I’m back from vacation, but I’m going to take a break from the Hero’s Journey trope posts to talk about something that I really feel passionate about.  I hope you’ll forgive me if this turns into a rant, but I think this is an important issue that has some very dangerous implications that need to be explored.

In modern fiction, there’s a very prominent trope that a man is not a virgin.  The basic idea is this: if the protagonist is an adult male and he hasn’t yet had sex with a woman, there’s something fundamentally wrong with him.  Of course, because of his adventurous lifestyle, he can’t be tied down in a committed relationship–that would spoil the story.  But he can’t be holding himself back, either, lest his manhood come into question.  And most of the time, he doesn’t really want to, anyway.

This trope has a whole host of unfortunate implications, though, all of which serve to reinforce constrictive gender roles, disempower both men and women, drive a gulf of misunderstanding between the sexes, and emasculate true manhood and its role in our society.

To demonstrate this, let’s take this trope to the logical conclusions that our society seems to have come to.

If a man is not a virgin, then sex is a rite of passage, and it isn’t rape if it’s female on male.

In fiction, the sex as rite of passage trope is often seen in stories about angsty teenagers trying desperately to get laid. These are not typically stories about love–they are stories about peer pressure, objectification, and power.  By equating sex as a rite of passage in this way, it actually divorces sex from any concept of love or commitment, and turns any form of physical intimacy into a caricature of itself.

It doesn’t stop there, though.  If sex is a rite of passage, then it’s only reasonable that the young novice should have an older mentor to help him through the initiation process.  Thus we get the professional sex-ed trope, where the boy’s mentors or guardians help guide him through his first sexual encounter.  The implications for pedophilia and underage sex are more than a little disturbing.

We can see this trope in action in the way we treat female sex offenders.  If a 30-something male teacher has sex with one of his female students, he gets a lengthy prison sentence and spends the rest of his life stigmatized as a predator.  If a 30-something female teacher has sex with one of her male students, she gets a slap on the wrist and TV spot.  She’s not a sexual predator–she’s just having a personal crisis.

Needless to say, this double standard is extremely destructive for the victims of such abuse.

If a man is not a virginthen men cannot help themselves.  Therefore, all men are perverts.

If a true man is not a virgin, then a true man doesn’t say no to sex.  Even if he can say no, he won’t because that’s just not what men do.  Therefore, being a man is functionally synonymous with being a pervert.

The danger here is that it reduces men to their basic animal urges.  If being a man means finding a warm, inviting place for your penis each night, then you might as well go out to the pasture and eat grass.  Whatever happened to self control and delayed gratification?  Do you think anything meaningful would ever have come out of our civilization if we couldn’t keep our pants on?

And yet, both men and women seem perfectly willing to believe that it’s not only unmanly for a man to control his animal urges, it’s impossible.  On the Kindle Boards forum about a month ago, there was a thread on erotica and marriage and one of the members posted this:

I used to work as a forums admin on a large women’s forum (over 100,000 members) and the relationships forum had a lot of heated discussions on this topic. I won’t of course refer to any specific threads, but the discussions went a lot like this:

One woman concerned that her husband was spending too much time watching porn
A massive amount of women telling her that it’s ok, that ‘all men watch porn’
A small amount of women saying either they don’t agree with it or that their men don’t view it
A percentage of women saying their men are addicted to porn and would rather watch it than go to bed with a willing wife
A percentage of women saying it’s not the porn itself that concerns them, but the type of porn their husbands watch
Another group of women saying they either watch it themselves, or watch it with their husbands
Yet another small group of women who either were or are prostitutes/strippers/involved in amateur porn (who are either for or against based on their experiences)
A very vocal percentage of women saying that if your man says he doesn’t watch it, he’s a liar
A heated discussion ensuing….

How does it possibly empower men to tell them that they cannot control their own sexual impulses?  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, which harms not only men but women as well.  If all men are perverts, then women can’t afford to wait for a decent man and should settle instead for a deadbeat porn addict.

But that’s not even the worst of it:

…and if all men are perverts and all women are prudes, then men and women are two entirely different species that are completely incapable of understanding one another.

This one really gets to me.  I hear it everywhere, even from people who don’t consciously buy into the logic behind it.  I used to buy into it myself.  It’s the idea that women are so complicated that they are impossible to understand, whereas men are as simple as an on/off switch.

