Sex and Love

The penis as an agent of sexual oppression (or not, as the case may be)

When people use the term "sexual oppression", they usually mean the oppression of women by men. And maybe with good reason, for history reveals that such oppression has been at the root of many societies.

The feminists of the sixties (and later), in fighting against this order of things, saw the penis as the tool by which men oppressed women - the penis being both a symbol of men's assumed superiority and the physical "weapon" with which they subjugated women.

The debate - or argument - may seem quaint nowadays, but it's worth recapping, and anyone who's interested will find it clearly set out in the book A Mind Of Its Own by David M Friedman.

Basically, feminists who railed against sexual oppression thought that the relationship between the vagina and the penis was not a private matter at all - it was actually a political relationship, in that intercourse itself was a representation of the dominant-submissive polarity in which the penis (i.e. male power) penetrates, and the vagina (i.e. female passivity) receives what the male chooses to give. Heterosexuality itself was attacked for defining female eroticism in terms of male needs.

Over time, this anger came to focus upon the penis. Women began to question who was in charge of them - the penis (seeing it as an entity somehow representative of and yet separate from men, a symbol of male power with a life of its own), or themselves.

In this viewpoint, the criticism leveled at women since the days of Freud onwards, that failure to achieve orgasm during vaginal intercourse was a sign of sexual "immaturity", becomes transmuted into a symbol of men's desire to keep women in their place: while a clitoral orgasm, not being dependant on thrusting in the vagina, threatens the superiority of the penis and the basis of male power, and hence it is undesirable.

Fear of sex may be a consequence of male oppression of women. The sexually oppressed no matter how unjustified, have suffered the complex rationalizations of the oppressors: simple religious dogmas to pseudo-scientific theories, all sharing a fundamental characteristic: they cannot be logically defeated.

There are many ways in which male oppression has worked against women. Some would say that the desire for women to have a slim body (which may not be a natural state for women, whose estrogen encourages the deposition of fat in their bodies) was also an aspect of male oppression. Whether this is true or not, it is true that many relationships work better if women can lose weight and present a slimmer version of themselves. There is of course plenty of information on how to lose weight quickly on the internet, but whether a woman feels inclined to follow it or not may be more to do with her own sense of oppression than anything else.

What's more, for those men who really were sexually motivated by lust, power or contempt for women, but little else, the pill represented a humiliation, for it gave women power over contraception and hence power over the penis.

These views may seem extreme nowadays, but you have to understand the cultural context of the sixties and seventies, when they no doubt seemed very real to women brought up in a culture where the roles open to women were very much more restricted than they are today.

As time went by, the sense of oppression lessened as feminism (in the broadest sense) became more mainstream. For example, Shere Hite's ground-breaking report on female sexuality, revealed much about female sexuality that dispelled the illusions of women who believed they were sexually inadequate.

For example, led to believe that they "should" have a vaginal orgasm if a penis was thrusting away in their vagina, many women would have been relieved to discover the fact that well over 70% of women don't reach orgasm through vaginal intercourse alone.

Rape, too, was analyzed in terms of sexual politics. The ability of a man to penetrate a woman's body against her will was interpreted, by some, as the ultimate test of a man's superior strength, the triumph of his manhood. "Man's discovery that his penis could serve as a weapon ranks as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe," wrote one female commentator of the time.

(There are, by the way, many problems and objections with these arguments. To name one, in some Asian cultures rape is practically non-existent. To name another, some scientists have suggested that far from being a political act, rape is a desperate, evolutionarily motivated attempt to reproduce by socially inadequate males who can't get a relationship partner. The truth, of course, is that there are probably as many reasons for rape as there are rapists.)

In the context of all these arguments, it was inevitable that scientists would start to research the levels of arousal that men experienced when confronted with various sexual stimuli, then go on to try and establish if there were any relationships between sexual violence and male sexual biology.

For example, if a "normal" man becomes aroused when confronted with images of sexual violence, what does this mean? Does it mean that he has a repressed desire to engage in sexual violence? Does it mean that all men are potential rapists?

Clearly, these are important questions. In one controversial study, a psychologist at the UCLA wired up the penises of college men to a device which measured sexual arousal and then asked them to read accounts of consensual sex and non-consensual sex (i.e. rape). It seemed that the men were equally turned on by the descriptions of consensual and non-consensual sex.

Somehow, I have a sense that most men will not be surprised by this finding, and probably not find it particularly shocking. Fear of sex is not something which ostensibly affects most men; indeed, most men are turned on by depictions of sex in porn, since it is "safe" - though it may later cause guilt - but a lot of fear of intimacy is common among men as is social anxiety disorder.

I was once told that one of the most difficult things for a male psychotherapist was finding himself aroused as his clients recounted episodes of sexual violence towards them.

The more vociferous feminists will of course claim that "evidence" like this does indeed prove that all men are potential rapists, but in my view nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely because we men have such good control over our penises that we are not all potential rapists, and to suggest otherwise is a disservice to relationships between men and women and inherently disrespectful of men.

And in case the point is still not clear to you: such experiments (or anecdotes) do not establish any kind of link between arousal and behavior. In fact they do not even demonstrate what it is that is sexually arousing about such depictions of sex: the sex itself, the sexual violence, the presence of an erect penis, the thought of having sex with one's partner, and no doubt many other possibilities as well.


The penis, testosterone, and sexual politics

What role does testosterone have in all this? Andrew Sullivan, former editor of the New Republic, once wrote about his experience of taking testosterone shots, the effects of which included, according to him, a propensity for violent confrontation.

As a result of his "experiment", Sullivan suggested that while culture and social upbringing had a significant effect on a man's adult behavior, testosterone was the major influence on aggressiveness, self-confidence, impulsiveness, dominance, risk-taking, physical intimidation and violence, up to and including murder.

