Men get such a raw deal in our society.
Before we go any farther, let me just guard against an inevitable objection: yes, women get a raw deal in our society too. Talking about the one does not belittle or ignore the other. Misery is not a zero-sum game, and the cultural framework of patriarchy and male privilege oppresses us all. And just for today, I’m going to talk about how it oppresses men.
Specifically, I’m talking about male sexual desire, and how it is stigmatized.
Oysh. I can’t even go a sentence without delivering an “on the other hand” disclaimer. Yes, in addition to being stigmatized (which I’m going to talk about at great length), male sexual desire is elevated to being the sole definition of manliness, and held at a standard few men can honestly live up to (or should.) They get it coming and going. But, again, today I’m mostly interested in the stigma.
Watch romantic comedies, and you can apply an easy matrix to see which man the woman will end up with. First, sort the eligible male characters into “attractive” and “unattractive.” From the attractive group, rank the characters by how sexually expressive they are: how interested they seem to be in sex, as opposed to, well, anything else. In easily 90% of these movies, the Prince Charming is going to be the least sexually expressive of the bunch.
Let’s take Bridget Jones’ Diary, which has the advantage of being one a classic offender, and also a movie I rather liked. You have the two suitors, Daniel whatever-his-name-is, and Mark Darcy. Daniel sends Bridget salacious messages at work and has sex with her halfway through the movie. Mark is shy, keeps a chaste distance, and their big intimate mid-movie moment is a cooking scene. (If you’re worried about spoilers, you shouldn’t have even read this far, but go ahead and stop right now.)
Now I’m not arguing for a minute that Bridget should have ended up with Daniel instead of Mark… Daniel was kind of a jackass. But if you try to separate his jackassery from his sexual forwardness, it can’t be done. Dear Mark, on the other hand, never speaks an inappropriate word, and shows appreciation for Bridget’s personality rather than her yummy curves. It’s distressingly easy to draw the conclusion that sexual forwardness itself is a sign of jackassery, and that appreciation and desire for someone’s body precludes appreciation of them as a whole person.
Mark also falls victim to a male version of the Madonna/whore complex: when he’s kissing Bridget at the end of the movie, she says, “Nice boys don’t kiss like that!” to which he infamously replies, “Oh yes they fucking do.” I’ll be the first person to admit that that was pretty hot, but it betrays the same expectation that women have suffered under for decades now: “Good” people are chaste and sexually reserved until they’re partnered with their OTP, at which point they turn into tigers and tigresses in bed. Never mind what they do with all that sexual energy before the “happily ever after” is sounded. (Fun experiment: try to watch Bridget Jones’ Diary, or better yet Pride and Prejudice, and imagine Mr. Darcy masturbating furiously to thoughts of Bridget/Elizabeth any time he’s off screen.)
Undoubtedly male sexual desire can be predatory, and often is. But we have let our fear of sexual predation blacken our view of any sexual expressiveness in men (at least until we’ve consented to bring them into the bedroom.) We’ve created a false dichotomy between interest in someone’s body and interest in them as a person. Women suffer from this false dichotomy as well, but they aren’t subject to the same acute suspicion if they display sexual interest in somebody.
I was in a reading group not too long ago, and we were reading John Updike’s The Maples Stories (which I highly recommend.) It’s the story of a marriage between two imperfect people, told over several decades. At one point we were discussing the question of whether the man in the marriage really loved the woman. To me it was obvious that he did (although that love was not unmixed with other feelings… when is it ever?): he cared deeply about her happiness, admired the way she thought, and was strongly attracted to her. We pointed to one passage in the book, a lovely and eloquent description of his desire for her, sensuous admiration of her beauty, and said, “How can you read this and say he doesn’t love her?” Several of the women in the group immediately replied, “That’s lust.”
It was a weird, weird moment for me, because I could remember thinking the way they were thinking, and yet from my present vantage point it was nonsensical. Lust and love are not mutually exclusive emotions. In the ideal relationship, they feed each other. If Richard Maple lusted after his wife and showed no other interest in, or respect for, her personhood, then yes, he’d be a shallow jerk. But the other women in this discussion group seemed to be looking at this instance of beautifully expressed lust and taking it as proof that he was a shallow jerk without further argument.
Let me break it down for you, kids: lust is love expressed in the purely physical realm. As human beings, we have bodies, hearts, and minds (whether you believe that the “heart” and “mind” dimensions are also purely physical or whether there’s some kind of non-material soul that houses them is, for the moment, mostly irrelevant.) I’ve had intellectual conversations with people that were so intense, engaged, and intimate that they felt like sex. I’ve had emotional moments with people that were so intense, engaged, and intimate that they felt like sex. I’ve also had… well, sex. It’s that intense, engaged, intimate connection with someone else that’s expressed in the body, and it’s fantastic. It doesn’t preclude, occlude, or threaten the possibility of connecting with someone in any of the other ways.
The presence of lust, or of strong physical chemistry, shouldn’t be confused with love that encompasses all aspects of personhood. But neither should it be opposed to it. It’s a piece of the puzzle, and it’s one of the most fun and exciting pieces. In and of itself, it should be celebrated… unless you hold to a strong Platonic dualism, a belief that everything that is material and of the body is inferior and should be ultimately rejected (and none of us here believe that, right?)
I owe my intellectual understanding of this to lots of reading and thinking that I’ve done in the last several years. I owe my practical understanding of it largely to Shaun. He is a man not shy about expressing his sexual interest and desires… if you recall, he ended the first evening we met with stroking my thigh under the table, and inviting me to come home with him. The first time we had sex, it wasn’t about much more than physical desire. We had only known each other for six days… how could it be? It was physical craving that brought him to my bed, and he was a perfect gentleman. (It was all I could do not to cast that sentence as a contradiction: “…and yet he was” or something like that. There’s nothing contradictory in those two clauses, but doesn’t it sound like there should be?) He cared about my physical and emotional well-being, checked in with me before, during, and after to make sure I was happy with what we were doing. And this was while he was overwhelmed with the emotional wreckage of his recent breakup. Boy gets a gold star for that. We enjoyed each other and each got something we needed. While there was no question of emotional love and attachment at that point, it was a very loving encounter, and even if it had ended there, I would have no regrets. It was all the evidence I needed that lust, all by itself, is a fine and dandy thing.