Two Genderal Columns on Men and Sexuality

Because I didn’t have a column at Jezebel last week, I’ve had two up in the past four days.

The first is based on the great research on male promiscuity by my friend Andrew Smiler: Why Do We Think Guys Just Want Sex? Excerpt:

In Challenging Casanova, Smiler notes that heterosexual young men tend to fall into three categories: a small percentage of “players” with a high number of sexual partners; an equally small percentage of young (almost always devoutly religious) dudes who are determined to remain abstinent until marriage, and a much larger third group whom he argues want to follow “a reasonably traditional, romantic approach to dating.” Even when they’re “hooking up” (a practice that is neither as novel nor as ubiquitous as wistful and censorious aging pundits imagine) these guys are engaging in the gateway behavior into what they hope will be a relationship.

These findings contradict most of our received wisdom about what young men really want. “I’m constantly told that the ‘boys are lying’ to me about what they really want,” Smiler says in a phone interview. “The Casanova myth is so deeply ingrained that people are convinced that boys who claim to want relationships rather than casual sex are either incredibly rare or full of crap.” The small number of genuinely promiscuous boys is explained away by absence of opportunity rather than absence of desire; the myth that most young men would be Casanovas if they could is as tenacious as it is unfounded. There seem to be few other aspects of human sexual behavior where the disconnect between reality and perception is so vast.

In the second piece, Why We Still Fall for the Myth of the Uncontrollable Boner, I look at the way the “myth of male weakness” still functions to excuse infidelity:

Wachs’ suggestion that “every man’s fantasy” is to cheat on an “aging” wife (who doesn’t appreciate him) with an “adoring younger woman” reframes an individual act of betrayal as an unavoidable male failing. This recasting is comforting. It’s a lot more pleasant to believe that your husband is weak than it is to believe that he had the capacity to resist temptation, but made a conscious decision not to do so. This is what makes the “myth of the uncontrollable boner” so seductive; it’s preferable to think that a painful betrayal was the result of irresistible evolutionary imperatives rather than choice. “My man is so manly that he gets urges that trump his very real love for me” is ever so much prettier than “In the end, he didn’t care about me enough to keep it in his pants.”

The Price of Exclusion: a Plea from my Other Daughter

Lauren, one of my former “youth group kids,” has often made a pseudonymous appearance on this blog. She was the “Brynne” in this piece on the virtues of long-distance relationships, she was “Holly” in this post about escaping the perfectionism trap and in this post about kissing scenes on stage.

I’ve known Lauren since she was 12; she’s now nearly 21 and a college student double-majoring in gender studies and English. And she’s not only given me permission to “out” her, she’s asked me to do so and to share this post she put up on her Tumblr today, talking about our relationship and the impact the controversy surrounding me has had upon her. The Price of Exclusion: Why You Should Stop Hating Hugo was not a post I asked her to write, but I’m beyond grateful that she did. Excerpts:

Hugo Schwyzer is my father, for all terms and purposes minus biological, and he has saved my life. Hugo Schwyzer deserves forgiveness, not because of his past actions, but because of his present actions, his sincere atonement, and his inspiring bravery to be painfully honest. And finally, Hugo Schwyzer is an inspiring example of what it means to be a feminist. I have wanted to write this for a long time. Though it almost seems pointless, knowing how difficult it is to change minds, this is something I need to say.

I should explain our unorthodox relationship before I start. I met Hugo when I was 12, at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. With others, he led the youth program. My mother essentially forced me to join the confirmation program my freshman year of high school, but it turned out to be the most influential year yet. At that time in my life, my parents had been divorced for two years, because of my (biological) father’s infidelity. I was the one to find evidence of this affair, accidentally discovering and reading explicit letters written by and to my father, when I was only ten. My father and I thus barely spoke for those two years. I was just starting to forgive him when he suddenly fell ill. Though it took months to reach a diagnosis, we eventually learned he had contracted encephalitis. This is similar to Alzheimer’s; his brain is inflamed, so his short term memory is effectively gone. His long term is somewhat intact, but he might think it’s 1985 one day and 1991 the next. He no longer recognizes me, and I haven’t seen him in over four years.

My point to this is that I was incredibly vulnerable when I met Hugo. I was grieving the loss of my father and struggling to make up for his sudden and complete absence. I battled with extreme guilt and coped by switching boyfriends every month. Though I was only thirteen, Hugo treated me, and every other youth group member, like mature adults, not silly teenagers; unlike most adults, he gave our thoughts and feelings weight and validation. He never wrote us off as stupid adolescents and was always there to listen. He helped me through the most difficult time of my life. I know plenty of people who are just waiting to hear how Hugo took advantage of me, or how he manipulated me: but he never did. I was obviously incredibly vulnerable, and Hugo had every opportunity to take advantage of that. BUT HE NEVER DID. Did I make that clear enough? Hugo wouldn’t even hug me without my explicit permission. Which, by the way, he still does today.

