Lady Gaga: Music Videos As Porn

This piece was originally published on CarnalNation.

I realize that I’m late to the Lady Gaga party. (Hey, I’m 48 years old. Cut me some slack.) But I gotta say — I’m impressed.

If I just listened to her music, I’d only be moderately interested. I think her music is perfectly fun, well- above- average dance pop music. But I’ve been watching her music videos… and they’re making me think that this woman is a force to be reckoned with. (Yes, I realize she doesn’t direct her own videos — but they are clearly collaborations, strongly shaped by her artistic vision, and they’re a central part of her public persona.)

And what’s striking me about Lady Gaga’s music videos is not just how smart they are, or how imaginative, or how lovingly crafted and visually stunning, or how just flat-out funny. What’s striking me about Lady Gaga’s music videos is how strongly influenced they are by sex culture: by fetish fashion, by sexploitation flicks, and by plain old dirty porn.

What’s more, they seem to be strongly influenced by these cultures, not as an outsider, not as someone who’s manipulating this imagery to titillate/ shock the audience, but as an insider, someone who’s intimately familiar with both sex culture and sexual marginalization. This isn’t Britney Spears, using schoolgirl or slavegirl or girl- on- girl imagery to excite her audience without any apparent understanding or affinity for it. Lady Gaga’s music videos (coupled with her interviews about her work) show a thoughtful, informed insight into polymorphous perversity. She has an analysis that could easily hold its own in any queer theory/ gender theory/ sex theory forum — and damn do I love a sexy girl with an analysis! — and her freak flag is waving high and proud.

In a way that — if I can be crass for a moment — makes her videos very functional as porn. I’ve certainly seen other music videos that turned me on. I can’t remember seeing any that made me this hungry to watch them again and again… with a vibrator handy.

“Telephone” may be the best example of these porny influences. A brazen riff on “women in prison” sexploitation flicks — and “women in prison” porn flicks — the video plays with kinky imagery, catfight imagery, and girl-girl porn imagery… all reclaimed into a defiantly queer sexuality. (Yes, Lady Gaga is an out bisexual.) The women are costumed in the sexist, sluttiest, most wildly fantastical, least plausible prisoner uniforms imaginable, far outstripping the implausibly slutty costumes of any “women in prison” porn or sexploitation movie I’ve seen: elaborate platform heels, leather bondage collars, luxuriously trashy lingerie, chains draped around bodies, sunglasses made of cigarettes, leather gear studded and zippered within an inch of its life. Latex prison stripes for Ms. Gaga herself — rudely stripped off by the butch prison guards, to reveal black taped X’s over her nipples and fishnet hose with nothing but pixels underneath. All with cleavage and thighs and asses on meticulously offhand display. And all with breakneck-speed costume changes that defy even porn logic.

Lady gaga beautiful dirty rich
Although… well, maybe “Beautiful, Dirty Rich” is the best example. A decadent, libertine, “beautiful useless people” bisexual free-form grope-fest, its vision of trashy affluence would do the excesses of either the Weimar Republic or the Roman Empire proud. Statues get humped, piles of money get rolled in, and the brass railing of a posh elevator gets used like a stripper pole. All in a style that hints at both amateur basement porn and “La Dolce Vita.”

And now that I think about it… maybe “Bad Romance” is the best example. This may be both the strangest and the kinkiest Lady Gaga video of all. (Not surprisingly, it’s also my favorite.) In a futuristic bathhouse, strangely costumed women perform a private stage show for wealthy, sinister men who sit back calmly and consume the entertainment. (Much like we, the audience, are consuming the entertainment.) Gaga is forced by her fellow dancers into displaying herself and performing a sex-kitten lap dance for the audience, and later takes herself into the bedchamber of one of them, who seems to have paid for the pleasure at an Internet auction. (I think. This particular video seems to have been influenced by Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” films as much as by fetish porn, and the storyline is a little surreal and hard to follow.) This is Lady Gaga, though, always firmly in control even when she’s wildly out of it, and she takes her revenge in the end by… well, I don’t want to spoil such a lovely surprise.

