Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The truth about male sexuality

Following the still baffling murder of Jo Yeates, police in Bristol have released their now-traditional warning to women not to go out alone after dark. The message prompted Joan Smith, in the Independent, to wonder why men weren't being asked to stay indoors so that women could feel safer.


Making local women feel even more vulnerable isn't helpful, especially when the advice they're being offered is next to useless. What's needed is the reassurance of extra patrols, police travelling on buses at night, and a much greater readiness on the part of officers to look out for and challenge men on dark streets. And if you think that's a breach of civil liberties, it's no more so than expecting half the population to stay at home after dark.


As Julia points, out, "there is a vast, yawning gulf between issuing sensible instructions to a possible vulnerable group... and suggesting that 50% of the population be regarded with suspicion purely due to their genitalia!" Both the official advice and Smith's response to it are deeply patronising to both sexes, part of a pervasive narrative that demonises men and encourages women to jump at shadows. The proper response is not to "make the streets safer", as Smith wants, nor to frighten women into staying indoors, but to spread the news that the streets are safer today than they have ever been. Random tragedies occasionally happen, but it remains the case that the vast majority of street violence is male-on-male and fuelled by alcohol rather than psychopathic criminality.

The myth of the street corner rapist (the myth being that he represents a common or pervasive danger to women generally) is part of the pathologising of male sexuality - the view that sees men in terms of a latent capacity for sexual violence, and women as their potential victims. Even radical feminists admit that all men are not rapists, but the notion that they have the potential to be, or that misogyny is somehow intrinsic to the normal male make-up, has proved remarkably influential. Ironically, the main effect of this mindset is to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes - stereotypes that otherwise feminists would want to reject.

And of course it is nonsense. As this excellent post by Sexademic Jessi Fischer makes clear, the belief in "brutish" male sexuality rests on some seriously dodgy science. It is a myth that testosterone makes men more aggressive, for example. If anything, research suggests that raised testosterone in males enhances co-operative behaviour. Equally unsupported are the notions that men are naturally more promiscuous than women because they have billions of sperm, and that women are sexually more selective because they bear the costs of pregnancy and childcare. Social expectations are far more powerful than underlying biology in promoting certain patterns of behviour. Fischer concludes that despite its dubiousness, "In social debates about sexuality, this narrative is repeatedly employed to inaccurately discuss porn, justify rape and reinforce restrictive gender stereotypes."

I wouldn't say that claiming that rape is an expression of male sexual behaviour is to "justify" it, but even placing it within a spectrum of reproductive strategies stigmatises male sexuality as a whole, turns the most beautiful thing in the world into the ugliest. The rapist is not an extreme instance of the male sex drive but more like an inversion of it. To view the phenomenon of heterosexual male desire through the lens of violence, aggression and misogyny is fundamentally to misunderstand it. Because it's not just the case that most men are not rapists. It is that men are least like rapists - least predatory, least aggressive, least driven by base instincts - when they are in pursuit of women. Sex doesn't turn men into brutes. It turns them into poets.

Much the most striking characteristic of heterosexual male desire is its gentleness. It can turn the toughest, most macho of men into tender lovers. It is life-affirming and transformative. It promotes grand, unrealistic romantic gestures, discovers depths of sensitivity and altruism, opens the wallets of misers, makes the loudmouth stammer and the tongue-tied eloquent. Male sexuality has given the world its sublimest music, poetry and art. (It may even be the case that the intense aestheticism sometimes found in gay men comes from their need to replicate the beauty that straight men get from their relationships with women.) It is a noble thing, too: a man who truly loves a woman will literally die for her. The pitch of desire does not last forever. Work usually intervenes, and all the practical business of life. Domesticity - or disillusion - replaces ardour. But while it persists it gains a temporary victory over that most pervasive feature of male psychology, the ego. It is when a man is most driven by sex that he is most selfless, open-hearted and vulnerable.

When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky
You can bet that he's doing it for some doll.

Ah yes, but isn't romance just a rigmarole men have to go through in order to get a woman into bed? Even if it were, it would not be a bad thing. And it might be questioned why they should bother when, brutes that they are, they could simply physically overpower the woman and rape her? But no. The need to woo, to gain the affection (however temporary) and not just the body of a woman is important psychologically to most men. Even if it's an illusion - which is why escorts offering a "girlfriend experience" command higher prices and a regular clientele. Another question: why do women fake orgasms? Answer: because men want to think that they are giving their partner pleasure. And women are sometimes too tender-hearted to disabuse them.

Male sexuality defuses violence and kills aggression, something that was recognised at the very beginning of world literature. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Shamhat, a temple harlot of Uruk, is the only one who can tame the fearsome Enkidu, the wild man of the mountains, a figure as strong and as a wild beast. Lions fled in terror at Enkidu's approach, but in Shamhat's arms he became a pussycat. He forgot his wild ways, embraced the life of the city, desiring only to lie on soft sheets. Ever since, it is the most patriarchal and militaristic societies that have sought to denigrate and marginalise male heterosexual desire. In Ancient Rome men with a pronounced interest in women were considered effeminate: real men couldn't wait to leave their wives and go off and kill some barbarians. Mark Antony was a fearless soldier, yet because of his fondness for Cleopatra his enemy Octavian was able to portray him as a decadent wimp. Elsewhere, women have been confined to the home, treated as property, viewed as morally and intellectually inferior to men. A sexist ideology grew up in which men were reassured of their God-given right to rule.

To what end? The answer may be very simple: to keep men away from women, and so distort and divert the natural sex drive which would otherwise soften and civilise them. To turn sex into a grim duty of procreation or a merely hydraulic function - to dehumanise it, in other words - it is first necessary to strip it of its mutuality, by emphasising - and inventing - an unbridgeable gulf between the sexes. Misogyny is premised on fear - not of women (who are merely its victims), but of male sexuality, its power and its beauty, the danger it poses to societies based on conformity and aggression. That's why the most subversive slogan of the 1960s was "Make love, not war."

Sex, in short, is not what fuels male violence. It is what cures it.