Sex, Masculinity and Stereotypes

by P.R.Banks

"I'm a man,
don't you forget it,
I'm not a little kid.
you might regret it,
treating me the way you did."
- Mike and the Mechanics, 'Take the Reins'

I have been reading 'Promiscuities' by Naomi Wolf recently. It is an interesting book and something of a departure from her previous works in that it is considerably more personal in tone having been drawn strongly from her own experiences of growing up. But I am not interested in critiquing the book in full here, maybe another time, but I am intriegued by one particular assertion she makes.

The books central thrust is that modern society, especially Western Culture, has removed the rites of passage for women that mark the change from child to adult. And with this removal comes an implicit devaluing of female sexuality as women are no longer taught to be proud of themselves expect in certain artifical roles that society has reserved for them.

Okay, I am in agreement thus far. The society I live in is one that is forever tugging and pulling people into proscribed roles that are artifically designed to create the right kind of uneasiness and desire that satisfies the societies ends. [1] Commercials, with their blatant unsubtlety and reliance on social stereotypes, are a prime example here of the process in action. But Naomi goes one step further in saying that there does exist a set of 'rites of passage' for men.

This is where I part company with Naomi. In my experience there aren't any rites of passage for males. At least no more so than those offered for women. What complicates this is that her perspective is that of American society which is subtlely skewed, different is perhaps a better term, to that of New Zealand society. Yet various things hold true, in both societies women are taught to be valued/devalued around their sex. (The sluts/virgins dichotomy Naomi talks of.) They are also taught to value themselves less in terms of who they are and more in terms of who they are with. And finally they are also taught about the mechanics of sex without anything about the value or purpose of it.

But is that really so different to what males are taught? Not in my experience, and seeing as Naomi's work is strongly based on personal experience I feel it fair to counter it with personal experience. For me growing up was the usual battles of confirmity versus individuality, and both sexes get this treatment where pressure is brought to bear to fit in with the dominant peer group. It is perhaps the worst irony of all that those of us who resisted "fitting in for fitting's sake", and were thus outcast, formed our own peer group whose distinction was knowing that we were the outsiders. Mutual distrust and disdain quickly followed, but that is the subject for another discussion (rant?) on my part.

Sex first started to be discussed around age 10 and was met with a fairly revulsed fascination. 'He did what? With a girl! Yeuck!' The predominance was on the mechanics of the act and a certain love of finding out about something we weren't supposed to know about. It all sounded perfectly ghastly and yet we knew that the world seemed obsessed with the subject matter, so it had to be important somehow. No formal education was given and everything was whispers and half truths with the odd burst of almost serious study coming through. Anyone else remember the search through the dictionary for the naughty words? It became a game to bring a new naughty word to school where possible.

Within a few years various people set themselves up as the worldly wise and discussed how they had 'done it'. Looking back on it the level of falsehoods to truth was amazingly high as almost invariably people talked of acts anatomicaly impossible. Interested and not educated enough to sort the lies out we listened avidly to this. The boasts started to become bigger and bigger and a social pecking order was established on this. Naturally because I refused to boast and lie I dropped to the bottom of this order. The relegation was that of social outcast "who couldn't get any even if he tried".

The implication was quite clear and well understood. To be cool and socially accepted one had to, at least, pretend to, and be beleived, to have had sex. Social status came down to whether you had used your penis for anything other than urinating. Strangely masturbation was considered even worse than never having had sex. The unwritten consensus was that it was only for homosexuals, who somehow were terribly feared and unclean creatures (just where did we pick that up from?), or those who couldn't get any sex and had thus to make do. The message was implicit and quite clear, it was sex - the act - that was important. Not who you were with, not how pleasurable the act (although all sex was of course fantastic, even the anatomically impossible acts.)

