Sexual Healing

Ben Thurgood wonders why the feminist concept of equality in sex hasn't entered into the mainstream - after all, equality is just common sense, surely?

, 19 September 2003

As an embryonic male feminist – and, incidentally, one who is glad that Avril Lavigne is inadvertently making it unfashionable for those skittish American ‘grrl’s to continue to call us ‘boi’s on their webzines – one thing has hit me really hard about my tentative introduction to the third wave. I’ve read about it in Greer, seen it in a diluted form on Ally McBeal, subsequently (and briefly) talked about it with my female friends, and, most importantly, read about it in The F-Word. Yes, ev’rybody’s talkin’ ’bout it: sex. More specifically, I’m talking about the perceived gender inequality that has arisen and is apparently yet to be eroded in heterosex. I’m talking about ‘the active’ and ‘the passive’. I’m talking about how far we as a society have come since sexual harassment, pornography and Sarah Jessica Parker became such huge political and social issues.

We are force-fed the general feeling from society that equality is a reality

Oh, but firstly, I say ‘tentative introduction to the third wave’ only for a few reasons, that I’m sure some may relate to, and whose effects reappear later in the article. Many of our parents weren’t involved with the second wave. Close female friends are often either not bothered about feminism or (understandably nowadays) nervous about openly committing to it. Aside from a few suffragette anecdotes, formal educations provide us with barebones info on feminism and feminists. We are force-fed the general feeling from society that equality is a reality. Perhaps most significantly for me, some of us, for whatever reason, are male and therefore not directly subjected to any injustices, limitations or any of that hilarious ‘hostile chivalry’ stuff. Meaning then – and I know that this is one of the main reasons that we’re all here – that I am starting, as perhaps the majority do, with scarcely any helpful knowledge about the subject except the oft-quoted scary, hairy feminist stereotypes and the fact that Germaine Greer is the coolest person on Newsnight Late Review, not counting Will Self.

This makes me really scared to throw my full weight behind any one point of view, and it seems to me that you have to be either very confident and very clever to make the big leap to becoming a hard-core radical/ riot grrl/ third waver/ whatever, or just very confident and very foolish. I’m still at this one stage which involves a paranoid melange of idealism and inexperience. In most cases I pretty much know what the ideal is but never know whether it just doesn’t exist or I just haven’t come across it yet. But, shoot me in the head if third wave feminism isn’t an extremely underground movement. Living near Derby (being hardly a metropolis) I have neither seen nor heard of any signs of feminist life. It’s hard to know quite what state feminism, and society, is in when no one talks to anyone else.

I get the feeling that The F-Word is one of the most comprehensive and relevant resources available to us in Britain but it seems to be a pretty compact community and from reading the site’s feedback an awful lot of people seem to have ‘stumbled upon a gem’ whilst – frankly – looking for other things. I know I did. I myself had previously found that the only way to get any third wave content is via punky riot girl music webzines and funky retro-chic dress-making sites. There is no real problem with this as such, but it generally means that feminism is a secondary topic, and inevitably that I must settle to read various theorists’ books. Again, there is little wrong with this, but I have little or no hope of comeback, discussion or social contextualisation.

I’m glad that The F-Word specifically welcomes men though. Some sites have made me feel a bit sheepish, like I was peeing in the ladies’ toilets or something, and some friends, male and female, have raised their eyebrows or just ripped the piss out of me for reading stuff like The Female Eunuch.

Now, after telling you what you know, the main point of my article is to give you a male perspective on an issue which has already been brought up in a piece I thought was great a few months ago: Dysfunctional, moi? by Jennifer Drew: again, this is about the issue of sexual equality.

Feminist thought on sex has not yet transferred over into the wide social consciousness

Sex is an issue which, in my admittedly unlearned opinion, is an area of feminist thought that has not transferred over into the wide social consciousness like, say, discrimination in the workplace, pornography or abortion issues have. If feminist thought on the matter has ‘crossed over’ into the mainstream, huge debate rages over whether or not it has been diluted or distorted into irrelevance by patriarchal society. This is strange as sex, needless to say, underpins all of the aforementioned issues. Although I fall further out of love with Freud with each passing day, I reckon he had a point when he banged on about sex and death being the main drives behind humanity. Especially sex. The issue then, as I’m sure you are aware, is that of the female’s role in heterosexual intercourse, and I really feel I should state that I’m fully aware I’m a guy and can’t really comment and blah blah blah, but I’m really not trying to offer any universal theory here. Without that all important female perspective, I cannot be sure of how much of what is to follow even makes a significant statement on the matter, but do bear with me. I apologise for all the disclaimers too, this being one in itself, but they are sincere – not just PC niceties.

Sex is an important part of any relationship, and the only part of some. Though I don’t know quite how my personal preferences came to be, the desire to have an equal sex life sans female passivity was always there, like an unsaid agreement. Hardly groundbreaking stuff.

I suppose that the prevailing social traditions surrounding heterosex oppress mostly women, for reasons beautifully illustrated in ‘Dysfunctional, moi?’, but they also affect men. ‘Aah, bless!’ you might well say, but if men are truly the only active collaborators in sexual activity, then this places an awful lot of pressure on them. It is often stated that women should not need to degrade themselves in order to protect the fragile male ego (‘That was the best two minutes of my life, Johnny’). I wholeheartedly agree with this, especially since if the need for women to do this were to cease, it would also release the men who are taught to believe that their power, their successes and failures, and their part in sexual activity is all inextricably bound up in their cocks.

We still live in a time where the female orgasm is shrouded in mystery and yet is considered absolutely essential. Consider how much airtime, magazine space and conversational length the subject of orgasm, and how to achieve it, is given and perhaps you will understand me. This is not to say everybody feels that the orgasm is an essential part of their lives. In truth, it is probably those of us who have relationships strongly founded on sex and sexual attraction, but I will say once more (though not quite so sweepingly) that sex is an important part of many relationships. This is true whether sexual activity is frequent or scarce. To me it seems the orgasm occupies both the very centre and the distant outskirts of human comprehension.

Half way through writing this I thought I’d try and actually see what kind of thing is written about sex in men’s magazines. My friend did this for her English Language coursework, and said she it made her feel kind of amused, but also overwhelmingly sad and pitiful. Like seeing someone fall over, I’d imagine, or your parents having sex. So I scoured my brother’s room and found only Men’s Health. ‘How highbrow’, I thought with true sincerity, ‘but it’ll have to do’. Firstly, I discovered that Men’s Health is FHM for men too demure to buy FHM, but secretly want to (FHM, by comparison, is porn for men too demure to buy porn, but secretly want to). Secondly, articles about ‘How to drive a woman wild’ were mixed in with ‘How to power lunch/chisel your abs/take a punch/ et cetera’. They all followed the same formula: numbered steps.

  1. Kiss face
  2. Left boob, 3 mins (approx.)
  3. Right boob (see above)
  4. Kiss face, manipulate clitoris
  5. Fuck

“not only will this have her screaming your name, but you’ll notice your stomach getting flatter over time too.”

(Or words to that effect: I have paraphrased wildly…)

Proper sex education is needed so that people find themselves in a comfortable enough position to talk about what they want out of sex. If not, then it’s taken us about two generations since sex started losing its stigma and sense of taboo to get to a situation where young men are being taught to fuck Ikea-style, and young women are still not being taught to question this. Self-assembly orgasms anyone? To quote Greer a couple of times:

“Love-making has become another male skill, of which women are the judges.”

“If we localise female response to the clitoris [rather than the body as a whole] Sex becomes masturbation in the vagina.”

At this point I’d like to recommend my favourite novel, Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, for a beautifully written, exquisitely blunt tale of teenage society and sexuality, where the main character’s sexual manifesto is, whilst practical, very sad and lonely, or so it struck me anyway. Infuriatingly though, his conquests still reached orgasm six or seven times a night – so much for teenage angst when you can do that, huh? Also, though you get the feeling he might be being genuinely admirable in his intentions, his sexual partners are passive and selfish beyond belief, so the book never quite provides the ideal model, but rather a vivid snapshot.

Although on a superficial level this ad shows men as the weaker sex, the concept of phallocentric sex is kept intact

