Annie Potts University of Aucklaud

The Science/Fiction of Sex: John Gray's Mars and Venus in the Bedroom

Sexualities, vol. 1 no. 2, ps. 153-173




The sexual self-help genre constitutes an ever-expanding market for the modern heterosexual couple, influenced by decades of 'personal growth' therapy, literature and television. John Gray's (1992) best-seller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, for example, claimed to offer some ostensibly ground-breaking insights into differences between men and women, and into the means by which heterosexual communication in relationships could be improved. It also paved the way for a series of popular sequels. This article employs feminist critique, influenced by poststructuralism, in order to examine the kinds of discursive strategies employed in Gray's recent (1995) Mars and Venus in the Bedroom: A Guide to Lasting Romance and Passion. In particular, this analysis seeks to demonstrate how the text attempts to regulate and normalise heterosexual behaviours, and how it functions to construct its predominantly female audience as female.


Keywords: coital imperative, feminist, heterosexual relationships, poststructuralist, self-help genre




The late 20th century has seen a proliferation of products in what Gail Hawkes (1996) calls the 'market of heterosexual sex' (p. 115). Consumers may choose from a variety of practical aids, sex therapists, and how-to-do-it guides on television, in videos, over the internet, and in self-help books (Hawkes, 1996). These texts are influential in producing normative notions of (hetero)sex, and thus regulating current trends in sexual practices (Altman, 1984). One recent and extremely marketable addition to the (hetero)sexual/relationship self-help category is John Gray's (1995) Mars and Venus in the Bedroom: A Guide to Lasting Romance and Passion. This book follows from Gray's (1992) immensely popular 'manual for loving relationships in the 1990s' (p. 5): Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.[1] l


Gray's perspective on heterosexual relationships is positioned within the currently fashionable 'two sexes, two cultures' paradigm (see also Tannen, 1990, 1994). This genre asserts that female/male conversations are effectively cross-cultural; it thus reinforces gender polarisation and appeals to, rather than challenges, the status quo (Crawford, 1995).


This paper offers a feminist deconstructive reading of Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, and seeks to outline the various hegemonic discourses, as well as the contradictions and inconsistencies, in Gray's theory of heterosex. Because this is a reading of the book, it is at times necessary to follow through one of Gray's narratives/'fictions', rather than arguing point by point. However, certain themes recur: the privileging of male sexuality over female, the notion of a naturally active male sex(pertise) vs. an 'unknowing' submissive female sex(uality), the privileging of coitus over other sexual activities, and the need to strive for 'self'-completion via heterosexual intercourse.


Although Gray appears to direct his 'teachings' to both men and women, he inadvertently suggests that women are more likely to be the recipients of his expertise, since '[men] are interested in the news, weather, and sports and couldn't care less about romance novels and self-help books' (Gray, 1992: 16). This implied female audience must be borne in mind when analysing more closely the ideological and rhetorical functioning of these texts.


Men are from Mars, women are from Venus


'Without the awareness that we are supposed to be different, men and women are at odds with each other' (Gray, 1992: 14). Gray's central premise - initially outlined in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, and repeated in his subsequent books - is that men and women are from different planets; fundamentally and properly different. When the two species came to earth, however, ‘[b]oth the Martians and Venusians forgot that they were from different planets and were supposed to be different. In one morning everything they had learned about their differences was erased from their memory. And since that day men and women have been in conflict.’ (Gray, 1992: 10).


The moral of this primal myth could not be simpler: the key to successful, fulfilling, nonconflictual heterosexual relationships lies ii, an awareness and acceptance of these inherent, inevitable and 'healthy' differences between men and women (Gray, 1992: 4; emphasis in original).


But there is a catch. If, as Gray maintains, '. and women differ in all areas of their lives', if they can be seen as deriving 'from different planets, speaking different languages and needing different nourishment' (Gray, 1992: 5), then obviously, to begin to understand each other's differences, a 'translator' is needed between the two species, an expert fluent in their respective languages and cultures: a therapist. Happily, Gray is qualified as just such an authority: his knowledge and skill are endorsed by gratified customers, some of whose testimonies - almost evangelical in tone - are cited: 'Women often say "Finally my husband listens to me. I don't have to fight to be validated. When you explain our differences, my husband understands. Thank you!"' (Gray, 1992: 6). In addition, perhaps to enhance the sense of 'therapeutic openness' invoked in the text, as well as to assure the reader that Gray is an expert in such matters, the author includes anecdotes from his own personal sexual experiences. For instance, in an excerpt on oral sex, Gray (1995) frankly recalls: '. ..I discovered the great joys of fulfilling a woman with the tongue. She loved it, and every woman since has loved it' (p. 171).


Like the sex manuals of the 1970s (Altman, 1984), Gray also employs the 'case study' as a means of reaffirming his expertise in the fields of gender difference and (hetero)sexuality - although the existence of the couples he refers to (by first names only) is of course never validated. Altman (1984) has shown how the employment of anecdotes and clinical case studies in such manuals serves as an important device for inscribing ideology, combining the discourse of the 'familiar' and 'personal' with the discourse of 'authority', where '. ..each of these strategies functions to mask the other. ..', and 'the reader is not conscious of reading a fiction because the book is labelled "information"' (p. 122). Thus, the authority of Gray's notions of sexual difference depends upon their debts to science, and especially to biology and sexology, remaining implicit; in this way the differences described begin to appear as 'true', to become naturalised.


Paradoxically, however, these biological and essential truths about the differences between men and women can only be 'translated' to each gender by means of metaphors and myths. Thus, while Gray deploys many of the generic markers of both documentary and' scientific discourse - the use of anecdotal evidence, combined with appeals to biology, nature, and anatomical difference -the central thesis of his work actually relies on, and repeatedly returns to, a (by now) familiar fiction: the fabled differences between Martians and Venusians. In this sense, Gray's anatomy of sexual difference offers neither the science of sex, nor its fiction; rather it constitutes the science/fiction of sex.


Moreover, the 'essentials' of gender difference, as outlined in his first book, provide the basis for Gray's popular sexology in his subsequent volumes, and in particular for the description of close encounters of the sexual kind between Martians and Venusians.


The science (fiction) of sex: Mars and Venus in the bedroom


He wants sex. She wants romance. Sometimes it seems as if our partners are

from different planets, as if he's from Mars and she's from Venus. In the bedroom, it is obvious that men and women are different, but we may not realise just how different we are. It is only through understanding and accepting our obvious and less obvious differences that we can achieve true intimacy and great sex. (Gray, 1995: 1)


In Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, a self-help sex manual for Martians and Venusians, Gray (1995) extends his thesis on natural gender differences to the realm of 'bedroom' heterosex. Only through the acceptance and encouragement of these innate and inevitable differences, Gray claims, will 'great sex' be possible.


The key to fulfilment (compulsory) great sex 'completes' the person


According to Gray (1995), 'great sex' provides the key to a healthy, lasting and satisfying relationship; it not only strengthens the relationship, but also has benefits at an individual level, 'rejuvenat[ing] the body, mind and soul. ..[and] ...fulfil[ing] almost all our emotional needs' (p. 11). In this respect, sex is compulsory, for without it one apparently remains deficient in some sense; incomplete, unhealthy. Indeed, Gray explicitly declares that '[w]hile many useful books address the mechanics of sex, this book addresses the mechanics of making sure you have sex' (p. 4, emphasis added).


However, solitary sex does not make the grade; as Snitow (1986) has observed in relation to romance novels, 'the highest good is the couple' (p. 137). Gray's argument installs couple-sex - that is, coitus - as an imperative for both masculine and feminine self-expression: 'During intercourse, a man is teleported out of the dry domain of his intellectual detachment into the moist caverns of sensitive and sensuous feeling' (Gray, 1995: 29). According to this formula, man represents 'intellect' and 'reason', while woman has no identity other than as the location in which he finds his own feeling, his own sensation; or more (porno )graphically, she appears only as a body part, a wet vagina that quenches the thirst of the dry intellectual man.


Gray maintains that 'union' through intercourse connects men and women with their core selves; it 'completes' the person; makes her or him 'whole'. This notion of 'completeness' or 'wholeness' as desirable, let alone achievable, derives from humanist therapeutic discourse, which in turn relies on essentialist concepts of the human as possessing a unique inner self, struggling continuously for integration and unfettered expression (Vance, 1992; Wearing, 1996). The concept that 'great sex' connects any individual to some core aspect of this 'being' or 'identity' appears problematic from a poststructuralist perspective, which would question the possibility of such a 'unitary' subject. Jacqueline Rose (1996), writing from a feminist Lacanian position, argues that' "identity" and "wholeness" remain precisely at the level of fantasy “. . .[s]exuality belongs in [an] area of instability played out in the register of demand and desire, each sex coming to stand, mythically and exclusively, for that which could satisfy and complete the other” (pp. 75-6). And Lacan himself contends that 'to disguise this gap by relying on the virtue of the "genital" to resolve it through the maturation of tenderness. ..however piously intended, is nonetheless a fraud' (1982: 81).


Predictably, the means by which this sexual self-fulfilment is to be achieved differs, according to Gray ( 1995 ), for each 'species': 'In a sense, he is trying to empty out while she is seeking to be filled up' (p. 27). Coitus functions for men as a way of discarding 'surplus' through orgasmic 'release', while women - whose bodies so often 'are not seen to have integrity  . . .[and who] are socially constructed as partial and lacking' (Gatens, 1996: 41) - require coitus to become 'saturated'. Men's journey is apparently as straightforward as their sexual response: '. ..his persistent sexual longing is really his soul seeking wholeness' (Gray, 1995: 29), and is contingent on vaginal penetration.


“Before intercourse, a man longs to enter a woman's body. His penis, hard and erect, is fully focused and extended to make contact with her most feminine sacred chamber. his penis is momentarily held and massaged on all sides by her warm and wet vagina, his whole being is nourished. . .” (Gray, 1995: 29)


This representation of heterosex produces women and men as gendered bodies; the masculine man is 'a whole, active subject - a phallic body [while] . . .[t]he female body, in our culture, is seen and no doubt often "lived" as an envelope, vessel or receptacle' (Gatens, 1996: 41, emphasis in original). The penis opens, and fills, the gap.


In Mars and Venus in the Bedroom women seem to require a form of psychological 'striptease', an undressing of the woman by the man, as well as her physical penetration: 'As one layer at a time is stripped away, she longs for the deeper layers of her sensual soul to be revealed' (Gray, 1995: 28). Women's accomplishment of 'wholeness' through sex is a process of surrendering to the mastery of her mate, while he delves deeper, discovering and exposing her sensual inner being. Furthermore, Gray decrees that '[g]reat sex is soothing to a woman and helps keep her in touch with her feminine side, while it strengthens a man and keeps him in touch with his masculine side' (p. 13). Great sex 'strengthens' the man's capacity for activity, while simultaneously 'soothing' the woman into her feminine passivity.


