men, masculinities and gender politics

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Empowered sex is good sex. Let’s stop training our boys to be sexual aggressors, and our girls to be passive victims.

I was recently in another city for work, so I stopped in at a souvenir shop to pick up a few things for loved ones back home. The store had a lot of fun stuff. But then I noticed that they had a lot of stuff that was not fun. There were a number of things that were kind of (or even very) offensive. But the one that irritated me the most was the black onesie (also known outside of North America as a “diaper shirt”, a “creeper,” etc.) for male infants that was emblazoned with the phrase:

“Lock up your daughters!”

I was taken aback. And inside my head, I responded:

W.T.F.?

Oh, offensive tiny shirt made for adorable little baby boys, how do I loathe thee?

Let me count the ways…

First, you move male babies from “cute” to “brute.” Babies are adorable. Baby girls are adorable. Baby boys are adorable. But you, my offensive little t-shirt friend, although you intend to be funny, you are labeling any little baby boy who winds up wearing you as a sexual aggressor with only one thing on his mind. Who will not respect girls or women. Who is dangerous. Who cannot be trusted. And although his body will not begin producing sperm for approximately 12 more years, he is already being depicted as sexually aggressive.

That’s a hell of a load to put onto a baby boy. It’s a hell of a load to put onto any boy.

And yes, I know you are intended to be a joke. But here is something that is not a joke: it is estimated that 1 in 4 girls will experience being sexually assaulted.

1 in 4.

Let me say it again, in case you didn’t get the message:

ONE IN FOUR!

ONE IN FOUR GIRLS WILL BE SEXUALLY ASSAULTED!

ONE! IN! FOUR!

(And in some parts of the world, the number is a lot higher than that.)

Suddenly, my little cloth friend, you do not seem quite so funny.

Second, you suggest that we limit girls’ freedoms. Lock up your daughters,” huh? And just why the hell should we have to do that? It would seem that you are suggesting that boys are so sexually driven, so at the mercy of their not-yet-extant sex hormones, that they are like wild beasts roaming (crawling?) the streets, making it unsafe for our girls to also be out and about.

And even though babies can do only limited harm to others, what I really dislike about this shirt is that it promotes the notion that sexual aggression is a normal and expected male behavior. That we must cloister our girls because our boys are wild and not to be trusted. That girls and women need to be protected from the brutal beast that is the male of the species.

As I have written before, there are many societies on our planet where rape has been historically absent (see: http://billsprofeministblog.blogspot.ca/2010/09/achieving-rape-free-world-its-not-that.html). How can this be so? Well, it turns out that rape is not an inevitable human act, but rather a culturally-determined behaviour. Some cultures simply do not rape. Some cultures are actually “rape-free,” while other cultures are horrifically “rape-prone.” This fact has led social scientists like Peggy Reeves Sanday to look at the forces within each culture that drive sexual assault.

And you, you little rag, you are a clear example of something that is promoting a rape culture. And I despise you for it.

No, my little friend, it is not my daughter who needs to be locked up. The person who needs to be contained and controlled is the person who thinks that he is allowed to act out his sexual urges onto others, regardless of their feelings about it. The sort of person who lives according to the message you proclaim.

Third, you suggest that girls are weak. Not only do you suggest that boys are brutes, you suggest that girls cannot protect themselves. That they cannot assert themselves. That they are hopelessly at the mercy of boys’ sexual urges. And that’s just not true.

I am planning to raise my young daughter so that she has a sense of her own strengths and of her own boundaries. I refuse to lock her away, just as I refuse to accept your message that males are innately sexually aggressive. But should she ever encounter a sexually aggressive male, I want her to know that she is absolutely allowed and totally encouraged to assert her boundaries and to defend herself.

By any means necessary.

But even talking about how girls and women might respond to such assaults is a shift away from what we really should be focusing on. It is not the reactions and choices of the targets of sexual aggression that should be the topic of our conversations. No, it is the outrageous, inappropriate, and often illegal actions of the aggressors that should be our focus!