Lady gaga bad romance shoes
The fashion in this video isn’t just influenced by fetish fashion. The fashion is fetish fashion: from the masked latex catsuits to the strappy red lingerie to the six- inch- heel patent leather boots. Much has been made of the unwearable Alexander McQueen “alien” shoes that Lady Gaga proved were wearable in this video. I have not yet seen any mention made of the fact that the things bear an uncanny resemblance to pony play shoes. The ones that look like hooves.

But then maybe… oh, you get the idea. There’s “Paparazzi”, an ambivalent encomium to exhibitionism, sexual and otherwise, which eroticizes crutches and wheelchairs in a way that makes me think Gaga must have seen Japanese medical/ bandage porn. (Not to mention David Cronenberg’s “Crash.”) There’s “Poker Face”, featuring yet another bisexual free-for-all grope-fest. There’s “LoveGame”, with the poles on a subway car being repurposed as stripper poles, and the male dancers getting arrested and bent over cop cars, and Gaga seducing a cop in the security booth. (A cop who, mysteriously but alluringly, keeps switching genders.) I could go on.

But I kind of want to get to the point here.

Madonna justify my love
Now, Lady Gaga is far from the first person to incorporate porn imagery into pop culture. She’s not even the first person to incorporate it into music videos. Madonna leaps immediately to mind, as does Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” as does every rock or rap video with scantily-clad coochie girls, ever. But Lady Gaga does it in a way that seems to be unique. (At least, I haven’t seen it before. Again — middle-aged lady here. Not exactly a connoisseur of the contemporary music video genre.)

The way Lady Gaga incorporates porn imagery into her music video is entirely shameless.

And by “shameless,” I don’t mean “flaunting it” or “in your face.” I mean, quite literally, “without shame.” Lady Gaga’s music videos incorporate a fascinating assortment of influences, from culture both high and low. I see Fellini in her videos, and Matthew Barney, and David Cronenberg, and “Natural Born Killers,” and the high-art end of high fashion, and “Thelma and Louise,” and much more.

I also see sexploitation, and fetish culture, and porn.

And nowhere do I see any hint that these influences ought not to be mixed — or that some are more equal than others.

The high-art influences and the porny influences are folded into one another seamlessly. The “women in prison” story in “Telephone” is given equal weight to the “women on the road/ mass murder” story. In “Bad Romance,” the latex fetish gear contributes as much as to the unnervingly antiseptic surrealism as the glossy white sets and the cyborg facial jewelry. The sexual exhibitionism in “Paparazzi” is as much a part of the commentary on fame as the flashing lights of the cameras. Sex is clearly a central part of Lady Gaga’s life and work — and she explores it in her videos with every bit as much enthusiasm, and every bit as much gravitas, as she does any other aspect of her life and work.

And I think this is not only why I like these videos so much, but why I find them so arousing. My favorite porn is almost always porn that (a) vividly gets across the feeling of a unique sexual experience, and (b) applies careful and loving craft to the medium in question, in a way that enhances the expression of sexuality rather than obscuring it. My favorite porn is almost always porn that recognizes the human complexities of sex… while luxuriously rolling around in it, and enjoying it to its fullest.

Lady gaga telephone nude
Lady Gaga’s music videos do all of that. They don’t just incorporate porn and sex-culture imagery. They do it with passion, and with respect. They do it with a “fuck you” defiance, not only of sexual repression and demonization, but of sexual trivialization, the notion that sex and the body are petty distractions from the loftier arenas of human expression.

And that makes them both artistically compelling, and totally freaking hot.

(Note: This piece was written before the “Alejandro” video was released. Which is a shame, since it’s dirtier and kinkier and queerer than all the other videos put together. I may have to write a review of that video all on its own.)

