2009 27 May

Sex-positive documentary report #8: “Private Dicks: Men Exposed” and “Forever Bottom”

I figured that Film Night 8 at my sex-positive film series, which I mentally dubbed Masculine Sexuality Night, would be one of our least-attended nights; so I was glad to see that we still pulled in something like 30 people on May 12. I think about masculinity and the stereotypes and boxes that define it a lot, but it’s not a traditionally hot topic ….

The films we showed included a short called “Forever Bottom!”, about one gay male bottom and how much he loves bottoming, and the feature-length “Private Dicks: Men Exposed”. I had originally assigned “Forever Bottom” to the night we covered BDSM, but there was a problem with the DVD player and we couldn’t put it on. The mistake was serendipitous, though — the short was far better suited to Masculine Sexuality Night!

.

Let me just start by saying — it was hard to find a documentary about masculine sexuality! My initial film list had one that seemed tangentially relevant, but I wasn’t able to find anything directly about masculinity until a month or so into the series. That was when I first talked to Marianna Beck, an awesome sexologist and Art Institute professor who used to edit the sexuality magazine “Libido”. I confided my woes — “Why, why isn’t anyone making documentaries about masculine sexuality?” I nearly wept — and she suggested “Private Dicks”. (I mean, I wasn’t actually weeping, but I was frustrated. I would love to see something approaching a critique of masculinity and masculine sexuality reach the mainstream, like those of femininity and feminine sexuality that have become generally understood and accepted.)

Part of the problem is that many men themselves aren’t interested in analyzing masculinity — often because they consider themselves unaffected by society’s preconceptions around sexuality — or even because they think that everything about society’s current conceptions of sexuality is only bad for “other people”. Just a couple months ago I had a conversation with some fellow BDSMers on this subject, and when I complained that I was having a hard time finding anything analyzing masculine sexuality, one gentleman said: “Well, male sexuality is the default. It’s everywhere.”

I agree that conceptions of sexuality in America tend to be male-centered, and I agree that this is damaging and problematic. (Believe me, I’m furious that it took me many years after becoming sexually active to reconceive “proper” sexuality around things other than good ole penis-in-vagina penetration!) But … firstly, it’s strange that anyone would take this as an argument that male sexuality doesn’t need to be examined — to me, it seems like the opposite is true: if American stereotypes and ideas of sexuality are male-centered, then that makes it more useful for us to be thinking about masculine sexuality, not less! Secondly, those American male-centered ideas of sexuality are centered around stereotypical men … a very narrow view of what male sexuality can or “should” be. And that drastically limits men in their potential self-discovery, particularly if their sexuality is rather different from the “norm” (for instance, gay men or submissive men).

But anyway, less with the general ranting and more with the films themselves. “Forever Bottom” is a cute short that simply highlights one gay male bottom — i.e., receiver — and how much he loves being on the bottom. There’s not much dialogue, and it mostly focuses on his ecstatic face during various sex acts (some of which take place in inventive places). What I love about this short is that, in a very straightforward way, it forces the viewer to question any assumptions they may hold about bottoming — about how much people like it, whether people can like it, what it means to like it, etc. (In a way, it reminds me of a 17-minute fiction film I saw this year at CineKink — it’s called “Sucker“, and it’s about a gentleman who absolutely loves giving anonymous objectified blowjobs and how he starts building a relationship. It’s got the same feeling about it for me, the same sweet “Ah, it’s so nice to see submissives being validated for once” feeling.)

I like “Private Dicks” too. One thing that slightly bothered me about the film was that, although it questions averages and norms, it centers itself around them too. For instance, the section where men talked about penis size is introduced by a screen that states the average penis size. I suppose this is useful as de-mythologizing information, but I don’t like the way it led the conversation. Again, though, it does a good job of starting a conversation that’s often sorely lacking.

One moment in the film particularly struck me, and a number of people at the discussion group: the part where it talked about the idea of how the idea that men’s sex drives are overwhelming and hard to resist. That is — that men have a harder time controlling themselves, sexually, than women do. That men “think with their penises”. I think many feminists tend to regard this as a myth created by our culture, but I’ve often wondered whether there is — in a mild way — some truth behind it. I am not saying that men aren’t responsible for their sexual behavior just as women are; I’m suggesting that perhaps on average, male sexual desire is a stronger feeling than female sexual desire, and I’m wondering whether acknowledging this could be important in our journey towards understanding the differences.

The way “Private Dicks” throws this question into relief is by highlighting two statements. One: a cisgendered man who says that he refuses to acknowledge the myth of male sexual lack of control; he states clearly that he owns all his decisions, that he makes all his decisions, that he is not controlled by his penis. The second: a trans man who says that in his previous life as a woman, he didn’t feel controlled by his sex drive, but that now he has much more trouble resisting it. He outright remarks that when he was female-bodied, he felt suspicious of male assertions that their sex drives were overpowering … but now that he’s male-bodied, he totally agrees. I can’t remember the exact quotation, but he even said something along the lines of “Women think we can control ourselves, but we can’t”.

What does it mean, if men are (on average) markedly, strongly, dramatically more powerfully affected by sexual urges than women? Or even if they’re just (on average) affected differently? I’m not sure. If it’s true, then is there some way that we can use awareness of that to affect sex education? To affect how we train people to communicate about sex? To affect how we teach people to understand and listen to their partners? I absolutely don’t think that men are entitled to sex “more” than women, or that men get some kind of pass that gives them the “right” to have sex when their partners aren’t feeling up to it … though I do think that all people need to be sensitive, always, to what their sexual partners need. But there must be a way we can discuss and describe this (if it exists) so that real differences aren’t being elided. Of course, on the other hand, perhaps it’s simply unproductive to set norms at all. It’s probably more helpful to place our focus on figuring out each individual’s needs — teaching people both to accept and communicate their own unique feelings, and to accept a partner’s unique needs without reverting to stereotype and culturally-shaped assumptions.

I could keep writing, I really could, but I’m already over 1200 words. How do I do it? In fact, it took me so long to get around to writing this post that I didn’t even make it before the next screening … which was this past evening. Oh well. That was “The Aggressives”, a film about butch queer women of color, and I’ll blog about it soon. In the meantime: the next Sex+++ film will be “Boy I Am”, June 9, about female-to-male transpeople. See you there!

* * *

Edit It occurred to me that this is a BDSM blog and I hardly talked at all about BDSM stuff around masculinity, though I think about it all the time. So I’ll give some quick links. Bitchy Jones is a female dominant who blogs a lot about gender stereotypes around submission; this post, My Hero, is a good one. The submissive blogger Maymay also talks about these issues a lot, and in fact runs an entire blog about images of male submission that don’t fall into stereotypes — a great read both for the pictures and the analysis, though it is dramatically not safe for work! End of edit

Later edit If you liked this post, you’d probably love my blog series on masculinity. End of edit