Every person on the planet is affected by masculinity in some shape or form. This is why getting masculinity right is so important. If we get it wrong, everything falls apart. You might have noticed that everything seems to be falling apart... But the debate about masculinity rarely seems to progress.
On one side (I'll put my cards on the table here and say my side), progressive academic types mostly take a feminist position and talk about patriarchy and power, and how this marginalises women (and atypical men). Increasingly, these types also refer to queer theory, which is not solely about gay and lesbian people, rather resisting ways of pigeon-holing the identities of all people.
On the other side, are those who (often quite rightly) identify the many problems suffered by men in society, and simply do not see claims about patriarchy and power as valid any more, chiefly because they are looking at individual men who appear not to be enjoying the privileges of power, rather than the systemic and institutional nature of power. The very words 'systemic and institutional nature of power' will often make these types wince.
This debate has been going on for years: one side claiming they cannot state their watertight case about patriarchy any clearer, the other finding that case unrepresentative of the truth. We have to start finding different ways to frame this debate to make any progress. This is not about finding a middle ground; it as about finding a different ground. It is about finding a different lens through which to view the 'problem' of masculinity. Recently I have been using the lens of conspiracy logic.
The popular definition of conspiracy can be found in the idea of a cover-up, and to a large degree this is certainly the case. However, there are various aspects to conspiracy that are worth unpacking. In his book, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, political scientist Michael Barkun claims conspiracy is a method through which people explain the presence of evil in the world. They do this by viewing 'history as controlled by massive, demonic forces'. Conspiracies can therefore be seen as simultaneously frightening and reassuring: the demonic forces are at work, but at least they can be identified as the source of everything around us that is bad, as opposed to the true terror of random evil.
Barkun identifies three key aspects to conspiracy theories, which are worth spelling out. First, nothing happens by accident: there is always intent behind actions; the willed nature of reality is paramount. Second, nothing is as it seems: the source of a conspiracy tends to conceal its activities through the appearance of innocence or misinformation. Third, everything is connected: patterns abound in conspiracy; exposing conspiracy is about unveiling these hidden connections. Barkun sees this type of thinking as ultimately resulting in paranoia: a closed system of ideas that 'defeat any attempt at testing' due to the assumption that all the evidence countering the conspiracy must be part of the conspiracy, and therefore rejected.
To be fair, Barkun is highly critical of conspiracy belief, and when you look at the examples he provides such as the Illuminati and extraterrestrial reptilian masters, it is tempting to agree with him. But because conspiracy theories can often be a bit flaky, it doesn't mean that they are always flaky, or that at the very least there aren't some reasonable things that resemble conspiracies, inasmuch as there being a widespread assumption that needs to be exposed as false.
And this is what I'm getting at with The Masculinity Conspiracy. Gender theorists have been claiming for some time that there is no such thing as a singular 'masculinity'. Instead, there is a vast spectrum of different masculinities, some of which look familiar, some of which do not. The problem, in this worldview, is that those different masculinities (and women) are oppressed and denied by that chief masculinity. Further still, this type of masculinity is responsible for a lot of the problems the world faces today: this type of masculinity needs to be exposed as 'false', inasmuch as it is not the natural and only option available to men.
Instead of thinking about this chief masculinity solely in terms of power and identity, let's try conspiracy. Let's assume there are certain people who are being oppressed (men and women alike, for various reasons). It appears that the way we define masculinity has not happened by accident. It appears that nothing about masculinity is as it commonly seems. It appears that a number of key themes in society are connected to form a legitimising framework for The Masculinity Conspiracy. I'm not, however, suggesting that The Masculinity Conspiracy is 'controlled by massive, demonic forces'. I use the term 'conspiracy' fully aware of its limitations, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It is about acknowledging that there is something going on with masculinity beyond the awareness of most people.
