Last month, Sunday Review published an essay by Stephen Marche, The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido (La monstruosa naturaleza sexual de los hombres y el escándalo), that drew more than 1,500 responses on the Times site. Mr. Marche is addressing some of those comments here; they have been edited for length and clarity.
“Monstrosity” does not lurk in every man. You are doing a disservice to the cause by painting everyone with one brush. The question to be asked is, “Do I have the possibility of monstrosity in me and, if so, why, when and what do I do with that?”
Stephen Marche: I don’t really belong to a cause, so I’m not sure that I can do a disservice to one — only to myself. But I take the point that I’m generalizing about men and that generalizations are dangerous, especially when it comes to sexuality. I don’t think all men are the same. In fact, the nature of male libido is almost terrifyingly diverse. But one fundamental thing seems to me really essential to confront: We have irrational bodies. We have bodies with brutal desires that are totally unconcerned with our ideas. As I said in my essay: “There is a line, obviously, between desire and realization, and some cross it and some don’t. But a line is there for every man.” So I would rephrase your question slightly: “I do have the possibility of monstrosity in me. Why, when and what do I do with that?” The men who do not have any potential monstrosity in them are, in my experience, perishingly rare. They might exist, but I’ve never met one.
I agree that men don’t generally seem interested in taking a long, hard look at male violence and misogyny. I’m glad the author is encouraging men to become even marginally more self-aware. That said, there are some shaky assumptions here. The author assumes that the male libido is a biological force that men cannot control, but does not acknowledge that women have equally strong libidos, and we seem to control ours just fine. I think he is using the term “male libido” and “male sexuality” to describe something else — the way men have weaponized sex in a patriarchal culture, using a combination of sexual violence and sexual shame to subjugate and disempower women. But what he’s referring to is culture, not biology.
Marche: Of course you’re right that women have equally brutal desires as men. One of the inspirations for this article was the feminist writers of the “sex wars” debates in the 1980s who acknowledged, with a great deal of courage, that what they wanted to do in bed and what they believed were often in conflict. And that was a very complicated, human moment.
I didn’t talk about women’s desires in this essay for a couple of reasons. One, I am not a woman. Two, female bosses are not going around flashing their genitals to young men powerless to stop them over and over again. It just isn’t happening. That is to say, the brutality of the male libido has been exposed and is being exposed over and over again, which is causing this moment of reckoning. As for the question of what is culture and what is biology, we obviously want to believe that everything brutal in ourselves is simply bad social programming, because it makes us feel that there are solutions to the crises we face.
For decades my sex drive was relentless. Getting old and losing my libido’s drive was like being cut loose from a lunatic. It takes some combination of institutions: marriage, religion, female modesty/gatekeeping (yup, females have a role in checking men), fatherhood, and to a lesser degree, police, lawsuits, human resource departments, etc., to keep things in check.
With that out of the way, what do we do about it? I don’t have a solution. We are a liberated and libertine society, which has ridiculed and destroyed the very institutions that once helped men grow into gentlemen.
Marche: Plublius isn’t alone. The playwright Sophocles once experienced something similar, according to the first book of Plato’s “Republic.” Sophocles, who had grown very old, said that being impotent was a relief, and that he felt like he had “escaped from a frantic and savage master.” I think many men can sympathize.
But I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for the old institutions. Any close examination of their history shows pretty evidently that they rest on the assumption that women are chattel. The equality of women to me is a given; making that truth real is the most important humanistic revolution of all time. Besides, though the past had different ideals, human sexuality was always disruptive. Sex has been and always will be a problem no matter what ideology you follow. I think that’s what’s been made so clear in the past few months. It doesn’t matter what political program any man subscribes to.
If this is just about sexual gratification, people like Harvey Weinstein would just hire an escort. The joining of your libido to the harassment, abuse and manipulation of others is how we know someone is morally repugnant and not merely overrun by hormones or made a bad decision.
Marche: The specific pathologies of the individual men in question, while they are, to be frank, totally fascinating to me, aren’t particularly revealing. Each one is a separate matrix of the inevitably corrupting nature of power and a distorted libido. They amount to little more than themselves.
But I do believe that it is somewhat naïve to say that libido isn’t about power itself — not always but often. Consider a runaway best seller like “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Consider the content of almost all pornography. That to me is the darkness into which we have yet to look: How much of sex itself is about power? I’m not sure we’re going to like an honest answer to that question.
Barack Obama once remarked that if men represented the problem of rape, then by the same token, men represented the solution, too.
Likewise with sexual harassment and other unwanted advances. This can’t simply be reduced to a male versus female issue. Decent-minded men need to be heard, too, with the message that violent and forced displays of virility do not demonstrate strength; self-restraint and respect for women do.
Marche: I wholeheartedly agree with this comment. I am totally uninterested in being on Team Man or Team Woman. Surely this is not how we lead our lives. And I do find the framework of the debate cripplingly partisan. As a man, I do not recognize, in most forms of feminism, an understanding of masculinity that corresponds to reality.
On the other hand, men are way, way, way behind women in their thinking about their lives as gendered beings. I mean, way behind. Decent men need to be heard, but decent men, first of all, need to listen. They need to start listening to women and to the revelations of women’s experiences that we are witnessing. That should be men’s first focus right now. Then they need to start listening to themselves and figuring out what it means to be a man.
Unfortunately, the situation is a bit of a Catch-22. The men who have the strength to be vulnerable enough to examine their own nature have, in a sense, already made the crucial leap. The men who don’t have the strength to look at themselves cannot make the leap. I am pessimistic.
Stephen Marche is the author, most recently, of The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century.