Why Do We Demonize Men Who Are Honest About Their Sexual Needs?
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This is an article about men, but I'm going to begin by talking about women's experiences. Many of us women go through our daily lives fending off unwanted male attention; most of us have worried about being attacked by men. If I stroll down a city street or take public transit alone, I can count on being approached by men I don't want to talk to. If I walk home after dark, I can't help fearing assault -- so much so that if a man or group of men come near me on the street, I feel my heart lodge firmly in my throat until they pass.
So it's completely understandable that we're all on high alert for predatory expressions of male sexuality. While certain situations and certain people deserve the designation "creep" -- like, say, the guy who once leered at me as I walked out of the public library and whispered, "I can smell your pussy" -- most guys really don't. The pressure put on men to be initiators, yet avoid seeming creepy or aggressive leads to an unpleasant double bind. After all, the same gross cultural pressures that make women into objects force men into instigators; how many women do you know who proposed to their husbands?
So how can a man express his sexual needs without being tarred as a creep? After all, the point of promoting sex-positive attitudes is for everyone to be able to be open about their needs and desires, right?
When I was 23 years old, I was still coming to terms with my S&M orientation, and so I posted to an Internet message board about how "illicit" desire was messing up my life. Soon, I received an email from a guy in my area. He accurately guessed the cause of my anxieties ("either you want some BDSM play, or you maybe want to add other partners into a relationship") and offered to fulfill all my wicked, dirty lusts. In fairness, the guy actually referred to himself as creepy during our text-only conversation -- but I still feel guilty that when I told the story to my friends, we all referred to him as "the creep."
I obviously had every right to turn down my Internet Lothario. Still, I shouldn't have called him a creep; all he was doing was being overt and honest about his desires, and he did it in a polite -- though straightforward -- way. If he'd emailed me with "Hey bitch, you obviously want me to come over and dominate you," then that would have been impolite and unpleasant. But he emailed me a quick and amusing introduction, then asked what I wanted. After a few rounds of banter, I called a halt, and he respected that. I think the word "creep" is too vague and prejudiced to mean anything anymore. But if I were willing to use the word, I'd say my Internet suitor was the opposite of a creep.
Although I've become more aware of it recently, I think I've always had the sense that men are particularly vulnerable to the judgment of “creep." Over a year ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the problems of masculinity, and in Part 3 I noted that -- unlike men -- "I can be explicit and overt about my sexuality without being viewed as a creep."
Of course, I could be labeled a slut, which could damage me quite badly. There's a reason I do all my most explicit writing under a pseudonym. We feminists often say that men's promiscuity is lauded while women's is stigmatized, and one point of this argument is purely linguistic: "stud" is a complimentary word for a promiscuous man, while "slut" is a hurtful word for a promiscuous woman. Besides, our culture hates sex, no matter who's doin' it -- even vanilla, consensual, heterosexual, private sex between cute white married adults is hard for some folks to acknowledge!
But 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.
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.
Feminist blogger Thomas Millar writes, "The common understanding of male sexuality is a stereotype, an ultra-narrow group of desires and activities oriented around penis-in-vagina sex, anal intercourse and blowjobs; oriented around cissexual [i.e., non-trans] women partners having certain very narrow groups of physical characteristics.” Men are supposed to be insatiable only within those 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.
Worse, men who talk a lot about their sexuality, or who make any slightly unusual move (like sending a friendly proposition over the Internet), can run afoul of the pervasive tropes around male sexuality: that it's inherently aggressive, toxic and unwanted.
Under these circumstances, mere semi-explicit conversations become fraught territory. A male, S&M-oriented friend of mine told me about a girl he once spoke to while volunteering at a large feminist organization. She started a conversation about how she was coming to terms with her queer identity; she no longer wanted to have sex with men, but with women. He said he could relate, and described his feelings about coming into his S&M identity. The next day, he got a call from the intern coordinator telling him to get back in the closet. "Turns out what I thought was discussing who I was, came across as hinting that she should participate," says my friend. "The thought never crossed my mind -- she was, after all, telling me that she didn't want to have sex with men. But the cultural constructs around the conversation intervened between what I was saying and what she was hearing."
