Male Needs.

(Note: This is the first in a series of posts I wrote for young adult sex ed and resource site Scarleteen – you should totally go there and check it out)

This is the first time I’m writing explicitly about issues around sex and sexuality, and as per usual, I’m writing in a gender-focussed way – specifically men and masculinity. I’m having a bit of a look at how understandings of masculinity impact on sexual identity, expression and practice.

Talk, images & representations of men and sex are (without a shadow of exaggeration) EVERYWHERE in culture and society, (at least the English speaking cultures I’m familiar with). These representations are on TV, film, print media, music, billboards, books, spam folders, in fact pretty much the entire internet, video games, etc. We’re all pretty aware of those representations, and even quite savvy and critical about some of these representations. Representations of male sexuality are more than just these explicit and often quite twentieth century forms of representation. Other forms may occur in interaction and conversation (or the absence of) with friends, family, casual acquaintances, people we meet in bars, politicians, community leaders, etc.  In general we are less aware of this sort of representation as it’s more casual, more personalised and more intimate, and because of this, more effective in influencing our ideas and understandings of sex and sexuality.

One recurring and dominant theme in our understanding of male sexual behaviour is the idea of the male “need” for sex. The common narrative for this concept of men’s needs is one based on some sort of biological imperative, be that a study about some fundamental wiring in a male brain (or genitals) that requires men to regularly engage in sexual intercourse to maintain physical wellbeing, intimate relationships and a healthy sense of self. Or perhaps it is some essential part of the male brain, left over from our ancient forefathers – for whom constant procreation ensured the survival of the familial line, if not the entire species. If you look around, this sort of story is very common, from relationship and sex advice columns, to scientific journals, to the average persons understanding around male sexuality.

Now, it should be pointed out very clearly that I am by no means a scientist, nor even am I particularly well educated on scientific language and discourse, but what strikes me again and again is the frequency with which cultural understandings of sexuality, are reinforced and legitimised through this language of science. Discussions around physiological and psychological meanings of male sexual practices are conflated into discussions that relate to the culturally embedded ideas and concepts around masculinity. One example of this often almost imperceptible segue from science to culture is around discussions about gendered difference in arousal patterns. I’ll paraphrase the narrative this conversation often takes: “Because of differences in brain make up, males get aroused much quicker than females and male arousal is triggered primarily by visual material, whereas female arousal takes longer and requires multiple sensual stimulations.” Now already in this example we can see cultural understandings of gender creeping in. In the context of arousal (and in many other contexts) masculinity is seen as active and direct, while femininity is characterized as passive. Males get aroused, females are dependent on a number of environmental facets for their arousal. In this sort of narrative female arousal is often seen as a response to male arousal. As in man becomes aroused, proceeds to make woman aroused. This type of scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation of arousal as gendered reinforces the dominant social and cultural understandings of gender roles. Talk around male sexual “needs” also feeds into this discussion, in that it prioritises male sexuality over female sexuality, through the legitimising language of science.

The medical condition with an evocative name and a whole heap of extra cultural baggage – “Blue Balls” is another good example of how medicine being used to reinforce dominant cultural ideas. Now at this point I think I should point out again that I have no medical expertise, but I do have access to the internet (which, while no substitute for the real thing is very handy). Turns out, blue balls is more properly known as vascocongestion, (a swelling of tissue leading to increased pressure) specifically in the genital area, which can cause discomfort. That’s about it; it isn’t life threatening or anything like that. And, here’s the bit that surprised me – women can get it as well (though obviously the nomenclature is less apt). I’d be willing to bet that while most readers would have heard the term “blue balls” and would have some level of understanding of what it meant, that it can effect women would be a surprise to most of you. Anecdotal evidence and a quick search of “blue balls” on the Scarleteen message boards suggests that the medical condition of blue balls is actually used by males as a way to pressure partners into sex, a desire given weight and gravity through a medical condition. Using a condition like blue balls to pressure your partner into sex is one clear and explicit example of how science and medicine are part of a broader social and cultural understanding of male sexuality and sexual practice. How we understand blue balls also highlights the close (almost inseparable) links, socially and culturally between three distinct things; erection, ejaculation & orgasm. That the connection between these three things has become so normalised, that it is (I would say) odd to think about an erect penis without ejaculation further demonstrates the great influence of cultural and social discussions around what constitutes ‘ normal’ sexual behaviour or practice.

