This is the first of three guest posts, reprinted with the kind permission of Clarisse Thorn. This post originally appeared here on Clarisse’s blog. Once they’ve been posted, all three posts will be accessible at this link.
Clarisse Thorn is a feminist, sex-positive educator who has delivered workshops on both sexual communication and BDSM to a variety of audiences, including New York’s Museum of Sex, San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture, and several Chicago universities. She curated the original Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in 2009, and has also volunteered as an archivist and curator at the Leather Archives & Museum. Currently, she is working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa.
Due to irregular internet access while she’s in Africa, Clarisse may be slow responding to comments.
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Over the summer, I wrote a 3500-word piece about masculinity. It touched on some themes I’ve messed around with before, most notably in my reviews of the Sex+++ documentaries “Private Dicks: Men Exposed” and “Boy I Am.” I fondly hoped that I might be able to do something “real” with it, but I’ve gotten rather immersed in my work here in Africa — and I’ve been having some trouble keeping up with America, due to irregular Internet access. Today, I managed to catch up with some of my blogroll and saw that Audacia Ray recently posted some thoughts about masculinity, including excellent links to various new frontiers in the masculinity conversation. Looks like the topic is really heating up — finally! I’ve been obsessing about it off and on for years, and it’s exciting to think that people might finally talk to me about it.
So, rather than letting my masculinity piece languish under a rug — since I’ll probably never be able to do anything official with it before the conversation moves on, anyway — I’m just going to serialize it here. (I’d post the whole thing at once, but I don’t want to inflict 3500 words on everyone’s blog reader!)
Questions I Want To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 1: Who Cares?
Why do I care about masculinity?
I’m rather perverted, but not enormously queer. I present as femme, and — although I’ve been known to tease my sensitive (frequently long-haired) lovers for being “unmasculine” — I fall in love with men. At heart, I love knowing that I’m fucking a man.
However, because I’m cis and straight, I feel profoundly at a loss when trying to articulate problems of (for lack of a better phrase) “Men’s Empowerment”. The issues don’t feel “native” to me; I’ve intersected with these questions mainly through the lens of lovers and friends. Watching their struggle is demoralizing, but trying to imagine how I can give them feedback is more demoralizing.
A male friend once wrote to me, “I think you personally find expressions of masculinity hot, but you also have no patience with sexism. You’ve caught on that it’s tricky for men to figure out how to deliver both of these things you need, that you don’t have a lot of good direction to give to fellas about it, and that neither does anyone else.”
How men can be supportive and non-oppressive while remaining overtly masculine?
On top of my limited perspective, there’s been an echoing lack of discourse — that is, very little mainstream acknowledgement of the problems of masculinity. The primary factor in that silence is that normative cis men themselves tend to be flatly unwilling to discuss gender/sex issues. Often, their first objection is that the discussion is neither important nor relevant. This is true even within subcultures centered around sexual analysis, like the BDSM world — I once met a cis male BDSMer who said, “Why bother talking about male sexuality? It’s the norm. Fish don’t have a word for water.”
But if masculine sexuality is water and we’re fish, why doesn’t that motivate us to examine it more — not less?
Don’t get me wrong: I agree that America’s sexual conceptions are centered around stereotypical male sexuality, and I agree that this is damaging and problematic. Believe me, I’m furious that it took me many years to reconceive “actual” sex around acts other than good ole penis-in-vagina penetration! But if American stereotypes and ideas of sexuality are male-centered, then surely that makes it more useful for us to be thinking about male sexuality — not less.
And those male-centered ideas of sexuality aren’t centered around all men — just stereotypical men. LGBTQ men are obvious examples whose sexuality falls outside the norm; fortunately for them, they’ve created some spaces to discuss that. But there are lots of other non-normative guys who aren’t gay or queer, yet feel very similar sexual alienation — and because there’s so little discourse about masculinity outside LGBTQ circles, they usually just don’t talk about it.
What does it mean to be a cis het man whose sexuality isn’t normative? Which straight cis guys don’t fit — and hence, feel alienated from — our current overarching sexual stereotypes?
Guys who identify as straight BDSM submissives are one fabulous example of non-normative men who are frequently alienated from mainstream masculine sexuality, but who often don’t have a forum. Men with small penises are a second. There are lots of others. In the words of sex blogger and essayist Thomas Millar: “The common understanding of male sexuality is a stereotype, an ultra-narrow group of desires and activities oriented around PIV [penis-in-vagina], anal intercourse and blowjobs; oriented around cissexual women partners having certain very narrow groups of physical characteristics.”
Still, that doesn’t mean that straight, dominant, big-dicked dudes who love boning thin chicks feel totally okay about the current state of affairs. It just means they tend to have less immediate motivation to question it. They also have less of an eye for spotting gender oppression, because — though they’ve got their own boxes hemming them in — they’re still more privileged than the rest of us, and the nature of privilege is to blind the privileged class to its existence.
A male submissive once told me, “Lots of heteronormative men know something is wrong with the way we think about sex and gender. I can see them struggling with it when we talk. They can’t put their finger on it; they have a hard time engaging it. But I engage it all the time; I have to, because my sexuality opposes it.”
When is it to a man’s advantage to examine and question masculinity and stereotypes of male sexuality? Which men are motivated to do so?
It’s tempting to assert that men whose desires fit neatly (or at least mostly) within the stereotype have it made — after all, their sexuality works within the norm so many of us struggle to escape. But I’ve had this assumption corrected several times, usually by smart “stereotypical” men themselves. At one point, while developing a sexuality workshop, I sent the outline to a bunch of friends. The original draft contained this paragraph: “Our sexual scripts favor a certain stereotype of men and male sexual pleasure, which makes it hard for women to figure out what we really want and what we really enjoy, and also makes it harder for non-stereotypical men to figure that out.” One friend sent that paragraph back, having quietly appended: “… as well as for stereotypical men to discover or explore new desires beyond the stereotypical script.”
When we discuss the limitations around sexuality from a non-normative perspective, how do we exclude normative people who might develop themselves in new directions if they had the chance? What do normative men stand to gain by thinking outside the box about masculinity and sexuality?