Sunlit Water

June 30, 2006


Filed under: Sex — by teofilo @ 9:50 pm

Jackmormon, who is one of my favorite blog people, recently had a post responding to BitchPhD’s series of posts for frank discussion of sex. The particular issue she ended up addressing was my contention that men are taught that their bodies are inherently disgusting, and the surprising bewilderment and opposition that statement aroused from both men and women. I’m sick of that argument, frankly; I said pretty much all I want to say about it in the comments to this Unfogged post. But Jackmormon also mentioned in passing another issue that was raised in the men’s discussion: fantasy. She writes:

The women seemed so much more able to admit to even unflattering desires; the men felt guilty–or were made to feel guilty–about deviant desires.

You can see this most clearly in a series of the comments on the men’s thread where one man admits to S&M-type fantasies and another tells him that his desires could be very upsetting to women and feminist-type men (or something like that; I’m not going to dig around for the comments themselves). This is in sharp contrast to the women’s thread, where several women mentioned similar fantasies and other women, even if they themselves didn’t have or understand such desires, voiced their support. B mentions in the post introducing the men’s thread that men seem to have difficulty talking about sex, much more so than women, and I think this dynamic has a lot to do with that. When women talk about their fantasies, no matter how kinky or unusual, they’re just exploring their sexuality in a healthy way that is to be encouraged (at least by liberal, sex-positive people like those engaged in these discussions), but if men mention anything with even a slight tinge of violence or aggression, or even just desires that are significantly outside of the perceived norm, the default assumption is that they’re potentially dangerous because, you know, they just might act on those desires and that would be very bad. Indeed it would, but is there really any evidence that they will? Why are men with S&M fantasies considered potential rapists while women with similar fantasies are encouraged to pursue them (or at least not discouraged)?

Obviously, there is an asymmetry, particularly in the S&M case, since women tend to be subs and men doms. Because the roles men take in these fantasies are active and involve the subjugation of women (in some sense) while the women’s roles are passive, it is obviously more likely for a man to go too far than a woman. But surely not all doms are men, nor all subs women. (Right? I don’t actually know much about S&M, but I presume the gender roles aren’t actually that fixed.) Would a woman who has dom-like fantasies be treated the same way as the man on B’s thread? I doubt it; I think she would be at least tolerated rather than discouraged.

What I’m getting at here is that men are strongly discouraged from being honest about their fantasies and desires, even in the same situations in which women are encouraged to be honest about theirs. This is in some sense understandable, since men’s fantasies can indeed be violent and disturbing, particularly to someone who is inclined to interpret fantasies fairly literally as barely-submerged desires to perform specific actions. I think this interpretation is dead wrong, and I’m sure many people agree, but it’s there, and it surfaces more often when dealing with men, who do tend to be “powerful” and “dominant” in a variety of ways (both biological and social) when compared with women. This sort of disapproval strongly discourages men from opening up about their fantasies in all but the most intimate circumstances.

In her foreword to Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, “J,” the author of The Sensuous Woman, makes the following remark about the process of writing that book:

[The chapter on men’s fantasies] was one of the shortest chapters in my book, for, much to my astonishment, asking a man about his sexual fantasies triggered a response similar to that of hitting an exposed nerve. In both individual and group interviews the men reacted as if I had suggested rape, and clammed up immediately. Even swingers and habitual orgiasts seemed to be struck by a bolt of amnesia. … My heart goes out to the poor soul who attempts to compile the first book on men’s fantasies. It would be easier to train turtles to outrun greyhounds.

Quite right, and I’m not the least bit astonished. Although obviously not all male fantasies are violent, and many of those that aren’t have been fully integrated into popular culture, when it comes to individual men and their individual fantasies, there’s an attitude of lack of trust floating around that makes it much more prudent to just keep your damn mouth shut, since you can never be sure you won’t get jumped on for saying the wrong thing.



  1. I think of the asymetry as a product of of history. Take a non-sexual example: suppose I daydream about inviting Jewish friends over to my house for dinner, but in the middle of dinner, I put on a swastika armband, drag them into an enclosed room in my basement, and gas them. Ah but instead of Zyklon B, it’s nitrous oxide, so we all have a good laugh. Right? How about having my African-American neighbors over for a good old fashioned cross burning?

    Men have oppressed women since the dawn of time, physically, emotionally, and every way one can think of. One of the hallmarks of our time is that men are, as a group, acknowledging that this is true, and that it’s not a good thing. I can see why someone would be hesitant about admitting to wanting to reverse that, or even play at reversing it. Who wants to be known as heading down the road to this stuff?

