Oct 312011

(conversation about consent below; proceed (or not) accordingly.)

I’ve been listening to Bill Bryson’s “Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” and I must say that hearing a boy’s-eye point of view on sex is amazing to me.

Boys in early adolescence, in Bryson’s account (overblown for comic effect), view girls as possessors of a special and mysterious THING that they WANT, they just WANT. They want to TOUCH. When describing his astonishment that anyone would bother with a nuclear drill, he writes,

The time would be better spent apologetically but insistently touching Mary O’Leary’s budding chest.

Well. That sentence.

On the one hand, it’s a really funny sentence.

And on the other hand, it’s a mournful signal of the early occasions when a woman learns that her body is in the public domain. Boys apologize because on some level they realize that a girl’s body is not theirs to touch, but insistently, because the force of their want overwhelms the strength of their interpersonal boundaries.

Of course this paradigm of girls as Possessors of Sex and boys as Consumers of Sex, this entire narrative of commodification, is culturally constructed and a foundation of rape culture, of punishing women for misusing their sexuality, and of women learning that their value lies in their sexuality rather than in, well, anything else.

Add to that the brain issue. What brain issue, you ask? Adolescents have trouble with impulse control; their prefrontal cortices won’t be fully developed until they’re in their mid-20′s, so they literally CAN’T comprehend the consequences of their actions and they just DO shit because their impulse control is abysmal.

Bill Bryson grew up to be a perfectly nice guy, as far as I can tell, not a sociopathic sexual predator. He was a healthy boy growing up in a sick culture, and he survived it with minimal scars around his sexuality – again, as far as I can tell.

Which speaks to the robustness of human sexual functioning, that it can remain more or less intact in such conditions. It’s a bit like how humans can stay alive on Big Macs and corn syrup, when we evolved to eat animal flesh and roots and berries and stuff.

I think his salvation lay in the “apologetically” half of the equation. He knew, on some level, that Mary O’Leary’s body belonged to Mary O’Leary and that he did not have the right to touch it without her permission. And I think that may be the part that we’ve lost, to a great extent, in the last 50 years. Somewhere along the line, as we became an increasingly visual culture, an increasingly media-saturated culture, an increasingly… dare I say, an increasingly stupid culture, kids are having a harder time with the idea that the person in front of them is a person rather than an image, another individual with an internal life of their own, rather than a product.

Just as the American diet has, in the last 50 years, grown increasingly processed and preserved and, essentially, less full of food and more full of products, our time spent learning about culture is spent more with images and less with other members of that culture. Our brains are drowning in cultural corn syrup, and we have an epidemic of sexual dysregulation as a result.

I keep returning, lately, to this idea of disconnecting from the corporate, in order to untangle the knots that mainstream commercial (a redundancy if ever there was one) media has done to one’s brain, and trying to reorganize one’s understanding of one’s own body and the bodies and minds of the people in one’s life.

All this from “apologetically but insistently.” Life inside the head of a sex nerd, friends.

Emily Nagoski

  37 Responses to ““apologetically but insistently””

Comments (37)
  1. Can we have more science please? Why are boys “insistent” on touching girls? Why not other way around? Et cetera.

    • I agree. Society is starting to have the same effect on girls, I think. I know that, when I was a teenager, I thought a LOT about boys, and being touched by boys. I know now that it was normal, but as an adolescent and awkward teenage girl, I wondered why I had so many ‘boy’ feelings, of wanting to touch and explore someone elses body. I like that our culture is beginning to see women as something other than Owners of Sex, but I still think its hard being a teeage girl, who ‘owns’ sex, and not having a boy around who ‘wants’ it. (And of course the social stigma of ‘giving’ it to him)I know it did some damage to my self esteem growing up, so I’d be curious to hear Emily’s response to that.

    • Yeah. there just isn’t any (interesting to me) science about that. It’s just the byproduct of cultural noise. Teenage boys want sex (to touch girls – at least most of them) because they are teeming cesspools of testosterone with too little impulse control, and they live in a culture where girls are gatekeepers. Girls are gatekeepers because of 10-ish centuries worth of cultural inheritance about women-as-property. A woman’s sexuality is not her property but her families’, and she guards it for their wellbeing. It’s not that girls ACTUALLY don’t want to touch boys (elementary school doctor games are willingly and happily played by ALL children), they just don’t have cultural permission because our culture is full of sex-role based bullshit. I wish it were more interesting than that.

  2. Beautiful.

    There remains, despite the intersection of Bad Shit(tm) in all our lives, a struggle for authenticity. We struggle to become authentic to ourselves and to give space for others to live authentically too.

  3. I’m torn. I loved your analysis up until:

    “…in the last 50 years… kids are having a harder time with the idea that the person in front of them is a person rather than an image, another individual with an internal life of their own”

    I think that the kids in specific and society in general are having an easier time recognizing other people as people than they did in 1961. Remember that in between 1961 and now we have:
    The Civil Rights Act, 1964
    Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965
    Title IX, 1972
    Roe v. Wade, 1975
    Lawrence v. Texas, 2003

    Also remember that sexual harassment, as a concept, didn’t even exist (for white men) until the mid-80′s.

    I’ll freely admit that this is an overreaction and not entirely on-topic. I just get frustrated because things are massively better now than they were in the bad old days, and it’s because of the constant efforts of people like you, Emily. It was a sick culture then, it’s still a sick culture now, but we have real, honest improvements in humanity over the last 50 years. It’s too easy to get discouraged if we don’t remember that.

  4. Brilliant, grounded, eye opening, analysis. This is an example of why I read your blog.

    About the girls as gatekeepers comment above though. Because it has been women who have borne :) the responsibility for sexual encounters outside of society’s norms, the gatekeeper analogy is quite relevant to the discussion.

    Scripted sexual roles of a culture may be ridiculous and harmful to individuals, but they are all added on top of the truth that sex means the possibility of pregnancy for the girl, no matter what age, what time period, or what culture she lives in. Because of our modern contraceptive culture, it’s easy to disregard this deeper truth as a shaper of people’s sexual choices, but it is there in the very air we breathe.

  5. I was too.

    I also appreciate your noting this issue.

    Boys seem to be “hard” wired for this, whereas girls seem(ed) to be more understanding of their ultimate goals (education, success, family, hearth).

    It was tough being a boy but I survived without too much trauma or ailments. In my era, it was the continuous hunt for dates and making friends with girls. I went to all boy schools too long.

    • Just a detail: girls have the same impulse control brain issues as boys; they just don’t have the testosterone screwing up their desire-o-meter.

      • Hmm. So testosterone may be the science? How would one design an experiment?

    • I think Lee hits (one) nail on the head with that final throwaway comment: “I went to all boy schools too long”. In my view all the while we educate boys and girls separately we ain’t going to fix the problems. We all have to live life in a “co-educational” community so why don’t we get the kids off to the right start by educating them together? Proximity should result in mutual understanding and respect. In keeping kids apart along gender (or any other) lines just makes the others into aliens that we don’t know how to handle. Boys boarding schools (at least here in the UK) seem to be particularly bad at this. Personally I’m glad I went to a co-ed grammar school: at least I stand a chance of treating girls as respected equals, after all many of them were better than I was academically and socially!

  6. I have to admit, I’m both pleased and troubled by this posting.

    Pleased, because you’ve invoked what I consider an essential element in the basic male sexuality of desire, phrased so eloquently as “apologetically but insistently”. That feeling, the omnipresent, nearly oppressive feeling of sexual desire (“The Buzz”) compels all men in our world somewhat, and some men a whole lot. You literally cannot discuss human sexuality without tripping across this essential factor.

    Yet at the same time that you bring it to light, you do so disparagingly, denigrating this fundamental element of masculine sexuality as “a mournful signal of the early occasions when a woman learns that her body is in the public domain” — which, while perhaps an accurate assessment, completely ignores or denigrates the intense emotional experience the boy is undergoing. Yes, the girl is learning that her body is the object of desire independent of her personality, and that fact has a lot of social value in our society. That is very sad.

    Yet at the same time, the boy is learning that even dreadfully inadequate sexual access that his entire central nervous system is screaming for him to risk everything to seek will be forever beyond his reach without a tremendous amount of energy and ingenuity on his part, coupled with a nearly impossible set of circumstances, coupled with a presumably willing partner whose ultimate ulterior motives will remain unknown and unknowable and who, with a softly spoken word, can bring the weight of the adult world crashing down on this young man’s head. It’s a terror-inspiring journey for the young man, as well. He’s taught through this feeble groping that his own sexuality is not only unvalued in our society — and it’s unlikely to ever be — but the sexuality which drives him to such extremes to distinguish himself actually gives him a negative value in society, a reason to be feared and shunned, and a great place to hang the majority of shame issues that inevitably pop up in adolescence. He’s taught that the powerful sexual urges and overwhelming native sexual feelings that are saturating his every waking and dreaming moment are “culturally constructed and a foundation of rape culture” — that is, that they are ‘his’ fault in some way, not an inherent biological process, and also inherently evil.

    So you get a split, after that first unfortunate groping session. You get the boys who go with “apologetic”, and become self-loathing beta males headed for early divorces and every-other-weekend fatherhoods, and you get more “insistent” Alphas, who are willing to ignore the idea that masculine sexuality is inherently evil and the cause of all the world’s woes and try to develop into a “perfectly nice guy” who gets laid anyway. Sure, a tiny minority of those “insistent” Alphas go the whole sexual sociopath route, but by that brush we are all tarred.

    I suppose what irks me, Emily, is this profound social and cultural element of human sexuality — in all cultures — is virtually ignored as “uninteresting” and therefore unimportant, except as a treatable condition. Yes, there is a distinct lack of impulse control in the adolescent brain, and in the male brain there’s something like five times the legal limit of testosterone coursing through our blood, bathing every decision we do make in a masculine glow — yet it is during this period of radical personal and hormonal change where we are the most judged, the most criticized, and the most subject to the kind of rejection that terrorizes us the most. When you’re an adolescent male, society sees you as good for raw muscle and cannon fodder and not much else — certainly not valued for your sexuality.

    While young women are learning the uncomfortable truth that their bodies are on public display and the object of desire in our society, young men are realizing that their bodies are considered not desirable, but disposable, by our society. While young women learn that they are able to use their bodies and sexuality as an enticement for material and social gain, young men are learning that their robust sexuality is antithetical to . . . well, pretty much everything in our society that doesn’t involve charging an enemy machine-gun nest.

    He’s also learning that his most primal passions and desires are to be despised. With young gay men, I believe part of the traditional post-coming-out promiscuity lies in part with the acceptance of their sexuality by someone, and someone with the same level of desire as they have, while their straight peers fumble around and largely find only more frustration with girls. For a young gay man his sexuality is prized in his sexual community.

    For a young straight man, having a sexuality outside of the rigorously controlled social codes of both the right and the left makes him nearly a criminal suspect. The only approved way of exercising his sexuality is if he conceals it utterly from society’s view, hiding the effects of his frustration and feelings of rejection and judgement, and hoping beyond hope that one of these female guardians of the genitalia will find him worthy enough to share in his sexuality.

    While I can’t contest that the last 50 years has seen some extreme sexual issues confront our society, laying them all at the feet of mainstream consumer culture is misguided. The fact is, all human cultures are “sick” — unless you can tell me about one that isn’t — and a culture as complex and sophisticated as our own is bound to have elements that can be considered so. I’ll also take issue that our culture has gotten “stupider”. It might not be preaching the wholesome, 1960s-era values and level of knowledge that we enjoyed 50 years ago, but at the same time the degree of our individual knowledge in a specific field of thought has intensified.

    In any case, I just hate to see boys get a bad rap — again — for the crime of being subject to levels of desire and aggression that girls just don’t have to contend with. The very fact that we feel compelled to be apologetic about our sexuality is sad. Because we can’t help being insistent any more than a young woman can help bleeding every month.

    • Hmmm … yes … I guess I have to agree with Ian, even though I may not feel so stridently about it. Boys learn at an early age that their sexuality is adherent and something to be hidden — see the adolescent male embarrassment at being caught with an erection however well concealed by trousers.
      What I would like to see from Emily is more on aspects of male sexuality to balance up what feels to me like an (understandably) female bias in the posts.

      • Well, the entire history of sex research is an emphasis on research on MEN and understanding MEN, until very very recently, so you can go pretty much anywhere on the internet to learn about that. Women’s sexuality has been treated as a subset of men’s sexuality, assessed in those terms rather than on its own terms. Masters and Johnson made fairly complete work of describing standard, healthy male sexual functioning 50 years ago. And still, most of what I talk about as “women’s sexuality” can also apply to a subset of men, just as everything about “men’s sexuality” can apply to a subset of women. People vary.

        But I definitely feel that a major part of my job with the blog is to normalize the aspects of women’s sexuality that have been characterized as broken, sick, dysfunctional, or otherwise Not Okay because it’s not how men’s sexuality generally works. It’s different for girls, and those differences need to be shouted from hilltops. So yeah, the blog may always feel skewed toward women’s sexuality. To quote David Mitchell, “If it weren’t sometimes unfair to men, then that wouldn’t be fair.”

  7. I think I must’ve grown up in a different world. Though it was in California during the sixties/seventies, it was different than Bill Bryson describes.

    My touching, rather than “apologetic but insistent” would better have been described as enthusiastic and grateful…

    As far as Ian’s post above, that seems to skew into some alternate reality/false dichotomy where the only two choices are Insistent Alpha’s taking sex when they need it as their “right” and Apologetic Betas lapsing into self loathing abstinence.

    This statement in Ian’s post particularly struck me: “presumably willing partner whose ultimate ulterior motives will remain unknown and unknowable and who, with a softly spoken word, can bring the weight of the adult world crashing down on this young man’s head”.

    First of all, perhaps communicating with a partner so that one is not presuming their willingness might be better. And as to the “weight of the adult world crashing down”, in the boys-will-be-boys attitude often seen, it is much more likely to do its crashing on the girl’s head.

  8. @ Patrick Of course communicating with a partner is better — but what adolescent boy is equipped with the skills or the eloquence to communicate the surging need he feels to a girl likewise uncertain about not just her body and her feelings about it, but with the whole idea of communicating her range of feelings in a way that will be productive enough to unambiguously grant or deny consent? I know plenty of middle-aged couples where that remains a problem. And further, communicating not just consent or rejection but the complex set of implied social and/or personal obligations which are expected to result from said consent or rejection is going to be way beyond the capabilities of most hormone-struck teens.

    Then there are the conflicting and confusing array of motivations a girl might have for giving consent or rejecting him: social positioning, revenge, low self-esteem, romantic escapism, establishing a public perception and overt material desires may all override any personal feelings she might have for the guy and influence her decision. What started as a fairly simple “consent/non-consent” question for the dude becomes a complex flowchart of social cost/benefit analysis that the girl herself may not understand, much less be able to articulate to the boy, especially in a way he is going to understand it.

    As far as the “weight of the adult world crashing down”, I would argue that while the possibility of pregnancy of course looms large for both, it weighs heavier on the girl. I would also argue that the possibility of direct physical injury or permanent social scarring from a (sometimes purposefully) misinterpreted encounter also looms larger for the boy. If the girl in question raises even the possibility of his sexual misconduct to any responsible adult in her life, the consequences for the young man can be brutal, swift, and have as permanent affect on his life as pregnancy. In some cases, and in some jurisdictions, his groping (regardless of her consent) can lead to entanglements with the law and angry, possessive adult males which could go so far as to end his life or his freedom.

    Even if he behaves like a perfect gentleman and goes no further than she willingly consents to, she still holds the power, socially speaking, to deliver or destroy him within a given social group. No matter how disliked an individual girl might be in a social group, if she claims that a particular boy was “a creep” in any way, then his likelihood of further social activity with any other female in that social group drops dramatically. And many young girls would rather sacrifice a young man’s reputation by calling him a “creep” than face the possibility of being labelled a “slut” in her social group.

    This isn’t just about “boys will be boys”. This is a far more sophisticated issue than that.

    • @ Patrick Of course communicating with a partner is better — but what adolescent boy is equipped with the skills or the eloquence to communicate the surging need he feels to a girl likewise uncertain about not just her body and her feelings about it, but with the whole idea of communicating her range of feelings in a way that will be productive enough to unambiguously grant or deny consent?

      uhm, mine? Would you like to meet real teenagers, dealing with the real world they find themselves in, or just continue to spew rhetoric about how your privilege hasn’t protected you enough?

      Maybe you need some background. Try scarleteen.com.

      Or listen to Emily, who works with them, too.

    • “what adolescent boy is equipped with the skills or the eloquence to communicate the surging need he feels to a girl”

      I think you have the goal wrong here, Ian. In the question of consent, It isn’t about the boy’s “surging need”. He has to find out what what SHE wants. To do that, the only skill he must have is the ability to listen to her.

      • listen to her . . . and rely on her ability to effectively communicate what she wants. When verbal misdirection is a well-known aspect of such intense courtship, and the emotions involved are that volatile, then extracting usable information from a teen-age girl’s communication can be agonizing. In other words, trusting that a teen girl is going to know, much less be able to articulate, “what SHE wants”, is a dicey prospect at best. For a hormone-raging teen boy, whose judgement is impaired by default, rationally assessing the value and intention of everything his paramour says can be difficult in the extreme. Hence the fear, and hence the number of dramatic miscommunications resulting from such liaisons.

        @ Sarah As far as my familiarity with teens, I assure you, I have far more experience than you might think. I’ve worked with them for years.

    • I agree with Sarah that many teens are more capable than you give them credit for in all this speculation you’re doing.
      Also, I think your repeated opposition between “consent and rejection” is symptomatic of your inability to conceive of the complexity of this hypothetical teenage girl’s position. The opposite of consent is not rejection, it’s non-consent, which is potentially NOT ABOUT YOU (I mean, the hypothetical teenage boy).
      Thanks, Emily, for insisting yourself that the girl’s position is the one that still needs recovering here.

      • My apologies. Merely male, and all. My point wasn’t that the girl’s position was not complex — or even worthy of great deliberation — but that the encounter was just as fraught with issues from the male perspective, and not all of them are as clear-cut as “Men want sex, ugh”. Nor do I agree that I’m unable to appreciate the complexity of the social, emotional, and mental turmoil a young girl goes through when faced with this kind of situation. I just took issue with the idea that the central focus of the quote inspired Emily in one direction — examining it and the males in question from a purely female perspective — when it told a decidedly different story to me from a male perspective. Sex Nerds often disagree like that.

        It’s of course Emily’s prerogative on her own blog to choose which topics she covers and from what angles. But as Emily suggested, Male Sexuality was the dominant topic of the study of sexuality since its inception as a serious academic discipline, around 50 years ago or so, and since virtually nothing about male sexuality has changed since then pursuing future studies through a predominantly female lens for the next half century does seem only a fair and just treatment of the matter. Again, my apologies.

