Eradicating gender inequities has long been part of the landscape of good sex education. Equalizing power between sexual partners has been proven to increase the likelihood of condom use and other safer sex practices. Greater equality between romantic partners reduces controlling behaviors and violence. It also lessens the occurrence of affairs and deceit. Empowered individuals are better able to state their sexual desires and limits and more likely to seek sexual health services when needed.
The conflation of gender issues with women’s issues
Many of the initiatives that seek to eradicate gender inequities work on elevating women and girls’ statuses. It is easy to spot how sex roles, gender stereotypes, and sexism disempower women. The gender binary in the West and most of the world positions women as submissive and passive against men’s dominance and strength. Regardless of women’s resilience and creativity within this social structure, their subservient social position is evident in prevailing wage gaps, underrepresentation in politics, sciences, and technology. It is evident in the lack of perceived professional credibility and expertise, in disproportionate poverty rates, and in the prevalent experiences of sexual violence. Gender as an organizing system is inherently stacked against girls and women. So much so that “gender issues” are often shorthanded as “women’s issues”, and gender justice as the elevation of women’s rights.
The bind of masculinity
What is less obvious is how the same organizing system is also stacked against men. Almost everywhere in the world, masculinity is defined by power, strength, infallibility, and control. These attributes are “positive” in the context of the competitive and capitalist values because they were circularly self-defined. You win the Dominance Game with dominance.
Nothing about invincibility, self-sufficiency, and control, however, is essentially better than vulnerability, interdependence, and mutability. However, because men win at the Dominance Game, it can seem as if their lot is all good and women’s is all bad. What is overlooked is that the Dominance Game is a brutal game and it costs both winners and losers a lot to play.
In truth, men also lose when they win. Successful masculinity is tough, invincible, and fearless. The human condition, however, while rich with those qualities, is also full of vulnerability and neediness. These latter sensations are often experienced as pain. Be it physical or emotional, pain indicates that our bodies and/or psyches need care. In the cliché rite of passage where a boy is told to “suck it up” after skinning his knees, his pain does not disappear after he quiets his sniffling. He does not stop feeling hurt or being prone to getting hurt – he merely stops showing it to others.
What happens to pain?
In its raw forms, pain is expressed as tears, vocalizing, defeat, regret, sorrow, depression, fear, panic, or the need for soothing, protection, and empathy. As these expressions are all circularly defined as weak, they are not particularly available to practitioners of masculinity.
As such, masculine pain is often expressed as anger, withdrawal, or blame. Anger allows a person in pain to maintain a semblance of power – to the self and to others. When delivered as aggression and violence, anger as a reaction to fear is easily and ironically mistaken for strength and fearlessness. Withdrawal is read as stoicism and control over emotions, or as indifference and unaffectedness. Chaotic substance use is one of the most accessible and allowable pathways of withdrawal and is readily built into masculinity as stress relief or having a good time. Blame moves an individual and their self-perceived failures away from the spotlight. Because being weak, needy, or afraid are masculinity failures of the self, assigning fault to others can dissipate the intolerable possibility of failure.
Expressing only anger, withdrawal and blame, masculinity (when done right) makes men deceive everyone, including themselves, into thinking that they experience no pain. When experienced and processed as it is meant to be, pain passes and transforms. People without an emotional vocabulary for pain must try to ignore, dull, or somehow kill the wrenching sensations of insecurity, rejection, loneliness, grief, despair, and fear. Ironically, this cycles creates even more pain.
To be chronically denied the natural outlets of pain is to have chronically unfilled needs and to be chronically dehumanized. In other words, the Dominance Game is won at the cost of the freedom to be fully human.
What are one’s options out of this bind? Few. Unlike women who “advance” by gaining power, position, and control (all upward movements in the Dominance Game), men would be moving downwards if they fought for emotionality and neediness. Even though many courageous men have done just that – by being loving fathers and homemakers, following women leaders, seeking help, admitting wrong, receiving love, and otherwise transgressing masculinity – it is not an easy fight. In the Dominance Game, breaking masculinity codes is punishable by serious social, financial, and psychological consequences.
