|In a suburban council office, three of the senior men -- all forty andover, all married with children, crowd into the office of the telephonist,a seventeen year old girl. While one man blocks the door, another -- the oldest -- pretends to hand her a document. Grinning, he holds it just out of reach, so that she has to bend forward, and he can gaze down her cleavage. The men snigger and comment on her breast size, and enquire, in coarse language, about her sex life. She stammers and blushes, caught between obeying their authority -- and her sense of indignity and outrage. They never touch her, it is enough to humiliate her. She keeps up her composure as best she can, then when they finally leave, collapses into tears.
A young man is arrested by police after he has posted a story onto the Internet. It is a detailed fantasy about how he captures, sexually assaults, tortures, and then kills a young woman. The young woman is a real person, a girl in his class, who is named in the story. The police question the young man, but are unsure how to act.
Male sexuality is in dishonour everywhere. From the Serbian rape camps, to the widespread scourge of child sexual abuse, the weekly press accounts of sexual assaults and murders; men and sex seem a deeply problematic combination. When Susan Brownmillar declared that "all men are rapists", nobody laughed. In the media and in many discussions, men see themselves portrayed as the worst kind of animals, and many of us wonder if it is true. And for growing boys - ten year-olds gazing at the prospect of their masculinity, or seventeen year-olds standing on the brink of male sexual experience -- a deep ambivalence, bordering on self-loathing is not hard to acquire.
This article is not about the extremes of male sexual perversion and violence, but about the mainstream from which these extremes are born -- the damaged state of most men, and the process by which boys have their sexuality impaired so that it manifests in poor relationships with women.
It is also about how this could be different, if we were to understand the beauty and potential of sexual energy when it is well utilized. For male sexuality -- like female sexuality -- is not evil, but is a powerful force needing much cultural understanding and direction. There have been times and societies when this was done very well, but ours is not yet one of them.
There are two ways of understanding our problems with men and sex. One is to hold the belief that "men just want one thing", or phrased more absolutely, that all men would rape and harm women if they could get away with it. The alternative explanation is that men's sexual mistreatment of others is an aberration, which arises from a serious deficiency in their self-esteem and social skills. That the development of mature, loving men, requires some deliberate help and training during the first two decades of a man's life, and that this process frequently does not take place.
I've coined the term "creepification" to describe what happens to many boys as they turn into men. Creepification includes both what we do to boys, and what we don't do for them, to actively define and honour their growing sexual feelings. A creep is a person who may act with superficial charm, but has only one aim -- to physically invade and exploit you. He may range from the unkempt and malodorous man who stalks, "perves", sexually intrudes; to the sleek professional, who indulges his taste in much younger women or men, using the power of money and position.
Many men feel themselves, secretly, to be creeps; but only because they have been trapped in the inequality of gender relationships. Relating to others as human beings, on equal terms, entails the risk of rejection, the need for negotiation, all the incipient vulnerabilities of love. For a person who feels themself to be inferior or repulsive, this kind of intimacy is just too risky. The men who leer and wolf-whistle from building sites, for example, only ever do so from the safety of a group. (And gang rape is an extension of this pattern). One-to-one, these men lose all confidence -- especially around an attractive or capable woman.
The writer Jai Noa, (whom I have quoted at length in my book "Manhood") became a paraplegic as a result of a traffic accident when still a young man. As a result, he felt he had little to offer in the romantic stakes, where looks, income, athleticism, and potency all stand judged. He writes "The creep is a man who fails to live up to the romantic ideal and who feels crushed, bitter and resigned to this failure. The delightful joys of erotic pleasure are turned into their opposite by a guilt ridden quest for power." Which really says it all.
Most young men, but especially those with too big a nose, too short , too fat, too thin, too freckled, and a million real and imagined defects, go through a stage of great desperation -- a woman, any woman, would be gratefully accepted. "Will anybody please have sex with me ?"
Young women too go through agonies of self-doubt and embarrassment at this age, but boys do not know this. From their standpoint, the girls are turning into goddesses, with enormous bounty to bestow, and the boys, slower developing, verbally awkward, feel they have nothing to offer.
Although our raising of boys as emotional beings has improved somewhat, the "don't feel- act macho" culture still persists. So young men, busy acting tough from kindergarten onwards, are very deadened to their bodies.When puberty arrives with its surge of hormones, we offer little in the way of cultural celebration or honouring. Masturbation becomes not a joyful experience in self-exploration, but rather a tense obsession. Awkwardness leads to furtiveness, and furtiveness to shame. This does not lead to good relationships between the sexes.
Even after years of marriage, the problems for the ashamed man continue. A partner may become disinterested or positively averse to sex, for long periods, where the man may well wish to make love twice a day. She is especially likely to be "turned off" if he obsessively pursues sex for its own sake, only to grunt and turn away, full of self-loathing and rejection afterwards. The ashamed man is not given to melting tenderness, or warm good humour.