While Gray does not question the desirability of communication between partners, he see this at times more as a product of, rather than a preliminary to, 'great sex': 'When sex gets better, suddenly the whole relationship automatically gets better' (p. 3). Moreover, '[s]ometimes ... the most effective way to jump-start a relationship is to first learn the bedroom skills for creating great sex' (p. 3 ). Implicitly this prioritises the commonly accepted male 'need' for sex over the female 'need' for communication in relationships: 'Just as a woman needs good communication with her partner to feel loved and loving, a man needs sex' (p. 2 ). Furthermore, women are advised that men are often only able to begin communicating in a loving manner through sex: 'For many men, sexual arousal is the key for helping them connect with and realize their loving feelings' (p. 2), while a woman's appetite for sex is triggered through love and romance. 'Sex allows a man to feel his need for love, while receiving love helps a woman to feel her hunger for sex' (p. 2). Sex reconnects a man to his essential self: 'When a man is aroused, he rediscovers the love hidden in his heart. Through sex, a man can feel, and through feeling, he can come back to his soul again' (p. 18). By now, the message should be becoming clear to heterosexual women: not only is sex necessary to ensure effective communication and love in a relationship, but men especially require sex fully to feel, and connect with their innermost beings. The denial of sex for men thereby becomes tantamount to the denial of existence for men.


McSex: fast food sex for men (and wooden women)


This responsibility of women for the complete well-being of their male partners through their acceptance or denial of regular 'great sex' is ubiquitous in Gray's book. Women are told that 'men need sex to feel' (p. 17); '[s]ex is the direct line to a man's heart' (p. 18), which can make him 'feel whole again' (p. 19). Gray also asserts that '[t]here is no therapy better for a man than great sex' (p. 31 ), although of course he adds hastily that couples sometimes require professional guidance to get great sex started. Furthermore, '[w]ithout the regular experience of great sex, it is very easy for a man to forget how much he loves his partner. ..[w]ithout great sex, her little imperfections will begin to get bigger and bigger ill his eyes' (p. 31 ), and any 'resentments building up in a man are easily washed away when he experiences great sex' (p. 31 ).


Women's sexual availability to men thus becomes not only obligatory, but crucial and urgent. Without a frequent supply of great sex from willing 'wives', men are deprived of physical health and spiritual happiness as well as an opportunity to connect with their elusive emotions; moreover, they may cease to find their women attractive, and therefore begin to look elsewhere for 'love': 'This loss of attraction is not a choice but an automatic reaction' (Gray, 1995: 87).


In the light of all this, it seems paradoxical at the least that Gray will also contend that men generally privilege women's sexual needs above their own need for quicker sexual 'release': 'What makes sex fulfilling and memorable for a man is a woman's fulfilment' (p. 70). This runs counter to the experiences of many women in contemporary western society (Hite, 1993; Duncombe and Marsden, 1996; Kelly, 1996). Indeed, Duncombe and Marsden (1996) found in their study of couples in long-term relationships that it was common for women to "'confess" that they had always "at some level' found their sexual relationships unfulfilling' (p. 226, emphasis in original). Kelly (1996) asserts that '[t]he general socialization of women to place the needs of others before their own and naturalistic models of sexuality where needs ( usually male) are given the status of biological urges or drives result in many women internalising a sense of responsibility for men's sexual pleasure' (p. 200). This seems the more likely scenario, even according to Gray's philosophy which clearly portrays women as 'nurturers' and 'carers': mothers before lovers. Gray's repeated emphasis on men's privileging of female sexual satisfaction, therefore, must be seen in the light of his emphasis on the male as sexual expert, whose competence 'in the bedroom' must at all times appear preeminent.


Moreover, while Gray claims that men want more than anything to satisfy their partners, he simultaneously reinstalls the priority of the male sexual drive and its fulfilment by means of (almost) instant orgasm via his emphasis on men's need for 'quickies' (p. 82). He thus dedicates chapter six to a discussion of ‘man’s legitimate need to not take a lot of time' (p. 77 ,emphasis in original), and thereby introduces 'the joy of quickies' (p. 77).


‘Although most men are happy to please their partners, sometimes a man can feel that he just wants to skip all the foreplay and, as the saying goes, just do it. Something deep inside him wants to cut loose and completely let go without any restraint or worry about lasting longer or what he should do to make his partner happy. ...To be patient and regularly take the time a woman needs in sex, a man needs to enjoy the occasional quickie.’ (Gray, 1995; 77)


Here Gray suggests that in order to satisfy women, men (always) need first to satisfy themselves: through 'quickies'. He also reinforces ideas of essential masculinity, portraying man's instinctive (biological) sexuality as a race towards the ultimate endpoint: orgasm via intercourse. The phrase 'just do it' is deployed from sports advertising, and serves to produce an image of natural male sexuality as active, impulsive and assertive.


Furthermore, the man's 'immediate' need for intercourse will always conflict with, and be hindered by, the woman's need for foreplay (or sexual warm-up). If allowed to follow its natural course - to 'cut loose and completely let go' (p. 77) - his body will target penetration as its exclusive and immediate goal. 'It is not that he doesn't care about her pleasure, just that his body wants to get on with it and get to intercourse and then orgasm' (p. 128}.


Gray recounts the case study of James and Lucy, who are experiencing marital difficulties as a result of James's guilt following his 'requirement' for 'quick' coitus. Gray, as sex therapist, negotiates the options with the couple. The metaphor of sex as food is employed and a 'menu of sex' is prescribed:

‘In return for an occasional quickie, or 'fast food sex', they would have leisurely or 'healthy home-cooked sex' once or twice a week, and at least once a month they would schedule a special time with no interruptions for 'gourmet sex'. (Gray, 1995: 79)

Lucy remains unconvinced:

‘She said, 'It all sounds great, but I still don't feel completely comfortable with the idea of quickie sex'. She turned to James and said, 'When we have a quickie, it is sometimes over in three or four minutes. By the time you are done, I am just getting started. I feel like you expect me to be all excited and responsive. I can't in that short time period'.

