The next step to prevent rape is men owning our sexuality
Historically men are not part of the rape-prevention conversation because we are only starting to grasp how gender affects us.
In The Guardian on Saturday 26 January 2013 Tanya Gold quite rightly calls Joanna Lumley’s rape-prevention strategy for women a reactionary return to the past. The problem is that at a very pragmatic level Lumley’s strategy makes sense: in rape culture, women do well to avoid fitting the stereotype of ‘slut’.
The differing views between Lumley and Gold is by now a very familiar pattern because the rape situation largely hasn’t moved on since the 1970s. The reason: men have not entered into the rape conversation as real participants. Gold points this out, but of course she does so as an outsider to the realities of men’s lives. It is time to go the next step and get inside the experience of sex for the majority of men.
Conventional masculinity pressures men to lay huge emphasis on sex. For most men, most of our emotions, most of our capacities for love and nurture, all of our vulnerability and all of our sexual desires can only be legitimately expressed in sexual engagement with a woman. Masculinity trains men to package up all these parts of us and project them onto women. From men’s viewpoint, women appear to be the gatekeepers not only to sex but also to our emotional expression and wellbeing – a massive load upon sex, and upon women – and, crucially, this is massively disempowering for us men.
It means most men don’t feel we “own” our own sexuality. The conventional masculinity template is to project our sexual energies out of ourselves, away from the immediate pleasures experienced in our bodies, and onto the bodies of women and the paraphernalia of conventional femininity. This is the internal mechanism from inside which so many rapists say with complete belief “she was asking for it” or “she made me do it”. This is a classic expression of disempowerment: most men experience our own sexual desires as residing not in ourselves but in ‘her’. Thus, what ‘she’ does, how ‘she’ moves, what ‘she’ wears, appears to have a direct connection with a man’s sexuality with no intervening autonomous person who has choice, or tastes, or individuality.
Feminism helps women make abundantly clear what it is like to be on the receiving end of this. What is barely mentioned outside of a tiny psychological/personal growth literature is what this disempowerment is like for men. The West’s models of desirable sexuality are all female, while the predominant message about male sexuality is that it is dangerous, dirty, or disgusting: “slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tails”. Few men feel that delicious thrill of being desired, or even consider this is an experience possible to have. The only positive portrayals of male sexuality connect it with the ever-ready phallus and the constantness of the male sex drive – which certainly reflect aspects of juicy desire but which also keep men facing towards narrow masculine attitudes and relational poverty, and are a disaster for ageing men.
The sexual disempowerment in conventional masculinity also has a profound impact on most heterosexual relationships. Because of the displacement of masculine emotional expression onto sex and the disowning of our sexuality, most men are deeply dependent on our women partners both to give expression to our own sexuality and to recognise and express our own emotions. Alongside power imbalances around social authority named by feminism, the vast majority of heterosexual relationships also have another power system around sex, emotions and intimacy in which men are subordinate.
In the commercial world men’s disempowerment around sex is ruthlessly exploited by the porn industry and, to a lesser extent, by sex workers. Although these are legitimate activities in themselves, their extremely high profits are driven by men being so willing to pay ridiculous prices to satisfy a desperate hope that what appears to be in “her” will, maybe this time, come to finally reside in “me”.
Conventional femininity teaches women to exploit men’s vulnerabilities around sex and emotion to gain valued resources for themselves. Although this pattern has been muted with the advent of feminism, it continues to exist. Raunch culture is an updated version with some new ingredients, but still relies on the frisson of thrill and danger in female sexual display.
In Western society’s conversation about gender, there is an historical discrepancy between women and men: women were motivated to initiate the conversation, and have done so using feminist perspectives on gender developed over 200 years. It is only in the last 20-odd years, and unfortunately often in reaction to feminism, that there is a slowly spreading awareness among men that we also have gender issues. We have some way to go before men fully explore and name our gender issues for ourselves, so that we can sit down at the gender table with women as autonomous and equal parties to the discussion.
Rape culture is a script about sexuality in social life, in which women and men each play their part. Through feminism women have made great strides to change the part they play and, more importantly, to reveal and fundamentally change the whole script. But changing the script involves co-operation with the other party – men – which in turn requires that men also want change. Because of the historical disparity between women and men about gender in general, the vast majority of men are not actively part of the rape discussion because we do not yet see the huge benefits to us in grasping how deeply we are gendered – and how narrow our lives are as a result of that gendering.
Most men stand to gain enormous pleasure, satisfaction and juiciness from untangling the current mess of gendered sexuality conventions and developing autonomous and thrilling sexualities for ourselves. We can do this individually, by exploring our own personal relationship with our sexuality and with sexual partners. And we can do this collectively, by recognising the masculinity conventions of disempowerment, reframing our experiences of sex, and developing creative portrayals of generative male sexuality.
Until this step is under way, the discussion about rape will continue to be carried on mostly by women, and will continue to vacillate between Lumley’s pragmatic but conservative harm-minimisation approach and Gold’s championing of what is equitable but not yet realised.