Ahem. Mood music, maestros:
Thank you, fellas, that was…uh…lovely.
Okay. Here goes.
I saw this comment piece, by someone hilariously named Ally Fogg, in the Grauniad last night. It was an eye-roller, to say the least, full of blanket assertions and straw(wo)men, and depressingly light on facts, although a lot of whiny male commenters seemed to think it was spot-on. I was too tired to respond to it then, but my blood is still boiling this morning. So, seeing as I’m in the mood to get down ‘n’ dirty, let’s take Mr. Fogg’s silly twaddle out to the woodshed and thrash it:
Is there anything good to be said about male sexuality? That might seem a daft question. Apparently it brings a lot of pleasure and excitement to the lives of men and women alike, it’s inspired some of the greatest art, music and literature through the ages and has played a fairly substantial role in sustaining our species and populating the planet. Nonetheless you’ll need to search very, very hard to find any positive appraisal of male heterosexuality.
Really, Ally? That was just the first paragraph, and already you’ve got your foot firmly stuck in it.
Let’s establish some factual ground right now: The whole world is positively rife with approbation for male heterosexuality, and you don’t have to “search very, very hard” to find it. It’s just THERE. It’s the foundation of globalized capitalist western society, and everything else is expected to bow to it. If you’re female, it will slap you right across the face, like a greasy cock in a porn video, and jack off all over your tits, and spray semen in your eyes. And if you’re a gay guy, or transgendered, or, frankly, anything but cis-male and heterosexual, it will probably hit you like a Doc Marten boot to the jaw, throw you to the floor, and fuck you up nine ways till Friday. But if you’re a hetero dude, as I’m assuming Ally Fogg is, then it’s suddenly hard to find? WTF?
But since Mr. Fogg clearly has a beef about something, let’s let him explain it:
Since the era of the permissive society and the mainstreaming of modern feminism, western society has gone a long way towards liberating women’s sexuality. Younger women have, to an unprecedented extent, been encouraged to believe they can be as sexual as they like and to experience and express their desires as they wish. Even the age-old proscriptions on female promiscuity have been largely broken down, exemplified by the glorious flowering of the SlutWalk movement.
Oh, I see. The real problem isn’t that male heterosexuality is suddenly bad (because it isn’t, and no one is saying that it is). It’s that female sexuality — gay, straight, bi, trans, whatever — is coming out of the closet. Or trying to. I wouldn’t say that it’s been truly liberated at all; it is clearly still struggling to free itself. The demonstrations, the manifestations of the struggle, are being conflated with their ends by Ally Fogg et al.
The SlutWalk movement isn’t about celebrating how “the age-old proscriptions on female promiscuity have been largely broken down”, because they haven’t. Domestic violence statistics bear that out. So do rape statistics. And the misogynous undercurrent of western culture is never far below the surface. Every time an estranged wife is murdered while trying to leave her abusive husband, or a girl is beaten up by a jealous boyfriend, it seems that there’s a crowd of angry men out there on the Internets, bitching about how inherently dirty women are, and crowing about how “that slut got what was coming to her”. And whenever a rape victim comes forward to talk about her assault, the first question is “What were you wearing?” — as though THAT had any bearing on the matter. Every single thing a woman says, does, eats, drinks or wears is endlessly subjected to slut-shaming scrutiny when she becomes the victim of harassment or violence. The SlutWalk isn’t a smug celebration of our sexuality, it’s a protest in defence of it…or at least, the smallish part that relatively privileged white women can own.
And what is the worst, the very ugliest, obscenity you can lob at a woman? Think about it. I’ve been called it, right here on my own blog, by sexist trolls who clearly hate women for simply BEING WOMEN. It’s one of the few cuss words I truly hate and hesitate to use, unless I’m directly quoting the troll who threw it at me. Broad hint: It’s another word for vagina, an old and very nasty sounding term for it.
Female sexuality itself is denigrated daily, everywhere, STILL. And we’re supposed to believe that it’s now all liberated, and that as a result, MEN are somehow oppressed? Pardon me while I go change my pants.
Simultaneously, and perhaps not coincidentally, male sexuality has been increasingly seen as a problem. You can hear it in the gentle, dismissive mockery that says men are simple creatures who “only want one thing” or, at the extreme, outright vilification. The male gaze threatens, male desire is aggressive. Our primal instincts are pathologised with the jargon of gender studies. Righteous and necessary efforts to reduce sexual crimes have had the unwelcome effect of teaching generations of men that our sexuality can be dangerous and frightening.
Despite the slightly softened tone after the frontal attack of the first two paragraphs, Mr. Fogg is still fucking it up really badly here. The jabs at feminist critical theory are pretty damn simplistic of themselves (Christ, man, READ A BOOK! Read a dozen!), and don’t do anything to dissuade this feminist that Mr. Fogg’s strawman version of feminism — “men are simple creatures who ‘only want one thing'” — isn’t directly applicable to the builder of the strawman himself. After all, he’s the one who goes on to conflate “our primal instincts” with the very things he claims they aren’t:
Don’t believe me? Look back at the Bailey review into the early sexualisation of children, and the surrounding media hoo-ha. Leaving aside any concerns about the veracity and accuracy of the report itself (and I have plenty myself) it is striking that acres of print were devoted to the impacts of these social trends on girls, their self-esteem and body image; their developing sexuality; their safety and security. Barely a word was spoken about boys, beyond fears that they are being turned into beasts.
Well, I took his advice. I looked at said Bailey Review, and guess what? The careful gender-neutrality of its language was the first thing that leapt off the pages at me. It is most certainly not a man-bashing “feminist” (note the quotation marks) document. It is all about the premature sexualization of children, and the desensitization of them to violence, in order to turn them into blind consumers. It rightly raises concerns about how children of all sexes are being turned into acquisitive, conformist little robots, who neither listen to their parents nor learn how to think freely for themselves. (This is actually not a new issue, as I’ve said here myself, although I did choose to tackle it from this angle, as the Bailey Report did not. I see it as the the same old Feminine Mystique, ramped up for the age of globalized capitalism, and its dangers go way beyond the merely sexual.)
This gender-neutral, inoffensive study is the “hoo-ha” we’re supposed to regard as a big ol’ bashing of the “primal instincts” of male heterosexuality? FAIL.
Again and again the message came out: girls have problems. Boys are problems. And yet does anyone doubt that there should be concerns about how easy access to porn impacts upon boys’ sexual development, their self-esteem, their body image or performance anxieties? It’s not as if young men bask in perfect mental health and happiness – young men commit suicide at nearly four times the rate of young women, and sex and relationships rank high on their list of concerns.
Again, FAIL. Nowhere does this message come out, except maybe in the fever swamp of Ally Fogg’s own imagination. And, as a matter of fact, there has been a lot written about the negative effects of porn on males. (Of course, those negative effects aren’t limited to body blows to the self-esteem of a modestly endowed male, the same that incidentally plague girls when they develop breasts, or fail to do so “adequately”. Porn addiction, and subsequent difficulty interacting with real live women, is the part Mr. Fogg studiously refuses to even broach.)
As for the suicide canard, it should be noted that girls are actually more likely to attempt suicide; boys are, however, more likely to succeed, because the methods they choose are more violent, and thus more lethal. This has long been known: guns, knives, razors and cars are all marketed predominantly to males. Do boys choose more violent means because they are socially conditioned to do so? Very likely, yes. (Violent video games aimed at them don’t help, either.)
But the higher rate of suicidal “success” among males does not evidence of male oppression by big bad sexy feminists make, even if Mr. Fogg, by throwing that in there, would like us to think so. If anything, it’s just one more manifestation of capitalist consumerism run amuck, leading to intense dissociation and dissatisfaction with one’s own life. (These effects, by the way, are fully intentional; they are aimed at selling more product. Suicide is the unmentionable byproduct.)
At the other end of the age range, sexually active older women are now widely eroticised (albeit often with a rather misogynistic undertone) as “cougars” or (forgive me) “Milfs” while their male equivalents are disparaged as dirty old men. Observer columnist Viv Groskop recently went further, opining about any older man who has sex outside marriage, even the mild-mannered old janitor John Major, saying “Unfortunately it’s not against the law to be an old lecher. Maybe it should be. Or at the very least you shouldn’t be rewarded with the highest office in the land.”
I don’t see that the older woman/younger man dynamic IS in fact “widely eroticized”. I see, if anything, how much the opposite still depressingly prevails. (Dominique Strauss-Kahn the “seducer”, anyone?) It’s still perfectly acceptable for a guy in his 50s to marry a teenage girl, at least in the eyes of the law. Socially, too, it’s far more accepted, Anderson Cooper’s sarcasm notwithstanding.
But if you think women could seriously get away with anything similar, just look at how the media piled on to Mary Kay Letourneau. Underneath all the “I’d hit that” high-fiving, there’s a slut-shaming vibe. A woman who hits on too-young males is ostracized in the end. Male teachers molesting girls? Doesn’t even make the papers anymore, in most cases. (Not “sexy” enough, I guess?)
And if older women are in some rare instances painted as sexy, well, “painted” is precisely the right word. To sell more product (face creams, hair dye, clothing, plastic surgery — the list goes on), women over 30 are being conditioned to be anxious about their age, and the “loss of sexuality” it supposedly portends. And if a woman happens to be the senior partner in a relationship, watch out; every gossip columnist constantly has the knives out for that kind. Don’t believe me? Read any trashy tabloid. Madonna, for one, is constantly being slagged for taking younger lovers. And when she faithfully follows the media’s “be feminine or else” script, and buys more product (facelifts?) to “regain” her “lost youth” and “lost sexuality”, she gets slagged again! In a climate like this, who can win?
