Content Warning: Consent, Assault, Violence, heterosexism, cissexism
Gender is a huge, complicated topic, and refers to the socially constructed values and beliefs about a person’s abilities, personalities and their worth-all based on what we think their sex is. I am obsessed with figuring out why we, as a society, are hung up on sorting individuals by their reproductive organs. When you start to pick at it, you will find a bizarre set of rules, standards and values that have little to do with reality and are, in my not so humble opinion, quite harmful.
We identify people by their intimate bits. Before we are born the folks around our parents ask, “Do you want a boy or a girl?”. Our nurseries are decorated with the pastel pinks and blues that seem to be reserved for babies and easter. We are dressed differently, and given a different set of toys to admire and interact with. As we grow up we are exposed to the modelling of gender in our homes, schools and communities. Boys are told not to cry or throw like a girl, girls are oversensitive and emotional while boys are rough and tough. The stories we read them are either filled with heros on advenutres (boys) or girls being rescued by handsome princes to live in castles (girls). Chores are often divided by gender (she cooks/cleans, he takes out the trash and does the lawn. She ”helps” with yardwork sometimes, just as he ”helps” with household chores). Men, being paid more (yes even today!), are often the main bread winner, and when the ‘little woman’ works, it is often less valued work and she is often left to still manage the rearing of children and the managing of the family home. And let’s be honest, shall we…. many of these messages are value based, and boys are seen as more valuable than their girl counterparts. Leadership versus following. Strength versus compassion. Work versus housework. Anything that is ”girly” is scorned, lesser and to be avoided…unless of course you happen to be a girl.
There are an entirely different set of rules for Men and Women, and those rules are recongized by sex educators such as myself as being the foundation for the ongoing, neverending culture of sexual harassment, abuse and assault.
Now, #notallmen and all that, but I am about to argue that it IS actually all men, in that the individuals that lie outside of these parameters are exceptions, and often when you dig a bit deeper you find that they had to learn, often painfully, to be the exception. So let’s look at those rules, loosely speaking:
Women are taught to form close friendships that include sharing emotional labour, supporting one another, and having unconditional postiive regard. Friendship is valuable, essential and rewarding. We have bosom buddies, we confide in them our feelings (fears, hopes, shames, crushes, joy, grief). In those friendships we can do what all those inspirational signs say: we can dance as if no one is watching, laugh and sing like no one can hear us, and love as if we cannot be hurt.
Men are taught to form friendships that while less close, are more activity based. Drinking buddies, fishing buddies, sports game buddies, team mates, etc. They engage in paralel play more than interactive play. They WIN in their relationships, with competitions such as who can drink more, who can hit harder, who catches more fish, who wins at darts. They do NOT share their inner feelings, as that is women stuff. They do not share their tears, fears, hopes, shames and joys with one another. Friendship is valued, but not if the person they want to have sex/romance with ”friends them”, as that is them loosing at sex/romance.
Adulting and Responsibility:
Men are taught that their purpose in life is to support a family. They are conditioned to view their self worth as synonymous with financial success (and in some families only once they have a wife and children have the met their entire responsiblity). They are to ”suck it up” and ”bring home the bacon”. This is prioritized over their own happiness, physical health and mental health. They are also responsible for disciplining the pets and children (and their wife), keeping everyone in line and ”running a tight ship”. And they are to ”focus on the end game”.
Men are judged by the attractiveness of their partners, the size of the bank account, and their ability to only feel lust, anger, sports related glee, and confidence. If you ever go check out what women thiink they are looking for, “Handsome, fit, confident, financially secure” are the top four.
Women are taught that their purpose in life is to create and love a family. They are conditioned to view their self worth as synonymous with a happy husband that supports them and children that are attractive, do well in school, and obey authority. They are taught that competence in this role includes a fastidous house, home cooked meals and baked goodies. They also win in relationships, by ‘knowing he will change” and supporting him in his endeavors. They are to ”love unconditionally” even when this unconditional love means putting up with abuse. They are to run them home, but be ok with being second in command once he comes home from his hard day at work.
Adult women are pressured to have children, and even denied, well into their forties, medical procedures that can prevent pregnancy. They have to fight like hell in many places to even access birth control. They are judged by the thinness of their waist, the perkiness of their boobs and the value of their husband. If you look at what men on dating sites are looking for “fit, attractive, young, dtf” are the top four.
Gender and sexuality:
Men have strong desires that begin in puberty. This desire is proclaimed to be so strong that many schools have dress codes policing how much shoulder or midriff or thigh the girls expose in school, in order to protect boys from being distracted. Once they being to have crushes and sexual interests, jokes are made by adults on how the boy needs to ”not give up” when his crush isn[‘t interested. Jokes are made about how boys show affection by clobbering or harrassing a girl. They are encouraged to have girlfriends, and showing off by engaging in dangerous activities is considered to be part of the ”win the girl” process.
Boys being boys, they struggle with body language and udnerstanding nuance in romance. They are told that no means yes, yes means yes, but not saying no doesn’t mean yes. They are encouraged to get sexual experience (please be safe, son, here is a condom), as it is expected behaviour.
Women have strong desires that start in puberty too, but apparently those desires are to ”trick a boy” by getting knocked up, or maliciously accusing them of assuault when they did nothing, or when they have consensual sex. Women are taught to desire ”bad boys”, but expect them to turn into ”good men” once they have children and ”settle down”. They are to dance the line between being attractive (and therefore valuable) and chaste (and therefore valuable). Rarely does anyone talk about the desire for sexual pleasure that women feel as they enter puberty, because of course they are baby makers only.
In all seriousness:
Yes, these are strong, rigid stereotypes, and I doubt many parents are saying, “Son… go forth and win some sex, consent or not!”. But these messages are ingrained in our culture. Movies that we watch, songs we listen to, ideas we share without thinking about what they mean.
So how does this impact consent?
Girls grow up with the clear message that they are not supposed to want sex. Even when raised by sex positive parents who include empowering messages in their sex education discussions, society clearly devalues women who do not engage in the magic amount of sex (not so little that they are frigid, but no so much that they are sluts). Sex ed in school rarely mentions that women orgasm, and I would be shocked if the clitoris was explained as the pleasure centre, rather than the vagina.
Boys and girls are exxposed to messages about sex via pop cultur, and All the messages they receive about hetersoexual sex is that once the penis enteres their vagina, they will feel pleasure, and orgasm happens simultaneously with ejaculation.
So pleasure is already a complex issue, as is desire. This can create layers of shame in girls, as they WANT to explore sexually, but they feel abnormal, bad, wrong, for wanting to do so. This can create challenges for communicating honestly and openly about what they want, and don’t want. The younger generaions, thankfully, are doing way better with this. The messages of viewing friendship that has emotional labour as ‘girly’ and not worth the effort leaves men feeling ripped off when a girl wants to be friends with them. They don’t want to do the emotional work that is called for in a socialized female friendship, unless they are being reqarded with sex.
Sex is a reward, that they pursue, and girls give. They score, get laid, are a ”player” and many other terms that are all competitive and dehumanize the girl.
So.. how do they possibly understand that they have to ask, and then trust the answer they are given? How do girls understand it?
With the view that boys are dtf all the time, why would a girl not think they can just touch whenever? (Don’t believe that happens? go to a male strip show or the swingers bar). With messages about how girls lie about what they want, and are something to win, how are boys to be thinking about wanting to have sex TOGETHER.