Lady Gaga: Music Videos As Porn

Atheist Meme of the Day: Criticism Is Not Intolerance

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

It is not intolerant or dogmatic to say, “I think I’m right, and here’s why.” And that applies to atheists. It is just as reasonable for atheists to question and criticize religion as it for anyone to question and criticize any idea about how the world works. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Criticism Is Not Intolerance


Important note: This post discusses my personal sexuality, in a great deal of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff, you absolutely, positively, 100% do not want to read this piece. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Rose flogger
Do other masochists run into this conundrum?

If so — how do you deal with it?

There’s a kinky paradox I run into sometimes. It’s entertaining, but it’s also a little frustrating at times, and I’m wondering how other people deal with it.

Here’s what it is.

Sometimes when I bottom, I just want it to feel good. I physically enjoy pain — certain kinds of pain under certain circumstances, anyway — and the sensations and endorphins and whatnot are just pure sexual fun. It’s like eating very spicy food: it’s a complicated pleasure, but it is a pleasure, and my body processes it as such.

But sometimes, when I bottom, I want it to hurt.

I mean, really hurt.

I want it to hurt harder than I want.

Consensual sadomasochism
Real pain — pain that’s genuinely hard to take, pain that hurts harder than I like — is what makes me feel helpless, and out of control. It’s what gets me tapped into my fantasies of non-consent; it’s what gets me feeling like what’s happening is being forced on me against my will. Or, at other times (actually, sometimes at the same time, which is weird and contradictory but I’m not going to worry about that too much), pain that hurts harder than I like is what makes me feel submissive. It’s what gets me feeling like I’ve put myself into my partner’s hands: like I don’t belong to myself any more, and have given myself away as a gift, to be used and played with at my partner’s whim.

All of which is awesome. All of which I like very much, in a way that’s very different, and in many ways more intense, than the relatively simple, easy- to- take, endorphin-y fun stuff.

But here’s the paradox.

Because I like being hurt harder than I like… do you see where I’m going with this?

Because I like being hurt harder than I like, that means that I like it. And when I like it, it isn’t harder than I like any more.

Circle of two arrows
There are a couple of ways that this paradox plays out. One is largely physical. If my partner is hurting me harder than I like, and I ride it out — if, instead of struggling with it or safewording or giving off my “this is too hard” body language, I sink into that submissive “do with me what you will” state and just go with it — then I can (often) get to a place where the “harder than I like” level of pain actually feels good. Maybe it’s just the endorphins kicking into high gear or something… but I can get to a place where a difficult, seriously painful, “this is fucking hard” level of pain gets transformed into “pure sexual fun.” Albeit on a more intense level.

But then, as soon as the “harder than I want” level of pain becomes “pure sexual fun,” it stops being harder than I want.

And I want it to be harder than I want.

Hence, the paradox.

The other way this paradox plays out is almost purely mental. Again: A lot of the reason I want to be hurt harder than I want is that it gets me into a particular emotional state: a state where I feel helpless, out of control, like my desires don’t matter and I’m just a toy in my partner’s hands. I like these emotional states. I get off on them.

But as soon as I start letting myself experience the erotic pleasure of force and submission and being a helpless fuck toy… then, paradoxically, it gets harder to lose myself in the fantasy that it’s against my will. It becomes harder to forget that I negotiated it, orchestrated it, possibly even begged for it. Pain that’s harder than I want it to be catapults me into this experience that I very much want.

And I want it to be harder than I want.

And once again — paradox.

Infinite regress
There’s an infinite regress quality to this paradox as well. Once I’ve adjusted to the higher, harder level of pain, once the pain that was harder than I like has become pain that I just like… the obvious way out of the paradox, at least temporarily, is to go even harder. But there’s an obvious law of diminishing returns to that. Just like there’s some spicy food that’s just too fucking spicy, so spicy it’s actively unpleasant and even inedible, there’s a level of pain that I really and truly do not like and cannot tolerate. I’m obviously not going to let my arm get broken or something just so I can keep dialing up the heat.

So I’m thinking about what it is that I’m looking for here — what the actual crux of the “harder than I like” experience is.

