Last week I wrote a post on misogyny, and in particular how certain factions of men insist on perpetuating slut-shame, the idea of judging women as lesser for their sexual desires or actions. This week I want to focus on the shame that men face for their sexualities, and how we, as their partners, can help dispel that shame, and promote more happiness, self-acceptance, and awesome sex in the world, for all genders.
To be honest, part of me felt hesitant to even post that blog on misogyny, because I fear that in calling out poor male behavior in a select group of men, other men who might subscribe to tangential but unharmful behavior might feel lumped in to that category and begin to question themselves. Take BDSM, for example. In my post I referenced a Tumblr account dedicated to male supremacy that had misappropriated consensual BDSM practices into their belief in the genuine inferiority of females, and how angry that made me, since consensual BDSM and the proactive choice of female submission is something I hold dear to my heart. I fear that some men who are turned on by male dominance might worry that their desires for D/s correlate to actual misogyny, and blurring those lines doesn't help. A man who is sexually aroused by the idea of tying up a woman, beating her, and fucking her might very well be concerned that that arousal makes him a misogynist, or at best unfeminist, or at worst a sexual predator waiting to happen.
The media tends not to help either. Men aren't given many positive sexual role models, and the ones they do have often carry an unrealistic standard of masculinity to which they can't hold themselves -- James Bond, for instance. Maybe James Deen is a slightly more realistic example -- he promotes consent-based D/s play in his films and advocates for porn that is authentic and passionate, resulting in an inordinately high female viewership -- but even he is often portrayed unrealistically by the very nature of being in the porn industry. (The debate about the effects on relationships of the unrealistic nature of porn is another matter entirely, but porn is meant to be entertainment fantasy so I'm not judging that here.) But seriously, what prototypes does pop culture present for a man looking to model himself after a figure who is sexy, sex-positive, self-actualized, skilled in relationships, and not a brooding self-destructive douche?
More often, the examples of male sexuality we see in the media are examples of male sexuality gone bad. The alleged rapists from Steubenville and Maryville. Woody Allen, and whether he's a pedophile. Various sports figures, and whether they're guilty of sexual assault. And to extend any sympathy toward the male populace in general when those topics come up is to open oneself to accusations of rape apology, because of course it is obvious that women are the victims in those situations, and whatever sympathy is to be had in those conversations is rightly designated to women, who fear for the more immediate need of their actual physical safety. To consider the negative effects that rape culture has on men is, politically speaking, entirely missing the point. But I think about these things because I partner with men and strive to cultivate empathy for their experiences on a transpersonal, apolitical level, and so I still fear the cumulative effects on men of having so many prevalent examples telling them their sexuality is always wrong, and so few examples where it's right.
"The thing you need to realize," my music producer said to me during one of our conversations at his studio, "is that men are scum. If you only knew the things that go through our heads most of the time. But once you understand that men are scum, then the world becomes okay to deal with." He's married and, I assume, monogamous, and was basically trying to explain that men have desires that are counter to such agreements all the time, but that once they accept this, they can table those desires and move on without acting on them. But inherent to his version of self-acceptance was the idea that male sexuality in its pure form is wrong, shameful, and bad, and that the only thing that makes men acceptable to society is for them to recognize their inherent wrongness and squelch its expression in an attempt to blend in with normalcy.
A recent article in Philosopher Mail talked about the speculation over the (then-possible, now-confirmed) lesbian relationship between Cara Delevingne and Michelle Rodriguez, and why it seemed to hold so many men in thrall:
One kind of answer begins with the residual guilt many men feel around sex. A good number of them spend the bulk of their formative adolescent years feeling that sex is something they want far more of, and far more urgently, than women. They would love to go further, try certain things, but the girls they know too often look straight through them and never call back. The scenarios in porn and in their imaginations seem incapable of being enacted with anyone available in the real world. The result is shame: it may end up seeming as though sex is an embarrassingly peculiar thing they made up themselves and can't persuade anyone else to partake in. Even outside of religious belief systems, even in this liberated age, it is only too easy for straight men to feel lonely, even dirty, about having a sex drive. Hence the relief of lesbianism for men. Here, at last, is incontrovertible proof of a point that should always have been, but isn't necessarily, obvious: that women want sex just as much as, and sometimes far more than, men; that women can be as uncompromising, imaginative and committed in its pursuit as any male.
Men are attracted to lesbianism because it proves to them that sex isn't only their idea. But here, then, is the tragic irony, of course. The more misogynistic slut-shaming that occurs where women are judged negatively for their sexual desires and actions, the more afraid women will be to admit to claiming sex as their idea too, and the more men will feel alone and isolated in their needs for sex. Shaming hurts everyone.