Bullying the Bullies or Challenging the Creepers? On Ending the Demand For Creepshots

Today’s column at Role/Reboot looks at the recent exposure of two of the Internet’s most spectacular “creeps” — and at the culture of male complicity that sustained them. Excerpt:

We need to see that in their own bizarre way, cyber-predators are as much exhibitionists as they are voyeurs. They derive obvious pleasure from violating young girls’ privacy. But as their boasting makes clear, an equally vital turn-on comes when they are recognized for their ability to source and post images that no one else can. It’s “kiss and tell” behavior in which the blackmail of children substitutes for the kissing, but the payoff is the same: other men’s praise.

It’s important to warn teens about the dangers of webcams, and it’s vital to hunt down nasty trolls like Brutsch and sadists like Maxson. We need to acknowledge, however, that this is a strategy that focuses on drying up the “supply” of images and videos that get posted online. The real solution lies in ending adult men’s demand for visual access to the bodies of the underage and the unsuspecting. That’s only quixotic if we believe that most straight men’s sexuality is both naturally predatory and naturally directed toward adolescent girls.

The currency of “creepshots,” “jailbait,” and blackmail isn’t sex. It’s power—the power to capture the image of a girl who doesn’t know she’s being photographed, or to shame her by endlessly reposting what was meant to be a private image. What drew male fans to Brutsch and Maxson wasn’t just the chance to see pubescent boobs, but to bond over the experience of another human being’s humiliation. Ending the allure of these forums will mean challenging men to make this kind of exploitation fundamentally unacceptable.

Only Secrets are Safe: Prurience, Predatory Boys, and the Policing of Girls’ Sexuality

My Genderal Interest column this week has proven my 2nd most successful (in terms of page views) since I began writing for Jezebel just over a year ago. Here’s If It’s Not a Secret, It’s Not Safe: Girls, Boys and the Pleasure Paradox.

Excerpt:

In teaching courses on sexuality, I’ve heard what’s essentially the same anecdote from many female students. They tell stories -– usually from their high school years — of being asked by male friends if they masturbate. If they say “no,” they’re accused of lying; if they say “yes,” they’re almost invariably peppered with requests for explicit details of how they get themselves off. Some of these guys may be looking for reassurance that girls really are sexual creatures, but many seem to be trying to feed their own masturbatory fantasies. The assumption that Ford mentions –- that those who ask about young women’s pleasure are pruriently preoccupied with it –- may not always be accurate, but it’s at least partly grounded in the real experiences of many girls. Pleasure itself may not be dangerous, but talking about it in the wrong company can be.

Another aspect of the problem is the enduring myth that masturbation is a mere substitute for sex with another person. Normalizing self-pleasure as part of healthy adolescent development makes sense, but that entails more than a vibrator for one’s 15th birthday. It requires ending the remarkably persistent stigma that masturbation is a sign of desperation, social ineptitude, or sexual insatiability. Reframing pleasure as responsible self-care is part of the answer, but so too is making it clear to men and boys that young women’s horniness isn’t a proclamation of sexual availability.

In a class discussion recently, one student recounted that when she had admitted to a male high school acquaintance that she had a vibrator, not only did he ask to see it, but he assumed that because she liked to have orgasms she’d automatically be interested in sex with him. “He was upset when I rejected him,” my student said, “because he actually couldn’t seem to understand how wanting to come in private didn’t translate into a willingness to fuck all of my guy friends.” For too many guys, women’s sexual desire is something fungible, easily transferred from vibrator to dude to dude. This myth is at the heart of slut-shaming: in guy culture, women who don’t confine their sexuality to one monogamous relationship with a man have a kind of democratic moral obligation to make their bodies available to every interested male party.

Boys Do Cry: How To Deal With a Breakup Like a Man

I originally co-wrote this for Scarleteen in 2009, and appears here with permission of both that site and the co-author. It was written for teen boys struggling with painful break-ups.

Breaking up; getting dumped; dumping someone – chances are, this has happened to most people you know.

The first romantic relationships we have rarely survive a lifetime. Some teens and twentysomethings do genuinely expect their “first loves” to last forever, while others are more realistic, hoping only that a relationship will last until some mutually agreeable moment in the future. And when the break-ups do happen, as they almost inevitably will, they are rarely painless. Guys in particular are often surprised by how badly the end of a relationship can hurt, and are particularly vulnerable to feeling isolated, lonely, and without anyone to turn to to process through that pain.

