Male sexuality is intensely under attack, in the increasingly vitriolic social dialogue related to pornography. Though women watch and make pornography, most of the current debates focus on aspects of masculine sexual behaviors. These behaviors include masturbation, use of pornography, prostitutes or sexual entertainment like strip clubs. Promiscuity, sex without commitment, and use of sex to manage stress or tension are all things that are frequently a part of male sexuality, whether we like it or not. But, male sexuality is not a disease, not a public health crisis, it is not evil, and it does not overpower men’s lives or choices. Shaming men for these behaviors isolates men, and ignores powerful, important and healthy aspects of masculinity.
There is a common perception of male sexuality as intrinsically selfish, overly focused on “scoring” and sexual conquests, on anonymous, “soulless” sex, and on the outward manifestations of virility. But there are other, oft neglected sides of male eroticism. Straight men are far more focused upon women’s needs, and upon closeness with women, than we give them credit for. Nancy Friday wrote that “Men’s love of women is often greater than their love of self.” Men give up friends and male camaraderie and accept a life of economic support of women, even leading up to an earlier death, all in order to be with women. More than half of all men describe that their best sexual encounters came when they “gave a woman physical pleasure beyond her dreams.” Men redirect their selfishness away from their own satisfaction, and toward a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, by giving sexual satisfaction. Male sexuality often involves an intense focus on the needs of their partners, and men gain great pleasure, even a strong sense of manliness, from giving their lover sexual pleasure.
In fact, men’s desire to sexually satisfy their partners comes at the price of their own satisfaction. When a man is unable to make his partner orgasm, many men report incredible frustration, disappointment, and self-doubt. Women even complain that men put so much pressure and intent upon helping the woman achieve orgasm that the act ceases to be pleasurable and starts to feel more like childbirth. In such cases, women fake orgasms, not for themselves, but to satisfy their partner’s needs. Until a woman has an orgasm, a man doesn’t think he’s done his job, and his masculinity hangs in the balance.
Men are taught from a young age that they must be sexually competent and sexually powerful with exaggerated and impossible ideals. Surveys of sex in America find that, compared to women, men are far more insecure and anxious about their sexual performance. Nearly 30 percent of men fear that they ejaculate too soon, most men sometimes experience erectile dysfunction connected to anxiety, and one man in every six reports significant worries about his sexual abilities to satisfy his partner. These are huge burdens that men carry, and are just one reason why many men pursue other forms of sex such as masturbation to pornography.
Compared to women, men actually experience greater pain and psychological disruption from the ups and downs of romantic relationships. Not only do the negative aspects of a romantic relationship hurt men more than women, but the positive aspects and benefits of that relationship have greater impact upon the man than the woman. Because women are better able to access outside support from friends and family, they often fare better than men. Men are often isolated and burdened with the expectation that they shouldn’t feel pain, or if they do, they must suffer alone.
For men, physical affection and sex is one of the main ways we feel loved, accepted, and regarded. For many men, it is only through physical love that we can voice tenderness and express our desire for togetherness and physical bonding. Only in sex can we let down boundaries and drop our armor enough to be emotionally vulnerable.
Sex plays a greater role in the lives of men as a form of acceptance and mutual regard than it does for women. Women touch each other all the time, with hugs, holding hands, closer body contact, and smaller “personal space.” Men shake hands. Really good friends might, at best, punch each other in a loving way, do a careful “man hug,” or even swat each other’s buttocks, if it’s during an approved masculine sporting event. (Many homosexual men experience this differently, when they come out and are part of the LGBTQ community) So the body-to-body contact that sex offers feeds an appetite, a craving, one that is often starved near to death in men.
Male sexuality is portrayed as something that men must guard against, and it is often described as though it is a demonic force, lurking within our souls, which must be constrained, feared and even rejected. Men are portrayed as powerless to control themselves, in the face of sexual arousal that is too strong. Men are painted as weak, harmed and warped by sexual experiences such as pornography. As a result, men are told to be ashamed of the sexual desires that society has called unhealthy, and told to forego those condemned sexual interests. But an essential part of man is lost when we encourage men to split themselves from their sexuality.
Unfortunately, as we teach men to be men, to understand, accept, and express their masculinity, we rarely attend adequately to the loving, nurturing, and amorous side of men. The most positive way that society and media currently portray male sexuality is when it is depicted as bumbling and stupid-making, a force that turns men into fools, easily led by our penises. But more often, male sexuality is depicted as a force that hovers just on the edge of rape, rage and destruction.
What is necessary for a healthy man, for complete masculinity, is the integration, consolidation, and incorporation of ALL the varied aspects of our sexuality. When we try to externalize our desires for love and sex, excising them from ourselves as something external and dangerous, we run the real risk of creating men without compassion, without tenderness, and without the ability to nurture. It is easy to suggest that what we are trying to excise are the base, primitive parts of men’s eroticism, those desires to rape, dominate, and satisfy oneself selfishly. But in truth, those desires, as frightening as they can be, are integrally linked to male emotional desires for safety, acceptance, protection of others, and belonging.
Those things that make men admired and respected—their strength, courage, independence, and assertiveness—are the same things which contribute to the differences in male and female sexuality. By condemning these characteristics, we run the real and frightening risk of abolishing qualities that are essential to healthy masculinity.
A healthy sexual male is one who accepts and understands his erotic and sexual desires, along with his drive for success, dominance (and often submission as well) and excellence. Healthy sexual choices come from internal acceptance and awareness, not rejection and shame. Research has shown that all men have the ability to exercise control over their levels of sexual arousal and sexual behavior, but no men can fully suppress their sexual desire. Healthy men can be men who go to strip clubs, visit prostitutes and watch pornography. They are men who make conscious sexual choices, accepting the consequences of their actions.
We need to begin encouraging personal integrity, responsibility, self-awareness and respect, both for oneself and one’s sexual partner(s). This is, I think, the goal for all men – to make their sexual choices an integrated part of who they are, and the kind of man they desire to be. Unfortunately, as long as we continue to shame and condemn men in general, and for specific sexual acts such as watching porn, we are merely isolating men. Further, we are exacerbating the problem, because removing porn or shaming men for their desires or fantasies, does not teach men how to be a sexually healthy man.