By Sara Lipton, New York Times, June 16, 2011
Sara Lipton, an associate professor of history at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, is a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.
(W)hen it comes to sex, a certain kind of man, no matter how intelligent, doesn’t think at all; he just acts. Somehow a need for sexual conquest, female adulation and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition and confidence in the “alpha male.” And even if we denounce him and hound him from office, we tend to accept the idea that power accentuates the lusty nature of men.
This conception of masculinity is relatively new, however. For most of Western history, the primary and most valued characteristic of manhood was self-mastery. Late antique and Roman writers, like Plutarch, lauded men for their ability to resist sexual temptation and control bodily desire through force of will and intellect. Too much sex was thought to weaken men: a late-15th-century poem mocks an otherwise respectable but overly sexually active burgess who has “wasted and spent” his “substance” until there is “naught left but empty skin and bone.”
Rampant sexuality was something men were supposed to grow out of: in medieval political theory, young male bodies were used as symbols of badly run kingdoms. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex — who failed to “rule himself” — was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity.
Far from seeming “manly,” aggressive sexuality was associated with women. In contrast to the Victorian view of women that is still influential today, ancient and medieval writers described women as consumed by lust and sexual desire. In 1433, officials in Florence charged with regulating women’s dress and behavior sought “to restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who, not mindful of the weakness of their nature, forgetting that they are subject to their husbands, and transforming their perverse sense into a reprobate and diabolical nature, force their husbands with their honeyed poison to submit to them.”
Because of this association of sexuality with femaleness, men who failed to control their sexual urges or were susceptible to feminine attractions found their masculinity challenged. Marc Antony was roundly mocked as having been “softened and effeminized” by his desire for Cleopatra. When the king and war hero Pedro II of Aragon spent the night before a battle not in prayer or council but in bed with a woman, he was labeled effeminate.
Few of us would wish to revive these notions or endorse medieval misogyny. But in the face of recent revelations about the reckless and self-indulgent sexual conduct of so many of our elected officials, it may be worth recalling that sexual restraint rather than sexual prowess was once the measure of a man.
Is the real question a man's sexual "restraint" versus a man's sexual "prowess"? I think many would like the issue reduced to such a frame. However, it is not so easily contained by those two frames.
First, "prowess" or the engaging in sexual activity, especially outside of marriage, is not necessarily reducible to prowess. It is more likely a sign of weakness, a man not strong enough to be able to have the confidence in himself that accompanies healthy relationships, with healthy boundaries. Pursuing more females than a single committed partner, is not the sign of prowess, but rather of tragic insecurity. It is the reason that many men have not, do not, and will not commit to a single woman. They do not have enough "self" (as differentiated from ego or "machismo") to know that they can and will trust such a full and final commitment. They do not have enough self to negotiate on a level playing field with an equal partner, having so few male models as teachers. It is their insecurity, masked by aggressive and both covert and overt attempts to seduce women into those proverbial chinks in their belt, that drives them, and a society that misreads this "prowess" is out of touch with reality.
Now let's look at restraint, as defined by Ms Lipton: conscious and willful decision to resist the temptations of women, in order to be considered manly. Women, unfortunately, brand this kind of behaviour, in the 21st century as even more lusty, and worthy of the chase, because of the implicit challenge to her capacity to seduce. Playing hard to get by a man is one sure way to attract more than enough females; the only trouble is that now that male is falling into the trap of manipulation, and it is not an indication either of a woman who seeks to enter a committed relationship or the harbinger of a relationship that the man can trust. There is a tragedy about which most women do not wish to speak: that is the tragedy of the man who "fell" for the seduction and not for the woman and the resulting babies of such entrapments are living in an unsafe place.
As a historian, Ms Lipton knows that one must resist falling into the simplicities of cliche definitions, especially those that are generated by the popular culture, including the media, and those generated by medieval histories that were unable to include many of the complexities we now grasp of human behaviours, attitudes and motivations.
"Prowess" is not and cannot be defined as multiple sexual encounters, any more than the grade nine definition of masculinity is enhanced by the size of a penis.
"Restraint," too can fall into a "code" for the purposes of military, religious and political power and control, as St. Paul's urging all males to be celibate would try to do, and thus cannot be seen as a sign of health masculinity in the past or today. There is much more to the question than Ms Lipton would like us to consider, if we are truly to take her challenge seriously: "what is wrong with current powerful men?"
And the sooner both men and women acknowledge the truth of both of their strengths and insecurities, in dialogue that is prepared to dig deeper for the whole truths, the sooner we will come to a place where men and women will be equal in the eyes of both genders, and perhaps the manipulation of power will be reduced to where it belongs, in aberrant and infrequent dissonances, not as the defining concept in male-female relations.