James said, 'That's OK. I can give that to you. If you are OK with occasional quickies, I promise to never expect you to respond. It will just be your gift to me. I don't expect you to get anything out of it. You can lie there like a dead log!' (Gray, 1995: 79)


Fast-food sex does not require any desire or pleasure, let alone response, on the part of the woman. Rather she functions as an object of the man's desire, and her body becomes the instrument through which his mandatory 'release' is realised.[2] She supplies 'a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man's fantasies' (Irigaray, 1996: 80).


Compulsory sex revisited; saying yes when you mean no


In order for women to understand how important quickies are for a man, Gray points out that 'the freedom to have guilt-free quickies is as liberating as going into a store and knowing you can buy anything you want' (p. 81). Women also learn that sexual rejection wounds a man's soul, and 'feeling that he will not be rejected is essential for a man to continue to be passionately attracted to his partner' (p. 81); 'a woman's acceptance of occasional quickies and a positive message whenever her partner initiates sex ensures lasting attraction and passion' (p. 88}. Thus, following the agreement between James and Lucy:


‘...]James] was never hesitant to initiate sex because there was no possibility of feeling rejected. On most occasions, when he initiated sex, if she was not in the mood, instead of saying no, which would make him feel rejected, she would simply say yes to a quickie.’ (Gray, 1995: 81)


Furthermore, women are informed that adding a taste of guilt-free quickies to their diet is liberating for them: they no longer have to be concerned with 'performing' or 'faking orgasms' when not in the mood for sex, for as James found out 'while having a quickie, Lucy really did lie there like a dead log, and he didn't mind at all' (p. 80).


In the process of this negotiation, expertly translated by Gray as therapist, the concept of consensual sex disintegrates. Lucy admits that she is 'not in the mood' for sex (p. 81), but her consent can still be demanded to the extent that her body may be used to accommodate lames' needs, and prevent his sense of rejection. His need for (sexual) acceptance takes precedence over her desire not to have sex.


The man is clear of responsibility in this scenario. He has no choice; being a man, he must have sex whenever he needs to. The woman, therefore, must co-operate when confronted with a set of false choices: to participate enthusiastically, to 'participate' inertly, or to decline sex and be responsible for the eventual disintegration of the relationship. As Gavey (1990) has pointed out, the construction of heterosexuality and the co-requisite ideas about women's sexuality and sexual 'responsibilities' - particularly to husbands and partners - situate women as 'virtually "unrapeable" ...unless there is physical violence' (p. 51 ). Thus, Lucy's experience is not construed as coercive in any sense, but rather as a 'gift' from James to her: '1 can give that to you', he says, 'If you are OK with occasional quickies, I promise to never expect you to respond' (Gray, 1995: 79). She is induced to perceive this coercive sexual experience as a benefit; however, this apparent exemption from the expectations of the heterosexual power relation merely reinforces her subordination.


However, Gray's handling of consensual heterosexual relations remains ultimately paradoxical. He asserts, in regard to 'middle of the night' sex, that '[i]f she doesn't feel safe to say no to sex, she automatically loses her ability to really say yes to sex' (pp. 125-6), and goes slightly further to establish that '[t]here is no greater way to lessen sexual attraction than to have sex when you don't want to' (p. 90). But these assertions lose their meaning in conjunction with the promotion of 'quickies' for men, where it is posited that a man often feels disadvantaged, for 'he wants sex, but he feels that he has to convince the woman to want it as well' (p. 94). Gray, in this instance then, encourages the woman, '[e]ven if she finally discovers that she doesn't want sex, ...[to] say, "We could have a quickie if you want and then sometime soon we can have (more leisurely) sex"' (p. 90).


Gray's anatomy


The 'quickie' as Gray promotes it clearly deploys both a coital and a (male) orgasmic imperative, but it can also be seen as the product of what Hollway (1989) refers to as the male sexual drive discourse. The primary assumption of this paradigm is that the male need for sex is biologically programmed for purposes of reproduction, and women are the objects that precipitate 'men's natural sexual urges' (Hollway, 1992: 244). Man functions as the subject of sexual pleasure, and woman as the object.


According to Foucault (1979: 138), men and women are constructed as 'subjected and practised bodies, "docile" bodies', produced by the 'technologies' of disciplinary power, operating as 'a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets' (Foucault, 1984: 206). Therefore, in contrast to Gray's belief in an essential, 'true' masculinity and femininity which is central to the individual being, a feminist appropriation of Foucauldian poststructuralist theory is concerned with the various technologies - of which popular sexology would be one instance -involved in the production of gendered bodies. In this sense, femininity - or the production of 'a body which in gesture and appearance is recognisably feminine' - is 'an artifice, an achievement' (Bartky, 1988: 64). The inscription of masculine or feminine bodies requires the rehearsal and performance of particular movements, postures, and configurations (Butler, 1990), the 'rigid' control of the body's time and space (Bartky, 1988).


For women, movement and the occupation of space are constricted: 'Women's space is not a field in which her bodily intentionality can be freely realised but an enclosure in which she feels herself positioned and by which she is confined' (Bartky, 1988: 66). This is in contrast to men's bodies which 'expand into the available space' (p. 67), and move confidently, purposefully and freely. Likewise, men's physical sexual response in popular - as well as scientific - sexological disquisition is constructed as fast, vital, unrelenting and urgent (hence their need for quickies), while women's is slower, more passive, and, as in Lucy's case, compliant, lifeless and docile.


