Originally published in
Male Lust: Pleasure, Power, and Transformation
(Haworth Press; April, 2000)
I can first remember having erections when I was about four or five. They usually happened when I was outside, playing with my friends. We played a lot of games – War, Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians – that somehow involved death. Dying was as inevitable as killing in any of these games, and I was very good at it: when the imaginary weapon of one of my friends tore into my body, I would let out a long cry of anguish, throw out my arms, and topple elegantly to the ground, moaning and waiting the whole way.
There was something about being dead that was very exciting to me. As I lay in the grass and dandelions, awaiting my resurrection, my crotch became tight and hot and a warm tingling sensation ran through my entire body. It caused a sense of wonderful confusion in me; although too young to understand sexuality, I did understand desire. I knew that there was something my body wanted and needed, but what exactly it was escaped me.
The process of becoming a man is very tied up with death. This truism has been studied in intimate detail by feminist scholars for the past thirty years, seeking to decode the scripts that drive so many men to seek their manhood through violence against women, children, and other men. There is no doubt that men are encouraged to prove their masculinity through physical attacks on others; the gun and the fist are the favorite playthings of boys, and the shift from pretend to the real thing is still seen as the ultimate rite of passage for males. However, the drive toward homicide that feminist analysis tends to emphasize is only half the story: for masculinity to function, an equally powerful drive toward suicide is just as important.
In truth, the definitive icon of masculinity is a strange fusion of John Rambo and Saint Sebastian; the ultimate demonstration of a man’s virility is to be killed – violently and painfully – while killing his enemies. The male myth has promoted the idea that violent death is itself an expression of power – it is a sign of a man too strong to be dominated, too mighty to surrender his masculinity to another man. The only way this man can be conquered is through his total annihilation.
So death is presented to men as an ecstatic moment, one almost orgasmic in its intensity; the more the body is mutilated, the more agony the man suffers before succumbing to death, the greater the ecstatic moment. It is as though every bullet is a tiny packet of divinity that bestows grace unto its victim. This ethic manifests itself in countless icons: Butch and Sundance hurling themselves into a wall of gunfire rather than surrendering; Roland standing at the pass, choosing to fight an unwinnable battle rather than dishonor himself by calling for help; the Light Brigade, charging mindlessly into the Valley of Death; Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrificing himself to Darth Vader’s blade in order to become even more powerful. If men are to be warriors, to march lock-step into battle for their superiors, then the urges toward homicide and suicide must be bred into a careful partnership; thus, men spend much of their lives hurting themselves and those around them, preparing for the real thing.
By the time I was in eighth grade, I had survived every brutality that children’s minds could devise. Thanks to my classmates in PE, I had been conditioned to flinch at any sudden movement in my direction, something that gave extra amusement to the jocks. By the time I reached high school, I was completely isolated from my peers and my family and spent most of my time locked in my bedroom, listening to music and reading. My insides were a contorted mass of rage and self-hatred. Bloody fantasies of self-mutilation and mayhem consumed my mind at least as much as sex did. One day in my senior year, I stood in front of a trophy case, quivering with pain. I had just come to the realization that there was no possibility that I would graduate with the rest of my class that year. I had failed every value I had ever been taught; that truth was as cold and real as the pane of glass guarding the trophies, and I hated myself for it. My whole body burned and trembled. My face was sore with the effort of holding the tears in; I wanted desperately to release them, but I couldn’t remember how. As I stared into the glass, I thought of what it would be like to put my fist through it. The idea had an almost sensual beauty; I wanted to feel the shattered glass rip into my skin and see my blood splatter across the gilded plastic statues. It would be a bright, clean pain, one that would sweep aside the dull gnawing sensation in my gut, if only for a few moments. Best of all, people would see it. The gaping wounds in my arm would scream all the things that I couldn’t force past my lips. For several long moments, I held my fist in front of the glass, glaring at my reflection, trying to do it.
I didn’t; some buried corner of rationality prevailed. I shoved my fist into my pocket and walked home, feeling sick.
I sometimes wonder if my decision was a victory or a defeat. I think that what that tiny piece of rationality told me was that if I did the deed, I would be forced to talk about all those evil things swirling around inside me. I would expose carefully hidden parts of myself, and that idea frightened me more than anything.
In our society, there is nothing less erotic than a penis; as an icon, it represents rape, war, and death. Male sexuality has not been destroyed, but in the cultural mind, it is a thanatological force, not an erotic one. A “phallic symbol” is a gun, a knife, a spear, a missile; the phrase is almost never taken to imply something that inspires life or growth. Few people would have the vision to see the pen I write these words with as the most important phallus in my life. Thanks to my ability to write, I can bypass my lips and speak through words instead of wounds.