Men don’t need sex. Not in the sense that there is some essential difference between men and women that requires men to engage in partnered sexual acts with greater frequency, for fear of dire results. Any discussion along this vein, from partners, peers or the broader community is continuing a much longer discussion which privileges male sexual desire over female, and one that perpetuates problematic gender stereotypes. Representing male sexual expression and practice as coming from a place of ‘need’ is to represent heterosexual sexual practices where the male participant is active, and primarily interested in his own sexual requirements (or “ needs”), relegating the female participant to a passive role. Another way of describing this understanding of sexual practices would be that (hetero)sexual intercourse is where the man acts upon the woman, and to deny the legitimacy of female desire and sexual expression. This is not  an understanding of sexuality or sexual practice that I like, or indeed think is good. For me sexuality and sexual practices are expressions and acts of desire and of intimacy building, shared equitably and respectfully. The conversations we have about sex should be had in these terms, we need to remove the divisive and harmful language centered around male needs from our discussions of sexuality, especially male sexuality.

Explore posts in the same categories: gender, Masculinity, Sex, Sexuality

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10 Comments on “Male Needs.”

  1. Nio Says:

    Oh hell yes. This is a wonderfully articulate, totally awesome article.

    I’m forever getting frustrated by the way both the media and people tend to use half baked scientific theories about evolution and our monkey relatives to explain and justify everything about our sexuality. While these factors obviously are an influence, social and environmental factors can’t just be ignored.

    There’s a sex educator online who I like, Dr Petra Boynton, who blogs a bit about the way media misinterprets scientific data to reinforce tired stereotypes about sexuality: You should check her out if you get a chance.

    Also, I am so sick of hearing “men are more visual”, as it makes women’s enjoyment of visual stimuli invisible. Besides, as far as I can tell it’s been debunked, or at least questioned;

    Finally, I had no idea that women got blue balls but it makes total sense, in fact I think I can vouch for it!

    Isn’t it funny how much time is spend discussing differences between men and women as if they was a huge void between us, maybe we should spend more time discussing the similarities.

  2. Gabriel Faith Says:

    This type of scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation of arousal as gendered reinforces the dominant social and cultural understandings of gender roles.

    *applauds* Yes, and (if I may) HELL yes. I’m always thrilled to see people willing to deconstruct the dominant discourse around (especially male) sexuality, when so often its falsehoods and half-truths are just taken for granted.

    (Hi, I also wanted to let you know that I’m following you. I mean your blog. Obviously.)


  3. Blissed Says:

    I’m a guy and not all but many men pretend they’re penis has never let them down and that they’re up for sex at any time. So this pretence is just eccepted as fact because the female experience that this is false and that we get times when we’re in the mood and times when we’re not, isn’t regarded or noted, and female desire isn’t regarded much or noted either yet if a woman desires you and keeps looking at you that is far sexier than a one way admaration. So we should overtly value that desire because we already put a price on it when you have to pay a call girl as much as a lawyer. I couldn’t work the corners and make that 🙂 ha ha Life is so much happier when people respect each others sexuality and sexual choices.

  4. Tristan Says:

    FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. Please pick up a science textbook. I really hate it how you cultural studies people act as if it’s totally easy to deconstruct science that you know nothing about. But news flash: there is actually more to it than the ostensible! Stop drawing broad, extreme conclusions about things unless you’re actually willing to learn something about it. Otherwise you’re just talking out your ass, like any third rate tabloid columnist.

    • Tristan,

      First of all, thanks for commenting. But I gotta admit that aside from your general dislike of cultural criticisms I’m not quite sure what your specific objection is to my piece. Note that I explicitly stated that I was not talking about the validity of science (which I am the first to admit isn’t an area of familiarity), or even deconstructing the science itself, but rather how science and scientific language is used to reinforce cultural and social conventions. So really, I’m deconstructing culture, and I would strongly assert that my conclusion is not an “extreme” one.

      I have read the odd science text book, and I can’t recall where it said that human males needed partnered sexual activity to maintain their health. If you have the time or inclination, please feel free to provide me with some specific examples, and I’d be happy to learn. And I sincerely hope you got something valuable or productive out of the time spent reading this.