Some of this conundrum, of course, has to do with the difference between fantasy and reality. Real pain in your body feels rather different from pretend pain imagined or re-created in your brain. In my masochistic whack-off fantasies, when I’m somebody’s helpless fuck toy being hurt harder than I think I can take and having to take it anyway… it doesn’t actually, physically hurt. Actual pain does actually hurt. It’s complicated, it’s challenging. It’s, you know, painful. And when actual pain is harder than I like, it’s… well, it’s harder than I like. Fantasy pain, even “harder than I want it” fantasy pain, always feels exactly how I want it to feel. Both physically and emotionally.

But there’s more to it than that. If this were just about the difference between the reality of erotic pain and the fantasy of it, then erotic pain would be strictly in my “like to fantasize about it/ don’t actually like to do it” category. And that’s clearly not the case. There’s real pleasure here, and real connection, and real, deep satisfaction, in the actual, physical, real-world pain. Including, and in some ways especially, pain that’s harder than I like.

I’m still thinking this one through, and if people have thoughts or insights about it from their own experience, I’d very much like to hear them. But I have a partial, provisional theory.

I think at least part of this phenomenon has to do with that moment of dropping.

I think the “liking it harder than I like it” experience I’m talking about is the moment of dropping from struggle to surrender. It’s the moment when I stop hanging on to control, and let myself drop into my partner’s hands. It’s the moment when my body drops into the endorphin bath my brain is generating. It’s the moment when I let go of trying to make the world go the way I want it to, and let myself drop into experiencing the world as it is. It’s the moment when I go over the top of the rollercoaster, and drop into the long, fast fall.

But that moment of dropping is just that: a moment. It’s almost impossible to create on purpose: all we can do is put ourselves, and one another, into a state where we’re open to it. And kind of by definition, a moment of dropping can’t be sustained. What with it being a moment and all.

Again, I think part of the conundrum here has to do with the difference between fantasy and reality. In my fantasies, I can experience that moment of dropping, that soaring rise up over the top of the rollercoaster… whenever I want, and as often as I want. And I can stretch that moment out for as long as I want.

In reality, though, these moments are more elusive. They’re a whole fucking lot more intense than they are in fantasy, what with them being real and all. But they can’t be forced. We can create conditions where they’re more likely to happen, but trying to force them will actually chase them away, and trying to capture and keep them will make them slip through our fingers. Moments when we feel alive, conscious, present in the world and in the moment and with one another… those are rare, hard to create and harder to sustain.

But it sure is fun to try.


Atheist Meme of the Day: "Mysterious Ways" is a Terrible Excuse

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“God works in mysterious ways” is a terrible explanation for why there’s suffering. If you think you know enough about God to know that he exists and causes the good things in life, then you should have an explanation for why he causes the terrible things as well. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: "Mysterious Ways" is a Terrible Excuse

Atheist Meme of the Day: Spiritual Experiences Aren't Good Evidence

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“I had a personal spiritual experience” is not a good argument for religion or the supernatural. Given the inconsistency and unverifiability of spiritual experiences, these experiences are much more likely to be entirely physical, produced by the fallible human brain, than accurate perceptions of a real supernatural world. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Spiritual Experiences Aren't Good Evidence

Running Along the Cliff: The Plateau Phase

This piece discusses my personal sex life in some detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, please don’t read this one.

This is about finding a silver lining in a cloud.

Actually, it’s about finding a big, fat vein of silver in a cloud.

In recent years, as I’ve gotten older and my body has changed, I’ve been having a harder time coming. I sometimes get stuck in the pre-orgasmic “plateau” phase of sexual arousal, and it’s harder than it used to be to push out of that and push my body over the cliff and into freefall. It always happens eventually — with the help of my trusty vibrator if nothing else — but it often takes longer than it used to, and it’s rather less reliable. I never know when it’s going to come easily, and when it’s going to kick up a fuss.

This has been, as you might expect, a source of some irritation. For many years, coming was easy as pie for me. Given a reasonably attentive partner, I could generally come within a few minutes of feeling it on the horizon. And when I was my own partner, “a few minutes” was more like “a few seconds.” If I wanted to draw a sexual experience out (alone or accompanied) and delay my orgasm to make it more intense, I had to make a conscious effort. So over the years, I got very used to being able to come more or less on demand. And when orgasms started becoming more elusive, it was a little frustrating: partly because I liked thinking of myself as easy to please, and partly for the obvious reasons.

I’ve come up with a number of strategies for dealing with this. Among other things, I’ve been exploring different kinds of sensation, re-discovering what my changing body does and doesn’t like. But there’s one strategy in particular that I’m finding especially compelling. And since I know I’m not the only person — especially the only woman — who’s dealing with this situation, I thought I’d share it with the rest of the class.

It’s the strategy of not worrying about it.


Thus begins my latest piece on the Blowfish Blog, Running Along the Cliff: The Plateau Phase. To find out how not worrying about coming has shifted the way I feel about sex — and how it’s opened up a huge new realm of sexual pleasures — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Running Along the Cliff: The Plateau Phase

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Aren't Vulcans

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Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheists care about emotion, passion, intuition, and irrational impulse. We’re not Vulcans, and we don’t think logic and evidence are the only things that matter. We simply think that logic and evidence are the best tools we have for figuring out the real, non-subjective world. Including whether or not God exists. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Aren't Vulcans

Five More Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

We support men in feminism
So what are some ways that sexism hurts men?

Other than the ones I talked about already, I mean?

I recently wrote a piece, Five Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men, about how sexism damages men as well as women, and how men as well as women get pressured to fit into narrow, rigid, impossibly self-contradictory gender roles. I argued that people who care about feminism ought to care about how sexist gender roles hurt men: partly because we’re human beings, with a sense of justice and compassion for one another regardless of gender, and partly because the cause of feminism can only be helped by convincing more men that it’ll be good for them, too.

Many people, including many men, responded positively and passionately to the piece. They saw themselves in the piece all too well. They appreciated having their experience recognized and — dare I say it? — validated. They hoped the conversation would bring these issues into the light, and lighten the burden of these expectations on them and on other men. Of all the complaints I got about the piece, one of the most common was that the five gender roles I picked were just the tip of the iceberg.

So today, I’m following up.

Here are five more ways that men in my life have told me they feel screwed over by sexism: five more rigid, narrow definitions of maleness that men feel pressured to contort themselves into.

Make money. When I asked the men in my life what (if anything) they felt was expected of them as men, this one came up ridiculously often. A huge part of how we define maleness lies in men’s bank accounts. Even today, when women’s income is on the rise and the two-income household is becoming standard, men are expected to rake in the bucks: to be wealthy if at all possible, to be a good provider for their families at the bare minimum. Failure to do so catapults men directly into the Girly Man camp. Witness, among other things. this charming article in the New York Observer, exploring the phenomenon of stay- at- home dads… and arguing that the popularity among women of the successful, sexist jerk Don Draper from “Mad Men” somehow proves how dissatisfying it is when men don’t bring home the bacon, and instead stay home and fry it up in a pan.

In my conversations with men, this particular role came up a lot — and it seemed to hit a particular nerve. Mike got the memo loud and clear: “Earn money, or be independently wealthy. In ‘standard’ society, a woman should be beautiful, and a man should be rich.” As did Michael: “To be a man,” he learned, “you must have money and material possessions,” and he referred to the role of “Mr. Money Bags (hides behind materialism).” Craig agreed: “My parents disapproved of my major choice (German Linguistics) because it didn’t have enough earning potential — especially for a man who has to provide for a large Mormon family. My dad is a doctor, so he chose a good, manly profession, unlike the liberal arts.”

And whatever money men do bring in, it bloody well better be more than the women in their life. Whether they’re rich CEOs or blue-collar Joes or comfy middle-class guys in between, making less money than their wives or girlfriends makes their masculinity suspect at best. Christopher quoted helpful comments from his friends about his life choices: “‘Oh, dude, your girlfriend makes three times what you do? Aww, that sucks.'”