The endless cycle of the bind
What are common reactions to one’s own dehumanization? Anger, retaliation, disassociation, self-hate, and the dehumanization of others. The psychology is that if my pain does not matter (or exist), then yours does not either. The fallout from anger, withdrawal, blame, and reciprocal dehumanization are an assortment of phenomena that range from “boys being boys” to “anti-social” behavior.
What are common societal responses to antisocial behavior? Punishment, reformation, education, isolation, tighter restrictions, policing, and prevention that looks like preemptive punishments. None of these address or acknowledge the precursors of the antisocial behavior. Even “education” and “prevention” efforts that intervene before any offence do not address underlying unexpressed and unresolved pain. While some anger management programs give tools for dealing with pain, by and large, the pain that leads to anti-social behavior remains unaddressed.
A Case Study: Sexual consent education
A good case study is sexual consent education. Sexual consent, the practice of engaging in sexual experiences where all parties are willing and enthusiastic – has become an especially prominent topic in the last few years. High profile sexual assault cases concerning campuses and celebrities, (distorted) portrayals of kink in popular media, and the continuing evolution of sexual and gender landscapes all make consent a timely topic.
In rightful response to these discussions, sexual consent education has stepped up on university campuses, in high schools, on parenting blogs and within sexual education curricula. Slogans, posters, animated GIFs, and viral videos are reaffirming that unwanted sexual contact is illegal, wrong, and punishable. Young adults continue to be empowered with “no means no”, and more recently also, “yes means yes”. The message is that no one is ever entitled to sex or owed sex regardless of what the other person is wearing, how inebriated they are, whether they have consented to sex at another time, what their “reputation” is, or what kind of relationship exists between the parties involved. Some recent slogans include, “’No’ does not mean ‘convince me’”, “DON’T GET RAPED”, “Don’t be that guy”, “Consent is not only sexy, it is the law”, and “Drinking is not a crime, rape is”.
These consent interventions, while certainly applicable to all, are primarily aimed at boys and men. Like prevention messages for other varieties of antisocial behavior, many sexual consent educational messages distills down to, “You cannot do this”. On the surface, this kind of messaging innocuous and on-point. However, if you pay closer attention, the totality of the message reveals itself to be, “You cannot do this but I know you want to”.
Why do we approach sexual consent this way? Non-consensual sex is hurtful and dehumanizing. It can leave a litany of physical and emotional scars. Why is there a basic assumption that our audience wants to do such a thing? Yet this is the way we speak to men and boys in many educational messages – as people who want something that hurts others. Do we assume they do not know it is hurtful, or that they do not care? In either case, do we assume that this is the nature of men and boys? These messages perpetuate the dehumanizing function of masculinity where men do not feel pain and do not care for other people’s pain. What are we inadvertently teaching men and boys about themselves through “You can not do this but I know you want to”, and how might we do better?
How might we stop imagining that boys and men are only interested in their own welfare? How might we speak to everyone of any gender not only about sexual consent vis à vis the law and the definition of consent, but also about how to care for each other? What would sexual consent education that says “I know you want to care for your sexual partner(s) and here’s how” look like?
Sex education, including consent education, builds a bridge over gaps in knowledge and skill. If we imagine the gaps to be knowledge based – about what one can and cannot do, and about entitlements and responsibilities – a certain kind of pedagogy results. If we imagine the gaps to be about skills for balancing the needs of others (e.g., safety, respect, comfort, pleasure, and so on) and the needs of self (e.g., dignity, intimacy, pleasure, and so on), we have a very different kind of pedagogy.
How might we empathize with a young guy who is balancing masculinity pressures and the desire to show and receive love? How might we normalize and validate feelings of loneliness and insecurity for men who feel isolated or unattractive? What emotional and social tools will a college frat boy need when the girl he just met wants to stop making out and he does not? How can we help him experience bearable rejection instead of unbearable failure? How do we equip him to listen, to continue to humanize her, instead of lashing out in anger or blame?
