Man to Man: On Sex, Masculinity, and Being Yourself

People of all genders get sent a ton of confusing messages around sex⁠ . That's certainly true for men. These pressures — like pressure to be a “real man” by experiencing sex in one specific way — can look different for different guys, and vary a lot depending on culture and community. What most have in common, though, is that they make it hard to develop a healthy relationship⁠ to masculinity, and to seek out⁠ what you, as an individual, want and need from sex and relationships. As a transgender⁠ man, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a man in a world that tells us masculinity can only look one way. When it comes to sex, I know that the only “right” way to experience your sexuality is the way that works best for you and any partner⁠ (s) involved. But it can be harder to remember that when the world around us makes so many assignments and assumptions about what sex and men “should” be like. These assumptions hurt all of us — men, women, nonbinary⁠ people — and it's important that we learn to recognize and name them, and to challenge them in our everyday lives.

What’s Expected of Us

Before we can even walk or talk, we all start receiving messages about gender⁠ from many different sources. Sometimes these messages are told to us directly — like when a parent says that “boys don't cry” or “boys will be boys” — and sometimes we receive them indirectly, through observing others or noticing other people's reactions to our own behavior. Most of what we see in the media conveys strict definitions of masculinity, and structures like our schools and the places we get medical care can reinforce these messages in our daily lives. This has very real effects: a 2018 study on teenagers’ attitudes about gender showed that seven out of ten boys ages 10-19 felt pressure to be physically strong; one in three thought that society expects boys to hide our feelings when we feel sad or scared. When it came to sex, about four out of ten heterosexual⁠ boys ages 14-19 said they felt pressure to “hook up with” a girl, and about one in three said they felt pressure to join in when their friends talked about girls in a sexual⁠ way. Now, there's nothing wrong with having sex, and there’s definitely nothing wrong with talking about it! But problems come up when anyone feels like they have to be having sex they don’t want to have, or like they’re only valued for being able to have sex with people. And while everyone deserves to be able to talk about sex openly and honestly, guys often feel pressured to talk about women in ways that reduce them to their bodies or treat them as less than human. This can be true even for gay⁠ men, trans men, and other men marginalized for their LGBTQ⁠ + identities.

The flip side of this pressure, which is just as harmful, is the expectation that guys and our bodies are always up for and pursuing sex, which can leave little room for men to hold boundaries or identify our own desires. Sometimes this shows up in the frequent denial of men and boys’ experiences of abuse⁠ , even though research shows that at least 1 in 6 men has experienced sexual abuse or assault, and at least 1 in 9 have experienced severe intimate partner violence. Sometimes people think that because you’re a guy, you must have “wanted it” — or that women can’t abuse men, or abuse can’t happen in gay and queer⁠ relationships. But none of this is true, and it’s really important that we support all survivors in our lives, and that we’re able to seek help if something like this happens to us.

There are other, subtler ways that the idea of men as “pursuers” shows up in people’s expectations for heterosexual relationships.

You may've noticed by now that guys are expected to go after women we’re interested in, and women are expected to respond, but not initiate. Guys are expected to pay for dates or to “provide” for their girlfriends and wives, which can be a lot of pressure for someone, especially when you’re still figuring out your own life and how to provide for yourself. This is a really old-fashioned standard, and a highly transactional way of looking at relationships, but people still go by it — and it can be particularly hard when someone you’re dating or are interested in expects you to act this way. Unfortunately, sometimes women can be the ones promoting these kinds of gender stereotypes, which isn’t always talked about. But it’s important to remember that these standards harm women just as much as they harm men (and that they definitely harm people who don’t identify as either). Just like it’s unfair to be expected to have to bankroll all your interactions with women, it feels really awful to be treated like you owe men whatever they want for that. When we keep in mind that these pressures are a two way street, it’s easier to have empathy for each other’s experiences and treat each other in ways that make us freer.

Self-Esteem, Attractiveness and Sex

Another challenging part of the pressure to pursue sex is learning how to navigate when somebody doesn’t want the same things you’re looking for.

Because sex is such a big part of our culture’s expectations for men, people can sometimes act in ways that make it seem like our worth is defined by who we’re having sex with and whether our attractions are reciprocated. This can really raise the stakes for initiating sex with somebody or asking somebody out, since it can start feeling like a reflection on who you are as a man, rather than just the individual desires of the person who you asked. This feels terrible when we’re experiencing it and puts an unfair burden on the people we’re interested in by making them responsible for managing our reactions to their response. It takes a lot of vulnerability to put yourself out there, and it’s also really hard to navigate someone else’s interest in the face of the social pressures on both of you. Saying no to something a man wants from you can be uncomfortable, scary, or even unsafe, especially for women. So, regardless of the gender(s) you’re attracted to, when you’re expressing interest in somebody it’s important to make space for them to respond in whatever way is most true to what they want and need. Sometimes that will mean telling you no, and when that’s the case it’s always important that we respect that answer even if hard for us to hear.

That doesn't mean it's easy. People of all genders are taught that if someone's not attracted to us, or if we're not what the media shows as attractive, there must be something wrong with us, and with our masculinity. At the same time, as men we’re taught that we should be having sex, or even that we're owed sex, especially from women. This puts guys in a really challenging position-- if you’re “supposed” to be having sex, but aren’t finding anyone to have sex with, what exactly are you supposed to do, and how can you be a man?

Rejection does hurt, and it's healthy to let yourself feel those feelings. There's no one out there who's had every crush reciprocated, or gotten a yes to every sexual ask, which means that we all have to learn how to handle people who aren't interested in us or in the same things we want. This can be really hard, though, especially when it starts to feel like a pattern. Nobody finds everyone attractive, and everyone has different traits and characteristics that they're into, but there are definitely some attributes that get prized over others, as messed up as that is. I'm not going to lie and tell you that isn't happening- there are a lot of beauty standards out there getting pushed on us pretty much constantly, and those obviously have an effect on our searches for sex and love. A lot of the time, these are based on things that are totally out of our control (like our race, height, or trans status) and even when they're partially within our control (like weight, or how we dress), there can be a lot of barriers to changing these parts of who we are-- and frankly, we shouldn't have to! Of course we all want to present our best selves, but what that means to you should be based on what makes you feel good, not what somebody else thinks.

The expectations are totally unfair, as are the standards that affect who gets to be seen as desirable. It’s okay to be angry about this. Unfortunately, sometimes men will take that anger out on women instead of working to change the society that makes up these hurtful rules. This isn’t fair either, and it’s definitely not helpful; after all, women also face a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and women are also told that their worth as people depends on who’s attracted to them. (Nonbinary people aren’t immune to these pressures either, but what it looks like for them can vary based on their individual genders and experiences). Just like you’re not attracted to everyone you see, women have a right to decide who they’re attracted to, and whether or not they want to have sex based on that attraction. Sometimes unfair standards can shape women’s attractions — just like they do for ours — but the only way to fix that is by working together to change that. And it’s never okay to pressure or guilt someone into having sex with you, or to treat someone like they’re only worth your time if they’re sexually interested in you or what you want.

Of course, consent⁠ and respecting “no” is important for all people, not just straight men. I’ve been talking mostly about sex and relationships between men and women, and about cisgender⁠ men’s experiences, since that’s where these scripts are the most strongly defined. But pressures around sex are still present for guys who aren't straight and cis; they can just show up in different ways depending on your sexuality and gender history.

Trans Guys and Masculinity, Specifically

Being trans can make masculinity especially complicated. Trans guys face specific pressures and challenges that not all men face. To some degree, we’re making an active decision to live as men by transitioning, so it might seem like we have more freedom in our masculinities. But there are still plenty of expectations about how to do manhood that are pushed on and influence us, whether we like them or not. When cis men around us are talking about women’s bodies in disrespectful ways, bragging about how much sex they’re having, or complaining about not having sex, we can feel a lot of pressure to participate in order to be seen as one of the guys. Having been raised as girls, we’ve all had our own experiences of misogyny, which don’t even necessarily end when we transition⁠ . But living as trans men in a transphobic society often means facing even more pressure than cis men do, which is really hard to ignore even when you know how it’s harmful.

It’s also really hard not to define or measure the validity of our genders through who’s attracted to us — one of the things I’ve struggled most with in transition is a fear of rejection from both gay men and straight women because of my trans status. These feelings are really, really common! Just like cis men, we have to deal with the beauty standards that shape people’s attractions, which are often based on things like height and bone structure that most trans guys can’t really achieve. These standards can be especially challenging for trans men because of how hard we have to work to be seen as our genders, and how much less flexibility there can be in terms of how we do our masculinity. But it’s helpful to remember that we’re not alone-- cis men experience similar worries when it comes to this stuff, even if it’s not specific to their gender history. There are definitely people who are attracted to trans men (I promise!), and who will be into us as men, not despite our genders or because of some fetishized idea of who we are. And since fear of not being seen as a “real man” isn’t unique to trans guys, the steps we have to take to accept ourselves are pretty similar to the work cis men have to put in. I’ll talk a little more about what this process can look like in a bit.

Queerness and Masculinity

Another factor influencing how you experience sexuality as a man is sexual orientation⁠ . For both cis and trans men, the gender(s) you’re attracted to can affect how you’re expected to think and act about sex, and how you manage those expectations. Like straight men, sexual minority men (I mean men who are gay, bi, pan, queer, or another marginalized sexual identity⁠ ) can face pressure to be sexually active⁠ or to engage in specific kinds of sex. For these men — and anyone who’s not straight, really — this often shows up as doubt about our sexualities, especially when we’re younger. “How could you really know you’re gay,” people sometimes say, “if you haven’t had sex yet?” This is an example of homophobia⁠ , since straight people are never asked how they know they’re straight: it’s taken for granted that heterosexual attraction can exist outside of sexual behavior. Straight society acts like queer men’s attractions are uniquely or even aggressively sexual, which is used both to shame us for having sex and to challenge our identities if we aren’t. And feeling like you need to prove our sexualities through sex can hit us especially hard because, as men, we’re already under so much pressure to be having sex to begin with.

Sometimes sexual pressures can also come from within queer communities, both directly and through the kind of spaces and interactions that are available for LGBTQ+ people. Sexual minority men face different beauty standards from the ones straight men do, but they can be even more strongly felt, and just as harmful. The sex and relationships we’re having make up a big part of our sexual identities, so if other people aren’t attracted to us, that can start to feel like a threat to our identities and our membership to our communities, in addition to bringing up the usual insecurities. (This is very similar to what trans men face-- and of course, it’s even more present for trans men who are also sexual minorities.) But your identity is yours, and you belong in the LGBTQ+ community no matter who’s attracted to you (or who isn’t), who you’re dating (or not), or who you’re having sex with (or aren’t). As you get older, you’ll meet new and different people, some of whom may be attracted to you, and some of whom you may find attractive. But no matter what, there is a home for you here-- it’s just a matter of finding it.

Another challenge that sometimes comes up is that, historically, a lot of the community available to LGBTQ+ people has revolved around spaces to find sex partners and share sexual experiences. On the whole, this is a good thing — since we live in a world that's hostile to LGBTQ+ sexuality, it's incredibly important that all LGBTQ+ people have safe and affirming ways to express ourselves sexually. And overall, regardless of sexual orientation, wanted sex and sexuality are good things in general! But it's equally okay to not be ready for sex, to not want sex with a particular partner, or to not be interested in sex at all! And it’s equally valid to want to find community that isn’t linked up so strongly with sex. While sex is an important part of many men's identities, how you decide to relate to it is totally up to you. And it’s always okay to take some time to figure out what you want and need from sex, and to what degree (if any) you want it to be part of your experience. Luckily, nowadays there are more and more spaces available for LGBTQ+ people that make space for discovering identity outside of (or in addition to) sexuality, as well as spaces specifically dedicated to teenagers and young adults⁠ . But even with affirming community, it can still be hard to navigate sexuality and sexual pressures as an LGBTQ+ person in a cisgender, heterosexual world.

While our identities and experiences can make the pressures we’re facing look very different, we’re all learning how to navigate a lot of complicated standards and expectations, usually without much of a roadmap for how to do that. The good news is: you’re okay! It’s okay to not have sex, it’s okay to have a little sex, and it’s okay to have “a lot” of sex, whatever that means to you. This is true regardless of sexuality, and true whether you’re cis or trans. Sex is something you do with (at least) another person, so what’s most important is that everyone involved is comfortable and enjoying themselves. And whether you’re having sex doesn’t say anything about your value as a person, or whether your partner loves you, or whether you’re a “real man”.

