The fastest-moving game in the world is “Get Dressed! My parents are home!”, played regularly but on very short notice by teenagers in much of the world. I played that game a few times. Probably, you did, too. Because of my experiences — the ones where even the most powerful biological urges were subordinated to the cultural necessity of not getting walked in on by parents while having sex — I reject out of hand the cultural tropes about uncontrollable male sexuality. We govern our passions. We do when we have to. When we don’t, it’s because of our perceptions of the risk and reward. Humans are not entirely creatures of reason, but we are creatures that reason, and our reason, in the short run at least, can overcome our immediate desires.
It’s such a strong cultural trope, this notion that men can’t control themselves. Many of us, growing up as boys, heard our fathers or other men say, “don’t let the little head do the thinking for the big head,” because of course it is possible not to. It is possible to reason about our urges, and to not do every damned fool thing that comes into our heads! Men recognize this. On the whole, those of us who are fathers recognize it when we talk to our sons.
Yet the notion that we can’t control our urges keeps coming up. Gene Simmons sang (of a girl under eighteen), “that bitch bends over, I forget my name,” and the guy who walks into a telephone pole or drives into a parked car while staring at an attractive woman is a comedy staple. (Note, of course, that the woman who does the same is rare enough that no example comes readily to my mind. Women’s uncontrollable sexual desire, as a cultural trope, peaked in the middle ages.) To be fair, at the very immediate level of what goes through our heads, our conscious control is limited. We may not be able to banish thoughts from our heads, or to stop a literal reflex. And if we battle a stubborn urge for a long time, we may be likely to lose eventually, which is why addiction recovery is hard. But those are not the things I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the notion that sexual desire — in men and only men, and really cis men because these cultural tropes don’t acknowledge that there are trans men — is immediate and irresistable.
Why do people repeat this stuff when it isn’t really true, and many of us know it isn’t really true? Because it’s a social construct, deployed for a purpose. Recently the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that it wasn’t sex discrimination for a dentist to fire an assistant, not for anything she did, but just because he was attracted to her. I won’t engage with the decision itself because I don’t want to get sidetracked into legal analysis. I’m interested in the cultural dimension. If we all know that he can effectively work with this woman despite being attracted to her (and he did, for many years), then why would it suddenly have any credence that he had to fire her just because he was attracted to her?
It’s nonsense, of course. I’ve been attracted to more people I’ve worked with over the years than I can count, and I’ve never had a sexual relationship with any of them. My approach is to just … keep it to myself. That doesn’t make me special. It’s what grown-ups do all the time. Yet when this dynamic makes its way into popular culture, it’s usually to paint it as pathetic, tragic or repressed. (The refreshing exception is the Dragan Armansky character in the Steig Larson novels, who is neither tragic nor repressed. His decision to keep his attraction to Lisbeth to himself is simply good judgment, something it took an expressly feminist author to portray.)
But that’s how these social constructs work: they repeat into conventional wisdom things that our actual experience often disprove. They do that to allocate power. The trope of the man who can’t control himself lets men off the hook for something they actually can control, which is enacting their sexuality on other people like entitled assholes.
The mythic uncontrollable male sexual urge makes men automatons, possessed by demons or the like, and therefore not responsible for what they do. It leads to the “weather” approach to rape, where men just can’t help themselves when presented with an opportunity to rape and therefore all the energy should go into telling women how to not be a target. This is the thinking about male sexuality that leads to apologist garbage like the Toronto cop who famously told law school women they could keep from getting raped if they didn’t dress like sluts. (That was the comment that led to the creation of Slutwalks.)
If we really believed this, we’d go whole hog and not make rape a crime. If the urge were really irresistable, it couldn’t be deterred, and so why criminalize it? That’s always been a nonstarter, because stating that idea literally makes clear what nonsense it is. However, in practice, certain kinds of rape — acquaintance rape without overt force, relying on intoxicants, which is the most common kind – is almost never punished. That’s a longer conversation.
The mythic uncontrollable male sexual urge is used to let guys off the hook for creepy, intrusive and even frightening behavior. Men whose approach to propositioning a woman is to put her in the most isolated, disempowered or intimidated position, trapped in a corner or an elevator or in a car in the middle of nowhere, they are making conscious choices to act in intrusive ways, ways that would cause reasonable people to want to never have sex with them. But some folks readily jump to their defense, as though they are not responsible for these decisions because men are under the control of the little head. (I have literally never heard someone defend a woman’s shitty, creepy behavior on the basis of her inability to control her urges.)
It’s not a long journey from excusing rape because men just can’t help themselves, to excusing murder. That’s what one Italian priest did in his Christmas message this year. (Nothing says “reason for the season” like “men kill you because you dress like sluts,” I guess.)
The strengh of these social constructs is that they act on the subcognitive level. They are not so much ideas (to paraphrase Lionel Trilling) as mental viruses seeking to supplant ideas. They spread by joke and anecdote and dumbass aphorism rather than rational discourse. Calling them out is like disinfectant; they wither quickly when actually examined. Men do not actually lack the ability to control sexual urges; sadly they sometimes lack the motivation. That’s how it is.