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12.1.11

The Alleged Pathologization of Male Sexuality, Part II: Thorn's three points

In the comments to my previous post, Clarisse Thorn asked what I thought of the three key points she made in the conclusion to her "creep" article, since none of them deal with the specific issue of the word "creep." It seems to me to make sense to deal with them in reverse order. (Note that the discussion here is focused on heterosexual relationships -- I don't have the expertise to suggest how these phenomena manifest in transmuted forms for other people.)

3. Let's all discourage sexuality that's actually predatory or non-consensual. This should be an obvious point for anyone affiliated in any way with feminism. And it's vital that this be kept front and center in any discussion of male sexuality, no matter how celebratory that discussion's intent. Since this point has been such a major focus of feminism for so long, I don't think there's much for me to add at this point.

2. Male sexuality should be approached from the concept of pleasure rather than accomplishment. This again sounds like a long-standing feminist concern. Men are taught that sexuality is about achieving conquests rather than sharing pleasure. The usual focus is on how this negatively impacts women, who are used and exploited in ways ranging from inattentive partners to rape. Thorn flips the focus around to examining how men's ability to pursue a satisfying sex life is inhibited by the demand for accomplishment. This is certainly an angle worth looking at, so long as in the larger discussion it doesn't eclipse the usual focus. This is not just because the scale of the harm done to women by sex-as-accomplishment is greater than the harm done to men, but also because emphasizing the benefits to men as the primary reason to refocus on pleasure reinforces the very centering of male desire that's at the root of the problem in the first place.

It's also interesting to consider this point in light of the "pathologization of male desire" thesis that this series of posts is centered around (a thesis which, I should point out, is an amalgam of the views of a variety of people, not a proposal unique to Thorn). The core pathologization thesis holds that we spend so much time focusing on the ways that male heterosexual desire can be bad that people can no longer see ways that it can be good. But criticism of the accomplishment model is just pointing out one specific way that male heterosexuality manifests in a bad way. Addressing this point is not a matter of giving men space to feel like their heterosexual desires are valid, space which has been denied to them because of a discourse that all heterosexual desire is dangerous. This point would be addressed through reforming the way male heterosexual desire is constructed and expressed -- that desire is bad in practice, but can be fixed. So in a way pondering this specific concern about male desire undermines the pathologization thesis. It shows that every criticism of male desire contains within it a pointer to a better way of constructing and expressing that desire. We don't need some separate space in which to celebrate the validity of male desire.

1. Accept male desire, and accept men's word when they talk about it. This is the trickiest point to deal with, because it is extremely broad and directly implicates the pathologization thesis.

A lot depends here on our diagnosis of why men allegedly do not have their desires accepted and don't have their word accepted when they talk. I can think of at least three possibilities:

1) The men in question have legitimately shameful desires, and feel ethically inhibited from talking about them. Here, I think the need for an accepting space occurs only in a therapeutic context. A guy may need to be able to talk to a therapist about his desire to have sex with children without fear of judgment, as part of a process of working through and fixing those desires. But that's not something that the broader society needs to be providing additional space for. Indeed, on this count I'd say we have the opposite problem -- men with inappropriate desires feel much too free to express them and to demand to be taken seriously.

2) Men with desires that run counter to the established narrative of proper masculinity feel inhibited from admitting them. Here we're talking about desires like having sex with fat women or getting pegged, which are morally neutral yet treated by our culture as unacceptably unmanly. This is a serious problem. Narrow and pathological constructions of male sexuality (such as that sex should be about accomplishment rather than pleasure!) are created and maintained by the pressure on men not to admit or act on the ways their desires may deviate from this norm -- to the point that people start imagining that this norm is biologically hard-wired.

But if this is the problem, I'm not sure Thorn has identified the correct solution -- "Just as more and more space is being made for forthright discussion of female sexuality, more and more space should be made for forthright discussion of male sexuality." We had to make more space for forthright discussion of female sexuality because prior to feminism there was no space at all to discuss female sexuality -- the idea that women had sexual desires at all was denied. But our culture has no problem with the idea that men have sexual desires, and with creating tons of space to discuss those desires. The problem is that those discussions are narrow and serve to discipline male desire rather than being open and serving to explore desire. So we don't need new spaces so much as we need men who are in the old spaces in which male desire is discussed -- the locker rooms and the lad mags and so on -- to push back against the prevailing norms of acceptable desire and make more diversity of experience acceptable (all the while being willing to call out those desires and ways of expressing them that we have determined are genuinely unacceptable).

It's worth noting as well that this form of inhibiting the expression of male desire is in a way the opposite of the pathologization thesis or the issues raised by concerns about the word "creep." It's not about desires being held back because they're allegedly dangerous to women. It's in many cases about desires being held back because they're not dangerous enough. The enforcers of narrow discourse about male sexuality are working to make men creepier, not to make men over-cautious about creepiness.

3) Finally, men may feel inhibited about talking about their desires at all because they think heterosexual male desire, or its open expression, is inherently dangerous or unacceptable. This is the straight up pathologization thesis. Since this post is already very long and this point is something I'm addressing in the whole of this series, I'll just say that I'm skeptical of the evidence that this is a widespread or serious problem.

8 Comments:

Blogger Clarisse Thorn said...

Subscribing to comments, will probably post one myself at some point.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Hugo Schwyzer said...

"...think the need for an accepting space occurs only in a therapeutic context."

A-flippin'-men.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Clarisse Thorn said...

I'll have more of a response in the future, I think, but in the meantime you might be interested in some of the responses this post is drawing on my current masculinity open thread:
http://clarissethorn.com/blog/2010/10/15/manliness-and-feminism-2-judgment-day/#comment-8632

5:36 PM  
Blogger Stentor said...

Clarisse: Thanks for the link. I really do appreciate you taking the time to comment on my tiny contribution to this debate.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Clarisse Thorn said...

I think you said a lot of interesting things here. I'm not sure if you've been tracking the response in my blog comments, but here's my response to a couple points --

So we don't need new spaces so much as we need men who are in the old spaces in which male desire is discussed -- the locker rooms and the lad mags and so on -- to push back against the prevailing norms of acceptable desire and make more diversity of experience acceptable (all the while being willing to call out those desires and ways of expressing them that we have determined are genuinely unacceptable).

Have you tried doing this yourself? Were you successful? Do you think that most men with serious, well-reasoned critiques of masculine gender identity are going to be successful if they try to articulate them in a locker room? Or are they just going to have the crap beaten out of them?

Since this post is already very long and this point is something I'm addressing in the whole of this series, I'll just say that I'm skeptical of the evidence that this is a widespread or serious problem.

I believe one of my commenters noted that it's not the best style to refuse to engage with the main thesis of whatever you're critiquing. I will add to this that I sympathize with your perspective, because in this statement especially, I hear you saying something that I myself said when I first got into the debates that led to my "creep" article. At first, I insisted that the pathologization problem simply wasn't widespread. I was wrong -- the more I insisted that it wasn't widespread, the more men showed up to tell me about their experience, and the more I started seeing evidence of it.

The reaction to my "creep" article has been particularly stunning. While there have been a lot of responses that really upset me or that co-opted my words to say things that really appall me (as I noted here: [ http://clarissethorn.com/blog/2010/10/15/manliness-and-feminism-2-judgment-day/#comment-8729 ]), there have also been a HUGE number of responses from men who are NOT trying to co-opt what I said to say awful things and who are merely grateful that I said it at all. One man came to an event I ran this week and told me, "I'm going to print out that article and bring it to my therapist."

I have no way of knowing how widespread the pathologization issue is, but it's clear that it's not just one or two guys whining on the Internet. If the question is "how do we talk about it without serious collateral damage in the form of reinforcing reprehensible narratives?", then I'm totally on board with that. But I'm not on board with disappearing it.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Stentor said...

I haven't spent much time in locker rooms and other such spaces where the most damaging narratives about male sexuality are most explicitly reproduced, so I don't have a lot of personal experience putting up resistance there. As to its likely success, I think so much of that depends on the specific conditions (e.g. the culture of that specific locker room and the activist guy's position in its hierarchy) and the nature of the resistance (from just not laughing at the jokes up through a feminist lecture).

On your second point, it was my desire to more carefully review the evidence in places like your and Hugo's comment sections that is the reason I postponed (not "refused to engage with") a detailed critique of the pathologization thesis until Part 3 of this series.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Clarisse Thorn said...

Ok. I'll look forward to the followup, then.

I think the question of *how* to express resistance to the dominant culture, as a man, is a useful and interesting one to engage. I've heard a number of men say things like "Yes, I try to resist this damaging cultural narrative when I can, but it's harder to be effective at it than you think." There's been some discussion of this in my blog comments section, as you've probably noted. I get the impression that most feminist men simply avoid bastions of traditional masculinity, they don't try to reform them. (It's hard to blame them for that. I certainly avoid bastions of traditional femininity.)

11:26 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

I agree that the "how" question is vital. And you're quite right that feminist-friendly men tend to avoid the bastions of traditional masculinity. Partly that's because we dislike that unfeminist culture and don't want to be complicit in it (especially if we're skeptical of our ability to change it much). But part of it is also that a lot of men get interested in feminism because they're not big on fitting the traditional masculine mold. It would be false and ineffective for me, for example, to start hanging out in locker rooms primarily for the purpose of pushing back against the culture there if working out and sports aren't something I'd have much interest or stake in for their own sake. I'd add, though, that there are some other critical spaces for forming these cultural narratives that are not necessarily "bastions of masculinity." The first one that comes to mind is the family, and I think there are feminist dads out there doing interesting and important work (although again, not me, since I'm not going to have a son just so I can raise him as a feminist).

3:39 PM  

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