The construction of women's bodies as physically weaker reinforces notions of woman as less perfect, less mature, less vital than man (Tuana, 1993); as lacking in knowledge; a body to be cared for and protected; a body without agency or independence. This image is perpetuated in Mars and Venus in the Bedroom:

“When a couple goes out on a date, he should go to her side of the car and open the door - even if the car automatically unlocks with a little beeper. If he starts forgetting to do this, she can remind him the next time as they approach the car by simply wrapping her arm inside his so he naturally escorts her to the door ...Even if he is opening the door for her, the very feminine act of cuddling next to her man and wrapping her arm around him is very nurturing both for her and for him.” (Gray, 1995: 193)

Here, Gray attempts not only to 'teach' a woman the 'art' of being feminine (that is, dependent), but also to teach her the art of making the man act i}l a 'naturally' masculine (protective) way. The ostensibly natural attributes of each gender actually break down into a series of learned body movements and gestures, which must be repeatedly rehearsed so as not to be forgotten. In this scene, disciplinary power functions to mask a woman's (unconscious) collusion in her own subordination: '. a way that normally goes unnoticed, males in couples may literally steer a woman everywhere she goes: down the street, around corners, into elevators, through doorways, into her chair at the dinner table, around the dance floor' (Bartky, 1988: 68).

Moreover, agency and responsiveness are allocated not just at the level of the body, but also in the realm of the visual. In Mars and Venus in the Bedroom Gray endorses the significance of the visual for men - 'Men are first attracted to a woman visually' (p. 60). Such 'misunderstood superficiality' is reported to be the result of the 'hypnotic' media. However, women are reassured that:

“. . .when he is aroused and growing in love with a woman, the spell of the media is broken, and he can fully appreciate her beauty ...At these times in sex, he should reassure her by saying sweet nothings about how beautiful her body is to him. This not only frees him from the influence of the media but frees her as well.” (Gray, 1995: 61)

His gaze has the authority to free both of them from years of media socialization. However, this emancipatory potential is qualified - or altogether neutralised - by Gray's later assertion that a man 'loses attraction not because his partner doesn't measure up to the flawless silicone-breasted female bodies he sees on TV or in magazines, but because he feels sexually rejected and frustrated' (p. 93).

“To keep a man attracted to her, a woman does not need to compete with the fantasy women of the media and strive to create a perfect body. Instead, she needs to work toward communicating positive and nonrejecting messages about sex.” (Gray, 1995: 94)

Gray thus draws a distinction between the ultimately unavailable 'artificial' (that is, silicone-breasted) fantasy women of the media and the real women readers of his book. In the guise of a new and liberating regime for couples, these statements insist on women's sexual accessibility to their male partners at all times, endorsing another form of regulation, normalisation, and self-surveillance: the monitoring of the regularity and quantity of sexual intercourse. Moreover, the careful enactment of feminine appearance, and the 'on-tap' availability of the woman for sex are intimately connected, for how a woman conveys ceaseless 'positive and nonrejecting messages about sex' (p. 94) must remain contingent on her body-language, her gestures, and her 'look'.

The construction of pleasure: male (s)expertise, female surrender

“. . .woman is a harp who only yields her secrets of melody to the master who knows how to handle her. ..the husband must study the harp and the art of music. ..this is the book of rules for his earnest and reverent study. . .his reward comes when the harp itself is transformed into an artist in melody, entrancing the initiator.” (Van de Velde, cited in Jackson, 1994: 164)

In spite of the 70 years sparating the publication of Van de Velde's Ideal Marriage and John Gray's Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, one can identify many similarities in content and style. For, as Gray (1995) puts it:

“Like an artist, [the man] needs to be very familiar with the basic colours of sex and then experiment with how they combine to create a new work of art. Like a musician, he needs to know the basic notes and chord combinations to create a beautiful piece of music.” (p. 152)

In both accounts, sex is likened to music or art; something that must be learned and perfected - by the man. In the male sexual drive discourse, men are appointed as the experts of sexual knowledge and skill: '. ..a man can apply skills to open a woman up to sex' (Gray, 1995: 95). Woman constitutes the 'unknowing' recipient of man's sexual proficiency; she is the instrument on which he plays.


Nevertheless, in Mars and Venus in the Bedroom the taken-for-granted naturalness of sex deconstructs itself, for a convoluted detour to 'satisfying' sex must be taken, whereby the man, rather than being a 'natural'(s)expert, needs to learn how to behave in an innately masculine way: '. ..a man needs to practice' (s)expertise, so that 'gradually it becomes more instinctive' (p. 38). In contrast, the woman must camouflage any knowledge she has of her own desires and pleasures, producing a masquerade of receptivity and submission to her partner's skill. In this sense, learning ( culture) always already precedes, and produces, instinct (nature).


Women readers are invited to participate in the perpetuation of the myth of male expertise in several ways. Where the text appears to be directed towards men - for instance, in the following extract ostensibly educating men about the correct procedure for bra-removing - women vicariously receive a message of appropriate female sexual response: 'This is one area in which a man can definitely know what to do. As he releases her bra with one hand, she will begin to melt and surrender to his knowledgeable and masterful touch' (Gray, 1995: 39; my emphasis).


Women do not - indeed they must not - know their own desire in Gray's account. 'Feminine nature' remains mysterious and enigmatic - not only to men, but to women themselves: 'not only are men and women different, but every woman is different' (p. 50). It is only through heterosexual coitus that woman discovers her own latent (unconscious) feminine passions - that is, her desire for coitus, and its 'inevitable' outcome, orgasm:


It is as though she doesn't even know she wants this stimulation until she gets it “. . .In the beginning she may only feel a little or faint desire, but as that desire is fulfilled and tension is released, a greater desire follows. ..In this way, through the gradual build-up and release of tension, she can feel her maximum desire for union and release it with an orgasm.” (Gray, 1995: 33)

Women are also subjected to 'correct' forms of feminine sexual response in more direct ways. They are reminded that their desire for men to initiate, take the lead and be in control is essential for successful sex: 'A woman is turned on when she feels her partner is confident that he knows how to fulfil her' (p. 45). 'While following his lead, she doesn't question why he is gently moving her from time to time, because she feels the thrill of wondering, "Where are we going next?"' (p. 146). Sex for the woman is portrayed as a 'mystery tour'. The man is the driver and navigator: (only) he knows the destination.


On the road to nowhere: male sexperts discover the clitoris - carry a compass and clock!


Sometimes, this sexual itinerary set by the man must involve a kind of detour: a visit to 'no-man's land'. Both timing and location must be carefully planned. Gray offers men several formulae for developing confidence in their ability to provide great sex - focusing on the anatomy of female genitalia, accurate timing and correct approach. For instance, he contends that because men's sexual arousal is an immediate given, they have to learn to take more time to 'fulfil' their partners:

“. . .one very effective way [he] can learn to give a woman a longer interlude in sex is to . . . discreetly put a clock by the bed. While he is touching her vulva and clitoris, he can occasionally glance over and time himself. . .By setting himself up to take a full five to fifteen minutes, he can begin to give her the stimulation she really needs. When she is prepared in this way, she can more fully receive him when they begin intercourse.” (Gray, 1995: 43)

Whereas the man's natural sexuality functions as a 'race towards orgasm', satisfying the woman becomes a competition to 'beat the clock' by slowing down, a tedious chore to be endured for a given period of time.


Here again, moreover, the coital imperative constructs intercourse as the desired and indeed inevitable outcome of heterosex. Other activities that may be more pleasurable for the woman (and perhaps the man also) are discounted as preliminaries to 'real' sex, which is inevitably genital and penetrative.


For 'foreplay' to 'take on a whole new dimension' for men (p. 148), and so that they may understand its benefits for women, Gray enlists the metaphor of sport. He compares 'sex to baseball' (p. 146), and describes a heterosexual encounter from the position of a sports commentator:

“Eventually, as he builds up the stimulation, he may be touching one of her breasts, licking or sucking on the other. Then he might slowly move his other hand down to her vagina. Having all this happen gradually is as exciting as having a tie game, with two outs in the ninth inning, bases loaded, and a new batter up. Then when he scores a home run and penetrates her for intercourse, the crowd goes wild as four runs are scored in one play.” (Gray, 1995: 148)

Sex becomes a game with a tense finale; sexual arousal becomes the desire to compete and to win. The woman (that is, her vagina) represents 'home base', piercing her body an aggressive gesture of victory. She is neither audience nor player; she is the 'game', the 'score'; the passive, unresisting 'target' of his performance. His mastery of her becomes the object of the gaze of the crowd, who applaud his technique and skill.


Another of Gray's dominant metaphors relies on an implicit map of women's sexual anatomy, and instructs men to learn about 'the clitoris' by 'grab[bing] a pillow and. . .camp[ing] out down south' (p. 169); 'You should just resign yourself to the fact that you are not going anywhere else for quite a while. . .Try moving with the rhythm of her breathing. . . Increase and decrease, no hurry, nowhere to go' (pp. 169-70). The clitoris here constitutes a place of no significance for men; 'nowhere to go', a 'non-place', a supplementary venue in the absence of anywhere better; an unfortunate but (sometimes) necessary stop on the journey towards the final ( and ultimate) destination: the vagina.


As Leonore Tiefer (1995: 165) has observed, feminism has not succeeded in radically challenging the status of coitus within heterosexual relationships; it has '. . .merely added the clitoris to the standard phallocentric script; intercourse is still the main event and anything else is considered foreplay, afterplay, or "special needs"'. Female orgasm via (male) clitoral stimulation thus occurs in Gray's text only as a detour on the road to coitus, a means of increasing the woman's receptiveness to penetration:

“. . .after he gives her an orgasm through stimulating her whole body and her clitoris, her vagina contracts and longs to be filled up with his penis. What better time for him to make his entrance?” (Gray, 1995: 135)

Gray's sentiments reflect those of Freud, who viewed the clitoris as 'the organ through which excitement is transmitted to. . . the true locus of a woman's erotic life. . . the vagina' (Laqueur, 1989: 92-3). As Freud put it, almost a century ago, the clitoris is 'like pine shavings', used 'in order to set a log of harder wood on fire' (Freud, 1986 [1905]: 356).


Sign language


While instructing men how to be confident sexual 'athletes', Gray's text offers - women tips on how to encourage a man's 'performance' without eroding his sense of mastery. 1n particular, women are warned not to display sexual assertiveness themselves: ' If a woman seems too confident that she knows what to do to drive him wild, it can be possibly intimidating . . .her greatest ability to fulfil him is through helping him be successful in fulfilling her' (p. 46). She must, however, learn the art of being unknowledgeable. This involves maintaining the myth of feminine passive sexuality by never criticising a man's sexual performance, or making direct suggestions or requests. Instead, she is taught to 'guide' him surreptitiously in the right directions by giving “" and "cold" messages' (p. 54), or by making 'little noises' (p. 57).

“When a woman uses complete sentences, it can be a turnoff. Using complete sentences is a subtle clue to him that she is still in her head and not fully in her body. . .To give [a] message much more effectively, she can make deep sounds like "uumph" or high sounds like "ohhh". A woman's feeling responses to a man's touch gives him all the feedback he needs.” (Gray, 1995: 57)

The woman in this scenario is effectively silenced, for to be inarticulate makes her more feminine, more powerless, more attractive, more carnal (more 'fully in her body').


In contrast, Gray allocates men the more powerful position of being able to speak: 'It is very impressive to a woman when a man can be hard and aroused and also talk to her: ‘. . .[t]alking to her in complete sentences not only increases her arousal but can raise her self-esteem and help her to love her body' (pp. 58-9).

To ensure men can feel confident that they are saying the right things, Gray includes a list of 'twenty sexual turn-on phrases' designed 'to increase her pleasure' (p. 58). The selection of declarations ranges from the romantic 'You are my dream come true', to the graphic 'You are so wet' (pp. 58-9). Somewhat incongruously, however, Gray advises that phrases from the list should only be used if they are 'genuine expressions of what is true inside him' (p. 58). Women's pleasure is thus reliant on men's (practised) ability to appear in control and in authority.


The appointment of men as speakers and women as non-speakers during sexual relations, furthermore, contrasts with Gray's portrayal elsewhere of women as needing to talk to be happy and understood. 'The more talk and exploration, the better they feel. This is the way women operate. To expect otherwise is to deny a woman her sense of self' (Gray, 1992: 36). Thus, even according to Gray, to silence a woman is to disempower her.


Nevertheless, the kind of 'silence' Gray advocates for women during sex is in fact quite 'noisy'. He does not recommend that the woman be utterly mute, only that her ability to mean, or to articulate her knowledge of sex, must be silenced. This silence, moreover, must be indicated by her uttering incomplete sentences, or 'deep sounds' (Gray, 1995: 57). Thus, the utterances a woman is permitted to make during sex correspond to the Kristevan 'semiotic' (Kristeva, 1980): they are 'signs and symbols [ that] have meaning but do not achieve the full sense of language' (Mulvey, 1989: 167). In psychoanalytic theory, the semiotic represents the 'infantile' (or psychotic), a primal form of language related to the maternal and the carnal, 'heterogeneous to meaning but always in sight of it or in either a negative or surplus relationship to it' (Kristeva, 1980: 133). In contrast, the man's sexual discourse remains in the realm of the 'symbolic', which is the 'domain of position and judgement' (Roudiez, 1,980: 19), and is assigned '. ..[the] inevitable attribute of meaning ...' (Kristeva, 1980: 134). When the man is 'hard and aroused' and also '[t]alking to her in complete sentences' (Gray, 1995: 57), he achieves a perfect blend between verbal articulation and phallic potency.


The construction of female and male orgasm


When Gray writes about the male and female orgasm, it is no surprise that certain (by now familiar) gender differences pertain: the male's 'arrival' is fast, almost immediate, direct, singular, unstoppable and essential; the female's is slow, digressive, plural, unnecessary, and able to be deferred. In both cases, if any problems arise, Gray prescribes more control - for/to the man.

Move in circles to get right to the point: “A man is biologically wired to become fully aroused very quickly, like a blow torch, while a woman is wired to become aroused slowly and gradually” (Gray, 1995: 63). Providing intercourse is available, the male orgasm 'is generally a very simple process, as easy as shaking up a can of beer and then letting it pop' (p. 63). Women's fulfilment through orgasm, however, is a complex affair, requiring a great deal of talent on the part of the man. 'God gave a woman a circular body to remind a man to move his hands and fingers in circles over her body instead of getting right to the point' (p. 148). Men are taught how to kiss and touch breasts by the principle of 'circumambulation': 'One wonderful sensation is to first circle around inside her mouth before plunging more deeply' (p. 38). Thus, women's desire is 'differant', in the Derridean sense:[3] it is not only characterised by difference - from the man's, and from other women's - but also by deferral: the man circles her 'erogenous' zone, nearly gets there, and then starts again. In contrast, the man is always (ready to be) there: 'He starts out ready to go' (Gray, 1995: 36). A man always already 'comes'/is present. Sometimes, he will even get there before himself - coming, that is, 'prematurely'.

In the male sexual drive discourse it is important, therefore, that the man retains control of sex - hers as well as his own: 'When a man can feel his passion and control it, a woman can begin to let go of control, release her inhibitions, and start to really feel her passions' (Gray, 1995: 160). Nevertheless, once again, the performance of male control remains contingent on a charade of female submission:

“When a woman is able to surrender and fully receive a man, he can easily maintain control while feeling increasing passion. . . If, however, she tries to take control and start turning him on, she can unknowingly push him out of control or turn him off . . . [W]hen her responses are not genuine reactions to his skilful touch, he doesn't feel the growth of passion and may suddenly lose control.” (Gray, 1995: 161-2)

The man's control hare seems precarious in the extreme; it can easily be lost unless the woman's participation eschews activity and remains at the level of 'genuine [that is, carefully uncontrolled] reactions to his skilful [that is, controlled and controlling] touch'.


By these means, according to Gray's recipe for successful 'polarity sex' (p. 127), he 'gives’ the woman her orgasm first, while also claiming to produce his own after a certain degree of restraint on his part. If he does make a 'mistake' and 'occasionally come[s] before a woman' (that is, he loses control), 'instead of feeling bad, he can just make a mental note to make sure that next time he gives her an orgasm before he has his' (p. 164 ). This passage implies a proper order for sex, requiring the man - who is always (al)ready to come - to take the detour through her climax first, because male climax through penetration signals the end of any significant sexual activity.