By Naomi the repression comes through devaluing the female sexual drive by not acknowledging that women do want to have sex. For men, in my experience, the repression came from devaluing the sex itself, we simply had to have had sex - it didn't matter too much with who as long as it was female. Everything centred on the mechanics and the emotional issues were ignored, devalued and thrown away. This subtext, of ignoring the emotional, is something that runs through a lot of the experience of becoming a man. It usually starts with being taught to suppress feelings of pain (A common rejoinder being to "Stop crying, and be a man." or the kinder "Oh stop crying, where is my little soldier?"), being taught about the stiff upper lip and never showing fear, then moves on to devaluing sex as just a mere act to be enjoyed and never really looks back from there.

Boys who read a lot, wanted to write either stories or poetry, cook or a variety of intellectual or emotional pursuits were actively harrassed by their peers. Strengthening this is the 'Tall Poppies' [2] syndrome that New Zealand suffers from. I was attacked, beaten - fortunately never particularly seriously, had clothing and personal possessions stolen and destroyed all as my growing experience. The lessons learned were that being different was dangerous, trust was to be given only extremely carefully and that being openly emotional left you weak and vulnerable to others who would always take advantage of your openness.

These lessons are deeply ingrained in me now. The issue of trust and open emotion in particular is hard for me. As a result I tend towards the reserved more than I would like. Exactly how this is expressed in various men differs but I feel fairly strongly that a lot of men's inhibitions to being emotional stem from the same source. We learnt, frequently the hard way, that emotions were dangerous. What complicates matters, and perhaps makes this experience unique for men, is that our inculculation into competitiveness encourages us to be far more isolationist in our relationships so that we often don't have strong friendships at time when we could do with them most.

When time comes for us to be formally educated as to the matters of sex, in school, a combination of embarrasment on the teachers part (My science teacher at the time was most squeamish about the subject matter.) and confusion in policy meant that we got just the facts about the mechanics of it all. Again, there was no discussion about the emotional side of sex. This was partly due to political pressure with the controversy over what values should be taught with various groups demanding quite conflicting things.

What was most damning about it was that it wasn't anything we hadn't already discovered pretty much for ourselves. Even worse was that it did nothing to challenge the implicit assumptions we had begun to make about the role of sex. Nowhere were we told about the possibility that sex might be more about trust and love than about pure pleasure. That was left up to our parents.

Now I ask you, when was the last time you heard even the most liberal of parents talking about the feelings and needs that sex both engenders and satisfies? I can't say I have and on the few occasions I have had to talk about sex education with various friends they almost universally indicate embarrasment and reluctance to talk about the matter on the part of their parents. The strangest thing with my own parents is that I never remember discussing the subject with them. There just seemed to be some hazy dividing line after which my mother felt more comfortable discussing sex in generalities with me and an implicit understanding that, somehow, I now knew the facts.

Whether this is a failing on my part simply due to forgetfulness or whether it is simply because the subject was never terribly clearly broached with me, I don't know. What I do know is that I never really have had a discussion with either parent about the emotional side of sex, or even simply the mechanics of it.

By the time dating began to set in with my peers we found that the implicit understanding was that a girlfriend was more a status symbol than anything else. They were an accessory to be boasted about, especially on matters of sexual prowess and then discarded if too inconvenient. It was only after reaching University that I began to see a more positive attitude and the possibility that a partnership might be about more than pure status.

That to me was the 'rite of passage' I received while growing up and I have no reason to think my experience is particularly unique. Indeed comparing notes with Naomi's experiences indicates that the two genders receive fundamentally similar treatment when it comes to growing up. Both are initially taught nothing about sex formally, but plenty of indirect peer learning and when the formal teaching comes it was perfunctory to say the least. Both sexes are given skewed attitudes towards sex - centered around the emotional side, boys simply not being taught that emotion is a part of sex and girls conversely being taught that the emotional content is so important that sex should be reserved for their life long partner alone.

