Sexual Avoidant Males: Are We Asking The Right Question?

Urban (bedroom) myths of heterosexual men and sex abound: men think of sex every seven seconds, men are always up for sex, bigger is better. The media, Internet chat-rooms, online relationship advisors and the scrutiny of sexual relationships in particular, is producing a “sexualisation” of culture (Atwood, 2004). Yet around one third of men and half the women in one UK-wide study reported some kind of sexual dysfunction (Mercer et al. 2005) and for male respondents, the majority reported issues around getting and maintaining erections.

Whilst popularised views of sex regularly emphasise “penis-in-vagina” sex, this is at the obvious cost of other sexual relationships, sexual orientations or even other kinds of sex (Kleinplatz, 2011). As a result, the focus on heterosexual men in these relationships as well as their sexual performance has become increasingly penis-centric (Flowers et al. 2013; Zilbergeld, 1999) and has spawned a “fantasy model” of sex, in which the “main actors … are not actually people but sexual organs, especially the penis” (Zilbergeld, 1999: 16).

Perhaps not surprisingly then,male lack of sexual desire is an increasingly presenting issue amongst heterosexual couples (Brotto, 2010) as well as gay (Barker and Langdridge, 2013). But should we be so surprised at the existence of sexual avoidant males (or SAMs, as I term them) when “the socialization of males provides very little that is of value in the formation and maintenance of intimate relationships” (Zilbergeld, 1999: 7)?

Such a penis-centric emphasis has the inevitable downside (no pun intended). Kleinplatz (1998) points out that our Cartesian mind/body split focuses solely on the physical aspects of sex, thereby missing the subjective experience of the individual as a fully “embodied-self” (see Merleau-Ponty 1945, [2012] for a complete account of embodied sexual experience). As a result, the body is fragmented into separate physical components placing emphasis on particular body parts that are selectively pathologized and thereby miss the individual’s experience that contributes to or results from that issue.

So how does this help us understand the SAM experience? The existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre provides some insight. Following Sartre’s argument I expect my body to always function like a body: I expect my eyes to see, legs walk, heart pump, penis harden- and more. But if I experience a change in this state, not being able to get an erection for example, I become acutely aware of my body “being-for-the-other” (my partnerfor example) and become I not surprisingly self-conscious, shy or self-critical (Sartre, 1942 [2003]) about my obvious lack of ability, performance etc. Equally, I then feel the subjective gaze or “look” of the “Other” (my partner) and experience the inevitable judgment that accompanies it.

If we follow this argument to its logical conclusion, men only exist as far as a mechanistic view of the penis can take them (Apfelbaum, 2001). Such a narrow focus leaves little room for variance from normative performance and the assumptions that the proof of partner’s desirability is to be found in a man’s ready erection and/orensuing orgasm (Kleinplatz, 2004, 2011). Should the penis in question not be exemplifying desirability, subsequent questions on the part of the partner often give rise to what has unhelpfully been termed “performance anxiety” (Masters and Johnson, 1970) in men. A medicalization of male sexuality “denies, obscures, and ignores the social causes” and forces men to “conform to the [problematic male sexual] script rather than analyzing where the script comes from or challenging it (Tiefer, 1987: 165). The result is that men have “been taught to disconnect their emotional state from their sexual arousal” producing a very particular form of male confusion where “they rarely experience emotional connection without sex, yet they cannot always distinguish just why they are engaged in the activity when it occurs (Brooks, 2001: 62).

The expectation is that men want sex, they want it often and they can make it at will. If not, “it can be ‘against the rules’ for men to say that they do not want sex … Under these circumstances, being unable to ‘perform’ may be the only way to get out of sex” (Barker and Langdridge, 2013: 63). All of which might help therapists to pose a more pertinent question. What is the sexual situation doing to the man rather than what is the man not doing in the sexual situation?

Murray Blacket – Alumni LDPRT

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