Don’t mention the sex war - if you're a man, that is

Why, when it comes to sex, are "simple, easily pleased" men always pitted against "complicated, wordy" women?

How do men talk about sex? It’s a question that invites a veritable smorgasbord of sarky replies ("as often as they can" certainly sprang to our minds). At first glance, the idea that we even need to question the male contribution to boning banter seems absurd: aren’t they supposed to be the salivating wolves snapping at the heels of so many Red Riding Hoods, in danger of corrupting all womankind with talk that’s "not appropriate for ladies’ ears"? They’ve surely had the authority on sex chat since time began, historically regulating what’s normal/moral/desirable and what isn’t through the legal and medical systems; creating the first widely available, standard-setting internet porn; and originally policing the sex education of children. Yet there seems to have been a dearth of baritones in the carnal chorus of late, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC ran an article asking whether men are "excluded from the sex debate" nowadays, citing the plethora of feminist commentary on sexuality as proof that women are being heard on all things penetrative where their male counterparts are not. They have a point. Discussions ranging from the effects of human trafficking on prostitution to whether or not the missionary position is inherently submissive have almost exclusively involved women. The academic study of human sexuality comes with a reading list of majority female writers. The real questions about social sexualisation are almost always asked by the gals. Meanwhile, cultural recognition of what heterosexual men contribute to the sexuality debate can usually be boiled down to "we like sex. Now show us yer funbags!"

Replies to the BBC article came thick and fast from men themselves, proving that they are at least participating as readers, if largely silent ones. A lot of them accused female feminists of being responsible for the apparent male exclusion from the "sex debate" (perhaps an instance of what Rush Limbaugh memorably referred to as "Feminazis".) They claimed that they would be "shouted down" if they stormed onto the scene with the equivalent of Naomi Wolfe’s Vagina and Rosin’s The End of Men. And there’s no denying that it’s certainly difficult to imagine a prominently placed stand in Waterstones bursting with copies of books called "Penis" and "The End of Women". The idea that all women would balk at - or worse, attack - a contribution to feminist issues merely on the basis that the contributor was male, however, sounds like just another form of prejudice. Reasons for that male silence have to run deeper.

We’ve been schooled into thinking that women are complicated, and that satisfying a woman is an "art form". Meanwhile, men are supposed to be the microwaves to the female Aga vagina (vagaga?) - instead of slowly heating to perfection when all the constituent parts are in the right place, they ping on and off as needed, job done in a number of seconds if need be. Teenage girls need to be "protected" from sexual discourse; meanwhile, boys will be boys. And we’re not lying when we tell you that girls’ magazines introduced the issue of masturbation when we were young with the suggestion that you "treat yourself to an evening", run a bubble bath, light some candles, and then "take time to explore your body". As well-meaning as it sounds, the way in which it diverges from the media’s curt nod towards male masturbation - a young boy’s computer table overrun with a pile of tissues, a three minute video of "college babes" paused on a screen - sets us up for conversational inequality that will persist into the academic journals, the halls of national newspapers, and the inner sanctums of personal relationships.

So beyond "nice tits versus great arse", what do men talk about when they talk about sex? We rarely hear them pitch in about emotions, connections, or even their own physical sensations, while they make the beast with two backs - as one of our followers on the Vagenda blog pointed out recently, we definitely never hear about a man’s "screaming orgasm", never mind an admission that on their anniversary, it feels more like lovemaking than fucking. Frank discussions of personal experiences are just as sparse as any theories or abstractions developed from them. Both are notable in their absence.

Laurie Penny said that masculinity - and by extension, male sexuality - is "like Fight Club": the first rule is that you never talk about it. Based upon her own journalistic experiences, she said in an article for the Independent, men are willing to write reams on their place in the world of penetration and celebration, so long as it’s behind those modern-day metaphorical closed doors, their computer screens. Hidden from view, they replied to her request for male commentary on sexuality - things like how the proliferation of porn affects their own expectations and anxieties, or whether the media dents or bolsters their sexual confidence - in their droves. But when offered a platform in real life, we know that most of them shy away.

The gender that is expected to take sex in its stride is not expected to waste time talking about it. Emotional sex, meaningful sex, even mind-blowing sex with a perfect stranger that leaves you tingling all over from the sheer physicality of it, has been out of bounds for discussion in the male sphere for too long. This sort of dialogue is reserved for women, who battled their way to sexual equality and then, to their surprise, found themselves almost alone on the podium. Of course, there are some genuinely incredible male contributors to the study of sexuality - the heterosexual male being the least likely of all to raise his head above the parapet - but a problem still clearly exists. If we are trapped in a world where "simple, easily pleased" men are pitted against "complicated, wordy" women, we will never see entirely eye-to-eye.

There is no easy answer to how we can encourage a more balanced dialogue on the issues of sexuality, but professing our need for it might help. Like boardrooms, bedrooms, and indeed almost every facet of life, diversity is the key to success: we need men to come into the fold with something more than the "safe" professed admiration for a pair of 34GG basoomas. We need to hear about their experiences of sex, journalistically, academically, anecdotally on a Tuesday evening over a flat white. And in order to encourage its existence, we need to acknowledge that need. Because it seems like there’s a hole in the market we desperately need filling - and a dude needs to do the job.
 

We need men to talk about sex (other than professing admiration for a pair of 34GG basoomas, that is). Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.