This was also covered in an op-ed piece in Psychology Today that I've referenced in a few previous posts. The author posits that men know on some level that women want to be animalistically, irrationally desired, but men aren't sure how to navigate that when it's so hard to tell when women want their advances or not.
It is difficult for men, especially those of us who appreciate and embrace the importance of being respectful and considerate toward women, to balance those attitudes with the animalistic, nonrational expressions of passion and desire that women want from us. Most men want to express those feelings as well—and some men, unfortunately, do so in ways that are hurtful and wrong. But I think it’s natural that men who respect and appreciate women are confused about when it’s acceptable to express those desires in a more primal, animalistic way. The problem for the considerate man, however, is how to express “overwhelming” desire within the constraints he holds himself to and he feels a woman is entitled to; in other words, he doesn't know how to be both the beast and the gentleman she wants and deserves.
The author goes on to attribute this ignorance in part to a confusion about women expressing sexual desire:
Men may feel loved and appreciated but not desired—they may feel needed but not wanted. And even when a woman does express desire for a man, he is often conditioned to question it or deny it, simply because he’s not accustomed to it.
This is also why I feel books like The Rules are such a bad, bad idea: because they encourage women to say no when they mean yes, muddying the waters of their actual yeses and confusing everyone about what they really want and when it's okay to come out and say it. This isn't the first time I've touched on the idea that a slut-shaming, low-number-of-sex-partners-praising culture causes women to be shy about expressing their sex drives, but do consider for a moment how confusing this behavior is for men who are trying to date them. If women face shame for expressing that maybe sex is their idea too, then they're going to be less likely to cop to it, and men are going to feel shame for thinking that they're alone in their wants. (Which makes the slut-shaming Return of Kings dudes I pointed out in my last post not only propagators of hate speech for their attitude toward women but also just really really stupid for creating a culture that gets in their own way of trying to have sex. Why they don't get that part is a mystery to me.)
But that's just one end of the spectrum. Even worse perhaps in society's eyes than letting your masculinity run rampant is not having your masculinity hold up to a socially imposed standard, or doing things that run seemingly counter to it. In my former life as a professional dominatrix I saw men every day who felt ashamed to admit their kink to anyone in their everyday lives, often including their sexual partners. For a man to admit that he wants to submit to a woman dominating him is especially scary. Similarly threatening perhaps is for a man to admit he doesn't have an interest in sex with just any willing and physically attractive woman, or doesn't want sex as much as society feels he should. Some men I know have been sexually assaulted by women and felt they couldn't speak up about it, because "bro, she went up to you in a bar and busted out her tits in your face, what's not to love!" Men are also subjected to double-standards, and they're less talked about. To get masculine sexuality "right" is a fine line to tread -- too desirous, or not desirous enough, and one is deemed wrong.
A current lover of mine confessed to me when we were last together that he felt comfortable asking for things in bed with me that he'd never been able to admit to wanting before, in large part because he knew about the sex-positive nature of my work, my being out about my kink, and that between pro-domming and lifestyle subbing there probably wasn't much I hadn't seen and done already, and also likely in part because he felt secure in my desire for him (because I MAKE IT CLEAR WHEN I WANT TO FUCK SOMEONE, you feel me?). He also told me that night that he'd experienced a great deal of shaming in his former relationship, and I could see the self-doubt that had caused in him, even in the way he emphatically pronounced his realization that he is actually an okay person, as though he were still defending himself against some last haunting apprehensions still echoing in his mind. In my understanding, it wasn't even so much a case of hearing your desires are in conflict with our relationship agreement and you should not act on them, but rather your desires are wrong and therefore there is something wrong with you for having them.
This seriously breaks me up, that someone I care about so much went through such a brutal attack on his sense of self, even though it happened long before I met him. And it breaks me up even more to know that this happens all the time, in all kinds of relationships. There are entire universes within our lovers that we aren't seeing, that we won't see unless we make it safe for them to show themselves.
I want to make it clear that I don't think that releasing shame or building comfort is a gendered responsibility. I don't think it is an inherent role of women to midwife their male partners into a feeling of safety; I don't think we're supposed to run around being Manic Pixie Dream Girls freeing the men in our lives from their psychological burdens (as much as I may sometimes fetishize that dynamic in the fantasyland of my relationships -- but hey, as Esther Perel said, "most of us get turned on at night by the very same things that we demonstrate against during the day — the erotic mind is not very politically correct.")
But I do think it is important for people in relationships to create a safe space for their partners to be truthful and authentic in talking about their desires, and to do so without fear of being shamed or judged. And since I write for a mostly female readership and mostly talk about hetero relationships, and specifically about seduction from the perspective of female agency, I want to specifically address how women can be sympathetic to the unique kind of shame men face around sex. I also have hopes that our partners will do the same for us. (Any men who want to write a similar post on how to do the same things for the issues specific to women, you have my full encouragement... actually, you have my desperate plea.)
Last weekend I assisted with my mentor Reid Mihalko's relationship seminar R10xLive in Las Vegas (video of the entire weekend will be available for purchase/download on his site soon, it was awesome and is totally worth checking out). One of the key things Reid teaches is the ability to ask for what you want, and to be able to hear what your partner wants without placing judgment. Important to that is the understanding that just because your partner has a desire doesn't obligate you to fulfill it, but also that just because you don't want to fulfill it doesn't mean you need judge it as wrong. It's possible to say, "That's totally cool that you want that, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with doing it." (Or, "Okay, maybe once a year on your birthday.")
But at least that allows you to be truthful in your relationship and to lay the groundwork for accepting who you both are -- or accepting the fact that your needs and wants are so different that you might both be happier with other people who are more compatible. That allows you to hold space for one another and honor one another's authenticity, and then you can make decisions about your relationship as mature adults.
Or, more optimistically, conversations about sex can also result in shared yeses, and set both partners on the path to mutually fulfilling one another's desires and the greater shared intimacy that comes with that. I wrote for PassionateU recently about how sharing your sexual fantasies is an act of generosity, courage, and nobility because of the trust and safe dialogue that it fosters, and, in the best cases, the amazing sex it creates.
There's also the hugely important concept of microacceptance. Microacceptance, a term coined by Charlie Glickman, was basically thought up as the positive opposite of microaggressions -- microaggressions being tiny slights aimed at your partner that erode their confidence and self-image over time. Microacceptance is the practice of granting your partner continual moments of trust, care, appreciation, and well, acceptance. Validating a quality you love about your partner, thanking them for something they did for you, or holding space for them to talk about anything they want with you are all forms of this practice. Glickman writes:
A microacceptance tells your partner, your child, or your friend that you care about them. It demonstrates your positive regard for them, and shows that you value them as they are. It’s a gentle trickle of love that washes away shame much more effectively that a blast from a hose. Microacceptances create a foundation for a happy, healthy relationship.
It’s amazing how often people say things like, “My child/partner/friend knows that I love them.” I always want to ask how they can be so sure of that. Love and acceptance require attention and tending in order to thrive. And entropy increases everywhere, including in our relationships. When we don’t give them our attention, they start to fall apart.
Because we tend to remember negative experiences more acutely than positive ones, it's important to make sure that these moments of positivity add up over time. In fact, Dr. John Gottman says the number that best predicts whether a couple will be successful is a ratio of 5:1 -- five positive experiences for every negative one.
The key to trust is time and consistency. From my own personal experience, I know that responding to my partners in consistent ways that honor their truths has allowed me to build up a safe space for them to feel comfortable with me. At my best, I pride myself on my lovers' knowing that they can come to me with anything and I'll listen to them and hear them out.
And for me, that's really the crux of seduction. It's not just about getting someone to sleep with you -- as many of my misunderstanding critics have already said, that part is easy enough. What to me is the worthiest part of the work is engaging your curiosity about another human being, and allowing that curiosity to open up a space for them to be their truest selves with you, without fear of judgment or repercussion. Only then do you get to truly know someone. That is both seduction's greatest gift and its greatest reward.
And in the same spirit, don't settle for a relationship with anyone who doesn't do the same for you in return. I've been there, with lovers for whom I've held space and gotten to feel comfortable and open up with me, who really weren't interested in seeing the entirety of me as a person -- all the little details they weren't fully equipped to deal with, my insecurities, my strengths (equally as intimidating as my insecurities), my needs, my weird and complicated sexuality.
I once tentatively approached a partner about adding a dominance/submission element to our sex, and he, familiar with the kink world only through a few lame parties, apparently, replied to me, "All those fucking people think they're vampires." Other lovers were totally down for the fact that I wanted to have kinky sex, but couldn't be there with me when I needed support in coping with a depressive relapse. Still other men who never even made it to the intimacy stage with me responded to my history of pro-domme work with remarks like, "Babe, why would you do that? You're like, so smart." And there was always a ceiling to those relationships, there was always only so far they could go, because I wasn't able to be there with my whole self. Or rather, I brought my whole self to the table, but part of it always felt like it was just hitting a wall, going nowhere, like playing a game of handball with a beanbag that just falls to the ground when you toss it.
I think in doing this work, in learning how to become better partners and better lovers, we also learn more about what we need from others in return. So, maybe this post is also about how to release shame in ourselves. Because it's not fun for anyone -- male or female.