6 May 2014

Men, Fantasies and Nancy Friday: Thoughts on 'Men in Love'

Even though feminism is meant to be the one arena in which it's acceptable to focus more on women, I feel like so much of what gets discussed does end up circling back to men. The panics over sex work, pornography and sexual violence are, whether implicit or explicitly stated, at their root, about men. What men do, or don't do. What men (allegedly) want. Men's sexual desires, fantasies and actions. Men's treatment of women. These are discussed, analysed, criticised and often condemned with little or no input from men themselves. Feminism becomes judge, jury and executor all rolled in one - the amount of articles I've seen that presumptuously assume that the author knows exactly why men go to sex workers or why they like certain types of porn, even though the writer is rarely offering any evidence other than her own prejudices, is starting to get a little tedious.
As feminists we fight for the right to be seen as more than stereotypes, more than an amorphous mass, more than 'nags', 'prudes', 'bitches', 'sluts', 'the old ball and chain', more than just bodies or just minds or just a set of trivial preoccupations which apparently all 3.5 billion of us share. And yet I feel that in trying to address the systemic inequalities, from which some men benefit and from which many women suffer, we risk imposing the same reductive labels to men. We assume they all want the same thing, and that thing is always assumed to be power over women. We assume that they are so easily influenced by, and so powerfully able to influence, the media, that the tedious over-sexualisation of every body on the screen or in magazines must have a male culprit behind it. And even though we accept that sticking your head above the parapet is incredibly difficult and stressful, and we try not to judge other women if they decide they do not want to take part in this exhausting fight, we judge men much more harshly if they do the same. A male friend wrote to me "I feel like I get judged [on the basis of] the imbeciles who represent us. . .I know how hard it is to bring it up without being seen as soft or whatever. I don't feel represented by pop culture of the media. . .There are more men out there who don't think these things about women, than those that do."
Perhaps it is not enough to be part of the silent majority, perhaps it's OK to demand more of men because of the privilege and the power that they have and could be using more to help women. But as I said in a previous post about sex work, men don't always feel they have the power either. Sexism hurts us all - it takes guts to rock the boat, especially when you're sitting in it.
I got to thinking about this reading Nancy Friday's book on male sexual fantasies, the slightly misleadingly titled Men In Love. Friday's book was published in 1980, and describes in explicit detail, and in their own words, the sexual fantasies of hundreds of men she surveyed. None of what's described in the book is that shocking by modern standards, but 34 years ago it probably would have raised more than a few eyebrows. What struck me is that not a whole lot has actually changed in terms of what people fantasise about, yet we like to act like the internet, or the spread of porn, has turned us all, especially men, into slavering beasts who want to demean and humiliate women. Yet a flick through Friday's book reveals that in 1980, many men were having fantasies about bondage, 'rape' (I put this in quote marks to imply consensual non-consent, rather than actual assault), plenty of anal action (for both sexes), ejaculating on women's faces, multiple partners, bestiality and much more. Some are framed in violent language, others sensual. Perhaps most interestingly, for every man who wrote about a fantasy of sexually dominating a woman, Friday notes that there were another four who wrote to her fantasising about being dominated. In feminist anti-porn writing I so often find misguided assumptions made about sex that involves explicit power play (I personally believe all sex, even non-kinky, involves some kind of power play, but that's another post for another time) - that scenes of male domination and female submission have their roots in misogyny, that the man only gets off on it because he hates women and the woman gets off on it because she's been 'brainwashed' by a sexist society, and that only the reverse scenario can be perceived as feminist (because feminism's all about men naked and chained to the floor and beaten with sticks, right?!) or that simply no sex play involving violence, restraint, name-calling or any other S&M tropes can ever, ever be 'feminist'. Don't ask me what kind of sex that last requirement leaves us with, because I'm damned if I can figure it out. But regardless, in anti-porn feminism, the blame for sexual violence or shitty attitudes towards women always ends up placed squarely at the feet of men for daring to have such filthy damn fantasies in the first place.
Anti-porn feminists will argue that the fact men's fantasies were just as dirty 34 years ago as a quick browse online will confirm they are today is a sign that we still have far to go, that male sexuality is still premised on the degradation of women and only when men radically reprogram themselves (and by association, when the women who enjoy supposedly 'degrading' practices also re-wire their flawed brains) will we have anything approaching an egalitarian society. But I'm with Kinsey (and to some degree Freud) on this one - nothing good ever, ever came of asking people to repress their sexuality. We can argue til cows wearing leather and strap-ons come home about how much our fantasies are influenced by an allegedly harmful media and seeing as there is no conclusive proof either way, just a lot of morally-motivated speculation, we won't get very far. But what we do have a lot of proof of is that shame and guilt over sexual desires is what leads people to become isolated, mentally ill and more likely to harm themselves or even others. We watch documentaries about religious camps where gay men are sent to be 'deprogrammed', and we tut and say how awful. Then we turn around and say straight men MUST stop masturbating to images of ejaculate on women's faces otherwise our society is doomed. To me, it's less about getting our minds out of the gutter than it is about getting our noses out of other people's bedrooms. The personal only becomes political when your desires start impinging upon my rights. Until then, you can and should fantasise about whatever the hell you want. And as a quick flick through Men in Love shows, that might be going down on a woman for hours, tying up your female friend and violently penetrating her anus, being tied up and abused by a group of women, having a threesome with another man, receiving lots of oral sex, cross-dressing, watersports, women wearing tights, being treated like a baby, or any hundreds of other acts you would care to name. And I don't see what hand-wringing about what it all MEANS?! can actually achieve for feminism, unless we also want our own sexual tastes hijacked to try and make political statements about us.  
So thank you to a book that's older than I am for reminding us that fantasies - some hair-curlingly explicit, some sweetly touching, some simply quite hot - existed before the internet, and before everyone had push-button access to porn, and that men's sexual desires are themselves not the root of all evil that some feminists would like to believe they are.

1 comment:

R K O'Connor said...

I'm a lot older than you are and remembering reading Men in Love when I was around 18 or so. I'd previously read My Secret Garden and had been fascinated by the variety of women's fantasies (not to mention totally turned on). So I was eager to see what my fellow males were fantasizing about. Again, a lot!
But I also remember being struck by the differences. As I recall, women's fantasies tended to be much more developed than men's. There were a lot of cases in which male fantasies consisted of little more than an image, whereas that seemed much less common in the case of women. I still wonder if that is somehow significant.
But the main point, which you make nicely at the end, is that, as it's sometimes put, "We aren't responsible for our desires". We don't get to decide what (or who) turns us on, and the site of anyone, let alone a feminist, beating someone up because their desires don't merit the Standard of Approval isn't just silly. It is, as you rightly say, dangerous, because the powerless and the marginalized are always the victims in such cases.