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.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt