Men & Sex I: what men are taught

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Men can find themselves hurt, frustrated and bewildered when it comes to sex. It can be the source of many struggles in their relational encounters. Why is this?

1. Men are taught they need regular sex

Society teaches us that we need regular sexual release: that if we don’t, we’ll implode, wither away or go crazy. While acknowledging biological drives, we needn’t accept this. Many men are abstinent, voluntarily or otherwise, for significant periods. The body actually has pretty good mechanisms to de-escalate in time. These men are still thinking, free and responsible human beings.

This belief has often been an underlying excuse for some really quite ugly behaviour. It’s been used as a get-out clause, which is unfair both to us and to those we hurt. It also becomes a powerful justification for two further messages men are taught that can screw us up when it comes to sex.

2. Men were taught they would get regular sex

Sometime in our adolescence, society promises regular sex. It doesn’t somehow matter that this depends on the free choice of another human. Perhaps it’s because society thinks we need it; that if we don’t get it, we’ll do awful things. So, we’ll bend over (backwards) to give it to you.

But there is, perhaps, a more sinister reason. Bell Hooks in The Will to Change argues that society has severed men from a lot of what is meaningful. Industrialisation has meant men have left more meaningful work, connected to family, their village, their environment - work that was essentially connected to their impact in the world - to become competent, independent workers within a job that is largely divorced from these things. Furthermore, this need for independent, competent workers necessitates cutting them off from their emotions, their needs, their vulnerabilities, and their bodies. This act of severing cuts men off from their capacities for intimacy and the meaning, consolation and healing that full intimacy with another human brings. We leave men working in mundane jobs, holding their pain and needs within.

Hooks argues that men give all this up because they are promised wonderful, fulfilling, ecstatic sex. Sex can be men’s only tacitly allowed form of connection; sex is the only meaningful encounter they can have. But this never satisfies our longing for meaning and intimacy. Rather, in removing all of the fuller intimacy, sex becomes an ejaculation of the pain and shame held within, and the bedroom, the vagina, becomes society’s holding place for men, where a part of them is held close and can finally weep its tears and still be invulnerable.

3. Men are taught that their masculinity depends upon sex

So, what if we’re not getting sex, or if our partner doesn’t want it? What if we struggle with impotence or erectile dysfunction? What if we just don’t feel like having sex tonight? The implication is stark: you’re not man enough. We haven’t earned access to the male world of sexual availability. Maybe we haven’t worked hard enough, been competent enough, good enough, provided enough. Maybe we aren’t strong, invulnerable, man enough. Being kept outside the bedroom, or being unable to give it for whatever reason, can become the place of total rejection, as if society is casting its judgement on us: disappointing.

And so a man’s sexual prowess and potency become a core part of their identity as a man.

But this removes the core aspect of sex: mutuality. Sex becomes all about me. About my power to attract, pull, perform, satisfy, keep going, impregnate. It’s not about you. And it certainly is not about us and our connection, intimacy, love.

These expectations of ourselves, of our partner to provide sex, and of the sex to be amazing, is all exacerbated by the sexualisation of our culture. And can all be raised to excruciatingly impossible heights by the use of pornography. We may find ourselves pulled into using porn as part of being a man. We may use it as a way to get the release and a shadow of the intimacy we crave, but do not receive. Yet it further separates us from true intimacy with another human. Moreover, its impact, in terms of the unrealistic expectations it instils, can cause great harm to us and our partner as we approach sex.

4. Men are taught that sex is bad

The social backlash against the behaviour of men motivated by these first three messages is to conclude that men’s relationship with sex, fantasies about sex, use of sex, and actions around sex are bad and harmful. Men ingest these messages too and can feel their own penis is somehow bad and dangerous.

But this approach never helps, never aids growth or healthy change. And so men can find themselves craving sex, needing the iota of closeness it brings, of the affirmation of their male identity it provides, and yet fearing it. They are left stuck, ashamed, confused about how to approach sex, ask for it, whether they can be frustrated about it. But fearing, being ashamed of and avoiding our sexuality is never the way to discover how to express it well. It will inevitably come out, often in ugly or regrettable ways.

So how do we move forwards? In the next blog, I’ll discuss some more practical tips. But for now, I offer this: we talk about it.

We can talk to our partners about what goes on for us with sex. We can talk about the threat to our manhood, the ways we are ashamed, the need we feel to perform, the ways we just want to be comforted, the fears we have. And if not to our partner, we can talk to ourselves about these feelings, write about them, recognise them within us, accept with compassion all that goes on for us as we approach this area of our lives. Simply naming these things starts to untangle the threads that tie us in knots.

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