Dr. Joni Meenagh
At the recently concluded TASA conference I presented a paper titled ‘Masculinity So Stale: Negotiating Sexual Refusals in Heterosexual Relationships’ (link to slides). This paper explored a rarely talked about phenomenon: heterosexual men saying no to sex within their ongoing relationships. I argued that the ‘male sexual drive discourse’ is so pervasive that it renders (heterosexual) men’s sexual refusals unintelligible. This is because hegemonic masculinity is heavily policed; by men, women, and society more broadly. I’d like to discuss here how masculinity is policed by our cultural narratives of men’s sexual refusals.
If we look at the examples of #MasculinitySoFragile we can see how binary gender roles are reproduced and enforced, in seemingly silly ways. But as Jonathan Wynn points out, in order to safely transgress these boundaries men’s masculinity must already be firmly established. While for many straight men the repercussions for not being appropriately masculine may amount to nothing more than teasing, violating these boundaries can carry a death sentence. In order to resist being subject to negative consequences, men must position their transgressions within a modified framework of masculinity that still enables them to draw upon hegemonic concepts of masculinity. As can been seen through the #MasculinitySoFragile Tumblr, these strategies can be rife with machismo and homophobia.
While looking for images for my slides, I did a Google image search for ‘men say no to sex’. This is what I found:
The images that come up show heterosexual couples in bed. The men look forlorn, sad, possibly even depressed, while the women look angry, upset, distant, and sometimes hurt. With a few exceptions, like the older man talking to his doctor (presumably about erectile dysfunction), these images are of couples in the midst of a fight. The presumption is, if men are saying no to sex, there’s something wrong with the relationship.
In the Google search accompanying these images was a series of blogs explaining the reasons why men say no to sex. According to besthealthmag.ca, the top 6 reasons men say no to sex are: depression, low testosterone levels, trouble with the plumbing, stress about his career, exhaustion, and “you’re moving too fast.” GalTime.com reassures women it’s not them; it’s him. These reasons still fall within the biological imperative of the male sexual drive discourse; they position the man who says no as pathological, but fixable with some sort of intervention.
The Stir, a gossip type page hosted by CaféMom, lists ‘35 Brutally Honest Reasons Men Say No To Sex’. Moving beyond the idea that there is a biological problem with the man and that men’s sexual refusals are men’s problems, this list contributes psychological problems; issues of infidelity; and several ways in which women are ruining sex for their man. These include things like: 11. ‘You said no to me last night so I’m saying no to you tonight’; 16. ‘There’s a piece of toilet paper stuck in your bush’; 26. ‘You don’t want to try new things and I’m tired of the same old with you’; and 34. ‘I’m tired of you saying “stop or don’t do that.”’
As I noted in my paper, there is a large body of research that speaks to how women often feel unable to say ‘no’ to sex with men because men’s desires are so overwhelming, and, because hegemonic, heteronormative discourses like the male sexual drive discourse positon women as responsible for controlling men’s sexual urges. From the above example, it is clear that women are not only responsible for ensuring men do not become too aroused, but are also responsible for ensuring they are appropriately aroused. Considering these cultural narratives, it is no wonder women are refusing men’s sexual refusals!
It is almost an act of defiance to hegemonic masculinity for a man to say no to sex. As such, men’s sexual refusals may signal a shift away from the dictates of the male sexual drive discourse – and this could be a good thing! If we want to open up space for more ethical sexual subject positions, we need to make it equally possible for men and women to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to sex. However, we need to keep in mind that hegemonic masculinity is both slippery and flexible; what can seem like a progressive opening up of possibilities for men may reaffirm sexual double standards that are punitive to both women and men.
Returning to the Google image search results, there is a clear portrayal of men’s shame; they are disgraced as men for saying no. Even if they are sleeping peacefully, their partner is lying awake frustrated in bed, signalling, perhaps, that they have not heard the end of it about their refusal. Which brings us to another narrative that emerges from these images and blogs: women’s frustration, disappointment, and unease with their partner’s sexual refusal. There is a gendered tension here between the thoughts ‘what’s wrong with him?’ and ‘what’s wrong with me?’. If women are held responsible for managing men’s sexual arousal, then it is also a threat to women’s sense of desirability when men refuse sex with them – particularly within an ongoing relationship. And so the cycle continues.
Without challenging and disrupting the dominant discursive claim that men constantly desire sex and sexual attention, women – whether accidentally or deliberately – reinforce the male sexual drive discourse and the gendered norms and double standards that come with it. And as long as our cultural narratives about men saying no to sex continue to present this as a problem – with either the man, his partner, or their relationship – whatever subversive potential men’s refusals hold will instead continue to reproduce our stale old gender norms.
Dr Joni Meenagh completed her PhD at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University and is currently working as a teaching associate at RMIT University. She can be found on twitter at @JoniMeenagh.