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Male Sexuality: Moving Beyond the Myths

by Merle Longwood

Dr. Longwood teaches in the religious studies department at Siena College, Loudonville, New York. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 13, 1988, p. 363. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When I began teaching Christian ethics in the late 1960s, I found Helmut Thielicke’s The Ethics of Sex particularly helpful. It explained to my students the logic, if not the validity, of the traditional "double standard" in sexual morality. Accepting Thielicke’s "orders of creation" argument, I taught that women invest more of themselves in sexual relationships than do men. The sex organs are so designed that women receive something into themselves whereas men are relieved of something, and these physiological differences, Thielicke suggested, help us understand why men have polygamous tendencies while women tend to be monogamous.

Today I not only think that Thielicke’s interpretation was based on a simplistic, physicalist notion of natural law, but that it evidenced a masculinist bias. The feminist and gay liberation movements have challenged me to consider how much Thielicke’s -- and my earlier -- views reflected the experience and biases of white, middle-class, heterosexual males. Feminist and gay scholarship has helped make us aware of the ways in which the traditional "double standard" view has distorted our interpretation of female sexuality.

So far, however, gay and feminist scholarship has not had a comparable impact in helping us appreciate the complexity of male sexuality. As Bernie Zilbergeld suggested in a pioneering study a decade ago, we now believe that "female sexuality is complex, mysterious and full of problems, while male sexuality is simple, straightforward, and problem free" (Male Sexuality [Bantam, 1978], p. 1) The essential myth about male sexuality that Zilbergeld identified was genitally focused, and can be summed up in the title of his third chapter: "It’s Two-Feet Long, Hard As Steel, and Can Go All Night: The Fantasy Model of Sex." Accompanying this fantasy model about the size, potency and durability of male genitalia are, according to Zilbergeld, nine subordinate male myths that focus on physical rather than relational and emotional dimensions of sexuality, emphasizing performance, intercourse and orgasms (such as " A man always wants and is always ready to have sex"; or "All physical contact must led to sex")

Of course, when real men compare themselves with this model they discover they don’t measure up. Male sexuality is at least as "complex, mysterious, and full of problems" as female sexuality. At one time or another most men experience premature ejaculation, impotence or trouble reaching orgasm. The popularity of workshops on sexual issues at men’s conferences and of self-help books on male sexuality, such as Michael Castleman’s Sexual Solutions: An informative Guide (Simon & Schuster, 1983) , indicates that many men are aware of and want to do something about their sexual problems.

Zilbergeld listed a tenth myth of male sexuality that he called a more recent development inspired by the sexual revolution: we believe that the other myths no longer have any influence on us. In fact, the small amount of literature on male sexuality is focused almost entirely on problems related to those myths. Very few studies go beyond a concern with genital activity to deal with the difficulties men have sustaining intimacy, men’s love/hate feelings about machismo, sexual images in films and popular culture, sexuality in the workplace, men’s violence toward women, men’s attraction to pornography or men’s attitudes about fatherhood.

I do not want to discount the importance of sex as a biological need. Men in our culture tend to have too limited a conception of sexuality, thinking of it almost exclusively in terms of coitus, but the church must not therefore shy away from discussing genital sex in frank and specific terms. In the discussion that follows, therefore, I will move back and forth between focusing on sex in its narrower meaning and on sexuality in the broader sense that includes psychological, religious, symbolic and cultural dimensions.

As we consider how Christian theology and ethics can help us illuminate male sexuality and guide behavior, our ultimate point of reference is the person of Jesus Christ. We do not have a detailed account of his sexual life, but as the church has always affirmed his full humanity, we must assume that he was aware of and accepted his sexuality as a good gift of God. And from what we know about his life and teachings we can assume that his responses to particular issues of sexual expression would have been based on whether they built up or destroyed the human community in its relationship to God. The New Testament gives us a portrait of a man who accepted himself, overcame alienation from God, was open to the world, and developed close relationships with women and men in what we would now call androgynous responses, combining gentleness and strength, intuition and logic, love and justice.

Our ethical framework for understanding sexuality, then, must emphasize social justice and the common good, while also being responsive to the diversity of individual needs in the complex human community. Our most basic obligation is to work out an understanding of male sexuality that satisfies the requirements of social justice. The Christian faith requires us to stress equality, equal regard for all persons, and treatment of people in ways that meet their most basic needs. Social justice construed in this manner has a number of implications for how we develop and support relationships, of which I will mention two major ones, each of which has some subdivisions.

First, we need to develop an understanding of human sexuality that affirms egalitarian rather than hierarchical patterns of relationships. Traditional understandings of male sexuality assumed that men were superior and women were inferior, and at least some of the roots of this view can be traced to the Christian tradition. In much of Christian thought women have been defined as subordinate to men, as human beings who lack the fullness of the image of God.

In addition, our tradition has valued "masculine" attributes more than "feminine" ones -- thinking more than feeling, abstraction more than concreteness. Men have been conditioned to treat their bodies as instruments to be manipulated, the bearers of an irrationality which must be controlled. Those "masculine" feelings that are expressed -- particularly aggression and sexual desire -- provide a very limited basis for men to establish the shared goals and trust necessary for developing and maintaining intimate relationships.

