img.latex_eq { padding: 0; margin: 0; border: 0; }

Monday, 1 October 2007

Womanhood, masculinity, and books thereon.

When I was sixteen, my mother got me a copy of 'Woman's Experience of Sex' by Sheila Kitzinger. I was slightly embarrassed, shelved it spine-backwards and didn't touch it until two years later when I suddenly realised that I was probably old enough to have sex and really ought to know more about it. Kitzinger's fascinating, sensitive and only slightly dated look at how women feel and behave sexually was exactly what I needed, and when I finished it I jumped enthusiastically into any sexual parts of 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' that I could find. Alas, the latter was just a little too clinical. New Zealand has perfectly good sex education and I've already had the details of every sort of contraception enumerated to me a few times over. It was the emotion that I wanted to understand.

I was aware, though, that there was also another side to the story. Kitzinger sifted through statements from hundreds of women on what sex meant to them and presented them in a book, allowing some sort of validity to the whole broad range in true liberal fashion (for all that her own middle class status -- and, indeed, her feminism -- definitely acted as a lens). The book she ended up creating was, for me, almost a map of the possibilities of womanhood. It was invaluable. But if that is woman's experience of sex, what is a man's? Books like Kitzinger's, like 'Our Bodies, Ourselves', like Natalie Angier's 'Woman: An Intimate Geography' (which is also excellent) are frequently touted as essential reading not only for women but for lovers of women. As a heterosexual woman, naturally I am interested in finding the male equivalent.

Gee, but you men got short-changed! Well, okay, you still have a bit more money, more political power, dramatically less chance of being labelled a slut -- but I think you're missing out on this particular point. I did find one halfway decent book for men: 'Secret Men's Business' by John Marsden. Secret, huh? I read it anyway. Sorry, but I considered my curiosity to be an entirely benevolent impulse to understand what you guys feel like in bed (and outside of it). It was quite good (not actually all that sexist, either) but it seemed to feel the need to cloak any and all advice with the authority of the Great (And Somewhat Mysterious) Notion of True Masculinity. Which is a pity, because the freedom to deconstruct or discard the Acknowledgedly Silly Notion of Femininity whenever we feel like it is one of the best aspects of the liberal feminist tradition.

Perhaps I'm just holding every book on masculinity I find up to feminist standards. Celia Lashlie's book 'He'll be OK' about bringing up teenage boys was also very good, but Lashlie is a feminist. And it would be better if men were speaking for themselves. (Lashlie recounts an amusing exchange with the principal of an all-boys school. After the two had agreed that men need a movement of their own, the principal remarked slightly wistfully "I don't suppose we could get you to do it for us?" No, says Lashlie, no, we couldn't. Nice try, though.)

I am aware, of course, that the sensible thing to do would be to find a nice man to have sex with and then ask him how he feels about it. Indeed, relying on books rather than reality would be a sorry way to live. Ah, well. I'll get there.


Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Back to read your post later - but wanted to say that I loved your comment on the poem LL posted. I think that you've captured an essence of what the poem speaks of - at least to me - and that is the trust of a child accepting what is given.

My personal sadness is always that, so frequently, it is religion rather than an expression of personal relationship that they "swallow".

Anonymous said...

Tag! You're it.

Stentor said...

I think "more money, more political power, dramatically less chance of being labelled a slut" is exactly the issue. Women's experience of sexuality has been denied and suppressed for so long that it's good to have a book that draws it out. But because men have the money, power, and respect, the (straight) male experience of sexuality permeates our culture and is taken as the unremarkable norm. So there's a sense in which asking for a book about men's sexuality is like asking why there's no White History Month.

Lynet said...

the (straight) male experience of sexuality permeates our culture and is taken as the unremarkable norm

Except that whenever I see a depiction of sexuality that focuses on the straight male perspective to the point of ignoring (or bullshitting about) how women feel, I know it's junk and I discard it.

Furthermore, there is a certain censorship on such depictions, one which forces men to be masculine and doesn't always include the idea that men have feelings and uncertainties (and when feelings and uncertainties are included, it's normally as part of a demand that women cut men a break, rather than being depicted as something acceptable and normal). I suspect a broad look at how men honestly feel about sex would challenge the usual stereotype just as much as a look at how women feel. Getting men to be honest about it might be the tricky thing.