Can those who find the language of patriarchy and power too problematic adopt the language of conspiracy? I think it's worth finding out. Perhaps the language of conspiracy is more familiar and less judgmental? Perhaps it is simply more compelling (heroic, even) to expose a conspiracy than overturn patriarchy? This isn't a cynical attempt to lure innocent men's rights advocates into a feminist trap, rather a genuine attempt to consider the problems of masculinity in a different way. Perhaps in doing so we all might discover different insights.
In The Masculinity Conspiracy there is a clear challenge on the table when statements about masculinity are made which appear counter-intuitive: is that your intuition talking, or is it the conspiracy? Following conspiracy logic, the fact that you don't believe me is proof itself that The Masculinity Conspiracy has you successfully conditioned. I say it only half-jokingly.
In the end, once the conspiracy and its method of misinformation have been revealed, it is the choice of the individual whether or not to be misinformed. Either be spoon-fed the lies, or not. It has become a cliché of conspiracy culture, but the 'red pill, blue pill' scenario of The Matrix movie holds true here: 'You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes'.
So, what's it going to be: red pill, or blue?
PART 3: SEXUALITY
Out of all the elements of the conspiracy, sexuality is probably the most potent, the most regulated, and the most likely to challenge folks when revealed in its true Technicolor glory. Remember in Chapter 1, I wrote about how intuition has a near-fatal weakness, and that's when we are dealing with a subject in which we have little self-awareness? I said that intuition can easily be co-opted by our conditioning into the conspiracy. I asked that if, when reading this book, you're left with a gut feeling of nah, that's just not right..., to seriously consider the possibility that this is not actually a gut feeling, but a "conditioning feeling." I suspect that while the previous History chapter might have raised a few questions in your mind, my argument still sounded reasonable. I suspect you did not battle with a gut feeling when reading that chapter, but rather entered an intellectual duel with me: I made a point, you thought ah, but what about … This chapter is more likely to get you in the gut, which is why I'm addressing it early in the game.
I anticipate two primary outcomes from this. First, you'll think what I'm saying is junk, and won't read any further, in which case I've saved you the bother of slogging through to the end of the book. No need to thank me, honestly: I value your time as much as you do ;) Second, if you stay onboard, you'll have a better position from which to read the subsequent chapters, which should enable us to genuinely break some new ground. This might not happen if I sat here anxiously wringing my hands, holding back all the juicy stuff until the end. Whichever way, in order not to shortchange yourself, you need to seriously consider the possibility that your response is not actually a gut feeling, but a "conditioning feeling." We're going to look at how conspiracy plays out in two books: Earth Honoring: The New Male Sexuality by Robert Lawlor and The Way of the Superior Man: A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work and Sexual Desire by David Deida. Remember, in the first section we'll look at the conspiracy on its own terms, leaving the analysis and solutions to later sections.
Robert Lawlor's Earth Honoring: The New Male Sexuality was first published in 1989. Lawlor shares some commonality with Ken Wilber—who we met in the previous chapter—inasmuch as he is looked upon as scholastic among new age circles, and new age among scholastic circles. I don't necessarily mean this in a derogatory way, as the intersection between these two domains is very valuable. Indeed, in some ways I inhabit this intersection myself: When I'm feeling particularly pompous I like to talk about, "bringing academic rigor to visionary thinking, and visionary thinking to academic rigor."
Right from the first page of Lawlor's book, we are connected with the historical framework outlined in the previous chapter, as he refers to how "ancient patterns of male/female interrelationships … can be enormously useful today." It is the use of "male/female" that is relevant here, as "polarity" is the one word that can be used to describe sexuality in Lawlor's book (and, as well shall see, also Deida's). For Lawlor, polarity is not simply a metaphor used to describe men and women, but the true nature of reality: he states, "we live in a universe that is completely dependent on polarity. The very energy that constitutes the universe is a high frequency vibration of pure polarization."
What this means is that the masculine is defined in certain ways, typically in binary opposition to the feminine, much like Wilber's masculine and feminine "types." Following the brain researcher Robert Ornstein, Lawlor offers the following chart to outline these polar characteristics, which start in the structure of the brain but which, he argues, also carry through into the body and sexuality.
Employing Jung's formula of anima and animus, Lawlor claims that all men and women have masculine and feminine elements, allowing for some slippage in these categories, but that generally men follow the archetypal masculine patterns, and women the feminine. However, due to distortion over time—most lately manifest in rampant consumerism—Lawlor claims our understanding of masculine sexuality has become skewed. For example, the type of masculine sexuality promoted through archetypes such as the Armored Knight (nobility and protecting) and the Divine King (expansive creativity and sacrifice) become "demented," and women become seen as object-like prizes.
In response to this masculine pathology, Lawlor calls for a balance, both between the ancient and more misguided contemporary visions of masculine sexuality, and also between the masculine and feminine. Indeed, Lawlor sees the balancing between the masculine and feminine as a cycle which defines history itself, inasmuch as in "pre-historical" times (or around 4-5000 years ago) feminine traits were more highly valued, whereas this became overtaken by the valuing of masculine traits: "This alternation between male/female dominance seems to be the dynamic that drives history, just as all progressive time alternates between day and night, warmer and colder seasons." Lawlor believes we are at the end of the current era focusing on masculine traits and are circling back towards the feminine, restoring balance—for a time, at least.
Through balance—achieved via an appropriate understanding of masculine and feminine polarity—Lawlor believes we find solutions to the sexual problems the world faces today. We hear from Lawlor that masculine sexuality is skewed to the point where it objectifies women, but this is only half the problem. For example, Lawlor claims that rape is partly the problem of masculine sexuality becoming too focused on aggression, but is also due to "the excessive sexual passivity of women" whose sexuality has been equally skewed through our patriarchal era, denying its adventurousness.
Lawlor offers the Australian Aborigines as an example of a tribal society that maintained the importance of the sexual assertiveness of women, resulting in a "deep understanding of the power and implications of sexual energy in the organization of all life." In the same way, while Lawlor does not see homosexuality as fundamentally wrong, he claims the "crisis in male/female sexuality" and its lack of balance means homosexuality has "grown to disproportionate levels in society and to pathological levels in the psychology of some individuals," presumably for those individuals who seek to impose balance via homosexual behavior "even though it is not a deep part of their basic nature."
The Way of the Superior Man: A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work and Sexual Desire by David Deida follows many of the basic tenets of Lawlor. Describing the "newly evolving man," Deida charts previous phases in masculinity, the first of which involved a stereotypical masculinity where relationships could be defined as "the macho jerk and the submissive housewife." Then came the stage that continues for most men today in which they seek to find some balance in their lives. Entering into Harvey Mansfield's territory, Deida claims this kind of balance-seeking has resulted in "sexual neutrality." Closely echoing Lawlor, Deida says balance is fine, but it must not gloss over the fact that "sexual attraction is based on polarity." Or, to give the formula a sufficiently Deida-esque spin, sexual relationships "need a ravisher and a ravishee; otherwise, you just have two buddies who decide to rub genitals in bed."
Deida notes that the masculine sexual energy of which he speaks can belong to either the man or the women in a relationship, but that one partner has to have it, and that is usually the man. In alignment with Mansfield's vision of manliness, Deida describes this masculine energy as being "mission, competition, and putting it all on the line (indeed, facing death)." Men with this type of energy, according to Deida, will always be turned on by feminine energy which is characterized by "radiant women, beer, music, [and] nature." The next stage for men that Deida proposes assumes "men and women to be social, economic, and political equals," but also celebrates "the sexual and spiritual passions inherent in the masculine/feminine polarity.''
While Deida's point is that masculine and feminine sexual essences complement one another, this does not mean that this process is free from struggle. Indeed, the complementary process is largely one of negotiating power. When teasing out what men are actually after in their pursuit of women, he says to men, "You've had tit. You've had pussy ... And none of it lasted. It wasn't even that good as long as it did last. Your need is far deeper than any woman can provide. So what is it?" The answer, Deida suggests, is spiritual fulfillment. This fulfillment can be discovered via sexual relationships with women, but it is not the relationships themselves that provide the fulfillment, rather the spiritual gifts and awareness the relationships facilitate.
For Deida, achieving fulfillment and celebrating sexual polarity requires understanding and owning the natures of the two poles. In short, this involves understanding that women are chaotic (albeit lovely) creatures who will poke and test men to breaking point, searching out their weaknesses in the hope they will rise to the occasion (as it were), and prove their manliness. Deida suggests there are only two ways to deal with woman (and the worldliness they personify): renounce sexuality and "the seemingly constant demands of woman and world" or "'fuck' both to smithereens, to ravish them with your love unsheathed." Deida believes that not only does this bear witness to the true nature of masculine energy, but women also want it, as it allows them to be at their best: as Deida says, "If you want your woman to be able to relax ... you must relieve her of the necessity to be in charge."
But it's not all love and light with Deida: he also seeks to explain some of the more pathological aspects of masculinity and sexuality. Earlier, Lawlor suggested there are some problems in society that are caused by our crisis in sexuality, such as rape being caused by overly aggressive men and overly passive women. Deida also ventures into this territory, connecting not taking your woman "savagely, lovingly, and with no inhibition whatsoever" with a fascination with rape scenes on TV or at the movies. He suggests men need to own their "darkest desires," which may include forcing women to have sex against their will (a fantasy Deida claims is also often shared by women). Such desires should not be quashed, but appropriately contextualized: he writes, "the difference between rape and ravishment is love." Also part of this dark sexual territory is the "killer insider," whether it be unleashed upon a cockroach or home intruder, which women want to see in their man, and that men should fully own.
So, in sum, for both Lawlor and Deida masculine sexuality shares a certain commonality:
- The division of the masculine and feminine into polar opposites.
- The assigning of a particular set of characteristics to each pole (such as assertiveness to masculine sexuality and receptiveness to feminine sexuality).
- The need to fully own these two sets of characteristics, but to complement or balance them with those of the other pole.
- There are stages in history we move through in the unfolding of masculine sexuality, whether the cyclical nature of matriarchy and patriarchy (Lawlor), or a new level beyond the stereotypical macho jerk and sensitive new age guy (Deida).
Lawlor's title Earth Honoring: The New Male Sexuality gives a clear impression we are entering "new" territory. Similarly, Deida suggests he is going beyond the older macho and newer sensitive male stereotypes to a further stage of masculinity. However, this is rather misleading. Indeed, every time I hear the word "new" in relation to men and masculinity, alarm bells ring for me, as it usually signals the exact opposite (the same applies when I hear words such as "evolve"). It's a bit like when you hear someone start a point with "I'm not a racist," you know they're likely to say something racist. Equally, I want to make it clear that I have no in-principle objection to the idea of "new" in relation to men and masculinity, as in many ways this is exactly what this book is about. The key lies in how we articulate that newness, and about being honest about what is new and what is simply a tired re-hash of the old.
In the previous chapter I had a moan about Wilber, but I don't want you to think I'm one of those types who sweeps away a person's entire corpus of work in one swoop, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are a number of points Wilber makes very well, and one that applies here is called the "pre-trans fallacy." In our context of masculinity, that old-school macho masculinity would be the "pre" of Wilber's formula (pre-feminist, for example). We are currently in the phase identified by both Lawlor and Deida as having rendered masculinity rather confused and limp, and both seek the "trans" part of Wilber's formula: in other words, learning from all our previous lessons, but progressing into new territory. However, in the pre-trans fallacy there is a danger that those who claim to be "trans" have not learned from previous lessons, and while they think they are in new territory, all they are doing is retreating into the old.
