Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Robin Thicke and Stacey Dean Rambold Should Scandalize Us: The Absent Discussion of Male Sexuality

Gender Roles, Sexuality, MediaAndrew Smiler

Last week was quite a week. It started with Miley Cyrus’ highly sexual duet with Robin Thicke at the VMAs. Although treated as scandalous, it was another example of a celebrity attracting attention in a highly calculated manner. Although shocking in some ways–mostly because of who Cyrus is, or was–it wasn’t really a scandal.

A few days later, Judge G. Todd Baugh made headlines when he gave Stacey Dean Rambold a 30 day sentence for violating parole regarding his (not prosecuted) rape of Cherice Moralez; the judge denied the prosecutor’s request for 20 years and waived the state minimum of 2 years. This was truly scandalous. A Washington Post opinion piece by writer and former lawyer Betsy Karasik suggesting that student-teacher relationships should be expected, tolerated, and decriminalized fanned the flames even further.

Wasn’t Rambold actually doing what Thicke pantomimed – having sex with a young(er) girl who was interested in him?

For all the time, energy, ink, and pixels that’s been spent on these two events, there’s been virtually no discussion of male sexuality. I understand there are real limits to any comparison of the scripted behavior of Thicke and Cyrus with the real life behaviors of Rambold and Moralez, but consider this: no one seems surprised or concerned about Thicke, age 36, being sexual with Cyrus, age 20. For a little perspective, Thicke was a legal adult when Cyrus was being potty trained, and a scant four years ago, he was twice her age. Then again, it’s all been about Cyrus, even though they were performing Thicke’s song. It’s reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” that also left out his name (bonus points if you remember who the guy was).

Cyrus’ behavior has been painted as problematic for a variety of reasons. Thicke’s behavior hasn’t generated any comment because as a culture, this is what we expect: guys will be interested in any available partner, regardless of what else is going on or any potential consequences. In other words, we think Thicke’s behavior is normal and typical.

If you buy the idea that male sexual desire is ever present and doesn’t make any distinctions based on who, where, or when, then Rambold’s behavior should be expected and is not at all exceptional. After all, Moralez met the primary criteria: Rambold was attracted to her and she agreed to be with him. Perhaps more to the point, wasn’t Rambold actually doing what Thicke pantomimed–having sex with a young(er) girl who was interested in him? Wouldn’t any guy do that if he could?

As a culture, we find Rambold’s behavior deplorable. The idea of a (then) 49 year old man dating and having sex with a young teen is repulsive. We’d also be alarmed if a guy of average intelligence (or higher) were involved with someone who was developmentally delayed.

Instead of focusing on these extreme cases and hoping the moral approbation and legal punishments are enough to keep guys in line, we need to gain a better understanding of male sexuality. Instead of promoting and accepting a stereotype that is inaccurate and readily crosses the line into unacceptable behavior, it’s time to learn the reality of male sexuality. That inaccurate stereotype pervades both mass media and abstinence-only curricula, pressures boys to support and a version of sexuality that most don’t actually follow, and pressures girls to focus on controlling his sexuality instead of attending to their own desires.

The idea that guys don’t really care about who, when, or where has many inaccuracies. For the moment, I’m going to stay with age, a part of “who.” Most of us date and have sex with folks at or near our own age. For teens, this typically means a difference of no more than 2 years. During a person’s 20s, that range expands to about 5 years and at some point after that, it’ll expand to about 10 years. Neither the real life behavior of Rambold nor the performance of Thicke fits these parameters.

Yes, there are many exceptions, but they are exceptions. If you’re not sure, consider your own history and that of your friends. Go through all the partners, check the ages and age differences, and I’ll bet you and your friends have mostly followed the pattern. I’ll also wager that hookups (or one-night stands) are more likely to violate the rule than actual relationships.

It’s time to stop blurring the line between normative and problematic male sexuality.

Some people say that the increased access to porn and the general pornification of our culture have helped normalize these kinds of age discrepancies and encourage guys to conform to that stereotypical image of male sexuality. Maybe, but maybe not. Pornhub’s recently released list of top search terms revealed that “teen” and “milf” (a “mom I’d love to F—”) showed up nearly equally. Apparently, it’s not just teens that turn guys on.

I also want to acknowledge that when it comes to cases of pedophilia, sexual assault, and rape, males are much more likely to be accused and convicted than are females. Despite this male vs. female difference, the percentage of men who do such things and face such charges is quite small. Although the stats are important, assuming that any guy could do that is akin to assuming that any Black or Latino youth is a potential criminal. Just as racial profiling has it’s limits, so does gender profiling. (I am not trying to claim these are equivalent; I”m just pointing out that they function in similar ways.)

If we’re really interested in learning who is likely to be a sexual predator, then we need to get away from the gross generalities. Similarly, if we’re really interested in developing a generation of boys who are sexually healthy, then we all need to start questioning not only the behavior of pedophiles like Rambold, but staged performances like Thicke’s. It’s time to stop blurring the line between normative and problematic male sexuality.