Like countless American children, I grew up hearing the nursery rhyme that claimed that little boys were made of “snips and snails and puppy-dog tails” while girls were “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Attached as I was as a small boy to our pet dachshund, I thought puppy-dog tails were a fine thing indeed, but the point of the rhyme wasn’t lost on me. Boys were dirty, girls were clean and pure.
We’re raised in a culture that both celebrates and pathologizes male “dirtiness.” On the one hand, boys were and are given license to be louder, rowdier, and aggressive. We’re expected to get our hands dirty, to rip our pants and get covered in stains. We enjoy a freedom to be dirty that even now, our sisters often do not. No mistake, that’s male privilege.
But growing up with the right to be dirty goes hand-in-hand with the realization that many people find the male body repulsive. In sixth grade, the same year that puberty hit me with irrevocable force, I had an art teacher, Mr. Blake. (This dates me: few public middle schools have art teachers anymore.) I’ll never forget his solemn declaration that great artists all acknowledged that the female form was more beautiful than the male. He made a passing crack that “no one wants to see naked men, anyway”—and the whole class laughed. “Ewwww,” a girl sitting next to me said, evidently disgusted at the thought of a naked boy.
In time, I discovered that Mr. Blake was wrong about this so-called artistic consensus. But it took me a lot longer to unlearn the damage done by remarks like his and by the conventional wisdom of my childhood. I came into puberty convinced both that my male body was repulsive and that the girls for whom I longed were flawless. (I still remember how floored I was at 16, when the lovely classmate on whom I had a crush farted while I was sitting next to her in German class. I had sincerely believed until that moment that women didn’t pass gas.)
A year later, in my first sexual relationship, I was convinced that my girlfriend found my body physically repellent. I could accept that girls liked and wanted sex, but I figured that what my girlfriend liked was how I made her feel in spite of how my body must have appeared to her. Though I trusted that she loved me, the idea that she—or any other woman—could want this sweaty, smelly, fumbling flesh was still unthinkable.
Not long after that first relationship broke up, I had a series of fleeting sexual encounters with both men and women. I knew I wasn’t gay, but I was bi-curious. I was never as sexually attracted to my male partners as I was to women—but I was powerfully attracted to their attraction to me.
I remember one night when I was still in high school that I had sex with a much older man. He was maybe 40, and I couldn’t get enough of the way he looked at me. I felt a rush of elation and relief so great it made me cry. The sex I had with him was not based on my desire for him; rather, I wanted to make him feel good out of my own colossal gratitude for how he had made me feel with his words and his gaze. As we lay on a motel bed, this man ran his fingers across every inch of my body, murmuring flattery of the kind I had never heard from a woman’s lips.
“You’re so hot, you make me want to come.”
I was floored. How different those words were from my ex-girlfriend’s “Hugo, you make me feel so good.” While she had praised my technique, this stranger praised my body’s desirability. And I realized how hungry I was for exactly that kind of affirmation. I needed something to counter that old certainty that my male body was disgusting.
I don’t want to suggest that straight women don’t lust, and that only gay or bi men are vocal about their strong sexual craving for male bodies. In time, I’d meet women who were more confident about expressing desire, and discover that it wasn’t only from men that I could get that kind of validation. I came to see that our cultural myths about desire hurt everyone.
We still have too many Mr. Blakes out there, giving that same destructive message that no one wants (or should want) the dirty, disgusting male body.
Though our culture often teaches women that their bodies are also dirty (particularly because of menstruation), we also make it clear that men “naturally” crave and desire them. That creates a huge problem for women who have to navigate their way through a world that teaches them that their bodies have great power over men. By teaching women to focus on managing male desire, women are taught to ignore or suppress their own desires. That’s a loss for women, and it’s a loss for men.
So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.
The very real hurt and rage that men often feel as a result of having no sense of their own attractiveness has very real and destructive consequences. It’s not women’s problem to solve; it’s not as if it’s women’s job to start stroking yet another aspect of the male ego.
The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing. That’s hard stuff, but it’s worth the effort. I know what it is to believe myself repulsive, and what it was to hear that not only was I wanted, but that I was desirable for how I appeared as well as how I acted. That was precious indeed, and far too few men have known it.
This piece was originally published at The Good Men Project Magazine, an online publication which claims: “Unlike so many other men’s magazines, we don’t patronize or caricaturize our audience. We try to bring out the best in men, and we do that by producing content that challenges men to think deeply—and to talk about the things they don’t usually talk about.”
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