How we go about spotting that these allegedly new masculinities are really spruced-up old masculinities is not always easy. It depends largely on how much you know about those old masculinities, and whether you can recognize them in the first place. If you're an old-school feminist, it is blindingly obvious that when people start talking about what is "naturally" masculine and feminine, there is something fishy going on. However, for various reasons a lot of younger people do not have this awareness: either they have not been exposed to it, or they believe this type of critique to be old-hat (in some ways, it is, but it needs to be fully incorporated before you can move on), and listen in good faith when they hear about the "new" masculinity.
So, how do you spot this slippage between the new and the old? If you have the time and the energy, the first thing to do is to mobilize that "hermeneutic of suspicion" I wrote about in the History chapter: in other words, assume you are being bullshitted. Go and find some criticism of the people referring to the "new" masculinity, and see if this puts a different spin on things (and, for the sake of fairness, give the "old" critiques the same level of attention you would the "new" arguments): you can find a fair bit for free on the Internet. Of course, you'll find criticism about anyone who operates in the public domain (including me), but the point is not to leave people unchallenged. Does the criticism sound credible to you? If you don't really understand the criticism (which can often happen), how credible does the source of this criticism appear? Remember, when Plausible Position A is refuted by Plausible Position B, the former does not immediately become untenable: it simply means plausible arguments 'aint always as they appear.
For example, on a number of occasions throughout his book, Lawlor refers to Australian Aborigines as exemplars for certain sexual codes in society. However, Mitchell Rolls—co-director of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at the University of Tasmania, Australia—sees Lawlor's presentation as an "Arcadian fantasy" and a "racist primitivism in which he seeks to permanently imprison Aborigines." Let's say you haven't the foggiest idea what Rolls is talking about. I'm not suggesting you should blindly accept it, but at the very least you might want to take seriously the fact that someone who undertakes scholarly research in this field finds Lawlor highly problematic, and also have a think about what else might be lurking behind his book. You might want to go and have a look at the types of texts Lawlor refers to, for example The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, and see if that makes you feel confident about the foundations of his argument (Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Chatwin does a good job of exposing him as a fantasist and charlatan, albeit one who wrote like an angel).
But of course it would be rather unreasonable of me to have The Problem section simply say, "go identify the problems for yourself," even if that is ultimately the best thing to do. I need to give you The-Problem-According-to-Gelfer, right? Well, here it is: the fundamental problem with both Lawlor and Deida is their insistence on reality being defined by polar opposites. This is another one of those arguments along the lines of "look, here's something I've identified that has been going on for a very long time, therefore it is true."
Polar thinking has been going on for so long that it has become highly naturalized and "intuitive": light/dark, positive/negative, up/down, man/woman. But because polarity is a "fact" of nature in some circumstances, it does not mean it is a fact of nature in all circumstances. Magnetism is a nice example of what's going on here. A magnet has a north and a south pole and, depending on circumstance, will either repel or attract. Magnetism as a metaphor has historically been applied to sexual attraction, but somewhere along the line its metaphorical truth has been confused with its literal truth (this is just one among countless types of polar thinking).
So, via this metaphorical–literal shift we then take it as fact that men (one pole) are attracted to women (another pole), or that a fiery person (one pole) is attracted to a cool person (another pole), and so on. But I would argue the anecdotal "evidence" for this simply speaks to our conditioning in the conspiracy, not any natural "truth." Once the conspiracy is exposed, all people are open to sexual relations with all people to varying degrees (men and women alike, of all characteristics): some of these sexual relations will be acted upon, others will only ever be contemplated, depending on the practical requirements of any given situation. I'll unpack this further in The Solutions section.
This polar thinking is not just about the types of people who are attracted to each other (via permutations of men/women, gay/straight, fiery/cool, or whatever), but the values and characteristics that are assigned to "masculine" and "feminine." Remember, Lawlor lists a whole bunch of these characteristics, following on from the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Deida does something similar with his construction of what defines masculine and feminine "energies." But again, there is no real evidence for any of this: it is largely down to an arbitrary allocation of values into polar camps. Honestly, tell me with a straight face: why are the values suggested by the words "time/history, intellectual, explicit, analytic, linear, sequential, focal, logical, causal, argument and perfection" masculine? Not only that, why are feminine values the polar opposite? Because polar opposites are natural? And the moon is eating the sun… There are two important things to keep in mind as we consider this issue: complementarity, and how we go about maintaining those values in an appropriate way.
