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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Why gender became the ultimate forum for self-expression

Gender identity is now embedded in many people’s self-perception, as well as in day-to-day bureaucracy.

In November, the British high-street bank Metro announced that it was expanding its gender and title options. Customers could now register as “non-binary” rather than male or female, and as “Mx” rather than Miss, Ms, Mrs or Mr. In some ways, this development parallels the rise of Ms in the 1970s, which was popularised by feminists who wanted a title that didn’t identify women by their marital status. In practice, Ms marks women by their political affiliation instead (if you’re talking to a Ms, you’re probably talking to a feminist) but, even so, its first intention was to conceal rather than reveal information.

Mx does something different. To declare yourself a Mx is to disclose something about yourself: that your identity is outside what has become known as “the gender binary”, and you are neither man nor woman but something either in between or entirely other. This is a statement about who you are, and it comes with an implicit understanding that not being able to make that statement – or not having it recognised – is damaging. As the father of one gender-non-binary teenager told BuzzFeed UK: “When . . . you don’t identify as male or female and you only see those two boxes, then you don’t see yourself there . . . You are absent. That must hurt, and that’s what makes me angry.”

While users of Ms hoped that their title would supersede the ranking of spinsters and matrons, Mx relies for its meaning on the persistence of alternatives. You can only be non-binary if there’s a binary against which to define yourself. It is now recommended practice at some US universities for students to declare their preferred pronouns, and mandatory that these should be observed by others. Failure to do so is considered more than a breach of etiquette: “misgendering” is looked on as an act of bigotry, even a kind of verbal violence. This use of gender as self-assertion has an obvious appeal to teenagers and young adults as a parent-baffling subculture, but it starts much younger, too, with a small but growing number of primary-age children announcing that they are trans.

On one of its covers in 2014, Time magazine famously described transgender activism as “America’s next civil rights frontier”, but the proliferation of gender identity is at least as much a consumer choice issue. This was also the year that Facebook introduced its “custom” gender options, though it would perhaps be more accurate to describe them as “expansive presets”. Users can choose anything from “agender” to “two-spirit” via “bigender”, “gender questioning” and “transmasculine”, but what they can’t do is subvert the system by selecting an unapproved option. A feminist wishing to register her objections to the class structure of gender by typing in the word “oppressive”, for example, would be stymied here. However diversified gender identity becomes, it is a precept that everyone has one (if your identity and your body “agree”, you are said to be cisgender).

For some, asserting their identity is enough. For others, aligning their presentation with their sense of self will involve altering their appearance. At the least invasive level, that might demand cross-dressing. A natal female might choose to “bind” her breasts, flattening them to achieve a more masculine silhouette. Many seek prescriptions for opposite-sex hormones. At the most extreme, a trans individual will opt for surgical removal of their secondary sexual characteristics and gonads (more rarely, for surgical construction of opposite-sex genitalia), coupled with a lifetime of hormone replacement therapy.

Hormonal and surgical treatments have been possible only since the mid-to-late 20th century, and for many who choose them, these alterations prove life-changing in a positive way. But beyond the confines of the National Health Service, a consumerist edge to treatment becomes more obvious. There are doctors specialising in private transition medicine whose websites include statements such as “the only person that can actually diagnose [gender dysphoria] is the person living with the feelings”. In other words, the prescription is based not on a doctor’s medical judgement of the patient’s needs but on what the patient asks for (and is willing to pay for).

Plastic surgeons promise to transform transgender patients from “caterpillars” into “beautiful butterflies”, holding out the prospect of becoming one’s “true self”, in the same way they have long sold boob jobs and liposuction to women.

Not everyone accepts this brave new world. For conservatives in the United States, trans issues have become the next battle in the culture wars, and Republican politicians have introduced “bathroom laws” that would legally compel trans men and women to use toilets or changing rooms in line with their birth sex. Gender identity was an issue in last year’s US presidential election; a Tea Party-supporting talk-radio host tweeted: “If you want a country with 63 different genders, vote Hillary. If you want a country where men are men and women are women, vote Trump.” This vehement rejection of gender self-identification creates its own kind of identity politics.

That Donald Trump said that Caitlyn Jenner (the former Olympic decathlete whose transition became public in 2015) would be free to use “any bathroom she wanted” at Trump Towers did little to stop the perception that a vote for Trump was a vote against gender nonconformity. And, in some ways, Trump’s acceptance of Jenner’s right to use the ladies’ lavatories is not wholly at odds with the idea of a world where “men are men and women are women”: it’s just that some of the feminine people were born male and some of the masculine ones were born female. It is unclear what Trump’s presidency will mean for trans rights, but whatever happens in America will influence gender ideology worldwide.

Threats to legal abortion and equal marriage could strain some of the alliances within the trans, LGBT and feminist movements. A trans woman who has undergone surgery is in a very different situation from a male who identifies as a woman but does not want any treatment. A gay, lesbian or bisexual person who is discriminated against for their sexuality does not experience the same oppressions as a trans person (it is an article of faith that gender identity and sexuality are separate things, although in practice the division is not that neat). The political priorities of women who are victimised because they are female will not overlap perfectly with the priorities of transgender women – some of whom complained that the “pussy hats” and signs referring to female genitalia on the anti-Trump women’s marches in January were “exclusionary”.

Gender identity is now embedded in many people’s self-perception, as well as in day-to-day bureaucracy. But the messy relationship between sex and self is not going to be settled imminently.

Sarah Ditum is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times