**Note: This is a long post. To hear the audio of this being read, check out The Alt Dad Diary podcast Episode #21: SEX MEMO, available on the ITunes Podcast app or here: https://www.altdaddiary.com/podcasts-1/2018/2/13/21-sex-memo.
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In the US, 1 in 6 women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape. This is an epidemic. Due to stigma and shame, women often don’t report and therefore the extent of sexual violence against women is likely much, much larger. In the last six months, the #MeToo movement has marched to the fore of public conversation. In addition to halting this epidemic of sexual violence against women, the movement is attempting to transform the fabric of how we treat and talk about both women and sex.
I’m a man. Which is to say, I’m the problem. Or part of it.
Unlike our President, I haven’t been accused of sexual assault. Nor have I been recorded boasting that I grab women “by the pussy.” And still, I need to change.
Men—myself included— need to open their mouths, when the time is right, or maybe especially when they feel they time is wrong, and speak honestly and vulnerably about their sexual psychology headspace—how it’s changed over time, how they feel, think, process, perceive, and project. Men need to share not because our male stories are interesting or noteworthy, but because we’re trying to solve a problem. And step one for solving any problem is gathering information about the contributing circumstances. In this case, the surrounding circumstances are male sexuality—how it gets expressed, repressed, and nurtured.
So I’ll start.
My name is Ryan. I’m 31 years old. I have a daughter. I have a wife. I have three sisters. I’m a college English teacher. I’m a yoga instructor. I’m a writer. And I love boobs. And I also understand that “no means no.” And still: I find the twin congregations of breast tissue sublimely erotic—for whatever matrix of evolutionary reasons. Not every set of breasts that struts by heats my erogenous zone, but a young XX chromosome with a symmetrical face and hourglass figure? The cover of Cosmo? Bare breasts, toned waistline, long shiny hair, pursed lips, fragile fingers, youth. I feel an elk bugle inside of me. I feel shhhh because I’m a married man—happily married. But still, I feel my antlers chafe bark, rip rut—resisting.
The pummeling point I hope to make in this essay is that men can be both sexually aroused and respectful toward women. In fact, they must be if we are to create a habitable world for our children, for our daughters especially.
I begin with this basic argument: If men are the problem, we are also the solution. Let me explain. The ultra-reluctance for men to talk with specificity about their own sexuality is a XXL problem that ultimately perpetuates a rape culture. Here’s why. Without dispute, men are the overwhelming perpetrators of both sexual violence and harassment against women. Since men are the perpetrators, they’re the problem. And since they’re the problem, they’re also the solution. Because when trying to solve any complex problem—mathematical, economic, social, whatever— gathering all relevant information that gives rise to the problem is step one. And since male sexual psychology is a relevant factor contributing to male violence against women, it’s imperative that we learn as much as we can about the lived experiences of men vis-a-vis their sexual psychology. But here in America? Stop. Sex-talk? Shhhhhh. Due to the various cultural conceptions of masculinity and a widespread taboo against talking openly about sex and sexuality, we don’t have access to this information—not that I’ve seen.
What I’m going to next is difficult. I’m going to talk about my previously undisclosed inner thoughts because I never, never, never want to hear my now seven-month-old daughter grow up and choke through tears when she’s 16 and say: “he slammed me against a wall, squeezed my boobs, shoved his finger inside of me” and so on.
To help prevent this, I’m going to tell you how horny I am, how gentlemen-like I am, and how that means I’m conflicted. I am going to show you how and when I’m rope-tugged in two directions—between sex and civility, beast and brain. I’m going to be specific. I hope the rest of this essay amounts to a bold assertion that men can be at once sexual and respectful; aroused and well-mannered.
Before going any further, it’s true that listening to women’s stories is as or more important than men like me sharing our headspace. But if men dust off our sexual story sharing synapses, we are the ones who can and and must reduce violence against women. This is a big claim and its logic isn’t immediately obvious, but read on.
I can’t and won’t speak for men generally. Not on the issue of masculinity or sexual identity or any other issue. For me, I see the pick-up truck and light beer doctrine that NFL commercials push as the uniform of the American man, but I don’t drink light beer and my vehicle purchasing calculations consist of whether there is adequate space for my daughter’s car seat. So on the surface, I’m fine deviating from the vision pushed by NFL sponsors. But underneath the skin? Well, when the NFL camera pans the cheerleaders, and they kick their legs up and down, and their short skirts float up, revealing toned upper thighs, I notice. I rarely watch football, but when I do, I notice and sometimes flinch at the inner voice that whispers “damn damn damn those girls look nice.”
I mention the NFL because it exemplifies the conception of masculinity advanced by western culture—advertising, movies, music, TV. According to this vision, man is muscular, authoritarian, and emotionally reserved. This isn’t unreasonable. For our long evolutionary past, genetic success meant that the male’s most important job was first to procreate, and then to protect and provide for his offspring. For a female who was tied up with pregnancy for nearly a year, and then tied up with feeding the offspring for many years after, she placed a premium on a man who wouldn’t break down and cry when the buffalo left or when a drought came. She needed stoicism, resilience, fortitude. Here and now, in 2018, we’ve long since exited the kind of world where success and failure hinges on these hunter-gatherer gender success paradigms. But still. Culture gets imprinted.
I’m a prime example. I don’t cry. Maybe once every five years, if I’m lucky. And yet, I’d love nothing more than to ball my eyes out, purge, and reset my dammed up mental mood. Even though it’s no longer useful, we men are still wearing the emotionally hollow loin cloth of bygone eras. I won’t speak for other men, but I’m still existentially afraid to talk about how I feel and engage in emotional sharing with other men. Guys don’t do that. Or at least I feel awkward doing it. Like it’s against the guy code or something. I don’t know why. There’s nothing physically preventing emotional expression. No wolves circling. Or laughing crowd. No emotion police. But the unavoidable point is that I feel choked when it comes to talking to other men about vulnerable matters like my physical or sexual or mental health, or any topic even tangentially related.
For me, it’s been all quiet on the man-to-man communication front for a while—my entire life actually.
The first time I had an ejaculation I was staying at my grandparents’ house in upstate New York. My mom and dad and sisters were there too. One morning I woke up with my whitey tighties stuck to my crotch. Stuck like dried glue. Never said anything to anyone. Nobody said anything to me. Not then. Not ever. No father-son talk. No grandpa-son talk. Radio silence. From then on, matters of body sexuality became a strictly DIY enterprise. I think this is a male problem that becomes deadly for women. Because when there’s no outlet for men, there’s no communication, and when there’s no communication, bad ideas or backward notions don’t have a chance to get corrected. This is partially what’s happening right now.
I want to talk about rape culture, and I want to talk about violence against women, and sexual assault, and sexual harassment. But these terms are sterile and cold and hollow and sad and don’t convey with any meaningful detail the hell and horror of what’s really happening because they’ve been used and used but nothing ever changes so I’ll try to say what I mean instead of spitting out more buzz words.
Being frank about sex sounds like this:
My wife, Kate, and I have been married for two years and seven months. Happily. I’ve never cheated on Kate. Not since we’ve been married. Or engaged. Or since the first time she slept over. But before that, I did cheat. I was seeing another girl. Kate and I were talking, and I told Kate about the other girl but didn’t mention that I was dating her. My silence was calculated and purposeful, lying by omission. I wanted both women.
Eventually I told Kate. Told her I was sorry. She said it’s okay. I said we should still be friends. She said sure. Then a week later I said oh actually I can’t be just friends with you. I said I’m still attracted to this other girl and need to stop talking to you. Kate said okay. A while later, I realized the other girl was never really interested. She’d been texting her old boyfriend the whole time. I called Kate. It was a deep deep deep hole to climb out of.
Though this was the last time I’ve cheated, it wasn’t the first. Months prior to departure day with the other girl, I started to suspect her foul play. One night, she got a text at 2am. She stayed up for 45 minutes, face awash in backlight. The next morning, I asked about it. She shrugged. When she was in the shower, I checked her phone. The messages had been deleted. I was an alcoholic at the time, drinking on all 8 cylinders. So I just drank more. Long-distance dating, me and the other girl only saw each other every few weeks. One night, I messaged an ex. She lived a few miles away. I asked her if she wanted to hang out. She said yes. We had sex. Afterward, I felt no guilt or remorse, just neutral and numb.
I’m writing about my personal shortcomings in order to break the ice. The reason for doing this is to kick down the door of closeted discussion. Hopefully sharing begets sharing. Hopefully sharing normalizes sharing. Hopefully sharing squashes fear. And hopefully, if there’s no fear, there’s no shame, there’s no stigma. We need this kind of open air in order to have a conversation about how men should treat women and why.