(This mirrors Germaine Greer's comments about how she felt after taking testosterone. I think I am right in saying that she said she could now understand how men could commit rape, with such a powerful sexual drive.)

The obvious problem with Sullivan's report of his experiences with testosterone is that while whatever he reports may indeed be true for him, it proves nothing about anyone else, nor does it prove that there is a link between testosterone and aggression.

But is it really possible that varying testosterone levels are responsible for the different behaviors - including rape - found in men? Are high testosterone men without partners more likely to commit rape, for example?

There has been no shortage of investigations conducted into these questions, but unfortunately they have produced conflicting answers. The foremost researcher in this field has been Professor James M. Dabbs of Georgia University.

He observes that testosterone levels are in fact generally higher in physically imposing, aggressive, highly competitive men, the kind we would think of as "macho men". But unfortunately, there is no evidence of any kind to link testosterone level and criminal behavior. Nonsense, you may say: what of the rapists and child abusers who ask to be chemically castrated (or are ordered to be so by the courts) and then become meek and mild citizens?

Well, some rapists and child molesters have been shown to have very low levels of testosterone, so there is no clear general link. It begins to look as if testosterone cannot be blamed for the bad behavior of men in the way that it has been in the past.

There are, however, a number of studies which show that men who are living in a social milieu where aggression and violence are commonplace have, on average, higher levels of testosterone than most men.

But as has been pointed out by Professor Robert M. Sapolsky, of Stanford University, if you notice a correlation between levels of aggression and levels of testosterone, it could be that (a) testosterone elevates aggression, or (b) aggression elevates testosterone, or (c) neither causes the other. And while everyone seems to think (a) is true, the surprise is that actually it's (b) that's true.

The elevated levels of testosterone found in inner city men, for example, is not the cause of their aggression; it is the consequence of the aggressive lives they lead. As Sapolsky observes, "testosterone does not cause aggression, it exaggerates the aggression that's already there."

Nonetheless, even though testosterone may not create aggression, it is certainly at the root of masculinity and maleness. Without it, the male fetus develops into a female, both bodily and in brain structure: so clearly there is some sense in which testosterone is at the root of male behavior, in giving the body the potential to become characteristically male, in terms of aggression, risk-taking, and all those other behaviors we see as characteristically male - not to mention that it is responsible for the development of the penis, the organ at the very center of the expression of male behavior.

Without testosterone, a fetus stands no chance of becoming male, regardless of its genetic sex. It is the XY sex chromosomes of a male embryo that encourages the embryonic tissues to produce testosterone.

This then starts a path of male physical differentiation. The truth is, babies start out as neuters, sexless, undifferentiated, and the default path of development from that neutral point is into the female form. So unless the embryo produces testosterone, and its tissues respond correctly to it, at certain crucial stages in its development, it will become a female, regardless of its genetic sex.

The neutral origin of our two sexes is seen in the histological analysis of adult male and female: for example, the clitoris and penis come from the same area of embryonic tissue; and the g-spot in the vagina and the prostate gland also have their roots in the same place.

But even the production of testosterone by a developing embryo is no guarantee of maleness, such is nature's capriciousness. There are varying degrees of adult intersex conditions which can be traced back to some failure of embryonic development.

Sometimes, for example, the chromosomally male baby, distinguished from his female sisters by his XY chromosomes, has a genetic mutation which makes his tissues more or less unresponsive to his own testosterone or, more accurately, one of its derivatives called dihydrotestosterone. The results of this unhappy accident of nature are categorized by the medical profession on a scale of severity from 1 to 7: 1 being normal male, 2 being a bit feminized (probably a fertile male with perhaps a small but possibly abnormal penis), all the way through to 7, which is a syndrome known as testicular feminization, in which the XY individual, though normal by any other standard of humanity - intelligence, personality, physical dexterity, body form - has XY chromosomes but appears to be, from birth onwards, a female, and often later develops into a very feminine woman at puberty, with rounded breasts and an attractive feminine body, but with no internal female sexual organs.

But, assuming everything goes OK, a baby with XY chromosomes will develop testicles and a penis, and all the internal male bits to go with them. Later, at puberty, his testicles become active and produce testosterone, and he develops the characteristics of an adult male.

It might follow that the higher the level of testosterone in a man's body, the hornier he feels, and the more intense his efforts to get sex. Broadly, I think this is true, but it seems we need to carry the logic a bit further. High testosterone men are also more driven and competitive, and legend has it, more aggressive, though the relationships between cause and effect is a bit dubious.

If you give men more testosterone, they display more of the personality characteristics they already have - for example, an unaggressive man, given testosterone, does not become aggressive. This might mean that high levels of testosterone are the result of competitive success and high levels of aggression, not the other way round. There is some evidence to support this idea.

As a man gets older, his effective level of testosterone falls, partly because his testes become less efficient, partly because his physiology becomes less effective at removing estrogen from his system. (Estrogen is produced in all men, and clogs up the molecular receptors on his cells where testosterone usually rests.

One of the liver's jobs is to remove the estrogen.) This is one reason why men get less horny as they get older. Testosterone replacement therapy can deal with the problems that come with declining testosterone: depression, reduced sex drive, impotence, lower motivation.

(By the way, many doctors don't accept that testosterone replacement therapy for older men will cure impotence. They say many older men are impotent but have normal levels of testosterone.

This is false logic because first you need to know how a man's testosterone levels have changed over time - not all men are equal to start with, as you can see by the wide range of testosterone levels that are regarded as "normal"; and second, you can't just measure total testosterone - you have to asses how much is available to the man's body tissues. Often this may be radically different to the amount in the bloodstream.)

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