What is masculinity?
So when did I become a man? What did I need to ‘do’ to become ‘masculine’? Until recent years I thought I’d already become a man – a ‘legs and arse’ man. Well, those are the body parts I liked. Still do. Some guys like breasts, but I don’t think you can beat the women at Wimbledon for a good bit of old fashioned masculine validation…
A few years ago I was internet dating and dated a number of women. Three months into the relationship she raised her blue eyes to mine ‘Oh, you’re a relationship virgin’ she said. I felt disarmed. Perhaps she felt my uninitiated male energy. Was she saying I was still a boy? That was summer 2007. During another love-affair a year later a similar insight was offered me ‘you’re not the finished product yet’ she smiled, lovingly. What was it they sensed in me? Something incomplete?
I was still learning to use a warrior’s sword.
My body exploded into hormonal ecstasy when I was 14. The hard-wired rootedness, uncontrollable release onto the sheet, the used sock, the free-flowing connection between my imagination and that life-given and giving force within me, the glorious fantasies of English teachers and girls: Orgasm – again and again and again. An effortless flow. I think of women’s body: breasts, thighs, buttocks, the mystery between her legs and within seconds my groin is alive with energy and I’m a potential succession of fountains of fireworks. Was it then? When I realised I was a powerful engine and could kick-start with just a thought?
I’m 14 and on holiday with my parents in the South of France and I’m lying on a beach. It’s my first experience of women topless and two gorgeous creatures a few years older than me are sunbathing 20 metres away. I roll onto my front to hide the energy in my trunks and within seconds I’m climaxing – the light abrasion of sand and towel enough. I lie there disempowered and then walk dandily to the sea, a picture of complete ridicule, alive with my secret.
The loneliness of men
No-one understood this. That’s what I was led to believe. No woman could ever understand and no man was intimate enough with me to empathise. We’re alone. No man I knew talked openly about sex, let alone orgasm. The media, magazines, my peers and the loose vocabulary of older men regarding women were my teachers. Later, pornography was to derail me further. Surveys suggest that between 80-90% of men watch pornography or have at some time.
My sense of early masculinity was that it was inseparable from sex. I had to prove something, to myself and to the world. My quest was to seek out and experience the treasure that was being offered. It seemed pretty clear that that was what was on the mind of many of my friends too. How could we authenticate our ‘manly’ power? Dishonestly and ego-driven? This was the way the world worked and men worked the world.
‘We adults have put boys in charge of teaching other boys about the most sacred parts of their bodies. Boys are teaching other boys about sexuality in this culture.’ (Jayson Gaddis – ‘What Happens When We Don’t Teach Our Boys About Sex‘)
I didn’t realise then that in taking the treasure for my own I was helplessly buying into an endless cycle of dissatisfaction with relationship and buying into the illusion of a societally defined model of masculinity. Or else there was abstinence; this is what religion seemed to offer – a monk-like existence filled with sweaty dreams of untouchable women, fuelling the mystery; a life of denial and frustration.
Men’s social conditioning
The Centrefold Syndrome, Brook’s 1995 study into the social conditioning men undergo, details voyeurism, objectification, masculinity validation, trophyism and the fear of intimacy as five catagories into which we’ve fallen… For me that’s tick, tick, tick, cross and long, flowing tick. Just who were these other creatures that seem to have the power to utterly dominate my reality?
Society taught me that women’s bodies are here to be looked at – films, magazines, television… It’s endless. Skipping back from school Mayfair magazine’s centrefold lies dirtied across the alley pavement, her legs agape: the fruit from the tree of knowledge? Either way, I’m pretty hard-wired by the time I get to the French beach. I’ve already been de-programmed in thinking that sex is something I ‘do’ or experience myself. I am the watcher and have the power. Woman is passive and my voyeurism is validated by nearly all the men I know, on TV, in novels and plays. This conditioning fuels itself throughout my life. It binds sex and my longing for intimacy together. One becomes synonymous with the other. Perhaps all I really want is to return to my mother’s arms.
Have I got what it takes?
So, for my 14 year old self, orgasm is the Holy Grail, the fruit from the tree of life is between a woman’s legs and sex is all about performance. How many? How long can you go for? Had I got what it took to prove myself? Every man needs to know he’s got what it takes. Now, I wasn’t the one-night stand type at all, but my intentions were clear. Masculinity was about being driven, goal centred and achievement orientated – competition at the expense of the other – so her orgasm(s), and her bodily reaction to me – become my goal. If she’s rolling in ecstasy coming like a train until the wee small hours then I’ve really made it. I’ve got what it takes. I’m validated.
Of course emotional intimacy is just not on. That’s not the path of a warrior hero, that’s the road to weakness and vulnerability. I know this because I secretly crave the softness and security of the woman’s body, the body of my mother that once held me, yet it is this very sensitivity that I’ve been socialised against. Sport scratches the surface, especially contact sport, but if I’m not one of those sporty types I’m lost, and if even if I am… Where are the men I’m supposed to get my nurturing and physical contact from? Television has degraded the theatre of sport into a win at all costs pageant of the ego. The lost opportunity here for young men to engage with healing masculine role models, I suggest, is next to catastrophic.
Is it any surprise then that the rapid-orgasm teenage firework fest completely derailed me? My fear of intimacy rises right on cue and in my mind sex and intimacy fuse at the hip. My body’s gone haywire. No woman will ever really understand this. My Dad’s friends who played rugby with me until the wee small hours never warned me. So, as far as I can understand sex is intimacy, and society demands that I seek it to affirm my masculinity wherever possible. Where were the wise, vulnerable male elders to guide me?
Where are men’s rites of passage today?
My private secret evolves into a deep sadness within me. I sense this in other men around me – quiet and unspoken within the matriarchal emptiness of their homes, the only outlet the pub, sports ground, cranky hobby or office, office, office. Where do men go? A long-lost rite of passage lies buried, flawed beneath layers of societal conditioning and fear of not meeting the mark.
Still unconscious of the potential of the pack of men who are my only source of genuine masculine affirmation, I struggled through relationship auditioning female partners via a crude process of body-part compatibility. Eventually I went into meltdown when I realised that my fear of intimacy was leading me to my heart, and that somehow I was looking for the essence of my soul among the late-night online porn searches that dirtied my 30s.
I was 42. ‘It’s all about sex’ she said, a little wryly and somewhat sadly. Boy I still wanted to buy into that. I’m closer to 50 than 40 now, and when my soul finally called to me during the emptiness and agony of that inevitable breakup, suffering forced me to face myself and journey the less travelled road into spirit, and that longing for her was really a longing for the one, loving, divine relationship at the heart of all things.
I developed a deep insecurity about intimate relationship. Looking back now – of course, I understand my daily interest in sex and distrust of emotional connection was part of an unavoidable socialisation. Penetration affirmed me as a man. I’m not sure that the primal hunter-gatherers of ancient times were prey to the myriad of language and images dehumanising women that I have been, even if they might have put it about a bit. Or did they? I’d heard they were pressured to have sex to populate, bonded heavily in groups away from women (sound good?) and didn’t have anything to do with kids until adolescence (let’s face it – this is when us older guys really need to show up)
‘If we’re not careful, someone’s going to get hurt’ she said.
I guess I’m still a legs and arse man: I’m trying to work with it.