Erotic Disruption: on James Deen and my students at Daily Life

At Daily Life Australia, a column on porn star James Deen and his merrily disruptive sexuality:

“It felt really good to be in a classroom where we could openly acknowledge that women get horny too without it being unsafe or weird,” one student wrote in an email.

“What I got out of his talk was encouragement not to be ashamed of ourselves,” said another student. “We fear living out our true desires, and we fear the shame that will most likely shadow us if we do. Our college’s reaction to James Deen shows us exactly how much they’re still invested in perpetuating that shame … at least for women.”

It would be wrong to equate criticism of the industry that has made Deen a superstar with a refusal to accept that women are visual creatures, too. It’s possible to be against both porn and shame. At the same time, there’s no denying that Deen’s meteoric rise reflects a cultural shift towards acknowledging that young (and not so young) women are as hungry for sexual pleasure as men.

As the unprecedentedly nervous administrative reaction to Deen’s appearance on my campus showed, that shift is profoundly threatening. When men realise that women aren’t just sexy, but sexual in their own right, the fear of not being able to live up to female demands can become overwhelming.

The more we deny and shame women’s libidos, the more we insulate men from the pressure to satisfy them. That’s what makes Deen such a destabilising, even dangerous cultural figure.

Read the whole thing.

A Preference for Bare Genitals Has Nothing to Do with Pedophilia: a Mea Culpa

A story, and an apology.

When I was 16, I spent a month visiting my grandmother in Vienna. Oma gave English lessons from her apartment, and asked one of her best students — Bettina, who was six months older than I was — to show me around. Over the course of four weeks, I fell head-over-heels in love and lust with this witty, mercurial, dark-haired beauty.

One hot June day, Bettina took me swimming in the Old Danube. Like many others, she went topless. (I wish I had a photo of my face the moment my first love stripped down.) And like so many other European women in the early 1980s, Bettina had no interest in body hair removal. She had light down on her upper lip, dark tufts under her armpits — and luxuriant pubic hair curling out around the sides of her bikini bottoms. I thought it was the sexiest thing I’d ever seen. From that moment forth, I became an ardent advocate for swearing off razors and wax. And over the next 30 years, though it would never be a deal-breaker with subsequent partners, I’ve always made it quietly clear that my own erotic preference is for an entirely unshaven pubic area.

Like a lot of people, I’m guilty of having made personal predilections into moral claims. In a 2005 post on the lamentable John Derbyshire, I connected the growing popularity for Brazilian waxes to pedophilia (a link that, of course, others have made too.) I wrote that the preference for hairlessness “symbolized a lack of maturity” and a dangerous sexual fixation on girlishness.

What changed my views was having a daughter. Until Heloise was born, I’d never examined an infant’s nether regions closely. But I was a quick study on the diaper changing and the bathing, and it soon became clear to me what so many other people already knew — a hairless infant vulva looks nothing like an adult woman’s bare hoo-hoo. Whatever forces lie behind the preference for a waxed vulva, a desire to make a woman who has gone through puberty look like a girl who hasn’t strikes me as highly unlikely.

I repent of the insistence that those men and women who are partial to smooth, unobscured genitalia (their own or their partners’) are evincing a “lack of maturity” and a fear of adult sexuality. I was wrong to make that charge and will dispute that claim when I hear it repeated.

But as for me, I still have the same preference that was sealed — irrevocably — on a hot central European summer day almost 30 years ago. Napoleon is said, apocryphally, to have written to Josephine whilst on a campaign, asking her to forego bathing for at least five days before his arrival home. Were I he, I’d have thrown in a humble request that I’d also like skin untouched by razor or wax.

David Beckham Makes Over Burger King — and Makes Middle-Aged Men Swoon

At Role/Reboot this week, my reflection on a certain new Burger King ad featuring the most famous metrosexual of them all, David Beckham. Excerpt:

Just a few short years ago, Burger King, their sales slumping, ran their infamous “I am Man” ads. The ads celebrated rebellious masculine carnivorousness with such vigor that some thought they were a campy parody; alas, they were all too real. The commercials failed to revive BK’s fortunes, a predictable result of a campaign that insulted men and completely ignored their female customer base.

Times change. Having ditched the machismo and their iconic king, BK is back with a new round of advertising, focusing on their expanded, lighter, less meat-focused menu. One new ad features David Beckham attempting to order a Real Fruit Smoothie. The woman behind the counter is so smitten by Becks she freezes; when her older male manager comes to assist, he too falls for the charm of the globe’s most famous soccer player.

More on what this means for changing sexual attitudes — and changing fast-food menus — here.

As an LA Galaxy fan, however, this is what had me swooning this month..

