American culture sees male sexuality as easily aroused, barely controlled, and able to overwhelm rational thought, believes the little head does the thinking for the big head, and has a hard time distinguishing normal male sexuality from the abuse of power known as rape or sexual assault. As a result, it’s easy to believe that any guy could be a rapist or child molester. Little wonder that Jamie Peck asked if Men Can Write About Sex Without Sounding Like Douchebags; this limiting and narrowly defined space leaves little that’s interesting to explore. Alyssa Royse responded by describing The Danger in Demonizing Male Sexuality.
Changing ideas about male sexuality will require action from all of us, at both the individual and structural levels.
Royce was on target when she asked “how can we all work together to change our collective impression of male sexuality as something that is dangerous and disgusting?” Although she acknowledges the need to understand and dismantle patriarchy and male privilege, her specific suggestions focus on helping men understand their potential partners (#1-3) and supporting/boosting men’s self-esteem (#4-5), presumably so they don’t take out their sexual frustrations on others.
These answers are a useful beginning, but don’t go far enough. They place responsibility strictly in men’s hands, yet the problem is societal and needs all of us working at a variety of levels. Large scale change requires more than a few—or even many—people changing on the individual level. Feminists taught us that the personal is political, so changing ideas about male sexuality will require action from all of us, at both the individual and structural levels.
Here are 7 things we can all do today to help combat and dismantle the stereotype.
1. Understand that rape and assault aren’t sex.
It’s pretty simple, really. If you want to do—or are doing—something sexual and your partner agrees to let you do it, then it’s sex. There’s a space in which you might suggest something to a partner and that person says no; that’s called saying no (or not yet). If force is threatened or used, that’s assault or rape. Sex frequently occurs between individuals who are attracted to or love each other and in most cases, both partners are “turned on.” Assault and rape often occur outside of a caring relationship and usually involve a desire to cause pain or prove something.
2. Learn the truth about male sexuality.
The stereotype is largely incorrect. If you really listen to most of the guys in your life, you’ll find that the majority aren’t screwing around or looking for a new partner every weekend. The vast majority only have one partner at a time, and they’re not particularly interested in one-night stands. We all need to understand that these guys are the rule, not the exception.
3. Challenge friends who espouse the stereotype.
The thing about stereotypes is that they describe everyone in the group; they say “all guys are like that.” Ask your friends if they really mean all, of if it’s really about most, some, or even just a few guys. Push the issue by going through the list of men you and your friend know personally, including family members, classmates, and co-workers.
4. Ask for clarification.
When your friends say things like “guys are only interested in sex” or “men are dogs,” ask for details. How do you know he’s only interested in sex? That’s pretty clear if it’s a one-night stand where no one got last names, phone numbers, or email addresses, but it’s more ambiguous if they’ve hung out a few times or had sex more than once. It’s also pretty clear if he’s paying directly for sex, but not when there’s some type of relationship and sharing of secrets occurring. If a guy just wanted sex, wouldn’t it be easier for him to find a sex worker and pay for a night’s pleasure than to spend all that time texting, emailing, going out to dinner, etc.? I admit that there are some pickup artists who are only interested in the seduction and sex it leads to, but again, that’s a very small percentage of guys.
5. Give men space to violate the stereotype
There are many reasons why men rarely show their emotions in public or acknowledge enjoying romantic movies. If we want men to act differently, we need to support them when they do so. Publicly calling a guy a wimp or berating him because he’s too emotional reminds all guys that these behaviors are not acceptable for men in our culture. If you have a problem with a guy in your life, take it up with him privately. And think twice before sharing it with your friends; it’s hard to know how they’ll understand it or where the story will go.
6. Demand better from big media.
Sex comedies such as American Pie and Porky’s promote the idea that guys are only interested in sex and that any kind of deceit, trickery, or stunt is more-or-less “fair game” when a guy wants to get laid. We also see the stereotype acted out by Charlie on Two and A Half Men, Barney on How I Met Your Mother, and any number of other popular TV characters. Vote with your wallet and your eyeballs: don’t watch. If you want to go farther, send email to network executives who oversee programming and even organize a protest. It worked for women in the 1970s who were tired of seeing women as competent mothers, ditzes (usually blond), and secretaries but nothing else; there’s no reason to believe it can’t work again.
7. Become media literate.
Instead of quietly accepting what the media shows, ask questions about how realistic it is. I know the screen won’t respond (yet; I’m sure someone’s working on that), but your partner, friends, co-workers, and children will. Sure, some might tell you to shut up because you’re ruining they’re pleasure, so you’ll need to be careful about who and when. Or perhaps you don’t want to be careful. Regardless, ask questions like “is that realistic” or “how likely is that?” Ask why Charlie got all the girls, breaks, and laughs on Two and A Half Men and Alan pretty much never got anything. Learn from Evan in Superbad; he spends most of the movie challenging Seth’s claims about what guys do and how sex and relationships work.
Changing our cultural assumptions about male sexuality will take work but that work will ultimately benefit all of us. It’ll give most guys the option to be more romantic and emotional. It’ll also mean they don’t have to spend time convincing a new partner that they’re a good guy and “not like most guys.” The folks men date, regardless of their gender, will get better partners and will be better able to focus on their own pleasure instead of worrying about controlling their guy’s sexual wants.