As one masculinity thread commenter named Tim observes: "The only way for a guy to guarantee that he won’t be called 'creepy' is to suppress entirely his sexuality, just like a woman can escape being called a slut by suppressing hers."
Another commenter, Sam, notes that it's often difficult for men to "realize that being sexually confident and assertive is not tied to politics," and that some men feel so much anxiety they hire experts to coach them through just asking a strange woman where to find Internet access.
These anti-male stereotypes have an incredibly broad effect, and not just among individuals. Calls to censor porn, for example, are influenced not only by extreme claims that porn access increases rape (it doesn't) but by feelings that mainstream porn expresses an unacceptable form of male sexuality.
It's certainly true that the kind of sex represented in mainstream porn isn't for everybody, which is why there are lots of other kinds of porn out there (including feminist porn). However, I'm reluctant to condemn any kind of consensual sex in itself, including consensual sex as represented in mainstream porn. Plus, as commenter iamcuriousblue claims, many condemnations of mainstream porn incorporate a "view of masculinity itself as inherently hostile and dangerous" and a tacit claim that male sexuality "needs to be kept on a short leash, where men’s viewing of violent or pornographic media is restricted, either through community pressure or state action, lest the dumb beast of a man get the wrong ideas."
If we're worried about people learning the wrong things from mainstream porn, then we should be giving everyone unflinchingly detailed sex education so that everyone understands just how limited mainstream porn is. Men aren't dumb beasts -- no more than women are wilting flowers -- and stereotypes are easily defeated by a complete picture of the world.
I've got three suggestions for how we can all start taking down awful conceptions of male sexuality -- and the word "creep" with them.
1) Sam summed it up best: "Accept male desire, and accept men's word when they talk about it."
Like most people, men want sex, and that's not a bad thing. Like everyone, men deserve to feel as though their sexuality is hot, awesome, delicious, valuable, and can be pleasurable for all parties in a consensual situation. Just as women shouldn't have to feel exploited when they have consensual sex, men shouldn't have to feel like they're exploiting someone when they have consensual sex. Just as more and more space is being made for forthright discussion of female sexuality, more and more space should be made for forthright discussion of male sexuality.
Of course there are inappropriate ways for men to express their desire, just as there are inappropriate ways for women to express their desire. For example, it's not okay for people of any sex to continue hitting on someone after that person has clearly asked them to stop. It's not okay for people in a position of power, like employers or clients, to use their position to harass or sexually intimidate people under their authority.
But these situations are a far cry from creating more dialogue in appropriate places -- like gender studies classes or blogs -- about male sexuality. They're also a far cry from giving men like my S&M friend the benefit of the doubt when they join conversations about desire.
2) "Male sexuality should be approached from the concept of pleasure rather than accomplishment," writes machina, a blog commenter.
Men are under so much pressure to get busy all the time that even when they're having sex, their own pleasure may be less central than meeting the stereotype of how dudes are supposed to get laid. For some men, the stereotypes do kinda represent their desires; for some, the stereotypes don't work at all. A man who's the top partner in anal sex with his girlfriend might be scoring big according to popular consensus ... but if what he really craves is for her to peg him with a strap-on, then he's not actually scoring at all. Even a guy who contentedly loves anal sex might have the chance at mind-blowing sexual paradise if he decided to risk something new, to think outside the box.
Linking sex to accomplishment rather than pleasure also leads to some men caring more about getting it done than their partners' consent. It's obvious that the "I can smell your pussy" guy, for example, was more concerned with making a show than having a mutually hot experience.
3) Which brings me to my last thought: Let's all discourage sexuality that's actually predatory or non-consensual.
Obviously, most people aren't rapists, and as HughRistik says: "I don’t think an individual man deserves to feel that his sexuality is toxic merely because he is a man and other men have displayed their sexuality in toxic ways." But assault and harassment are real problems, causing real anxieties.
It's incumbent upon all of us to discourage that kind of thing when we see or hear about it, no matter who it comes from. It's also incumbent upon us to honor each others' boundaries. But this is not a question of limiting or repressing male sexuality, and it shouldn't be framed that way. It should be framed entirely as a question of consent, communication and respect.
Thanks so much to all the commenters who have participated in my sprawling manliness threads: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and The Followup. Particular thanks to those who have stuck with The Followup, which has over 1,200 comments and is still evolving!