men, masculinities and gender politics

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Sex, sexual violence, and the sex industry: Some thoughts for boys and men

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Like most boys and men in the United States, I have used pornography. I remember what it feels like to look, to masturbate to pornography. I know that it is an intense sexual experience that can bring physical pleasure.

I also remember that after the rush was over, I was left with an empty feeling. How could something that felt so good physically end up leaving me feeling so bad emotionally?

For a long time, I thought the unpleasant feelings came because I felt guilty or ashamed, or because I was afraid of being caught. I did struggle with those feelings, but it took me a long time to figure out that the emptiness was really coming from somewhere else.

People have sex for many different reasons -- for the physical sensation, out of love, to cope with loneliness, to feel like a "real man" or a "real woman," pressure from friends, or to try to get pregnant. I have had sex for those reasons, but the older I get the more I have come to understand what sex means for me.

For me, sex is mostly about the desire to feel a strong connection to another person. It is not the only way I feel connected to people (often that sense of connection comes simply through talking), but sex is a powerful way to bring me close to someone I care about. What really matters to me in sex is that connection; without it, the physical pleasures seem hollow.

So, I have come to realize that certain kinds of sexual experiences will never make me feel very good. If I were to use pornography, there is no way I could have a connection to a picture on a page or an image on a screen. If I were to buy sex from a prostitute, I would be foolish to think I am going to have a real connection with someone who is having sex with me to survive economically. And if I were to try to force someone to have sex who didn't want to, the only emotions that I can expect to feel are fear and pain.

I have been lucky in my life. Although I have made many mistakes and hurt people (and hurt myself) in sexual relationships by being selfish or unaware, I have also been able to feel that connection, that sense of really knowing and trusting another person. As I look back and sort through my life, I realize that the sexual experiences that meant something to me were the ones in which I really wanted to experience that sense of being with another person -- of truly being close in a way that is difficult to describe but wonderful to feel.

Not everyone is so lucky, especially the women who are used and hurt in the sex industry and through sexual violence. When we think about what we want sexually, it's important for us to be honest, to go beyond the macho talk and discuss our emotional needs. But even more important, we have to remember that our sexual behavior has consequences for other people. We live in a culture that trains men to be dominant and women to be submissive. Sometimes we fall into those patterns without realizing it. Sometimes, when we do fall into such behaviors, we lose sight of how our actions can hurt others.

The first step to changing our own behavior is listening to women and girls talk about their experiences so that we can begin to understand how they are so often hurt by men. Then we have to hold each other accountable, to make sure that we don't look the other way when we see men and boys -- including our friends -- hurting others through sex and violence.

We live in a society that tolerates, and in some ways encourages, a lot of cruelty. Pornographers make money selling images of men humiliating women sexually. Boys will casually refer to a girl as a 'ho or a slut without thinking of the pain it causes. And men talk about how women they abuse "deserved it" or "asked for it." It can be painful to face these facts, especially in the arena of our intimate and sexual lives. But I have found that turning away from those painful realities is not a solution. This world will allow us to be selfish and cruel. But if we want something beyond that, we can't turn away from the pain that women and girls live with.

Nor can we turn away from the feeling in our own gut that being tough, being aggressive, being dominant -- that being a "man" in the way we so often get taught to be a man -- is not only keeping us from being able to touch with love, but to feel love.

We need to stop the desperate efforts to be men and begin to be people

 

Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Robert is co-author of Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality.