Last time, we began our look at human sexuality with a lot of questions – because sex does seem to beg all manner of things we'd like to know that we're often too afraid to ask. But circling around all our curiosity is perhaps one question: How much can we ever truly know about what it's like to experience the same human planet as a different gender? As people of different sexual experiences – different sexual expectations.
If we all seem to be from different planets when we're dragged into single-issue discussions on anything but especially sexual identity, where are our hopes for the human social future as we all get scooped up by the gender conflicts? If relatively ordinary men like me are even trying to keep our eyes in their gentlemanly place day to day and, let's face it, often still failing, how do we find ways to humanise each other in our gaze, our words, our choices, our listening, our understanding?
With fights for identity aplenty in the noise of the fearsome Now, trans or cis, gay or straight, queer or quaint, angrily InCel or embracingly bi, we do seem all caught in a fearsome squabble to make each other agree what gender is supposed to be. While it’s heartening to hear the Chinese social platform Weibo recscind its discriminatory decision to ‘clean up’ gay content across its site, how do we really hope to make sense of what it means to be me, where my private life meets my public identity and everyone seems to have an opinion on who I’m supposed to be? Who on Earth ever wants to listen to someone else’s pain?
In the misrepresentations of each other we all feel across the media and social networks, we’re all dealing with senses of injustice it seems, and we’re all trying to make sense of what the big picture might actually be. But many men in particular are wanting to work out an honest new sense of what it means to be a man in the modern world – and we left our previous episode on a slightly cliff-hanging rhetorical question that I wish we could answer.
Why is it evidentially so that so many men won’t open up to women? What is the disconnect there for hetro chaps trying to make sense of who they feel disconnected from being?
thinks we need to stop talking about a ‘masculinity crisis’. Writing in The Conversation, she says she thinks that many global cultures: “suggest that manhood is something universal, even primeval, and thus unchangeable. But masculinity is a social construct. It has a history.”
“Our ideals of masculinity – the model to which men are supposed to aspire – is very old-fashioned. Even though our culture changed drastically over the course of the 20th century, the qualities we value in “real men” – such as domination, control, physical strength and emotional restraint – are unchanged. These qualities were promoted during the high period of European imperialism in the 19th century – when nations sought above all else to dominate other cultures.”
And you know where this has lead. Boys don’t cry, man up, grow a pair… all of it. If this was something I was aware of as a kid in the 1970s, how is it possible to still be such a problem a whole generation later?
“Emotions, including sympathy and empathy, are actually crucial for healthy social interactions” Stempie
If there are patterns to male behaviour across our culture, crisis or not, there is a massive echo around the world of violence against women. Rape is something routinely recorded as weaponised in conflicts. Weaponised. Where the hell does that come from? In domestic circles, a project like Man Up tries to re-equate male strength with the defence of victims and women, which sounds helpful and empowering. But I wonder if we’re missing something more subtle in the mix of our gender-driven anxieties.
Are millions of men simply addicted to women?
You’ll have heard of people checking into rehab for ‘sex addiction’. Sometime, they might well mean porn addiction, and one article has made me wonder: Are our screen habits not just driving moden human sexual hangups and putting new pressures on our partners but, for hetro men, based in something more fundamental? An addiction to the oppostite sex in general?
Jamie Catto writes in Positive News that the many courageous reports from women about harrassment, assault, intimidation, all of it, and these stories’ echoes of an ancient world male tradition of sexual violence, are not simply just because men are bad. But, he says: “I do think, though, that we may be addicted. Nothing I write is to excuse or condone any harassment of women anywhere by any man, ever. But to fully deal with the issue, we need to consider how heterosexual men are addicted to women and femininity in a way that women are not addicted to men and to masculinity.”
This simple tweaking of the way we look at this brought me up short when I read it.
“It’s clear that among the three or so billion men in the world, there is a wide spectrum; from those who would never harass a woman, all the way through to those who are weak, ignorant and would even boast with a proud sense of entitlement about grabbing women’s genitals” he says. “But looking at us humans as an alien might see our species, I would have to conclude that on this planet, the men as a whole seem significantly more affected, moved, spellbound, touched, even driven madly into addiction by women’s sensuality, form, and sexuality than women are, generally, by men’s. Is that too far-out to say?”
“Evidently,” he says, “a huge number of the men of this planet are untrained and ill-equipped for this degree of all-consuming attraction or desire. Many men need to gorge on pornography or fantasy to temporarily tame that desperate feeling of needing and wanting sensual, sexual and intimate contact with the feminine.”
This sounds like more disempowering language to me. Painting men as animals prey to themselves and preying on others all too easily. Addiction is much more complicated than that – it’s a duality. You are two people, wrestling like Dr Jeckyl with his very Hyde. But the habitual drivers of this potential hetrosexual male brain addiction to women is levered absolutely everywhere, isn’t it. Advertising splatters us with the female form and a certain kind of sexual sensuality across devices everywhere. Could we conceivably recognise this as the real toxic problem in our minds – like single use plastics in our oceans – being used to drive our economic culture? Disconnected from a more whole sense of what we value?
“I see a new wave of men who are not so blinkered when it comes to respecting who a woman really is, in her entirety” says Catto. “Men less disempowered by the traumatised impotency of their fathers and grandfathers. But they seem, to me, to be far from the majority.”
How much of a thing is this, do you think? “When a man feels powerless – and especially disempowered, as so many men do – his ego can react by compensating elsewhere to readdress that felt imbalance. He may begin to abuse and disempower someone or something else. Women have been dehumanised for centuries.”
My own experience of my fellow men is not this toxic locker room thing. It’s also not the pressures of gay culture and what that may bring to a man’s sense of masculine expectations. Of course, as a straight or gay bloke I’ve barely been in a locker room; art galleries and creative studios and design conferences and music rooms and theatres are places to chat good naturedly about concepts and the quality of the complimentary prosecco. Which is still as much a fertile ground for furtive sexism as anywhere. But at least, when not on the prowl, in more culturally mixed environments you get to chat to people as people. Not genders. Not primarily. That’s the point. And so many of the generally man-shaped people in my life are great blokes to me and I get where they’re coming from.
As Richard Godwin concluded after all his all-blokes self help meetings: “Men – at least the sort who come to men’s groups – are quite nice, really. No one laughed or took the piss. We all listened sympathetically to each other talking about sporting humiliations and paternal misunderstandings. The organisers promised there would be no group hugs, but there were lots of group hugs.”
But gay and straight, huggers or grimmacing handshakers, there are plenty of us still trying to manage our eyes, or not, everywhere. And I do wonder how many of us are some kind of addicted to seeing certain kinds of flat shapes and images in the rounded people all around us. Things to covet, things to resent not posessing.
In the end, is the business end of human sexuality our economic culture?
Have our minds been marinaded in the idea of commodity, of renting, buying, selling, returns on investment, graphs, charts and equations of a certain dispassionate logic that we imagine our interelations have such flat values too? It’s all very male brain sounding, isn’t it? But doesn’t this sound like the modern world? I mean, you can’t really say no to that at this point can you? I’ve set it up so dramatically. But so has our culture.
This sense of connection to primal man has in a sense driven the men who built the modern world, it’s machines and mechanisms. It’s long reluctance to ‘give’ women the vote or rights to property or respect in business. Even in rising above him, during what they finger-clapping called the Enlightenment, these men drew a straight line between themselves and he. Foolish Adam, co-opted by Eve.
What Man Brain would shout down a trumpet at this might be: “YES, THE CHUFFING ENLIGHTENMENT – SCIENCE SAVING US FROM WITCHCRAFT AND PLAGUE – OH I’M SORRY.”
To which Woman Brain might spit through clenched teeth: “WHICH IS ALL VERY CLEVER, DARLING, BUT YOUR WIZARDRY IS COSTING US THE EARTH, YOU KNUCKLEHEAD.”
All while their gay friends sit on the sofa, upend the last of their Chardonnay and say: “This is a lot less drearily subtextual than Jessica Jones.”
So, from all these old cliches, the still not quite lost seaside cartoons of us, the conflicting voices, inside our own heads and moaning in each other’s ears, the dark desires and binary demands and multiple ways we none of us are cookie cut into this world really… how do we unlock love? For all of us?
“My dad took me outside one time when I was 12 and he gave me this really harsh talk, where he asked me if I was gay and then threatened me if I were to come out. From that moment on, I started getting really anxious and was really, really depressed, and I was getting bullied around middle school. At that moment I was feeling scared because a lot of people started finding out and I had no control over it.
“After that it was really hard. Some guys on my soccer team started to threaten me, telling me that they were going to jump me, they would scream at me in the hall, and they would call me things like, “faggot.” And the coach for soccer, he would, like, give us speeches about how gay people ruin the world. It felt really bad. It would hurt a lot.
“I knew I could handle anything that came after that, and I did get through it. It made me stronger in a way and made me more secure about myself, and made me feel like I was capable of more things than I thought I was. Everything started to get better. Now those guys always try to make up for what they have done. Things are definitely way better than what it was years ago.
So seventeen-year-old Jerry from Texas told The Cut.
In the article this is taken from, ten youngsters, GenZers who are gay, share their stories of how they came to terms publically with their sexual identity. And if there is a theme, it’ surely this – better out than in.
I grew up with more than a passing sense of theatre. Alternative enough to encourage me to be myself. Theatre folk are funny blighters – play is their job. Dressing up in mischevious costume, donning alter egos, overblowing everything – this is something so daft and unreal, it helps you see all the world as a stage. Everyone playing a part. Everyone choosing to live as though part of some great story or other. Which helps you feel a little outside it. Even though you’re not.
It played with the natural freedom I had as a man – to simply not think about many aspects of my going and coming. ..Yeah, I’m uncomfortable with that phrase too, sorry. But you get my drift. The reason I didn’t become a total douch about all this confidence, bit of a d*** as I’ve had plenty of moments being, trying to come to terms with my growing up self, is that my own father showed me some useful emotional connections. He was partly progressive and partly old fashioned and it showed me the transition between worlds we’ve all been in since the 20th century especially – between old expected roles and lines to learn and complete new frameworks for improv.
If we want to look to the future of our sexuality with some hope, it’s quickly tempting to say that the always futury-sounding tech industry is not actually the best place to peer into first. It is inordinately dominated by men still, for some reason. As Reuters reported on behalf of a pantheon of eye-rolling, the tech Mecca of CES this very year was due to open: “with no women leading the keynote sessions and no code of conduct that might prevent incidents of sexual harassment, despite efforts by organizers to cast the show as a more inclusive event.” Hmm. Progress.