Certainly we could tell him “no means no” and draw a hard boundary that any entitlement he feels, any aggression he displays, any coercion from that point on is wrong and possibly illegal. We would not be wrong to do these things, but we would also not be very helpful. As sex educators, teachers, and therapists, we could do better. In addition to clarifying responsibilities and rights, naming and condemning rape culture, and calling out male entitlement, we could offer tools and perspectives that masculinity deprives. We could treat men and boys as if we trust them to care for others.
A new sexual consent education
To shift rape culture, we must shift relational dynamics. To that end, we can start with the relationship between educator and audience. We need to empathize with the pain that underlies masculine experience. We need to work with men and boys within their realities. It is the “client-centered” approach of health promotion theory. It is the practice that we preach: to regard the other with full humanity, even if they are denying us what we want, and even if we suspect they feel little or no pain. We cannot threaten to dehumanize men as the bargaining chip against their potential dehumanization of women. We cannot afford to do that to anyone. It deems them less worthy of care, and makes enemies out of possible allies.
Let us interrupt the undercurrent of “You can not do this but I know you want to” from sexual consent education. Let us ask more questions and offer help in answering them. How do you want to show affection? When is it difficult to make caring decisions? How does it feel to stop having sex once you have started? What do you tend to do when you are hurt/angry/humiliated/ disappointed? How do you manage the expectations of being strong all the time while being actually humanly fragile? What kind of person do you want to be?
Let us offer our audiences the opportunity to be honest about situations that are realistically complex and conflicting. If posing a scenario about a potential sexual partner who is very intoxicated, do not merely push for the “right” answers according to legal and definitional consent. Move beyond that by discussing how anticipation, excitement, and sexual arousal feel in the face of choosing not to have sex. Empathize with the perceived expectations of friend groups and the pressure to belong. Talk about how disappointment, rejection, and impatience feel.
In an attempt to give a clear message about right and wrong, educators are sometimes afraid to admit that doing right feels badly sometimes. We want doing what is right to feel good and only good. We frame it that way hoping more people will make good choices. Doing so, we also avoid having to face someone else’s “negative” feelings – an experience many people are uncomfortable with.
However, we know that integrity requires both courage and effort and the righteous choice is often the more difficult choice. We can do our audiences a huge favor by acknowledging this and affirming our trust in them to do right by themselves.
A new whole-person gender
A new whole-person gender involves widening personhood for every person so that each is allowed a full spectrum of emotions, desires, and experiences.
In this new imagination, there are multiple genders and all genders experience various palettes of feelings. Strength, assertiveness, and self-control are balanced with interdependence, tenderness, and the capacity to be moved. The reformed brand of hero is not just strong, powerful women, but also kind, generous men, and also every non-binary gender of every personality composition.
In this new imagination, sex education is comprehensive and involves discussions about love, heartbreak, desire, being wanted, pleasure, and intimacy – for all. Transferrable consent skills come from friendship skills when young people consider, “how do you say no to your friends when it might hurt their feelings?” Anti-bullying education teaches assertiveness to stand up against intimidation as well as compassion for all parties. Their scenarios ask, “How do you stand up to a bully?” as well as, “what are you needing when you resort to bullying?”
It is just as important to continue making change from within the Dominance Game as it is to create new worlds outside of it. No one is immune to the prevailing gender mythologies. It is not our job to destroy them, but to become conscious that they are mythologies. Then we can flood the world with more and more stories.
Sexology International, like all of our work, is for people of all sexual preferences and all forms of gender expression, including people whose identity is something other than male or female. As such, we like to use gender-neutral pronouns. More recently accepted alternatives include words like “ze” and “hir” or the universal pronoun “they.” Throughout our work, we will be doing our best to use alternative pronouns, such as “they,” whenever gender or plurality is unimportant. In doing so we hope it helps everyone to feel included in the discussion and that it inspires you to think outside of traditional sex and gender binaries.