    Comment by CharleyCarp — July 2, 2006 @ 9:03 am |Reply

  2. Wow, CC, that was really striking.

    I wonder, though, if there may be a difference between fantasy and what is actually fun. The pro-sex people rarely admit that what you fantasize about may not be what you would enjoy in bed. I often fantasize about extreme scenarios that would not at all be pleasant if they were happening. Not many people can get off from fantasizing about nice, tender intercourse with their usual partner, but they’re more likely to enjoy that than underwater sex with an octopus (a la Tia) or a gangbang by the entire English World Cup team.

    I don’t really like talking about fantasies because that’s always a discussion about what it takes to get me off when I am alone, and it doesn’t translate at all to what gets me off with other people. I find people incredibly reticent about the actual experience of sex. It’s hard to talk, anywhere, about the way sex happens. (We were just talking about this over at Fetch Me My Axe from a different angle.) Dunno. Maybe no one gets what they want, conversationally, out of sex talk.

    Comment by A White Bear — July 2, 2006 @ 2:20 pm |Reply

  3. AWB’s comment is pretty much what I was getting at in the post. People often interpret fantasy as being all about what you secretly want to do, but I don’t think that’s a useful way to think of it at all, and it leads to all sorts of problems when people share their fantasies.

    Comment by teofilo — July 2, 2006 @ 3:15 pm |Reply

  4. Yeah, and that’s why people don’t want to share them.

    You know, it doesn’t matter whether I’d really enjoy burning a cross with my neighbors, or locking some Jewish friends in the basement. If I had the fantasy, and told them, I’d expect negative consequences. I’d expect them to think I was a whack job. Or, more likely, a racist. If I’ve enjoyed the fantasy, would they be wrong, even if I don’t act on it? Or want to act on it. Even if they know this, they’ll still wonder whether I think them less than fully human, less deserving of autonomy than myself.

    If there was some long history of humans sexually abusing octopi, I think maybe a fantasy of this kind would fall into that territory. As there isn’t, I’m not seeing any trouble with it. But a fantasy, by a man, about dominating women? You want this guy to date your sister?

    Comment by CharleyCarp — July 2, 2006 @ 3:40 pm |Reply

  5. …or a woman who fantasizes being gangraped by the English World Cup team–you want her to be your girlfriend?

    Comment by A White Bear — July 2, 2006 @ 7:55 pm |Reply

  6. (All I meant by that is it plays into an extremely old, like Medieval, patriarchal assumption that women secretly want to be gangraped by sweaty thugs.)

    Comment by A White Bear — July 2, 2006 @ 7:56 pm |Reply

  7. Okay, I generally try to not respond to ad hominems, and I’m not sure how seriously those questions are meant, but whatever. The answer to both your questions, for me personally, is that I don’t care. Seriously. At all.

    Who my sister dates is her business and hers alone, and I don’t see why I should care about it one bit. As for me, if I ever find someone who’s willing to be my girlfriend I’m not going to worry too much about what her fantasies are because I’ll be satisfied just to have found her.

    Now is there anyone out there who would like to discuss the issues in the post that I wrote?

    Comment by teofilo — July 2, 2006 @ 9:56 pm |Reply

  8. Oh. I’m sorry. I certainly didn’t intend ad hominem. Or otherwise to give offense.

    Comment by CharleyCarp — July 3, 2006 @ 12:04 am |Reply

  9. Don’t worry about it; my response above is probably a little excessive.

    Comment by teofilo — July 3, 2006 @ 12:14 am |Reply

  10. Dude, A White Bear, the English World Cup team?

    Comment by Jackmormon — July 3, 2006 @ 1:24 pm |Reply

  11. (And thanks, teo, for the nice words.)

    Comment by Jackmormon — July 3, 2006 @ 1:26 pm |Reply

  12. I don’t follow sports, so my example is randomly chosen from the words I hear when I leave my home.

    In my comment above, all I meant was to offer yet more reasons why talking about fantasies neither reveals much about someone’s actual sex life, nor does it necessarily reveal anything about a person aside from incredibly deep-level subconscious stuff that you could never use to know anything about that person at all. Certainly I wasn’t attacking anyone present. I love Tia’s example of the underwater octopus sex because it demonstrates how completely bizarre one’s dream-fantasies are. I’m sure there is a history of people abusing cephalopods, but I’m guessing it merely popped into Tia’s dreaming head as a whim, perhaps induced by viewing old Japanese paintings.

