the cultural onion of perpetual sexism

Normally I avoid Vice like the plague, but Ticker sent me a link to a Vice article about sandals (I always said sport sandals were gross!), and then I read this article as well:

Mind Thoughts… with Michael Ian Black – Let’s Not Fuck, Shall We?

By Michael Ian Black

Here’s the thing, ladies: I don’t want to have sex with you. I know I’m supposed to. I’m supposed to want sex the way a guy in a beer commercial wants a brew: consuming my every thought, driving my every impulse, fueling my workouts, rousing me from slumber, inspiring my creativity, and propelling me through Abercrombie & Fitch with my credit card out, saliva dribbling from the corners of my mouth, and semen leaking from the pant legs of my skinny jeans. But I don’t. And I bet a lot of other guys don’t, either.

Male libido is assumed to be a constant, quivering thrum. For some men, maybe it is. But for me, as much as I enjoy the old in-n-out, the rubba-dub-dubba, the squeak-n-bubble, I have never craved it the way our culture has led me to believe I should, not even during my fabled Horny Years from ’91 to ’95. Except for those moments when I was in the first throes of a new love, sex has never subsumed me. Yet every cultural message I receive has led me to believe it should. Consequently, my lack of nymphomaniacal tendencies has always left me feeling embarrassed and emasculated.

It’s a topic I never hear men discuss. Men assume each other to be as randy as baboons during red butt season. When we discuss sex at all, we talk about it in terms of desire, never a lack of desire. Never have I been at a backyard barbecue and heard, “Man, what I wouldn’t give to not fuck Angelina Jolie.” Or “Bro, given the choice between having sex with some random bitch or reading a good book, I’d probably choose the book.”

But that’s how I feel. I just don’t want sex that much.

It’s strange. Men feel like they have to conform to some idea of masculinity that bears the same relationship to normal sexuality as professional bodybuilding does to normal human musculature. Was it always like this? Did men always have this pressure on them to maintain (or pretend to maintain) a hypertrophic sex drive?

Why is sex such a dominant cultural theme now, and why does it seem to only be getting worse? Women have been rightly bitching about this for years, but men never seem to complain. Personally, I hate it. I hate the way men are stereotyped as sex-starved cock robots. It’s just such a basic pop culture premise that it doesn’t even get questioned; men want to fuck. All the time. Ideally while watching shit blow up.

But masculinity is far more complicated and subtle than that. Yes, it involves getting laid. But for me, fucking isn’t even in the top five attributes of what it means to be a man. My top five are:

  • Providing
  • Producing
  • Strength
  • Loyalty
  • Farting

Fucking comes sixth. To me, sex isn’t even about sex. Fundamentally, it’s about acceptance, having somebody desire you enough to allow you to envelop them and wanting that person to envelop you in return. When the culture tells me I’m not having enough of it, it seems like what it’s telling me is that the culture itself does not accept me. What can I do to become more acceptable? Buy those jeans, drive that car, smother myself in Axe body spray. It’s a losing battle. I can never accumulate enough stuff—money, lovers—to satisfy the itch our shitty culture is causing. If anything, it’s like a venereal disease; the more I scratch at it, the worse I end up feeling.

I want to be a good man. I feel like I am a good man. I’m just not a horny man. Unless we’re talking about BJs.

First, a disclaimer.  While I do consider myself a social scientist, I am not a student of gender studies or women’s studies.  I have some background understanding of the relevant theory in this field (De Beauvoir, Butler, Irigaray, Kristeva), however I am basically talking out my ass, so don’t get mad at me.