Our culture tells us that our worth as men is defined by our ability to “get” sex, as if sex is a prize to be won. I’m here to tell you that’s not true. Only you can decide what makes your life meaningful, but you deserve to see the value in who you are and what you bring to the world. Sex can be an important part of your identity, but you deserve to figure that out on your terms, when you want and with who you want. It’s even okay if you don’t want to have sex at all! And if you are having sex, you’re allowed to decide what you want that to look like you. For example, if you want to have one kind of sex but not another, that’s totally fine — and is something you should talk about with any partner(s) you’re having sex with. What sex means for you (and for your masculinity) is also totally up to you! You don’t have to think about your sex life in the same way as the people around you if that framing doesn’t work for you. How we participate in, think about, and talk about sex is super personal, and only you can decide that for yourself.

Maybe you haven’t heard that before, or maybe people have told you it, but it just doesn’t feel real. It sometimes doesn't mean much to have someone like me tell you something when it feels like what the world shows us is so different. The media shows us an image of sex and relationships that is good at selling products, but not so good at meeting the needs of actual people. And because guys internalize this pressure, we then end up applying it to other men around us, sometimes without even realizing it. This can leave us feeling like we have to compete with other guys, and we can really end up hurting people in the process of trying to “keep up."

It’s Toxic

You may have heard people talking about something called “toxic masculinity.” What this phrase means is just what I've said here already: there are certain expectations placed on men that keep us from being our whole selves, and pressure us to act in ways that harm ourselves and others. People often talk about toxic masculinity in the context of violence against women and LGBTQ+ people; unfortunately, when men experience this pressure and don't have any way to cope with it or talk about it, they sometimes take their fear and anger out on other people in violent, scary ways. This doesn't mean that all men are violent, and in fact, the idea that men are inherently aggressive⁠ and dangerous is part of toxic masculinity. But what it does mean is that these individual acts of violence have deeper, social causes. And so it's not enough to just not do violent things-- we have to work to transform the social structures that lead to this kind of harm. This can only start by changing the way we think about ourselves, and then how we relate to one another. It also means working together to make changes in our communities and our world.

One of the ways we can help fight toxic masculinity, and learn to accept ourselves for who we are, is through changes in our everyday actions and words, even seemingly small ones.

A lot of what our society considers “normal” for guys is actually really harmful for anyone who doesn't perfectly conform to gender expectations — which is all of us! When we talk about women’s bodies in dehumanizing ways, make fun of another guy for not being “man enough”, or mock or exclude people who don’t conform to binary⁠ gender roles, we're hurting other people who, like just like us, are figuring out who they are in a system that makes that really hard. Instead, we can try making room for all of us to express our genders freely, by supporting one another and standing up for each other when these roles are pushed on us. I’ve found that in supporting other people’s expressions, and surrounding myself with people who do the same, I’m able to better learn to love and accept myself for who I am. As a young person, you can’t really change your family situation, and options for friends can be kind of limited. But there’s always room to make choices-- maybe this means joining a club that allows you to express yourself, or maybe it means talking with the people you already know about the kind of support you need, and challenging unfair gender standards when they come up. Once we learn that these expectations are out there, we can start conversations with people around us (and especially with other guys) about what it feels like to experience them, and help to make change in our communities and in our world.

Gender norms are really hard, but they become much easier to deal with when we learn that we’re not alone. When we can talk openly about the pressures we’re feeling, and realize that those pressures don’t have to control their lives, we can start figuring out ways to resist them. Not everyone will want to rethink the ways they’re looking at gender, and that’s okay; you can’t change everyone, and it’s not your job to change the world by yourself. But no matter who you are or where you come from, you deserve to live honestly and freely, without the pressure to live up to a standard that wasn’t made for you. We can do a lot of this for ourselves in our own lives, even if we’re not able to change the entire world right now. I absolutely think this is possible for you, and I believe we can build a world where it’s true for everyone.

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