Beauty and Sexuality at Relevant Magazine

It’s been years since I’ve written for a Christian audience, so I’m excited to have a post today at the progressive evangelical Relevant Magazine. Beauty and Sexuality revisits issues of grace, desire, community and aesthetic appreciation:

Because we refuse to take seriously men’s ability to not lust in the presence of loveliness, we shame the great many women who—whatever their other fabulous qualities—also want to be affirmed for their beauty. If every man is “fighting a battle” against lust, and if few men are capable of distinguishing appreciation for beauty from carnal longing, then every woman who dresses to be validated becomes a traitor to the cause of spiritual purity. The end result is devastating for too many. Lauren Lankford Dubinsky, founder of the Good Women Project, wrote in an email that “women are victimized by the soul-crushing weight of having your motives (or even personal worth) judged incorrectly on the basis of something as simple as an article of clothing. A huge percentage of women within the Church are silently battling eating disorders, self-harm, pornography addiction and depression—all stemming from misplaced shame, a shame they feel because fellow Christians have equated their beauty with intentional malice or deliberate seductiveness toward men.”

To put it another way, we shame men by insisting they’re fundamentally weak, constantly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by sexual impulses. We shame women for not being better stewards of that supposed weakness. That shame doesn’t just lead to unhealthy sexual relationships (including between husbands and wives); it leaves too many men feeling like potential predators and too many women feeling as if they’re vain, shallow temptresses.

After having written for the Good Men Project for so long, it’s fun to be affiliated with The Good Women Project. I’m grateful to founder Lauren Dubinsky for helping arrange the piece to appear at Relevant.

I can’t stress strongly enough that this article is written for a Christian audience that sees lust as problematic. I recognize that that’s not a universally held position, and if I were writing for secular readers, I’d frame the problem slightly differently. But whether one believes lust is a sin or not, the reality is that both the church and the wider world put the lion’s share of responsibility for male desire onto women. And that’s indefensibly unfair.

Why Desire Matters Too: The Dangers of Underestimating Sexual Compatibility

An earlier version of this appeared in 2010.

I recently got a Facebook message from a former student of mine named “May,” a message which opened:

Is it possible to have feelings for someone and not be physically attracted to them? Aren’t they supposed to go hand in hand?

May gave me her permission to write a response here, though I did give her a more personal one as well.

I’ve gotten this question from others before — and not just from young people. I dealt with that issue in this February 2008 post on the indispensability of passion. Writing contra the infamous Lori Gottlieb, I said

Yes, passion may fade over time. But trust me on this one: there is a world of difference between being in a marriage in which the passion has cooled and one in which there was never any heat to begin with. Expecting sexual heat to endure (without any increase in effort) for years is unrealistic; settling for a marriage where there isn’t even any memory of fire and passion is, I think, too great a compromise.

That was true for marriage. But what of May, still in high school, contemplating what it is that she should do about a budding relationship with a classmate?

Depending on our stance, we tend to either oversell or dismiss young women’s sexuality. It is certainly far from true that adolescent girls aren’t interested in sex, just as it is far from true that adolescent boys are interested in nothing but. But even as we resist the traditional straitjacket narratives about teenagers and desire, we do need to acknowledge that we raise our sons and daughters to experience desire differently. And we need to acknowledge something else, something that forms part of a gentle warning to May: young women often overestimate their capacity to make things work.

Anyone who works with teenagers knows that grandiosity and low self-esteem often go hand in hand. I wrote about that in a post called I have so much love to give: young women and self-flattery.

Teenage girls are renowned for their vicious self-criticism. Time and again, I’ve heard young women criticize their own appearance, their academic shortcomings, their bad habits. But those same young women will often hasten to say, if they are or have been in a relationship, “You know, I’m a pretty awesome girlfriend.” Or if they haven’t yet been in one: “I am an incredibly loving person, and I would give so much to the right guy.”

There’s a corollary to that. Some young women overestimate their capacity not only to love with great intensity, they overestimate the malleability of their own emotions. Sexual identity is fluid — for both sexes. But that fluidity has its limits, and that’s something that on occasion, the young fail to understand. May hasn’t said this, but I’ve heard things like this from many of her peers: “I really like Leroy. I think I could fall in love with Leroy. I’m not physically attracted to Leroy, but he’s perfect in every other way. And you know, I think if I work at finding things about him that are desirable, I can make myself want him. And if I can’t, I think I can learn to live without that passion. I can make anything work.” Continue reading

“I can’t see you with a fat chick”: shame, homosociality, and desire

The title is godawful, but this Village Voice article is both interesting and important: Guys Who Like Fat Chicks.

Men who are sexually attracted to heavy women are more numerous than we’re led to believe, Camile Dodero writes, and that has important implications both for our understanding of male sexuality and for our ongoing conversation about weight and desire. The title of the piece, however, frames the attraction to fat women as an unusual fetish, an odd quirk that only a few men share. That’s unfortunate, because the article is more nuanced than that, exploring the ways in which fat has been stigmatized and heavier women have been both exploited and desexualized. The familiar myths (such as fat women’s much-hyped desperation for a relationship) are debunked. And though the article still centers men’s attraction to heavier women rather than women themselves, it’s a useful conversation starter.

