A Wife’s Guide To Marital Harmony: In Bettina Arndt’s World, No Doesn’t Always Mean No


Bettina Arndt’s endorsement of wifely duty in her new book about sex in marriage blurs the lines of consent too much for Associate Professor Helen Pringle.

In preparation for writing her new book, Sex Diaries: Why Women Go Off Sex and Other Bedroom Battles, Bettina Arndt commissioned 98 couples to keep records of their intimate lives for a few months. Arndt’s book presents itself as a collection of authentic voices on the topic of sex, an impression she is eager to foster.

She told Tony Jones on Lateline this week: “Well, I think men don’t usually talk about this, and when I gave them the opportunity to do so, it all just poured out of them; their frustration, their anger, their depression about the fact that their needs are being so totally ignored, and it was intriguing to see how willing they were to really talk at length about this when you actually gave them a chance to do so.”

The familiar trope of “breaking the silence” on sexuality is one which Arndt recycles gleefully. Throughout her long career as a sex therapist, she has clung to the idea that everywhere there exists a sexuality that is silenced by a social Puritanism; specifically, a male sexuality that is simply waiting to be invited to express itself in openness and without fear.

However, you don’t need to be Michel Foucault to sense that “the confession of the flesh” has become a global injunction, invariably accompanied by a ritual recitation that society is doing its best to silence the confession. As Catharine MacKinnon phrased it in her 1989 essay “Pleasure, Pornography, and Method”: “Male sexuality is expressed and expressed and expressed, with a righteousness driven by the notion that something is trying to keep it from expressing itself .”

Bettina Arndt maintains that she is letting the voices of the silenced be heard, telling Jones that unfulfilled male desire “is the problem that’s filling the waiting rooms of sex therapists not only across Australia but in many western countries”. But the men and women who confess in Sex Diaries do so at Arndt’s behest and unsurprisingly, their reports support her conclusions. Indeed, in announcing her findings, Arndt admits that she discovered exactly what she expected to find: “As I expected, women rationing sex took centre stage.”

To understand Arndt’s thinking on the so-called feminist orthodoxy about sex in marriage, it is illuminating to examine her relationship to her subjects. In Sex Diaries, she tells us that the diaries were “brimming with intense erotic adventures, so very, very sexy to read”.

And as she confided to Jones on Lateline: “But — I mean, I was — what I was interested in was to be the fly on the wall and see what it’s actually like to be part of that negotiation. What he’s thinking, what she’s thinking. And it was the most extraordinary thing. I used to leap out of bed every day and go look at my emails and people would have sent an email at 2:00 o’clock in the morning.”

Not content with her position as voyeuristic insect, Arndt also encouraged her subjects to have more sex — in the interests of research. In her call for “sex supply” diaries, Arndt announced that she was seeking, inter alia, people in a category entitled “Just Do It!”.

Following her interview with Richard Aedy on Radio National’s Life Matters, the call for participants on the ABC’s website reads: “Bettina has some people, mainly women, who are experimenting with having sex without desire to see whether ‘just doing it’ improves their sex lives. She needs to recruit more women, and men, willing to try this.”

The thinking behind the “Just Do It!” experiment goes something like this: “The assumption that women need to want sex to enjoy it has proved a really damaging sexual idea, one that has wrought havoc in relationships for the past 40 years…. It is quite possible for women and indeed for men to enjoy sex without desire…. Once the canoe is in the water, everyone starts happily paddling. For couples to experience regular, pleasurable sex and sustain loving relationships women must get over that ideological roadblock of assumptions about desire and ‘just do it’. The result will be both men and women will enjoy more, better sex.”

It is not exactly clear what’s in it for Bettina Arndt if there are more happy paddlers in the world. She gets very excited when people talk to her who are, as she puts it, “getting enough”. For example, Arndt writes, “From the time that I first started talking about sex on television and radio, the couples who really love sex have reached out to me. I remember buying a ticket at an airport when a 50-ish saleswoman looked left and right, leaned over to me and whispered, ‘Isn’t sex wonderful!'”

However, Arndt is not particular enough about how all this happy paddling comes to pass. In Sex Diaries, Arndt defends Justice Derek Bollen, notorious for using the phrase “rougher than usual handling” in a 1992 case of marital assault and rape. When quizzed by Tony Jones about her defence of Bollen, Arndt missed the opportunity to back down and instead forged ahead. The interview is worth quoting at length.

ARNDT: Well, I made the point that rougher — I’m not talking about forcing people to have sex, and I think that’s abhorrent. But I’m saying that even if he had left out that unfortunate phrase and talked about persuading people to have sex, I think in that climate, in the 1960s, he’d have got into trouble. Because totally shut down the notion that…

JONES: That was the 1990s, I think, actually.

ARNDT: 1990s, sorry, whenever it was, I mean, just this idea that we’ve got to the point where your “no” always means “no”, where we actually don’t discuss the nuances of this negotiation that goes on between couples.

Arndt has long defended the position that “no” does not always mean “no”. In 1993, for example, Arndt produced a program about rape reform for Four Corners entitled “Yes, no, maybe”, for which she found a small number of women who supported her contention that women use “no” as a come-on. In her view, initial refusal by a woman can be taken as an invitation to her partner to escalate to more persistent or aggressive seduction

In regard to Bollen’s use of the term “rougher than usual handling”, Arndt told Tony Jones that “if you read his whole judgment, he actually had some sensible things to say there, and that particular phrase, of course, meant that everything else was coloured by that.”

But if Arndt had looked more closely at the transcript of Justice Bollen’s direction to the jury, she would have recalled that the charges at issue included assault occasioning actual bodily harm, to which the accused pleaded guilty, as well as charges of rape and attempted rape involving penetration of the vagina by a bottle, penile penetration of the vagina, penile penetration of the anus, and attempted fellatio. Possibly then, not the best case around which to make an argument about the nuances in intimate negotiations between a man and his wife.

Justice Bollen directed the jury in these terms: “There is, of course, nothing wrong with a husband, faced with his wife’s initial refusal to engage in intercourse, in attempting, in an acceptable way, to persuade her to change her mind, and that may involve a measure of rougher than usual handling. It may be, in the end, that handling and persuasion will persuade the wife to agree. Sometimes it is a fine line between not agreeing, then changing of the mind, and consenting.”

By Justice Bollen’s standards, the husband of the woman concerned could not be guilty of rape because she had agreed to the act when she said, “I suppose you won’t stop until you have it, so get it over with.” Justice Bollen summed up, “That would be a consent, a reluctant consent.” After all, Justice Bollen noted, the woman had “hang-ups”.

For the rightly-criticised Justice Bollen in 1993, it was legitimate for a man to press his “needs” aggressively against a woman who says no. Bettina Arndt in 2009 actually goes further. For Arndt, it is a “wifely duty” for a woman to yield to her husband’s “needs”.

Me, I find it difficult to understand what pleasure there could be in having unwanted sex with a reluctant partner, no matter how much joy it might give to the fly on the bedroom wall.

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