    Comment by A White Bear — July 3, 2006 @ 1:37 pm |Reply

  13. I think it was the Octavia Butler novel Imago that inspired it actually. These aliens are always having hot tentacle sex and it’s described as quite transcendent.

    Comment by Tia — July 3, 2006 @ 1:42 pm |Reply

  14. I guess I’m a bad one to comment on this post, since I’m not really the sex-pos type who goes around cheering on orgasms in strangers–men or women. (I’m highly sensitive to the asexual plight, as I have several asexuals in my family.) I’m only interested in people’s sexual fantasies if they’re inherently interesting or funny.

    Comment by A White Bear — July 3, 2006 @ 1:48 pm |Reply

  15. JM quote corrected.

    AWB: I get what you’re saying, that fantasies aren’t just what we all secretly want to do in bed and that they therefore aren’t a good guide to understanding people’s sexuality, and that’s basically what I’m saying too (as I noted above). Where we seem to differ is that you’re taking that as a reason to not talk about fantasy at all, while I take it as a starting point for discussion. What I’m interested in is why we treat fantasies as submerged desires in some cases but not others. The Unfogged thread has been really great for that so far.

    I can see that you prefer to talk about the physical process of sex rather than fantasy. I’ve got no problem with that, but I don’t have anything to say on that topic, so this really just isn’t the best place for that discussion.

    Comment by teofilo — July 3, 2006 @ 2:37 pm |Reply

  16. “Obviously, there is an asymmetry, particularly in the S&M case, since women tend to be subs and men doms.”

    Where do you get this impression? The impression I get from reading about the S&M scene (not being involved with it) is that male/female submissions are actually pretty balanced numerically, if not actually tilted towards the males. Now, perhaps in non-scene S&M, which is probably the majority of S&M as practiced, it’s different.

    If, metaphorically, women are slaves to the patriarchy, isn’t it fun for a slave to play master more than it is for a slave to play slave? And wouldn’t it be more exciting and transgressive for a master to play slave than for a master to play master? That’s one wild guess as to why there might be more male submissives, if there are in fact more male submissives.

    On reading the comments, CharleyCarp puts it much better than I just did.

    Comment by pdf23ds — July 3, 2006 @ 3:17 pm |Reply

  17. Thinking back, none of the women commenting at Bitch PhD’s that I remember talking about fantasies of dominating their partner, while several had submissive fantasies. But by itself that doesn’t mean that men don’t have submissive fantasies like that. The numbers could be the same on each side. Unfortunately, the men’s thread doesn’t have enough data points to make good comparisons.

    Comment by pdf23ds — July 3, 2006 @ 3:20 pm |Reply

  18. Yeah, I guess I got that impression mostly from Bitch’s threads. I was actually kind of surprised that there weren’t any female doms. I really know hardly anything about S&M at all, so you’re probably right about the gender balance (some of the comments on the Unfogged thread said similar things). If it is balanced, I think that supports my point even more.

    Comment by teofilo — July 3, 2006 @ 3:31 pm |Reply

  19. Teo, your mention of Nancy Friday makes me think of her collection of men’s fantasies. It’s titled, of all things, Men in Love.

    I wonder now (having read the discussion here and at Unfogged) whether that title was a nod to mainstream society’s discomfort with hearing about men’s fantasies — that it makes them safer somehow if we imagine them only in the context of a relationship.

    Also, the author’s note at the beginning of the alt-sex bible The Guide to Getting it On has a note about the proportion of female-to-male respondents to his pre-book survey. Way more women, and the women’s responses (IIRC) were much more detailed. The book is not about fantasy, but it’s still an interesting point about how people in our culture are (not) encouraged to talk about intimacy.

    Comment by Witt — July 3, 2006 @ 5:21 pm |Reply

  20. Interesting, Witt. I think you may be on to something there about men’s fantasies being considered safer in the context of a relationship.

    Comment by teofilo — July 3, 2006 @ 8:02 pm |Reply

  21. Hey, on the men are ugly thing, I had some more thoughts that I put in a comment on JackM’s blog, and then figured they should go where you’d see them as well, so I’m just going to copy the comment over here.

    I had some thoughts about this over the weekend. First, I realized that I am familiar (I think) with what Teo’s talking about, but I’d seen it as privilege — from my perspective I’d thought of it as men having permission to be non-sexual — neither attractive nor unattractive, simply not participating in sexuality — when they choose not to be. A woman is either dressed sexily or is deliberately covering her sexuality; a man, on the other hand, has the option of simply being neutral. While I’d never thought of it in Teo’s terms, I’m betting that that’s the same thing he’s talking about — that from his perspective it feels as though men are required to be sexually neutral.