      • I don’t like to think it’s ONLY the girl’s situation to talk about, and didn’t mean to imply boys aren’t worth the bother of considering in this discussion. But I do think that if something is this confusing, this fraught with misunderstanding, taking a breath, taking a minute, to figure out what’s going on, who wants what, and what the best way to accomplish that is is important. Whether you’re 16 or 46. Emily talks about your brain lying to you, and while I hate to seem to marginalize anyone’s experience, sexual frustration is not a /need/, like food. It’s an impulse, and one that can be managed. Promise.

        To the issue of consent- I like the standard of “an enthusiastic yes”, not “the absence of no”. Because, wow, what’s better than 2 enthusiastic, informed, comfortable participants?

  9. The whole thing is broken. People worry about their motives, interest, and actions being misconstrued, at least to some extent precisely because of narratives like Bryson’s. A young woman reads that and wonders if every man she meets thinks of her that way. A young man reads that and by identifying with it thinks he should be like that. Another young woman reads that and feels worthless because no one has exhibited interest in her that way. Another young man reads that and since he doesn’t echo those ideas figures he should pretend and always pushes past his own ideas of boundary. Etc. It’s a mess, no doubt, made all the worse by how poorly we as a culture distinguish between some of a group and all of group, how poorly we as a culture distinguish between a description of how others have behaved, a prediction of how others might behave, and a proscription of how others should behave.
    We end up with some seeing a cautionary idea, others a call to action, and still others an excuse for past actions. How to distinguish these things more clearly?

  10. Very interesting discussion but not sure it resonates outside America. Or rather, it tells us a lot of interesting things about how American culture heaps gender divisions onto biology, as fundamentalist cultures perhaps tend to do.

    In the UK I don’t think it has ever felt like that for most of us. Perhaps because young women here didn’t get such strong messages that they had to fence off their sexuality on behalf of society. Combine that with lack of decent access to birth control and sex ed for many years, and you get the highest teen pregnancy rate in Europe!

  11. This was a very interesting post to me, because I got an entirely different impression from the Bryson quote than Emily seems to have gotten. Granted, I am going only by that one-sentence quote, but I didn’t get the impression that Bryson’s ‘apologetically but insistently’ meant that Mary O’Leary’s consent was absent or immaterial. Bryson isn’t apologising to Mary because he’s groping her against her will; it’s that he’s ashamed of his desire but still driven by it. Even if Mary was an enthusiastic participant, Bryson would still feel the need to apologise for his sexual drives because he sees them as one-sided. It’s a different set of messed-up notions, in which the boy burns with desire for the girl but can’t conceive that the opposite might be true as well. How could it be, when men are the desirers/defilers and women are the desired/defiled, and never the other way around?
    If Mary is willing – eager, even – to let Bryson touch her, but Bryson sees that as a gift of great magnitude (and himself as utterly undeserving and unable to reciprocate meaningfully), while still being compelled by his drives to take it anyway, then why wouldn’t he feel the urge to apologize for the taking?
    Again, not that this represents the optimal attitude toward desire or relationships. But I don’t get the ‘I can’t keep myself from touching you against your will but at least I recognize that it’s a violation and I’ll apologize for it’ vibe here.

  12. I wouldn’t say that anyone under mid-20s is literally incapable of comprehending the consequences of their actions! That’s hyperbolic and clearly wrong – I understand that if I do action X consequence Y and subsequently consequence Z, A or B might result. That does not require impulse control in itself.

    I do suspect too that a lot of brain development is socially influenced. Brains do not develop in a vacuum, after all.

  13. ‘In any case, I just hate to see boys get a bad rap — again — for the crime of being subject to levels of desire and aggression that girls just don’t have to contend with. The very fact that we feel compelled to be apologetic about our sexuality is sad. Because we can’t help being insistent any more than a young woman can help bleeding every month.’

    Sorry, but…how dare you? Seriously? How do you know what girls do or don’t deal with?

    I remember being 16, at a young people’s group, and there was a young man I liked in there. I remember being so sexually excited that I got light headed because the BLOOD was DRAINING from my HEAD. Yet – I never behaved towards this guy as ANYTHING but a vague acquaintance to be treated with politeness but not too much familiarity. Because he never showed signs of being interested in me.

    If I could do that at 16 despite having a sex drive so high it made me light headed…boys don’t have an excuse, sorry.

    In addition, being insistent is not a biological function akin to bleeding. Being insistent is a choice.

    • I dare, because I’m a Sex Nerd, and we dare all sorts of things.

      And I know what girls do and don’t do or don’t deal with because I’ve spoken to a tremendous number of them on precisely that subject. I have a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a gazillion female friends, co-workers and colleagues with whom I discuss such matters at length. Assuming that I cannot have an appreciation for a set of feelings or behaviors — or even an opinion — simply because I cannot experience them myself is intellectually dishonest. But I will admit that having a personal knowledge of the psychological mysteries of female sexuality and development will ever escape me: I’m not a woman, so my understanding of them relies entirely on what they tell me, backed up by what is scientifically provable.

