It's Not Just The Men, It's The Sex Negativity

angie gunn relationships

Recently I was lying naked with a new potential partner, a sexy grown ass adult man with significant sexual experience, stroking and caressing a bit. I like to get to know people naked. My friends joke that I'm the first to be naked at the sex parties and events I attend. As we lay there, I began sharing my wants and needs, likes and dislikes, STI testing and history, partner configuration, and kink experience. As his eyes widen, he states, "you're the first person who's ever shared all of that."

I know my level of sex openness is somewhat an anomaly, but I forget how much of an outlier I am. Recently, I read this post by Emma Lindsay about "why dating men makes me feel like shit" and followed the inundation of comments from women. Many of the reactions included the not surprising idea: finally someone articulated this TRUE thing I couldn't put my finger on. This same week I read this description by Laura Munoz of "scary men" who violate your boundaries. We've all experienced encounters with men that were off-putting, scary, or downright abusive. Both are easy posts for women to get behind. It's easy to blame men for your body image concerns, blame cultural gender norms, and to blame sex socialization for internalizing sex shame from your male partner. It's tempting to perpetuate the idea that men can't contain their sexual feelings and needs, but act on them at will with no regard for women as a whole.

But it's not that simple. I'm sorry.

Now, this is not a defense of cis-het males; don't worry feminist loves. I am a cis queer white woman, who has dated and fucked mostly men, some women also. However, I am also a sexuality professional who has engaged personally and professionally with many varieties of sexualities, dating formats, and relationship structures. To be clear, I believe gender is a social construct in the first place. But most of the research uses binary terms, so I will stick with that for the purpose of this piece. From my experiences, as well as data gathered by others much more interesting and intelligent than I, the GENDER of a partner is not a causal factor in self hate, success of a sexual relationship, or well-being overall.

Sexual relationship success is lot more nuanced, and speaks more strongly to sex positivity as the meaningful corollary.

Lindsay states: "People who sleep with men tend to feel worse about how they look than people who sleep with women. Those of us who sleep with men are absorbing the shame they hold about their own sexuality. That’s where all these bad feelings are coming from."

But research from 2013 cites: "Compared to heterosexual women, lesbians reported increased drive for muscularity, lower self-esteem, and lower internalization." LGBTQIA2S+ identifying individuals were noted to have more difficulties with self hate than heterosexual individuals, which is understandable given the many psychological factors which impact coming out and living as a sexually diverse individual.

One of the arguments Lindsay uses to support her point is the idea that men's spontaneous sexual arousal is a result of the thing in front of them, and thus not their fault. She believes this defines their identity, they are the thing that turns them on (ie: someone who dates skinny women) and when they are aroused by something outside the scope of that identity, shame is perpetuated and put on their partner. She argues this is a result of male shame around sharing and owning feelings which perpetuates this disconnection of sex from the person and continues the projection of shame.

If we buy this, the result then is hatred for men, questioning motives related to their interest in us, and psychoanalyzing the men we do let in to ensure we're not taking on their sexual shame. Yet, following this formula can exacerbate our anger and frustration and feminist indignation, possibly in a misplaced and destructive way. It's a useful narrative if you're someone who wants to avoid dating men. But what if you, like me, really want to get more of that D? Or more importantly, actually form long term meaningful and sexually fulfilling relationship with men?

So if this neat package about projecting sexual arousal, and therein shame, onto a partner isn't accurate, what is really happening?

A few things really...

First, there are shitty, abusive, manipulative, and shame laden people of every gender identity. We already have so many reasons to be mad at cis hetero men (misogyny, sexism, workplace and household injustice and power dynamics, etc), why add another element of blame? Women have experienced significant intergenerational trauma in relationship to men. This is the truth, and that trauma (particularly the experience of women of color), needs to be talked about, owned, and explored as we seek to understand one another and create equity in an authentic way. This can happen every day, in every interaction and conversation with another, regardless of gender. While we can't take feminism and intersectional concerns out of dating, we can approach them in a more direct and useful way, starting with approaching the person you're engaging with as an individual who may break that mold.

Assumptions about projected shame and locus of control take away that man's agency and ability to be an individual with whom you discuss and explore past and current injustice, emotions, and needs. Making these assumptions is easier than shifting a perspective, creating social change, or looking within at ways your interaction or your own socio-cultural identity interplay with another. Also, your view of yourself is yours to own and care for, not your partner's' responsibility to nourish. Basically, it's a lot more complex. What we do agree on is that generally men have a difficult time expressing sexual desire and having it be received effectively for a myriad of reasons.

