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The burden we never knew we carried: the sexual mental load

 In Debate

Art by Isabelle Feliu

The collective conversation around the mental load has truly exploded over the past few years, as the invisible everyday burden that weighs on women has received more and more attention. Applied to the intimate sphere, this sexual mental load refers to the equally invisible efforts put in by women to perpetuate our modern sexual dynamics.

At the root of it all: the mental load

What is a mental load anyway?

The idea that women carry mental loads wasn’t born yesterday, and challenging the notion that household chores and all things domestic automatically falls to women has been at the core of feminist rhetorics. The latest iteration however comes from French illustrator and blogger Emma; in 2017, she published a three-part comic series through which she put words and images on everyday scenarios that instantly resonated with many women in France and beyond.

Why the mental load falls on women

The mental load stems from a clear gender division of roles inherited from firmly established patriarchal dynamics. The #metoo revolution and the deconstructive approach many of us are trying to apply to ourselves are shining the light on just how androcentric the society we live in still is. The dominance of the male perspective is also quite obvious within the sexual sphere. What does our current sexual model rely on? Women’s invisible yet essential labour.  

Deconstructing the sexual mental load

The sexual load is the mental load applied to the intimate sphere. A load because no one else cares to take on this kind of unappreciated and unpleasant labour. To a number of women, sexuality is akin to a never-ending to-do list that doesn’t rule out pleasure but includes, among other things: managing sex drives, anticipating their partner’s desire, worrying about the frequency or absence of intercourse, lower libidos and the feelings of guilt they generate…” It was French journalists Clémentine Gallot and Caroline Michel who put into words in their 2020 book, “La Charge Sexuelle”, following an article published on the French version of Slate. At the root of it all, a desire to expose just how the mental load had invaded our bedrooms.

The desirability injunction

One could coin it the “aesthetic charge”: the set of standards and expectations that regulate women’s appearances within the sexual sphere and beyond. At the very centre of all practices and representations, women’s bodies are the ultimate physical incarnation of desire; viewed through the male gaze, it turns from thinking subject to passive object. This physical edge could grant women great power, and it is sometimes misleadingly portrayed as doing so. It is, however, yet another instrument of control; conforming to those desirability standards has become a requirement to reach sexual bliss.

More and more voices are making themselves heard to speak a different kind of femininity, well outside the patriarchal realm; a new kind of body positivity backed up by a strong social media presence that defends women’s right to be hairy, have stretch-marks, show cellulite and represent their bodies however they please. Outside that perfect Instafeed of diversity, how many of us have actually managed to escape that beauty ideal to the extent of refusing to wear “seductive” lingerie and learning how to deeroticise our own representations of ourselves? What makes the patriarchy so strong is how insidious it is; our collective sexual narrative is still so anchored in men’s perspectives we have convinced ourselves the expectations placed on our bodies are what we genuinely aspire to as modern women.

Why men typically come first

The female orgasm has been trending, and with it a series of injunctions to climax often and loud. Intercourses typically follow a pattern dictated by male desire: from erection to ejaculation via penetration. While penetrative sex unquestionably creates a pleasure imbalance (you can read all about the pleasure gap here), many women still put their own needs last; men’s wishes have become their command and shaped entire parts of their sexual narrative.

Looking good in bed isn’t merely enough; women are expected to be good in bed too, although not so much so as to raise questions about the extent of their sexual experiences. Against a backdrop of sexual liberation, many magazines have shifted the “strong independent women” narrative to include all kinds of sex tips and advice; what may appear as a mere series of  keywords on a cover has generated undeniable pressure on entire generations of women to perform and please. Whose pleasure is at stake? Outside of the masturbation realm, a vast majority of couple-oriented advice is actually all about men, as evidenced in the lexical choices: “how to drive HIM wild…”, “what MEN really want in bed”… We could all name many more examples.

Not even the female orgasm can escape the mental load dynamics. Now that men seemingly care about our pleasure and know (something) about the clitoris, more and more of us feel a duty to climax; the key is to protect men’s egos and reinforce their masculinity, while also comforting ourselves that nothing is wrong with us should we struggle to climax the way men expect us to; we mostly have the male-dominated porn industry to thank for that.

Contraception: female prerogative or shared responsibility?

No one can deny the historic significance of contraception and how much it served the sexual liberation cause in the Sixties: “my body, my choice”. Legalising the birth control pill and making other such types of contraception freely accessible still stands as a major step forward for women’s cause. However, the fact that birth control is a “girl thing”, many men have altogether stopped taking responsibility for contraception and seldom share the financial burden it represents, even when they refuse using alternative methods such as condoms. 

Most of the blame lies with the patriarchy and the persistence of gender-assigned roles. According to researcher Cécile Ventola, as quoted by Gallot and Michel, “as long as preventing unwanted pregnancies is seen as a female prerogative, the interest a man might take in birth control will be seen as transgressive at best, as something that goes against gender roles and the established division of social activities, thus exposing him to social shame”.

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