BOYS WILL BE BOYS
A Review of The New Male Sexuality
by Bernie Zilbergeld, Ph.D.
New York: Bantam Books
Review Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
This is the single best book about male sexuality I have ever read, surpassing what used to be the best book on male sexuality I had ever read before, which is Bernie Zilbergeld's earlier work, Male Sexuality.
I found the new book better for several reasons. First, some individual sections, such as those about erection problems, are more complete than they were in the first book. Second, the new book includes extended discussions on communicating with partners and with male children that are likely to enhance readers' lives both in and out of bed. And third, our social world has changed so profoundly in the past 15 years that some of Zilbergeld's 1978 observations about the ways men and women communicate have become somewhat obsolete. The new book, like the old one, is written in an easy, conversational style. It contains all the useful old information from Male Sexuality, and new information and insights Zilbergeld has gleaned through his own experience as a prominent psychologist, sex therapist, and teacher in the Bay Area and as a man, a son, and a father.
Although this book is concerned with men and sex, as the title indicates, its interest is not by any means restricted to that thing between a man' legs. Instead, it thoughtfully explores the relationship between that thing and that other thing between a man's ears. Consequently, it is equally concerned with that thing that happens or, sometimes, does not happen between two people, one or both of whom is male, especially when those two people are, have been, will be, want to be, or are afraid to be sexual with each other.
According to Zilbergeld, many men in our society are extremely anxious about sex. They can't get it up or they can't get it on, they think they come too fast or they think they come too slowly, they want more sex than they're getting or else they want less, they want different kinds of sex than they know how to get, they want sex different ways and with different people than they're having it with, and on top of it all the women they are or want to be sexual with don't seem to want the same things the men want anyway. The two questions these sorts of dilemmas raise are, how come it's this way? and what can we do about it?
The reason men get so anxious over sex, Zilbergeld proposes, is that we're raised to try to live up to a standard of masculinity and especially of sexual masculinity that is unrealistic at best, and severely detrimental to our personal and social well-being at worst. In movies and on television, in thriller novels aimed at the men's market and in romance novels aimed at women, in rock n' roll songs, political campaigns, and advertisements for everything from cars to chewing gum "the descriptions of admired men ... convey, implicitly or explicitly, strength, power, and independence." As three attributes among many that make up a complete human being, strength, power, and independence are not problematic. But when a man displays nothing but strength, power, and independence he displays nothing but a caricature.
The men we're taught to emulate in our society are always winners over difficult odds. They are smarter than the competition, tougher than the opposition, and able to overcome insurmountable obstacles in bold, ingenious, or gritty ways. Every woman finds them attractive sooner or later, even (or especially) if the men seem too brutal at first for their delicate female sensibilities. But whenever the women are ready or, often, even when they're not the men are hard and eager for sex.
Their superhero qualities are especially conspicuous in fictional descriptions of smooth or rugged macho males fucking a limitless pool of comely women. Their penises are generally enormous, insatiable, ever-ready weapons of conquest, whose abilities to deliver endless and frequently punishing thrusts drive even reluctant women those who have clearly and repeatedly said "No," for example into paroxysms of grateful pleasure. The more, the bigger, the faster, the longer, the harder, the more explosive the sex the better, not because the man gets any pleasure from it the woman is the one who experiences pleasure in these male fantasies; it is the man who performs heroically for her enjoyment but because in this narrow, fabulous kind of man's world it is performance that proves that a man is a man.
Now: as adults, you and I know that neither men's penises nor most men themselves are actually inclined to be such rapacious beasts, even if some of us get confused and perform rapacious acts as we try to live up to our advance billing. Nor do most women want to be pummeled into a male novelist's concept of female sexual gratification by our high-handed use of those few inches of meat we're so proud and frightened of, whose rich supply of sensitive nerve endings identify an organ designed to provide exquisite pleasure. But the endless barrage of fantasy depictions of masculinity to which we are subjected from the earliest days of our lives by the media, by our chums in school, and by our very own fathers who were subjected to the same bizarre programming, and who in all presumed innocence only tried to prepare us for the terrible competitions ahead in our man-eat-man world turns the fantasies into ideals we seek to measure up to, or at least seek to persuade other people we measure up to. If we've bought our culture's masculine premise, how else can we know that we are men?
Even as boys, when we need the same kinds of nurturing, comfort, touch, warmth, and gentle kindness girls require to grow into happy, stable adults, we are taught to be tough, and to show that we are tough by not giving in to our soft feelings. Girls may express themselves emotionally under almost any circumstances, but since "men don't cry," as innumerable fathers have informed their sons, the seven-year-old boy who falls and skins his knee, or who is awakened by nightmares, or who loses something dear to him, has to learn to lie in order to be accepted in his social role. If he doesn't lie if he cries, if he admits to being scared, if he acknowledges grief he is regarded as a sissy, or, in other words, as being like a girl. And "don't be like a girl" is one of the most emphatic messages our society delivers to boys in the course of their socialization.
