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Things (Cis- Het-) Men Are Afraid To Talk About

May 27, 2009

Over at her blog, Clarisse Thorn writes about her sex-positive documentary series. They just had a masculinity night, and she said the hardest thing was to find work that even addressed male sexuality and the construction of masculinity. She has a lot to say. I have more to say than I can fit in this post, but what I’m getting around to is a specific question that is one of many, but one that cis het men don’t talk much about; and which I’m throwing out there not because it’s particularly the one important question, but because it’s an example of conversations that don’t happen.

I think cissexual het men have largely ceded the field of talking about male sexuality. I think there’s a huge unstated assumption that to even address the question, for men, is to mark one’s self as “other.” Trans men and queer men have always had to deal with their masculinity being contested territory, and cis het men are brought up to fear that their masculinity could ever be called into question. By even opening up a dialog, I think some folks fear that they are conceding that their sexuality is not uncontroversial. (Though I have not read it, one book on teen male sexuality is titled “Dude, You’re A Fag.” Further to my point about cis het men ceding the field, the author, C.J. Pascoe, is a woman.)

To refuse to talk about it, though, is to be a prisoner of the privilege. The common understanding of male sexuality is a stereotype, an ultra-narrow group of desires and activities oriented around PIV, anal intercourse and blowjobs; oriented around cissexual women partners having certain very narrow groups of physical characteristics.

There’s a very limited space for cis het men to talk about desiring female partners that don’t fit exceedingly narrow beauty norms. But it’s a very narrow space. For example, men who express anything other than disdain for fat partners are often labelled fetishists. There’s no room to be merely agnostic with regard to body shape, that is. It’s either “no fat chicks” or “chubby chaser.”

(I bristle at the “fetish” terminology, which originally meant sexual excitement around an inanimate object. I don’t like the way it has been expanded to include body parts, because I think that object-style attraction to a body part is very specific and potentially very problematic, and because I reject vociferously the notion that attraction to a particular physical characteristic is the same thing as fetishizing one’s partners or one’s partners’ bodies. The latter is reductive; it treats the person as an adjunct to the fetishized characteristic, which is the part that I think is problematic.)

There is even less room for cis- het men to talk about activities than partners’ appearances. Cis het men just don’t talk about playing with their nipples or their asses; though gay men do, all the time. (Bi men are invisible. I know they exist, and yet I keep hearing that they don’t exist.) And when was the last time that the media portrayed a male BDSMer as a bottom, and didn’t make him the butt of a joke? It’s not like we don’t exist, we’re just invisible. That’s part of the reason I won’t shut up about being a cis het male bottom. If none of us talk about it, how will anyone outside the BDSM community know we exist?

So here’s the question I’m throwing out, one of many that I could throw out there: what are the implications for a man to be the enveloping partner in penetrative sex?

(And I’m not limiting that by the partners’ gender identity, or by either party’s genital anatomy or orientation. For example, I’m not only asking what it means for a cis het man to be fucked by a woman, and I’m not insisting that that discussion is different from, for example, what it means for a trans man to be fucked by a woman — or even asserting that I know, because of course I am in many ways a prisoner of the limitations of my own experience.)

Dworkin famously wrote in Intercourse:

A woman has a body that is penetrated in intercourse: permeable, its corporeal solidness a lie. The discourse of male truth–literature, science, philosophy, pornography–calls that penetration violation. This it does with some consistency and some confidence. Violation is a synonym for intercourse. At the same time, the penetration is taken to be a use, not an abuse; a normal use; it is appropriate to enter her, to push into (“violate”) the boundaries of her body. She is human, of course, but by a standard that does not include physical privacy. She is, in fact, human by a standard that precludes physical privacy, since to keep a man out altogether and for a lifetime is deviant in the extreme, a psychopathology, a repudiation of the way in which she is expected to manifest her humanity.

(I’d page cite, but I don’t have a copy handy so I found it on the web). Of course, Dworkin was careful to note that men had anuses that could be penetrated, and that she was talking not about the act of penetration but about the social structures that defined women by an organ, defined the organ by one thing it can do, and define that thing as penetration rather than envelopment, etc. (Agree or disagree with her, it’s some dense stuff, with a lot of ideas packed into a relatively short text).

So what does it mean for a man to be, as it were, semi-permeable; for his body to be penetrable not as an experiment, but as a regular part of his sexuality with partners?

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2009 12:10 pm

    Absolutely! This is one of the many tangents I didn’t even have time to get into.