I can’t help feeling that the consumer electronics sector would mainly just see the sexual future as the pure fantasy one. Equipment-based, if you know what I mean. All about supplying tools of the trade.
But, even that artificually enhanced view of future sexuality might change for the healthier with more women in the product design and brand building. As Stephanie Alys, founder of Mystery Vibe, says: “closing the orgasm gap” with cultural thinking as much as more female-lead sex toy development, could: “help create a more sex-positive and equal society” with more women becoming vocal about their place in the technology and business of arousal.
But if so many contemporary jobs across all sectors are still seeming sexually imbalanced in how they represent us humans, it’s interesting to consider the roles women and men traditionally found themselves in before our predominant Now culture. Because while men were often out hunting and gathering and posturing and headbutting, supposedly, or making sex robots, women were in some cultures the leaders of something much closer to the emotional truth of the business of life – mourning.
In September 2016, the artist Taryn Simon staged an act of collective mourning in New York. Not for any one death or incident but, it seemed, to create a fulcrum of rememberence for injustices of many cultural moments in the US at the time. A sense of great emotional need for awareness.
As iNews describes it: “Titled An Occupation of Loss, the subject of the work was not the mourning of any one event or person in particular, but the phenomenon of loss itself, and the structures that surround it. Simon brought together 30 professional mourners from around the world: from Kyrgyzstan, Venezuela, Romania, India, Greece, Ghana, Ecuador, China, Cambodia, Burkina Faso, Bhutan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Albania. She arranged them in chambers at the base of tall columns resembling organ pipes where each performed according to their own traditions, lamenting something absent and unnamed.”
Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, told the article he had to admit to feeling “shaken” by the work: “I stood alone with a woman seated on a bench as she cried, tears running down her cheeks, rocking back and forth, thumping her thigh, moaning, singing, and speaking words I couldn’t understand. I knew this was a universal language of loss and inconsolability. I heard these sounds come out of me only once in my life; when I stood on Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue and wailed as I watched the first tower fall on September 11, 2001.”
Interesting, grief. That any intuition to recognise and even embrace it may be predominantly female. And such a need is especially interesting when you consider Stephen Jenkinson’s words in Unsee The Future EP2, that the wisest response to the climate crisis is not guilt, but grief. A true sense of emotional connection, emotional perspective on the cost of what really matters to us.
I’ll spare you getting too French about this and diving into how linked death is to sex. But it’s interesting that they call the orgasm ‘la petite mort’. I love how bookish the French are in bed.
If there’s one chapter of global sexuality linked to both grief and injustice, resonating a little with Taryn Simon’s work perhaps, it’s the AIDS epidemic. It especially knocked the gay community for six, leaving loved ones missing from communities to this day. The Cut’s short film asking men to respond to the word AIDS is a moving reminder of the impact it had – and how the gay community effectively lead the way in trying to spread understanding about ‘the gay disease’ as it was referred to in the earlier reports of its spread in the 1980s. “All young people should just know about the AIDS epidemic” says one person. Words like ‘loss’ and ‘pain’ and ‘best friend’ come to mind instantly for just this tiny snapshot of souls affected.
“Respect,” said one man to camera. “You can respect the future love of your life by taking care of yourself now.” Wow. Love.
I wonder if any good to come out of such sexual storytelling of suffering like this is that it helped people with no real consciousness of the gay community begin to appreciate the humanity of those outside the supposed norms of society at the time.
And if the gay community is to make especially courageous strides anywhere today, somewhere in the heritage of that collective experience, you might say it would be many of the nations of Africa. A continent half ravaged by AIDS. The headline in the minds of outsiders like me is that you don’t exactly find the most groovily open of gay cultures across a continent so dominated by traditionally expressed Christianity and Islam. But in Cape Town, some young South Africans are expressing a gloriously future-minded collision of cultural attitudes.
Fitting to be so conscious of reclaiming and reshaping identity and independence in a city that was the bullwark of colonialism and slavery, no? “It’s no coincidence,” says the piece, “that this rebellion against gender and Eurocentrism has been led by queer, trans and gender-nonconforming young people. Their protest is a means of self-preservation.” For all the progressive language of SA’s constitution, the reality at street level is reflected in details like this from a Human Sciences Research Council report that found 67% of the country’s population would agree with the statement: “I think it is disgusting when men dress like women and women dress like men.”
There is a free, open, deep breathing mental field somewhere in which your reaction to this statement will surely be: “Bloody well WHY?”
Far from a drag ball in 1970s New York or a cabaret in between the wars Berlin, the alternative queer clubs of Cape Town in 2018 are living this question, by rejecting the symbols of old masculine power, colonial European masculinity, in a new glimpse of the future of our sexuality – linked inextricably with identity and justice.
“The buzz cut on the androgyne, the textured wig on the femme doing a power gwara gwara on the dance floor, the variety of colored and textured plaits, braids, box cuts, high-top fades and Afros that fill up the space — they speak to a decidedly local phenomenon.” Which I would describe as a tiny splash of colour on the human global future canvas.
Because, when we glimpse pockets of culture like this, it’s worth remembering that our ‘hegemonic’ ideas of manhood are not so eternal. The ancient world had Apollo, sure, but it also had Dionysis – much more comfortable with his femininity. And man, did he bring the party. The Romans rebranded him Bacchus and he seemed to not just provide the wine and music at raves but was the god of epiphany and liberation, very much seen as a foreigner, an outsider. A norms-breaker.