My first porn was at 6 years old. My best friend Freddie Gottschalk was 8. We were at his house, in the basement. Storage closet under the stairs. He said he wanted to show me something. He pulled out a magazine and a flashlight. Flipped the pages. The bra section. A department store catalog. Sears, maybe JCPenney. Lace boobs. Cone shaped. This was 1992. I’m sure I had trance eyes, hanging mouth, dry lips. Blood flowed to my 6-year-old penis. My first boner. Call it porn, or don’t. But using image to get aroused? I’d call it porn.
Labelling it porn isn’t what’s important. The Sears catalog is the first time I remember being aroused by the sight of a woman’s breasts. The bra section was erotic both because boobs were partially visible, but also because full nudity was so strongly suggested. That is, my irises took in a black push-up bra, but my imagination unclipped the black bra back and fondled her nipples. My imagination put my mouth to her breasts and sucked.
According to one neuropsychologist, this process is the norm. Neuroimaging research shows that after viewing erotic pictures or videos, human subjects first appraise the content as either attractive or not. If it’s arousing, then the subject focuses visual attention and then often mentally rehearses the performing a sexual act (1).
So. Sexual imagination is normal. It’s worth emphasizing this point. Neurophenomenological models confirm that sexual arousal moves from lived physical stimulation (the catalog image of woman in a bra) to imaginary fantasy. On a day-to-day level, this process defines a significant percentage of my sexual activity. To be clear, these autonomic concoctions of my sexual imagination stay entirely within the confines of my own head.
During the fall of my first year of college, I made a friend named Brian. He lived across the hall. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but masturbation came up. I asked if he masturbates. Almost every day, he said, for years. He asked me if I masturbate. Never, I said. Bullshit, he laughed. But I was sincere. I had never masturbated. I asked him how to do it and why and what it feels like. He said it relieves stress and helps concentration.
An hour later, with the lotion I used to moisturize my over-chlorinated and scratchy swimmer skin, I jerked off for the first time. I was 19. I squeezed myself into a few Kleenex and that was the beginning of an off-an-on masturbation practice. In the years that followed my 19-year-old epiphany—equipped with my post-college knowledge of masturbation techniques and lube—if a strong sexual fantasy reared it’s Trojan head, I’d jerk off. And move on.
I mentioned scratchy swimmer skin. From 4 to 19 years old, I was a competitive swimmer. Throughout my adolescent swimming career, I remember idolizing female bodies. I remember my middle school years especially vividly. This one girl in particular. Call her Amy. Fully mature breasts, toned arms, dirty blonde hair, riveting butt. The bottom of women’s swimsuits then (and now too, I believe) were sharp V’s. This exposed significant side buttcheek. Made my heart beats-per-minute spike. The v-butt rose so high as to expose the outer hip bone. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. In such close proximity to nearly naked women, I frequently found myself erect. I pulled my penis flush with my body, so it wouldn’t stick straight out. How could you not be aroused? Only a thin layer of polyester and lycra spandex separating me from the fantasy unfolding in my head.
It wasn’t just Amy. There were other girls too. Peers, older girls, coaches. I swam for a club team and was fast for my age. This meant that as a middle schooler, I was swimming with high schoolers. Which meant that when the boys were in their high school swim season, the club team was all girls. And middle-school me. It was actually quite painful to look but not touch. At the end of practice, I remember some girls would pull down their suits’ shoulder straps. I wondered what it would take to plant a camera in their shower room. I wondered if they showered naked. How they washed their hair—suds and lather. If they shaved their legs. I fantasized about watching them get dressed. And undressed. I wondered about their bedrooms at home, if they had clippings from magazines on their walls or white Christmas lights around their mirrors like the manic pixie dream girls in the movies. The wonder was the razor burn of desire. Is this normal? Or is this just me? I can’t say.
I’m 31 years old and I still itch from the razor burn of desire. I still take note of the sharp v-shape of swimsuit bottoms, for example. Outside the pool, too. When talking with a woman, my eyes still instinctively wander to breast bust. I’m vigiliant. Having had this problem since puberty, I make a conscious effort to ignore the inner urge to look down at boobs when speaking with a woman. I’ve made it my iron-fisted mission to hold unbroken eye contact—ignore cleavage, plunging v-neck, whatever. But the urge is still there: to admire and desire. One flows— inevitably, as the research suggests—from the other.
