Editor's Note: The following piece is adapted from Esther Perel's 2018 Networker Symposium keynote, "Our Myths About Sexuality." To read more from the Symposium, check out the May/June 2018 issue.
At this moment in our society, we’re experiencing a reckoning in the relationships between men and women, in the relationships between gender and anatomy, and in the relationships between sex and power. Once again, because it’s certainly not new, we’re taking a deeper look at one of the oldest power-exchange systems. For most of history, men have leveraged their social power and status for sexual favors. And women have used their beauty, their youth, and their sexuality to access social power that would otherwise be denied to them.
The #MeToo movement is about more than harassment. It’s about challenging the vestiges of the old structures of power, because patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women, it hurts men as well. Terry Real says, “Under patriarchy, we can either be powerful or connected but not both.” My work is about helping men and integrating those two dimensions.
Women have had about 50 years in this country to rethink their place in the world, to organize, to expand the definitions of female identity. Men haven’t had that opportunity yet. But, to me, it’s always been clear that the lives of women will not change until the men come along and get to do their own thinking and have their own reckoning, until they get to challenge the definitional void of manhood, and until we stop not touching our three-year-old boys because we don’t want them to be “sissies.” Even before our sons can walk, parents overestimate their physical prowess—how well they crawl—because we’re already imposing on them performance-based masculinity, built on autonomy, silence, strength, fearlessness, and competition. This is toxic masculinity: the norm itself.
So we have to continue to invest in helping women find their voice and find their power. And at the same time, we have to help men be able to safely open their hearts and show their vulnerability. Emotions are human, and we need to free them from the gender-specific reductionism of labeling tenderness and softness as feminine and power and robustness as masculine.
In my work I’ve focused extensively on gender and sexuality. I’ve tried to debunk age-old myths and narrow definitions. At this moment, our main attention is being placed on the aggressive, sadistic, and predatory nature of masculinity, specifically male sexuality, and the “powerful men who harass.” But powerful men don’t harass; powerful men seduce. It’s insecure men who harass, who feel the need to use their social power to extract sex.
But this insecurity is old news. We know that on dating websites, a man needs to earn $40,000 more per year to look as attractive as a man who is one inch taller than him. This skewed sense of masculinity is societal. Men internalize it, boys internalize it, and the people who raise them internalize it.
And that leads me to think about male sexuality. Do you know that 97 percent of all research on low sexual desire is done on women? What does that mean? It presupposes that men never lack sexual desire because men are always “interested,” right? Male sexuality is defined as biological and female sexuality is defined as psychological. This is one of the age-old myths I’m determined to bust—that male sexuality is biological, indiscriminate, perpetually in search of an outlet, whereas female sexuality requires certain relational conditions to be met. But men bring major vulnerabilities to sexuality that have led me to understand that male sexuality is in fact highly relational, not at all simplistic and just biological. Consider the fear of rejection. Is that not a relational experience? What about the fear of inadequacy and performance anxiety? If those don’t make male sexuality highly relational, then I don’t know what would.
Next myth: male sexuality is predatory. The New York Times printed a whole article about how it’s predatory by nature. I wanted to say that is so not the case. What I see in my clients, in my audiences, everywhere I go, is that it’s not the predatory nature of male sexuality that occupies men: it’s the fear of being predatory.
Heterosexual men in committed relationships often tell me, “Nothing turns me on more than to see her turned on.” I owe my understanding of this sentence to sex researcher Marta Meana. The man depends on the woman’s response to confirm that he’s pleasing her and not hurting her. And there—in his concern for her experience—lies the line between sex and violence. This too is highly relational. Paid sex or porn are often sought out for precisely this reason.
In contrast, have you ever heard in your office a woman say, “Nothing turns me on more than to see him turned on”? No, it’s irrelevant. He can be standing there with a full erection, and it doesn’t move her one bit. If she’s not into it, she’s not into it. Why? Because what turns her on is to be the turn-on. If for men the predatory fear is the central erotic block, for women it’s the burden of caretaking that stands in the way of connecting with her erotic self. She needs to know that everybody is fine, and she’s off-duty from caretaking, before she can completely focus on herself and on her pleasure.
Last male-sexuality myth: all he wants is sex. No, that’s not the case. But if tenderness, softness, surrender, closeness, touch, affection—if all those things aren’t part of a man’s identity, then sex becomes the only keyhole through which he can experience any of them. What comes across as his singular determination for sex is often hiding his true needs: sex is the only socially acceptable way to experience those feelings. If we want this to shift, we need to create a culture where men can express their needs in more than just the masculine code of sex.
As therapists, we have a unique role at this moment to help everyone navigate the challenges of modern relationship. Our relationships are undergoing massive changes, and we can help people engage in courageous conversations and speak the unspoken. For many of us therapists, this may be the first time we ourselves are having these conversations. But one thing doesn’t change and makes our work forever meaningful: the quality of our relationships is what determines the quality of our lives.
Photo © Sam Levitan
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