It is also one of the cruelest messages, because it is precisely the need to separate ourselves from women and to see them as "other" that underlies the sexual, emotional, and social problems many men spend their lives wrestling with either overtly or covertly. We learn to denigrate women instead of respecting them, to mistrust women instead of sharing intimacy with them, to fight with women instead of cooperating with them, and to use women instead of nurturing them; then we wonder why they do not seem receptive to our advances when we need them.
And we do need them. Without embracing the feminine aspect in our lives so well embodied and represented by females we can never be whole, and so we can never fully be ourselves. We also want women, and because we were never taught to speak their language or to listen when they try to speak ours, our efforts at communication falter far more often than they succeed. When those efforts concern sex one feature of human experience that almost cannot succeed unless it is relaxed we are usually such a jumble of anxieties it's amazing anyone is ever born.
Zilbergeld does not think it is better to be male than female or female than male, nor does he think girls have an easier time of growing up than boys. He just thinks that in an historical period when women have begun to examine some of the reasons they have problems as a group, men are well advised to do the same. The increased knowledge may make both men's and women's lives easier.
To address the sexual problems most likely to result from growing up male, Zilbergeld blows a dozen myths:
His solution to the anxiety and dissatisfaction people experience as a result of subscribing to these myths constitutes the bulk of The New Male Sexuality. If his solution can be boiled down to a single concept, that concept is honesty. Zilbergeld's position which I confess I share is that sooner or later any person you want to get to know is going to have to get to know you, so there's no point in dissembling from the start. Besides, if you have a problem you can discuss with her, you've opened the door to all sorts of intimacy. Yes, you may end up with egg on your face, but at least it will be your egg, snd if you're that honest, chances are she'll have a penchant for omelettes.
Zilbergeld is not Robert Bly, and he does not suggest that men try to express their wilder, more boorish natures. Neither is he the sort of feminist man who thinks that women have all and the only answers to heterosexual happiness. As a psychologist who has worked extensively with men and men's sexual issues, he knows something about helping men and wishes to do so. Along the way he really does tackle philosophical questions such as "What is this thing called sex?", "What is this thing called a penis?", and "Am I normal or what?"
But for Zilbergeld the key to a better sex life does not rely on talk alone. He also lays out some practical steps to enable a man to improve his sex life and become a better lover. While those steps begin with improving your communication skills, and learning to deal with conflicts between you and your lover in an open and non-blaming way, Zilbergeld also includes information and hands-on (yes! hands-on!) exercises for touching, initiating sexual moves, and responding to a woman when she initiates. "It helps to understand that a sexual invitation isn't a test of your masculinity, your sexual prowess, your love for your partner, or a demand that you perform," Zilbergeld points out. "It's just an invitation." He explains how role playing, erotic materials, certain kinds of physical exercises, and fantasy can help solve sexual problems because, as he says, they can all heighten sexual arousal and "More than anything else, arousal is what drives good sex. It is the spark. It is also the cornerstone of a sexuality based on pleasure rather than on performance. If you want more exciting and more satisfying sex, go for greater arousal."
As you may have guessed from the tenor of this review, The New Male Sexuality is heterosexually oriented; but as Zilbergeld says at the outset, gay and bi men will not have much difficulty translating, and stand to get the same great value from the issues the book addresses as their het brothers. There is a lengthy section on desire discrepancies that cuts across all sex and gender lines, and in this era when we are finally discovering just how devastating the impact of "normal" bad parenting on people's lives can be, I wish the portions of the book that deal with fathers and fathering could become required reading for all men who had, are, or want to be fathers, including step-fathers and other adult male care-takers of young male children.
The only significant problem I found with this book is its size. At close to 600 pages long, and weighing just about two pounds, even the unopened copy makes demands on the reader. Some of these demands are justifiable, but some, I think, are not. The book is so big chiefly for three reasons. First, Zilbergeld is genuinely knowledgeable, and the volume is loaded with useful information, exercises, and advice to improve men's sex lives. Second, Zilbergeld is a genuinely friendly writer who imparts even difficult and sophisticated information in an accessible, chatty way. Finally, Zilbergeld is somewhat repetitious.
The first reason is much to the good: you really get something for your $25. The second reason makes this book far pleasanter reading than you might expect from a sex-and-communication primer. Zilbergeld tries to address the third reason by asserting that repetition is crucial to learning. What he says is often true, but in order to be true the learner has to stick around for the repetitions. My concern about the repetitions that contribute to this book's length is that many people who stand to benefit from the lessons and information it contains and repeats will be too put off by the volume's heft ever to get to read them.
My quibble notwithstanding, even though I'm not on Zilbergeld's payroll I would like all men to read The New Male Sexuality, as well as all women who are sexual, social, or in other sorts of communication with men. It would make my life as a therapist much easier, and my life as a human being much more fun.
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