    I assume you’ve read some Bitchy Jones in your time? When I started dating Matt, this submissive gentleman I’ve been getting involved with, he kept talking about Bitchy Jones, so I asked him to send me her best blog entry. He sent me [ http://bitchyjones.wordpress.com/2007/06/06/my-hero/ ] and said that what really got him about this entry was that he’d always been extremely confused by the idea that submission is feminine, and that this was a real problem for him when he was coming into his sexuality, because when he submits he feels more masculine — not less. So Bitchy Jones totally showed him the cultural assumptions behind his sexuality. You’ve probably thought about this before, but it was mind-blowing for me when I first considered it; and it threw my own sexuality into high relief too: I think part of the reason I didn’t get into topping sooner is that it simply never occurred to me to view male bottoms as masculine.

    So yeah … this is a tangential way to say that it is very, very clear that submissive men are considered feminine. Men who want to be the “enveloped” partner are also considered feminine. Which really doesn’t work for men who don’t want to be considered feminine. And there are lots of men who don’t want to be considered feminine, who still want to submit, be enveloped, be penetrated. So they are effectively (a) either confused out of realizing their own sexuality, or (b) feel constantly hurt by the stereotypes that tell them they’re doing it wrong.

    (Incidentally, have you looked at MaleSubmissionArt.com? I highly recommend it, if you haven’t.)

    (And you know what’s really interesting? Although Matt and I had our first serious conversations around things like misogyny and agency and masculinity and the gendering of submission, he didn’t consider himself interested in gender studies when I first started talking to him. I said something about his interest in gender studies and he said, “Oh, no, that’s not one of my interests ….” It was bewildering. Finally, I started pointing it out every time he made a gender-studies comment, and he finally said, “Oh, I see what you mean now.” He’d thought he wasn’t interested in gender studies because he wasn’t hugely literate in the field, and because his main activities are male-dominated and not traditionally aligned with gender studies — e.g., gaming or hanging out with his fraternity brothers from college. I think a lot about how we might make the field more accessible to people like him, who are clearly CLEARLY thinking about this stuff and have something to contribute. The traditional feminist thing to do appears to be to sniffily blame men who aren’t contributing to gender studies theory, but I’d rather stop blaming and start welcoming. Of course you’re right that another problem is that, “to even address the question, for men, is to mark one’s self as ‘other'”, but there’s not that much we can do about that problem in mainstream culture, whereas there ARE ways that we can make our field more open. But I think you and I have discussed this before, and you have expressed unwillingness to “cater” to entitled cis het dudes, which is understandable …. Damn this is a long paragraph.)

    Argh I’ve only scratched the surface of this issue, I feel like I’ve only said the most obvious things. But it’s a start. I’ll check back later.

  2. May 27, 2009 1:07 pm

    I’ve read some BJ before, though not the article you link. Exploring models for masculine submission is not entirely new; I’ve read some things like that in 1990s issue of the SandMutopia Guardian or ProMeTheUs or some such community organ before. BJ also seems to think that the gay leather community has evolved past gender policing, though Califia and others have written about those issues, and my friends have talked to me about issues, in ways that suggest to me that there is an entire set of gender policing dom/sub issues in the gay men’s and maybe also within the lesbian leather community — obviously, I can’t talk about that first hand.

    cater to entitled cis het dudes

    Yeah, it’s hard to work with folks where they are and not degrade the whole discussion to avoid overwhelming their hothouse flower sensibilities. It’s a real fundemental problem, the 101 thing, the only solution to which I think is to have different spaces for different conversations — which in turn runs the risk of compartmentalizing every conversation, with all that goes with that …

    One area where I disagree with BJ is that I think she leaves the role of commerce out of the discussion of imagery. A lot of her piece is about the images of women bottoming as the default symbols of kinky sex. True, and we’re in a culture where women’s bodies (cissexual, conventionally attractive and patriarchy-approved) are coded “sex” and men’s, if presented in an erotic context, are coded “gay.” But I think a lot of that is that we’ve allowed the way we present ourselves to be driven by porn and advertising and what is marketable. If we presented ourselves the way we behave in our own lives and not the way our images are presented for commercial consumption, it would look a lot different. Lots of folks disagree with the way I frame the intersection of money and sex as inherently problematic, my “sex exceptionalism”, but that’s my position and I’m sticking to it.

    Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff to talk about that doesn’t get talked about.

  3. May 28, 2009 2:00 pm

    I reject vociferously the notion that attraction to a particular physical characteristic is the same thing as fetishizing one’s partners or one’s partners’ bodies. The latter is reductive; it treats the person as an adjunct to the fetishized characteristic, which is the part that I think is problematic.

    Damn right it’s problematic. And one of the problems is that the lack of ground between, say, “no fat chicks” and “fat fetishists” means that there’s a greater chance of discovering that that guy you’re going out with is, after all, a fat fetishist and not just someone who finds you attractive.

    Neil LaBute wrote a play about this very pressure on het cis males wrt fat women.

