Male sexuality is not simple. It is not primarily driven by hormones, nor is it intrinsically stronger than that of women. At their deepest level, most men don’t see women as things, conquests, or simply means to a sexual end. Most men don’t hate women but worry about them; they don’t feel superior but often inferior; and they aren’t irresponsible but often feel too responsible. Men may actually have more power than women, but they usually feel as if they have less.
They may appear not to need women, but are more likely to feel secretly as if their needs are bottomless. The real reason that men sometimes put women down is to avoid feeling put down themselves. The real reason that some men abandon women is to to avoid feeling abandoned. Men themselves rarely understand their own sexuality, a fact that contributes to the misconceptions that women have about them.
Men are not only less willing in general to be introspective than women, but are also more likely to feel shame about the ways that their sexual preferences are based on emotions deemed weak, or on feelings like guilt, worry, helplessness, and inferiority. Further, men are particularly ashamed of fantasies that appear to violate traditional masculine norms. Such embarrassment contributes to a general fear of self-disclosure in men and leads them to shut down in conversations with women about sexual matters.
One of the great potential benefits of the theory of sexual arousal presented here is that not only can women come to understand their male partners better, but also men can reduce their shame about their own sexuality. Male sexuality has to contend with special versions of two powerful emotional states: guilt and loneliness.Women share these feelings but in a different way. To the extent that masculinity has to involve a rejection of femininity, men feel both hyper-responsible for women and have difficulty connecting with them. Such painful feelings are highly personal but also profoundly social. Consider the central psychic role of guilt. Our culture contributes mightily to its intensity and repressiveness. For example,we devalue old age and celebrate youth, prejudicial attitudes that lend a certain reality to the survivor guilt that people feel about surpassing their elders, about leaving them behind. And our societal ideal of individualism further accentuates separation guilt because it contains the expectation that children will move away from home, start their own families, and “make it” in society without the help of kinship networks.
In our culture, guilt is regularly evoked and exacerbated by the drumbeat about independence and the virtue of leaving one’s family. The “good life” in our culture is based on separation and autonomy, not on familial or community engagement, and such an ethos makes us more vulnerable to feeling disloyal and guilty about excluding loved ones from our lives.
Consider what might happen if our society provided families with more help in raising children, more opportunities for love and attachment than one or even two caretakers can provide. What if we were able to introduce more balance and flexibility into our ideals of masculinity and femininity? Perhaps then we could create families in which boys no longer had to push away from their mothers with such rigidity and girls no longer had to feel so guilty about being strong.Men might feel less burdened with responsibility and feel less inclined to use their sexuality to avoid it. Grown women might feel less survivor guilt about having pleasure and might be able to enjoy more varied and less inhibited forms of it with greater impunity.
The result might then be a more liberated and healthy type of sexual connectedness between the sexes. As we’ve seen, men today are lonelier than ever, and such isolation is fertile ground for a growing interest in pornography and Internet sex. Men today are not only isolated by the type of masculinity that they developed growing up, a masculinity that seemed to require an especially forceful push way from their mothers, but they are isolated merely by adapting to their normal social role. And yet there are millions of Joes who work every day at jobs in which they are cut off from peers, who go home to families who don’t know their neighbors, and raise children without the benefit of the extended families and support of past generations. These men are subject to a type of everyday loneliness and isolation that is so normal few would complain about it.
These same men, if they don’t turn to drugs or alcohol for relief, seek out a male culture of camaraderie based on objectifying women, or have affairs with women for whom they feel no responsibility, or spend hours with their porn collections and computer monitors fantasizing about being connected to women who want nothing more than to make them happy. Their wives suffer the same types of isolation, of course, although women tend to be more embedded in supportive relationships than men. But the forces that drive men apart do the same to women.
The solution to the problem of alienation in our society is to recognize that both men and women need to feel connected, need communities in which they feel recognized and safe, and need to have work in which they feel they’re making a contribution to something bigger than themselves. Both sexes need lives that are more engaged with other people while at the same time embracing the freedom to be selfishly pleasure seeking. Sex, after all, is about being separate and joined at the same time. The fact that men tend to emphasize the former and women the latter is not an irreducible fact of gender, but the result of asymmetries in childrearing and socialization. But more than that, such tensions reflect the fact that in our society as a whole we don’t know how to be involved with one another without feeling burdened or selfishly indulgent without feeling guilty. If we can solve this problem on a societal level, it will go a long way to solving it in the bedroom.
However, it won’t go all the way. Sex will always be complicated.