Sexes: Back Off, Buddy

A new Hite report stirs up a furor over sex and love in the '80s

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Psychologists and sociologists defend postliberation men, saying that many have indeed become more sensitive and responsive in relationships. "Communication has been improved in recent years, though it is still a long way from where it should be," says Graham Spanier, professor of human development and family studies at Oregon State University. Observes E. James Lieberman, a Washington psychiatrist who specializes in couples therapy: "Women are still giving more than they get, but I think it's getting better. We are in the middle of a revolution, and it's moving in the direction we want."

But whether the recent flurry of accusatory women's books is promoting that revolution or setting it back is a matter of debate. Steinem believes some of the new volumes on women and their relationships, including Hite's latest study, are helpful. They enable women to examine what she calls the "internal barriers" to equality. In the late '60s and '70s, says Steinem, women focused on external barriers to equality such as a lack of job opportunities and low representation in government. With the help of books like Women and Love, she believes, women can now overcome internalized obstacles like their feeling that they must "define their success in terms of human relationships."

Others strongly disagree. "Books like Hite's encourage women to take the easy way out and just blame everything on men," charges Author Warren Farrell. He fears that the books are feeding into a "support system" in which women console one another by blaming men for their difficulties. He warns that this tactic will backfire. "This male-bashing makes women more suspicious and distrustful and demanding toward men," explains Farrell, "which causes men to withdraw, which causes women to get angrier."

Penny Kaganoff, who has reviewed several examples of the genre in her capacity as an editor at Publishers Weekly, agrees. "With more and more of these books, women are becoming more worried and more nervous about having a good relationship, and they are hearing their biological clock tick louder," % she says. "These books are less than helpful." Betty Friedan, godmother of the feminist movement, also warns of "books that prey on the transitional stage" in the sexual revolution, when women are still grappling with unaccustomed challenges.

Hite, for her part, sees her study as a positive force. Indeed, despite the bleakness of her data, the author is hopeful about the possibilities for change opened up by her research. "I'm providing the road map for men to see what women feel works in relationships. Society is creating a certain dynamic between men and women, and men are behaving badly because of this," she says. "I don't think men are born to behave that way." Pulling a sort of reverse Henry Higgins, she sees no fundamental reason why a man can't be more like a woman.

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