      • Tristan Says:

        “Using a condition like blue balls to pressure your partner into sex is one clear and explicit example of how science and medicine are part of a broader social and cultural understanding of male sexuality and sexual practice”

        While the whole post suffers from lack of structure and a weird rambling tone that lend a fairly incomprehensible air to it all, I think this quote fairly well sums up the confused way you approach the question of science. That is, you appear to be incapable of differentiating between science and non-science. While sometimes the edges are blurry I’ll admit, the fact that somebody told their girlfriend they needed sex because they had blue balls does not demonstrate that science just reinforces cultural stereotypes. It shows that people (e.g. you) who misunderstand it sometimes misrepresent it.

        I never claimed that science proved males (or females) ‘need’ sex. Mainstream science has never claimed that. The rational response to people misusing science to coerce people isn’t to reduce the amount of scientific discourse in discussions about sexuality, but to increase it. And increase education about it. And reduce half-baked unscientific ‘critiques’ like the one you wrote.

  5. Benny Says:

    In general, I agree with your sentiments but I am disturbed by the negative manner in which you express them. Allow me to explain.

    1) As a man who suffers from blueballs more than the average man, I can say that it is indeed NOT life-threatening. More than that, in my case, it has been caused more by nervousness than by “a need for sex.”

    The fact that men continue to use it as an excuse to ask a woman to have sex does not bother me; the fact that a woman might actually pleasure her man out of a fear of some scientific phenomenon rather than out of affection for the man is what bothers me.

    And, what bothers me more than that is that this issue is constantly framed as a “men are jerks for lying and saying they need it,” rather than “women can and should stand up for themselves when men give psuedoscientific reasons that a woman should stimulate their penis.”

    There’s a much greater chance that a woman will read an article and think to herself, “Yeah, fuck that guy, why do I keep sucking his dick whenever he asks me to? Next time I won’t,” and that the man will subsequently learn that he can’t push women around like that, than there is a chance that a man will read an article and think to himself, “Oh wow, I didn’t know that I was a jerk until I read this article. I’m going to stop asking girls to suck my dick.” I believe that framing it in terms in which women are presented as victims does little to encourage women to stand up for themselves.

    2) Yes, men don’t need sex. But they still behave as if they do. Why is that?
    Horny men read articles like this and feel anger at “feminists” or guilt at wanting to respect women but continuing to want sex.
    The fact is, many men want sex because it gives them validation from society. If we reframe this issue as, “A man needs a vagina like a fish needs a bicycle,” rather than, “Men don’t need sex, so they should stop being assholes,” I really believe that more men will change.

  6. Wes Says:

    Personally speaking, I’m a little bit confused by the idea that anyone could use blue balls as an excuse for needing sex. Blue balls doesn’t just happen, usually – it’s the result of prolonged arousal over a series of consecutive hours. It’s not really the kind of situation that would normally just come up in your day-to-day activities: walking to the store to get milk, riding the bus to work, sitting at your desk and chatting to a colleague, all the time sporting a die-hard erection. Most people’s lives don’t work that way. You can’t get blue balls just from not having sex for an extended period of time – the medical term for that is ‘frustrated & horny’. Blue balls is from being hard for ages with no pay-off.

    I’m also a little confused by why having blue balls (let’s say that you did happen to be someone who walks around town for 6 hours rubbing their cock) would necessarily mean that only sex with a woman can solve the problem? Are there legions of men without arms going around coercing their girlfriends this way? Have we been talking about sexual discourse in the amputee community without me realizing it?

    I mean, I’m sure this excuse is used by many men for sex (primarily by men who don’t know what “blue balls” actually is, I’m guessing). But the obvious answer to me is simply “Go wank yourself off then.”

    Personally, I’m not sure that men trying to get their partners to have sex with them is a significant problem. That’s sort of what a relationship should be, I think – both partners trying to have sex with the other. Everybody wins.

    I think that men trying to get their partners to have bad sex that is all one-way and doesn’t result in orgasm for both parties is probably a bigger issue.

    • All valid points Wes, consider though the audience at Scarleteen for whom I wrote this. Not everyone has sexual relationships based on equality and open communication, and pressuring someone for sex who may not be comfortable with it (for whatever reason) is, as they say, Not Cool.

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