This particular gender role ties men into some uniquely convoluted knots. On the one hand, a man is supposed to be independent, to pursue his own vision and forge his own path. And yet, if he chooses a path that isn’t paved with gold, if he chooses job satisfaction or a happy home life over financial gain, it somehow magically makes his penis wither and die.And of course, this particular role often conflicts with other male gender roles, creating an impossible bind in which men, no matter what they do, will never be able to meet their expectations. (A pattern we see a lot with these roles.) David spoke of how working to get a Ph.D. — which would help him, among other things, achieve the manly goal of higher status — was creating financial hardship, and was therefore making him feel less like a man. He said he felt pressure about this from his in-laws, “who would value work-money now and have something of a ‘you’re still in college?’ mindset.” And he added, “Undoubtedly, this cash crisis, however short-term, has left me feeling emasculated.”

Weird. You’d think that the willingness to sacrifice short-term pleasures for long-term goals would be admired and celebrated — especially in men, who are expected to be the primary long-term breadwinners for their families. And it is admired and celebrated. At the exact same time that it’s being undercut.

Finish line
Win, win, win! And no matter how much money you earn, it had better be more than anyone else. Because whatever you do, it had better be better than anyone else. The pressure on men to compete — to win, and perhaps more importantly to care about winning — can be intense. To be acceptably masculine, men are supposed to care passionately about their position on the primate hierarchy chain. And about other men’s positions on said chain. Even not being interested in competitive sports is often greeted with bafflement at best and derision at worst.

Among the men I spoke with, this particular subject inspired both eloquence and passion. Here’s what Kyle said: “If there is one thing to remember about being a ‘man’ or male culture, it’s that it’s hierarchical. Men live in a hierarchical world. It’s all about who’s the top dog, who’s the best, who’s the strongest, etc. Don’t get me wrong — I can be quite competitive myself, and I firmly believe that competition makes people stronger, better, etc. However, I also believe that the male ego is responsible for at least 90% of the wars that have ever been fought in human history (along with religion of course, lol). So do I think men are given narrow expectations? Yes. To win. Winning and being #1 is the definitive aspect of male culture. As George Carlin put it, it’s ‘dick fear.'”

Michael agreed, and defined the male role thusly: “To be a man you must have titles, positions and power.” Mike concurs: “Be a patriarch of some sort. This doesn’t necessarily mean a father of children, it could just as easily mean be the head of a department at work, or the chairman of the board of a non-profit. There’s something about ambition in this one, I think.” And Craig says that, when he was growing up, he wasn’t allowed “to hate sports, competition, violence and hierarchical structures.” Even if you aren’t a winner at these games, you still have to care about them. Stepping off the ladder isn’t an option.

Ladder money
And Leo made an interesting point about this — namely, that the hierarchical world of male dominance and competitiveness only benefits a handful of men at the top. “A misconception about men,” he said, “is that it is thought that we have all the advantages, all the privileges, that it’s a man’s world, that we thrive in this environment of male dominance and competition. It’s a man’s world, yes, but only for the select few, for the alpha males at the top of the heap. What is not fully appreciated is that it’s not all men who dominate society, but only the small alpha-male subset. In reality, the rest of us, 99% of the females and 95% of the males, are subservient to the 2-3% of the population that call all the shots… Unless you are an independent professional or the lead dog in a corporation, you will spend 20, 30, 40 years of your career taking orders from someone who can terminate your job, end your career and force your family into bankruptcy at a moment’s notice, needing no reason or justification, whether it’s your fault or not.”

So, unless you’re one of the 2-3% of men at the top, you’re never going to win the game.

But you bloody well better care about it anyway.

If you don’t, your penis might fall off.

Be physically strong. This is an obvious one: so obvious that it almost seems ridiculous to mention it. One of the most common expectations of men is that they be physically powerful: big, strong, muscular, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We see this one everywhere: it’s in TV, it’s in movies, it’s in video games, it’s all over advertising like a cheap suit. It’s tied in with competitiveness, of course — but it’s also very much its own thing. And lots of men that I talked with about gender roles brought it up. Even gay men, who on the whole seem to feel a lot more free of these gender expectations than straight men, have a decided tendency to buy into the Big Strong Man myth. For themselves, and their objects of desire.