    The other thing, and this is dopier, is that this is what Queer Eye For The Straight Guy was about (is it still on?). The point of the show was in allowing straight men access to beauty and sexuality — in breaking away from that enforced neutrality that Teo, and clearly that the target Queer Eye audience, perceives.

    Does this sound like I’m finally getting at what you’re talking about?

    Comment by LizardBreath — July 5, 2006 @ 10:44 am |Reply

  22. I guess; that’s basically what Cala and SCMT were arguing, and I suppose it’s the same underlying issue. Where I’m not sure I follow is with the “option” stuff. What I’m basically saying is that no, men don’t have an option of being neutral, or rather, they don’t have an option of being sexualized; they’re inherently unsexualized and can’t change it. I suppose Queer Eye and similar things are attempts to overcome that and give straight men options by appealing to gay men (who are, of course, not affected by any of this).

    The idea I actually associate most with the “men are ugly” trope is the “women are so much less superficial than men; they’re attracted to personality, not looks” trope, which is of course also bullshit. I tend to think the men-are-ugly thing is mostly advanced by women on a day-to-day level (remember that the Seinfeld quote was by Elaine). The “even ugly guys can get hot chicks” thing I’ve always thought of as more of a male fantasy, but it’s obviously related somehow.

    Comment by teofilo — July 5, 2006 @ 5:53 pm |Reply

  23. Witt – Nancy Friday’s title doesn’t just refer to men in relationships, but to her thesis about how men’s (hetero-)sexual fantasies are driven by a mixture of love and rage – love / longing / desire for connection with women, and rage at the way they perceive women as the source of sexual frustration / gatekeeping / guilt, tracing back to the role of mother as primary source of parental authority in childhood. The book was published in 1980, so it is primarily looking at men who grew up in the 40s, 50s and early 60s; I don’t know how her thesis would be modified (if at all) by more egalitarian child-rearing practices of more recent years.

    Comment by EDguy — July 6, 2006 @ 6:33 am |Reply

  24. […] Sunlit Water: Asymmetry In Female and Male Sexual Fantasies […]

    Pingback by Creative Destruction » Link Farm & Open Thread #30 — July 9, 2006 @ 2:54 am |Reply

  25. Queer Eye is supposed to make straight men appeal to women by not being slobs or schlubs. It’s for guys who think it’s gay to know anything about clothing, hair/skin care, or decor. Knowing what looks good on them and looking good make them fool good and boosts their confidence. Making everything look nice will help them enter relationships and then not give up because they got what they wanted and don’t need to make an effort anymore. They can keep the spark alive or boost it, but not let it die.

    You are right about men’s fantasies equaling intent.

    I used to deflate if a guy I liked said he liked some female celebrity, because I took it to mean he couldn’t like me. (No guy I liked liked me back, but that doesn’t make this the reason.) On the other hand, if an actor liked black women or had romantic scenes with a black woman, I thought he might like me.

    Meanwhile, I didn’t relate this to myself. When I was 13, I was hot for Dweezil Zappa, who is nothing like the classmate with whom I was infatuated. In h.s., it was Axl Rose and Duff McKagen. I kept the fantasy of my favorite celebrities separate from my real-life infatuation, love, lust, and crushes.

    Comment by ~Macarena~ — July 25, 2006 @ 6:03 pm |Reply

  26. I happened back to this post because it was in a google search. I just wanted to point out that the male sub in those bitchphd threads also got some hostility. People are just about as uncomfortable with a man surrendering the powerful role as with him “abusing” it. But really I think any kind of outre male sexuality makes men seem unpleasantly vulnerable–there’s an ick, I didn’t want to think about that aspect to contemplating men’s desire if it doesn’t run in the prescribed track much more than I think there is with women; this is related to your point about men’s bodies I think. I think the male body is treated as ugly when it’s naked (unless it’s some perfect 300 looking thing, and even then you don’t necessarily full frontal, because the dangly bits are somehow embarrassing) because its a signal of vulnerability to be naked.

    Also, while pdf23ds might be right about the percentages on the scene (I don’t know), I think in terms of possession of fantasies/light experimentation, maledom/femsub is more common. At least on the fantasy point, I read reference to a survey that said so. Of course, there are conceivably problems with self report as a measure of something like that, but what can you do.

    Comment by Tia — March 31, 2007 @ 10:31 am |Reply

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