  4. May 28, 2009 6:39 pm

    This is a topic all its own, really — the fat partners/fat fetishists thing is a post, and so is the larger attraction!=fetishizing conversation. It gets under my skin because there are a lot of physical characteristics not on the Maxim checklist that I either don’t find unappealing (fat) or actively like (short, muscle mass). It’s not just that this doesn’t make me kinky — I’m obviously fine with an outside-the-mainstream sexuality. It’s that there’s a huge difference between having a partner with a characteristic, and having a characteristic and tolerating the person that comes with it. The latter is dehumanizing asshole behavior; while if it weren’t for the former the world would be a boring and homogeneous place.

    I’m aware of the LaBute play, Fat Pig. I have not read or seen it. It is my understanding that, like just about all of his work, it is an indictment of men’s culture.

  5. May 29, 2009 2:47 am

    @Thomas —

    But I think a lot of that is that we’ve allowed the way we present ourselves to be driven by porn and advertising and what is marketable. If we presented ourselves the way we behave in our own lives and not the way our images are presented for commercial consumption, it would look a lot different.

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying here. Maybe I could understand better if you gave examples of what you mean: what kind of different ways could we present ourselves that would be better, for instance? What would we do, what would we look like that you think would be better?

  6. Krista permalink
    July 25, 2009 12:55 am

    “I think there’s a huge unstated assumption that to even address the question, for men, is to mark one’s self as “other.” Trans men and queer men have always had to deal with their masculinity being contested territory, and cis het men are brought up to fear that their masculinity could ever be called into question.”

    A significant problem in this “marking as the ‘other'” lies in the assumption that masculinity is derived from sexual dominance. The idea that masculinity is reduced by lack of dominance implies a hetero-normative paradigm. In a poly-sexual society, highly sensitive to the damaging effects of unwilling dominance, masculine fears trend in the other direction. Ciss het men begin to fear the dominant elements of their sexuality (especially outside the socially accepted norms of “PIV, anal intercourse and blowjobs”), further fearing being labeled as a rapist or brute. These labels also evoke questions of a ciss het man’s masculinity: Is he impotent? Is he repressed? Does he lack the ability to court sexual partners? Ambiguities in ciss het identity as the “other” conflict with males who identify with domination.

    • Libro Ballante permalink
      April 11, 2012 5:26 pm

      For at least one cis, het, (mostly)dominant male, you are exactly right. The story of me coming into my kink is one of me getting over my fears that it was too male and too brutal.

  7. March 16, 2011 4:50 am

    I think one of the reasons men don’t talk much about their sexuality in the kind of context you mean is that much male sexuality is very stereotypical. A quite large proportion of men really do mostly desire no-so-fat young healthy women with symmetrical well-proportioned faces, etc., and mostly for PIV, blowjobs and maybe eating out and PIA. Men don’t talk about this because it is considered not only boring but politically suspicious. There is, for instance, much more het male consensus around the “hot babe out of ten” scale than is polite to admit.

    This is unfortunate, because there are still some interesting things to explore with this, such as different preferences for women as one-time sexual partners versus for long-term relationships.

  8. John E. permalink
    March 17, 2011 8:12 am

    >”So what does it mean for a man to be, as it were, semi-permeable; for his body to be penetrable not as an experiment, but as a regular part of his sexuality with partners? ”

    What does ‘So what does it mean’ even mean in this context?

    Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything besides he enjoys prostate massage…

  9. May 8, 2014 6:13 am

    I am male, bisexual, a switch, and happily married for nearly sixteen years. It is certain that what defines masculinity is a delicate subject, and often more defined by society than physiology. You’re supposed to like this and dislike that, to buy into this double-standard that says men must be aggressive conquerors who crow about their exploits while women must be submissive and ashamed. I tend to reject the lot of it; I sew, I cook, I like to shop, and I know a whole lot more about doing the laundry than my wife does. These aren’t feminine things, any more than watching football and chugging a beer is masculine. I would argue that what really defines the two is very difficult and nebulous and, well, possibly a bit subjective, and therefore not necessarily the same from person to person.

Trackbacks

  1. Thoughts on masculinity… « The Gender Blender Blog
  2. Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares? « Clarisse Thorn
  3. Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?
  4. Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights « Clarisse Thorn
  5. Why Do We Demonize Men Who Are Honest About Their Sexual Needs? | World Change Cafe
  6. Why Do We Demonize Men Who Are Honest About Their Sexual Needs? — The Good Men Project Magazine
  7. “Being Silenced” vs. “Refusing to Talk” | emporiasexus
  8. » Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares? Clarisse Thorn
  9. Either a penitent or a buffoon. | emporiasexus
  10. » Men don’t deserve the word “creep”
  11. » Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights

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