue that came with being a new mother as well as cultural perceptions of mothers as sexually undesirable.
But a number of women said the experience of giving birth gave them a new understanding of their sexuality. Motherhood taught them about the capabilities of their bodies and this boosted their self-confidence.
In their early years of mothering, they lamented lack of time, exhaustion and their inability to connect emotionally, all of which impeded their sex lives and their enjoyment of sex.
As their children grew, women had to work to redefine their relationship with their husbands. Sometimes, it was a challenge to reconnect sexually because their focus had been on their children, not on their relationship as a couple.
Mothers struggled with balancing their identities as wives or sexual people with their role as caregivers and models for their children.
RD: Some of the women were divorced. How did ending a relationship affect the way they felt about their sexuality?
BM: Initially, most of the women experienced a period of mourning, where they were disinterested in sex.
After divorce, the majority of participants found greater sexual satisfaction and more compatible sexual partners.
For women who experienced divorce in their 20s or 30s, at the end of a long-term relationship or a short-term marriage, most often had a positive impact on their sexuality.
Many had been unhappy with the sexual aspects of their relationships. Faced with an opportunity to start over, they took time to reflect on what they needed to feel sexually fulfilled.
For older women, such as Joan born in 1942, the feeling of freedom after divorce was even more acute. The sexual climate in 1963 for a single woman in her 20s was different from the one Joan re-entered in 1986 as a new divorcee in her mid-40s.
Joan explains: "Because now, you know, you had the availability of sex with anybody who struck your fancy! It was a new world, a whole different place, it was – oh my God!"
RD: The findings suggest women define sexuality differently as they age. Can you give me an example?
BM: I think one of the best descriptions of this transition came from Joyce, a 57-year-old married woman.
Joyce said women become more self-possessed as they aged. They are less fearful of rejection because they learn they have value beyond their sexuality.
Here's how she explained it to me:
I think once you get into your 30s today, and even in my time, that you begin to be in a place to say, "I don't need to have that guy look at me, I'm fine, and if I want to have a relationship with that guy I'll go over and ask him.
And then 40s, more so. I think 40s, . . . you can begin to get your life in a place where you're doing – you're again more in charge of the things you want to do. That you're gonna take a night class, that you're gonna do yoga, that you're not just like changing diapers and cooking dinner.
She went on:
Married or not married, you're again a little more maybe in charge of your desires and [can] say, "I don't want to do that," or "I do want to do that." [You can say], "I can walk away from this relationship if I don't like how it's going," as opposed to saying, "Well, I can't walk away from this relationship unless I have somebody else."
For Joyce, feeling confident comes from feeling authoritative. As she aged, she developed her own stance on the world and that freed her to pursue her own happiness, sexually and beyond.
That said, poor and working-class women may not have the same sense of freedom at this stage in life.
RD: Sexual agency has been linked to physical and emotional well-being. How do we better help girls develop sexual self-confidence?
BM: Among those I interviewed, girls brought up in a certain climate – where young women are not shamed for sexual desire and where sexuality is seen as a regular aspect of identity – generally had better sexual relationships as women.
In such a climate, girls have a better chance of developing sexual subjectivity. As I mentioned, this is important because sexual subjects know their bodies and generally feel mentally and physically in control of their sexuality and decision making.
We need better sex education that addresses teenaged girls' feelings of desire and teaches both boys and girls the importance of consent.
Also, girls, boys, women and men must become critical consumers of media.
More positive and diverse media images of women's sexuality over the life course would also help girls become women who understand that sexuality is a lifelong concern and that positive feelings about sex can contribute to health and happiness.