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