In conversations about "new" masculinity there is a lot of lip service to balance: to complementing the masculine with the feminine, and vice versa. But balance is good, right? It prevents things becoming too extreme? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Based on the work of gender theorist Judith Butler, what I'm about to say might initially appear like an inconsequential philosophical/theoretical exercise, but it has significant ramifications. When we talk about complementing the masculine with the feminine with the intention of seeking balance and preventing gender extremism, we are actually doing the exact opposite: we are consolidating the masculine and feminine poles we are seeking to complement.
How? Because by complementing one pole with the other we confirm the perceived "reality" of those poles. As Butler puts it, "to be not quite masculine or not quite feminine is still to be understood exclusively in terms of one's relationship to the 'quite masculine' and the 'quite feminine.'" If you want to "complement" or "balance" those poles (in other words, abandon the extremes on which they are based), you need to proactively reject the concept of the pole in the first place. In short, forget balancing standard perceptions of masculine and feminine: instead, change the standard perception of masculine and feminine (indeed, understand that there is no justifiable standard perception of masculine and feminine).
Here's the second important point about maintaining those values in an appropriate way. When I unhook those words "time/history, intellectual, explicit, analytic, linear, sequential, focal, logical, causal, argument and perfection" from masculinity, it does not mean that I am dispensing with them; nor those words we also need to unhook from femininity. All those values and words remain on the table, it's simply that we no longer call them masculine and feminine; we no longer hold them in polar tension to one another. All those values remain available to all people at all times: men/women, gay/straight, fiery/cool, or whatever.
We do not need to think solely about new things in order to break through the conspiracy; rather, we have to think about old things in a different way. This is neither revolutionary nor traumatic, but a simple shift in perspective that can have massive implications for sexuality (and all things). Suddenly, we are not one of two likely ways of doing things sexually, but one of an almost infinite number of ways.
Before we get on to The Solution section where this sexual multiplicity will be further explored, I want to suggest one last easy exercise that can be used to challenge texts such as Lawlor and Deida's that I call the Mother Test. In order to undertake the Mother Test, you need to identify certain points in the text and read them out loud to your mother. If you don't have a mother, it could be any senior woman—either in age or achievement—in your life who you hope holds you in good stead. I'd like you to read out loud to this woman the passages where Deida writes things like, "for the feminine truth is a thin concept," and Lawlor that "ancient texts state that telling lies is an essential characteristic in female nature." You might also read out the passages above from Lawlor and Deida about rape.
How do you think that's going to work out? I'm not suggesting for a second that mothers are the bottom line for values in society: indeed, there most certainly will be things that need to be said that many mothers will not want to hear (like how they often perpetuate the conspiracy, for example). But the Mother Test is one of many tools that can be used in tandem with others to gauge whether what's on the table is genuinely a "new" (presumably positive) masculinity that you should throw your weight behind, and what is embarrassingly old.
So, sexuality: what's it really all about? I don't know with any certainty why sexuality is the way it is. My aim here is to explain the net effects of sexuality and how we should deal with the hand we've got, rather than explaining how we got the hand. I know this runs counter to the message I've been sending about having to understand a problem before we can address it, but I think a bit of honesty is required here: the true reasoning for sexuality in all its complexity (in other words, beyond the base function of reproduction) is beyond us at the moment. However, and speculatively, I believe there are three main things going on behind sexuality, which I'll highlight in order to provide a bit of context for my thinking in this Solutions section (although certainly not meant as the last word on the matter).