It’s important not to over-generalize. At the same time, it’s vital to note that we live in a society that prohibits men, especially young men, from acknowledging their emotional pain. The “boys don’t cry” ethos is a powerful one in almost every corner of American culture, and the damage it does is very real. Just as little boys on the playground often are taught that they must toughen up and ignore the bumps and scrapes that their bodies suffer, teenage guys pick up the message from their male peers that a break-up ought to be more cause for relief than pain. “Dude, you’re a free man!” is how well-meaning friends may respond; the myth that women eagerly seek out commitment while men just as eagerly seek to avoid it is just that, a myth, but many guys feel as if they should be less torn up than they really are.

Though not all young women feel as if they have permission to grieve after a relationship is over, most do. Television shows and movies which depict teenage breakups often show young women with strong emotional reactions; in particular, the media makes it clear that women have permission to talk about their feelings, and can expect sympathy and understanding from peers and family. Of course, not every young woman has friends with whom to process through that pain – but many do. Our cultural expectation that women can and will talk at length about their emotions, and seek advice and sympathy from friends, gives young women the sense that it’s okay to reach out for the help that they need.

Guys are often told to suppress their feelings through denial, or by trying to go out and hook up with someone new as soon as possible. They are also much less likely to see media images of young men acknowledging grief and reaching out for help and reassurance. In the movies, male tears at the end of relationships– if they appear at all – are often played for laughs or for ridicule. And though some young men do learn that it’s “okay” to cry in private, or to cry in front of a girlfriend, it is a rare young man in our culture who feels as if he can shed tears in front of his male buddies or partners without judgment. (It’s always a good conversation starter with boys: ask how they would react if their best male friend cried in front of them while asking for help. Even in this enlightened era, far too many guys are totally “at wits end” when confronted by a male friend’s evident emotional pain.) Though there is some anecdotal evidence that this is starting to change, far too few guys have the sense that their pain will be validated if they share it with their friends.

One result of this lack of access to a strong support system is that many guys, when they get into romantic relationships, become heavily, even exclusively emotionally reliant on their girlfriends. Many young women are regularly struck by how many young men will show strong, honest, raw emotion with them in private. More than a few young women have had boyfriends who broke down in front of them and said “I never told anyone this” as they opened up a raw and real source of pain. While that openness is usually reciprocated, in our culture it is much more likely that a young woman will have other emotional resources (friends of either sex, family) to whom she can turn. To put it another way, all too often her boyfriend is her best friend while she is his only close friend, at least the only one with whom he can cry and be completely vulnerable. And that means that when the break-up happens, the guy may be far more likely to be without anyone to whom to turn.

It often seems, as a result, that it takes young men longer to get over a breakup than it does young women. Continue reading

The Real Reason Some Boys Won’t Play With Girls

At Role/Reboot today, I look at the latest in a string of incidents in USA high school sports where boys have refused to compete against girls. Excerpt:

As women integrate themselves into what were once all-male spaces (like universities, corporate boardrooms, and Congress), even the most ardent traditionalists have been forced to accept women’s intellectual equality with men.

But that grudging acquiescence to egalitarianism in most public spaces means an even fiercer determination to protect the few remaining all-male bastions, be they Marine barracks or baseball diamonds.

As long as there are still a few remaining spaces in which women are not allowed, defenders of traditional gender roles can still resist the modern claim that men and women are far more alike than they are different. They may have to cope with alarming innovations like sexually assertive girlfriends or ambitious female colleagues, but in sports (whether as players or spectators) men who are uncomfortable with equality hope to find a space where biology is still destiny. When girls like Cassy Herkelman or Paige Sulzbach prove themselves capable of playing alongside boys, they demonstrate that the physical distinctions between the sexes are not as great as we imagined. For those already uncomfortable with women’s growing economic, sexual, and political power, this concrete evidence of their commensurate athletic ability is shattering. Forfeiting becomes the only way to sustain the illusion that men and women are fundamentally different; regardless of the outcome, to play against girls would demonstrate tacit acceptance of women’s equality.

Kinder, Gentler, and Less Likely to Become Teen Dads: Today’s Adolescent Guys and the Birth Rate

My Genderal Interest column at Jezebel this week: Is the Teen Birth Rate Dropping Because Boys are More Romantic? Excerpt:

…in terms of their emotional dexterity, boys today are “more like girls” than ever before. Perhaps that’s because girls today are more like boys. In the past 25 years, girls have made undeniable progress educationally, athletically, financially –- and sexually. That success has often come with a heavy dose of anxiety-ridden perfectionism. Teen girls’ agency is easily oversold; many adults (not to mention adolescents) have a hard time distinguishing a performed sexiness from authentic sexual desire. But this progress isn’t illusory either; young women seem better equipped to name what they want than were their counterparts 25 years ago. As more and more girls have at least begun to escape the straitjacket of classic feminine expectations, they’ve given permission to their brothers to start to do the same. The end result is that in terms of what they want from sex, boys and girls may be more alike than ever before.