Fourth, you deny female sexuality. I gotta lock up my daughter? Why? Because you, you little shirt, clothe a little boy who is considered to be an innately sexual animal while my daughter, since she is a girl, is somehow not a sexual being? Just where in this little narrative of yours will she ever get to be an active participant in the world of physical bodily pleasure, rather than just existing as some vulnerable waif to be kept locked up behind barred windows and bolted doors? What about female sexuality? What about female desire? Where does that exist in your male-as-horndog scenario?

Many years ago a friend of mine was visiting an expensive American university. He was still in high school at the time, and he was there with his mother. They were both on a guided tour with a group of other families who were all looking at possibly having their high school graduates attend that institution. Suddenly, a 20 year-old male student at the school leaned out of the one of the residence windows and bellowed at the group:

“SEND US YOUR VIRGIN DAUGHTERS!!!”

Understandably, the parents were all quite startled. And I imagine that the university tour guide was both mortified and infuriated by this obnoxious and inappropriate act.

But again I ask: just where is the room for female sexuality here? Why do the young women whom the man is calling out for have to be sexually naïve? Why the focus on virginity? Is it that the young man who yelled this out can’t handle the idea of being with a young woman who is sexually experienced? Who is self-aware and knows what she likes and wants physically? Who is his sexual equal? Or (dare I say it?) who might even have (gasp!) better sexual skills than he does?

No doubt the guy meant it as a joke. But it was a pretty outrageous thing for him to have done. It was sexually harassing. It was sexually aggressive. It was totally inappropriate.

Much like putting a “Lock up your daughters!” onesie on a male infant!

Fifth, you skew human sexual development. It is one of the developmental tasks of adolescence – for most human beings – to learn to negotiate one’s sexual urges. (Some people are asexual, and will not necessarily go down this path. But most people will encounter this issue and must learn to deal with their sexual drives appropriately – which includes experiencing, embracing, and enjoying sexuality!)

Setting up boys as sexual aggressors has the effect of telling them that the goal of all sexual interaction with another human being is conquest rather than exploration, and that sex and domination are inextricably linked.

Messages like this warp our sexuality.

And putting a girl into the role of constantly having to defend her bodily integrity also distorts the development of healthy human sexuality. It tells her that sexual activity with males is full of peril. That it is scary. That she will never be totally free to explore and to sample sexuality in her own way and on her own terms – free from pressure to always go further, further, further. When we promote male sexual aggression, a heterosexual girl’s path toward sexual maturity easily becomes a treacherous endeavor, where there is always the chance that her choice to stop the action – her deciding to say “no” to going any further – may not be respected. Where setting a limit may mean she risks getting raped anyway.

And, in a terrible tightrope that we make only women and girls walk, just as their “no” might not be respected, their saying “yes” might not be respected, either. Say “no” and risk getting called frigid (and risk that he might not stop). But say “yes” and you risk getting called a whore. 

 
(But probably only after the fact….)

Youthful explorations of sexual interaction with another human being should be wonderfully enjoyable experiences! They should be non-coercive, fully voluntary, and with someone similar in age. And they should be fun! They should feel good emotionally, psychologically, and, of course, physically. They should be awesome!

So there is no place in the healthy unfolding of young people’s sexuality for any of this “Lock up your daughters!” crap.

Sixth, you pervert all sexuality. When you turn sexuality into conquest, you take what should be a joyous celebration of life, of the body, and of human connection, and you twist it into something predatory. You warp sex into a win-loss situation, a zero-sum game where one person wins at the expense of another. You also create a dynamic where “having sex” has only one definition (a heterosexual act in which a man’s penis enters a woman’s vagina), and one end goal (when said penis ejaculates into said vagina). And victory comes when – and only when – he does too.

Female sexual pleasure in this “lock up your daughters” scenario is largely irrelevant. And to the degree that it is accounted for at all, it becomes a command performance for the woman. Is she sexually responsive enough to be satisfied by all of his wham-bam moves? And if she doesn’t happen to climax in this context of “male-as-master-of-all-things-sexual,” then there must be something “wrong” with her! No wonder a lot of women feel the need to fake orgasms. And in this context, sadly, her climax (whether real or created) becomes just one more notch on his belt.

It’s not just male infants who are confused. Messages that pervert sexuality are not just limited to the outfits in which we clothe our baby boys. These messages impact older boys and grown men as well – mostly via contact with the flood of pornography that now inundates mainstream culture. If you have internet access, hardcore porn is always just a mouse click away. For free. And it too warps our minds when it comes to sex.

In her 2009 “TED Talk” on this issue, called “Make Love Not Porn,” advertising magnate Cindy Gallup addresses this problem head-on, arguing that the pornified sexuality we see modeled for us nearly everywhere is in fact inaccurate, aggressive, dehumanizing, and almost entirely male-centered. Gallup, who dates and is sexually involved with men in their 20s (and who happens to be a lot more pro-porn than I am), argues that hardcore pornography – which she enjoys watching – mangles our conception of human sexuality. She sees direct evidence of this when the men with whom she is sexually involved try to replicate with her what they have been watching on their computer screens. And they seem dismayed that these moves do not have the same earth-shaking results with her that they seem to have with the porn actresses on-line.

The influence that these screwy messages have on men is especially strong, Gallup argues, because we have nothing in society with which to counter-balance them. There is a near total absence of honest and accurate discussions about sexuality – discussions that should be occurring within our families, within our schools, and within our communities in general.

(You can find her talk here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FV8n_E_6Tpc.)

Finally! A positive message about young women’s sexuality. The vast majority of the world’s cultures simply don’t want to talk with young people about sex, much less about young people having sex. So we have abandoned the whole topic. Honest, overt discussions with young people about sexuality – including the notion, for instance, that sex should be fun! – are simply not happening. This is a real mistake. And it has left the field wide open to the pornographers, who in all too many cases have become our kids’ main teachers about sexuality.

There is, however, a recent film that provides a nice antidote to this pornified education. Called Turn Me On, Dammit, this 2011 Norwegian movie suggests that the Scandinavians are far ahead on the issue of addressing young people’s sexuality. This humorous yet poignant story follows the adventures (and misadventures) of a 15 year-old girl named Alma in rural Norway who is trying to negotiate her burgeoning sexuality. She is horny, and she is having great difficulty finding outlets for her strong urges.

What’s great about this film is not only that it’s funny, and not only that it is a coming-of-age story told from a female perspective, but that it also takes female sexuality very seriously. The film also clearly depicts the difficulty that nearly everyone in Alma’s life has in trying to deal with a young woman who is so honest about her strong sexual desires.

 
And for the boys? As I try to think about positive, affirming portrayals of youthful, hetero male sexuality, scant examples come to mind. There are some excellent gay coming-of-age films (see, for example, “My Beautiful Launderette”), but for straight boys there ain’t much. To me, this serves as further proof that hetero male sexuality remains a terribly under-examined social phenomenon. A lot has been written about women’s sexuality. A lot has been written about the sexuality of gay men. But there is very little thoughtful examination of the sexuality of us heterosexual men.

We hetero guys just tend to see ourselves and our sexuality as “normal”. And if something is just “normal,” then why study it, right? But the cold reality is that we don’t have a sweet clue when it comes to the true qualities and possible variabilities of male heterosexual experience and desire.

Even the wikipedia page entry for “human male sexuality” is almost entirely about gay men! And it is great to see the material that is there. But straight men, in our “normalcy,” remain utterly unexamined. Ignorant. If male heterosexuality were a garden, it is a place where almost no one is turning over the rocks or shaking the bushes to see what is actually there. So instead of having real facts about the experience of male heterosexuals, we have only our stereotypes: that we hetero guys are always ready to have sex, that “sex” is always a goal-driven activity – a goal successfully reached only when we ejaculate into a woman’s vagina or into some other orifice, and that we straight guys are all sexually aggressive by nature.

 
But other than these stereotypes, the slate remains pretty blank – only to be filled by the graphic, artificial images of the male-dominated, for-profit (for-immense-profit) porn industry, and by stupid shirts for babies that say things like “Lock up your daughters!”

Clearly, as all those academics are always saying: “More research is needed.”

Imprisoning the wrong person. But rest assured, you little shirt, it is not my daughter whom I will be locking up. For she is not the one with the problem. And if some boy – who has been trained up into being sexually aggressive – hurts her, then it will be him, and not her, whom I will be looking to lock up.

And as for you, my shirty little friend, I will have no qualms about turning you into a dust rag.