Ever since I wrote The Most Important Thing That Men Who Have Sex With Women Need to Know, I’ve been finding myself in more conversations with other men about how we manage our sexual energy. A few weeks ago, I was at an event, talking with a couple of friends about it and one of them said something that stuck with me.
We were talking about what it’s like to get cruised by men, which has happened to all of us, and how some guys have an overly aggressive approach that we find off-putting. Now, none of us particularly freak out about men flirting or cruising with us, in and of itself. In fact, at least two of us like it some of the time, so it’s not a “oh, no! Teh gayz are cruising me!” homophobia thing. But even without that piece, all three of us dislike it when men get really aggressive about it. And all three of us have changed how we interact with women in light of our experiences on the receiving end of that sort of attention.
What really clicked for me was when one of the other guys said that he wished that he’d had the insight and skill to act differently when he was younger. He knows that there have been times when his sexual attention and energy towards women has been more than someone was comfortable with or wanted. As he put it, given how many times he’s flirted with women and expressed sexual interest, there have to have been times that it was unwelcome or unwanted, even if he didn’t know it at the time.
I know exactly what he meant. I know that I’ve done the same thing and I wish that wasn’t true. Some of it was simply having more sexual energy than skill at containing it. This is something that seems more common with younger men, although of course many older men also have the same difficulties. I’m grateful and relieved that things have shifted for me around that. Improving my skill at managing and directing my energy has been the result of a lot of work and it has been well worth the effort. My journey has been a little more woo/new age-y than many people are comfortable with. But I’ve always figured that the results are what counts and this path has been very successful for me. (Tantra and related practices have a lot to offer, if you’re interested in such things.)
Part of learning to walk this path has meant coming to terms with the ways that I have interacted with women and the impact that has had on them. The 8th step in AA is “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” I wish I could do the first part, but to be honest, I don’t think it’s possible to know the full effect of all of my actions. That saddens me and inspires me to do what I can to continue to do the work that I do around this. And I have had conversations with some of the women who have been in my life about this. They were often quite difficult, and they were definitely worth it.
Another part of this is learning to stop thinking of it in terms of those inappropriate guys over there. It’s a lot easier to get through the day if I can pretend that it’s only those other men who do those things, but when we deny our Shadows, we only make them stronger. When we learn to accept and embrace our Shadows, we can listen to what they’re trying to tell us and create new ways to respond to them. That’s a lot scarier than denying it, in some ways. And it’s a lot more effective at helping us change our behaviors. If we can acknowledge that any man has the potential to be sexually aggressive beyond someone else’s comfort zone, if we can admit that we each have the potential to be intrusive, we can take care to reduce the chances of doing it. (Of course, this isn’t limited to men. It’s just more common among men.)
I think it’s also important to not go too far in the other direction and squash our sexual energy. I see a lot of “sensitive guys” do that. I used to, myself. And although it may make them (and their partners) feel safer, in the long run, denying that part of our psyches can cause incredible resentment and fear. Running away from the problem doesn’t make it go away.
Making this more complex is that there isn’t a single rule we can operate under. For some people, and in some situations, the boundaries need to be tighter and for other people, and in other situations, we can be more flexible. Further, when we’re turned on, it can become harder to pick up on the subtle cues that someone isn’t enjoying the attention. That puts pressure on them to be more direct about their boundaries. Not only is that hard for some people to do, it also means that we’re more likely to be surprised when someone gets angry or upset with us. In addition, it puts the responsibility for managing our sexual energy on someone else, which isn’t fair.
But unfortunately, the only way we can learn where the boundaries are is to experiment with them, and sometimes, that means going too far. Life sure would be easier if there was another option, but there doesn’t seem to be. So we need to learn how to deal with it when it happens. We need to develop our capacity to genuinely, authentically apologize when it’s necessary. We need to improve our ability to learn from our mistakes. We need to find ways to support the people we inadvertently hurt and help them regain their balance. And we need to learn to both hold ourselves accountable AND forgive ourselves. Otherwise, we either never change our behaviors or we become frozen with guilt, and neither of those is particularly helpful.
As men, we also need to find ways to deal with the fact that sexual assault is incredibly common. There are a lot of reasons that plenty of women who have sex with men are so sensitive around it. Sexual intrusion, unwanted attention, sexual assault, being groped, being catcalls- some or all of these are a reality for almost all women. The fact that you don’t see it is probably because it doesn’t happen as much or as visibly when you’re around. As an experiment sometime, walk down the street far enough behind a woman that you can see how men act towards her. Pay attention to their faces, what they say, and how they interact with each other (especially if they’re in groups), and you’ll get a different picture. Once you realize how much crap women put up with from men, you might begin to understand why many women have some of the triggers that they do.
So the question that I’ve been sitting with is: how do boys and men learn better ways to manage their sexual energy? I’m not talking about the guys who don’t care about whether they hurt their partners or about the men who get off on hurting others. I’m talking about the men who want to treat their partners with respect and care while also making room for their own sexual energy. What are the skills that men need to learn? And who can they learn them from?
I’m not sure that I have any answers yet. But I do know that simply telling guys that they need to be different, without actually helping them learn new ways to act isn’t effective. And I don’t think it’s really useful to expect guys to be willing to be on the receiving end of male sexual attention. For many men, their internalized homophobia will negate any potential value. And for other men, that sort of attention won’t be a problem. After all, aggressive cruising works for some guys. So we need another way to get this lesson across.
If you have experiences or thoughts about this, feel free to comment below or contact me directly. I’d love to come up with some next steps.