Advertisements (bearing in mind the obvious problems; the beauty myth, gender role stereotypes, consumerism et al.), are also an area of mild interest here. They do reflect society to an extent, though you might argue that any reflection they do achieve is somewhat carnival mirror-esque. To illustrate broadly, in days past, many adverts were openly racist and sexist as was the society at the time. One recent(ish) advert that strikes me about sex today is that lager ad which shows a woman coming home to find her partner in an apartment he had been given the task to clean, but hasn’t. Thanks to a chance discovery, she manages to lead him around the house with a trail of the said lager, which as it is lapped up by him, leads to the highly efficient tidying of the home. If memory serves me correctly, directly after watching her lover lick clean the inside of a bathroom tap (although it could have easily been the toilet bowl as I can’t quite recall), she develops a look of sexy inspiration on her face and leads her eager partner to the bedroom. The punch line is that when she tries to pour beer over her half-naked body, the can is empty and the man’s interest duly subsides. This sequence of events can be viewed in various ways. The woman is the instigator of the sexual activity, indeed you could say she is taking on the role of domestic dominatrix. She seems extremely frustrated, grunting and gesticulating with rage, when it becomes apparent that her sexual desire will not be quenched. Most importantly, the rather unsubtle sexual innuendo leaves us in no doubt that the imminent act is one which will involve the stimulation of the female character’s entire body, like the flat before it (yuk!), with our hero’s tongue. Then just as it seems we may be able to (however half-heartedly, given the situation) take some positive messages from this, the way in which his tongue downturns from beer-induced erection to disappointed flaccidity finally cancels them all out. The tongue is only a phallus after all that. I know that this tongue-willy metaphor is meant as a cheap gag, but how depressingly poignant. In this case then, although on a superficial level this ad shows the man as useless and the weaker of the two genders, the concept of phallocentric sex is kept intact. This could be indicative of current society, in my view, where we all know equality is right and should be worked towards but there’s no way we’re actually going to do anything about it. ‘Surely knowing about it is enough’, we seem to be saying.

I have subsequently been told in no uncertain terms that this advert must have been made by a man, and I quote: ‘No woman would EVER want the bloke to put his tongue where I think she wanted him to put it after it’s just been licking out a toilet. Hello?’

Like many adverts these days – much to the consternation of various conservative TV analysts – the man in this ad is (superficially at least) shown to be bumbling, inefficient, submissive and even slightly unintelligent. He initially fails to tidy the flat, is demeaned by his partner, and is then shown to fail again when required to satisfy her sexually. All of these actions occur as a direct result of unhealthy alcohol-worship. This almost provides justification for male viewers to actively emulate their on-screen counterparts. Just as women are presented with the beauty myth to live up to, are we seeing a similar (though OBVIOUSLY much less significant) male version: ‘the simplicity myth’?

One of the best compliments a man can give another man is to say he is ‘down-to-earth’, ‘straight-forward’, ‘straight-talking’, ‘calls a spade a spade’ or something similar. There is a strange phenomenon in (especially secondary) education whereby stupidity is celebrated; where young men either deliberately lie about their grades to friends, surreptitiously lowering them, or at least being very unforthcoming with news of their achievement. This is not often to do with modesty. The same lads, in my experience, can be found seconds later singing the praises of their cocks, or, in the case of one of my own former peers (and this brings me back), boasting about how he could make both of his girlfriend’s nipples stand on end whilst only touching one. A mighty boast indeed for a thirteen year old.

There is a strange phenomenon in education whereby stupidity is celebrated

What to make of this though? The fact is, as I see it, the same prejudiced attitude is ingrained into young males when it comes to sensitivity and emotion. After all, in the words of Robert Smith, ‘I tried to laugh about it/ Hiding the tears in my eyes/ ’cause BOOOOOYYYYYSSSSS DOOOOOOOONNNNN’TTTTT CRRRRYYYYYYY’. Complication, affectation and intellectualisation are all seen as in some way inferior to more masculine traits.

I am not trying to put myself across as the perfect man, sensitive and master of his urges, and this is because I’m not. I don’t want to assume that the previously written article (‘Dysfunctional, moi?’) is gospel and agreed with by all who read it. However, I now know that according to some, I might have had – and still have – the beginnings of a healthy attitude on this topic. Amazingly, things have never actually been that simple.

To my complete disbelief, whether through intuition or open discussion, and in both short and long term relationships, I have found that equality between the sheets was not wanted thank you very much. As you can imagine, having open conversations about this at various times throughout a two year relationship involved my girlfriend having to flatly refuse taking an active part, and then justifying her decision.

I may be being over-sensitive, but never have three words been more demoralising than: ‘Just fuck me’.

Who has made sex so scary? Why does it have the potential, on occasion, to make you feel so alone when you are as close to a person as you’re ever likely to get?

That is probably more personal stuff than any of us can manage, me especially, so bringing back an earlier bit of this rambling article I ask whether my subjective experiences could have anything to do with the lack of awareness of feminist issues in our culture these days? I would like to ask for an honest, objective opinion of whether UK, female society (feminist or not) does actually believe that sex is sexist; that something needs to be done? I assume that anyone who does agree has done something about it themselves, but unless I’m very much mistaken you are a minority. Ownership of a penis does not truly make a man active in sexual intercourse, and not having one doesn’t make women passive, does it? A penis isn’t even necessary for sexual activity. Why all the active and passive? Two people can be active towards each other, so long as they are careful not to clash teeth.