In my experience, men and woman are both human.  Both of them are equally complex and equally emotional.  Yes, they are different, but in such a way that it’s equally difficult (or equally easy) for the one to understand the other.  Generally, women tend to externalize their complexity, whereas men tend to internalize it.  At least,  that’s what I’ve found.

Our society takes this to the next level, however, and teaches men that they should just swallow their emotions.  If they don’t, they risk being seen as weak or effeminate (never mind that equating weakness with femininity is a whole other can of worms in itself).  And after a lifetime of living this way, it can be hard not to believe that that’s just the way men are.

But this is perhaps the most insidious danger of all.  It’s the falsehood that real men don’t cry, or show emotion, or have any capacity for compassion or tenderness.  It’s the fallacy of equating strength with violence.  It’s the destructive belief that men will never rise above the lowest common denominator of their hormones, and should never even try.  And because men are so obviously different from women in this regard, any attempt to understand them would be futile.

But how can you have a committed relationship with someone you can’t understand?  How can you possibly hope to make the necessary sacrifices for each other to make the thing work out?  And if you can’t reach the understanding necessary for a committed, loving relationship, how can you ever hope to raise a family together?

So yeah, sorry for the rant, but this trope REALLY gets under my skin.  It doesn’t help that one of my favorite authors, David Gemmell, is a big fan of it.  I tried to get into his Rigante series, but this trope was so strong that I couldn’t finish the first book.

I should also clarify that the thing that irks me isn’t just the trope, but how much our society has bought into it.  By themselves, tropes are neither good nor bad, but when something like this becomes so prevalent that it defines the entire operating system on which our society is based, that’s when someone needs to speak out.

And for the record, I am a 28 year old single male who is not ashamed to say that he is still saving himself for marriage.  Am I gay?  No.  Has it been difficult?  Yes.  Am I anything less than a man because of it?  Hell, no.  In fact, I would argue that the wait has made me more of a man than I otherwise would have been, and I’m sure that my future wife will agree.

Real men aren’t defined by their hormones or their sexual history.  They’re defined by the way they treat the people around them, especially the ones who are most important in their lives.

30 Comments

  1. Thanks this was great.

  2. Very good read….very admirable….

  3. You are thoughtful and impassioned here, Joe. I appreciate your firm stand, and I agree wholeheartedly. I wish I had something significant to add, but for the moment, I’ll just say, “Well said, Joe. Well said.”

  4. This is a great post. Well said. And I think you’re completely right.

  5. This is fantastic, Joe, thanks for writing it. I really hate when so much of our literature perpetuates such ridiculously false and damaging ideas. I think a corollary to this trope (and I’m not as well versed in literary criticism as you, so this may or may not be a separate trope) is the idea that all women are prostitutes. This is the tragic flaw I see in Gene Wolfe’s writing – I absolutely love his stories but so many of his women are so warped and it really grates on me. If men are slaves to their libidos and sex is a rite of passage, then necessarily, women are either prudes or prostitutes. Either way, women don’t enjoy sex. If you think about it, the very existence of prostitution assumes that men will always be the ones paying money because women couldn’t possibly have anything to gain from sex except monetary reimbursement.

    The reality is that women can really enjoy sex, but for them the physical response is really tied up in the emotional intimacy and commitment of the relationship. In a universe (and this universe exists in our modern world, in the minds of those who can’t believe otherwise) where women must be remunerated for their encounters, there is no place for the type of relationship that involves personal sacrifice and long-term commitment. It’s a cash register model of sex, where men come and go as they please and women are there as drudges and employees.

    We really need good writers to expose the fallacy of these ways of thinking and to reclaim the reality of human love, sex and happiness from the margins into which they’ve been pushed. “Oh, that’s not even possible. That’s not the way the world works. That’s idealized.” Oh really? Let’s give them a glimpse into the way of life in which both men and women rejoice in their bodies and their relationships with each other because they’ve been healthy and smart about the way they’ve chosen to live.

  6. This is a great post. Thanks for writing it.

  7. Thanks for the post. I’m always glad to see someone standing up for the concept of a decent man.

  8. I think this is ripe for treatment in alien SF. In fact, Harry Turtledove kind of already did it in _World War_, though that was as an incidental detail rather than main plot & I’m sure there are better examples. So, say there’s some civilized species for which the trope really *is* true, and compare them to humanity. Everybody knows it, everybody accepts it, and all their cultures have been molded around it for 6000-ish years of history: what does that kind of civilization look like?

  9. Makes me wonder if this guy has ever had a real, long term relationship.

    To each his own, but sex just seems like a fun activity you do with someone that you really like and have feelings for.

  10. “The danger here is that it reduces men to their basic animal urges”.
    You are the origin of everything you protested in this post.
    People have “basical animal urges”???? Your are an idiot.

  11. Thanks for the comments, guys! I’m glad this post hit something of a chord.

    @Anneke, I totally agree. You make some very good points about how this view, when taken to the extreme, is just as harmful to women as it is to men. There’s so much in our culture that is trying to separate sex from love and commitment, or to deny women their own feelings by making them the objects of male desires.

    @Logan, that would be interesting. The real thing you’d have to figure out, though, is what would case a civilization to hold a consistent view like that for 6,000+ years. In our own civlization, attitudes and mores have changed radically over just a few hundred years, and I expect will change again in the course of our own lifetimes.

    @hayek, I guess there’s a broad range of views on the role of sex in a relationship. We obviously disagree, but I don’t think people who choose a different lifestyle are inherently bad or evil. I just wish that they wouldn’t feel a need to diminish me for mine.

    @enzo, not sure what point you’re trying to make. If you’re just trying to sling insults, I’d appreciate it if you’d take some time to cool down so that we can engage in a more intelligent conversation.

  12. Well said! I imagine your fiction presents the same view. I aim to find out!

  13. Every time you say logical conclusions you conclude something that doesn’t follow at all. Every time you say “therefore,” you say something that doesn’t actually follow.

    “Therefore, it’s not rape if it’s female on male.”

    This does not follow at all from what you said previously.

    I have no problem with the message of the article. Just the poor use of logic.

    • I’m also bothered by the fact that you think you’re “more of a man” because you wait… that’s awfully hypocritical.

      All in all the message you’re trying to convey is muted by the contradictory cruft in the text.

    • By “more of a man,” I mean more of a man than I otherwise would have been, not more of a man than other people are. I guess that doesn’t come through very clearly the way I’ve worded it. I’ll have to fix that.

      And yeah, I probably did play fast and loose with the logic. I guess it’s more of an observation on the way our society seems to be taking it, and an attempt to understand how we got here.

  14. Pingback: Male stereotypes in fiction: A Man is Not a Virgin « Genderqueer australia | 03 8640 9796 | contact@genderqueer.org.au

  15. You lost me at “The implications for pedophilia are more than a little disturbing.” for a couple reasons. For one, you’re introducing a social norm into the equation that is emotionally loaded and that takes focus off of everything else significantly. Secondly, it seems to me that the entire writing aims at being objective about the issues discussed and that’s a very subjective comment based on social norms. I real a lot and in more than a handful of books (the latest being Earths Children by Jean M Auel), what many modern societies consider pedophilia is viewed very different; in fact, as a way to protect everyone from negative sexual experiences by educating them early in life just as an adult would for say, potty-training (I’m NOT implying at the same ages of course). In my eyes, you actual undermine your own ability to execute a logical argument by addressing the “a man is not a virgin” issue then labeling pedophilia incorrectly (you seem to make the assumption that older-younger is more of adult/pre-pubescent rather than adult/pubescent, the defining characteristic of pedophilia) and loading in a negative way that affects your argument. That seems like a serious fault and so I can’t take your argument as a whole, seriously. Maybe reconsider that bit and what its effects were on your overall approach. You might find that you’ve got a bias you weren’t aware of. To be clear to everyone out there reading this who’s too oversensitive to the subject to hear me clearly, I’m NOT condoning pedophilia as defined by “in persons who are 16 years of age or older typically characterized by a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children (generally age 13 years or younger, though onset of puberty varies). The prepubescent child must be at least five years younger than the adolescent before the attraction can be diagnosed as pedophilia”. I’m specifically making the distinction because a pubescent individual (has hit puberty and is sexually “mature”) involved with an adult is substantially different from ANYONE involved with a PRE-pubescent (child) individual who shouldn’t be sexually active aside perhaps from nature and un-encouraged curiosity between others their age. I hope I’ve made that clear enough.

    • Well, I said at the beginning that this would be something of a rant. You’re free to agree or disagree, but this is what I see happening in our modern Western society right now, and it seriously disturbs me. But you’re right, the implications I’m trying to point out are not just restricted to pedophilia, but to underage sex as well. I’ll change the wording to reflect that.

