In this post, I take a look at men’s sexuality, prompted by reading a book by a well-known sex writer and therapist. Are men being feminized, or are we misunderstanding the nature of the repressive discourse around men’s sexuality?
I’ve been in a big reading binge lately, and last week I finished The Myth of Sex Addiction by David Ley. While I already agreed with most of his arguments about sex addiction, the last few chapters about masculinity and masculine sexuality puzzled me in interesting ways.
In the book, Ley argues:
Males and females are different, in many ways, including sexually. These differences are not good or bad; they just are. In the society we have built, we have seesawed back and forth between the privileges that males and females have, and the social views of the different genders. Today our society has highly valued the female views of sexuality, raising them ascendant. I agree with columnist Dan Savage, as he argues that we are applying female attitudes towards sex to all heterosexual relationships, and towards men.
The main thrust of this argument is that sexual addiction treatment attempts to make men’s sexuality more like women’s.
Are we forcing men to “feminize” their sexuality?
Is female sexuality really in the “ascendent”?
Do women fail to honour the ways in which men’s sexuality is different from theirs?
I wish to acknowledge here that I understand that male sexuality is often toxic. It is threatening to women in many ways, especially when it is wielded by men as a site of power over us.
But can we also acknowledge that not all male sexuality is toxic? That there are ways to be masculine AND respectful of women’s autonomy and choices? These healthy masculine sexualities are not often seen, because men are not taught to be healthily sexual. Whether it is through forceful repression (your sex impulses are bad and you should hide them always) or consequence-free license (you’re a man, you can take who you want when you want), men are caught between two toxic discourses that leave no apparent space for being masculine and sexual in healthy ways.
Are we feminizing men’s sexuality?
Although Ley does appear to have a point about how the sexual addiction discourse is attempting to feminize male sexuality, I think it uses old definitions of femininity that need to be examined.
To understand how sexual addiction treatment is “feminizing”, we need to go back to what kinds of claims sexual addiction treatment makes. These claims include:
- Any sexual activity outside of monogamous, committed relationships is bad
- Fantasizing and daydreaming about sex is to be eliminated
- Masturbation is not to be indulged in
- Porn is a slippery slope to addiction
- More than one orgasm a day is “too much”
- Using the services of sex workers is another symptom of sex addiction
In his book, Ley analyzes each claim to deconstruct how sex addiction is based in morality, not clinical evidence. And, according to him, the morality that is upheld by sex addiction is that of the monogamous, sexually exclusive couple. Any straying from that, whether it is through affairs, porn consumption or hiring sex workers is a potential sign of addiction.
This phenomenon, he says, is “feminizing”. Because women appear to prefer monogamous, committed relationships, he assumes that enforcing sexually exclusive monogamy is feminine.
But, according to new research, men and women under 49 are pretty close in cheating rates, and women 18-29 actually cheat more than men.
The idea that women want (or require) monogamy is a myth. In fact, women may have a harder time with monogamy than men. What, then, is the origin of Ley’s idea that women prefer monogamy? Certainly not biology. Psychological evidence does not demonstrate this clearly. Women have been required to be monogamous throughout history in order to maintain family (patriarchal) ownership over land and property. His contention that women prefer monogamy is a historical and social artefact, not scientific fact.
I agree with him that sexual addiction discourse is repressive, but not feminizing. In fact, women have received the same repressive messages throughout history: women masturbating was a good enough reason to send them to the mental health institution in the 19th century; we were accused of immaturity if we enjoyed clitoral orgasms, and frigidity if we could not orgasm vaginally. We are supposed to not like sex; women who like sex too much would be called hysterical (later, nymphomaniac) and also sent to the mental institution. I would argue that it is simply the same repressive discourse, but applied to men. It’s not about feminizing or masculinizing sexuality: it’s about repressing all sexualities.
That it seems “feminizing” is simply because men aren’t used to being sexually repressed, and associate this repression discourse with female sexuality.
Welcome to the world of equal opportunity oppression.
Is female sexuality really in the ascendant?
To say that female sexuality is the one that’s valued right now is also quite a big claim. We certainly are speaking more openly about it. It is in the ascendant in the sense that we are not shamed about our sexuality anymore. But do we hear more about it than we do male sexuality?
In popular media, television and movies, male pleasure is the centre of focus. Female pleasure is often censored or limited, as it happened to Boys Don’t Cry. Male sexuality is the default, the point of reference, the acceptable kind of sex, the neutral state. All kinds of men have sex in the media, but only a certain kind of woman does: white, light-haired, skinny, conventionally attractive.
So, I agree in part with Ley that female sexuality is in the ascendant, but only if you look at these representations in relative terms, compared with past amounts of representation. In absolute terms, I doubt women’s sexuality is represented as often, or as variedly, as men’s. Women are still, overly and mainly, presented as sex objects. The presence of female sexuality is only justifiable in terms of concurrent male desire. Female desire, on its own, is still not “ascendant”.
Women have not escaped the yoke of existing only when men desire them. That women have decided to take their sexuality in their own hands and talk about it and do research about it and break taboos and myths is not “ascendancy”. It’s frustration, a desire for fairness, and a need to understand ourselves because, apparently, male researchers don’t think we are worthy subjects.
Do women fail to honour men’s sexuality?
By “honouring”, I don’t mean “worship” or “consider more important”. I mean listening and understanding how their desire may differ from ours, and how we can work together to have pleasurable experiences.
While writing this piece, I asked E. how arousal, how being sexual, felt for him.
It’s a kind of whole body feeling. My brain, my skin, my penis, all become sort of unified in my desire for the person.
There’s enough evidence to convince me that men are more visual, and studies of sexual concordance show that arousal in men is different from that in women. When men desire, they desire with their bodies and their minds; when women desire, it is more likely with their minds first. I will accept this premise based on evidence, although it is evidence found in the here and now–we should never forget that.
I think I have, personally, failed to appreciate the differences in our sexualities. I can see how some women’s constant requests to be romanced for lengthy periods before having sex can feel frustrating to men. Men are not given the liberties with physical intimacy that women have, thanks to homophobia. So they rely on sexual and romantic partners to fulfill that need.
And sadly, they often do so roughly, without consideration for women who need their brains engaged to feel arousal. Or they turn to violence to vent their rage and anger at the lack of intimacy that toxic masculinity imposes on them.
I think women would do well to engage their men-identifying partners about how they experience their sexuality. The thing I have learned over the past two years in my psychology major is this: most of the time, we make assumptions about people and their needs based on very little information, usually stereotypes. On the one hand, it’s easier for our brains to assess people quickly; on the other hand, we miss out on approaching people as individuals. Ask them what it feels like to desire people as a man. You might be intrigued by the answers. (The “O” Box often reviews penis-oriented sex toys, so that’s a great place to start.)
I also think that honouring men’s sexuality comes with acknowledging male sexual energy in ourselves, too: the willful, powerful force of desire that drives us to act. It is goal-oriented, forges ahead boldly, and makes itself visibly known. Great masculine sexual energy appears in the original Captain Kirk from 60s Star Trek: assertive but not abusive, in control but not domineering, leads by example rather than orders. It is solid, upright, and seeks adventure and conquest.
Of course, any person of any gender can have a more typically “masculine” sexuality–I am a woman with strong masculine tendencies when it comes to sex. (Apparently this is a pattern for bisexual women!) Men should also work to acknowledge their feminine sexual energy, obviously! But that’s another topic for another day.
I believe that mutual understanding of each other as sexual beings, no matter our gender, is essential to harmonious relationships. The increase in representation of women’s sexuality and the new tools and ideologies that allow us to do so safely and without stigma is exciting.
But let’s make sure that we also pay attention to the ways men are truly sexual, and not the easy stereotypes represented in the media: the repressed neurotic and the hypersexual monster. Men’s sexuality doesn’t fit in either of these roles, just as women’s sexuality doesn’t fit in the Madonna/whore pattern.
If you are intrigued by the topics I cover here, I strongly urge you to get Ley’s book. It is super readable, uses plenty of evidence, and brings up what I believe are very real concerns about the well-being of men under the sexual addiction discourse. I may not agree with everything he says, but reading this was a great departure point for me to explore my ideas and beliefs about male sexuality.