Creeping Up on Male Sexuality

Laurie and Debbie say:

Ally Fogg, writing about male sexuality in the Guardian, manages to simultaneously be excessively irritating and make some good points. His article is headlined “Why Are We Afraid of Male Sexuality?” which is, of course, a no-brainer: we’re afraid of male sexuality because of the inordinate amount of harm that is done in its name to women, children, men, and most cultures and societies. Fogg lives in that oh-so-familiar “Fogg” of privilege where he thinks that anything his kind do that is ever criticized is somehow under siege:

You can hear it in the gentle, dismissive mockery that says men are simple creatures who “only want one thing” or, at the extreme, outright vilification. The male gaze threatens, male desire is aggressive. Our primal instincts are pathologised with the jargon of gender studies. Righteous and necessary efforts to reduce sexual crimes have had the unwelcome effect of teaching generations of men that our sexuality can be dangerous and frightening.

Unsurprisingly, he hasn’t noticed that the reactions he’s talking about are voices against the dominant paradigm, voices in opposition to what we see every day on the television, on the billboards, and in our workplaces. If John Major is attacked as an “old lecher,” it’s in a context where thousands of older, richer men have younger, prettier wives, while people are still talking about Georgia O’Keefe’s penchant for young men and she’s been dead for 25 years–and those older, respected women who have followed in her footsteps have mostly been less public about it.

But here’s where Fogg gets it right:

All of these prejudices are rehearsed and reiterated by men and women alike, they reside in the intangible web of social norms, conventions and culture, but they can and must be challenged and changed. If we can begin to openly and joyously celebrate the positives to male sexuality, it might become easier for men to be happy and confident sexual partners, and in turn become better lovers, and sometimes better people.

Once of his sources is Clarisse Thorn, in a piece originally from AlterNet. Thorn is a thoughtful and nuanced sex-positive blogger who has written at length about male sexuality. In this piece, she questions whether a man making a polite proposition should be considered “a creep.”

in fact, men aren’t merely enabled to be promiscuous — they’re pressured to be getting laid all the time. This influences situations ranging from huge communities devoted entirely to teaching men how to pick up women, to tragically callous dismissal of the experiences of men who have been raped. (You can check out further links to this paragraph at her site)

And while there’s immense cultural repression of all sexuality, there’s also a fair and growing amount of modern TV, movies and feminist energy that seek to enable female sluttitude in all its harmless, glorious forms. The stud vs. slut dichotomy is worth discussing, but it has one flaw: it entirely ignores the word “creep,” whose function appears to be restricting male sexuality to a limited, contradictory set of behaviors.

Thorn is very close here, but she’s not quite at the center of the point. The point is that (as she addresses earlier in her post) feminine/feminist sexuality has developed a good deal of range and nuance. The stud vs. slut dichotomy may still be the dominant cultural impression (or may not), but the world is full of women who actively, publicly reject it. Slutwalk is part of this phenomenon, but only a small part–most of it is about women in all economic classes and ethnic groups who have found a wide variety of ways of living rich, satisfying sexual lives which they don’t keep secret which, in turn, means that other women have models for finding their own rich, satisfying sexual lives.

Men, on the other hand, are in a very different situation. Of course, many men lead rich, satisfying sexual lives outside the stereotypes. But, as a rule, they are not leading those lives in public. There’s too damned much pressure for men to fit into the tiny little male sexuality box. Here’s Thorn again:

Men are supposed to be insatiable only within [ultra-narrow] bounds. Men who step outside them — for example, heterosexual men who are attracted to curvier women, or who like being pegged with a dildo in the butt — are either mocked or viewed with anxious suspicion.

One thing neither Thorn or Fogg says is that to the extent the culture has revisited or re-imagined male sexuality in the last forty years it has been to glorify the most extreme adolescent version of the same. While visible boundaries of women’s sexuality are broadening, men’s public boundaries are being narrowed.

Men also have permission to be creeps–the vast majority of creepy male behavior goes unmentioned, uncorrected, and has no negative consequences. Calling out creepiness is not the same as constraining healthy male sexuality. Most of the energy and effort that constrains male sexuality is done by men, and men as a group do astonishingly little to police creepiness (and worse) among their own.

The problem of expanding and encouraging models for healthy male sexuality is thorny, because of all of the men who stand in the way of both envisioning alternatives and speaking about those alternatives once envisioned. Men like Ally Fogg need to be whining less about what women have that he doesn’t, and thinking more about what real change would look like.