Perhaps because they do not really regard women as equals, many men do not respond positively in sexual activity to women’s preference for a wide range of sensual play over the whole body. In any case, men tend to focus more narrowly on genital contact. Our language betrays a masculinist bias: holding, cuddling, hugging, kissing, caressing and all other forms of expressing physical affection before coitus are described as "foreplay"-- before the main event. Men have been conditioned to distrust and repress the "irrational," "frivolous," sensuous aspects of sexual play that can open up an experience of sexuality that is diffused throughout the body.

Children can also benefit from a redefinition of parental roles: they get to see justice implemented into the structures of family life -- justice understood as fairness, mutual accountability, appropriate responses to specific needs, and respect for differences. Children can learn that neither parent’s work is more important than the other’s, that the amount of money earned is not what makes work valuable, and that no household tasks are gender-specific.

Churches, too, need to emphasize egalitarian rather than hierarchical patterns of leadership. They need to resurrect those traditions of collaborative leadership, in which women shared responsibilities with men, that were present in the early Christian community. As Matthew Fox has playfully suggested, churches need to make community life more like dancing in Sarah’s circle than climbing Jacob’s ladder (A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us [Winston, 1979])

A second aspect of justice as it relates to sexuality is the rejection of all interpretations of relationships based on stereotypes -- gender, sexual preference, race, age or class. Male sexuality has been especially conditioned by prejudices against people of other races and against homosexuals. The intertwining of sexism and racism has created such stereotypes as the impotent white man, the virile black man, the sacred white woman and the animalistic black woman.

It is the latter image that, perhaps more than any other, illustrates the depersonalization and injustice that we white males have internalized into our sexuality. Two decades ago, Calvin C. Hernton examined each of these stereotypes, and his description of man’s inhumanity to woman comes through most powerfully in his observations about the experience of black women: ". . . after nearly four centuries of oppression, having been raped, murdered, lynched, spit upon, pushed through back doors, denied human respect, thought of and treated as sluts and mammies and Negresses, fit only to breed and suckle babies, to wash and cook and scrub and sweat, after having been sexually depersonalized and taken bodily for the having, the Negro women of the modern era are just beginning to be recognized as human beings, as sexual creatures clothed in their own personal skins. . ." (Sex and Racism in America [Grove Press, 1965], p. 166)

In White Hero Black Beast: Racism, Sexism and the Mask of Masculinity (Pluto, 1979) , Paul Hoch argues that the relationship between sexism and racism must be understood in order to comprehend white men’s tendency to oppress women as well as members of other cultures they regard as inferior. Hoch delineates the conflict between "hero" and "beast" in our culture as a struggle between two different understandings of manhood, in which civilization is identified with whiteness and barbarism with blackness. This dynamic of sexism and racism is present in our churches at every level.

Homophobia, the irrational fear of same-sex attraction, has had a crippling effect on the development of heterosexual men’s personalities, to say nothing of the devastating effect it has had on gay men and lesbian women. Homophobia undergirds men’s tendency to reject behaviors that are passive and gentle and to "prove" their masculinity through aggressive and violent behavior. It makes it difficult for men to develop intimate friendships with other men, and it complicates men’s relationships with their sons and their fathers. With the AIDS crisis and the heightened awareness of discrimination against homosexuals that it has fostered, churches have an unprecedented opportunity to fight homophobia and bring about reconciliation. We need to interpret sexuality in such a way that women as well as men -- without discrimination based on race, age, social class or sexual preference -- are recognized as people who have the capacity for independence and choice, who have the right to say No and to say Yes to expressions of affection.

Finally, we need to understand sexuality in the light of the common good, for sexuality is both deeply personal and profoundly public. Strategies for dealing with such issues as pornography or sexual violence in the family, for example, must be concerned with both the needs and rights of the individuals involved and with the common good of the community.

We have a long way to go in rethinking our theology and ethics in relation to male sexuality. One source from which we might derive some clues is in the so-called men’s liberation movement. One group in the movement is the National Organization for Changing Men, which supports the continuing struggle of women for full equality and affirms the social changes that feminism has brought about for men as well as for women. NOCM has opposed economic and legal discrimination against women, rape, domestic violence, pornography and sexual harassment. It has also fought homophobia, which it believes has not only caused injustices to gay, lesbian and bisexual persons but has had a debilitating effect on heterosexual men. It opposes discrimination based on sexual orientation, and attempts to work against oppression based on race, class, religion and physical condition, all of which it believes have connections to sexism. Through its conferences and standing task groups, NOCM provides opportunities for men and women to be educated and to work for social change.

NOCM, whose national membership office is located in Los Angeles, will hold its "Thirteenth National Conference on Men and Masculinity" at Seattle University this coming July. Its other activities include sponsoring speakers and workshops, leafletting campaigns and protest marches, debates, films and slide shows, dances and receptions that do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation. The organization publishes annotated bibliographies and topical newsletters, in addition to Brother, its house organ, and Changing Men, a journal exploring the various issues with which the group is concerned.

Perhaps NOCM’s goals and activities can serve as a model for churches and for theologians as we men attempt to disengage from the myths that have kept us imprisoned and to move forward to a true affirmation of both men and women as sexual beings in God’s good creation.


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