DRMacIver's Notebook

Masculinity as a source of sexual hang ups

Masculinity as a source of sexual hang ups

I've decided I might start writing a second post on days where I feel like it and have otherwise managed to be productive, and had a relatively good day doing actual PhD writing today so here we are.

Card Draw: Queen of Wands.

Of the actions, this prompted me to think about "Attractive" and "Self-Assured", which lead me to think of Mark Manson's book "Models", which is about how to use self-confidence (the good kind) to become more attractive and successful in dating (It's a much better book than it might sound, but importantly this is the revised edition. The original edition is apparently a much worse and more overtly pick up artist book).

From page 225:

The larger problem is not being completely comfortable with your sexuality and having sex. It's once again a vulnerability issue. This problem reaches much deeper and lurks within our subconscious. The most obvious solution is to simply have as much sex as possible. Getting a steady girlfriend is the best way to do this.

First thought: Oh god why are so many of the randomisations forcing me to write incredibly uncomfortable and vulnerable pieces?

He's talking about sexual dysfunction ("not being able to get it up"), but I think the idea of "not being completely comfortable with your sexuality and having sex" is actually a very normal experience for men. Frankly I think the least plausible part of this entire paragraph is the idea that there's a statistically relevant audience of men who are comfortable with their sexuality.

We have this idea of male sexuality as being something that is fairly straightforward, but I don't think that's true. Masculininity training fucks you up and gives you a whole pile of hangups. Given how heavily our scripts for masculinity center on sex, a lot of those hangups are going to be about sex.

On the theme of attractiveness, I think this ties into a problem that I have previously written about, which is that it is often very hard for men to conceive of themself as physically attractive. Sex is an opportunity to feel, temporarily, like you are an actual object of desire, in a way that we do not, generally, allow men an opportunity to experience.

However, I think by far the more common reason men have such emotional difficulties around sex is not around desire, but around shame, which is heavily tied into the masculine experience of sex.

Men are supposed to be hypersexual, ready for sex at the drop of a hat, always up for it, and any deviation from that is a failure at being a man. Sex is that which validates your masculinity, so a failure to live up to this ideal of hypersexuality is a failure to be a man, failure to be a man is punished aggressively, and it's hard not to internalise those punishments as shame.

In Brene Brown's "Daring Greatly" (p. 102) she talks about male experiences of self-worth and sex. Quoting a young man from one of her group interviews:

What we're really thinking is "Do you love me? Do you care about me? Do you want me? Am I important to you? Am I good enough?" That's what we're thinking. When it comes to sex, it feels like our life is on the line.

From another man in the group:

"It's true. When you want to be with us... in that way... it makes us feel more worthy. We standa a little taller. Believe in ourselves more. I don't know why, but it's true. And I've been married since I was eighteen. It still feels that way with my wife.

And further:

[A therapist who had spent more than twenty-five years working with men] explained that from the time boys are eight to ten years old, they learn that initiate sex is their responsibility and that sexual rejection soon becomes the hallmark of masculine shame. He explained, "Even in my own life, when my wife isn't interested, I still have to battle feelings of shame. It doesn't matter if I intellectually understand why she's not in the mood. I'm vulnerable and it's very difficult."

A lot of how this plays out in practice results in bad behaviour from men - if you feel shame when sexually rejected, it's easy to react in entitled ways (or, frankly, ways that are actually fine but read as entitled when taken against that broader backdrop) - so I don't necessarily expect a great deal of sympathy for men here, but if you can I'd like you to suspend that for now.

One important thing to distinguish here is that men can experience this negative emotional response even without believing they are entitled to sex. This is very much a case where aliefs matter more than beliefs, and aliefs are hard to change. If you've had it drummed into you that sexual rejection is a cause for shame, you will feel that shame no matter how much you have internalised healthy norms around consent. Being rejected can be a completely valid thing to do that you will respect to the hilt and still be a source of shame.

A result of this is that there is a lot of identity and emotion bound up in sex for men - in having it, and also being good at it. Failure at this is a trigger for shame, and so there is a significant internal pressure to "succeed" at sex. And pressure is a great way to engage the brakes, so it's no wonder that a lot of men have performance anxiety, and that this leads to a failure to perform.

(I feel the urge to comment on whether this applies to me personally and I'm going to resist that urge. Assume whatever you like.)

One of the reasons that it's important to talk about all of this is that failure to live up to the stereotypes of masculine sexuality is actually very common, so when we fail to conform to them through perfectly normal individual variation we feel shame over that. This is then compounded when sexual partners, who have heard those same scripts, react badly to our failure to follow them - e.g. because they perceive it as a failure of desire on our part.

This is a key feature in which Mark Manson's advice is really bad. Just getting yourself a girlfriend (or other sexual partner) is not a sufficient solution to the problem of working on your sexual hangups. Getting a steady partner is very helpful for getting more comfortable with your sexuality, but it's not sufficient and may cause major problems if your partner has bought too much into the standard male sexual scripts.

It is very important, for people of any gender, that if you want to become comfortable with your sexuality you do so with a partner who is supportive of you, and with whom your relationship is a growth one. Trying to get over your discomfort with sex with a partner who is going to be pushy and judgmental in their reactions to your sexuality (especially to any failure to perform it "properly") will almost inevitably make things much worse.