In 2006, I wrote a post called Men, Women, Homosociality and Weight. So much of men’s focus on thin women, I pointed out, is wrapped up in the desire to gain status in the eyes of other men. One of the most basic tasks for heterosexual men is a simple one: learning to separate what it is that they personally find desirable from their desire to impress others. Our ruthlessly fat-phobic culture doesn’t give fat people “trophy” status, even if (as the article suggests) many men are sexually drawn to heavier women. I wrote five years ago:

Men are taught to find “hot” what other men find “hot.” The whole notion of a “trophy girlfriend” is based on the reality that a great many men use female desireability to establish status with other men. And in our current cultural climate where thinness is idealized, a slender partner is almost always going to be worth more than a heavy one. For men who have not yet extricated themselves from homosocial competition, their own self-esteem and sense of intra-male status may decline in direct proportion to their girlfriend’s weight gain.

Let me stress that this is absolutely not women’s problem to solve! My goal is not to make women who gain weight feel bad; protecting a fragile male ego is not a woman’s responsibility. The key thing men need to do is get honest about their own desire to use female desireability to establish status in the eyes of other men. And here’s where pro-feminist men can do a terrific service by challenging one another and holding each other accountable for the ways in which we are tempted to use our wives and girlfriends as trophies.

When I linked to the Village Voice piece on my Facebook yesterday, a friend asked if I had ever dated a “fat chick.” It reminded me that when my 2006 post appeared, one of my colleagues, a very heavy woman with whom I am very close, remarked “I could never see you with a fat girlfriend.”

I wasn’t surprised by the comment. When it comes to relationships, we expect a disconnect between what people say and what they do. Many heavy women do have painful stories of men who were quite happy to fuck them in private but refuse to date them in public. Continue reading

Perfectionism, Libido, and Older Men/Younger Women links, plus a conference

Different websites have radically different commenting communities. This has been driven home to me in recent months as my pieces have been republished at other places. It’s not that various blogs and magazines have widely divergent rules for commenting; it’s that they often seem to have completely different readers.

For example, my post on the problem of older men sexualizing younger women attracted a storm of male criticism at the Good Men Project. What runs on Tuesday at GMP runs on Thursdays at The Frisky. Though you need to be logged in to read responses at the latter site, the largely female readership at The Frisky offered a starkly different take. Though the responses were more positive, as one might expect, many young women who are in relationships with older men were strongly critical of what they saw as my refusal to differentiate between teens and early twenty-somethings.

Jezebel kindly reprints my post on the Damaging Expectation of Higher Male Desire. It got only a handful of responses here, but about 80 so far (and counting) at their place.

And I’m very grateful to Chloe at Feministing for driving some Friday traffic to yesterday’s post “If I Were Thinner, I’d Have the Right to Expect More”: on perfectionism and the scarcity model.

And I’ll be speaking (and moderating) at the Applied Women’s Studies Conference at Claremont Graduate University tomorrow morning. The panel I’m chairing is on Feminist Masculinities, and I’ll be sharing the dais with some terrific activist men. Here’s a link to the program; come on out today (or tomorrow)!

“But he’s supposed to want it more”: the damaging expectation of higher male desire

After so many years of blogging, teaching, mentoring, and writing, you find yourself getting the same questions over and over again. (Questions about the wisdom of age-disparate and long-distance relationships, for example, are evergreen.) But there are other topics that come up often as well, like incompatible sexual desire. (See here, for example.) And as is often the case, I get multiple queries on the same topic at the same time from different sources; call it kismet or synchronicity, the topic of what happens when a woman has a stronger libido than her male partner has come up four times this week.

Our myths about sex drive tell us that men are supposed to peak in horniness in their late teens, while women only reach their full libidinousness on the high side of thirty. A lot of us suspect that to the extent there’s any truth to this at all, it has a good deal less to do with biology, and more to do with the long and difficult road so many women have to travel to discover and accept their own sexuality. Slut-shaming and sexualization work together to make girls acutely conscious of others’ wants and expectations while shutting them off from their own desires. It’s hard to hear one’s own “still, small voice” of longing if you’ve been raised to be a people pleaser!

But of course, so many young women don’t fit this model, just as the guys they date often don’t fit the male stereotype of constant randiness. And for many young women, finding themselves in a sexual relationship where they are the higher desire partner can be deeply confusing. One FB email this week from a former student of mine:

Before I had sex, my fantasy was always that a beautiful man would want me so much that he would lose all control, overpowering me. Not a rape fantasy exactly, just the idea of driving some hot guy crazy with lust. I guess you’d say my arousal was tied into how aroused the guy was by me. That was my number one fantasy for years and years. But Tom (name changed, of course) doesn’t seem to want sex nearly as often as I do. I’d like it almost every day, and he’d like it a few times a week. We don’t get much time together as it is, and this is driving me nuts.

I hear variations on that quite often (though rarely several times in one week.) And of course, my former student is hurt and confused. She knows enough to know how much of her own sexuality was shaped by cultural messages about uncontrollable male desire. She’s done a great job of leaving behind the message that “good girls don’t really want sex”. But while she’s given herself permission to want and to have, she’s still got the old tape playing that says that in heterosexual relationships, particularly among young people, the man should always be hornier than the woman. Continue reading