And yet, this is a funny one. Because it’s one that men have only a limited degree of control over. Sure, you can work out and buff yourself up to some degree. But if your natural build is small and slight, you’re not going to turn yourself into Vin Diesel no matter how hard you try. It’s deeply weird to have a male gender expectation that’s not only rigid and narrow, but literally unachievable for a large portion of the male population. It’s deeply weird to make men feel like losers for losing a game that’s rigged from the start. It reminds me of what Mike said about height: “Men are supposed to be tall and intimidating — being a short man is akin to not being very manly at all.” What the hell are you supposed to do about that? Take growth hormones? Stretch yourself on the rack?

Fix stuff. Well, I guess one thing you could do about it is to fix a flat tire. Or fix the broken door on the cabinet. Or fix the glitch on the computer that won’t let you download mpegs. Men in our culture are expected to have some sort of inborn ability to fix just about any physical object that’s broken. Mike, among others, learned from a very young age that being a man meant being “intrinsically able to fix things, especially mechanical things.”

This one creates an interesting self-fulfilling prophecy. From a young age, boys are commonly expected to tinker with mechanical objects — and they’re taught how to do it, at the side of their dads or older brothers or other men who are tinkering and fixing. And since they’re more likely to be taught how to do it, they’re more likely to know how to do it. And since they’re more likely to know how to do it, they’re the ones people turn to do it. Which reinforces the idea that men are better at it than women… and reinforces the expectation on boys and men that they bloody well better know how to do it if they don’t want people to think they’re sissies.

Penis anatomy
Get it up. If you have any doubts about this one, check your spam filter. Legions of businesses, legitimate and otherwise, are making themselves stinking rich off men’s insecurities about their hard-ons. Lots of the men I talked with mentioned about this expectation, but nobody put it more succinctly than Christopher: “You have failed as a man if you do not or cannot give your partner a complete erection for a minimum of twenty minutes before you orgasm.”

Like I said in Part One of this piece: Being a man in American culture means taking care of women — sexually and otherwise. (While at the same time not being “pussywhipped” and caring too much what women think of you. Oy.) What makes this expectation more frustrating is that that this sexual caretaking is supposed to be accomplished with a penis, and nothing else. A penis that can get hard at a moment’s notice, and stay hard for as long as needed. If you can get a woman off with your hand or your mouth, with a vibrator or a dildo, with nipple clamps or a whip (for her or for you), with nothing at all but your voice in her ear… well, that’s very nice for you. Yes, foreplay is lovely. Very important. So have you gotten it up yet? No? Pussy.

Real sex for real women
Feminists talk a lot about the privileging of penile- vaginal intercourse. We talk a lot about how the word “foreplay” is misleading at best and sexist at worst. We talk a lot about how most women can’t come from penetration alone, and how treating non- intercourse forms of sex as simply a preamble — not even sex at all, really — trivializes female pleasure.

What we don’t talk about as much is how this assumption trivializes male pleasure. We don’t talk about the pressure it puts on men to “perform” — pressure that, ironically, can make said “performance” more problematic. And we don’t talk as much about the ridiculous limitations it puts on male sexuality. We don’t talk as much about how enjoying full-body sensuality, nipples and ears and toes and hair and the huge range of sexual pleasures available to all human beings, is typically seen as girly. We don’t talk as much about how men who like receiving anal sex are widely assumed to be gay… even if the people they like receiving anal sex from are consistently women. And we don’t talk as much about how this assumption reduces men’s pleasure, their possibilities, their entire sexual beings, to a few inches of erectile tissue between their legs.

We should.


So is it ridiculous to even be talking about this?

Is it silly and self-deluded for feminists to talk about the ways that gender roles are constructed? Isn’t gender- specific behavior something we’re born with, part of our hard- wiring as animals? Isn’t griping about it akin to salmon griping about the fact that they swim upstream to spawn?

