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Men and sexual consent

So, I am gonna try to make this quick because I have a paper I'm working on and 2,000 more words to write, but I came up against an issue in the paper which I am not quite sure how to address: the (hetero)sexual consent negotiation process as it relates to men.

First, let me say that Oxford is an extremely conservative place, so my liberal ideals run the risk of being met by a lot of criticism, and that is a major part of my conundrum.

On our women's studies course, there are a number of students and professors who still believe that feminism is about advocating first and foremost for women.  It's almost as if they fail to understand that by disenfranchising male concerns and opinion, they are simply enacting reverse patriarchal culture rather than fighting against it as a whole.  As someone who has always connected better (in some ways) with men, and who has had a number of varying degrees of close relationships--intimate and otherwise--with men, I have always seen myself as something of a champion of the male cause within feminist understanding.  I have had so many heart-to-hearts in which my guy friends have expressed ways in which they feel undeniably restricted and constrained by current cultural normatives when it comes to sex and masculinity, and I can't help but acknowledge these reactions when certain topics come up in conversation.

Repeatedly, though, I am met with the reaction, "It's not the same.  It's not as bad for men.  Those concerns are nothing like the ones that women deal with.  It's an insult to feminism to try to draw a connection between the two."  Specifically here, I am thinking about times when I have brought up male circumcision with relation to female genital mutilation and male sexual pressure as related to female sexual pressure.  While I am completely aware that the topics are different for men and women, and that conclusions drawn about one do not imply the same conclusions be drawn about the other, I just think that it's foolish to try to have conversations about topics without exploring subjects which are related. 

So, in the case of female genital mutilation, it's not that I think the US practice of male circumcision is directly analogous, I think that thinking about how our culture has encouraged and substantiated male circumcision, and the related stigma that some men have faced because of being uncircumcised in such a culture can be useful for thinking about how a similar process functions in communities which practice female genital mutilation.  (I should note that US male circumcision rates have declined significantly in recent years, but there was a time when nearly 80% of all men were circumcised.  The percentage of newborn males circumcised today is just over half.  And, in case you are interested, for those born in the 1980s, the percentage is right around 75%.)

In the specific paper I'm writing now, I want to address the social pressure men experience to desire sex and cast it as restrictive in the actual process of negotiating consent.  I have friends who have expressed frustration with the assumption that all guys want sex all the time, because as men who don't, they sometimes feel pressure to behave differently in order to prove their masculinity.  In the paper, I want to posit the notion that men can find it difficult to say "no," to sex, but I know that my very female-oriented feminist examiners will probably look down on the argument since, as the presumed speaking subject, men are "always able to express their desires."  It drives me crazy that people refuse to recognize that, in one way or another, all people are limited and restricted by social expectations, regardless of their sex, gender, race, class, etc.  In truth, we are all only able to fully express our desires insomuch as they adhere to cultural normatives.  So, it can be hard for a guy to say no to sex, especially if he has any fear of being labeled as homosexual or effeminate.  I'd love to hear thoughts on this if anyone has some to contribute.

I know a number of my W&M friends had a discussion group on masculinity at some point last year, and I'm certainly missing the type of environment that encourages that sort of open discussion.  Just last night one of my friends here told me after reading a part of one of my papers that, if I wanted to do well, I should probably edit my writing style to be more in line with what is considered "acceptable" under the British system.  I should point out that I am pretty attached to how I write these days because it reflects my theories on acknowledging the speaking subject.  If I self-edit, I am basically going to be acknowledging that integrity to my ideals is less important that a high mark.  It should go without saying that I am not planning to change my writing style.  If I do not give myself permission to write my opinion openly and in my preferred style as a graduate student, I will probably never start.

Okay, back to the paper.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 7th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC)
very well-articulated writing style.

i could never agree more that the social pressures upon men to have sex, and as much of it as possible, are great and if there were a focus on eliminating these pressures, violence against women would subside substancially!
i can easily speak for myself that this is true. and other guys who wouldn't speak up to this are probably lying either on purpose or without realizing something about themselves.

i definitely agree with everything you're saying.
power to ya for stickin' to your integrity!
May. 8th, 2009 01:43 am (UTC)
male and female circumcision
Some forms of female circumcision do less damage than the usual form of male circumcision. One just removes the clitoral hood (the female foreskin), so it's the exact equivalent of cutting off a boy's foreskin. In some countries, female circumcision is performed by doctors in operating theatres with pain relief. Conversely, male circumcision is often performed as a tribal practice. When circumstances are similar, so are outcomes, and 22 young men died of circumcision in just one province of South Africa last year.