The antidote for shame is openness, and self acceptance. In men's groups and retreats all over the country now, sex is being widely discussed, in a new kind of honest and vulnerable language -- free from the posing, misogyny and outright lying that has been the norm. The most common reaction, and one which always delights me to hear at such gatherings is "I have NEVER discussed this with other men before!" -- spoken with amazement and relief. Men are reconstructing from the ground up a sense of what a mature, self-valuing, loving man is really like -- deciding what to keep and what to eject from their cultural baggage.
BRINGING OUT THE BEST IN BOYS
Obviously the best place to start is with boys, while these attitudes are still being formed. A teenager today entering puberty is given some basic plumbing information at school, which he has usually already received in a patchy form from the schoolyard. If he is lucky, he receives much earlier some warmer and more meaningful input from his mum and dad -- though a surprisingly high number of parents still either dodge the issue or invest it with unbearable tension. Our sexual information comes with a distinctive cultural overload -- English men for example often approach sexuality with
Our use of language is revealing. There is something chilling about a culture that uses sexual terms to convey aggression -- the F word, and the C word are usually spat out, rather than carrying any warm connotations.
Asians use the softer, more co-operative words like "Jig-a-Jig", and young people with more egalitarian views talk about "bonking". These imply something you do together, rather than at someone, or to someone. In my school days, the talk was all about "rooting", very much a one-way process. Their was much discussion of "conning" or "conning onto" a "sheila", with the implication of tricking her out of something. What girls actually felt, or wanted, was an absolute mystery.
To raise boys who are respectful and empathic lovers, we need to start much earlier than adolescence. Large scale cross-cultural studies such as those of anthropologist James Prescott have found a direct link between affection and warmth shown to children, and reduced levels of violence in adult society. For a safer society, we first have to give our children warm and safe environments. This means caring for families so they can care for children, and significant investment in child welfare and earlyintervention programs. In Australia these services are chronically understaffed and overstretched.
Since sexual behaviour is learned, we have to make sure that it is not learned in an abusive context. Tens of thousands of Australian children this century have been sexually misused, in their own homes, as well as in boarding schools, orphanages, and other situations of "care". Some victims of this abuse struggle to escape the patterns, some heal, and some go on to become perpetrators on other children. Tracing and helping the survivors of these experiences is vital to stop what is essentially a behavioural virus of "creep" sexuality.
The most powerful approach is always to strengthen what is good. What we want to foster in our sons is both an exuberant, and a sacred, view of sex. We must first instil not shame but a deep sense of masculine self-esteem. This is not the cockiness of rugby players on tour, for example, which is largely shame-masking, but a carefully nurtured sense of dignity, responsibility, and of honouring towards women and children.
Fathers, uncles, and elders, need to reinforce the message -- "This is how you relate to women with courtesy, with confidence, with care". Balanced with -- "This is how you respect yourself, so you are not "lead by the penis" in relating to women, but own your own desire, and feel your desireability". Many Australian men have never seen older men relating well to women -- our fathers were often either bullies, or wimps, around women.
Boys have many positive impulses around sexuality. Deep down most teenage boys are deeply romantic, capable of quite spiritual feelings towards women and girls. Yet schoolyard and pub culture with its derisive dialogue about women and sex, can erode and destroy a boy's finer feelings. This yob-culture must simply be overpowered by more persuasive, more affirming messages from men who live what they speak.
Out in the big world, we need to think hard about whether we want female, or male sexuality portrayed on our billboards, TV ads, magazines, and movies. Rock videos are particularly insidious in use of degrading porn images reducing people to objects. A men’s movement/women’s movement alliance is likely to develop to attack the crude sexual imagery that bombards our youngsters. We need to select and recommend to each other those videos and literature which send the right messages, and give good role modelling.
Bettina Arndt recently pointed out the importance of mothers explaining women's sensibilities to sons, and not recoiling from their son's sexuality, but affirming it in a non-seductive way, and giving good solid information from a woman's point of view. Parents can also teach daughters not to misuse their verbal skills or physical appeal to exploit or denigrate boys-- for creepiness can work both ways.
There is one more element which might tie together all our efforts to raise boys well - the controversial idea of initiation. In our society, we have kept the ceremonies of christenings, marriages, and funerals, but dropped the most important and intense ceremony -- that of entering adulthood. It’s possible to conceive of simple, powerful, and deeply impactful ceremonies in which the adult men, and the women, celebrate and give significance to a boy's passage into adulthood, which makes him both proud, and at the same time deeply impressed with responsibility.
In the sixties we were told we had a sexual revolution. It was only the beginning of what needs to happen. Change has to continue, and we must begin with boys.
This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
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