Dieting tips for greedy women


In various ways, Gray's therapeutic interventions aim to domesticate any potential for radical otherness represented by female sexuality. Clitoral pleasure occurs only in the service of coitus; any expertise the woman may have in relation to her own desire must be subordinated to the man's control. One more aspect of feminine sexuality often seen as incommensurable with the male 'sex drive' remains to be repressed: the 'insatiable appetite' of the multiorgasmic woman.

“Sometimes women in my seminars have told me that they are multiorgasmic, but after ten or so orgasms, they still want more. When they finish sex and the man has his orgasm, the woman doesn't feel satisfied. This is dissatisfying not only for her but for the man as well. He wants to feel that he has given her the ultimate orgasm or at least fulfilled her hunger.

If a woman is generally multiorgasmic, I suggest that instead of having lots of orgasms, she have one big orgasm. She can signal her partner right before her orgasm so that he can lessen the stimulation and build her back up. If he builds her up several times, when she finally does have an orgasm, she may happily find that one is enough, and she doesn't feel a hunger for more. She is truly satisfied.” (Gray, 1995: 143)

Women's orgasmic ability - depicted as an insatiable 'hunger', a frighteningly multiplying desire for 'more', an endless deferral of satisfaction - requires restriction and unification.


In order to be truly satisfied, she is prescribed an orgasmic diet, consisting of one big 'ultimate' orgasm rather than countless smaller or non-final ones. Thus the woman's sexual response should become like his - which, after all, sets the sexual agenda: according to the quoted account, 'they finish sex' when, and only when, 'the man has his orgasm' (p. 143). Anything occurring after this is extra, a non-necessity, a problem in terms of how sex is legitimised. This is partly because the likelihood of any ongoing 'sex' - that is, intercourse - is decreased; hence 'real' or legitimate sexual activity cannot typically occur following male orgasm. Her extra orgasms signal a capacity for sexual pleasure in excess of the male's, and for kinds of enjoyment other than intercourse.


Afterplay: Gray strikes out


The mythology of Mars and Venus creates men and women as distinct species, and Gray's anatomy constructs them as differently gendered bodies. At the same time, his metaphors produce (hetero)sex as a series of pre-scripted parts and performances. When Gray imagines sex as a piece of music, played by a man on a woman's body, then coitus always constitutes the final movement. If the woman represents a sport that the man excels in, penetration becomes the winning score. Finally, sex offers a journey that they take together, but the man drives and navigates, and intercourse is always the desired route. The woman mayor may not enjoy it, but she has no option but to come along for the ride. Each of these metaphors, moreover, ultimately privileges orgasm as, respectively, the climax, the home-run, the destination.


Self-help books such as Gray's ultimately rely on New Age/humanist therapeutic discourses which emphasize the essential self and individual choice at the expense of social enquiry or social change (Kitzinger and Perkins, 1993). Indeed, the central premise of Gray's books - that men and women are essentially and correctly different - reflects an investment in maintaining the status quo.


Although almost everyone would agree that men and women are different, how different is still undefined for most people. “. . .Though important advances have been made, many books are one-sided and unfortunately reinforce mistrust and resentment toward the opposite sex. One sex is generally viewed as being victimised by the other. A definitive guide was needed for understanding how healthy men and women arc different.” (Gray, 1992: 4)


In this passage, Gray attempts to depoliticise heterosexual relations, to separate individual subjects (men and women) from their social contexts. He subtly implies that suggestions of gender inequality derive from a 'one-sided' perspective, the product and the cause of ‘mistrust and resentment toward the opposite sex' (p. 4). He prefers the concept of healthy differences between men and women, rather than a concentration on power and oppression ('victimisation') of one sex by another. By failing to reveal which sex he is referring to as the more disadvantaged, or the victims, Gray distances himself from an overt anti-feminist position. However, as this article's reading of the text has shown, the rest of the book surreptitiously and continuously entices the female reader to accept and relax into her position of subordination, to resign herself to the natural/inevitable authority of her man. Such a surrender is never recognised as a difference in power between Martians and Venusians. Instead it masquerades as a difference in their biology, or their souls, and therefore in their language and culture(s); differences which in their origins must be considered natural, and consequently 'healthy'. This naturalisation of difference constitutes the ide(sex)ology of Gray's self-help books: their mission(ary position).



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Annie Potts is currently in the Psychology Department of the University of Auckland, researching the discourses of sexual health. Address: Department of Psychology, Auckland University, Private Bag 92-019, Auckland, New Zealand. [email:]


I wish to thank Philip Armstrong for his invaluable editing advice (and for suggesting a pun or two). I would also like to thank The New Zealand Health Research Council, The New Zealand Federation of University Women and New Zealand Family Planning Association for their continued support of this research.


[1] Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus ( Gray, 1992) is selling in Aotearoa/New Zealand at the rate of 3000 copies per month, according to the February 1997 edition of She and More magazine. Both Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and Mars And Venus in the Bedroom are listed in the same magazine as examples of the 15 best-selling self-help books for women. Furthermore, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus also

ranked 47th 'all-time' favourite book of volunteer voters in a Whitcoulls/Herald poll ( New Zealand Herald, April 1997).


[2] Interestingly, Gray does not mention the possibility of male orgasmic satisfaction via masturbation, but there is a section where women arc advised to 'prepare themselves' for coitus via masturbation (1995: 102-3).

[3] Derrida (1978; 129) spells 'differance' with an 'a' in order to pun on two co- incident meanings of the verb 'differer', which in French can mean either 'to differ' or 'to defer'.