Although sexuality is despised in both men and women, the practical manifestation of attitudes is very different. Whereas women are told to deny their sexuality, the nature of men is assumed to make them unable to maintain this level of purity; men are creatures of violence, and if a man is not allowed to satisfy his urges through marriage, womanizing, or whoring, he will be forced to satisfy them through rape. Male sexuality is acknowledged as normal, but it is not acknowledged as good; it is simply an unpleasant reality. The male sex drive is seen as a dark, predatory thing, not erotic at all, but a constant reminder of the core of violence that defines manhood. The cock is a thing devoid of grace or beauty, which poisons everything it touches. Men, even more than women, have a love-hate relationship with their genitals. Women can maintain their purity by detaching themselves from their sexuality and denying that they have pussies. There is no such belief about the penis. Men are perpetually faced with a paradox: if a man denies the power of his cock, he denies also his manhood, but to acknowledge it is to face an ugly, violent part of himself. Lust denies respect, and so men are faced with the idea that their very nature will always cause them to harm or demean the ones they hold dearest.
In this atmosphere, that men choose to define themselves through violence is not so very surprising; in fact, it could be no other way. In our old models of masculinity, desire and violence have been woven together so tightly that they are practically synonymous; sex is violence, and vice versa. One of the great tragedies of feminism is that theorists such as Andrea Dworkin have championed the immutability of this concept even more enthusiastically than the patriarchs who are so enamored of traditional gender roles. Dworkin and her followers (now thankfully decreasing in influence) decry the rates of violence against women as misogynistic genocide, but ironically promote a view of male lust that makes such violence inevitable.
Paradoxes such as this are the rule, not the exception, in sexuality, and the fact that most modem sexual ideologies refuse to recognize this represents a failure of integrity at the deepest, most vital level. We live in a binary society, one that values the ability to make clear, rational distinctions between on/off, good/bad, this/that, up/down, us/them, man/woman. When these distinctions cannot be drawn easily, it is horrific to us. The goal of mainstream sexual ideologies, whether feminist or puritan, has always been to construct models of sexuality that are wholly rational, civilized, and consistent. Puritan traditionalists try to define sex through rigid gender roles that adhere to biological sex and remain constant through each encounter (with your heterosexual mate for life, natch!). Feminist models conceive of sex in completely genderless egalitarian terms, with little role difference that is not dictated by anatomy.
At some level, I have always known that these models, which need to justify fucking as a means to some better romantic, spiritual, or reproductive end, are lies. I have always known my own sexuality to be a thing more complex and fluid than anything implied by these bloodless, arthritic ideologies. To fuck, passionately and honestly, is to enter a nexus point at which all the aspects of self – emotional, physical, intellectual, psychological, spiritual – meet and interact with one another. What we do in bed is a product of our whole selves, and so it is no more a rational thing than we are. To insist that sex should conform to the strictures of rationality is to deny the whole point.
I have felt the reality of these truths since the first time I had sex. It took a long time for me to articulate the reasons, but I knew instinctively that none of the different things I was told about sex when I was growing up satisfactorily described what I felt during sex. The first time I went down on a woman was an act of communion more intimate and real than all the wafers Father Taylor fed me when I knelt before him in church. To this day, I can think of no moment when I am more at peace than when I am kneeling in front of a lover, feinting and thrusting at her clit with my tongue. The sensation of her warmth trickling into me is overwhelming; I like knowing that part of her body becomes part of mine and that every beat of my heart is pushing her deeper into my veins. I feel vulnerable and powerful at the same time, and for a while, everything is healed.
Queers seem to understand these truths better than straights. Despite my own rather conventional sexual history, I feel a much deeper empathic connection to my friends with queer sexual tastes. Although we may not be attuned to the same erotic stimuli, I feel a very real sense of honesty between us because of the mutual acknowledgment of sexuality as a metamorphic process that can incorporate and transform the contradictions of everyday life. Queers also seem much more aware of the gulf between what happens in one’s fantasies and what one desires in real life. One famous queer whose writings have taught me a great deal is the late gay pornographer John Preston. In his writings about gay S/M sex, Preston explored the inherent contradictions of sexual relationships. He showed, in powerful detail, how encounters that had the superficial appearance of torture and oppression could actually be liberating. In his essay “What Happened?” Preston wrote about his initiation into S/M sex and the moral importance that it assumed in his life:
Fears and anxieties that had been long repressed forced themselves right up to the surface and demanded that I confront them. I remember learning to trust someone whose power over me was real. Yet the men who initiated me into S/M did so at my request, with my compliance, a stark change from the men and women who had abused me emotionally without my consent or even knowledge. The men I met in the dark underworld of S/M were not unwelcome authority figures forced on me in everyday society; they were men I chose myself, something that I had learned to accept and deal with. (1993:28)
This passage illustrates at least one very important truth about manhood and sexuality: in our society, men’s relationships with the world are supposed to be sadomasochistic in almost every sense but the sexual. Our very identities as men depend on our willingness to take our proper places in hierarchies in which we submit to very real tortures and humiliations from those above us and pass those same abuses on to those below us. This lesson is repeated at every level of education, from the playgrounds and locker rooms at school to the workplaces where we are finally allowed to stake our claims to full adulthood. It is only when people choose their own roles, when they orchestrate elaborate parodies of the power structures ruling their lives that these power games are seen as corrupt and venal.
Part of this dynamic is due to the fact that the S/M games which Preston saw as so important to his life, violate one of the primary tenets of the Sacred Cultural Laws of Sex: sex, at most, should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. It can be used to further romance, to have babies, to reach some kind of New Age spiritual insight, but there must always be an excuse to justify fucking other than the orgasm. The idea that passionate, honest fucking can be a healing act in and of itself is alien to our traditional conception of sexuality. The utilitarian view of sex ties at the heart of the paradoxical relationship that men have with their cocks. ‘Me Freudians have the symbology backward: the gun/ knife/spear is not a substitute for the penis; the penis is a substitute for the weapon. We are raised with the idea that our ultimate fulfillment as men will come, not through sex, but through combat. The de-eroticizing of the male body shows the priorities of manhood in our society. It can be depicted as a machine, a tool, a weapon, but very rarely as a sexual object. Whereas every aspect of the female body – lips, thighs, breasts, hips, ass – is inscribed with sexual implication, the cock is the only locus of sexuality on the male body. This is why men tend to center their sexuality so heavily around erection, penetration, and ejaculation: the cock is the one part of the male body that we are taught to associate with sex. Everything else – our muscles, hair, nipples – is neutered in the cultural eye. These things have values that can be measured and summed up in mathematical terms, as though they were nothing more than the results of a very sophisticated engineering project.
The neutering of our own bodies is key to the suicidal component of masculinity. During the last years of my adolescence, when my depression was extremely bad, I felt a deep cleavage between my mind and my body. At times, I had the distinct impression of being locked inside a machine, something which may have represented me to the outside world but which had no real connection to myself as I knew myself to be. Locked inside my skull, I might command my right hand to reach out and pick up a glass of water, and as it did so, I would watch the interplay of bone and muscle under skin as dispassionately as I would have watched a remote-control claw. It was during these times that it would have been easiest for me to mutilate or kill myself. I had little intuitive connection to my body, barely associated it with the idea of Me, and so physically attacking it seemed less horrible. It even seemed an act of liberation. My body, after all, represented a lie and kept my real self sealed away from the world. This is only the traditional masculine ideal taken to its extreme. It is this idea that makes it possible for us to be content as cannon fodder, to submit to the weird cycle of abuse and self-abuse that makes up so much of our lives.
This is another revelation I gained from reading Preston and other queer writers: in gay theory and culture, the entire male body is given sexual implication, not just the crotch. By eroticizing the body, they make it something greater than the sum of its parts. Lust, the true kind of lust that makes itself known in groin, head, heart, and every atom in between, encourages a holographic view of the body: the whole is implicit in each of its parts. Thus, to brush your lips against a lover’s nipple, to inhale his scent and feel his heat, is to intuitively learn more about his essence than would seem to be inherent in any one of those fragments. Lust, far from being demeaning, is a humanizing thing; it is empathy at its deepest level. And although I don’t feel the sexual connection to the imagery that Preston did, I do find it to be very powerful.
I find it powerful because it is only recently that I have begun to feel aware of the sexual potential of my own body, For a long time, I thought of my body as either pitifully inadequate or (at best) a physical nonentity, a thing that wouldn’t arouse any passion, either positive or negative, in someone else. I’ve come to realize that neither of these ideas is true and that others don’t necessarily see my body in the same ways that I do. My view of my physical self is becoming more nuanced, more attuned to small details of sensation and how they interact with the whole. I am, in short, learning to see my body as a part of myself, something that grows and changes in response to the path my life takes. It is more than a box of flesh wrapped around my real self.
These sound like simple (and even trite) truths, but, in fact, they represent very hazardous territory for a heterosexual man to navigate. In terms of a physical vocabulary of sex, heterosexual men are almost mute. Although women are taught a million different nonverbal signals to indicate sexual desire or availability, men have virtually none. The detailed familiarity with one’s body that such a vocabulary requires does not fit with what a man is supposed to be; it is, at best, suspicious and, at worst, a sure sign of being a faggot. It makes one appear vulnerable and vain, traits that are feminine. Therefore, for a man to show a great deal of awareness of his body, to think of it as something other than an anonymous thing, is a form of self-castration.
It is important to me that my cock be considered an erotic thing. I do not deny the validity of death and destruction as an aspect of the phallus; after all, the power of sex comes from the fact that it has equal potential to annihilate or heal and that it demands an intricate understanding of yourself and your partners to avoid going the wrong way. This understanding, and the choices it implies, is the rawest available proof of our humanity.
But when that choice is denied, when the phallus is symbolic only of rape, murder, defilement, and arrogance, then humanity is denied as well. The only possible expression of humanity is the distorted sadomasochism we see in modern portrayals of masculinity, whereby a man’s power is measured by the dual index of how much pain he can give out and how much he can withstand before going to his final, bloody death. Without the moral choice of the cock as an erotic thing, we move further from our humanity and deeper into the pit of self-loathing that we have been digging for God knows how many thousand years. And the deeper we go, the more logical the homicidal suicide of masculinity seems.
Preston, John. 1993. “What Happened.” In My Life As a Pornographer and Other Indecent Acts. New York: Richard Kasak Books, pp. 123-136.