Where are the male voices debating contemporary sexuality? No, really, where are they?
I read a very interesting BBC article recently. The author, Sarah Dunant, spends some time outlining her own relationship to the ongoing debate about the role of sex in human experience and in society, and recapping the current state of play in that debate. Then she closes by raising a frank and difficult question, one that needs to be asked.
Where are the heavy-weight male voices debating contemporary sexuality? It’s difficult – getting men to talk honestly about sex. Not the nudge-nudge in the pub, or the throw-away gags of comedians, but serious questioning.
We accept that in the aftermath of feminism growing up male can be hard: but where are the big public conversations about men’s sexuality. The impact of pornography. Has far has our desire changed theirs? Is their line between what is and is not acceptable different from ours?
Such admissions will not necessarily be politically correct. Sex often isn’t. It doesn’t help that when men do open their mouths on the larger stage they are firmly shot down. Both George Galloway and our now ex-Justice Secretary Ken Clarke might have been ill advised in their remarks about sexual behaviour and the law, but like it or not they thought something needed saying, only to be met by a storm of female outrage that effectively stifled all debate.
Yes, we have a long way to go. But we can’t do it without the views of men.
This is a serious matter Ms. Dunant has touched on, and one that needs to be part of the public discourse. Men’s voices aren’t part of the public conversation about the function of sex and desire among us all.
Now, at this point traditional feminist thinking splutters “Hang on a second, men’s voices are all we hear about sex! The male gaze is so prevalent that women’s conformance to it is our main source of human value. Porn is manufactured in vast, immeasurable quantities, almost all of it aimed at male desires. We know about the male experience of sexual desire because we’re constantly told that everything in society has to serve it, from the public appearance of every woman alive to damn near every commercial aired.”
Problem is, while all of that isn’t exactly untrue, it also doesn’t have anything to do with authentic male desire. It’s a description of an imaginary average of male desire, a lowest common denominator that arises from conventional wisdom and social enforcement rather than from anyone’s pants. And for goodness’ sake, if we’re going to be talking about sexual desire, we need to be paying attention to what’s arising in real people’s pants, not what we think is supposed to be. (Why no, if you were wondering, we will not be getting through this article without a boner joke.)
The conventional-wisdom narrative about sex holds that men all want no-strings blowjobs from skinny, big-titted 20-year-old blondes, and women all want meaningful cuddles and commitment from rich doctors with good tans. Both sides of this assumption are utter, utter horseshit. They reduce the richness of human experience and human desire down to two stupid cartoons that almost nobody actually likes, but too many people go along with because they assume everyone else is.
The good news is that sex-positive feminism has made it possible for more and more women to speak out against this tired old nonsense, to proudly own their own sexuality and whatever it entails. Yeah, there’s still a lot of slut-shaming, social enforcement, and stereotyping that goes on, but genuine progress has been made.
Men, however, remain largely trapped by the social narrative. The very pervasiveness of the conventional-wisdom model makes it hard to openly speak out against. If every ad you see assumes that every man wants the same boring thing, you start to think that maybe they know something you don’t. I’ve seen men pretend to want casual sex because they thought they were supposed to, date skinny girls when they liked bigger girls because they were afraid of social enforcement, spend years lying about aspects of their sexuality that they thought made them appear weak or unmanly. And if you sit down and think about it, I bet you have too.
We do need more male voices to speak up about the realities of male sexuality and desire. Not the stereotypes or the assumptions or the easy jokes, the on-the-ground truth about the complexity and diversity of our loves and lusts. Here at the Good Men Project, we’re trying to get some of that dialogue started, but it’s kind of like push-starting a car uphill. The gravity in this metaphor is the endless drag of enculturated assumptions, hegemonic masculinity, all the ideas that there is a way men are supposed to be, and if you do not resemble that imaginary norm you are Doing It Wrong.
There is a name for this phenomenon; it’s called pluralistic ignorance. It’s when most people don’t like something, but they assume everyone else likes it, so they don’t speak up out of fear or good manners or awkwardness. It’s how a thousand people go along with a plan they all know is stupid, each one thinking they’re the only person doubting it. And it’s how we all just accept the artificial, manufactured, oddly specific and sharply limited stereotype of male sexuality as “normal”.
Get a bunch of guys together and ask whether they prefer the fake women on the magazine covers or real, flawed, human women, and you’ll hear a chorus of affirmation in favor of the real. Real women (and I do not mean anything prescriptivist by that, I literally mean “not imaginary”) are vulnerable, are relatable, come in a rich array of colors and textures and shapes and sounds and smells that is far more interesting to most straight men than the umpteenth iteration of the same Photoshopped swimsuit model, so sanded down and airbrushed she hasn’t even got pores.
It makes sense. Those artificial images are as sexy as plastic. They are a product of industrial and media culture, the consensus result of meetings of marketing committees, carefully designed to meet expectations without ever challenging assumptions, thereby gaining optimum brand positioning to maximize market share with key demographics and I ask you seriously, who wants to stick their dick in that?
The answer, sadly, is some people do. There is a minority of men, a depressingly vocal minority, that fundamentally does think of women as a product manufactured for their consumption. And they tend not to be shy about making their opinions known, especially to women who they consider inferior product.
The same goes, in slightly different form, for the accepted generic idea of male sexual desire. Entirely penis-based, entirely shallow, entirely about penetration and control… you know the routine. Again, most men’s actual desires are infinitely more complex, more nuanced, more silly and vulnerable and far, far more freaky. But the chorus of assumed normalcy is so vocal, and the social sanction for appearing weird or weak so great, that most men don’t speak up, and just try to do what they think they’re supposed to. And so everyone has, on average, rather less fun sex than they otherwise might.
We can’t keep this up. We can’t continue ignoring the phenomenal diversity and depth of men’s sexualities. It is literally killing people. And it’s just so damn silly to start with. It’s hard to speak up about such a deeply personal subject, but there is one thing each and every one of us can do: stop pretending that “normal” is normal.
I am hereby letting all the men reading this know that they are not the only one whose sexual desires deviate from the ones in the beer commercials and the sitcom jokes. It is not just you. It’s almost all of us. If you feel, as most do, that you somehow need permission to stop participating in this false consensus, consider it given. You can stop pretending to be normal, because there is no such damn thing and there never was.
It ain’t much, but Sarah Dunant is right. We’ve got to start somewhere.