How a Holistic Vision of Male Sexuality Can Emerge from Our Toxic Culture
It’s a difficult and scary time to talk about male sexuality. The endless media stream of physical violence and rape cast a long shadow on our cultural landscape. We live in a time where a presidential candidate can brag about non consensual advances and slut shaming, and still be taken seriously.
This isn’t confined to less enlightened segments of the population; even in the most progressive communities there are incidents of rape, dosing and sexual violence. Is this the last gasp of a cultural relic crumbling in the light of transparency? Or is it the beginning of a long process of cultural realignment as puritans respond to decades of lost ground in the culture wars? Either way, as dialog, education and action explore the connection between sexuality and violence, between self-love and empathy, and between the need for explicit verbal consent and the lack of emotional intelligence, we arrive together at this critical point: What happens next? Do we react and respond to control and contain male sexuality? Or work together to explore and expand it?
It seems intuitive that a big part of this problem is tied to the strange relationship between, on the one hand, the limited view and cultural repression of male sexuality and, on the other, the caricature of male sexuality presented in the media. Trying to confine it through linguistic and legal legislation strikes me as both wrong and futile. While there’s a lot of interesting dialog around sexuality and identity happening in the LGBTG community, there’s not much conversation in the press that reaches the mainstream, straight male audience. And what’s missing and what makes it so difficult to enthusiastically drive towards a more expansive goal is that we lack a vision of a sexually whole straight male. The general response, rather, is to react defensively and attempt to ‘fix’ or contain male sexuality.
So it’s quite difficult to come out in this environment and expose all of the ways I like to masturbate, how often I like to masturbate, what turns me on, what I’m thinking about and feeling, etc. when the cultural chatter is telling me there’s something deeply flawed and potentially dangerous about the expression of my sexuality. But that’s exactly what needs to happen: straight men need to start talking about how narrow cultural definitions of ‘what it means to be a man’ are at the root of dysfunctional relationships with themselves, women and almost everyone else on almost every level.
Again, while women and the LGBTQ community have been working hard for years to create vocabulary, new social frameworks and social acceptance of a new image of their role in society, the straight male has been in this cryogenic cultural freeze and finds himself dazed, confused and threatened amidst the rapid cultural changes taking place around him. There is no clear and compelling model of the holistic sexual male for straight men, so it’s difficult for most men to talk about their sexuality in a comfortable and positive and vulnerable way. Where is the positive model of masculinity for today’s straight man? And more to the point, what would that model look like, anyway?
What Straight Men Can Learn From Gay Men
As usual, gay men are way out in front of everybody when it comes to incorporating an expansive sexual landscape under a unified identity as ‘gay men’, and the path to a holistic model for straight men might be similar to the one walked by those who fought so hard for gay rights.
Notes Carol Queen:
Gay men have the advantage of avoiding all the ‘opposite sex’ nonsense that pre-loads women and men to believe we can’t possibly understand each other. But I think the real advantage gay men have is that they need to come to terms with, and talk about, their sexuality. While homophobia has been eroded in many ways, no one comes into an LGBTQ identity thinking that they are just like heterosexuals. The larger society still doesn’t see gayness as normative, and so men who are gay really need to think about what it means to be gay, to be sexual, and they need to learn to discern who appropriate partners are. Straight men often behave as though anyone they desire is an appropriate partner–without seemingly giving much thought as to whether they are desired back by the objects of their (and this is sometimes putting it charitably) affection. Gay men have to be alert to the nuances of attraction and identity, and this has given them the skill and the permission to be sexual men. And fighting homophobia has meant that they have had to fight shame. Lots of heterosexual men aren’t even fully conscious about the ways shame may have occluded their sexual options and their gendered roles in the world. Also, straight men use the “you’re not a real man” thing against each other all the time. Gay men become inoculated to a degree, while heterosexual men often remain defensive about this, which further drives a wedge between them and women.’
There is a profound relationship between the narrow, rigid cultural boundaries around male sexuality and masculinity and the general violence and disfunction associated with male behavior in general — and male sexuality in particular. Most straight men are terrified by ‘difference’ and actively repress and subtly avoid behavior and thoughts that cross the well-defined lines of straight male identify in America.
While the explicit affects of repression manifest in violent behavior, the insidious cultural virus literally destroys the complex relationships between our bodies, our thoughts and our feelings that forge empathy. The ability to understand different perspective and experience require being able to place yourself — to imagine yourself — in those positions. But when even thoughts, let alone behavior and experience, threaten ones core identity, it is nearly impossible to imagine the experience of others. This leaves many men with only simple connective tissue to support a minimalistic view of masculinity within our basic cultural framework that defines ‘a man.’
As a straight man with a broad background in athletics, arts, academics and business, what I see is that most straight men suffer from a deep identity crisis caused by the vast repression of sexual and emotional experience that conflicts with our narrow definition of manhood. And the depths of these insecurities are increasingly manifest as the power structure of the hetero-centric, male world breaks down.
The call for a new definition of masculinity is nothing new, of course. Robert Bly (Iron John) and Sam Keen (Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man) were my generation’s attempts to find some model that balanced the romanticized macho stereotype, the new age woo-woo and the detached hipster. Both of those approaches, however, longed to regain some lost glory of manhood and seemed to place men and women in different worlds, as if the definition of manhood had to be achieved by removing any ‘feminine’ influence on the process.
My development as a confident, emotionally sound, empathetic person is intimately tied to my connection with women and the central role they played in my upbringing. So I not only reject any approach that requires some sort of social isolation, but my experience suggests that the more varied the influences are in our development, the more empathetic and whole we become as people.
The challenge, however, is that many straight men are profoundly afraid of ‘difference’ — across all categories — as it threatens the very narrow definitions of masculinity and the power and social clout associated with it. As the power paradigm of the past few thousand years in which men had nearly exclusive control over all aspects of the political and economic world collapses before us, one senses that many straight men are still waiting and hoping for some return to this idealized past. The demand to view ourselves as but one of many, with no special rights or privileges, as part of — rather than guardians of — humanity and civilization is both necessary and, for many, unfathomable.
While the path towards a more expansive model of masculinity is clearly complex, it’s also clearly linked to our concept of sexuality. The more comfortable men are with their bodies, the more nuanced the language and sophisticated their models to discuss sex and relationships, and the more we can understand pleasure decoupled from some rigid moral code and accept a much broader range of sexual behavior under the monikers ‘masculine’ and ‘straight’, the closer we get to a socially, emotionally and sexually integrated and holistic man.
(images from unsplash.com)
Magnus Sullivan has been at the forefront of technological and cultural shifts for more than 20 years. In 1993 Magnus founded eLine, one of the first system integration firms in San Francisco, bringing some of the biggest brands in the world online. One of his first clients was the storied progressive adult toy reseller, Good Vibrations. This was his first foray into the world of adult and he never looked back, partnering with the powerhouse, Game Link, to help create one of the most formidable companies in the online adult market. He has created two of the most awarded and recognized movies in the adult industry (‘An Open Invitation’ and ‘Marriage 2.0', which won The Feminist Porn Awards coveted ‘Movie of the Year’ award in 2016) and recently launched www.manshop.com, a reseller of sex toys for men, and www.betterthanthehand.com, a sex positive blog that promotes male masturbation and discusses the various social issues associated with it. Sullivan has written extensively about the need to expand and enhance content production in the adult industry and is also the author of ‘Better Than The Hand: How Masturbation is the Key to Better Sex and Healthier Living’. He is a fourth-generation SF-native, lives with his wife and children in the San Francisco Bay Area and enjoys kite boarding, skiing, triathlon, cooking, reading, writing and just about everything else that engages his mind and his body.32 Articles