      And since you’ve never been a teenage boy in the throes of puberty, you’ll have to rely on what the menfolk in your life tell you, backed up by what is scientifically provable. So let me lay it out for you, man to woman: there are distinct differences between the psychosexual developments of young men and young women, and while many of those differences overlap in ways convenient to assisting the understanding across the gender divide (“desire” in men is more or less the same feeling as “desire” in women), the fact is that one of those differences is the frequency and duration of psychosexual thoughts and actions over a length of time, with far different social and cultural factors at play to influence them.

      I’m not discounting the potency of your youthful experience — but just imagine the intensity of that singular experience happening ALL THE TIME, EVERY DAY, consuming every other thought that you have. That’s about the best way I can describe the testosterone tsunami facing a young man at that age, and most men deal with a strong echo of that overwhelming feeling on a daily basis. When your hormones are driving you to hump anything that moves and inspiring you to do dangerous, stupid things to further that end, you don’t think that’s beyond their control?

      I’m not “excusing” inexcusable behavior, and if a young man in our society hasn’t learned the rules of consent at that age then he was likely raised under a rock. But we can’t just make it go away. Especially not at 16. The buzz is so loud and is sustained for so long that it can drive you crazy with frustration. And since it is a result of a biological function — the adolescent surge of testosterone — and since being insistent is clearly a pro-evolutionary trait, I have to take issue with the idea that it is a choice. How we express that insistence is a choice, perhaps, and how we manage it, but we don’t have any choice about the drive to be insistent. That’s with us 24/7. For many — perhaps most — men, sex is one of the first things they think about when they wake up and the last thing they think about before they go to sleep. It might not be quite as profound as it was in our youth, and it is expressed with (usually) a great deal more sophistication and elegance in later life, but it persists . . . insistently.

      • So what, Ian, really? Do you just want a pass to do all those frustrating, insistent things? Fine, I give you a pass. You clearly don’t have the intelligence or emotional capacity to see the difference- and accept the reality- that this behavior is something you CAN, and indeed, many men, not to mention teenage boys with much less life experience than you have, HAVE and DO continue to deal with in a way that is not irresponsible, threatening towards or demeaning to women. You know, like civilized members of society.

        But you can’t demand you get to act out because it’s hard not to. By that logic we’d all grow up to be big toddlers, eating candy and breaking things all day.

        Or is it just that we should thank you all the time for all you must overcome to just be you? It’s not like girls or women know anything about dealing with relentless stuff. Or hormones. Or being not being recognized and validated.

        There is a difference between being a self proclaimed sex nerd and a dork who likes sex.

        I’m sorry I keep feeding the troll, rest-of-commenters.

      • @Sarah

        I don’t want a “pass” I want some freakin’ understanding.

        That may be difficult in a world where false assumptions about male and female sexuality run rampant, and where male sexuality has been demonized for thirty or so years, but that’s what I want. I want women to at least try to understand our male perspective when it comes to our sexuality, instead of just assuming that they know it all based on what they discuss with other women. A pass? I don’t need a pass. That’s the point, there’s nothing to “pass” on.

        Look, one of the great things that happened because of the Sexual Revolution was that female sexuality began to get the study it deserved: women’s orgasm, reproductive health, the role of hormones and all the myriad social issues associated with female sexuality were open for study, discussion, and education. Thanks to the Sexual Revolution, we have an extraordinarily greater understanding of female sexuality than ever before, and the amount of research and discussion about it continues to blossom.

        But not the same for male sexuality, or at least not to the same extent. While we, as a class, have been eagerly learning everything we can about what makes y’all tick, culturally women in our society have avoided any attempt to understand the reality of male sexuality in favor of some bizarre, highly idealized (for good or ill) version that only remotely bears resemblance to the real deal. Male sexuality is easily dismissed because of the assumption that “we know all about it already”, when, in fact, you do not.

        Just as women insisted that men address and deal with the realities of the female reproductive cycle by bringing issues like menstruation, orgasm, PMDD, pregnancy and menopause out into the public consciousness, so that men wouldn’t merely recoil and horror and throw up their hands in confusion and ignorance every time “women stuff” was mentioned, I want to see male sexuality, its issues and subtleties brought out of the shadows and culturally addressed in an attempt to elicit some understand and open communication between the genders. THAT’S what I mean by “understanding”.

        In no way am I implying that boys should be given a “pass” from civilized behavior in any way, and if you read that into my response then I urge you to re-read it and try to find out what set you off. What I’m implying is that girls need to understand the volatile nature of testosterone and how it can affect a young man (any man, really), what a woman’s reaction to a man can inspire within him while under its influence, and how such things should be taken into consideration when dealing with a teenage boy lest further misunderstanding complicate things even more.