First, while I have done a lot of moaning in the previous chapter about biological determinism, this does not mean I deny biology: it simply means I deny that biological determinism is the fundamental factor behind a lot of issues surrounding masculinity. For the sake of argument, let's say biology accounts for a third of sexuality. For example, in some sexually-charged moments I can literally feel parts of my brain start to operate differently from the chemicals that rain down upon it. It's a very odd experience, and to successfully navigate it requires quite a bit of self-awareness.
Second, I believe sexuality has a lot to do with seeking union (in a philosophical rather than physical sense). Spiritual people might understand this union as being part of a relationship with some kind of divine universe. Non-spiritual people might understand this union as being part of a relationship with some kind of entity greater than the individual, such as partnership or community.
Third is desire. If you don't rate desire as one of the most complex things on the planet, I suggest you haven't thought about it properly. Desire mobilizes both biology and the inclination towards union, but it is separate. In some psychoanalytic theories, desire is seen as the surplus to need. The object of desire is sometimes sexual in itself, but the desirous pursuit of the sexual can also be seen as a playing out of more general and unarticulated desire which generally cannot be satisfied.
With these three things in mind, how do we think more usefully about masculinity and sexuality? The most important part of the solution is to recognize that the idea of polarity is one of the biggest cons pulled in the history of humanity. We'll come back to this again in other chapters. But in our current context, this has a number of ramifications. In the above section, I outlined one of these as allocating specific values and words to the masculine and feminine, and how we needed to unhook these, opening up access for all people to all values.
The second fundamental ramification of polar thinking is the assumed gay/straight binary, which suggests that most people are either gay or straight (and that straight is the norm). Again, this appears to fit with all the anecdotal "evidence" on the table, but is it really true? One famous example that challenges this binary thinking is the Kinsey Scale. Alfred Kinsey was a sexologist who caused a lot of controversy in the 1940s and 50s with his work on human sexuality. Kinsey unearthed a surprising amount of what many at the time considered to be "unorthodox" sexual behavior in which people who were seen as either "gay" or "straight" often had a fair streak of the other. The Kinsey Scale put people into seven categories:
Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
Equally heterosexual and homosexual; bisexual
Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
Predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
While most people imagined the numbers would be heavily weighted towards 0 and 6, Kinsey discovered that at some point in their lives a surprising amount of people had sexual experiences (albeit often of a mild nature) that result in there being a broad spread across the seven categories. (There's also a eighth point, "X" for asexual or non-sexual). Certainly there are problems with the Kinsey Scale (it's considered quite simplistic by contemporary sexologists), but it still gives an indication that polar opposites—gay/straight, masculine/feminine—are not the obvious descriptors of realty that many claim.
This is not some "gay crusade" which suggests that lots of people are unconsciously living a lie about their sexual orientation. It simply means that things are more complicated than they initially appear, and that binary thinking does not do a very good job of representing the truth. For example, I'm happily settled in a heterosexual marriage; outside of this, like most men, it is women who generally catch my attention on the street. However, while I have never had sex with a man, I often find myself falling into flirtatious patterns with gay men, and now I'm a bit older, if I were single I wouldn't rule out some further experimentation on this front. I would hazard a guess that in the right circumstances most "straight" men would entertain the thought of sexually penetrating another man (albeit resisting being penetrated themselves, and there are complex reasons for this). I'm probably a 1 or a 2 on the Kinsey Scale, which I suspect is the case for most men if they had enough self-awareness and honesty to articulate it.
Owning such diverse sexual realities is not about sexual confusion: indeed, it is the complete opposite. While Kinsey suggested that a lot of this "experimentation" happened earlier in life, this may be due to our opportunities at this point, and that we are less conditioned and regulated by society's expectations (the conspiracy) than in later years. The more mature our sense of self, the more we are likely to realize our complex and diverse sexual nature.
If the dissolving of polar thinking in terms of the values assigned to the masculine and feminine and the gay/straight binary is taken seriously, what does masculine sexuality look like? In short, the answer is whatever you want it to look like: certainly not one of two choices, rather as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze suggested, "a thousand tiny sexes." To suggest otherwise is to be subject to the conspiracy whose business it is to define and regulate masculinity, not to bear witness to the diversity of what it is to be human.