The Being Mankind project aims to do something simple. Share different stories of what it means to be a man today, with the express aim of showing that the more truthful and practically helpful value to underpin us would be our humanity.
“Imagine a world where gender stereotypes have no power? Imagine a world where kids are given the chance to truly understand themselves? Imagine a world where ‘Man Up!’ means nothing but ‘Be Human, Be Yourself'”.
In the apparent precariousness of modern manhood, is the missing alternative to combative Make Me Great Again something much bigger? “Unfortunately, the world still defines people by their gender, rather than their humanity” the project states. “These gender stereotypes create expectations that not only damage those who are burdened by them, but they also cause harm to the people around them too. We want to provide positive male role models for young boys so that they can learn to build healthy relationships with those around them.”
Where might this leave feminism in people’s minds, men and women? How can we bring the conversations together?
Futurist Victoria Buchanan said to me in a little Twitter exchange: “I’ve had enough of women-only conversations about feminism”. As a millenial woman, still under thirty, she found herself, she said, talking to too many women-only groups about the issue, and wanted to find ways to start talking to more men about it as well.
She asks in a Linked In article: “Is feminism fit for the future?” and describes a ‘movement’ that is hardly a neat unifying idea.
“We all access feminism from a different starting point, across a spectrum of needs. If feminism is going to accomplish anything we need to build an intersectional approach that everyone feels part of.”
“Feminism tells us we need to ‘lean in’ to pursue power and status but what if we want to create our own measurements of success?” If we are to look to a post-growth society, we’ll need to tool new metrics of success for human wellbeing, to help make that new economy, she says, so as people pro-female empowerment: “What about pursuing new markers of success like wellbeing, emotional fulfilment and social good over job titles and financial incentives?”
It’s interesting for all the talk in liberal circles of feminism, making it the Merriam Webster Dictionary’s word of the year 2017 supposedly, that various different polls come up with various different numbers to show that surprisingly few women actually identify comfortably with the word feminist. And I sort of feel the same – for me, because it has so many conflicting connotations in different people’s ears. And it’s important to grasp the way a rally word is heard in different quarters, if you truly hope to use it to martial meaningful change and not just some sort of comforting tribalism.
As Ella Whelan puts it: “Contemporary feminists portray women as victims, when in fact most of us feel more empowered than ever.”
Is there a way for us to stop badging so many challenges as masculinity crises and feminism? I mean, some way to address the trends that are bad metrics – like big gender pay gaps or Me Too patterns of testimony or male suicide rates – only reframe them some how to talk about the personism in them? The real measures of success possible in a more shared outlook on everything.
Might it look like ideas conferences booking female speakers without having to make a point about it? Matt Desmier’s line up for last year’s Silicon Beached in London boasted a line-up of ten female thought leaders with no badge about feminism. “They just happened to be the people I really wanted to hear from on that day together” as Matt put it. No big feminist agenda, just a demonstration of how ordinary it should be to hear from experts and ideas challengers who happen to be women. They might have happened to be men too. It was just kind of nice in the men-laden tech sector for it not to be, for once.
Charlotte Jee managed to come up with over 500 female tech speakers in the UK alone for an article for Tech World with no trouble, it seems, and while Meta S Brown says for Forbes that only around 21% of American computer programmers are supposedly female, as she puts it: “21% of nearly half a million programmers in the United States is a large group of people.” And that’s just one aspect of the tech sector. “About 4.4 million people are employed in computing and mathematical professions overall,” she continues, about the US, “and a quarter of those people are women. With a pool of more than 1 million women to draw from, the supply should be enough to provide the handful of qualified speakers needed for any tech conference agenda.”
And with conferences like African Women in Tech coming up in Nairobi in July and the bald fact that India outstrips the UK for percentage of women in technology jobs, with a generally much more positive view of the career thanks to role models like Vanitha Narayanan, boss of IBN India, and many others like her, and you can begin to see glimmers of change in the business of the applied sciences.
Still, as Commercial Product Manager Lin Classon tells Adam Rowe for TechCo, the ladies’ restrooms at technology conferences are usually lonely. “It’s now an inside joke that I share photos of the clean, empty women’s restrooms” she says flatly.
That practical human truth is just one benign little bit of accidental evidence out there, beyond the professional statements of intent, of the sense of division between the genders that seems highlighted more than ever at the moment, as the second decade of the 21st century heads towards its close.
And you know enough, it gets especially hateful out there in the physically disconnected, head-only, tech-delivered worlds of social media. But there’s a challenge to us all there, isn’t there? To remember, when we read something inexplicably disrespectful or ignorant-seeming somewhere – that comment in caps lock is not the full story of the poster. Assuming the poster actually is a human and not malware from an art student working for a political lobby.
One sliver of light that many people have picked up on in this writhing arena was the example of American writer, comedian and actor Sarah Silverman in an online incident at the end of last year.
As Punched Up reported: “After the famed comedian tweeted that she was “open” to trying to understand the beliefs and motivations of Trump supporters, a Twitter user by the name of Jeremy Jamrozy replied to her with only one word. The one that begins with “C.” No, not “Clinton Supporter” the other “C” word.”
What Silverman did was reply like this: “I believe in you,I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But u know that. I know this feeling. Ps My back F*cking sux too. see what happens when u choose love. I see it in you.”