Second, it's time women owned our own internalized sex negativity, self hate related to sex, and uncertainty about how to engage with others. Lindsay talks about male friends who don't write about sex because of the fear of being creepy, bragging or pandering. But I would argue the reason men can't talk about sex constructively is women. For every creepy, offensive man saying something inappropriate, there are a dozen who are confused and uncertain, just trying to have edifying and pleasurable sexual conversations and experiences. But the assumptions related to male sexuality and expression put the fear of god (or perhaps Venus) into these men.

Disturbingly, across the gender spectrum very few people receive comprehensive sexuality education (and few seek it in adulthood), including information about understanding sexual feelings, feeling good about a variety of arousal ideas, how to communicate wants and needs, how to express feelings, and how to set and respect boundaries. On top of poor education, men have generally negative socialization in relation to sex and relationships as well as fear of rape accusations. Meanwhile, women are on the other side, struggling with using genital words, touching their own genitals, understanding what gives them pleasure, and talking openly about it. This makes for a perfect storm of misunderstanding and disconnection in relationships.

In a study of college students' perspective of consent, men were much more likely to believe "token" resistance was occurring during sexual encounters, and relied heavily on non-verbal cues, while women would call a violation of her boundary a "misunderstanding," and tended to seek verbal explicit consent. So, is token resistance a thing that happens?

Are there times where women want men to push them a bit, to be the sexually assertive and dominant partner, to create mood versus have an explicit conversation? Are there times when women fear talking about sexual wants explicitly for fear of slut shaming?

From my experiences and conversations, I would argue yes, way more than it should. A male friend recently shared with me that he's had more than one sexual encounter where the female partner was put-off or believed it was not sexy, when he asked what she wanted, or looked for consent prior to initiation. Others have told me they have chatted with women for months digitally without mentioning sex. Yet during first encounters they are supposed to intuit what she wants or needs, or what she is giving consent to.

I'm sorry ladies, coy, demure, sexy submission is completely unacceptable (unless you're Betty Boop) and perpetuates this pattern of poor communication and perceived male projection of shame.

A survey of sexual relationship communication found that "sexual satisfaction in both partners was associated with men’s understanding of their partner’s preferences and agreement between their preferences." So it was more important that the male partner had increased understanding and information. In both research instances, lack of information, difficulty communicating sexual concepts, and social norms impacted pleasure and safety. This speaks to this idea that women are waiting for men to get a clue, to seek information and skills, and negotiate clearly. But does that abdicate the female partner from responsibility during the sexual encounter?

This brings me to the third point, treat all people like people, people worthy of the the opportunity to express their sexuality, their feelings, their ideas, and given the benefit of the doubt as they attempt to connect with you. Sex negativity is a bummer for everyone, and shame is pretty universal in our society, so rather than blaming one side or the other, let’s unite in acknowledging that A) the ‘sides’ aren’t binary to begin with, and B) the root problem derives from the unhealthy cultural assumptions that REINFORCE that illusory divide.

Ultimately, improved sex and relationships starts with sex positivity, openness, and comfort on both sides. BOTH parties must show up, communicate explicitly and clearly about wants and needs, desires and interests, and boundaries and history. It is sexy to communicate. It is not slutty or permissive or coming on too strong to discuss wants and needs clearly. Here's a great tool for facilitating that conversation. Sexual shame happens, and it comes up with every gender. What you do with those feelings and how it impacts your partner, or how you give feedback to your partner about it is your responsibility.


Research Referenced:
The relationship of sex and sexual orientation to self-esteem, body shape satisfaction, and eating disorder symptomatology Chetra Yean, Erik M. Benau, Antonios Dakanalis, Julia M. Hormes, Julie Perone, C. Alix Timko. Front Psychol. 2013; 4: 887. Published online 2013 Nov 27. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00887 PMCID: 3841718

Interpersonal Communication and Sexual Adjustment: The Role of Understanding and Agreement Daniel M. Purnine, Michael P. Carey. J Consult Clin Psychol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2008 Jun 25. Published in final edited form as: J Consult Clin Psychol. 1997 Dec; 65(6): 1017–1025. PMCID:2440311

Consenting to sexual activity: the development and psychometric assessment of dual measures of consent. Arch Sex Behav. Jozkowski KN1, Sanders S, Peterson ZD, Dennis B, Reece M. 2014 Apr;43(3):437-50. doi: 10.1007/s10508-013-0225-7. Epub 2014 Jan 23.

Gender differences in heterosexual college students' conceptualizations and indicators of sexual consent: implications for contemporary sexual assault prevention education. Kristen N. Jozkowski, Zoë D. Peterson, Stephanie A. Sanders, Barbara Dennis, Michael Reece J Sex Res. 2014; 51(8): 904–916. Published online 2013 Aug 6. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2013.792326

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