men, masculinities and gender politics

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Journey of desire

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"WHAT makes male supremacy so insidious, so pervasive, such a seemingly permanent component of all our precious lives, is the fact that erection can be conditioned to it." (John Stoltenberg)

I've always spent a lot of my time thinking about sex and creaking floorboards, showers, mangoes and condoms. Lately I've also been thinking about my sexuality and how my desires have been constructed. My sexuality has been crafted within a society that has as its cornerstones the oppression of women, class oppression, race oppression and children's oppression. I certainly wasn't born with an exclusive desire for white, middle-class, educated, young and slender (but busty) women. Growing up as a man in this culture I repeatedly received the message that dominating women was sexy. I learnt from the women in the movies, or those in the magazines, their legs spread for me in porn. I learnt to objectify women's bodies and to find that sexy. The message of sexy domination is devastating for the lives of women, and it also affects the sex lives of men. It became difficult for me to simply enjoy sex without imagining my partner and I as a photographic (pornographic) image.

Within the pleasures and pains of our sexualities lie social and political meanings. Lesbian feminists have explored such meanings for many years. Denise Thompson describes their journey: "For many of us, the feminist realisation that our lives were structured by male domination, that we were kept from each other and divided against ourselves, that heterosexuality was centrally involved in that, was so overwhelming that it even transformed desire."

Political will and sexual desire are not mutually exclusive. As we men explore these issues, will we also find that in order to truly challenge sexism and heterosexism we will need to revolutionise our desire? Such a journey has begun in my own life, and I've stumbled upon three issues: masturbation, sexual preference and monogamy.

Our bodies, ourselves

"NEITHER the plague, nor war, nor small poxä have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbationä It is the destroying element of civilised society." (New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, 1855)

Last year during discussions about sex in our men's group, I was astonished to hear of the guilt still associated with masturbation. Astonished because for someone like myself, who has taken great pleasure playing with his penis, who has explored every method in the Hite report on male sexuality and invented many more of his own, to hear of other men's guilt came as a huge surprise.

In this culture men have been taught that to be attracted to men's bodies is an absolute sin, punishable by death, imprisonment, bashing or all three. Michael Flood recently outlined the effects of such homophobia on all men and the links between homophobia and sexism (XY, Winter 1993).

We are taught to be repulsed by men's bodies and to be attracted only to the Other, namely women. Thus we are encouraged to be repulsed by our own bodies. This is heterosexism, and it makes sense to me that this may be, at least in part, the source of the taboo of masturbation. If this is the case then masturbation may be the key place on which to work in order to dismantle heterosexism and sexism. (I like this idea. It sounds like fun!)

When I hear of how other men masturbate - furtively, quickly, harshly, with too little compassion or tenderness towards their bodies, in an end-rush to orgasm with guilt as the repercussion - it smells to me of homophobia: of fear of loving our own likeness.

It also sounds like objectification: we treat our own bodies as objects to use sexually rather than trying to nurture ourselves through our bodies and sexualities. What would happen if we learnt to eroticise our own bodies? What would happen if we found our own bodies sexy, not as objects but as the homes of our souls? If we eroticised self-love, would it challenge objectification, homophobia and indeed heterosexuality?

Turn to the mirror, lips slightly parted and kiss your image. Feel the strength of your arms, the smoothness of skin. Hold yourself, see yourself, slow down, a minimum time limit. Feel your scalp, nose, tongue and lips. Imagineä kissing yourself, sucking yourself, fucking yourself perhaps. Imagine loving yourself, tenderly, compassionately, wonderfully, hopefully, suddenly, you'll realise that you are.

I write this because at a time of crisis in my life such an act made all the difference. Cherishing myself led to hours of astonishing pleasure and at the same time enabled me to take the first steps towards loving others again. Surprisingly, it also challenged my very sexual identity.

Off the straight and narrow

"INSISTENCE on having a sexual orientation in sex is about defending the status quo, maintaining sex differences and the sexual hierarchy; whereas resistance to sexual-orientation regimentation is more about where we need to be going." (John Stoltenberg)

At school during my teenage years, I was attracted to some of my male friends but I followed nothing through for fear of ostracism. For some reason, after about year 11 I became a fully-fledged, dinky-di straight man. The thought of touching another man had become repulsive: I had been taught well. Years later, as I started to explore my own body, this began to change.

As I felt the muscles under my skin, the manliness became sexy. As I longed to suck my own penis, the thought of another man's penis became a turn-on. And perhaps most importantly, as I explored the vulnerability of penetration, the thought of being loved by a man, merged with his body, became erotic for the first time. The fantasies came alive, and my heterosexism and my heterosexuality began to fade. I am still yet to love a man physically. I still think I'd freeze up at a crucial moment, but being with a man is now a sexy thought as it never was a number of years ago.

I cannot speak for anyone other than me. I am not saying that such experiences are available to everyone. But I considered myself a dinky-di hetero. I was repulsed by the idea of touching another man. That has changed. My sexuality is far more fluid than I was led to believe. And it was through eroticising my own body that I began to challenge homophobia and heterosexuality itself.

Faith, hope and property

"LOVERS who are free to go when they are restless always come back; lovers who are free to change remain interesting. The bitter animosity and obscenity of divorce is unknown where individuals have not been Siamese twins. A lover who comes to your bed of his own accord is more likely to sleep with his arms around you all night than a lover who has nowhere else to sleep." (Germaine Greer)

Becoming curious about my own body has also meant I've become increasingly sexually curious. Not only do I wonder about touching and loving men, but I also find myself attracted to women other than my cherished long-term partner. Such curiosity (and Germaine Greer) has led me to question that sacred institution, monogamy.

From a feminist perspective, monogamy historically has served to enslave women as sexual property. From a psychological perspective, monogamy isolates and encourages overly dependent relationships, within which the most horrific violence and abuse are often hidden. On an interpersonal level, monogamy seems to be held together through jealousy, possessiveness and fear rather than any noble values. Indeed, monogamy seems to be a simple extension of the romantic myth of having one person satisfy all your emotional needs.

I challenge monogamy most importantly because it doesn't feel right. It feels limiting and constraining of my sexuality. It feels oppressive of me to pressure my partner to put limits on her relationships. She's my partner, not my possession. She ought to be free to spend her time with whoever and however she wishes. Subsequently I have told my partner that I no longer expect her "faithfulness", but only the respect and honesty (and safe sex) with which she has always treated me up until now. This is a journey that both scares and excites me. I too am attached to the idea of possessing my loved "one", and to the idea that I ought to be the only one. I too am wracked with jealousy but I don't want to be that way for the rest of my life. This is not an attempt to return to the sixties and a sexual permissiveness based on traditional masculine sexual values of objectification and promiscuity. This is simply one part of a journey undertaken to redefine my sexuality so that both my desire and that of my partner(s) can be respected and expressed in non-oppressive ways.

Who knows where this journey will lead? This article has only touched on three areas, and there are untold others. Will we have the courage to question the dichotomy of friends and lovers? Will some decide that they ought to be one and the same? Will we have the insight to question the current worship of the orgasm above all other forms of sexual expression? Will we have the strength to challenge the traditional masculine equation, "penis = penetration = power = pleasure"? And will we be able to help resist the current push that is encouraging women to move their desire towards a compulsive, orgasm-focused, competitive sexuality? This, by simply exchanging the clitoris for the penis, is attempting to open new markets for the commodity that is now sex.

The journey

OUR sexualities are political, even down to who we screw and how we do it. We need to admit this and work towards sexualities that are congruent with our political will. We need to talk about sexuality, write about it, cry about it, laugh about it, kiss about it and fuck about it.

Feminism means more than just equal pay or even ending violence, crucial as these issues are. To my mind it also includes revolutionising our desire. I am plotting a course. At this stage it seems to be heading towards a non-possessive sexuality, one that is fluid and unconstrained by ideas of sexual preference or orientation. It is a sexuality that I can reconcile with my political will for a non-oppressive world. It is the journey itself that is important. For each of us the journey will be different and undoubtedly difficult.

It is not that my mind is pushing or forcing my desire. Both are interacting and moving, and they are becoming connected again despite the lessons I learnt all those years ago.

Such a journey is certainly a challenge. But, as Kate Millet recognised, it's one to enjoy: "What's a revolution for if it isn't fun?"

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 4(1), Autumn 1994. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995