As you might imagine, this closed the book on that with a group hug and everyone moved on with their lives. Not. Something much more interesting happened. They got into a Twitter exchange which gradually opened up to become more human and, well, honest. Jeremy the troll admitted he was in serious physical pain with multiple slipped discs in his back and no insurance to cover it. He then went further and admitted still trying to deal with the emotional scars of childhood abuse.
Sarah said simply to him: “You don’t deserve punishment, you deserve support.”
The whole exchange ended up in her setting up a Go Fund Me campaign to help pay for his back treatment and him spreading some of that money around to others in need. He even apparently Tweeted some weeks on: “I was once a giving and nice person, but too many things destroyed that and I became bitter and hateful. Then Sarah showed me the way. Don’t get me wrong, I still got a long way to go, but it’s a start.”
It’s like a crack of light in the howling darkness, isn’t it, that story? And yes, Jamrozy is a real person it seems. Feeling real emotions. A major one being isolation, I’d say.
“How can men and women forgive the past and step forward with our whole hearts together?” asks Jamie Catto. “Do we need to do a reparations-type process like at the end of apartheid in South Africa, or as seen post-genocide in Rwanda? What would be enough for men and women to move forward as partners and team-mates in this ultra-challenging subject area of attraction and desire? It’s time for a new chapter of compassion and collaboration. We can all teach each other and our children to understand and work with ‘what is’; being open and non-judgemental about the unique predicament that both men and women have to deal with. I’d love us to melt the taboo and start now.”
Now, you could get very New Age about all this, especially if you read something like Steve Taylor’s piece for Wake Up World, in which he posits the coming together of feminine and masculine cultures as a bit of a global theme.
“After thousands of years of duality, the male and female have begun to merge. And this seems completely natural, since spiritual development both for the individual and for our species is, in essence, a movement beyond boundaries. As we grow spiritually, we move beyond the distinctions of nationality, race and gender. Rather than being enclosed within our personal world of desire and fear, our sense of identity spreads to include human beings, other creatures and the whole cosmos.”
I know. This is just the sort of conversation you have at the beige photocopier with Tina’s daughter on any given Tuesday. But I find myself just nodding along to this kind of thing now, even if I still don’t fancy a dreamcatcher over my bed and look terrible in tiedye.
The femminisation of the world is actually a queitly significant theme running under the macho-looking engineered thinking of industrialism as it opened up the world to more and more ordinary people in the 20th century. Watch-name for hopey-changey peacemaker, Mahatma Gandhi, was assisinated by Nathuram Godse in 1948 because he patriotically feared Gandhi was ’emasculating’ India. Interesting to consider that Godse spent his early years raised as a girl, peirced with the nath nosering, because this three previous brothers had died as infants and his parents wanted to break some sense of spell over their hopes for a healthy son.
Now, where I felt rather proud as an eight-year-old to be asked to fill in for a missing girl in the girls’ relay team race at my school sports day, because the teacher felt I was the only boy who wouldn’t take offense at the idea, Godse’s context was rather different to mine. While my dad did experience a little swerve of emotions as he stood proudly awaiting his arty son’s debut on the sportsfield only to see him get up with the girls’ team, the main emotion was hilarity. And in the end, probably some kind of confused pride too that his his son was not simply comfortable with himself to so public a degree, but probably a little elated to be positively encouraged to chase girls healthily.
In another place and time entirely, would I have been this boy? Oh probably, but I might have been given more shame about enjoying it’s goofy mixing of expectations. With quite another mix of influences, such notions can seem like a threat to your confidence in yourself, not an encouragement, as Ajaz Ashraf puts it in an article for Quartz: “Unable to vanquish the ideas which Godse thought was emasculating the Hindus and turning them effeminate, he killed the man who propagated them. ..In a way, Godse’s confusion about his sexuality was mingled with his extreme religiosity as well as anxiety about his own social status.”
Implicit in the male searchings for a New Masculine may be many fears wanting to replace the loss of one certainty with its equivalent.
But in hopey-changey mode we should simply remember that, while corners of the dark ages still exist out there in people’s minds, people’s minds are also very suceptible to multiple levels of cultural suggestion, and the trends in human expression are moving towards greater freedom everywhere. Even as human car-crash throwbacks like Forty Five and Vlad appear to be dicing with the end of the world and rallying legions of message boarding haters to threadbare ideas of progress, I’m finding it impossible not to picture this as raging against the dying of the darkness.
Because while people are, in disturbing pockets all over Europe and America, claiming a comfort with the word ‘fascist’ today, it’s also true that the large enough numbers of people needed to upset the status quo of globalisation as we’ve seen include lots of angry men also asking about what it means to be a man. Wanting to talk about it, debate ideas. Caring about what the hell happens next. That’s arguably a kind of progress from my generation’s shuffling shopping habits and dozing Friends marathons.
And all while new generations of men and boys are simply a lot more comfortable with their girl mates. It’s an odd collision of expectations out there, I think, between the visual addictions of porn and the social ease of physical affection between bros and chappettes that wasn’t as cosmo comfy when I was a teenage GenXer.