You might be surprised to hear this, but I don’t entirely disagree with this. Largely… but not entirely. I actually think it’s very likely that at least some degree of gender-specific behavior is inborn. After all, it is in most other animals; it would be very surprising indeed if it weren’t in human beings.


And these are some very important Buts.

Overlapping bell curves
First: If there are inborn behavioral differences between women and men, they’re not clear-cut. It’s not like all women fall into Box A and all men fall into Box B. It’s more like overlapping bell curves. On a scale of one to ten, men’s bell curve for (say) competitiveness might peak at six, and women’s might peak at four… but there are still oodles of women who are higher than five, and oodles of men who are lower. (Speaking for myself, I once took a “Do you have a male or a female brain?” test, and scored significantly more male-brained than female — 25% on the male side of neutral.) On average, men may be genetically predisposed to be more competitive than women — but that doesn’t tell you anything about any one particular man or woman, and how likely they are to whip your ass at Scrabble.

And in fact, this isn’t just one pair of overlapping bell curves. It’s several. Gender is complex, and gender- differentiated behavior comes in a wide assortment of flavors: a tendency to be competitive, a tendency to be co-operative, physical aggression, verbal communication skills, spatial reasoning, the ability to recognize emotions from facial expressions, making decisions rationally versus intuitively, etc. And again, while on average, women and men’s bell curves peak at different places on all these spectrums, any given man or woman is very likely to score more typically male in some areas, and more typically female in others. (On my own “Male or female brain?” test, I scored male in my spatial relation ability, female in my verbal ability, and neutral on some other scales that I can’t remember now.)

The simple fact that plenty of men and women don’t fall into these gender categories, and complain about the fact that we’re expected to, should be proof enough of this. If we were all born into genetically determined gendered categories, with all women being co-operative and communicative and all men being aggressive and competitive… we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Any more than salmon have conversations about the rigid and narrow social expectations they feel about swimming upstream to spawn.

Second: The “nature or nurture?” question doesn’t have to be a simple Either/Or. It’s entirely possible that the real answer is “Both.” In fact, I think it’s likely. I do think some degree of gender- differentiated behavior is probably genetic — again, it is for every other animal I know of, it would be surprising in the extreme if Homo Sapiens was the sole exception. But we also know — and I don’t mean that we think, I mean that we know, as well as we know anything — that gender roles are also taught, and learned. Ask any butch dyke who was pressured to wear dresses when she was little. Or any sensitive arty guy who was pressured to be a fullback. The training starts from birth, in fact: I’ve seen research showing that people treat infants they think are female differently from infants they think are male… in ways they’re unconscious of and will even deny, but that are unmistakable to an outside observer.

So even if there is a genetic component to gendered behavior — which again, I agree is very likely — that doesn’t mean that there isn’t also a social component as well. There clearly is.

And even if there is a genetic component to gendered behavior, it clearly shows up as averages, overlapping bell curves rather than clearly defined categories. There are clearly large numbers of men, and women, whose natural personalities and abilities fall well outside the gender norms.

And we are all too aware of the intense social pressure on us to fall right back into those norms.

And we’re sick of it.

And we’re bloody well going to speak up about it.

Thanks to Adam, Alan, Andrew, Ben, Other Ben, Chad, Christopher, Craig, Crypt, Damion, Darren, David, Other David, Still Other David, Yet Still Another David, And Yet One More David, Dean, Georges, Glendon, Jacob, James, Other James, Jason, Jeff, Joel, jraoul, Kyle, Lauro, Lenny, Leo, Mark, Other Mark, Michael, Other Michael, Still Other Michael, Rick, Scott, Other Scott, Still Other Scott, Sean, Anonymous, and everyone else I talked with, for their invaluable help with this piece.

Five More Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men

Atheist Meme of the Day: Reality Wins

Scarlet letter
Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Reality is more important, and more interesting, than anything we could make up about it. Pretty much by definition. If your religious beliefs are contradicted by the best evidence available about reality, it is inappropriate to dismiss reality in favor of the stuff you make up in your head. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Reality Wins