It might be that after exposing the conspiracy, the way masculine sexuality looks to you is a lot like that of Lawlor and Deida. This is an objection often raised to me: hey, Gelfer, if you're all about diversity, then the types of masculinity you critique are equally valid, surely? This is true, but the fundamental difference is that once the conspiracy is exposed, Lawlor and Deida's presentation of masculinity is simply one choice among many, not a definition of what masculinity is supposed to be about. That's a really important distinction, so if you didn't get it, read it again.
The real question then shifts from defining what masculine sexuality should be about to how to appropriately go about the business of masculine sexuality. We may end up with all sorts of interesting sexual inclinations after breaking through the conspiracy, but they may not all function well within the ethical and relational contexts in which we live. For example, I can imagine the appeal of polyamorous relationships, but the practical fallout in most stable relationships is destructive. Of course, there may be (probably rare) circumstances where everyone involved is on the same page and happy with the reality of polyamorous relationships, in which case I heartily wish you well on your journey.
We need, too, to be aware of the power dynamics that might arise in our newly-discovered sexual inclinations. One common outcome for men might be to opt for a "younger model" (whether male or female) as partner. The sexual attraction of younger people can be profound. Part of this is to do with the biological third of sexuality, referred to at the beginning of this section. Part of it is to do with death anxiety: of grabbing hold of youthful vitality which at once reminds us of our own youth, and provides a boost in the face of our own mortality. This is made all the more complex as we get older and achieve things in life, as younger people may be as attracted to our achievements as to our personalities (which can be very difficult to differentiate for everyone involved). However appealing such a scenario, if there is a power imbalance in a sexual relationship (whether through age difference or social position), it is likely to be inappropriate. On this subject I recommend reading Sex in the Forbidden Zone: When Men in Power—Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers, and Others—Betray Women's Trust by Peter Rutter. Of course, there may be (probably rare) situations where a 20 year-old and 40 year-old are not subject to such power imbalances, in which case I heartily wish you well on your journey. These issues will be unpacked further in the following Relationships chapter.
A final point is the nature of "casualness" in sexual relations: a moral term if ever there was one. Historically, psychologists thought casual sex was emotionally damaging to those involved. More recently, studies have suggested this is not the case. However, it seems to me that if sexuality is indeed derived in part from biological determinism, the philosophical seeking of union, and desire, the idea of sexuality being "casual" is impossible. With these fundamental elements at work, sexuality can be nothing but "significant." If you disagree with this I suggest you examine more closely how these elements operate across all aspects of our lives.
One interesting alternative on this spectrum that does not get the attention it deserves is the choice of a period of celibacy. One reader of the previous chapters sent me an email stating that the greatest lesson of celibacy for him was "learning how to love a man and not have to possess a woman." I do not invoke celibacy in any way as a moral position, but a philosophical and practical one which is rarely mentioned but which offers a valuable space for thinking and growth.
Sexuality, then, is fundamental to the conspiracy. By giving disproportionate weight to biological determinism and setting up false binaries in terms of gender values and sexual orientation, sexuality offers a theme through which the conspiracy continually defines and regulates masculinity on its own terms. However, it is surprisingly easy to reject the assumptions behind the conspiracy's mobilization of sexuality and to open ourselves to multiple and fluid ways of being men and women, masculine and feminine. Once we have started to suitably manifest these diverse identities, we can put them to work in the relationships we have with those around us, the next contentious site of activity in the conspiracy.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third part of the series on The Masculinity Conspiracy by Joseph Gelfer. Chapters 1 and 2 of the book were reprinted in the October and Nevember issues, respectively. Chapter 4 will be reprinted in the January issue. The list of references (below) will be included with each chapter. If the reader wants to keep reading, click here. To visit the book's web site, click here.
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