It’s far too simple to say it, but still brilliantly true that it’s way more normal to be gay than ever. Statistically speaking. As shockingly far to go as we have, globally, it’s just as shocking how traditionally far we’ve come so fast, and we should all be encouraged by the truth spilling out of this. If you’re trans, there is not just more readily available treatment than before but you are likely to find more acceptance than you would have a generation back. Women, men, gay and straight get to be mates now all together, where these labels aren’t things we automatically have to talk about. This is all a beginning. It is. One that creates pockets of proper human normality. The problem is turning it from appearance into a truly shared experience – not one where blokes like me can enjoy whosever company they want while the women in the room are still micromanaging themselves and their every interaction with other people. Or where the ordinary trans woman gets hassled on the way to the pub. Or the gay A-lister has to still pretend he’s straight, for his mainstream career to survive.
Sexpectations – we have to change what these are. What we expect of each other.
What do we expect of our sexuality? That it speaks something profound to our questions about life’s meaning? That it holds key answers to who we are? Or just that we should be getting a lot more of it than we are.
And what are our expectations of gender?
Does our culture quietly radiate a fetishisation of motherhood, for example? A tacit belief that women are meant to be mothers above all. I wonder. It would mean that not only do women who cannot or, worse, choose not to be mothers feel a cultural ache of diconnection, it would also mean significantly that men are often discriminated against as fathers. One person I know spent some years as a student working at the CSA and said simply: “I can attest to some of the awful awful painful situations men get put in because we have a society that thinks only women are capable of raising our children.” And she added that she: “would regularly get men threatening to commit suicide because it was getting too much.”
You could describe this as patriarchal thinking causing pain for men – because being ‘head of the household’ implies a level of disconnection. From intimacy, with children, with sexuality. At best a certain kind of stoic responsibility. Leadership. And leaders eat last, right? But wider patriarchy classically implies everything becoming commodity, aquisition, entitlement to gratification, external appearances.
And all of this, good dads and absent fathers alike, sounds ruddy lonely. And analysing it like a philosophy essay sounds rather removed from the primal injustice of not being able to see your kids, just because their mother is their mother when you both split up. Separation from your kids when you love them will remind you fast that fatherhood is not stoic company leadership but raw emotions. Ones that don’t count for an equal amount in a divorce settlement as your ex-wife’s, it often seems, because the starting point legal bias is that she is your kids’ mother and she will be good at that role, which is more important to healthy childhood than fatherhood. But who is she as a person? And who are you?
And where does this one bit of purportedly pro-female bias leave you as a woman perhaps not fighting custody of children? Hard to feel that injustice for men in the same way you may have experienced social injustice against you or female friends in other ways. Likely many other ways. Possibly in a thousand little needles of daily jabs of inequality that have nothing to do with your abilities as a professional or your personality. And you may be tired of trying to explain it to men who simply don’t know what it feels like. Every day.
Apart from anything else, as a mother, you too are as much leader as any parent. And you may wonder where the hell you went to, especially Sexy You. Remember that woman? And what if the magic of bonding with your children just isn’t what it’s cracked up to be? Mumsnet might be a wellspring of helpful community for your mate at the school gates and a sort of hell for you.
Much storytelling of our age is concerned with pulling apart the way we think about gender. Like Mad Men. I mean, what a period peice. Showing the boxes everyone had to live in – the men trapped on the commuter train, desperate for more meaning, allowed to comfort themselves with sexual fantasy, disconnected from the rest of their lives. Women trapped in the suburbs, desperate for some mental stimulus and purpose. Everyone playing to the expectations of their gender – which essentially meant hetro marriage, kids and a corporate job. An extreme of conformity that stemmed, arguably, from wanting to keep things simple and economically viable after the destruction of the war. But in that new peace time, did anyone have purpose in that show? Don Draper’s purpose seemed to be a chasing after the moment that never could be kept. Much like a perception of love without vulnerability and trust.
And then there is Game of Thrones. At the very least, it is the women fielding many of the consequences of everyone’s actions, but often doing the truly insightful leading too. The connected understanding of how humans work kind of leading. Not single issue leading. It’s a show that has an awful lot to say about sex – often by just wanting to show it, between all the killing – but is really, perhaps, about the culture of economics. Of what we value. And how. And it seems to show the slow, painful death of fielty for entrepreneurism. And of the sexism and prejudices that propped it up for personism. The power of the purpose-driven individual.
In the opening episodes of Netflix’s modern reboot of Lost In Space, it is the women who are all strong, educated, leaderly, savvy and eloquent, while the men and boys seem more lost. Especially with each other. John and Will Robinson’s sense of disconnection, longing clearly to fix it but just not having the language, leaves them both feeling like outsiders, even to each other. With one of them relying on a giant killer robot to protect them everywhere. It’s all rather Terminator 2, showing just how much we’re all still longing for Mighty Dad figures and Mum With A Plan figures to look after us.
But look at the gigantic success of these stories. We’re binging on these stories. And across the Marvel Universe and the return of Star Trek and the beautiful, moving, trash telly of Queer Eye, we are talking, a bit, about what it means to be men and women as humans. As people.
Is that interesting. Does the hope lie in some sort of personism? Retooling our expectations of gender-lead parenthood, gender-lead relationships? Tempting to hashtag it, isn’t it. Come up with an emoticon, I probably should.
If sex has any symbol it is fruit. That tasty apple. From that blossom full of bees. And birds. And it’s a good thing to look for in our relationships.
In anyone’s principles, or their convictions – whether they are intuitive touchy-feelies like me who can be good in the human moment but bad at consistent duty, or more logic-minded people who can really hold the values of something together but sometimes miss the empathic spark of truth – I can’t help looking for the fruit. What fruit are your philosophies bearing? Personally, I am instinctively wary of meetings that seem full of people all seeing the world the same way. Or seem supposed to be doing so.
This is liberal nonsense, you might fairly say. Because flocking together is what we do – it’s validation, comfort and empowerment. And yep, how culturally diverse is my little world? But my point is really about proportions. What is the fruit of how we spend our time in a world full of choice?
As we try to thrash out our surfacing pains, TV is looking more and more obviously rubbish at dealing with richly heartfelt debates because it’s format is so vacuously soundbite-driven – and this hardly helps depolarise people if your feeling is that the predominant old media are driven by a cultural agenda that is to your detriment. Look at the collapse of the old paradigm, mate. The bloody feminist agenda not listening again, right? Or More patriarchal condescention from old white men who run the world. But of course, the problem with the deeper wells of the internet is that you can really fall down the echo chamber into ever darker chaoses of conspiracy. Which always seems to draw together camps of people feeling very much the same. And all very angry.
People want to feel listened to, represented. And the internet frees and amplfies all. No more controlled stories, right? ..Because you don’t respond to data-driven dog whistles, right? Wait – MORE imigrants? LET. ME. TELLYOUWHATIRECKON. ..Yes, it’s loud out there right now, most especially between the genders – everyone feels misrepresented in their sexual identities, and at each other’s expense it seems. The fruit of it seems to be two camps that both make me uncomfortable in what seems to come of all that talk, despite how I feel about their legitimacies – angry feminists and angry man groups, both feeling misunderstood in the mainstream, both feeling disempowered. Yet, admitting men have been robbed of a credible healthy masculinity doesn’t mean there isn’t a gender pay bias in many companies. Admitting women have been used as property and chattel throughout history and feel kinda pissed about the injustice doesn’t mean young boys aren’t being left defenseless to deal with the pressures on them to be something they can’t be.
When dwelling on anything that makes us feel inadequate, or makes us feel disposessed, alone, oppressed, we want rallying cries of encouragement. And amid the noise and clutter, simple stands out, we think. And so sometimes, in a complicated emotional real world, massaging something of primal, simple meaning, we see the gender symbols posted and we see the passion for justice in the eyes of those parading under them, waving them for better recognition like the CND logo only with more barbed sharp bits because at least the nuclear missle in the CND logo was nicely contained within the circle. And as we stare at each other’s banners and sygils of that single headline of gender sexuality, feeling an angry simple certainty, we miss the sound of each other’s more complicated, more, complimentary, more compelling stories. Every one made up of millions more characters than a simple ‘o’with a positive or an arrow.
The truth is that our sexuality speaks of our connection to humanity. And so it always gets wrapped up in our notions of love. Loveless rutting in toilet cubicles may be a swipeably social option for modern humans in many places but it doesn’t seem to relieve us of our emotional hang-ups.
So, if we can relax and open the bubbly for a minute, maybe run a bath, light a few candles and pop on some Barry White, the most posted symbol of sex is the heart. Which looks nothing like the reality of the human muscle that pumps blood to the genitals and the limbic system but more like a peachy bottom on a diamond. Described like this, it’s a wonder we don’t have it as our currency symbol instead of the pound or the dollar or the yen. And mostly, it looks like a sweet. A drop of addictive candy.
If there’s one thing to be very unsexily gleaned from many spiritual traditions and teachings across time it is that both love and otherness have, at the very least, to use much of the same language. Because love and the cosmos are ineffible, ultimately. There aren’t the words. But when we have moments very aware of them, we feel connected to something more than us – and it might even be life-affirmingly mindblowing. But the real truth from many of those traditions is the word that love truly is – because it’s a verb. A doing word. Steady.
Love has many root words in other languages. Eros, phileo and agape to name just three different states of love in old Greek alone. But true love for a fellow human, whether romantic, erotic or fraternal, or even a kind of inspired respect, is something shown in action. Not words. Not debate. But living. Showing. Consistently. Like a belief system – it’s truly shown in your behaviours.
The disconnect you may feel as “a man” is down to this: Your expectations of being A Man meeting your reality of being… You. Doofus. Or of being A Woman – the expectations of motherhood or leadership or how to combine everything. For so long as any of us keep reverting back to: “Yes, but it’s so fundamental, I am a man, man, I am a woman first and foremost” we are looping back into the aggitation of a fight we don’t need to be quite so trapped in. And certainly not defined by. You get to be you. And you can place your masculinity or femininity as high up the personal identity component list as you wish. Just know what it actually means for you.
I mean, think about it, who introduces themselves with: “Hi, I’m Amanda – I’m a woman”, “Sup – I’m Ben, I’m a dude, yeah”? Solidarity is how we’ll change the world, but not while it’s being hijacked from our richer, fuller stories by one single stratum of our geology – we’re made up of more than that. We’re layered with experience, onion boy, and we usually don’t think twice about engaging with each other by sharing what we like and believe and do with our lives. It’s kind of weird when you step back to look at it that we would imagine we’d have instant solidarity with someone just because we technically share a gender. It’s your beliefs that will make you honestly bond, not your bits. Isn’t it?
I enjoy a bit of bloke banter. British men are kind of hilarious in the way they show love by taking the piss – when done right, it’s marvelously meaningful, cutting through guff and pretense. As I stood on a bitter Brighton promenade during the city’s marathon this year, a slightly paunchy bearded straggler trotted past slowly in a forlornly drooping tutu, emblazoned with the word “DAVE” on his chest, and we all shouted: “Go on, Dave! You can do it, son.” To which he looked up as he passed, eyes deadpan, and said simply: “This is bollocks.” And I could have hugged him.
Bloke banter can be a nice ice-breaker between strangers. When watching an Italy/England football match in a Rome backstreet café one world cup year, two brawny ex-army blokes got talking to me sitting there and at one point I could tell they were testing the cultural waters with me, as it were:
“Why have you got so much hair then? Think you’re Dartanian or something, do we?”
This is definitely a test, and a risky one for the obvious metro-ponsing non-squaddie like me. But I knew the drill: “Well obviously it’s because I’m an arty-farty tosspot, isn’t it? It’s kinda my job.” They chuckled that kind of he’s alright, he passed the test chuckle that meant the rest of the match was a bit of a laugh. There are things men front up to say to each other like a code, but in the end it’s the human bit of being honest that wins them over as fellow humans. Because that’s a kind of strength. And whatever our gender, that’s what we’re really attracted to.
I realise with one mis-tweak of the conversational asimuth I could have been silently bundled up into a bin-bag and left hanging from a lampost in Piazza Navona but in the real world we do all have to know when to sing I am what I am and when to discretely duck into a different café.
Of course, the reason I for so long felt a little more comfortable cheering on the girls in my life is because it’s often easier to tap into more interesting emotional topics and nuances. If I’d wrinkled my nose at the army chaps and said: “It’s such a lovely warm night, isn’t it? The roar of a football crowd from an old TV on a cobbled street, mixing with the sound of distant traffic and the thrum of conversation, hushed exchanges and the chink of glasses – it’s the true romance of the beautiful game, isn’t it?” I think one of them would have been smoothly pulling a bin bag from his bomber jacket while staring at me before I’d finished my illustrious sentence. If I’d said this to the woman at the next table, after a couple of previous polite exchanges, she might have thought me charming, just before my lovely wife leaned in and apologised that I couldn’t help myself. You see? Women can be delightful at the social details that make life nicer.
Though, at my particular time in life, my social circles are rather gender and age neutral, thankfully. I think all of my mates will let me get into touchy-feely arty-farty conversations easily enough and, if anything, I’m rediscovering the chap in me a little. And discovering how unnerving an amount of the 70s man is also lurking in there, sadly. Aging is disgraceful, really. Revealing the truth as things sag. How dare entropy speak up so.
If there’s something we can do to undermine the aging future – the less nice, more conflict-driven, uneaven one – to close our eyes to it and picture a more sustainable vision of ourselves in the world, as we truly are, it is to enable children to map out their own expectations of being individuals – of having whatever hair they like – and of everyone else’s right to do so too. Individual persons in a family of oddballs. To encourage them to understand that a central plank of building their own secret social weapon, confidence, will be standing up for their friends’ rights to be themselves too. Differently. That’s big, for a kid. To be so confident they can be different. And be friends with different to them. But where the hell do you think they learn the opposite from?
You are you. Uniquely. Duh. You are as sexy as you are, in any given season of your life. You like sex and see it as part of your life in the way you personally do. And that will always be vulnerable and imperfect because sex is the language of connection, of openness, of light flooding into privacy. Awkwardly. Who can swag that all the time? Love costs. But wise, self-knowing vulberability might be the ultimate self confidence. Even as you learn some essential self defense moves for when down the dodgy local. The trick is to know when not to deploy them.
I’m tempted to suggest you can’t develop this sort of savvy awareness adequately – robustly enough in our complex social world – when you are building your view around your gender as most primary identity element. Your genitals are no more fundamental than the rest of your body, your hormones no more fundamental than the rest of the chemicals making up your whole functioning system. And your body on its own no more fundamental than your hardwired personality driving it. And none of this more fundamental than the experiences your mind, body, feelings and desires all happen to collide with and be further shaped by.
It’s all of it. Doofus. Your job is to work it. All of it. Together. Find the most empowering way to live with it, and turn it to advantage. Your unique advantage. Your unique story. Of being you. I’m not sure it’s the things you’ve seen that define you so much as the things you choose to keep doing. If you’re going to do anyone, do you – that might be the key to unlock real love in your life. And if we began to help each other do this, across the web of our social networks, we might long for a little less escape from who we are. We might really be starting to get down to business. Building a whole new emotional economy.
Then we might see that there’s greater sexual currency than mere charisma, or a great costume, flawless make-up, that hypnotising perfect selfie. That defining moment of your attractiveness rating. Unlocking love isn’t about throwing off the shackles of shyness exactly. It’s about unlocking the photo. Breaking the fourth wall of your edit. Because confidence isn’t exactly all about theatre – that can sometimes be a lewd act of desperation. A cover-up. The part you really want to play is the truthfully unique role. You. And you, confidently – consciously – part of your own community. Practically at peace in the flock of individuals.
Because when they meet that you, that’s when people won’t just stare, they’ll listen.
When you meet people who clearly get something their own worth, with some kind of actual perspective, they might seem confidently cheeky, or they might just seem calmly self possessed. They will be from any possible culture and sexual identity. They could be anyone. Quite possible not ‘the type’ you’d imagine you’d connect with, looking across a room, swiping past on a screen. But the more you see who they really are, I tell you this: The sexier they seem. And the more they give you hope for the human future.
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