Are you aware that the USA also used to practise female circumcision? Fortunately, it never caught on the same way as male circumcision, but there are middle-aged white US American women walking round today with no external clitoris because it was removed. Some of them don't even realise what has been done to them. There are frequent references to the practice in medical literature up until at least 1959. Most of them point out the similarity with male circumcision, and suggest that it should be performed for the same reasons. Blue Cross/Blue Shield had a code for clitoridectomy till 1977.

One victim wrote a book about it:
Robinett, Patricia (2006). "The rape of innocence: One woman's story of female genital mutilation in the USA."

Nowadays, it's illegal even to make an incision on a girl's genitals though, even if no tissue is removed. Why don't boys get the same protection?

Don't get me wrong. I'm totally against female circumcision, and I probably spend a lot more time and money trying to stop it than most people. If people are serious about stopping female circumcision though, they also have to be against male circumcision. Even if you see a fundamental difference, the people that cut girls don't (and they get furious if you call it "mutilation"). The sooner boys are protected from genital mutilation in the west, the sooner those peoples that practice FGM will interpret western objections as something more than hypocritical cultural imperialism.
May. 8th, 2009 02:01 am (UTC)
Re: male and female circumcision
Actually, your response gets at exactly my point. While I am always eager to point out these similarities which, when you really look at it, are significant, when I bring up this sort of argument in a feminist classroom, I almost always get wholeheartedly shot down. One of the key reasons, they insist, is that men don't face the same sort of loss of sexual pleasure due to circumcision that women do, but having had both circumcised and uncircumcised partners, I can say, without a doubt, that there is a noticeable difference in sensitivity which, in turn, equates a different experience of sexual pleasure.

I am hesitant to take a stand on "female genital mutilation," or female circumcision because I personally do not live in a culture in which it is an issue, and I am a bit critical of those who, in the same situation of being an outsider, are quick to judge the practices of others. I do know, though, that I do not intend to have any of my children circumcised, male or female, despite being from a Jewish background. And I am still really hopeful that some of the recent academic work on male circumcision, in which language is used in a way to point out the fact that it is the uncircumcised rather than the circumcised penis that is "natural" and "intact," will eventually work its way into feminist theory and practice.

My frustration is often that these scholars and activists, who are so knowledgeable about issues which affect women, fail to see the correlation when similar levels of cultural restriction are enacted on men.

Thanks for your response and for all the really useful facts you point out!
May. 8th, 2009 01:54 am (UTC)
"Oxford is an extremely conservative place"
Where are you from? I always thought of Oxford as liberal, certainly a lot more so than most places in either the UK or the USA. The two members of parliament are Labour and Liberal Democrat (and I would regard the most right-wing large political party ie the Conservative Party as very much more liberal than the US Democratic Party).

The University has some old traditions, but I would regard it as very liberal - the lecturers as well as the student body.
May. 8th, 2009 02:12 am (UTC)
Re: "Oxford is an extremely conservative place"
My experience of this "conservatism," then, might just be related to the women's studies program here. That said, I have encountered a number of students who, having been in different places for their undergraduate work, often refer to the academic environment as "conservative." This is definitely slightly different than politically conservative, and probably doesn't matter to many people outside of academia. It basically refers to which theories and which methods for addressing them are considered legitimate enough to receive good marks and attention by our lecturers. As someone who largely works on contemporary literature and culture and film/television, I have faced a lot of resistance from my tutors, whereas the students who focus on Victorian and medieval texts have had much more support. Hope that makes more sense.
May. 8th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC)
I have somewhat conflicted feelings with regard to male circumcision. As a Jew who is both secular and not really a Jew (only my father is Jewish), I am both ignorant of and not terribly interested in the original basis for male circumcision in the narrow Jewish context (as opposed to more generally, which was clearly based upon unsound medical science). If the choice would have been up to me, I would not have chosen to be circumcised for either medical or religious reasons but I might have considered it (regardless of its uselessness) for cultural reasons. Despite my utter disdain for Israel, I do feel an intense need to connect with the palpable oppression in the Jewish people's past. At a time when shared memory of that past is rapidly fading for good reasons (intermarriage, insofar as marriage can be not a bad thing, is not a bad thing), I feel a pretty strong sentimental attachment to the idea of being circumcised. That circumcision was at times the means by which anti-Semites identified Jewish men as being Jewish men makes me reluctant to sacrifice that marker (not that I physically can). Is it a presumptuous thing for a parent to do? Sure, it is, but I still do not begrudge my parents that. At least, they did not have any medical or religious illusions as to what they were doing. This is about a weird nostalgia for me, not anything that makes sense.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )