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Is Chocolate Better Than Sex for Women?

Joan Sewell says so. Science disagrees.

By Danielle Egan 28 Mar 2007 |

Danielle Egan is a contributing editor at The Tyee.

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Cure for 'lust envy'
  • I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido
  • Joan Sewell
  • Broadway (2007)

Joan Sewell would rather eat chocolate than have sex according to her new book I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido. The book, hailed as revolutionary and groundbreaking, brave and even brilliant, is an autobiographical cruise through Sewell's attempts to fix her sexual ennui and come to a compromise with Kip, her much hornier hubby who wants sex at least three times a month.

Sewell tries therapy, sexy lingerie and chocolate-based lubes. She tunes into Oprah and reads glossy magazine tutorials and books that support the notion that men and women are from different planets. All to no avail. Eventually Joan and Kip reach a resolution of sorts: sex is a "slog" for her, so Kip will have to make do with the occasional strip show or hand job. She says her much lower libido is "within the normal curve for a woman" due largely to biological gender differences. Yet Sewell ignores a fascinating, growing pile of modern scientific studies disputing the often-repeated stats about a gender libido gap, and the traditional theory that biology drives sexuality, which some researchers claim pathologizes women's sexuality.

The media binge over this slim work of 1950s-style confection is similarly biased towards the superficial sugar-spice model. The Atlantic Monthly dedicated a lot of ink to the topic in its February issue, including an interview with Sewell sporting the headline: "the politically incorrect reality that most married women just aren't that into sex." The National Post also interviewed Sewell, who continued to flog the notion that when women are compared to women, "our libidos are not that low, they are pretty much in a normal range. But are they much lower than men's? Yes."

Writer Dan Savage jumped into the fray with a recent syndicated column, repeating Sewell's claim that women have "naturally lower sex drives" thanks to hormonal and biological differences. "There's no such thing as a woman who wants sex constantly. They don't exist -- never did," writes Savage who cheekily relinquishes heterosexual men from the tyranny of housework, childcare and talking to their partners because "she still won't want to fuck you." The column generated so many letters from women who like sex that he continued the discussion the following week and started a "lusty ladies" link.

Sex on the brain

The debate about how to define healthy or "normal" libido has been heating up over the past decade as doctors, neuroscientists, sociologists, pollsters and pharmaceutical companies gather data, study brains and genitals during orgasm and poll citizens about their lives between the sheets. One often-repeated statistic, based on a 1999 U.S. study, found that approximately 40 per cent of women experience sexual problems. Yet, as some researchers have pointed out, the lead author of the study was a consultant for Pfizer, the makers of Viagra. A more recent Yale study found that almost half of the 56 women studied who had experienced "female sexual dysfunction," (FSD) "had decreased sensation in the clitoris." The researchers underlined "the possibility of a neurological cause for the dysfunction."

It might seem like a no-brainer that decreased genital sensations will adversely affect sexual functioning, but sexuality is a very complex and nuanced thing indeed. Might it not be a huge (profit-driven) leap to say the cause is primarily neurologically based? A group of scientists, doctors and health advocates think so, and have banded together to publish an educational website with a manifesto calling FSD "a new medical myth" and challenging sexual "disease-mongering" promoted in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Disorders (DSM), known as the psychiatric bible.

The current DSM (DSM-IV) is an ever-expanding doorstopper of a clinical book used to diagnose and codify psychiatric "disorders" ranging from childhood "oppositional defiant disorder" to "anxiety disorder not otherwise specified." "Female sexual disorders" include "hypoactive sexual desire disorder," defined by a "persistently or recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity"; and "female sexual arousal disorder": a "persistent or recurrent inability to attain, or to maintain until completion of the sexual activity, an adequate lubrication-swelling response of sexual excitement."

DSM critics think that the manual pathologizes a wide range of human behaviours and allows a select group of clinicians (mostly men, a number with ties to pharmacorps) to subjectively standardize behaviour. A 2003 Kinsey Institute study found that over 34 per cent of women polled "reported marked distress about their sexual relationship," but the authors added that, "the predictors of distress about sex did not fit well with the DSM-IV criteria."

"Women's sexual motivation is far more complex than simply the presence or absence of sexual desire," writes Dr. Rosemary Basson of the B.C. Centre for Sexual Medicine in an intriguing 2005 Canadian Medical Association Journal paper. Diagnostic categories reflect a genitally focused model of sexual function, she says, while in the real world, "women describe overlapping phases of sexual response that blend the responses of mind and body." So, many facets of women's sexual function don't jive with the diagnostic model.

Basson and other researchers have found that women who consider themselves sexually healthy (known in clinical studies as the control group) don't necessarily tend to have "spontaneous" desires or fantasies before they engage in sex. And women who report sexual dysfunction have been found to experience "significant" physiological genital responses when they're hooked up to a photoplethysmograph to watch erotic videos, yet only control volunteers reported feeling sexual aroused.

Basson also notes studies with findings that when the emotional intimacy with the partner is stronger, women have "less distress" around sex. And findings that "women with desire disorder had self-esteem that was weak or even fragile, emotional instability, anxiety and neuroticism." She adds that sexual arousal and orgasm, especially in a partner's presence, require a certain degree of vulnerability, which is impossible for some women who "cannot tolerate feelings of loss of control generally, and loss of control specifically of their body's reactions."

Take a pill

Basson also mentions the off-label use of antidepressants to treat sexual disorders, and the fact that these drugs commonly cause sexual problems in women and men. Hormones, like testosterone, can also increase a woman's sexual arousal, but studies have also found that "environmental changes" also do the trick, including a new partner.

Basson contends that the reported prevalence of "hypoactive sexual disorder" in women of around 30 to 40 per cent may be wrong and misleading. She expects the numbers of women diagnosed to decline "when (or if) it becomes widely known that lack of spontaneous or initial desire" does not by itself mean there's a sexual disorder.

Sewell herself briefly argues against the medicalization of women's sexuality and comes to reject the notion that she's abnormal. This is where her story could get interesting and educational for others, particularly considering the controversies in the medical field. But Sewell prefers the sugar-coated quick-fix Cosmo-friendly stuff, and when these tactics fail to rev up her libido, she falls back on the biology argument.

Even with chocolate sprinklers, it's hard for me to swallow the idea that Sewell is actually chucking the baggage around perceptions of normalcy when she spends so much time critiquing the behaviours of other women, from Pamela Anderson to fictional characters in Sex and the City. In Atlantic Monthly she admits feeling "envy for genuinely lusty women," yet dismisses sexually expressive women as "pandering to men"; in Sewell's books they're merely dressing up a burning desire for "security" which she believes "overrides" women's "sexual urge."

Eat or be eaten

It's also hard to believe Sewell really dedicated herself to the difficult task of dissecting the potential multitude of reasons for her low sex drive when she proudly dismisses the idea that sex can be "spiritual" or loving as a "sexpert" devised joke. Then there's her view on cunnilingus, expressed to Atlantic Monthly: "I just don't like to see someone's head between my legs. Now some people would say that's because I think it's dirty down there, or something like that...I actually think a person's mouth is a lot germier than my vagina. And they're lapping around. I think of all the effort my husband is putting into it, and that just kills me."

Perhaps Sewell's league of talk therapists dared not go into this below-the-belt territory. Sewell is brave for trotting out her neuroticisms, but it starts to smell of narcissistic navel-gazing when she prefers not to dwell too long on the deeper meanings and instead buys into the idea that women who have sex regularly are fakers merely "simulating lust," "taking it and faking it," and buying into Girls Gone Wild pubescent male fantasies, and even pro-sex feminist dogma about sexual empowerment. Sewell says her so-called relationship-compromise-happy-ending is empowering: Kip gets a taste of porn here and there (as if that makes up for a real relationship; will she foot the bill if he becomes cyberporn addicted?), the occasional blowjob and even sex once in a blue moon, but only on "her terms." Yet sexual intimacy requires vulnerability, trust and a bit of a give and take on control. Perhaps reaching such a point is to Sewell, like sex, too much of a "slog."