We do have dominant cultural narratives about sex, and they do privilege men, but that doesn't mean that they're honest about men, and, more to the point, they certainly don't have the openness that attempts to allow people to develop in the way that suits them, rather than forcing them to conform unnecessarily.

Alon Levy said...

Betty Friedan alluded to exactly what you're saying, though she never framed it in sexual terms, and she considered the anti-war movement a good male equivalent to feminism, since it consisted of men who bucked gung ho masculinity.

What you can do is talk to male friends about sex. I've never really needed a book about female sexuality, because I could ask female friends, and subsequently my girlfriend. It may not give me an accurate picture of what the average woman wants, but for my purposes, the average woman who will associate with me is enough. The only guy I've ever been able to really talk to about sex is about the least masculine male I know, but since I'm straight, I don't have to know about the sexual attitudes of every male but myself.

Kellygorski said...

I think it is difficult for men to identify with feminism. I asked my husband, "When did you know you were a feminist?" and he replied, "When I met you." There's something there to indicate that "only women can be feminists," as if to say women's equality is really only FOR women, like it’s a “woman” thing.

The patriarchal slant is still in full force because many people don't even recognize its presence, and many women often internalize it (e.g., the “invisible corset” still exists, and how sad that is). Even when feminists raise consciousness (like what Dawkins talked about--how feminists were the ones to deconstruct the male-gendered pronoun "he" to refer to humanity), it still hasn't be absorbed by mainstream society.

I, honestly, in the 10 years I've identified as feminist, couldn't say the word "vagina" until I saw the "Vagina Monologues." It's often "little things" (for lack of a better term) like this so easily overlooked (or, perhaps, consciously ignored by people).

Obviously, I think women need to lead the movement on equality and candid talk on sexuality in socio-political discourse, but it's imperative that men understand the conversation and know that their input is not only desired, but needed.

Anyway, I think I just totally went off on a tangent.

Anonymous said...

I think men are often oppressed by the expectations of other men in perhaps a similar way that women are. As I see it, the expectations relate not just to sex, but relationships generally.

We're supposed to enjoy nothing more than sex and want to have sex pretty much as often as possible (see video below). Talking about the emotional side of it is not something that's easy to men to discuss with other men. In some cases to be fair, the man may not feel especially emotional about it, but some of us do.

There's also the thing about being "good" at it. That seems a bit of an odd idea. It seems to depend a lot on what mood you're in as to how much you enjoy it.

That's not to deny that it's physical and exciting, pleasurable like chocolate cake, good company and being warm and cosy all at once. (Hmm, not a very manly description!)

I think films and TV have a lot to answer for when it comes to our expectations of sex. They make it seem too glamorous, professional and serious. Actually it can be pretty silly or funny at times and sometimes when the lust has been sated it all seems a bit ridiculous - "What was that all about?"

I find the following music video funny probably because it's sometimes a bit close to the bone! (Don't worry, it's work safe!)

I agree with the previous poster who said you should ask a male friend rather than someone who you've just had sex with. Otherwise he might feel pressured or awkward.

Anonymous said...

That video link again. Apparently it didn't work first time.

Lynet said...

That video is hilarious. And thanks for the point about it being sometimes more advisable to ask a male friend. It's funny, really -- I'm going to have to get used to how sensitive men are about sex. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Most of the time it seems like men worry about a whole lot of things that mean nothing to me, ostensibly so that they can please the ladies (the exception would be the female orgasm, of course, which I agree is important, but even there it sometimes seems like the ideal female orgasm in the collective cultural psyche is completely different to my ideal orgasm). It makes a little more sense if I think of 'please the ladies' as a code form which actually doesn't have much to do with what I or another woman wants (at least not directly) and has a lot more to do with a collection of things which are a sort of metaphor for male self-worth. That way I can stop thinking of it as a silly misconception and start thinking of it as something which refers symbolically to an aspect of a man which I can actually respect.