And, BTW, I absolutely abhor the term “cougar” (and also “cub” and “toyboy”). It implies that the older woman is a sexual predator, or that there is some kind of Oedipal kinkiness going on. (How she manages that when she’s supposedly lost her mojo, according to the consumerist narrative, I don’t know. Double standards are very double.) It’s horribly denigrating not only to the woman, but to her younger male partner as well. For all we know, HE might have been the pursuer. That was certainly the case for Sam Taylor-Wood and her partner, Aaron Johnson, but to hear the commenters on this story tell it, SHE was the evil, wicked cradle robber!
Yeah, tell me again how this combo is so celebrated, Ally. Gossiped about, maybe, but celebrated? Hah! There’s so much work to be done on smashing that stereotype, I don’t know where to begin. Maybe we should all just stop reading the fucking tabloids.
(As for the bit about John Major: Given the choice between shagging him and watching paint dry, I would have to go, overwhelmingly, with the paint. John Major has all the sex appeal of moldy porridge. And no amount of masculinist polemic is going to change that.)
Perhaps the greatest concern for men and women alike should be the way male sexuality and sexual expressiveness balances on a narrow tightrope of acceptability. One step off the wire and you tumble into the realm of perversion. As feminist blogger Clarisse Thorn noted last year, any man who hits on a woman and gets it wrong risks being branded a “creep” – sometimes deservedly so, of course, but often for no greater sin than being insufficiently attractive or socially skilled, or having misread a perceived signal of invitation. I’ve never heard of a woman being stigmatised or disparaged for expressing an attraction to big men, rough men, geeky men or whatever. A man who expresses similar desires for women who don’t conform to standard norms of beauty is a perv, a fetishist, a weirdo.
Oh lordy, lordy, good Gordie. I can tell someone here has been fumbling his passes, getting shot down and not taking it at all like a man.
Look, getting along with women is NOT rocket science! If you’re gauche around others and don’t know how to read social signs, look around you and ask your most popular buddy for pointers. Or just play the wingman (or, as I used to do, wingWOMAN), and quietly take notes. Be nice, be polite, be friendly, be yourself — and if she says no, she says no; live with it. And lighten UP, already. If you come on in clubs the way you’re doing here, Ally, it’s no wonder you’re having a hard time. Women don’t appreciate being bashed on the one hand and being told we have it too good on the other. Both assumptions are untrue.
As is the assumption that women are never stigmatized for expressing a liking for men, or a certain type of men, or just A MAN. We get shot down too. And we get hurt. And we are not always quick to get back in the saddle, as you guys are encouraged to do. (We’d be called sluts if we did, remember?) And believe you me, ice cream companies know all about this, which is why that teensy widdle pint container is such a hot seller among women. Who else would they market such wasteful packaging to? Guys would take one look at that puny thing, and sneer. (And rightly so.)
All of these prejudices are rehearsed and reiterated by men and women alike, they reside in the intangible web of social norms, conventions and culture, but they can and must be challenged and changed. If we can begin to openly and joyously celebrate the positives to male sexuality, it might become easier for men to be happy and confident sexual partners, and in turn become better lovers, and sometimes better people.
Male sexuality is no less diverse, complex and wonderful than women’s or, for that matter, no more base, coarse and animalistic. Sure, most men might be slightly more likely to let our gaze linger on eye-catching curves, and slightly less likely to giggle about our lovers’ proclivities with our friends, but in the grand picture women and men are surprisingly similar, in this respect as in so many others. Women have been entirely justified in asking that we blokes respect their rights, autonomy and wishes, that we respect them as sexual beings. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for a little of the same in return.
Um, Ally? Why did you leave the best part of your argument for last? Why didn’t you start with this, instead of all that feminist-bashing drivel? Oh yeah, I forgot: Without the straw-feminist shit, none of this gentler, more reasoned whining would have passed muster.
What I really wish is that guys would stop whining about how we women have it so good. We don’t, and the problem isn’t men (although they’re sure not helping when they talk like this dude).
The problem, as even Mr. Fogg must admit, is the entire structure of our society. It’s hard on women; it’s hard on men, too, but often in different ways. It shouldn’t be slapped down as “man-bashing” when someone points those not-so-subtle differences out. That only deepens the rift. Why do we not, instead, recognize that capitalism takes advantage of us all through these harmful, patriarchal tropes, and fight THAT, for a change? It would do us a helluva lot more good than listening to one more capitalist-alienated, privileged white male not getting it, and his buddies in the echo chamber all shouting amen.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I feel another song coming on. One I like MUCH better: