If your girlfriend, wife, or marriage counselor has conservative, misguided, or just plain inaccurate ideas about sex, you might want to ask if she watches Oprah. The daily talkathon is a veritable fountain of sexual fear, prejudice, harsh judgment, and male-bashing.
Oprah doesn’t seem to know that various people can be happy with sex that is unpredictable, casual, sloppy, or nasty. Instead, her show features an endless parade of people who are trying to get sex cleaned up, so we can all enjoy some tidy, wholesome version of it.
You can’t talk about Oprah without talking about her alter ego, “Dr. Phil” McGraw. In what looks exactly like an actual case of penis envy, the worshipful diva finishes his sentences, predicts what he’ll do (“I feel a dyad coming on”), and ejaculates over his power (“Watch out folks, he’s on the warpath!”; “Just speak your mind, boy. Go ahead.” “That’s good Phil, that is good. Bring it on, Phil!”) They’re a perfectly matched set, sharing the same simplistic feelings and middle-class judgments. McGraw gives Oprah’s moralism a psychological veneer, and without any apparent self-consciousness tells people what’s normal, acceptable, or swinish.
Rising to the challenge of creating a trend during a slow news week, Newsweek recently ran a cover of McGraw. But Newsweek is confused. They applaud him for telling people to “deal with their own problems rather than whining and blaming others”–even though in each couple he selects who the victim is, insists that that person’s needs are the ones that must be met, and tells both parties exactly what to do. This doesn’t “empower” or “transform” anyone, to use Oprah-ese. And where did McGraw get his national stage from which to attack America’s “culture of victimology,” as Newsweek calls it? From the woman who made victimhood respectable–Oprah. McGraw is just the latest product line in the Oprah house of psycho-couture.
So after thousands of shows with hundreds of hand-picked “experts” (whose expertise is usually limited to explaining how men hurt women, rather than sexology), what does Oprah believe about sex that undermines everyone who listens to her?
* Men always want sex
When it comes to sex, Oprah believes that men are like ATMs–ready to go 24 hours a day, rain or shine. When she recently read mail from viewers complaining about their husbands’ lack of interest, she was stunned–“Hard to believe,” she said. “We thought, you know, men always wanted it.” Dr. Phil also finds it hard to believe. When confronted by Robert, who doesn’t want sex with his wife, Phil says “it’s just not natural that you’re just laying there thinking about work or something. What is it you don’t like about” sex? And to Rod, whose wife felt sexually deprived, Phil demanded “are you some kind of weirdo?”
True to his ignorance, Dr. Phil reiterates the point when the shoe is on the other foot. In an episode that’s standard talkshow fare, Jeremy wants more sex than his wife. She says she hesitates to cuddle because Jeremy will jump her bones. This makes perfect sense to Dr. Phil, who tells him “aren’t you pretty much like a crazed dog at that point?”
Psychologist Jennifer Berman gives us the same Oprah party line, only gentler, as she tells women, “you can’t expect [desire] to be for you like it is for men.”
* Sometimes you need to have sex when you don’t want to
Many couples face the problem of one partner being far more interested in sex than the other. Sex therapists universally report that this is the most difficult professional problem they see, and that only a fraction of such cases have successful outcomes.
What a contrast to Oprah’s portrayal of this problem, with its perspective that desire is a choice and a change in desire is a simple option: “Know that you can fulfill your partner’s wants,” says her website. “You make the conscious decision to not fulfill his or her wants. You prioritize your life. Talk about both of your needs and wants. Find the middle ground.”
Dr. Phil uses the blunt ax approach to desire discrepancies, which has been completely discredited by most sex therapists. He uses guilt (“Is her happiness important to you?”) and the myth that you can will sexual desire (“You have to say, ‘I want to look at Jeremy’s needs as legitimate, and ask myself is there something I can do to meet those.'”). If these techniques don’t work, there’s always more guilt available: Children need to see their parents happy and feeling close. Thus, couples should have sex even if they don’t want in order to be good parents.
