4. I found that much, very much, of what I had honestly supposed to be a physiological necessity was a psychological necessity—or so believed. I found, after my ideas of what was essential had changed, that my feelings changed also.
In Chapter 11, Van reflects on his own psychology as he struggles to understand Ellador’s continuing independence after the two have been wed. Ellador and the other women do not understand the notion the men have brought with them of married privacy. Indeed, the idea of “private families” is completely alien to Herland, where the larger group always overrides any such smaller connections between individuals. The real frustration for Van is in the matter of romantic or recreational sexuality. Ellador simply has no interest in sex, aside from its procreative purposes, and to her the idea that sexual pleasure could be an end in itself seems odd, even unnatural. Van does his best to entice her, but Ellador is a skilled psychologist, and she is able to steer the relationship away from sexuality and back toward simple friendship. Van is smart enough to see what Ellador is doing, and over time he begins to experience the changes he details above.
Van eventually puts his sexual drive at the service of his rational will, just as the women of Herland have done, thus overturning the common assumption that the sex drive is essentially unstoppable, especially in men. Gilman is aware that such beliefs about the male physiological “need” for sex are behind many of the excuses made for male sexual misconduct, from adultery to promiscuity and even to rape. However, Van finds he has much more self-control than he ever thought possible. Later, Van continues to make the case that sexuality can be expressive of true love, even when reproduction is not the object, but he does so in terms of spiritual union, not simple physical desire. Ellador is much more open to this argument, and it is clear that their discussion of sex does not end when the novel does.