Where Does Validation Come From?

A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed by Hugo Schwyzer for his article He Wants to Jizz on Your Face, but Not Why You Think. Without stepping into the latest internet uproar about Hugo and the various things people are saying about him online (feel free to google it, if you like), I think there’s actually more to be said about the topic of that post.

Hugo’s thesis was that, while facials can certainly be an act of degradation, they can also be interpreted as “men’s desire for that same experience of being validated as desirable, as good, as ‘not dirty.'” For some people, male sexual desire and male bodies are seen as dirty, disgusting, or unpleasant and men who have internalized these ideas might seek a variety of paths to redeem them. Those can take a variety of forms.

Some of the responses to that post have argued that US culture glorifies penises and denigrates vulvas and vaginas. They claim that the premise that some people feel disgust towards penises is a falsehood, at best. There are at least two problems with this argument, though.

First, there are many different subcultures within the larger US society and there’s a lot of variation in how they view male sexuality. As a sex educator, I can tell you from years of professional experience that there are plenty of people who see penises and male desire as shameful or gross. Whether that’s due to personal experiences, religious backgrounds, familial influence, or anything else is relevant to the individuals, but the important thing to remember is that these different beliefs exist.

Second, the construction of masculinity that is commonly presented is constantly reinforced precisely because it is so fragile. Without in any way excusing or mitigating the very real harm that this dynamic causes, the fact that it’s effectively omnipresent is a sign of its weakness, not its strength.

But even so, there’s a key point that I think is missing from Hugo’s analysis, though he’s touched on it in some of his other writing. He ends his post with this anecdote, taken from one of his classroom discussions:

A female student turned to the guy who’d brought up the topic of semen and validation and asked him, “So you’re saying that when a man comes on a woman’s face, it’s not about making her dirty — it’s about making him feel clean?” The young man blushed, the class tittered. “Yes,” he said, “that’s it. And that’s what makes it so hot.”

If I were talking with this man, I’d ask him what he’s doing to overcome or change his belief that there’s something wrong about his sexuality. I’d ask him  what messages he’d been told that made him think that his semen or his penis or his body were dirty and that they needed redemption. I’d ask him what makes him think that the way to change that and to get the validation he seeks is to get it from his sex partner.

The notion that it’s women’s job to civilize or redeem men is nothing new. And ironically, there’s a parallel between the idea that women’s virtue is responsible for saving society and the belief that a sexual act between men and women can give men the validation they seek. Both of these are examples of coddling men and absolving them of any responsibility for their own self-determination and ethical conduct. So while I have sympathy for the guy who seeks cleanliness from his female partner, my sense of fierce compassion inspires me to call this out.

Getting validation from someone else makes you dependent on her. It means that you never have to learn the skills of emotional self-regulation and responsibility. It limits you and requires you to seek your value from outside, instead of building up a solid core of self-worth and self-respect. And ultimately, it’s doomed to fail because the only place that validation can truly come from is within.

That doesn’t mean we can’t get support from others. I’ve certainly had times when I was stuck in a shame spiral and needed some validation from a friend to help me out of it. But that process is only effective to the degree that we can explore the reasons we feel shame or self-disgust and process through them. We need to be able to lean into those painful edges and heal those wounds. Otherwise, we’re likely to create a situation that “almost works”. It feels like it should make us feel better and when it doesn’t, we try harder or we escalate. This is one way in which addictive or self-harming cycles form.

I still have no problem with two (or more) people doing facials if their consent, pleasure, and well-being are attended to. There are different reasons that people might enjoy it and I think it’s the height of arrogance to tell them that their desires are wrong. Some people have a kink for body fluids. Some people get a thrill from getting dirty or nasty, without demeaning their partners or disrespecting them either in or out of sexual contexts. Just as some people enjoy the sensation of vaginal fluids on their faces after cunnilingus, some people enjoy the sensation of semen on theirs. There’s never just one reason why people do anything sexually.

I also know that a lot of people do facials because they’re copying things they see in porn. That might be because they don’t realize that porn is terrible sex education. Or they actually do want to demean or degrade the other person. That’s why it’s useful to be able to talk about what our fantasies mean to us and decide if they’re compatible with our partner’s desires.

But in the end, if you’re trying to get validation or you want to overcome your feelings of shame, a sex act isn’t going to do it. Neither, for that matter, is your partner. If you really want to change how you feel, you need to stop dodging and do the work. And you need to stop laying responsibility for your validation on anyone else.

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10 Responses so far.

  1. Eelsalad says:

    Wow, Charlie, this is such an interesting topic. I’ve thought about it a fair bit, because as a feminist I find it vitally important to interrogate my own desires around sex and sexuality — am I into my partner ejaculating on me because it’s degrading? Or because he gets off on it? Or something else? For that matter, why is HE into it? I love probing questions like this.

    For me, facials (and whatever it’s called when a guy comes on you elsewhere) are hot for two reasons: one, because it feels like being marked — for me, it’s a sort of BDSM ownership thing — and two, because it seems like the sort of jubilant “yeah, body fluids! orgasm! WOOO!” celebratory act I think sex should be. Semen isn’t gross or dirty to me, so I have no problem with getting it anywhere it won’t stain or sting.

    Now I want to ask all my male friends if they like facials and if so, why. 🙂

  2. Charlie says:

    Eelsalad, I’d love to hear what your friends say!

  3. Ms Naughty says:

    Charlie, I always enjoy reading your columns about masculinity. It really is time more people started looking critically at concepts of manhood and thinking about making changes. I feel like it’s going to become a big issue over the coming year. 🙂

  4. Charlie says:

    Ms Naughty, thanks for the kind words. 🙂

    I think that it’s taken longer to look at masculinity because until relatively recently, there weren’t many men willing to do it. Women have been looking at it critically for decades, but it’s taken longer for men. Part of that is that talking about it puts men outside the Act Like a Man Box, so there has been a different and rather tenacious resistance to change. But masculinity has gradually shifted enough that it’s becoming less difficult for men to engage in this work. My hope is that as we lean into that, things will finally begin to move.

    I’d love to see us reach a critical mass in the next year. I’m not going to hold my breath, but I’m also not going to give up hope. Hope for the best, and cut the cards.

  5. Ed says:

    Great post Charlie!
    One of the things I’ve seen with many men is left over shame around semen from experiences when we were much younger. For many men sexual shame is intensified around the same time we learn about masturbation. Some of us experience direct shaming and others may experience indirect shaming as a result of masturbation.
    We often develop the habit of quickly getting rid of semen and throwing it down the toilet or in the trash. This habit can serve to reinforce that shame around ejaculation. Others may have been directly shamed. I recall my mom being upset over stains in the sheets when I was a teen; this shaming was even more intense when I experienced nocturnal ejaculations. This seems to be an experience common among many men.
    I agree fully that we need to find validation from within rather than through a partner. That validation could come from reclaiming the shame through intentional practices either with ourselves or with a partner. As long and there’s consent and clear intention there is an opening for healing the shame.

  6. desuetude says:

    @charlie: you make good points but where to start with “the work”? I got it on my own face before anyone else’s! Earlier by accident, later not… Does ‘testing’ count for anything? It makes for a more emphatic, intense ending.
    @eelsalad: not owning or disrespecting but maybe disrupting a beautiful face? Seems wrong to mainstream but also fits the “take me” idea of straight sex. Women who like it are probably the minority (a multitude don’t like their own fluids let alone men’s).
    @ed: yes, not avoiding/cleaning it away but inviting it/reveling in it. Yes, it may counter impulse to ‘get rid’ but don’t think it can ever balance it. I went off facials as cleanup means you break contact. If it’s on body there’s at least a chance of a hug straight after!

  7. random girl in the bathtub says:

    yes! it’s ‘dirty’, but only within a societal framework.
    even if you are play-acting at degradation, what’s the harm? as long as you are both playing, it is a powerful way of accepting something primal from your partner that is a little too-real (read: gross) in today’s world for we are no longer immersed others’ bodily excretions. but the act of having yourself, excuse the passive voice, come upon can have those same take-me-and-defile-me-for-your-pleasure overtones in the same way you can have healthy watersports sex.

  8. Eelsalad says:

    desuetude, interesting idea! A beautiful face with semen on it definitely lets the guy say, “yeah, I totally had sex with that hottie” to himself. Makes for a solid mental snapshot, I imagine. 🙂
    WRT the fluids thing, I dunno that I’d say “let alone men’s” — given the shaming women get around their own bodies and sexuality I imagine I’m not alone among the female-bodied in loathing my own secretions but liking men’s. 🙂
    Charlie – so far I’ve gotten a “huh, I never thought about it, really” from the one guy I’ve asked, who definitely loves ejaculating on his partners but really couldn’t articulate why. When I listed some of the ideas from here and the other post, he mostly said, “no, that’s not really it…” but couldn’t put his finger on why. He promised to think about it and let me know. 🙂

  9. desuetude says:

    @Eelsalad: I like “solid mental snapshot” as a way to describe the appeal! Maybe it is a kind of marker for that experience, if not ownership. I guess saying “let alone” was wrong. Getting off on things about the opposite, but not same, gender makes sense for straight people (I’m bi). I meant most women aren’t fans of it. But maybe that’s just what they say in public – have you heard different?

  10. S. says:

    This is very interesting to me as I’ve recently (like…last night, heh) had an experience with this. My boyfriend and I are in a fairly BDSM-oriented relationship, in which I am mostly submissive. I am also a feminist. To me, there is no mutual exclusivity between the two, but I know that sometimes my boyfriend worries that his dominant acts will be read by me as him attempting to degrade me. Last night, he came on my face for the first time, and I enjoyed it and was turned on by it, as was he. However, he then immediately started apologizing and promising me that he “isn’t that type of guy”. He quite clearly felt embarrassed about it, and worried about my reaction, although he knows full well that I’d have stopped him if I felt uncomfortable with it. I found it interesting because I am a lot kinkier than he is in many respects; I’ve introduced him to many of the “dirty” things we do together, and yet he still worried that by doing this, I would feel degraded by him. It’s definitely a politically loaded (ahem) action, and it seems like a lot of it is to do with porn.

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