Archive for the ‘Sexuality’ category

I can make you a man, too, (Not) the Charles Atlas way.

February 22, 2010

The title above refers to a famous series of fitness and bodybuilding advertisements from the 1940’s & 50’s. The not so subtle suggestion in these ads, and many male-targeted ads and products since, is that masculine identity primarily about being strong, about having power, often masculinity is seen as something literally embodied. But that’s not the case; masculine identity is so very much more than what can be seen, about so much more than expressions of power and dominance. And it cannot be bought from the back of a magazine. It is not the working and developing of the body that is important in terms of male identity, but rather the process of developing a healthy and respectful sense of masculine identity. That process is what I’d like to write a little bit about. In particular about how masculine and sexual identities are formed and developed. From the outset I can tell you this is going to be a bit tricky – because personal identity is (obviously) personal, and variable. I can’t really tell you, (nor, for that matter, can anyone else) tell you that A+B+C will make you a better person, or that D+E is a “good” masculinity. That’s stuff you’ve got to work out for yourselves.  Having said that you have to work it out for yourself, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a whole lot of people out there trying to tell you in various ways what your masculinity should be and what it is to be a man.

Having said that, I’m going to spend a fair bit of time in the next couple of hundred words making various suggestions and judgments as to what I think a healthy and positive understanding and expression of masculinity and masculine sexuality can be. That’s OK though, because I think a big part of the challenge, for all people in all things, is to work out, from all the numerous sources and people telling you what your sexuality or masculinity “should” be, who to listen to and who to keep at arm’s length (or even further). Popularly and traditionally these role models are family of some sort, or sporting coaches, teachers, community figures, etc. Broadly speaking when someone says “male role model” or “mentor” I (and I doubt I’m alone here) tend to think of individuals with personal relationships with younger men, and a role with some influence or authority. I think that these, actual and personal relationships are the most influential in terms of shaping ideas about masculine identity, but “masculine role model” encompasses so much more than this quite small sphere of personal influence; celebrities and other highly visible public figures are an obvious and hugely important example. These public figures are highly problematic, as more often than not, the coverage and representation of their masculinity is negative, harmful and disrespectful.

In my experience, when someone in your life, or something you see, or read, (or whatever) makes you feel good about your sense of self, your masculinity, or your sexuality, these are the people and resources you want around you. And not just make you feel good or comfortable about your masculine identity, but listens to you and respects what you have to say. One other thing that I think is really important about understanding what it means to be a man, is not to only value the opinions of other men. I think this bit is really important, and can’t stress it enough. (I thought about putting it in ALL CAPS, but I didn’t, so pay attention to this bit). I’m not saying this because women are excluded from articulating what masculinity is, or that their views are less valid (or indeed less problematic) – but because in terms of people who are important in forming understandings of masculinity, women tend to be overlooked (it’s all football coaches and uncles, remember). Some of my most valuable learnings and experiences about my own masculinity have come from women around me, from listening to and engaging with women, and most importantly, respecting their opinions as to what is important in masculinity. Just because women may not live a masculine identity, doesn’t mean that what they think about masculinity and male sexuality isn’t as important (and I’d say, often more important) than what other guys have to say.

Another big revelation for me in terms of my masculinity and sexuality was to come to the realisation that my masculinity and my sexual identity are not the same as yours. And that’s OK. For men and women, there is a HUGE amount of cultural and social pressure to conform to a particular understanding of gender identity, and indeed a sexual identity. In my own experiences, the pressure to ‘fit’ a particular model of masculine expression is particularly strong, especially because to a large extent, ideas of manhood and masculine expression don’t allow for an extensive emotional vocabulary. Working outside the common and stereotypical framework of male emotional expression (which often amounts to a simple equation of emotion/vulnerability = weakness = unmasculine) can be hard, your choices and actions are often more visible, and (sadly I think) unusual. It requires a good sense of self, or self-confidence to visibly articulate a masculinity that does not conform to the norm. And for me at least, a large part of developing a sense of masculinity was not just the value judgments and choices I made, but rather the (somewhat) public and visible acting upon those choices. I guess what I’m saying here can be summarized with, “Walking the Walk being just as important as talking the talk”

While I’ve mainly been talking about masculinity and masculine identity here, what I’ve said applies just as much to developing sexuality, and healthy sexual expression. And because sometimes it can be difficult to talk to others openly about sexual identity, expression and practices (Yet another demonstration of how limiting traditional understandings of  masculinity can be in terms of allowing emotional expression) a lot of our information and formative concepts as to what constitutes sexual identity and expression, comes from broader culture and society. To me (and hopefully to any reader who gives Scarleteen more than a passing glance), popular culture as a dominant force in the creation of any ones sexual identity is a really worrying thing, for many reasons. I’ll only talk about one real example for now, but as far as examples go it’s a biggie. Pornography, is pretty prevalent in many parts of the world (certainly where I am in Australia). I’m not just talking about the availability of actual pornographic material (which, to anyone with the internet, is freely accessible), but also the cultural and social influence of pornography; the style and language of mainstream pornography is on TV, print media, etc. While I’d normally be all for a highly visible language of sexual expression, the type of sexuality epitomised by mainstream pornography has its problem, and I don’t believe that it promotes an understanding of healthy, equal sexuality or sexual expression. Mainstream porn culture (which shouldn’t be seen as representative of all pornography, by any means) all too often shows sexual practices and sexuality in general which is not based on mutual pleasure or desire, which denigrate women, is privileges heterosexuality and is far removed from the reality of actual sexual practices. Aside from all else that is problematic with the prevalence of these attitudes, this sort of porn, and the sexuality performed within it, should not be seen as the norm, to which your personal sexuality should be compared against or modelled upon.

So, that’s (in a long-winded and rambling kinda way) what I think about what they call in the movies “becoming a man” – I hope it was instructive in some way. If I had to sum it up in 25 words or less: Listen to people who make you feel comfortable about yourself, and you don’t have to do or believe something just because others do.

 (NB – This is the second in a series of cross posts at Scarleteen , and it has been written with that websaites audience in mind)


Reading: A new Blog.

January 29, 2010

After a month of reasonable quiet on the Critical Masculinities front, I’m getting it all out now. Getting it all out segues nicely to the very new blog I’ve been reading: Feminism. Art. Porn. Sex. 

This blog is by my actual real life friend Nio, who is a talented arty type and general all round nice person. She’s new to this type of blogging but what is up there so far ticks all the right boxes for me.

So check it out.

Male Needs.

January 29, 2010

(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.