Straight Men Are the Pariahs of Pleasure Advocacy
There’s an expression that’s grown popular among sex educators of a certain cohort: “Pleasure is a birthright.” It succinctly conveys that the human body is built to process pleasure on a cellular level, and also highlights the oppressive ideologies (and resulting public policies) that restrict access to pleasure globally.
This is why the gender ratio in the sex education and activism field seems strikingly skewed. Many of the most visible sexuality educators, therapists and influencers are female, trans and/or gender nonconforming, which is to say, individuals of marginalized genders. Cisgender men, particularly heterosexual men, are lacking as leaders in this arena and, consequently, also as followers.
Until the 1970s, sex researchers in the United States were almost exclusively men, according to the new unscripted Netflix docuseries, “The Principles of Pleasure.” (The most notable exception was Virginia Johnson, who teamed with William Masters to conduct groundbreaking human sexuality research in the 1960s.) The profile changed when women flooded the field after the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Sexual Revolution.
If pleasure is a pursuit that can enlighten and empower us all, as so many advocates profess, then why do men have virtually no media resources that center their unique experience?
“The Principles of Pleasure” is steeped in fourth-wave feminism. While the show’s progressive spirit is laudable in affirming the sexual vitality of women, it relies on a dubious premise to do so. In 2022, it’s nearly impossible to conceive of an ongoing “pleasure conversation” that isn’t being led by women and LGBTQIA+ folks, from Hollywood’s new crop of intimacy coordinators to sold-out blowjob classes that are now standard fare in luxury sex shops.
It’s not because men are inherently less interested in feeling good. Quite the contrary, said New York-based tantra practitioner and relationship coach Sarrah Rose, who has run a sexuality coaching platform for men called Tantric Activation since 2017.
“They’ve been taught that their sexuality is very formulaic, that it’s about being goal-driven and going straight for orgasm,” Rose explained.
In a culture where men see a “30-second crotch sneeze” as the pinnacle of pleasure, Rose’s coaching helps men harness and direct their sexual energy to meet new goals, such as separating orgasm from ejaculation and eliminating the refractory period.
“Men can have full body orgasms and multiple orgasms. They can have orgasms in all parts of their bodies, just as women can,” Rose explained. “There’s just not very many people out here showing them how to do this.”
There’s also a keen lack of professionals equipped to even talk about how struggles with sex and pleasure can affect men in their intimate relationships. Seeking that kind of support during his first marriage was a big part of what inspired Jerome Triplin, a prelicensed marriage and family therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina, to enter his profession.
Triplin, a straight cisgender man, is also a sex educator who utilizes systemic sex therapy in his practice. This involves considering the broader context for issues such as low libido, as opposed to merely biological factors, for which men tend to blame themselves.
“Let’s say we have an erectile dysfunction case,” Triplin said over Zoom. He’d want to know, “What medicines are you currently taking? What stressors are you dealing with? What’s going on in your marriage? All of these things play into what’s going on in someone’s sex life.”
Part of this broader context must also include the culture of male dominance, said author and masculinity expert Mark Greene, from New York. Greene first became interested in gender equity and relational practices 16 years ago, shortly after the birth of his son. This led Greene to start blogging about the social conventions of fatherhood and masculinity. His most essential observation: Physical touch is tied to the social, emotional and physical wellness of all human beings, and men are simultaneously programmed to conceive of affectionate touch as emasculating and, thus, a threat to their status.
It doesn’t help that men extensively police and punish each other for transgressions from that code, sometimes using homophobic abuse to deter such behavior. Instead, they learn to use touch as a means to dominate others, either through sex or aggression. When these are the only socially sanctioned ways for men to receive touch, it contributes to a mindset of sexual scarcity, leading female partners to complain about how their men “only seem to want sex.”
Escaping the box
Greene coined the term “man box culture” to describe the emotional suppression to which American men subject themselves for the sake of protecting their unearned institutional power. It’s this culture, he said, that’s to blame for men’s disproportionate rates of violence, depression, drug overdose and stress-related illness.
“The end result of man box culture is isolation, in terms of community but also in terms of touch, in terms of intimacy, in terms of sexuality, in terms of everything that makes us human,” Greene said.
This isolation likely explains why among older, straight white men, suicide rates are sky-high and rising.
Clearly, privilege and power can’t make up for a lack of connection and pleasure. With all of the daunting cultural obstacles that discourage men from engaging in basic relationship principles such as compromise, vulnerability and reciprocity, their absence in the sex-positivity space, essentially an advanced-level class in those concepts, makes perfect sense.
There’s also the possibility that some socially conscious men may perceive sex positivity, pleasure advocacy and gender equity to be a “female space” and are wary of appearing to intrude, Greene said. They may have ideas they’d like to share but are playing it safe by awaiting a direct invitation from more marginalized folks in the movement.
Rose, the tantra coach, said her male clients seek help with a whole host of issues, including sexual abuse, sexually transmitted infections, erectile dysfunction, compulsive porn-watching and penis size, to name just a few.
“I have so much love and compassion for these guys, and a lot of admiration for their courage,” Rose said. “The men that work with me are doing something that most men just won’t do because they’re too afraid at this point in time. I just hope that by normalizing this conversation, more men will find, ‘Oh, it’s OK, I can do this, too.’”