Guy Talk: The Will to Change 5: Sexual Expectations

No man who does not actively choose to work to change and challenge patriarchy escapes its impact. The most passive, kind, quiet man can come to violence if the seeds of patriarchal thinking have been embedded in his psyche. Much of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde behavior women describe in men who are alternately caring, then abusive has its root in this fundamental allegiance to patriarchal thinking. Indoctrination into the mind-set begun in childhood includes a psychological initiation that requires boys to accept that their willingness to do violent acts makes them patriarchal men.

hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (p. 59). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

Hello and welcome to the fourth of an experimental series.  Here, we’ll be going through Bell Hooks’ book “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love” as a way of prompting conversations about maleness.  I don’t want to call this a book club because I’m going to be writing for people who haven’t read the book.  But if you want to read along, you are certainly welcome to do so. As always, this is a trans-inclusive space and EVERYONE is welcome to comment.

Hooks says, and my own experience agrees, that men often expect sexual intimacy to be a cure-all that will provide them with emotional satisfaction and connection.  If sex fails to do that, some men don’t get the message that maybe they are looking for the wrong things from sex.  They blame their partner and/or go looking for some other sexual experience.  And society deems this as acceptable — that men HAVE to have sex and to deny them that outlet is unrealistic and unfair.  Sex, then, becomes about fulfilling a need rather an intimate partnership.  It takes on elements in which sex becomes more like a desperate hunter and his prey rather than two equals sharing an experience. 

Sexuality as an isolating experience in males begins at a very age, according to Hooks.  Because patriarchy endows penises with almost magical powers, a young (cis) boy quickly learns that parts of his body are feared even by his parents.  It is the one part of himself he must not show and must not speak about.  It is simultaneously the part of himself that his peers and media teach him he will be judged by.  When he glimpses others penises, he will judge himself by them.  They will judge him.  The penis is both his ultimate weapon and his ultimate vulnerability.  So when years later he is in a place to experience sexual intimacy, a lifetime of anxiety means that the encounter becomes much less about communication and pleasure than about finally proving himself capable.  

For many men, sex and idenity are so closely aligned that denial of sex feels like a denial of self.  Having grown up emotionally isolated, it does not seem possible to look for intimacy in any form other than sex.  So to be denied that feels like being told one is unworthy of being loved.  All their own fears about being unlovable seem to be confirmed and it only increases their desire to prove those voices wrong.  But the more self-centered sex becomes, the less power it has to form emotional connection and the more desperate and hurting the man becomes.  And yet, because a sex-obsessed man is more acceptable to society than a vulnerable man, no one tells him he’s one the wrong path. 

“Patriarchal violence,” says Hooks “is a mental illness.”  Terrance Real calls it a disease of “disordered desire.”  Sex as domination is like an addiction.  It does not satisfy one’s existential isolation, it only temporarily relieves it.  It creates a cycle that feeds on itself leading to greater and greater problems.  It is, Hooks says, a form of insanity — helping neither perpetrator nor victim.

Some people think that whenever toxicity and mental illness are linked, the implication is that either it means mentally ill people are toxic or that toxic people have no responsibility for who they are.  As a mentally ill person who is also continually recovering from being a toxic person, I think the difference is the very title of the book:  The Will to Change.  Take it from me, a toxic upbringing wrecks your ability to think or regulate emotion.  It does affect the brain.  That doesn’t mean we need to therefore not hold anyone accountable.  It does mean we have to think about how to heal from it in terms of psychology.  

An attitude of sex as violence is not a male only phenomenon.  The underlying mistake is connecting sex to power, and homosexuals are not immune from viewing sex as predatory.  The patriarchal idea of sex as domination for the purpose of self-healing is present throughout both heterosexual and queer history.  Hooks states that even sexually liberated women too often buy into this concept of what sex is supposed to be and think that objectifying their own sexual partners is the key to satisfaction.   Hooks argues that patriarchy is just fine with women acting like men in this way — that both sexes seeing the other as disposable toys will continue to keep people useful pressure cookers of rage and fear.  

Steve Bearman reminds men that “no matter how much sex you encounter, it will not be enough to fill your enormous need to love and be close.”  It is simply not meant to be our only outlet (or intake).  We must learn to express our loneliness as loneliness, our anger as anger, our fears as fears, so that when we approach sex we’re not doing so as a desperate starving man looking to steal a meal but rather as a healthy individual happy for the opportunity to break bread together.

I remember being in middle and high school thinking that all the other stresses in my life would be manageable if I could just have a girlfriend.  I think a lot of boys feel that way.  But when I was in my first long term relationship in late high school and into college, the sensation and affection was nothing more than a numbing agent.  The underlying inability to actually process emotion constructively remained.

How does sex play into your sense of identity?  Do you find yourself using it as a measuring stick for your worth?  Do you ever use it to distract yourself from dealing with deeper issues and insecurities?  Have you in the past?