    • “That seems like a serious fault and so I can’t take your argument as a whole, seriously.”

      That’s overstepping the bounds of critical discourse a bit. “I don’t like the way you presented this one minor point so I’m going to go ahead and just ignore everything else you said.”

      Point out arguments that you think aren’t working by all means, but don’t use that as an excuse to ignore the rest of an article.

  16. Your implicit assumption is “sex is bad”. Wrong. Sex is good. I’m sure you are a christian. Judeo-Christian are anti-human, and hate everything that make life enjoyable, and most of all, hate sex.

    • I am a Christian, yes (specifically, I’m Mormon), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all sex is bad. It’s not a black and white issue–some sex is good, and some sex is bad. Specifically, I think sex is great when it’s part of a long-term committed relationship and used as an honest expression of love. Take away the commitment or the love or the honesty, and that’s when I think you start running into problems.

    • Would you like to throw in any more ridiculous sweeping generalizations while you’re at it? Christians hate puppies! And ice cream!

      Nothing in this article implied that sex was bad. Did you read it in its entirety? It was a very subtle, well-crafted and thoughtful response to a literary trend. Please give it at least that much respect if you’re going to bother to respond.

      I’m a Christian who loves quite a few things that make life enjoyable, including sex and puppies. Ooh, and green olives. Green olives are lovely.

  17. Joe, I enjoyed reading this article. I expect that anyone who would talk to a person my age would find people who mostly agree with you. I think the idea of sexually active men being portrayed as single is a part of the general belief of the people who are reading most literature written for those who like Sci.Fi., YA, and any other kind of story aimed at youthful readers. It is my belief that this kind of writing is prevalent.

    The problem I have with your writing is the following paragraph.
    “We can see this trope in action in our modern American justice system. If a 30-something male teacher has sex with one of his female students, he gets a lengthy prison sentence and spends the rest of his life as a registered sex offender. If a 30-something female teacher has sex with one of her male students, she gets a slap on the wrist and therapy. She’s not a sexual predator–she’s just having a personal crisis.”

    While some books might be written this way, this does not happen in real life. In real life female teachers who are most likely to be interested in sex with teen aged boys are not even close their 30s. It is my opinion that the belief that women are having a personal crisis and therefore not punishable is far from the truth. Hopefully this kind of behavior in the schools is seen as criminal in any kind of circumstances.

  18. Thanks Joe. It would be interesting to see a page with writings about the male teachers and stuff they have done along with the consequences.

  19. Hi Joe,

    I am a stranger to you and it is my first comment on your website so before commenting on the matter your article has discussed I just thought I would tell you a bit about myself. I have found your website through kindle forums (i am a new member there) and I really appreciate your love for writing. I am also thinking of a writing career but it is too difficult for me at the moment. I will need to work very hard. Anyways..

    I really love your article and I am so glad to have read it.. I am very heart-broken on this issue. I am a woman and men that I speak to, even men who I deem highly intelligent, never find it rude to talk about how good a woman looks in bed and stuff like that. I do not know if they only talk about it or if they actually do it, but I just cannot understand how they see it as a virtue to date many women before actually decide which of them to marry. It is really rude and disgusting. And I can at least say that such men will never ever have me. I am a very loyal person even though I had many chances that they even could not dream about. I have great self control when it comes to matters of opposite sex. And I will wait until I am a hundred percent sure I am in love and will never leave my spouse.

    • It’s nice to hear that woman (this reply largely assumes you’re not just a young, naive girl) still exist with such a view, all the more if you are an attractive woman who has had lots of opportunities to prove that dedication. I hope that the man of which you speaks will appreciate that about you when the day comes. In my younger days I trusted one good friend to another who though like you did and things didn’t end up well as a result, but that’s the risk. Maintaining that value gives YOU the potential benefit of a much deeper love than many of us will experience but it also leaves you more vulnerable. I’m on the other side of the fence, one this article was written to discuss and ironically, I didn’t intend to end up that way, but culture had its effect on me and combined with hormones, I didn’t stand a chance. The result is that sex doesn’t provide the connection with woman that it should. The saddest part is that it also protects me from the vulnerability you have which in turn reinforced my behavior before I fully understood the consequences which in the end is why you should stick to your path. You can’t truly know how bad the consequences are until it’s too late and there’s no going back.

    • Thanks for weighing in, guys. It’s good to hear about your experiences. I wish you all the best.

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