And yes, the “compromise” typically discussed so breezily is that one person should have sex he or she doesn’t want, while the other doesn’t get the quantity or quality of sex that he or she wants either.
* Once people get “enough” sex, their high desire declines
In Oprah’s world, high sexual desire is an embarrassing condition to be fixed, so life can resume–like pimples. Dr. Phil seems to think sex drive is like hunger for food: once you get enough, your appetite fades. This is convenient if you’re married to someone who doesn’t want sex as much as you do. But for people who enjoy sex, the more they have, the more they want. In that respect, sex is less like food and more like, well, enjoyable sex.
Here’s Dr. Phil trying to convince one high-desire spouse that getting laid once or twice will pretty much solve everything: “Once you kind of feel like you’re not being deprived, you’ll calm down, and things will be something you can both live with.”
* American culture respects male sexuality more than female sexuality
Oprah tells the astounding untruth that doctors pay more attention to the sexual aspects of prostate surgery than to hysterectomy (and she forgets to tell us that more men die from prostate cancer than from breast or uterine cancer). She doesn’t say things like, “look how brave men are, they’re willing to get shots in their dicks to get erections,” or “think about all the poor men who are lied to by partners who fake orgasms.”
Instead, we get Dr. Phil’s gender-deprecating humor, in which he puts himself into the same pathetic category as the rest of us male creatures: “men don’t get it, but we are trainable.” He loves to say this. Is he pandering to an audience that’s primarily women, or is this uber-pandering to the one woman who made his career?
* Men feel less pressure and are less emotional about sex than women
The male sexuality we hear discussed by Oprah and her gang is barely recognizable. Performance anxiety? Feelings? These are abstractions, appearing on the show occasionally as cameos. Taking men’s feelings seriously would make men too much like women, which would challenge the whole Mars/Venus point of Oprah’s empire. If there’s anything Oprah doesn’t want, it’s men and women coming down to earth and discovering their similarities.
Appearing as a women’s sexual health expert, Dr. Jennifer Berman tells us that men pressure themselves less about sex than women, which should be quite a surprise for every guy who has obsessed on getting and keeping it up with a new (or old) friend. In fact, says Berman, “men feel intimate as a result of sex,” rather than feeling sexual because they care for someone. If we had any feelings, I’m sure we’d feel hurt by such a stereotype.
* Monogamy is the only healthy kind of sexual relationship
The issue of sexual exclusivity is so evident (or so upsetting?) to Dr. Phil that he doesn’t even pretend to be polite about it. When one Oprah guest told him that her husband “feels we need to be sexually active with other couples,” he exploded. “Are you insane? Kick his ass to the curb. In order to be in this relationship, you have to whore yourself and screw his friends? Any guy that’s asking you to do that is disrespecting you.” Calling the husband “a loser” and “slime,” Dr. Phil saw the situation clearly: one reasonable person and one bad person.
Would he say that women who want non-monogamy are also slime? What would he say to the millions of American couples who happily swing each month: would he say that the partners should separate, so that each could find someone “healthy”–with whom they can be frustrated?
* It’s no fun walking around the house naked
Middle-aged gynecologist Hilda Hutcherson suggested it can be a nice thing to walk around naked–a fun way for women to improve their body image. But Oprah would have no part of it, saying she “never walks around the house naked.” It’s just as well–it’s not a picture we enjoy hanging on to.
* Sincere people need no sexual privacy
For viewers playing along on the home version of Oprah, there’s even a test to decide if something you or your partner have done is infidelity: “would you do it with your partner standing right there?” Clearly, people in serious relationships shouldn’t need any private erotic life.
Dr. Phil tells us that “most women say it’s insulting” for their partner to “look at a Playboy,” and that 90% of men say “it would be too embarrassing to be looking at this with her standing there.” If this is true (and don’t you doubt it?), an experienced sex therapist would see the juxtaposition as creating teachable moments–a chance for couples to understand each other better, maybe even improve their sexual relationship. Dr. Phil sees it as a chance to moralize, identify the person who’s wrong, and restore unhealthy entwinement, eliminating privacy and dignity.
* Looking at porn is a form of infidelity–and women don’t do it
Phil and Oprah know where they stand on porn–they hate it, and they shame the people on the show who admit they enjoy it. Dr. Phil sounds genuinely confused (and angry, by the way) about why anyone in a couple would use porn–“She’s (a wife) in the flesh lying there, and you’re in another room on a computer screen with some strange woman!”
Dr. Phil says he doesn’t want to “get hung up on the semantics,” but he does say that “turning outside the relationship” to “meet sexual needs” is infidelity. This, of course, makes the majority of married men unfaithful–the kind of belief that is very good for business if you’re Oprah or Dr. Phil.
On the Oprah website, Dr. Phil says more about those awful porn-users: Addicts give lame justifications for their behavior, like, “It’s harmless,” or “Everybody’s doing it.” Without describing what makes a simple “user” an “addict,” he turns every casual consumer into someone with a difficult emotional illness.
How does porn viewing actually affect relationships? Surely it depends on the people involved. There’s a common idea that men don’t have sex with their wives because they’re too satiated from jacking off with porn. The truth is exactly the opposite: some men want little or no sex with their wives, and they enjoy masturbating with porn.
Despite his lack of data or theory, Phil presses on: A wife shouldn’t accept the excuse “All men look at porn,” or “It’s just the Internet.” He should now better: These aren’t excuses, they’re facts. People who use facts aren’t necessarily in denial. They may be trying to have a productive conversation.
* Most men cheat–and they rarely change
Oprah’s been talking about this one for years, and her unrelenting passion about it sure looks like she’s working out some persistent inner demons.
She opened a recent show by asking the audience: “True or false: once a cheater, always a cheater. What do you think?” In unison, the congregation chanted back the solemn testimony of the Church of Oprah: “True!” Oprah doesn’t feel alone in her tribulation, though. Women are, she says, “a big ol’ cheated-on club out there.” If looking at porn is infidelity, that club is indeed enormous. As Oprah says, “internet infidelity is so huge in the country…if it hasn’t happened to you, you know somebody to whom it has happened.”
Although every sex survey indicates that women cheat, too, such women are very rarely seen on the show. In Oprah’s world, infidelity, like jock itch, is a man’s disease. Unlike jock itch, it’s incurable.
* It’s easy to know what’s sexually normal, and the “abnormal” partner is always at fault when there’s conflict, and must change
“This behavior is not okay-it’s not even almost okay.” This is one of Dr. Phil’s favorite expressions. It really shows his absolutist approach, in which every problem is a dichotomy and all questions have answers. McGraw confidently tells people who is wrong and what they must change, making the world seem simpler and more under control. He tells one wife, “[Your husband’s] habit is a perverse and ridiculous intrusion into your relationship. Explain that his viewing of pornography is absolutely, unequivocally unacceptable in this relationship. You will not allow it for one more minute. Your partner has to choose what’s more important to them: pornography or your relationship.
The husband’s needs, obviously, don’t count. and Phil’s platitudes about couples working together are revealed as meaningless. Dr. Phil’s mission: find the bad guy and make him change–and encourage the innocent victim to threaten to leave the relationship. In case there’s any question about power coming from victimization in Oprah’s world, here’s Phil talking to a husband about his wife busting him for ogling a coworker and giving her massages: “You don’t get to decide whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony. She gets to decide that.”
* * *
Everyone calls Dr. Phil a media shrink, but he isn’t really one (he owns a company that coaches trial witnesses and consults on jury selection; his firm represented Exxon in the Exxon-Valdez oil spill trial). Ironically, Dr. Phil doesn’t even respect therapy: “analysis is paralysis,” he likes to say. This is how he justifies the importance of our listening to HIM, rather than to someone with actual clinical expertise.
Isn’t it time we stopped getting our sexual information and permission from “personalities,” victims, reformed addicts, TV hosts, and civic-minded busybodies whose mission is to shut down eroticism everywhere?
Oh yes, one thing that Dr. Phil says is absolutely right: “I’m a terrible therapist.”