        Nor did I ever “demand {we} get to act out” — far from it. I strongly urge all young men (and in my Scout troop, this is particularly emphasized) to learn that they have a special responsibility for our actions, due to this “hormonal imbalance”. We go over the rules of appropriate behavior and spell out inappropriate behavior and the consequences of rash action. We deal with how to handle sudden bursts of emotion, the feelings of rejection and disapproval, and the urge to act out physically in the face of strong emotion. We acknowledge the difficulties that they will face when confronted with these feelings and how if they do not learn how to control them — and quickly — that tragedy can ensue. We discuss the girls their age and what they are going through, and treat them to be respectful of their difficulties and their space. Peer issues tend to dominate conversation when we aren’t pitching a tent or building a fire.

        In short, we try to educate our young men about their bodies and their social responsibility. We point out the tremendous amount of discipline required to keep those feelings under control. And we also point out that their development of this control is the only thing that separates good men in a civilized society form evil men in a chaotic society. It is only by the grace of good men that there is even a civilized society.

        Whether or not you want to thank us menfolk for showing restraint — and developing the tools to control our testosterone without letting it control us — well, that’s up to you. Somehow I don’t think you will, nor even think you should, because you simply do not understand or appreciate this issue. While our culture encourages us to laud mothers just for being mothers, in the few families where there is a father present these days it is rare that he gets even acknowledged for his role, much less treated with respect or overt admiration. So you don’t have to thank us. But it wouldn’t suck if you’d at least pop your head up and realize that the other gender out there might just be a little more complex and sophisticated than you give them credit for, and try to take that into consideration while you go about your life. That wouldn’t suck at all — but it might be asking for too much. Personally, I just think it’s the considerate and thoughtful thing to do, but that might just be me.

        Lastly, the ad hominem stuff is just rude. Defaming either my intelligence or my emotional capacity based on a blog post (and by once again making ASSUMPTIONS, not actually taking issue with what I said) seems a little petty from my perspective. And assuming that I don’t possess control over myself because I have the temerity to ask women for understanding of male sexual issues is a lot like assuming that every woman who gets grumpy one week a month is a raving premenstrual beast capable of murder. It’s disrespectful and intellectually dishonest. To add in the name-calling on top of that . . . well, perhaps it was your upbringing or your education. I wouldn’t presume to assume.

        Lastly, just what would you accept as a “sex nerd” credential? As far as I can tell, self-proclamation is the only requirement.

        • ” Male sexuality is easily dismissed because of the assumption that “we know all about it already”, when, in fact, you do not.”

          I get that men’s sexual and emotional lives are as complicated as women’s, but I think you overestimate the extent to which we as a culture, or women as “a class,” assume we already have men all figured out. If this were the case, how would you explain the persistent popularity of women’s magazines like Cosmo, which are driven by article after article about “how to please/keep your man,” or “his top ten sex secrets,” or “his deepest desires,” etc.? Right now on their site, I can read a whole series called “Men Reveal,” and there are several stories labeled “men uncensored” in which men tell me what they REALLY think about sex or their girlfriends or, by implication, me. I think the way these stories are titled suggests that our culture (or whatever part of popular/mainstream culture Cosmo participates in) still very much assume that it is women’s responsibility to figure out the mystery of men’s desires and to satisfy them. And, whatever academics and feminists and their critics talk about in blog comments, I think our culture still teaches girls that a major part of becoming a woman is learning to please men without expecting men to reciprocate.

      • Here’s the thing, Ian, I think we ALL want some compassion and understanding. I think we would like to have our experiences as part of a group and as individuals accepted and heard and not be constantly defending them, or apologizing for them, or being forced to concede one’s trials are worse or harder than another’s, and simply deal with trying to fix or ameliorate them the best we can. If you have had such positive experiences in your life, I’m happy for you. If you have had negative ones, I’m sorry. I would think you would want to extend the same courtesy you expect to receive yourself.

        But it is disheartening to see you in your own words diminish, well, all of us, by insisting it’s too hard to understand your views, that no one seems to be trying enough, even though I thought the reason we’re all here is to listen and learn from each other. It is also rude, to me, and it’s not even my blog, to come into someone’s space, basically set yourself up as having anything resembling the credentials she has, and indeed, continue to wave around the fact that you share a blog title, as if that somehow provides you credibility.

        I don’t know you, but I have spent a good deal more time than I dare say I should have invested in your blog posts both here and in your own space. I can’t expect that you would know me, either. I am sorry to have insulted you reacting to your insistence that things are the way they are universally because that is your experience. To say the least, it certainly is not mine. Perhaps I should have stipulated that I was not merely responding to your specific words here, but your general body of work and past posts as well.

        I do not expect you have horns. “Feeding the troll” was a response to me feeling like I had contributed to a discussion that not only veered off track from not only the original post, but the issues I thought were being discussed.

        As for casting aspersions about your intelligence, you have not demonstrated the ability to synthesize what several people have said, including misconstruing things with seeming willfulness. Perhaps instead I should have called your critical reasoning skills into question. I am sorry I behaved rudely. Speculating on my background shows as much about yours as I’m sure you intended to about mine.

        As for not taking your needs into account, or accepting your view, I’m pretty done with that. I will, however, continue to advocate not only on my own behalf, but those of the teens I am helping move into their own realities.

  14. Ian,
    “that the other gender out there might just be a little more complex and sophisticated than you give them credit for,”
    If you are trying to paint a picture of complexity in adolescent male behaviour, you are not doing a good job. You keep talking about young males in a homogeneous fashion, and I do not identitify with your characterizations, they don’t describe me, nor do they reflect the things that those I know in their teen years have issues with.
    In fact, I am having a lot of trouble reading your words as anything but a cry that it’s hard to become a man because it’s like this: “The buzz is so loud and is sustained for so long that it can drive you crazy with frustration.” This is a narrow explanation, a simple explanation, one that doesn’t indicate complexity or sophistication but a simple dichotomy between a perception of need and everything else.
    Young men want to matter, they want to be heard, they want space, they want to stand out, they want to fit in, they want to care, they want to listen, they want so much more than just to touch, just to desire, and your words are not reflecting that in favour of continuing the regrettable notion that sex consumes them.
    I too work with teenaged boys, albeit in a different environment. I have spent ten years playing with them, teaching them, listening to their complaints, helping them learn how to integrate into adulthood, and I find your focus both contrary to my experience with the young men I know and have known and frankly terrifying whether because you are accurately portraying a difference between those I know and those you do, or because one of us truly doesn’t understand the people they deal with.

    • Of course there are plenty of individuals who diverge from the aggregate — Emily recently laid down a powerful post discussing just that. Not every boy is overcome by the Buzz, and some are far more concerned with a turbulent emotional life, family issues, or identity issues than their sex life or lack thereof. I am not discounting either your personal experience with adolescence, or the experiences of the boys you work with — but it is clear to see that, in aggregate, aggressive male teen sexuality is a powerful and potent force in our culture and within our species. To dismiss this factor on the basis of some notable exceptions is wishful thinking.

      I chose a simple and narrow explanation of the Buzz because I seem to be discussing this with mostly a female audience who has no native understanding of it. Since there is little patience or desire to examine the issue in detail, I attempted to be concise under the assumption that no one really felt compelled to delve into male teen sexuality with a mind to exploring its sophistication.

      Yes, young men do want to matter, they want to be heard, they want to distinguish themselves in a myriad of ways, and they have incredibly powerful emotions. And all of those powerful emotions are tied into their developing sexuality. Even the issues which don’t seem directly involved come back to it: a desire to distinguish themselves is fueled by their need to attract the attention of the opposite sex (or same sex), their desire for conformity is fueled by a need to establish themselves within a social hierarchy to facilitate mating, they want to matter because being important increases their social rank and therefore their mating prospects, they want to listen because they are hungry for the tools to contend with their explosive need — but it all culminates in the desire to touch, to feel worthy and accepted in a sexual way.

      When you pump that much testosterone into a body whose mind has no experience dealing with it, that surge is going to fuel all sorts of things before puberty sorts it out, from aggression to raw emotion to depression to competition. And then when you are told repeatedly that society views your sexuality as a powerful negative and your native energy as something to be exploited or stomped on (until someone needs you to charge a machinegun nest or throw yourself on a grenade), well, yes, I consider that a hard thing to contend with. Your mileage may vary, of course. But if you do work with teen boys and their sexuality isn’t an issue for them in one way or another, I would suggest that you are working with an extraordinary set of young men. As in, “departs from the ordinary”. Because the boys I work with are dealing with the Buzz whether they realize it as such or not.

      • I have resisted responding to your incessant demands for attention, Ian. But you’re getting ridiculous.

        Your audience here consists of both men and women. Choosing a “simple and narrow” explanation so girls can understand it is not only rude, it’s unnecessary and condescending.

        And coining a “cool” term for your perception of the adolescent male experience (oooo – it’s “the Buzz”), doesn’t validate it or increase your credibility.

        As to the exception of the set of young men we’re discussing, I would put forward that you are in the minority here both in personal experience, and in experience garnered in interacting with teenaged boys and perhaps it is your sample that is non-representative.

        No one is saying young men don’t have issues with their newly discovered sexuality. I think it’s a pretty common experience across genders and ages. And no one is saying that it isn’t more difficult to understand and control in adolescence .

        I know being consensual is not easy for the young adult male. It is still what is required of him. REQUIRED.

        No matter how much testosterone is pumping through his veins.

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