Why all the active and passive? Two people can be active towards each other

Admittedly, there are problems with relying on either intuition or discussion to solve the problem. No one can be expected to read someone else’s mind – even though this expectation seems often to be the norm for whatever reason – and so intuition could easily be considered a blunt tool. Conversely, there is the perennial excuse made by those accused of rape that asking for consent ‘spoils the moment’. This of course is a dreadful defence, but does highlight the fact that trying to talk about sex to someone you intend to have sex with has the tendency to make one sound like a porn-star, a business exec, a hippie or an over-sensitive teen (oh…). No one wants to do this either, so we emerge relying on a too blunt tool or a rather too sharp one – with no other easy alternative that I can see.

In fact, the only one I feel I can suggest may be a rather tough one to apply. It has been suggested before, and it would be very hard to do without seeming contrived and moralistic, but in my opinion the need is for a very public figure to make talking about the issue, well, cool. It is a sad reflection of our times, but thanks to a combination of the beauty myth and the ‘simplicity myth’ throughout the 90s, we have a situation where the general perception is that feminism is neither beautiful nor simple, and is therefore discredited. Forgive me for sounding like a stoner, but tell me: what is more beautiful than reality; what concept is simpler than equality? Unfortunately, too many of us still believe that to be a feminist is to be frustrated and ugly, or an obsessive militant nitpicker exercising a need to intellectualise every little thing. Simple as that. It works both ways too, hence feminism’s in-questioning over the issue of lipstick, mini-skirts and whether or not Sex in the City is empowering. Hence also the current malaise, as we try to figure out how to make the next big push towards equality on a wide scale. In his book The Nineties; When Surface Was Depth, Michael Bracewell explains how we can now discuss phenomena as varied and slight as Madonna, mullets, cappuccinos and carpets, giving them hugely exhaustive social, political and personal significance, but all the more important subjects are now too big for anybody to discuss casually (as ‘Whoa, heavy stuff!!’ is the general response) or academically (where even the most even-handed thesis will have holes shot out of it or will be totally misinterpreted). Feminism – like consumerism, socialism, politics and religion – is one of these subjects. Is it really true that we would rather be ‘Pretty Vacant’ than anything else?

A friend and I once joked that if, during the ‘will we – won’t we’ War on Iraq debate, Tony Blair had been photographed on holiday in his cossie by Heat magazine showing his unsightly cellulite or his hairy back then it would probably have as much chance of stopping the war as the protest marches. This is a little bit silly, but if we live in a celebrity culture then why not exploit it?

Who would we have spearheading our mission to make feminism cool?

So who now would we have spearheading our mission to make feminism cool? Totally off the top of my head, the only overtly political rock uber-stars I can think of are Lennon and Cobain (both dead), Bowie, Dylan and Lydon (all irrelevant for our purposes, sadly). We have no contemporary equivalents who are as successful yet political, never mind feminist. Could Thom Yorke, Karen O or Polly Jean Harvey do it? Only Harvey shows any evidence of ever wanting to, but is she high profile enough? Would anybody actually listen to Courtney Love, as she is apparently one of the most recognised figures in America (more so than her late husband, research indicates)? The main candidates, as mentioned before in another F-Word article (Ball Breaking? Coming Out of the Feminism Closet) might also include Kylie Minogue, and I’d also like to add Pink. Going away from music, perhaps Baz Luhrmann could do a film? A Fight Club equivalent could be made whose meaning is less easy to misinterpret. Perhaps a non-psychopath could win the Turner Prize with some poignant, controversial feminist neo-sculpture. Or maybe we could get really post-modern and get Jordan to front our campaign? Who will be third wave feminism’s Bob Geldof? Perhaps we should do a Grrrl Idol show? See how depressingly futile my best ideas for progress are…