Reading the above article prompted the following response:

This is a very well written, witty, articulate article.  I appreciate this kind of neo-masculinity and applaud the author addressing a situation that many men would feel uncomfortable broaching, however when I look at the list of “Top 5 attributes” what being a man means to you, I can’t help but notice that the first 2 (“Providing” & “Producing”) are simply perpetuating another long existing dominant cultural theme. However rather than oppressing women by sexually objectifying us, you are asserting your financial dominance over us and limiting our autonomy and independence by assuming the role of provider or producer.
This is why I think that until women stop this BS expectation that men have to buy us shit and pay for dinner, we’ll continue to earn less wages for the same work and remain subjugated to the existing male hegemony.  It’s only through asserting our own financial independence and rejecting the status quo of male partners being the breadwinner will we ever truly be free!
Therefore I would suggest thinking more deeply about what attributes are important to you in defining yourself as a man, and reflect on their underlying assumptions, and see if you still feel the same way.
Maybe “fucking” will end up being one of the top 5!

I understand that my response might seem overly critical, which was not my intention. I’m just suggesting that it’s important to consider underlying social and cultural assumptions that influence how people define themselves as men or women and the stereotypes they can perpetuate unintentionally.

Which got me thinking about Cutler’s Cultural Onion, which I have mentioned before:

Which then got me thinking about what attributes are important to me in how I define myself as a woman, and the assumptions they might be based on.

I really struggled with this.  How do you define femininity?  What qualities are inherently feminine?  It’s difficult to define oneself as a women without some reference to existing stereotypes, hereto-normative assumptions, or mass-media conditioning on what women are or how women should behave.

The ones I eventually came up with, for myself, in no order, are:

  • Compassion
  • Diligence
  • Autonomy
  • Idealism
  • Sociability

I realise that a lot of these qualities are not inherently feminine or masculine, and neither are they universal.  This is a personal list of what attributes I think define myself as a woman.

However, I do think compassion, or empathy, is generally stronger in women than men.  I also think that any given woman probably does 2 to 3 times as much work as any man in any given 24 hour period.  I’m not calling all men apathetic and lazy (or am I?!), I’m just saying that women (myself and women I know in particular) seem to have double or triple the workload of most men I know.  I feel like my independence and autonomy are paramount to how I define myself as a woman – meaning don’t you dare ever try and tell me what to do!  I also think my idealism is part of my female persona.

Sociability, on the other hand, I can back of up with real evidence of it being a feminine trait.  I read somewhere (and maybe if I get some of the billion things on my to-do list done I might actually chase down the original citation) that men are more likely to be introverted than women.  I suspect (and again, this might be based on shit I read ages ago and have buried somewhere in the back of my mind) that this natural tendency towards extroversion of sociability has an evolutionary advantage.  Back in prehistoric times, proto-humans and modern homo sapiens were nomadic, hunter gathers for thousands of years.  The men went out and hunted, the women stayed in camp and gathered berries and looked after the babies.  Men didn’t have to interact to survive – they could easily spend weeks out on the glacier hunting down a woolly mammoth solo.  Women on the other hand had to cooperate to survive.  In addition, generally speaking women are usually the primary caregivers to children.  Again, this is forced socialisation.  Women have to spend time with their children and interact with them.  Men do too, but perhaps not to the same extent, at least historically, though this may be changing.  Women don’t have the luxury of being able to be introverted anti-social hermits.   Our survival, and the survival of our offspring, depends on our ability to socialise.

I think it’s interesting to point out that none of my attributes appear on Michael Ian Black’s list.  Though I don’t deny that farting is important, being strong, producing, providing, and being loyal are not of paramount importance to me.   I think having compassion for the life around you (human, plant or animal) and contributing to your community is more important than producing profit or providing material goods.  Perhaps this reflects the very different nature of how men and women think?  This is probably also why I will always be poor.

Anyway, I think this has been an interesting exercise, forcing me to think not in terms of a dichotomy of male vs female traits, but in terms of what aspects of my persona are particularly feminine, or important to me in my conceptualisation of my own femaleness, and why that might be.

I hope that made sense.

Anyway, if you are a woman, or a man, and would like to share your “top 5 attributes of what it means to be a woman/man”, please do.  I think it’s a really good opportunity for us to examine how we define ourselves based on sex, and the often unconscious assumptions that underlay our conceptualisations of gender.


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