From the sexual deficit to nematode worms, why are we so keen to justify male sexual entitlement?

As a feminist, I’d like to take a stand and say something in defence of men: I do not believe that they are worms.

That may sound uncontroversial, but you’d be surprised. A study of male and hermaphrodite worms conducted by researchers at UCL and Albert Einstein College of Medicine has shown that if you teach a male worm to associate salt with sex, he’ll seek out salt in future. This is the case even if he’s also learned to associate it with starvation. The same is not true for hermaphrodite worms (who are “essentially modified females that carry their own sperm and do not need sex in order to reproduce” – you go, girls!). The hermaphrodites would much rather be eating chocolate or whatever it is modified ladyworms eat than risk going hungry in search of a mate.

Researchers had originally planned on testing relative worm preferences for football and shoe shopping but unfortunately this fell through on account of the worms not having feet. Only kidding. This is serious research, with findings that can help increase understanding of the nature and function of glial cells. It’s just that you wouldn’t get that impression from the way in which it’s been reported in the mainstream press. To look at the headlines, you’d think it was all about justifying A Man’s Sacred Right To Have Sex:

Male brain is programmed to seek out sex over food (The Telegraph) – “Brain cells specific to men fire up when mates are present and override the need to eat, scientists have found”

Why men obsess about sex (IOL) – “It is often said that men think about sex every six seconds. Now, research shows that some males really do have sex on the brain.”

Men really DO have sex on the brain (Daily Mail) – “Extra cells found in males make them prioritise relationships over everything – even food”

Men’s brains are hardwired to prefer getting laid to eating (Metro) – “When getting laid is on the cards, the male brain will override the need to eat for a chance to jump into bed, researchers have discovered.”

Male specific neurons force men to seek sex even at the expense of food: Study (Techie News) – “While it is generally believed that sex is always on mind of men, researchers have shown scientifically that it is actually the case thanks to two male-specific neurons.”

Why are such extraordinary extrapolations being made? Whatever their flaws, we know that men are not worms. We also know that the same neurons may not necessarily lead to the same behaviours in completely different species. A worm seeking a mate is not the same – not culturally, socially, historically nor biologically – as a man going in search of a female sexual partner. The individual rewards of worm sex may be quite different to those of human sex (with the rewards of the latter varying within different political, class-based and gendered contexts). Then there’s the fact that hermaphrodite worms can’t just be shoved into some default “non-male” category which makes them the same as females. After all, wouldn’t one expect a creature that does not need sex to reproduce to be less likely to prioritise sex than one that does? So how can this tell us anything about females at all?

So far, so problematic. But what bothers me is not how similar or dissimilar men and worms really are. It’s what the alleged similarity is being used to justify. Men are being “forced” to seek sex. Poor them. I guess all we can do is make sure there’s always some sex available.

It’s not the first time this has been argued and I’m sure it won’t be the last. In August this year the sociologist Catherine Hakim produced a report for the Institute of Economic Affairs, in which she argued that a gap in sexual desire between men and women meant that “male demand for sexual entertainments of all kinds is […] growing, and ineradicable.” It’s funny how frequently this is asserted as an objective, scientific truth: men have a greater need for sex and there is absolutely no point in challenging it, therefore we must make sure that this need can be met.

The Telegraph paraphrased Hakim’s conclusions as “the sex trade should be fully decriminalised because feminism has left modern men starved of sex.” This brings to mind the early draft of Amnesty’s policy on sex work in which sex was defined as “a fundamental human need.” We’re seeing variation after variation on the adolescent “blue balls” excuse, only this time it’s being used to support actual policies.

Why is it that we are so keen to justify male sexual entitlement? Proving that something is natural, innate or “hard-wired” is not the same as proving it morally acceptable. Nonetheless, what all of the current “evidence” for greater male sexual need does is suggest that men cannot be held responsible for their actions. Their neurons “force” them into it. It’s a gloriously simplistic way of seeing the world, reducing everything down to its most granular level. One can get into complex philosophical debates over nature, nurture, neuroplasticity, politics, progress and why we really do the things we do … or one can shrug and say it’s simply how we’re programmed, or at least how men are programmed (it’s not been suggested that women have been hard-wired to provide sex they don’t particularly want to have, but apparently the world doesn’t have to be organised to meet their needs).

As Cordelia Fine has pointed out, “in the interminable sex differences debate it always seems to be those who are critical of scientific claims of essential differences who are accused of allowing political desires to blinker them to the facts of the case.” Feminists don’t think men behave like worms? Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? That there are numerous social, economic and emotional reasons why men may wish to control women’s sexual conduct – irrespective of any abstract, context-free “need” – is ignored, along with the idea that things could be improved. It’s as though some men would rather see themselves crawling on their bellies as long as it grants them permission not to change.