We are often inundated with this idea that men have naturally aggressive sex drives. That men can’t help themselves. That men are victims of pornography and sex addiction. That men have to have sex on a consistent basis, otherwise their balls will shrivel up. Men are easily swayed by short skirt, a stray bra strap and a wink. That we cannot, nor should not blame men when they commit acts of sexual violence, or stray in their marriage, because they were tempted, because they ‘lost control,’ because their biology deems them as less than capable creatures.
A recent article by psychologist Steven Bearman argues that men’s addition to sex is the result of the lack of affection and intimacy with other men (and perhaps women) in their lives. For Bearman, sex addiction and pornography addiction are the ways in which men try to find closeness with others. That for men, sex is the way in which intimacy can be experienced. Other than searching for meaningful partnerships, Bearman argues that allowing men to engage with emotional bonding in a platonic and non-sexual setting would help address the rampant sex addiction that has taken over men’s lives as well as claiming that viewing sex as a much more spiritual and emotional experience would be beneficial.
I have a few qualms with Bearman’s proclamations that I’d like to address.
Using a social construction approach, I’m going to argue that while Bearman does have some interesting discussions in relation to men, masculinity, women and sexual relationships, there a number of issues with the manner in which he’s presented them, which follow a very heteronormative and ill-conceived script.
But before I do, I will highlight what I think Bearman has done well in highlighting this issue.
- Boys are desensitised to their bodies
I would agree with Bearman that boys are conditioned to view their bodies as vehicles or machines, becoming desensitised to a need for intimacy and affection, and sensitive to how to ensure that their bodies perform at peak levels. The ability to endure pain, to brush it off is a crucial component to crafting an idealised masculine identity.
- Suppressing boys feelings
Absolutely boys are taught to suppress how they feel. Boys are taught that they should not be emotional, they need to be rational. They are often juxtaposed with the image of girls as being emotional and ‘irrational.’ In doing so, they are taught that separating their emotions from their thought process will enable them to gain logical view of the world and make rational decisions in times of need. Boys are taught that emotions can hinder the decision making-process, and can taint an otherwise sound solution to an issue.
- Sex and love are often intertwined, or kept separate, but never a combination.
Bearman makes a point that love is often tied up with sex, or sex is often completely separate from love. But there is never a moment in which sex and love are both intertwined and can be separated. Rather, it’s always one or the other. To suggest that sex is just about love, or sex is just about pleasure-seeking is too simplistic, and that perhaps a more fluid understanding of what sex is that is not confined to this love/pleasure dichotomy is needed. He highlights an important aspect of sex, that we are taught to value it within a very romanticised and heteronormative space.
While Bearman does have some good discussions and starts off well with this article, it strays into an odd realm spirituality that neglects a more thorough examination of how men negotiate their heterosexual, masculine identity.
Men have aggressive sex drives, and are naturally at risk for sex and similar addictions.
This argument is quite essentialist, relying on pseudo-biological theory to provide ‘sound’ evidence for its claim. Women can also have aggressive sex drives, but through a social-constructionist approach, women are conditioned to view sex as dirty and ill-fitting of an ideal feminine identity. Women are conditioned to be the gatekeepers in a heterosexual setting, and those who transgress their ‘virginal status’ fall into the trap of being labelled sluts and whores.
I’m not saying that men don’t have high sex drives; what I am saying is that this is a very basic argument to make when looking at a complex issue such as sexual relationships and how men/women understand meaning within those. We cannot say that biologically, sex is about release for men, and emotion for women, because these are just attributes that have been given based on preconceived notions about our gender. Plenty of women do view sex as a pleasure-seeking activity, and plenty of men do view sex as an emotional and spiritual connection.
How men understand sex needs to be engaged with not just on a physical, but a social level as well. It is much more complex than a simplistic need to ‘fill a hole’ as it were.
The ‘at risk for x’ argument is also lacking a rather essential discussion in relation to men and sexual activity, which is…
Aggressive heterosexuality as inherent to a masculine identity
What this discussion is severely lacking is an examination of how heterosexuality, and more specifically, aggressive heterosexuality is a crucial component to an idealised masculine identity. While it’s easy to say “it’s a sex addiction” it’s perhaps harder to argue that actually, it’s a socially ingrained aspect that men are trying perform.
Let’s look at how men and boys might be socialised throughout their lives in relation to sex.
If you take any ‘teen’ movie for example, such as the American Pie series, the entire plot resolves around guys getting laid, or losing their virginity to become men.
Losing their virginity to become men.
Remember that, it’s important. In many of these movies and shows, we see the boys desperately trying to shag anything that will give them the time of day to demonstrate their masculinity. Newer series such as the Inbetweeners is perhaps a great example of this, with the boys many (many!) failed attempts at engaging in sexual intercourse.
In all of these cases, their sole goal is to get laid, because that is how they can perform appropriate masculinity. Boys (and men) are consistently taught to prize their ability to get laid, to engage in sexual intercourse with women above anything else. Notches on the bedpost or belt buckle highlight that the higher the number, the more of a man they are. There are books and ‘professionals’ that promise you success in landing the ladies with a variety of ‘techniques’ alongside ways to get rid of their one night stand so she doesn’t get attached.
It’s not enough to be heterosexual, a man needs to be aggressively heterosexual, and the high consumption of hetero-based porn means that men must also be performers, experts in the art of making love, or engage women as sexual receptors, in which the standard drilling technique is the height of a woman’s pleasure (as porn dictates, and yet very few women actually do find this pleasurable).
In any case, sex addiction may not be an addiction at all. It perhaps might be a desperate attempt to construct and maintain an idealised heterosexual masculinity.
Men (and women) should learn to value sex as a romantic, emotional and spiritual relationship.
Look, there’s merit in this statement, but it’s rather preachy, and actually fails to account for how both men and women might conceptualise their sexuality and how they practice this. First, it’s quite heteronormative in stating that sex should be x and not y. Sex does not have to just be about a spiritual and emotion connection, it can be just about two people needing to get their rocks off and can be about desperation, fear and need. What this statement does is create a hierarchy of ‘good, appropriate sex’ and ‘bad, inappropriate’ sex. In reality, the only ‘bad’ sex is that which is committed through acts of force, lacking consent, manipulated/coerced consent (i.e. rape & sexual assault), or one partner is valuing their self-pleasure over the other. While I can see where the author is headed in trying to create a dialogue about healthy and ‘whole’ sex, I think it misses the point of what sex can be. To say that sex as a pleasure-seeking venture is bad, while spiritual/emotional sex is good, is not helpful. It pathologises behaviours that don’t suit a very narrow script of ‘proper sex.’
Human do use sex as a way to escape fear and to connect when they feel lonely, I’m not sure why this needs to be pathologised as unhealthy. Sex can be about hate, lust and desperation. But the main issue I have with this particular piece is the manner in which this pathologisation of sex is considered to be responsible for men’s aggressive heterosexual pursuits and preconceived notions that men are obsessed with sex. It completely disregards how masculinity plays a large role in constructing these notions.
Of course, this isn’t to say that sex addiction is not real. I’m sure that sex can become addictive in the same way that other traditionally non-addictive substances such as food can (i.e., there are no chemicals that create an addiction in the same manner that perhaps a drug like Heroine will). But I don’t think that claiming that all men are at risk for sex addiction and need to relearn how to value sex is perhaps the answer. Rather, a more critical look at how their masculinity is tied to aggressive heterosexuality, and how that aggressive heterosexuality is expected to be performed in everyday society is what’s needed.