Monday, February 12, 2007

What Men Don't Talk About: Masculinity and Sex Education

Recently Liz Harmon wrote a post looking at male sexuality on the popular youth networking site Facebook. Perhaps it won’t come as a surprise that many men were representing themselves as sexually aggressive, and presenting women as sex objects to be abused. After all, this particular brand of male sexuality presents itself in MAXIM Magazine, music videos on MTV, CMT and BET, and in the Iraq War. It can feel downright depressing to think of the expectations this sexuality places on all of us, as men and women. And it can feel overwhelming to think about transforming this sexuality into something genuinely inspiring and fulfilling.

The author and psychologist Gary Brooks labels the dominant male sexuality in U.S. society the “centerfold syndrome.” In his book of the same name, he lays out the characteristics of this syndrome – voyeurism (obsession with visual sexual stimulation), objectification (fetishizing body parts, rating of size and shape), trophyism (treatment of women as collectibles), and fear of intimacy. One of the reasons this syndrome persists to affect all of our lives to greater or lesser extents - is the lack of dialogue that exists on sex in general, and on male sexuality in particular. Women’s liberation movements have done tremendous things to make female sexuality more open and empowered. Less has been done to do the same for men. In addition, youth mentors are increasingly finding it difficult to reach out to young boys and talk honestly about sex because of the influence of abstinence-centered sex education. And because young men don’t have enough mentors to turn to, or examples to live by, Facebook masculinity, or the centerfold syndrome, can more easily take hold to shape male sexuality.

The organization I work for, Men Can Stop Rape, frequently explores how to engage men around the prevention of men’s violence against women without blaming or inducing guilt. We try to reach out to men in a positive way, a way that will inspire action. On a recent trip to work with high schools in South Carolina, a colleague and I presented to hundreds of young men with a wide array of perspectives. The one thing we found in common was an energized desire to talk about sex. And the conversations that followed are linked to the prevention of sexual violence. As our organizational hand-out “Stopping Rape: What Men Can Do” says:

Sexual violence often goes hand in hand with poor communication. Our discomfort with talking honestly and openly about sex dramatically raises the risk of rape. By learning effective sexual communication – stating your desires clearly, listening to your partner, and asking when the situation is unclear – men make sex safer for themselves and others.

This same open communication can also be used for men to explore the diverse possibilities of their sexual expression. This is definitely a positive, and potentially very pleasurable exploration. What I’m talking about is sometimes called comprehensive sex education, and can include (though often doesn’t) – information on the male multiple orgasm (debunking the “blue balls” myth), perineum stimulation, vasectomy as a contraceptive option, male masturbation, etc. Men have a lot to benefit from talking about sex beyond the ways the centerfold syndrome expects us to, and by doing so maybe the violent sexuality so prevalent on Facebook, won’t feel like the only option.

Here are a few resources to use:

-Patrick Lincoln

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