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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-focused 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 well-being, 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 vascongestion, (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.
This piece also appears at my personal blog Critical Masculinities, which mainly consists of me writing about what masculinities mean in culture and society.