Chocolate, on the other hand, doesn't talk back, fart like blue-balled Kip or necessitate much hand-to-mouth exertion. It's also highly addictive, contains a range of powerful chemicals including cannabinoid-like fatty acids and phenylethylamine (known as the "love drug"), and stimulates the brain's reward system in much the same way as cocaine, heroin, sex and even the anticipation of revenge.

The thrill of chocolate is so bittersweet, according to one 2003 study, that 14 per cent of U.S. college women feel embarrassed when they purchase a chocolate bar. Another chocolate versus apple study found that women who eat chocolate experience a more intense joy, followed by guilt, making cocoa the new forbidden fruit. Yesterday's horny male teens with their brown-bagged porn mags have been trumped on the shame-o-metre by girls packing Mars Bars home to the bedside table.

Men can now get their porn fix on the Net anyway. A study found U.S. college students are more likely to be addicted to the Net (and alcohol, cigs, gambling and TV) while young women troll for -- you guessed it, a chocolate fix.

Numerous studies have found that women are more likely to seek out sweet foods for comfort. (Men typically crave a savoury hot meal according to one study.) Yet cultural gender divides exist, according to a study comparing American and Spanish chocoholics. Researchers discovered a large gender difference among Americans but not Spaniards, suggesting "that American culture encourages disproportionately more chocolate cravings among females than males."

Feast or famine

Eating disorders research has also implicated higher opioid-like responses, particularly with chocolate, in bulimics and obese women than healthy controls, solidifying the neurochemically addictive quality of chocolate.

"We now talk about being bad on the weekend as a ménage à trois with a bucket of Ben and Jerry's," says Dr. Ellen Domm, repeating a quote by Jean Kilbourne, an outspoken critic of the effects of advertising and media on women. "Food is sinful in the way sex used to be," adds Domm, a teacher at Capilano College and a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders.

"Body image and sexuality are all tied up together and there's a strong correlation between sexual and eating disorders," Domm says, adding that multiple causes come into play with both disorders, including mixed media messages.

"Young women especially are being told they have to be physically perfect, sexy and also comfortable with sex. Most of the women I see don't even try to have intimate relationships. Food, in some ways, is a better lover. It's comforting, pleasurable and distracting. Until the inevitable guilt. It's a very complicated cycle," Domm says, adding that the gender gap in eating disorders is shrinking since "more and more men are sold this idea of perfection and feeling just as insecure."

Let's eat chocolate and have sex

I live with a lover of chocolate who likes a fix at least twice a week. But he'd pick sex over chocolate, no question, even if tempted with a melting hot fudge brownie sundae. He thought the question was a bit stupid anyway: "Why can't I have a bit of both?" Given the skyrocketing obesity rates (not to mention the war on drugs, cigarettes, fatty foods and sex), this everything-in-moderation argument seems increasingly unpopular in North America. A global study on attitudes to food found that Americans were both the least likely to associate food with pleasure and the least likely to think their diets were healthy. The authors warned that women from all other countries were more likely to adapt to American patterns than their male counterparts.

Global surveys on sexuality show interesting correlations between these cultural dietary patterns and sexual satisfaction. The Global Sex Satisfaction Study found that in the U.S. only 28 per cent of women and 37 per cent of men said "sex is important"; only New Zealanders ranked lower among gender-egalitarian cultures. Durex's Global Sex Survey 2006 found that Americans and Canadians were at least twice as likely to say "my sex life is monotonous" and "I do not have a high sex drive" as Spaniards and Portuguese. Yet we North Americans also topped the list for wishing we had more sex. Stranger still, Americans were the most likely to contend, "I'm happy with my sex life."