I should state this clearly, too. I ascribe any and all of my horniness to testosterone and not to moral depravity. Why? Because horiness is just the inner workings of our mammalian biology and therefore beyond the purview of our free-will and control. How one chooses to respond to their biological reality, now that is a separate matter…
I’m married now—and very happily married, like I said. But marriage seems to be an institution that strictly forbids frank confession of these kind of sexually charged and charging thoughts. But honestly, they’re present now as much as they were when I was in middle school. Ask the scientists: it’s testosterone. As between my 12-year-old and 31-year-old self, the only major libido difference is that now I’m married, which isn’t a libido difference at all. Marriage means that I’ve promised to love and cherish Kate for the rest of my days. And I willfully and intentionally and gleefully made this vow. And I’m very pleased with the promise. But that doesn’t mean that my testosterone has magically disappeared. Marriage doesn’t come with hormone reduction therapy. Maybe if you get married in a cult church, I don’t know. We had a tattoo artist marry us.
The problem isn’t horny men. The problem is horny men who violate women.
How the hell does any of my suburban sexual history relate to the epidemic of sexual violence against women? How does me putting my inner headspace on vinyl and dropping the needle in the groove reduce the chances of my daughter one day saying “he slammed me against a wall, squeezed my boobs, shoved his finger inside of me” and so on?
First, more people (men and women alike) need to realize that libido and lust and sexual imagination is part of being human. This is part one. Second, more men need to respect women which is a vague phrase that I can make more specific. At the very least, it means simple things like: no means no. And silence because indecisive means no. And silence because intoxicated means no. And that only yes means yes. I think this should be repeated. Only yes means yes. More men need to respect women in these painfully primitive ways. Female servers in busy bars often complain of wandering male hands—to their buttcheeks, hips, even breasts. Men need to keep their dick in their pants. Or their fantasy in their head. They need to conceptualize women as treasured sacred beings just like their own wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers. And not disposable tissue for conquest.
The obvious question. How have I managed such self-control? How have I been such a horny mammal and not acted out any steamy scenes from my rampant pageantry of lust?
I teach ballroom dancing classes. Incredibly modest on the dance spectrum. Waltz, foxtrot, swing, tango. I started learning in college. Got hooked. Progressed quickly, then began teaching. For most ballroom dances, the lead and follow are holding hands. I remember this mere taste of physical contact, plus the occasional hand-to-back lead, or hand-to-waist lead, left me imagining my dance partner in reverse cowgirl. Or something similar.
And yet I’ve never crossed the line. Never. Not once. Not on the record. Or off the record. Not in settled cases swept under the rug. Straight up never. Never never.
How? How have I so completely suppressed the sometimes screaming, sometimes whispering, sometimes silent sex narrative ricocheting through my veins? Maybe suppress isn’t the right word. Because the sex-self is still here, inside me. I just ignore it. Maybe ignore is the wrong word. I hear it. The pseudo pornographic thoughts announce themselves on my inner PA system. But my brain never directs my hands or fingers to violate a woman’s personal space.
Why? What separates me from those who do not exercise self-control? Honestly I’m not sure. And neither is the research. For me, if I were forced to take a crack at the question, I’d have to credit my family. I’m not one of those people who gushes family, family, family. For the most part, I’m a hermit. I prefer solitude. But family may be the on-point explanatory variable. Check it out. My mom is first. My sisters are second. My dad is third.
My mom is dead now. Died of a heart attack nine years ago. I was 23. She was a full-time stay-at-home mom. Not until my youngest sister was in middle school did she venture back to the workplace. This meant that she gave a damn about me and I felt it. From a very early age, I knew she had my back. Not everyone gets this attention. I did. Of course I resented or ignored or disagreed with her at times. Perhaps often. But I always knew she had my back. Always knew she loved me more than I loved myself. Especially in the last few months of her life, I felt like I started seeing her as a human being, separate and distinct from her role as my mom. I remember visiting her one night. This was after I graduated college. I biked over to the house and we had dinner and after she wanted to drive me back because it was dark. At my apartment, I kissed her goodbye on the cheek and felt an immense appreciation for her. An immense gratitude. Love, if you will. It’s very hard to slam a woman into a brick wall, fight her flailing limbs, and thrust my dick inside her when I feel so indebted to my mother.
