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Feminists are busy people. We fight for equal rights, for stopping violence against women, for ending trafficking, prostitution, and stripping, and for a world where our children can have access to good education, health care, and day care. Now we have another job, because it seems that we are the only group willing to speak up on behalf of men’s humanity—and the only group that has steadfastly refused to buy into the pornified image of men as amoral life-support systems for erect penises.
The porn industry tells us that men need their porn, that ‘boys will be boys’. Now Susannah Breslin informs us in the Guardian that they also need strip clubs so they can express their ‘sexuality’ without fear of a sexual harassment lawsuit. Is this who men really are? Are they in fact so pathetic, socially inept, and incapable of developing authentic relationships with an equal partner? Do they really need to go to strip clubs because they are “a place where they can step outside the anxiety-fraught dating scene and talk to a woman who, as long as he keeps tipping, will give him the time of day”? Do they really need a safe space where they can treat women in ways that would warrant legal action in other contexts?
As the mother of a son, I have a vested interest in speaking up on behalf of men. My son—and I bet your son, too—was born with the full human capacity to develop a sexuality that is not based on the purchase of women’s bodies and feigned attention. But from the day my boy was born, this culture relentlessly bombarded him with messages that to be a real man was to be sexually exploitive, emotionally disconnected, and interested only in screwing as many women as he could. His masculinity was to be measured by his sexual conquests, and to refuse to buy into this limited, debased image of masculinity risked being labeled a pussy, a fag, a wimp—a gender traitor who had to be mercilessly ridiculed and policed by the alpha males of the pack.
When men do submit to the gender prison rules, when they become the sexual predator, the john, or the user, this is somehow construed as an expression of their authentic, inherent sexuality. It’s as if a young man woke up one day and, all by himself, came to the reasoned conclusion that the best way to develop and express his sexuality was to watch women who, often through lack of economic choice, are forced to strip in front of creepy men and pretend that they are thrilled to be spreading their legs to pay the rent and put food on the table for the kids. Both women and men are paying a heavy price for this commercially constructed distortion of sexuality.
In his book Guyland, which discusses masculinity in the U.S., sociologist Michael Kimmel explores how college-age men today are not keeping up developmentally with their female counterparts. Plugged into video games from an early age, masturbating to porn, drinking themselves into a stupor, and replacing dating with hook-up sex, young men are paying a heavy toll.
When we read Guyland in my classes, the women students lose hope of finding a man to partner with—and they are only in their early twenties! They often say that spending time with men their own age is like “babysitting,” and they feel frustrated and angry at having to pretend to be the cool hot girl who likes porn sex. Yet the sad truth is that to ask for something more than casual sex with a guy who gets his sex ed from porn is to break the rules of heterosexuality in a porn culture.
Men, you don’t know this, but we feminists are in fact your best friends. Unlike Breslin, we believe that you deserve the right to author your own sexuality. We have fought against a sex industry that strips you of your sexual integrity, because we know that you are capable of more than what they expect of you. Yes, men, we are rooting for you! But we are rapidly tiring of being the only group fighting for your rights. You need to stop collaborating with an industry that is out to get you, and join the feminists in fighting for an equal and just society that does not reduce you to a penis, and women to a vagina for rent. Stop the sex industry from defining who men are, because your sons (and daughters) deserve better than this.
GAIL DINES is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality (Beacon Press). She a founding member of Stop Porn Culture (stoppornculture.org).