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.

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11 Responses so far.

  1. Jordan says:

    Thanks for this article Charlie. I’m not among the “men” these articles talk about (I have yet to find any porn interesting truthfully). Heteronormative male fantasies probably got the whole porn ball rolling, but to keep categorizing it as one size fits all and a victim/victimizer equation is tired, boring and incomplete.
    Does anyone talk about the obsessive and compulsive nature of sexuality? I think porn speaks volumes to that elephant.

  2. Jordan says:

    Some months back you addressed the issue of love missing in the discussion of sex. While I’m glad you address topics like the above, you are kind of perpetuating the sex and sexuality only aspect of all this by responding to the small focus.
    Is it just about an erection, or are people looking for connection? Sex to me is such a small aspect of a relationship, and good (not to mention great) sex requires a foundation to be built by all concerned, at least in my experience. Thanks for having a nuanced voice, but sex positivity for me is kind of predictable, boring and superficial.

  3. Liina says:

    I found this article linked by Thank you so much for this piece. I read the Atlantic article the other day and was horrified by the sweeping claims the author made. Your comment “Anyone who doesn’t fit within those boxes runs the risk of being shamed” reflects exactly what happened to me, internally – I read that sex between men & women CAN NEVER BE EQUAL, considered that sex between my husband and I has ALWAYS FELT EQUAL to me, and immediately wondered if something was wrong with our seemingly healthy sex life (NO!). How absurd, but a natural reaction to the essentialist language you speak out against. She also treads dangerous ground when she applies her experience of complying with her sex partner’s desire to make her “uncomfortable” to all female sexuality. The only thing that allowed this to begin to make sense to me is that she was seemingly discussing strictly one-night-stand sex, not sex in committed relationships (which doesn’t count as sex, to her), and I have not had that experience.

    It was the first issue of The Atlantic my husband and I received, and was so disappointed by the poor quality of that article (and others! such as the one that went: some people to this for a hangover, some do that. But I like a bloody mary). I’m glad to hear support/agreement/confirmation that this article is absurdly generalizing.

  4. Charlie says:

    I think that part of the difficulty is in what we mean by the word “equal.” I agree that men and women aren’t equal, in the same way that no two people are equal. Even identical twins are not 100% the same as each other. That’s more of a math definition of the word.

    On the other hand, I think that when people talk about treating each other equally, or as equals, what they really mean is treating each other fairly. To me, that means recognizing our individuality while not saying that one person’s needs, desires, and wants are more important than another’s. That’s a very different thing and it seems much more relevant than trying to treat everyone as if we’re the same.

  5. Charlotte says:

    This is a brilliant article I wholeheartedly agree with. When talking about gender/sexuality, I always try to remember to include the ‘some/many’ quantifier, or catch myself when I forget. It’s so important to remember that there are no absolutes when talking about sexuality, gender or being human in general, especially when we’re raised on talk of the gender binary and sweeping value judgements. Thank you for an excellent piece.

  6. Caitlin says:

    I love your writing Charlie, and this piece is great. I’m a straight and very promiscuous woman and in my rather extensive experience with mostly hetrosexual men, the resemblance to essentialist stereotypes of male sexuality has been pretty darn minimal. So tired of the stereotypes because I think they are unjust to good men and feed into the idea that women need to be protected from sex.

  7. Charlie says:


    Thanks! You might also like this post and this one over by the Sexademic. She has some interesting stuff to say, as does Clarisse Thorn.

  8. Bernie says:

    Hi Charlie,
    I happened upon your site while searching for information on sexual essentialism for an assignment I am doing. Wow, what you have to say is amazing. Although it’s about ‘gender essentialism’ would you say that equates to ‘sexual essentialism’?

  9. Charlie says:

    My guess is that we’re talking about the same thing, or at least similar things- the notion that there are behaviors or characteristics that are essential depending on one’s sex or gender. Essential, not in the “this is important” use of the word, but that are innate, immutable, and universal. While I know that there are statistical trends in sex/gender based differences, there’s simply too much variation and too many socio-cultural influences for me to believe that they are entirely biological. So if that’s what you mean by “sexual essentialism”, then yes, we’re talking about the same thing. 🙂

  10. […] Charlie Glickman, a sex-positive educator, has a very interesting post on gender essentialism, masculinity and sex-negativity, critiquing those who describe sterotypical […]

  11. Sam says:

    Hey Charlie,

    “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.”

    something I’m always missing in this discourse is an understanding for people who may not fit into stereotypes but are looking for some “stereotypical” identity markers. There’s so much understanding for the oppressive nature of gendered behavioural standards, but so little recognition that these standards also provide a lot of safety for a lot of people. I for one am certainly a non-normative man, with an experience of about 15 years of involuntary celibacy. At some point I wasn’t sure what kind of of man I was. So adopting certain aspects of the classical masculine performance helped me, offered me a safer identity and certainly made me more attractive to women. Interestingly, the safer my identity as *man* became because of it, the more female attention I got, the more I allowed myself to behave differently when I wanted to without feeling threatened.

    I guess my point is, breaking up the gender binary is fine, but don’t forget about the people who need help in finding their identity. Don’t take away people’s identity crutches without giving them the something else or help them to live without, and I don’t think the latter will be an actual option for most people, not least because male and female are two poles of a continuum, and even if they constantly redefine themselves, they will always be defined in relation to each other, they will never be congruent.

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