I have three sisters. All younger. I wasn’t close with any of them until my mom died. And then, the disparate offspring of a suddenly dead mom united. But even before my mom died, I can’t imagine taking advantage of a female without thinking of my sisters. It would stop me cold. Growing up, the day-to-day contact with younger women must have imprinted empathy into my prefrontal cortex. Unintentionally or subconsciously, on some level, I see other women as versions of my sisters. And because I wouldn’t want a guy to violently rip off their bras, force himself inside my sisters, I don’t act on my inner urges.
My dad. Some say the quality of the father figure is a hugely important factor in whether a man is likely to commit violence against women. My dad is wake up, suit and tie, lawyer, come home at dark, dinner, conversation, TV, coffee. Some say that men rape because they cannot express themselves otherwise. They say if men were equipped to accept and not be threatened by their vulnerability, if men were encouraged to give vulnerability meaningful expression, rape would vanish. They say if western culture didn’t feminize vulnerability and self-expression, then many of these problems wouldn’t exist. I’m not sure. But I can say that from a very early age, I was encouraged to emote. I wrote poems constantly. My mom and dad encouraged me to submit to contests. My dad required my sisters and me to read the newspaper and be conversant about its content. Introspection and daily conversation seemed part and parcel of an informal homeschooling. Also, when my mom died, I learned that all those Wednesday night “prayer meetings” my dad went to were AA meetings. My parents lied to us to save face. Despite the lie, and albeit without me knowing, my dad was also modeling self-control and restraint. So, my father demonstrated—if not explicitly encouraged—the trifecta of emotional expression, conversation, and restraint of animalistic urges. That has to make a difference.
The research is also unclear. Why do some men rape and others don’t? Why can some men control their biology? There are a host of viable environmental factors—socioeconomic status, relationship to mother, relationship to father, history of substance (ab)use, exposure to emotional dialogue, etc. Researchers aren’t entirely sure what motivates rape. But, research does suggest that men who rape tend to start young— in high school or the first couple of years of college, likely crossing a line with someone they know. Some of these men commit one or two sexual assaults and then stop. Others — no one can yet say what portion — maintain this behavior or even pick up the pace. One psychologist has noted that repeat rapists tell stories of social rejection in high school and use rape as a form of revenge. Amongst men who commit sexual assault, risk factors include: heavy drinking, a peer group that uses hostile language to describe women, perceived pressure to have sex, a belief in “rape myths” — such as the idea that no means yes. Unfortunately, motives and risk factors are varied and difficult to quantify (1).
I say again and again that I’ve never crossed the line, which is true. But looking deeply, I can see the seeds of rape—inklings of micro-aggression. Though I’ve never put my penis inside someone who didn’t want it there, I still see in myself the ape inkling to rape. To take what isn’t mine. To impose my will. With force. Over shrill cries. Using my superior size to pin her down, do it my way. My daughter’s name is EllieRoo and she is 7 months old. Recently, she is fascinated by and trying to master standing up. She doesn’t have the balance yet to stand solo so she needs adult assistance—which means me or Kate holding her hands. Admittedly, from a supervisory standpoint, holding her fingers and hands constantly isn’t as easy as setting the baby down in a seated position on the fleece rug in the kitchen, assigning her to play with a blanket of toys. So she’s standing, her fingers wrapped around my index finger. I get bored before she does. If I try to bend her straight legs, encouraging her to sit, she’ll resist. She locks her knees, arches her back. If I insist, and add more downward pressure, she’ll lock legs and recline flat as a board, head arched back in protest, eyes bunched up, mouth open, screaming. So I crouch in front of her and let her little hands hold my fingers. I hold her fingers and let her stand up for as long as she likes, until she’s ready to sit. Writing this essay has forced me to look closely at that situation. Is that the beginning of rape? The application of superior size to get what I want, when it’s not what she wants, over and against her most adamant resistance?
The talk thus far has been challenging. For me, and maybe for all men, you earn the right to be heard by doing something difficult and strenuous and formidable—in this case, exposing your emotions, sexuality, and inner psychology in the face of a powerful puritan sex taboo.
