Gender Essentialism, Masculinity, and Sex-Negativity

Two articles came through my in-box the other day. I found one of them rather thought-provoking and the other quite irritating. But they both had one thing in common. Well, actually, more than one thing, but they had one thing in common that I found especially difficult.

They were both using gender-essentialist language to talk about men and sexism.

In Fight the Sexualization of Young Girls the Right Way, Sarah Seltzer discusses why we need to shine a light on the sexualization of girls and young women without ending up being anti-sex. It’s a good look at the challenges in navigating that. She argues very convincingly that what we need to do is make room for young people to explore and discover their authentic and developing sexualities without forcing them into a fantasy of what being sexual is:


Their issue isn’t just that teen girls on TV have sex or engage in sexual behavior like suggestive dancing or making out. Instead, their concern is that teen girls on TV are often reduced to sex objects or miniature versions of sexual stereotypes: temptresses, vixens, sluts. Girls having sex in long-lasting relationships or because they *gasp* want to? That’s okay, as long as they’re armed with the right information and a spectrum of choices and alternatives about how they can be sexy and still be themselves.

I think this makes a lot of sense. I believe that limited visions of sexuality are linked to sex-negativity because they only allow for a specific version of what it means to be sexual. They depend on people meeting an externally-defined standard, rather than living authentic sexual lives. And it’s important for us to find ways to challenge that without coming back to the “protect young women from sex” approach that has failed us so many times. Young people of all genders deserve to be able to explore and discover what sexuality means to them, without being forced to try to act as if they’re miniature versions of adults. (And let’s leave aside, for the moment, whether these versions of sexuality are actually authentic for many adults, either.)

In the other article, Hard Core, Natasha Vargas-Cooper claims that “the new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women.” It’s full of the usual anti-porn arguments that porn and sex-negative language like calling sex “a bestial pursuit” and saying that women putting clips of themselves having sex on sites like RedTube and YouPorn is “largely a grim parade of what women will do to satisfy men,” as if none of the women are getting their thrills from doing it and only do it to please their partners. There really isn’t anything new here, at least, if you keep track of these things like I do.

And yet, although these two articles are approaching sex from some different directions, they both use gender essentialist language.

In Fight the Sexualization, Seltzer writes “[b]ut the beef is not because [women] seen as sexual, because they’re playing into a version of sexuality that is catering to male fantasies.” And in Hard Core, Cooper writes that “removing pornography won’t alter the unlovely aspects of male sexuality that porn depicts and legitimizes. The history of civilization would seem to show that there’s no hope of eradicating those qualities; they can only be contained\’and checked\’by strenuously enforced norms.” Both of these rest on the idea that all men have the same fantasies, the same desires, and the same sexualities, and that female sexuality is entirely free of these stains.

Now, I’ll certainly agree that there are trends and commonalities among many men. And I also agree that those tendencies have caused and continue to cause a lot of serious problems. But the essentialist language that these two writers use neglects the experiences and the existences of gay men, bisexual men, and transgender men. It renders invisible heterosexual men who don’t fit within the dominant sexual paradigm. It ignores genderqueer folks and pansexual people, some of whom identify as men. It denies the existence of sexually submissive men, and men who don’t get turned on by the standard model of female attractiveness. By talking about “men” as if we all experience sexuality in the same way, both of these folks reinforce and reify one of the foundations of the problem that they’re trying to critique.

Gender essentialism reinforces sex-negativity by taking sexuality and neatly assigning each aspect of it to male or female. Anyone who doesn’t fit within those boxes runs the risk of being shamed and attacked, which means that many people are faced with the decision to either force themselves into one of those categories or live sexually authentic lives and risk censure, ostracism, and violence. Gender essentialism is also the foundation of sexism and homophobia. After all, limiting and controlling people based on their gender or their sexual orientation requires the notion that these are somehow fixed qualities that everyone within a certain group shares.

Gender essentialism also reinforces the myth of the normal because it requires sweeping statements. If you’re going to make claims about how men or women are, there isn’t much room for language that acknowledges that not everyone is like that. I’ve noticed that sometimes, people do that because they want to make a stronger case, but in reality, sweeping statements diminish an argument simply because they’re not true. All it would take is using some/many/most, as in: “playing into a version of sexuality that is catering to fantasies that many men have.” It’s not as dramatic a claim, but it’s far more accurate.

A language of liberation needs to be inclusive of all gender expressions. And language that recreates and reinforces the gender binary isn’t a language of liberation, even if it challenges us to explore the gender binary in a new way. As long as we keep coming back to an essentialist view of gender and as long as we hold on to the gender binary, our ability to challenge and change the gender roles that hold us back will be limited, at best.

It’s time to let it go and create new ways to talk about these issues.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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