On men being men again.
From “Desire,” a poem by Stephen Dobyns:
Why have men been taught to feel ashamed
of their desire, as if each were a criminal
out on parole, a desperado with a long record
of muggings, rapes, such conduct as excludes
each one from all but the worst company,
and never to be trusted, no never to be trusted?
Why must men pretend to be indifferent as if each
were a happy eunuch engaged in spiritual thoughts?
The feminists have had their say over the years, and most men got the message: It’s not okay to objectify females, to see them as a conglomeration of body parts, to speak to them as if there is a microphone nestled between their breasts, or to act as if young women strutting the streets in mini-miniskirts and revealing halter tops are the least bit interesting to us unless they also happen to be carrying a copy of Goethe’s Faust. (I just learned that photographers would often stick a copy of Proust or Dostoevski into Marilyn Monroe’s hand before shooting, to round out the picture, so to speak. Ironically, Monroe actually was an avid reader of great literature and, contrary to her two-dimensional, pin-up calendar image, it turns out she was actually a person as well. Who knew?)
So we got it. Women are not merely sexual objects of desire. But what happened to men in the process of their feminist education? Poet Robert Bly, in Iron John, was very critical of typical “New Age Sensitive Males” who had essentially cut off their own genitals in the effort to distance themselves from the macho idiots that incur the wrath of women, and to become the thoughtful feeling blokes women claimed they wanted them to be. There was a rude awakening for many of us though, when we discovered that yes, women wanted us to be sensitive and respectful friends and fellow workers, but more often than not, they still often preferred the “bad boys” in the bedroom. We were duped, and gypped.
I remember as a teenager, the single worst thing a girl could ever say to you was, “Let’s just be friends.” It was the kiss of death. Like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, it essentially meant, “NO NOOKIE FOR YOU!” As I got older, just once I wanted a woman to say to me, “Listen, let’s just be lovers, I can’t handle a friendship right now.” I once mentioned this in a stand-up comedy performance, and an enterprising lass in the audience approached me after the show and took me up on it. We made a date to get together, but when I got to her apartment, I found it was filled, floor to ceiling, with 32 years worth of the New York Sunday Times. When I inquired, she said if she ever got around to “catching up,” she would most likely begin with Section Two, the Arts and Leisure pages. Needless to say, this opening conversation was not a harbinger of erotic adventures to come, and I left soon afterward, with a 1973 copy of the Book Review tucked under my arm, a consolation prize.
My old college friend Billy had a unique way of dealing with the sex and power issues within a stable marriage. He writes: “Even though as a gynecologist, I knew there were better methods available for birth control, I always recommended the old-fashioned diaphragm to couples because it had a distinct advantage: it had to be stored somewhere, usually in the soap dish or shampoo caddy in the shower. Early on in our marriage, I learned that if I let my wife get into bed first, I could go into the bathroom and check the shower, and I could eliminate the guessing game as to whether that night would be a go or not. If the diaphragm was not in the shower, there was only one other place it could be. If it was still in the shower, then I could get into bed with a pre-emptive strike, saying, “Is it okay if I just hold you tonight?” After our last child and after the tubal ligation, I was back out in the woods, figuratively. When I asked my wife if she would mind continuing to use the diaphragm, and she figured out why, I got cut off for a good two weeks.”
I took a popular workshop in the early 80’s called “Men, Sex and Power” (now “The Sterling Men’s Weekend”) in which the following riddle was proposed as a summary of male-female relations around sexuality:
“How does an 800 pound (male) gorilla make love to its (female) mate?”
Answer: “Anyway he wants to.”
The message was that women ultimately want men to be men, and that they want to be “taken,” often with force (in a safe and mutually agreed-upon, consensual way), and it was high time that New Age men—there’s no better way to say it—“got their balls back.” (I actually don’t think women want to be taken by force, except maybe once by Javier Barden; they mostly want us to beg, plead, and clean the house.)
But the message of the gorilla is dangerously close to the belief system of right-leaning Christian groups like The Promise Keepers who assert that a man must reclaim his rightful place as head of the family, the one who “wears the pants,” while the little woman returns to her rightful place as nurturer of hearth and home. Certainly as a society we have thankfully moved way past such limiting roles long ago. But in the sexual arena, even wise teachers of sexuality such as David Deida, author of umpteen books on the subject, insists that in striving for equality of the sexes, women have become more like men, men more like women, and in that sameness we have lost the fundamental male-female energetic polarity that makes for desire, lust, and hot sex. How to bridge this gulf, in which men are men, women are women, and raw, primal desire is real and allowed, yet not cross over into the world of inequality, rigid roles, objectification, and pre-feminist values?
It’s the marriage of love and desire, the blending of Eros and Agape that has been particularly problematic for men forever: if I want you, I don’t love you, and if I love you, I don’t want you. How many men have sectioned off their lives, keeping love in the home and hiding Eros in the pornography closet?
What would a “Masculinism” movement entail? Preferably, something other than the Bly-inspired Men’s Movement that usually had us sitting in sweat lodges and drumming naked in the woods, desperately trying to reclaim our primitive roots. (Some children’s summer camps try to instill these male instincts early: my friend’s son came back from one such place with the new name, “Flows With the Dolphins.” When I heard that, to honor my sweat lodge experiences, I briefly became “Shvitzing with the Schmucks,” but it didn’t stick.) I don’t think becoming imitation Native Americans is the answer for guys like me, or most men I know. Somewhere between Ward Cleaver and Geronimo the answer lies.
My friend Charley, however, a veteran of the Men’s Movement, points out, in its defense, that “Men in America are divorced from the earth, the sky, the air and fire and water and every thing that made men men for thousands of years because they were close to nature.” (I beg to differ; when I was a kid, there was no such thing, for example, as indoor malls. When my mother took me shopping for clothes, all of the stores were right out in the open, exposed to the elements. And she often allowed my brother and me to set up our little pup tent in the living room, where we kept a window open so we could hear the crickets and other wildlife sounds of the Fair Lawn, New Jersey nights. Cut off from nature? I don’t think so.)
—Photo Ben Husmann/Flickr