Thus far, I’ve unrolled a list of times I’ve been sexually attracted to women—in real life, in my head, in Sears catalogs, etc. I could go on. Talk about women from Internet porn, classrooms, Aldi, etc. But the fact that men are attracted to certain women at certain times seems both obvious and undisputed. And by itself, an awkward perhaps, but not very purposeful confession on my part. The gargantuan taboo in the sexual attraction conversation is when men hold a position of power over the women they’re attracted to. In and of itself, this is seen as problematic and violatory.
For example, it doesn’t seem offensive for a straight man to be attracted to his female coworker. After college, I worked full time at a hipster coffee shop. 90% of the baristas were college women. All of them were tantalizingly good looking. Because of this, I enjoyed my job immensely—pulling espresso shots beside skinny jeans and diving v-neck shirts. This confession is mostly meh.
The real talk confession is when a married man and yoga teacher and college professor like me admits that the unruly nature of his sexual attraction follows him everywhere.
Here’s one example. I’m a married man and a few months ago I started following this naked yoga girl (@nude_yogagirl) on Instagram. I was really into her project. Classy nudes of yoga poses in order to spread body positivity. In some ways, I’m ashamed of my body, so I was intrigued. @nude_yogagirl is posting “classy” nudes (lots of well-positioned shadows) of herself online. Says she’s throwing a grenade into the pool of body shame. This was what I told my wife. And others. Because I was into the project. But if it were a nude man, would I still follow? Absolutely not. Underneath the guise of support for a body politic art project, sex appeal was my deeper, truer motivation. I no longer follow her.
Here’s another example: Before I met Kate, I was teaching yoga full time. At Corepower Yoga, the University of Minnesota, a Taekwondo studio, and a community park. A lot of yoga means a lot of women in yoga pants. A lot of well-endowed women with sculpted S-curves. It’s not uncommon for—in fact my certification course encouraged—teachers to offer physical adjustments during class. Both to correct alignment and to help students sink deeper into certain postures. In child’s pose, for example, I might place my palms on a student’s hips and offer downward pressure. Spontaneously and simultaneously, the mammal mind trapped in me presses play on a mental sex fantasy reel. Women are facing down, in an inferior position, and I have seemingly total control. I walk from woman to woman (very few men), and adjust (the PC version of “touch”) their bodies. Their shoulders, if the adjustment is savasana (corpse pose). Or inner thighs, if the pose is supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle). Despite the unavoidable neurophenomenon of visual sexual stimulus activating my sexual imagination pathway, my adjustments have never crossed the appropriate-inappropriate line. As trained, I used (and still use) my open palms rather than fingers. At the beginning of class, when everyone is face down in child’s pose, I ask students to raise a hand if they’d prefer not to receive adjustments. I honor the show of hands. I use pressure and touch strictly to deepen a posture, rather than play out any iteration of inner lust. I don’t act on these stubborn sexual thoughts. But like I keep saying, it doesn’t mean they’re not chanting full volume in my prefrontal cortex. We mammals can’t unthink them. I tell myself the same thing I tell students about their thoughts that may arise during the yoga practice: acknowledge them, notice they’re there, then let them go. Breathe. This confession will perhaps make certain yogis uncomfortable. But should it? Do we yoga teachers leave our sexuality at the door? Or just the willingness to act on our inner impulses?
Here’s another: I’m a college English teacher and writer. Last year I wrote a fiction piece about a college English teacher who imagines his female students fully nude. Or maybe he imagined himself in a bubble bath with one particularly hot female student. I can’t remember. It was something steamy, erotic and sexual. Do you think this “fiction” piece came to me from the ether? What would happen if a college professor was attracted to one of his students? What about several students?
Here’s another: I’m a Thai Massage therapist. While the receiver of Thai bodywork is fully clothed, it’s a full body massage. Legs, hips, glutes, back, shoulders, neck, head, face. I’ve been doing this for nine months and have worked on bodies of all types. Double-knee replacement obesity and 19-year-old riveting beach body. At the start of each session, I ask the client to close their eyes. And I do too. I take a deep breath in and exhale. I think something like: I hope this session in some way benefits you, both in body and mind. And then I rub my palms together, for heat, and I begin palm pressing their inner ankles. But working up the body toward the hips and glutes, to say I never feel a twinge of testosterone bolt through my blood vessels would be a lie. Sometimes it’s not tissue specific. Sometimes just the presence of an attractive woman lying down on her back in front of me with her eyes closed is erotic. But still. Over and against any imagined sex, I steel focus my intention on healing and relaxation.
This is admittedly uncomfortable to talk about. But the essay isn’t about sexual headspace confession alone. It’s also about this: I’ve never groped, grabbed, drugged, taunted, cat-called, pushed, shoved, or force-fucked. Never ever ever ever.
I hope this confessionary essay lands as a flare in a long-neglected No Man’s Land. A long ssshhhhed grey area. I hope this essay lights up the real-talk real estate between two bogus notions of what it means to be a heterosexual male. One one hand, there’s the puritan American man who feels aroused when and where he’s supposed to—the marriage bed— and nowhere else. And on the other hand, there’s this rampaging serial rapist, this hyper-sexualized goat, tossing off all civility in favor of his hormonal hubris.
We need to occupy the grey area. As a general matter, Americans on both sides of the political aisle seem incapable of articulating the difficult grey pace between easy binaries as a solution. Too often, it’s either yes or no, up or down. The tyranny of tribalism. But the middle grey is the place of honesty and vulnerability—not to mention biological accuracy. Call it the void, because so few people are here. For me, the void feels like the way forward. This is where we need to be: where lust meets restraint, where fantasy meets reality, where mind meets body, where mammal meets civilization.
To acknowledge this grey space is to turn away from the brightly rendered version of puritanical ideals that have falsely declared themselves as American. You are not either chaste or a whore. That’s bullshit. We need to open our mouths and share what’s really going on in our complicated craniums. This is the two-thousand-year-old imperative: know thyself. By acknowledging the truth in ourselves, this grey space, we turn ourselves toward something murkier and messier but far safer for our children to live in.
This is about courage. I realize how easy it is to preach courage without plunging in the icy water myself. I realize stepping on a soapbox and asking people to speak truth is empty preaching. So I’ve tried to practice what I preach. Even still, I realize that asking people to take this conversational risk carries with it the high probability of being shamed, shunned, or despised by friends, family, and employers. But I don’t see any other way.
I began this essay was this.
My name is Ryan. I’m 31 years old. I have a daughter. I have a wife. I have three sisters.
I’m a college English professor. I’m a yoga instructor. I’m a writer.
If men are the problem, we are also the solution.
I also said this. In the US, one person is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds.
Time is ticking.
I am 31. No man has ever shared with me the kind of personal sexual content I’ve shared with you. I believe it is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. Our work. It must be, if only to protect our daughters and sisters and mothers and wives.
So let’s do it. Especially if you’re a parent or teacher, or anyone with regular contact with kids. What’s a penis? What’s a vagina? What’s rape? What does a guy do when he wants to touch a girl? How does he speak to a girl he’s attracted to? What’s it like to be attracted to someone? Or to multiple people? By talking to and teaching kids when they're young, they're being empowered for the future. Anthropologists have shown that changing entrenched cultural conceptions is most effectively accomplished by educating young generations.
Of course it’s easier said than done. And I think the conversation can’t be had until we first do some self-examination. Especially guys. Try writing a list of what makes you aroused. Or who. And then try buffering that list with a sober recognition of the endemic problem of male-perpetrated violence against women. And then weave in a commitment to listen to women and respect their bodies. Make sure the thread you weave contains a promissory note to utilize your vocal chords to break silence: if and when the time arises, you shout out on their behalf. Shout as tight-fistedly for their safety and security as you do for the wide receiver on your Fantasy Football team. We need to shout like that except on behalf and in favor of the women around us: in the office, on the subway, in the Walmart parking lot, at the Barnes & Noble magazine rack, at the piano bar while waiting for drinks.
Go forth and prosper. Have steamy consensual sex. Think deeply. Speak up. Occupy the grey.
Let’s make this planet safe for our daughters.
(1) Brain Sex in Men and Women – From Arousal to Orgasm. Carla Clark, PhD. May 20, 2014
>>>NOTE TO THE READER: Babies need touch. That’s what Google says. Both psychologically and physiologically. I think we’re all just large babies. With permanent teeth. Underwear instead of diapers. Paleo diet instead of breastmilk. If these Alt Dad Diary posts touch you, touch me back. You can support me and my diary project by sharing a post, writing me a note, or with some cold hard cash on Patreon. For more details, check out patreon.com/altdaddiary. I always say this but it’s true. Even $1/month (or 3 cents a day) is galactic, because think about how sustainable that contribution is in the aggregate. Peace