My argument ultimately centres on the suggestion that, perhaps, the kind of infinitely preferable, mutually rewarding, wholly equal act of sex is a concept alien to many women’s (and men’s) nurtured sexual sensibility. At least initially. Trying to change people who have accepted sexist sex as a happy status quo is not what I feel needs to be done, but they should at least be aware that they have options, something which – again – education, the media and patriarchal society as a whole doesn’t do. I’m sure equal sex may potentially disagree with your Everyman far more than your Everywoman (what wide, sweeping statements I’m making). However, I find the idea that ‘women who don’t like sex are dysfunctional’ absolutely abhorrent. Likewise, the perception that women who ‘discover’ themselves sexually are in some way deviant is just silly. Even talking about relatively slight deviations from penis-orifice transactions often seems to arouse in others suspicions of ulterior motives or perversion, even in people we are close to. These all could be argued to be results of unequal sex, but are explained away to perpetuate the same inequality. I argue that all this is what girls and boys are being brought up to believe, and what is constantly reinforced as we get older. Those of us who have heard that triumphant proclamation, ‘Any hole’s a goal!’ must surely sympathise. It is this ingrained logic and reactionary moralising which stands as the main obstacle to many lifestyles and movements, and not singularly feminism.

To this end, sex might also be more loosely defined. As more eloquently put in ‘Dysfunctional, moi?’ currently only ‘penis penetrates vulva’ equals sexual intercourse.

I see this issue as one which only needs to become visible so that everyone can see what blatant common sense equality is

I acknowledge freedom of choice, and that everyone is different. The thing is, whether consciously or unconsciously, I think a refusal by a woman to explore a more equal sexual experience is probably a barrier placed there by society, but that’s not important. What I don’t know is who needs to break the barrier down, or how? Does it need to be done actively, or will it continue to crumble over time, as we mature, if we only let it? This is perhaps the best time to mention that I am pretty young, and so the word ‘inexperience’ again must rear its head, perhaps soon to be followed by ‘naivety’. However, the fact that this issue of active sexual participation by women is brought up as regularly as it is in feminist lit makes me wonder if I really am being all that naive? Is it, as I suspect, an issue if not for already enlightened feminists, then for women and girls, men and boys in general?

The F-Word article I continue to mention, and the chapter entitled ‘Sex’ in The Female Eunuch, give me hope in that there must be hundreds of other similar pieces. Therefore, more importantly, there must be millions of enlightened women and men who have read and considered them. If there is a focused end to my outpourings then here it is: should we be afraid to talk about all this stuff, with each other, with our partners, and eventually with everybody? Like the whole feminist shebang, I see this issue as one which only needs to become, and stay, visible so that everyone can see what blatant common sense equality is. This issue is not even another one of those ‘concessions’ male society is supposed to periodically make to women. I hope this isn’t surprising, and I only hope male readers will agree, but many men may actually be quite positively receptive to the prospect of equality in heterosex; the same is true of women who do not already enjoy it. They might want it as much as you do, with ‘want’ the operative word here. I know no one around here is deluded enough to think that all men are evil satyrs, and all women repressed nymphomaniacs who embrace passivity. But, still I read that most women are far from happy with their sex lives. I am too, so let’s talk…

After all, what’s worse: potentially awkward conversation, or the knowledge that there are girls and women out there who are unknowingly an experiment in little Jimmy’s FHM Master’s Degree in Sexual Engineering?

Again, I feel like we probably all knew all this. But whether or not you agree with what I’ve said, this is a burning issue. If we want something to fight for, there are less selfish but scarcely more important things than sex.

We probably should try to talk about this with each other. If we find are already getting what we want, active or passive, then fair enough. If not, we are justified to demand it or get the hell out. If one of the goals of the third wave (I know I read it somewhere) is to move some emphasis away from the personal back towards the specifically social world of salary disparity, the beauty myth and domestic abuse, then surely this whole sex issue is a huge, personal thing to get out of the way. If (as I’ve also read somewhere) the real goal of third wave is to focus more on the personal after the secondwave’s successes in society, then there is little that is more personal in human relationships than sex. Remember, Dr. Freud says that sex is one of the main drives behind all human behaviour. I can’t believe I’m consciously going to say this, but perhaps a spoonful of sugar will help the medicine go down.

Only when I feel I can write about this without the sensation that I’m treading on eggshells will I know that something has been achieved. This is not one of those cases where a man blithely begins to blame the forward strides of feminism for his woes. Instead, I think we haven’t moved forward enough. I’m not saying that this is the fault of feminists, by any means, but who else is going to do anything about it? Perhaps the whole thing will be remedied, personally at least, when I eventually meet someone who – gasp – is prepared not to be oppressed by me and my penis.

Ben Thurgood really wants some French cosmetic laboratory to cook up a shampoo that gives him authentic ’80s ‘The Cure’ hair. He is otherwise happy, but worryingly overdrawn…

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