Playboy censored me! The brand that championed the concept of sex-positive long before there was the phrase "sex-positive" thought I went too far. At last, the son hath exceeded the father!
In an effort to honor the spirit of Valentine's Day by reaching out to my opposite, I said I agreed with conservatives about the decline of traditional masculinity. Yes, Virginia, I waded into—quick, cover the ears of the children!—hetero-normative waters. They are, of course, choppy seas. After all, how does the modern man navigate the domestic sphere, a place where he once had godlike authority but in recent years has ceded more and more of that power to women? The world has certainly changed, but is it all for the greater good?
I'm not going to drudge up all the qualifications I argued about equal pay and sexual freedom and all that stuff. Obviously the feminist revolution is a net gain, as long as you don't focus too much on the part where two earner couples make less than one earner used to, which sometimes makes me think the whole thing was a conspiracy by the ruling class to get more work out of us. But I do think there are ironies upon ironies here, so rich that we could roll around in them and come up stinking.
There is also science. T'was just the previous week, after all, when the New York Times magazine ran a story called "The Egalitarian-Marriage Conundrum". The online headline distilled said conundrum in terms anyone can understand: "Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?"
Here's the "nut graf," as we say in journo-speak:
A study called "Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage," which appeared in The American Sociological Review last year, surprised many, precisely because it went against the logical assumption that as marriages improve by becoming more equal, the sex in these marriages will improve, too. Instead, it found that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex. Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming—the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do—then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car. It wasn't just the frequency that was affected, either—at least for the wives. The more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband's share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife's reported sexual satisfaction.
The deeper you get into the story, the more the ironies abound. One woman was more aroused by her husband when he came home sweaty from the gym, but snapped at him (and killed the mood) when he threw his clothes on the floor. Another wanted her husband to get rough in bed and got upset when he was "too careful," but loved his cautiousness about "which brand of toilet paper to buy" and "what to feed their children."
Her cry of frustration: "I don't want him to take charge like that with anything else!"
Dare I say, "Be careful what you wish for?"
On that note, I knew a bossy young woman whose secret sexual motto was "Shut up and pull my hair." Did she ever stop to consider that the first part of her imperative contradicts the second? I think not.
Women, right? (I kid, I kid.)
Accordingly, this incredibly sexist/hilarious comedy routine made the Valentine's Day rounds among my married friends under the subject line "Not for the wives/GFs." Need I add that all of us have very accomplished wives—two PhDs, two high school teachers, one art director, one small company president?
The hilarious part of all this is that it takes place in a world where nothing is more acceptable than traditional gender mimicry—bears, twinks, butch and femmes all get away with wallowing in their parodies of traditional roles, but actual heterosexuals are suspect. Maybe the reason was hinted at in the column I wrote a few weeks ago about a college professor who told me that nowadays, the advanced academic thinking is that all gender is a performance. So maybe the sin committed by we embattled heterosexuals is that we actually take the gender roles seriously. Maybe what we need to do is perform secondary drag—drag about drag—and then we'll be meta-heteros, or something.
But I don't think so. When I was in college, dwelling amongst the sensitive types who run in aspiring-writer circles, one woman said to me: "Why do you want to be a writer? You should be a lumberjack."
I swear to god, she said that. And another told me, when I expressed doubt about something (or everything), that my expressions of doubt struck her as disingenuous. "You seem so fearless," she said.
Okay, I'm a big guy. I have a certain blustering style that people consider masculine. I have no idea how this way of presenting myself style got absorbed from the culture and mirrored back out into the world, but I know it's no more complete a representation than the giggling Japanese courtesan who hides a knife under her kimono. This shit's protective coloration. You grab what advantages you can in this brutal Darwinian world. Even Ted Nugent and the idiot from Duck Dynasty know that. You think they're such swaggering assholes lying in bed with their wives?
In the end, the image we present to the outside world does have a political impact. We can't be mindless of that. But we also have to remember that it's always a performance. For everyone—straight as well as gay, conservative as well as liberal. And the deeper truth is our refuge from all the stage-strutting, which is how we work it out with the person (or people) who share our beds.
So I asked my wife, "Honey, you like gender, don't you? You like me being manly?"
"Yeah," she said. "I don't want you doing yoga."
Weird example, I thought. "But you like it when I say I'm going to yoga."
"Right. I just don't want to see you doing yoga."
Ah, now I understand. "You don't want to see me in Lululemon pants."
"I don't even want you to know what Lululemon pants are," she said.
"You don't want to see me doing the downward dog?"
"That's funny, because I like seeing you do the downward dog."
"With someone behind me?"
We laughed. She's a kinky little thing, and I say that even though she's 5'9".
It was a nice Valentine's Day.
Photo by © H. Armstrong Roberts/Classic Stock/Alamy