In Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It and Men Don't Either, Michael Bader is attempting to present a new theory of male sexuality, based on his clinical experience in therapy with his patients. This new theory of male sexuality, he claims, should do much to dispel the misunderstanding of male behavior behind contemporary controversies over cybersex and internet pornography, as well as the high-profile prostitution scandals which have recently caught some prominent politicians. Simplistic assumptions about the nature of male sexuality in these cases contribute to an overall demonization of male sexuality, in which it is regarded as little but a threat to women and children. These assumptions can perhaps be encapsulated in the oft-heard slogan APornography tells lies about women, but it tells the truth about men@; that is, that men and their sexuality are cruel and domineering, concerned only with power-tripping and violence. If Bader's theory can inject understanding into the gender politics, it would perform a service to us all, but let's not hold our breath.
Bader's theory will have some familiar elements: the childhood beginnings of adult conflicts, as well as unconscious beliefs that can interfere with sexuality. In short form, his theory has children working out feelings generated by the way they are cared for, or neglected, by parents. Situations that threaten the care they need to receive from parents can create feelings of shame, guilt, unlovability, rejection and the like. Inevitably, some of these feelings come to concern sexuality, as children observe the character of their parents' relationship and generalize its meaning for themselves. Since sexual arousal is blocked by feelings like shame and guilt, as children grow into adults, they must unconsciously process these feelings in order to find a route to overcoming their inhibiting effect on sexuality. The medium of unconscious processing, Bader argues, is sexual fantasy, and the routes to successful arousal come to constitute one's sexual preferences.
Bader pulls out the old theory that has children attempting to separate from the mother in order to develop their own distinct identity: according to this view, boys must make a more radical split than do girls, since it requires introducing sex and gender differences as well. When boys symbolically reject their mothers in the course of acquiring a male identity, they perceive themselves as hurting someone who they love and on whose love they depend. Intimacy and emotional connection become more threatening to boys, since they stand to lose their hard-won identity. Ultimately, boys may come to feel that their masculinity in itself harms women. So when boys see the frustrations their mothers have with their fathers, they develop beliefs about women's views of sexuality that include general hostility toward the male sex, that male sexual advances are almost always unwanted or a burden on women, that males are responsible for women's frustrations or bitterness, and that women are fragile and easily damaged or degraded by contact with males. These pathogenic beliefs must be overcome in fantasy, and in response, men develop their particular sexual preferences as coping mechanisms.
For example, Bader suggests that a man's pathogenic belief that maleness in itself harms women, might be manifested in fantasies of domination, since being controlled by a strong woman overcomes this belief and allows arousal. Similarly, a man's taste for strippers might be a way of overcoming a belief that women hate men's sexual attention, by a fantasy enactment of a woman relishing being the centre of attention. Pornographic images of women delighted to receive facials may be appreciated by men, not because of its degrading (or at least, pretty icky) content, but because it symbolically dismisses a man's prior belief that male sexuality inherently degrades women. And perhaps the pursuit of younger women to which many men fall prey reflects an attempt to escape from a particularly debilitating relationship to his mother with someone positive and vital. The understanding of male sexuality that Bader's analysis leads to looks behind indifference to women's feelings in sex and discovers deep worry over what women think. Behind apparent selfishness, men struggle with guilt about the ways they need to and must use women in sex. Behind apparent predatory behavior lies the desperation of loneliness, feelings of powerlessness and fear of rejection.
To some of us, this probably sounds like the Ablame your mama@ school of therapy. Bader recognizes this and addresses the issue in a later chapter devoted to the social context of male sexuality. Actually the last three or four chapters are the most interesting in the book, as Bader leaves the couch behind and starts to think a bit more broadly about his subject. First he considers the possibilities of changing sexual preferences through therapy, provided the moralistic resistance to approaching male sexuality as psychologically complex and meaningful can be overcome. For some, regarding men as psychologically complex might be a bit of a stretch B think of all the messages that effectively rationalize not bothering to consider men this way: that men only want one thing, that men are emotionally stunted, or that 'the little head thinks for the big'. In the chapter on social context, Bader reflects on the pattern he sees in his patients' family constellations. Repeatedly, the pattern has been one of depressed, frustrated mothers, and emotionally or physically absent fathers, which Bader connects to the social conditions of the mid-20th Century, the restrictions on the gender roles of the time and the prevalence of the nuclear family. He goes on to consider the political significance of distinguishing sexual fantasy and reality, which is essential to his theory and analysis. Two groups notoriously collapse this distinction for their own political ends: conservatives, and the anti-pornography feminists of the 1980s and their descendants in sexual subordination theory. Conservatives wish to insist that sexual fantasy inevitably leads to 'terrible things' and must be suppressed, while anti-porn feminists claim that men can't distinguish between fantasy women and real women, and so any sexual thought a man may have is a threat to women and must be suppressed. Bader closes with a 'vive la difference' testimony to understanding.
To my mind, there is significant limitation to the book B the family pattern accounting for the sexuality of the men in question (Bader's patients) may be relevant only for middle-aged and older men, in short, the Boomer generation of men. Things have changed, if not much for the better, and women mostly don't have the option of playing the frustrated homemaker any more, since both parents must work to support the family. Men also have sought better relationships with their children, if not with housework, and are no longer quite so distant emotionally. Masculinity itself has been put in question to a considerable extent in the later decades of the Twentieth Century. So, how many contemporary readers will find their experience reflected in Bader's depiction of male sexuality? It's difficult to say, but in unkind moments, when confronted with the "everything-Boomer" world, I'm tempted to scream: "Alright already, they're almost dead -- can't we talk about something else?"
© 2010 George Williamson
George Williamson, University of Saskatchewan