So why does Naomi miss that men suffer from similar lacks in sexuality awareness and sexual education? Firstly, to be fair, her book's focus is on female sexuality and thus has no great mandate or reason to study and comment on male issues. This is, in my opinion, something of a mistake as an issue as complex as sexuality - especially with it's almost implicit duality and mirror nature - is not something that can be studied from the perspective of one sex alone. Secondly there are still undertones of what Naomi herself describes as 'Victim Feminism' in the work. This mentality requires both a victim and an oppressor or priviledged to work, with the priviledged here being the males who receive, oestensibly, the 'better' social training and primping over females.

Such a requirement underpins a good percentage of feminist thought that I have read and is something I have always found curious. It can be valid the oppresion is going on but at the same time the dominant paradigm has become that oppression must be going on and that someone has to be found to blame. A common side effect of this, and one response I confidently predict I will get to this page, is pain becomes quantifiable - one person's pain is bigger or more important than another's. Thus I fully expect to get the reaction that this essay is simply saying 'Me too! I Hurt too!' in order to discredit the real pain that women feel. (I have seen this happen several times on soc.feminism over the years I have been reading the group.)

But such seems to be ignoring the very real possibility that there is real pain and suffering involved on either side of a dispute. However this does beg the question that if males are getting confused messages about sex, and about being male in general, exactly what does it mean to be a male? What is the essence of masculinity? I must admit till I began writing this tract I had not really given the question much thought. New Zealand culture is replete with the image of the rugged 'good bloke' and this seems to be our definition, exemplified in person by Barry Crump (when he was alive).

Somehow this doesn't work too well for me, Barry is not well loved by his children or wife for precisely those attributes that define him as being the 'good bloke'. Namely the rough and ready attitude to life, the laid back attitude, the touch of sexual inneundo in everything and his roaming ways. I don't wish to be overly negative of Barry though, his sense of humour was deliciously ironic and he gave focus to what it meant to be a Kiwi at a time when New Zealand was grappling, and still is really, with exactly who we are.

But this is the conundrum that confronts me. I can't easily think of good role models as to what I consider to be the important attributes of masculinity. Certainly it isn't tied up in purely physical attributes, a man is much more than any ability he might have to play sport or use muscles. To me it has always been about determination, integrity and intensity of purpose. Connotations of focus & singularity swirl around uneasily with ideas of sharing and the nurturing role that men need to provide but are almost entirely unprepared for.

We are at the stage where men need to spend time and thought defining and redefining what our central, core, roles are in society. As Naomi's book shows well our attitudes, from sex up, are not being shaped consciously in any particularly healthy ways. We need to reclaim that training from it's current abyss and consciously choose how we wish to be. This isn't a rallying cry for a return to more fixed and traditional values, while such removes a lot of doubt from the process of growing up it carries the penalty of regimenting people and forcing them into roles they aren't comfortable with for the better part of their life. But more it is a cry for the liberty we now encourage to be backed up with information, training and guidance so that we temper the freedom of choice with the practicality of making an informed choice. So that the stereotypes we foist upon ourselves no longer have so strong a hold and that we can let a little conscious deliberation shape our social future.

[1] Anne Wilson Schaef with her book 'When Society Becomes an Addict' delineates this idea in a nice friendly manner. Her books, using anecdotal evidence, presents the idea that society has now become a sufficiently nested system that it feeds back upon itself shaping how the next generation is raised into a form more suitable for furthering the society.

She further points out that in many ways we have abdicated our choice in the affair by simply never intellectually challenging a lot of the social mores and ideas impressed upon us. To make matters worse we never impress in our children the need to question and understand what we are agreeing to.

Where the book fails is that it lacks rigour to back it up. The idea is interesting and makes a lot of intuitive sense. But intuition only carries you so far and a proper, detailed understanding of how the social dynamics work is required to make further progress.

[2] The Tall Poppies syndrome refers to one particular social quirk New Zealand has. We tend to denigrate those people who have success or are who are seen to be 'better' than the average joe. This results in a curious paradox where we celebrate those individuals who have forged ahead while at the same time seeming to be trying very hard to hammer any distinguishing characteristic out of ourselves.

Philip R. Banks
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