My friend, James, once commented to me that in our society, masculinity is a terribly fragile thing. To underscore his point, he offered an example: ?If a guy likes flowers, it?s automatically assumed he?s gay.? I?m certainly inclined to agree with James on his observation, but I also have to admit that I find myself wondering what being gay has to do with one?s masculinity. After all, I?m gay, and I consider myself 100% male. My masculinity is not up to debate.
Because of this conversation, I started wondering why this idea that gays are inherently ?not masculine? comes from. And while I considered all of the stereotypes which are the source of James?s lament, I decided that the matter had to go deeper than that. So I dug deeper, and realized that the real issue is deeply routed in how our society ? and especially the men in it ? have viewed sex in general over the past few decades.
Sex and sexual prowess has been the primary determination of a man?s masculinity for quite some time, now. Indeed, the only other factor of masculinity that even comes close to degree of importance is athleticism and physical strength. To comfirm this, one merely needs to go back to the high school locker room and pay attention to the two things that teenage boys brag to each other about: How great they did at the last game and what girl they ?bagged? over the weekend.
When you look at it from the most common view in our society, sex is all about the man. The man is the active partner, doing his thing to the woman, who is often seen as just laying there and letting him go at it. If she gets any pleasure from the experience, that?s fine. But even her pleasure is often seen merely as a sign of the man?s prowess and ability in bed. After all, anyone who watched the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine tells Jerry that she always faked orgasm whenever the two of them had sex knows that Jerry was far more concerned about how this demonstrated a lack of his own skill in bed than any sincere concern for Elaine?s lack of pleasure. Based on my own observations and conversations with people, I think it is safe to say that this is a clear case of television portraying a strong cultural trend.
But obviously, this paradigm only works when the sexual activity in question involves both a man and a woman. When you introduce a sexual situation which only involves men, this paradigm less becomes comfortable. Suddenly, rather than the activity being all about the man and the woman being a more-or-less passive participant, you have two men. Under this paradigm ? and it is only natural for us to try and squeeze any situation into our current paradigm because we are comfortable with it ? you are left with the problem that suddenly, one of the men must become passive and let it be all about the other man. Suddenly, a man has to subject himself to the needs and whims of another. This is a scenario that most men in our society cannot comprehend, and it makes them uncomfortable.
This passivity is something which men in our society have been taught to avoid as a rule. Indeed, in this sense, the idea of passively submitting to another man?s sexual prowess also collides with the competitive, athletic, and physical strength components of our understanding of masculinity.
Interestingly, some society?s ? and even some segments of our own society ? have dealt with this dissonance to some degree by only ostracizing gay men who take on the ?passive? role in male-to-male sex. In our society, you can see this by the fact that many men seem to be disgusted by the idea of ?taking it up the ass,? but remain relatively quiet about having anal sex with a receptive partner ? male or female.
The solution to this, of course, is to develop a new paradigm of human sexuality that does not rely so heavily on a strict dichotomy between passive partners and active partners, as well as coming to appreciate the importance of a receptive ? be it actively receptive or passively receptive ? role in sex. Not only will this help undo the divide between masculinity and homosexuality, but it will force us to further explore a broader and deeper understanding of masculinity.