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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad