Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Exploring Gender Role Socialization, Desire, Intimacy & The Male Sexual Gaze

A female friend, a feminist and philosophy professor, recently posted interest on a social media site for any online material addressing male gender role socialization and how it affects male sexuality. Simply put, her concern is around how the culture at large and prevailing patterns of gender roles socializes boys into becoming (heterosexual) adults whom see women through a very distorted, stereotyped and limited lens—to the disadvantage of both genders.

So I took up the call. This is great topic, and one of personal interest. I find myself single and dating after many years of serial monogamy. So it’s very topical for me at the moment! Sexuality is such a complex maze of influences and impulses, all pushing and pulling on us for attention. Some of it relates to hidden biases from our past that keep us stuck on some carousel of hellish repetitious behaviour. Some are just true, while critically unaddressed social messages about approval, shame, guilt make it totally confusing.

In a 2009 piece, included in the Best Of 2010 Sex Writing, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel ( John DeVore lays out his personal case for just owning, as men, our real desires. ( DeVore describes how two archetypal female forms fire his loins: one, the curvy, voluptuous, zaftig woman; and two, the demure but sultry, long-legged slender vixen. I agree with John’s point about cutting through conventions or any sense of external approval and just paying attention to what revs your engines. The problem is, for many men, what sends the flag up the pole, so to speak,  may be preventing them from loving real women from a more diverse pool of choices,  or relating to a more complete sexual connection with women who may not fall into what may be a narrowly pre-conceived (and subconsciously ‘safe’) template.

As a clinical psychotherapist in private practice, teacher, writer and public speaker I have spent many years in my own in therapy, sifting through the detritus of my internal and externalized psyche: broken relationships, unresolved grief, succumbing to numbing low self-worth and depression, and generally having a really rough go. I have sat in men’s circles—drumming, humming, chanting and ranting. And I have spent agonizing moments of self-recrimination, regret, loss and deep suffering over failed intimate relationships, tormented by the confusion of creating conflict between owning my desire, trying to be a ‘nice’ guy, and pushing away intimacy. In hindsight, and with the benefit of helping scores of therapy clients, I now see clearly that I simply made the wrong choices in women, for me.

There’s a sort of double-bind at work here. The very conditions of our early life—what we can call primary socialization, that is, how we see and internalize models of love and intimacy and communication from our parents—set us up to operate from unresolved or distorted self-worth, or limiting cognitions. In other words, we feel bad or confused in relation to self, our needs and sense being made a priority by those caring for us go unheeded, and we internalize a message that builds a script about what we deserve and what to expect in love. Worse, we can directly suffer or witness major abuse at the hands of those guiding and nurturing us. At the same time, the research evidence is adding up to support in every way that downloaded parental stress, neglect and even perceived abandonment affects us even at the genetic level.

So the double-whammy? The very conditions that sent us in the wrong direction now set us up to make bad choices, and since we are the ones who are now responsible for recreating those early conditions of neglect or deprivation, we layer on a deeper cloak of self-loathing and shame. This is really pronounced with diagnoses such as Borderline Personality Disorder, where the subject vacillates between extremes of tolerance in object relations (whom we seek to connect with and love). In other words, BPD types ultimately suffer extreme social isolation because they are capable of only ever putting people on a pedestal, or making them the sum of all evil. So you can see the distorted, destructive and contemptuous capacity of (self) love gone wrong. The disorder takes early emotional deprivation and turns it into a cruel compulsive cyclical behaviour, where one pre-selects out of what they want to deserve/feel out of a kind of foregone conclusion mentality of despair, while projecting the blame onto the ‘other.’ You can see how this would factor into a guilt/shame complex that steers men away from the kind of personally-defined, libertine, gonad-driven desire DeVore describes.

But there’s something more disturbing going on. Looking at the previously described dynamic really begins to open up some deeper analysis of our commodified, social-cultural fetishization of women: namely, porn and advertising. At once, these grossly idealized (and hetero, race, class-centric) images of women are both the object of refusal and male entitlement; refusal, because being idealized women they don’t really exist, and might be out of actual reach for many men, and entitlement because of perceived patriarchal endowment. Clearly, this is what points to the ample research data correlating such stereotyped images and sexualization of women with real acts of violence. In effect, the ‘woman’ of these images is the projected distorted fantasy of the personality disorder male type—it is impossible for her to represent the complex diversity of all women, so she thus becomes a hyper-realized woman whom really transcends real womanly traits. She is the misogynistic effigy.

In his 2001 PhD dissertation, “An Analysis Of Masculine Socialization And Male Sexual Anxiety ( Andreas G. Philaretou raises the broader social-cultural messages we receive, transmitted through parental modeling, male values and the demands of conforming with heterosexual ‘normalcy.’ He writes:

Briefly, patriarchal socialization refers to the process of allocating and transmitting male privilege from one generation of boys to another. Masculinity could be conceptualized as the practical application of patriarchy; the personification of patriarchy in men’s everyday lives.

Male sexual anxiety refers the generalized feelings of sexual unrest experienced by men as a result of their historico-socio-cultural conditioning in the patriarchal masculine ethos. Relational abuse deals with the physical, psychological, and emotional variants of abuse experienced in intimate relationships. Sexual addiction has to do with one’s mental preoccupation with and physical enactment of sexual behaviors for the sake of alleviating male sexual anxiety and as a substitute of true intimacy in interpersonal relationships.

There is ample ground here for a book, and perhaps one I will write. In the meantime, I will bring the discussion back around to DeVore’s declaration of genuine, red-blooded authentic desire. I’m with him: curvy women are very attractive, and there's no problem with personal preference. The deeper concern here is for the men who fall within the broad spectrum I describe above--what Philaretou classifies as generalized male sexual anxiety. There arises a kind of chicken and egg question as regards the greater culture and the images of women it presents, who controls and defines them, and how they reproduce some of these underlying pathological drives. I do believe that, clearly for women, those dominant images and messages are confining, limiting and destructive in many ways, as are all stereotypes. But they also confine men from exploring a broader relationship with desire, intimacy and female sexuality.

So herein lies the deeper conundrum. Part of the inherited/learned/socialized behavioural adaptation for men is to be disconnected or illiterate vis-à-vis their intimacy skills. Many heterosexual men watched their dads, or popular culture versions of their projected dads, operate in a binary social world. In world one, they are the Mad Men, or perhaps the construction site men, where real feelings, insecurities and expressions are stowed away in fear of ridicule and rejection, in favour of hyper-masculininity—talk of sports, work, etc. In world two, they come home (or seek out) the women in their lives where they channel their pent-up need for vulnerability through a impossibly pressurized container of intimacy via their relationship. In this container, men are placing bets with the stash of their social and emotional intimacy, while also playing out against their spouses their likely muddled expressions of desire via an idealized projected internal image. Suddenly, we see the exigence of the ‘madonna & the whore’ syndrome, trapping both man and woman in impossible confines. So I think this discussion brings wider attention to the need to explore non-sexual intimacy between men, men and women, and to come back to sexual desire from a more fully-realized palate of emotional experience.

In the end, let’s bring together the curvy women with the men who love them, the thin women the same, and every other combination in between with love, respect and mutual desire. The man who loves and respects himself at core will be open to desire in whatever shape moves him, and give reciprocity in that exchange with the women who holds him in her mind with equal regard, lust and imagination.

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