As Michael Kimmel, C.J. Pascoe, and other sociologists of masculinity have shown, traditional adolescent male heterosexual behavior has been driven as much by the desire to win approval from other men as by biological lust itself. Having sex with girls (preferably lots of girls) is a way of establishing masculine bona fides. Some of that is tied up neatly with homophobia; the more sex a young man has with women, the less likely he’ll be slapped with the “faggot” label. Yet recent research has shown that just within the past decade, boys have become much less homophobic. As fear of being labeled “gay” decreases, guys may well feel less pressure to have sex to prove their heterosexuality. The fact that guys are waiting longer to have heterosexual intercourse -– and are more likely to use contraception when they do finally have it — may owe as much to their own changing definitions of manhood as it does to fear or the economy. That’s a good thing.

Judy Blume’s Boy Fans

My Genderal Interest column this week looks at the influence on boys of the legendary Young Adult writer Judy Blume. Blume achieved fame as one of the most frequently banned and most consistently celebrated of authors who wrote for teen girls — but young men read her work too. Excerpt:

Judy Blume’s books shattered the old prejudice that teenage girls had no interest in sex. Emailing back and forth with these 31 men, I realized that her writing helped break down another myth as well. Though like Chris and me, these guys underlined the “dirty parts” when they were in junior high, Blume’s works were so much more than stroke material. The real thrill of these books lay in the insight they offered into a world we desperately wanted to understand. The image of adolescent boys as perpetually horny is grounded in considerable truth – but contrary to stereotype, raging teenage libidos don’t necessarily cancel out compassionate curiosity.

Reading Judy Blume didn’t just show me how strong, how hungry, and how ambitious young women could be. My own reaction to her novels, and to the complex female characters within them, taught me that arousal and empathy could coexist within me. Just like girls, I could lust and care – at the same time. As many other men told me this week, I wasn’t the only one to learn this lesson from these enduringly powerful books. Blume satisfied our curiosity and showed us our own compassion. “I can’t imagine my adolescence without her books,” emailed Brendan (41); I wrote back that I couldn’t more fervently agree.

No Grey Area: The Lolita Myth and the Lingering Lie of Male Weakness

Today’s column at Good Men Project asks a simple question and gives an even simpler answer: Can Young Girls Really Seduce Older Men? Excerpt:

Rightly concerned as we are about the sexualization of young children, we need to be careful to remember that teens and tweens are sexual. Children and adolescents need the space and the freedom with which to develop their own healthy sexualities, free from the unhelpful encouragement to “be sexy” for others and from the equally toxic pressure to repress all of their desires until marriage. And one key way we help young girls develop a healthy sexuality that is theirs alone is by creating a culture in which they don’t see themselves as objects of adult male desire. That means the onus is solely on adult men to set and maintain good boundaries.

Some teens do want, or think they want, sexual attention from older men. But the reality that underage girls (be they 11 or 17) occasionally behave seductively towards older men doesn’t mean that older men can “be seduced.” The word “seduce” means “to be led away” or “to be led astray.” No adult is so weak that he (or she) is powerless to refuse sexual temptation, much less from a child. As powerful as the libido is, it is not so strong as to trump the will. Testosterone may drive desire, but unless a man has sustained significant trauma to the moral center of his brain, hormones can’t override the power to choose. (Hint: an erection doesn’t constitute significant trauma to the right temporo-parietal junction.)

The Slut-Shaming of Amanda Knox, updated

Amanda Knox has been freed by a court in Italy. I am immensely relieved and pleased, and my reasons why are in this GMP post today: Amanda Knox Freed, But the Slut-Shaming Goes On. It concludes:

When I look at the face of Amanda Knox, I see someone who looks a great deal like many of the students I taught. When I hear the details of her private life discussed with both salacious enthrallment and feigned repugnance, I think of the experiences of so many of my students who went abroad with me. When I hear the twisted, groundless narrative that the prosecution offered, something along the lines of “American girl is sexually curious and open about it and she smoked pot: therefore it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to stabbing one’s prudish roommate to death”, I’m enraged and indignant. What happened to Amanda Knox — and I am nearly as convinced of her innocence as her parents — could have happened to a dozen young women I knew and taught in Italy.

Make no mistake, I grieve the loss of Meredith Kercher and the horrible way she died. But I have little doubt that if Knox had been a little less pretty, a little less sexual, and a little less American, she’d never have spent a day in prison for her roommate’s murder.

I rejoice in her freedom today.