Rivers of Sexuality, Islands of Masculinity

Jerry Brayton's struggle with sexuality, shame and intimate relationships.

I am honored to have been asked to write about sexuality and masculinity. With apologies to any gay readers, I address heterosexual sexuality in this article. Despite having written scores of articles on various men's issues, this is the first time I have directly addressed this topic. Perhaps I have been avoiding it, although (or because?) it is inextricably interconnected with one of my main life projects, participating in the movement to stop male circumcision. Sex has played a richly instructive, both deeply painful and profoundly pleasurable role in my life. Rereading what I wrote, which came out in a burst late one night, I fear this article is pessimistic, too focused on my own suffering and the suffering of men, even doing that dreaded thing known as "whining." I am tempted to fix it up and make it all nice and stoic, and yet so far I am resisting this urge.

My sexual history is a bit unusual. I grew up along with one brother in suburban Southern California, a product of a typical moderately unhappy marriage between a reliable, boring, emotionally absent, intelligent engineer father and a sociable, lively, emotionally present, intellectually average mother. When I was about ten years old, my best friend Bill Jacobs and I screwed up our courage and each bought at the local drug store a copy of the book "Boys and Sex" by Wardell Pomeroy, Ph.D., an associate of Kinsey. What I didn't learn from this book, which was considerable, I learned from the Playboy magazines Bill stole from his father and showed me in his clubhouse. I remember how my penis tingled when I looked at the breasts of the women in the magazine, who at 19 or 21 seemed impossibly old to me at the time.

My parents gave my brother and me no information whatsoever about sexuality, if one sets to the side my father's pathetic, stuttering attempt to talk to me about sex when I was seventeen and already had a girlfriend. I feel compassion for his incompetence that day and for the embarrassment he must have felt about it. This was certainly a painful experience for me.

I do remember him warning me before I went to college about all the marauding college girls who according to him were likely to trick me into impregnating them so that they could take my money. Interesting the sorts of projections he was placing onto females.

For some reason, my brother and I both were extraordinarily slow about developing sexually. My senior year in high school, there was one girl, Anna, who attracted my attention. She was so unbelievably pretty I could scarcely believe she didn't already have a boyfriend, but she had just moved to the district that year. She was very shy and dressed rather unfashionably and didn't yet have many friends. One day, I screwed up my courage as far as I could and asked her if I could walk her home. She said yes. After a few walks, I took another leap into the void and tried to kiss her. I don't think I was particularly successful as I think she felt obliged to feign disinterest in my offer, but I was on my way.

Anna ended up being my girlfriend for two years, our final year of high school and our first year of college. Sexually, she insisted on "saving herself" for marriage, so we engaged in two years of foreplay. Not particularly satisfying for a teenage boy! Upon our breakup, Anna immediately initiated a series of highly sexual affairs, including one with a college professor of hers. Naturally, I felt betrayal and anger that I had respected her limits only to see her own gross violation of them.

So as I entered my second year of college, I was still a virgin. I seemingly could not figure out how to approach a woman and convince her to go out with me. I was reasonably attractive, intelligent, and friendly, so there was no compelling reason for this failure. But some odd process was going on in me where fear of discovering my sexuality led me to find fault with every potential lover I met. No doubt terror of sex drove my compulsive fault-finding.

I am still haunted by memories of one gorgeous woman who used to send my libido through the roof by sitting next to me in her tennis shorts in our Seventeenth-Century English Literature Class. All semester, as we learned of Richard Lovelace and John Milton, Yvette tried a variety of ruses to convince me to pursue her. Flirting ostentatiously with me, inventing boyfriends to pique my jealousy, staking me out after class--you name it, she tried it. And Yvette was literally one of the most beautiful women I had ever laid eyes on, and yet my fear held me back. Some great pain held me back. And the fear and the pain expressed itself as a judgment that this paragon of womanhood wasn't intelligent enough for me.

Ironically, the one time I did become determined to seduce a woman, she rejected me for being what I wished I was but was not. When I was in my fourth year and as virginal as ever, I met a freshman, Linda, whose innocence and simple good looks intrigued me. She was no raving beauty but as a friend of mine sternly advised me after meeting her, "Jerry, she was the nicest girl at your party." I tried meeting her after classes, phoning her up, even meeting her at the university where she went to summer school. But she projected that as an older man, I was a ladies' man, too experienced in the ways of the world to be a safe man for her to trust. How surprised she would have been to know that she was more sexually experienced than I!

What I did do, of course, was masturbate and fantasize about Anna and Yvette and Linda and all these other beautiful women who would have gladly boned me for real had I but asked them or even stood still rather than running the other way in terror. So during my university years all my sexual energy which was not dissipated in my solitary sheets got poured into my studies. I was a stellar student, chosen one of the two most outstanding in each of my majors (physics and English). And yet I was not happy. It was as if, having figured out how to graduate summa cum laude in my academic subjects, I had made a deal with the devil to get straight "F's" in the seemingly more important realm of sexual achievement with another human being. I felt like a freak, a somewhat less obvious version of a two-headed carnival sideshow attraction. I remember clearly thinking one day, without self-pity, just with a clear vision of a dismal future for myself, that I would perhaps figure out many intellectual puzzles in my life but would never figure out sexuality.

After graduation I went to Berkeley for physics graduate school, and my loosening up process finally began. I experienced mushrooms, LSD, and the drug ecstasy for the first time. I lived communally for the first time. I saw beautiful women early in the morning as they rushed into our coed showers and late at night in their bedclothes as they put their hair down and prepared to sleep. And again came more incidents of attempted seductions by beautiful women that left me fleeing in shame and feeling like a totally inadequate 16-year-old.

But the ice was breaking. By the time I went on a trip around the world after getting a master's degree, I could feel that something had shifted and I was ready. Another few months passed before I was finally deflowered by a fellow inhabitant of the communal house, Wendy. I had just turned 26 on this momentous day, and as a relatively inexperienced 19-year-old, Wendy was perfectly matched with me in terms of experience. Wendy and I were lovers for a year. After the year, when she broke up with me, I was devastated. I still remember her wondering, slightly exasperated question, "Well, you didn't think we were going to spend our lives together, did you?" I felt like blurting out that I did but was too ashamed.

In fact, shame was the shadow under which I lived much of these years. Ashamed of my failure to figure out sex, ashamed of my loneliness, of my neediness. Years later I realized that despite having some very close male friends at the time, it never even OCCURRED to me to talk to them about this problem. I think if I had done so, it would have broken the ice and I could have cured myself of my fears, but I wasn't able to become conscious of this possibility or to break the toxic shame.

This is such a typical symbol of masculinity, this aloneness. "Each man is an island." Men are alone even when having sex. We fantasize. We take ourselves elsewhere. And the shame is so typical too. If our female partners learn we have gone away, they shame us for doing so. And yet if we have been circumcised, our relative lack of sexual sensitivity (and sensitivy decreases as one ages, as I am learning all too well) compels us to seek greater and greater stimulation in order to achieve orgasm. Making love, I find myself often focusing on my partner's pleasure since I'm often better at serving that than my own needs. This can make it difficult for me to stay present and enjoy myself.

And we had better be erect all the time. And we had better please the woman and give her multiple orgasms. And we had better talk about "making love" and not "having sex." Fail at any one of these multiple prescriptions, and shaming from our loved one and the consequent loneliness are likely to follow.

Today my early sexual experiences feel like ancient history to me. At this point I have had about a dozen lovers. Most of my relationships have been good ones, although a couple were disastrous, and I still regret that I have not yet found a life partner with whom I can create a family together.

I did have one five-year relationship with a woman, Ellie, with whom I was sure I would spend the rest of my life. Sexually it was probably the worst relationship of my life. Ellie was very inhibited and in fact had never had an orgasm in her life when she met me, not even masturbating. But I loved her deeply. It never occurred to me until this moment that perhaps her sexual difficulties struck a chord in me given my own challenges with sex.

When Ellie got pregnant despite our using a diaphragm properly, we mutually decided to abort the child because we weren't ready. At that time, I was sure than in another three or four years we would be married to each other with a child. The abortion was a very difficult process. I went to the hospital with her. We had to run a gauntlet of pro-life protestors. When we finally made it inside, the waiting room nurses were skeptical that Ellie really wanted me there but she convinced them that she did. The Russian doctor was very skilled and the attending nurses were so emotionally open and helpful and loving they moved me to tears. The abortion actually brought me and Ellie closer. And yet a couple years later I came back from taking the bar examination, and she told me she was leaving me. I was suicidal for half a year. Never have I experienced such pain. Never. And somehow I survived. I plunged into the darkness, passed through the pain and came out the other side. I still don't know how I did t.

I have discovered to my astonishment that I am actually a pretty fabulous lover and that I greatly enjoy sex. At the moment, I have particular reason to be aware of this fact. I am in the second- longest relationship of my adult life with Trina. Our physical connection is utterly unbelievable and we love each other a lot, and yet outside the bedroom we almost could not be more ill- matched. She is my physical ideal, for me a "perfect 10." Never in my fantasies did I dream of being with a woman with whom I could sexually connect so profoundly. Very soon after we met, she told me how important lovemaking was to her, and I love her ability to take the initiative sexually. When we get together, we often make love for several hours, leaving puddles of sweat in the bed. Sometimes we enter a sort of altered state of consciousness, waking up at all hours of the day and night, connecting in our magical way, and falling asleep like babies. Through each other, we find a passage to this special land beyond time of never-ending bliss. And yet outside of bed we're oil and water. We both agree that it is hard to imagine we would ever be partners, and in fact we recently decided to see each other less frequently so each of us can search for a mate. And I question myself for turning away from a male fantasy, a long-haired curvaceous blonde nymphomaniac!

In an odd way the seeds of my early difficulties hooking up with women are still with me. I am no longer conscious that I am directly rejecting eligible women. But I have gotten to the point where many eligible women reject me due to feelings and issues I broadcast. One example is my opinions about men's rights and circumcision, for which I need some understanding from a potential partner since these issues are my life work. As a Harvard Law School graduate who is very downwardly mobile, I am not what the typical woman craves, and many women are fazed a bit by my Bohemian life style - living communally, writing and performing theater pieces, etc.

And yet I should not deceive myself. I still carry the seeds of this toxic shame, of my isolation, within myself. To absent myself from these feelings would be a lie as pernicious as the lies I told myself about why none of the women I ever met in college was good enough for me. Better for me to face the fear, to face my own shame, my own failings, my own incompetence.

And what about the life partner? My fears about committing to someone who can take my children and my life savings, regardless of whether we are married or not, definitely hold me back. My anger about men's issues and my commitment to working on them throughout my life also scares off all but the most open-minded women.

Naturally, these issues also spill over into sexual encounters. I feel pressure to have and maintain an erection, to be sensitive yet hard, to be both man and woman, a pressure I feel women don't confront. They can choose whether to express male or female qualities in a particular moment, and both possibilities are open to them. (Tomboys are much more acceptable than sissies.) Men, by contrast, are called on to have the best of both masculine and feminine at all times.

Virginity is another interesting concept. It is something that is generally shameful not to have up to a certain age, at least for women, but beyond the mid-teens few males want to be known to be virgins. We want to be experienced, to have taken the plunge, to be battle-scarred veterans.

In expecting this experience of us society projects its own insecurities about lack of knowledge onto us and expects us to be the guides, the knowing and grizzled old hands able to show the less weathered the ropes. For the earlier years of my life I was a virgin in many non-sexual ways. I was an innocent, younger than my years, trusting and faithful that my own commitment to making the world a better place would help my dreams of working for poor people come true. Many of my dreams have come true, and some have transmuted and some I have had to abandon as I have gone along my path.

But I am no longer an innocent. I feel some grief for this younger self, and my love of life still channels itself through my sexuality, so I can still experience my virginity through my sensual body.

My lack of innocence is particularly clear with my work on circumcision. If they can do this to us with impunity they can do anything, and they do. Taking a knife to a baby's genitals, with no rational medical reason, without anesthetic, and deafening ourselves to the baby's screams. What a powerful metaphor for our blindness in general to men's suffering--our shorter lifespans, our physical abuse by women in numbers roughly equal to men's abuse of women, our dramatically higher suicide rates, the lack of educational attention being paid to boys' needs even as boys fall farther behind girls academically. I feel that circumcision is the primal wound for males; it was for many of us our first sexual experience. For men, pain and pleasure can have a complicated relationship in the sexual arena.

I was relatively "lucky" with my circumcision. My penis was not inadvertently amputated, as happens to some boys. Nor was the operation performed so unskillfully that my penis points to the side when erect, as is true of some men I know. I was not overly lucky though, since a relatively high amount of skin was removed.

And I would rather not think about my loss. And yet I work to stop other boys from suffering the same loss, every day of my life. And I still have found myself unable to start taking any of the steps open to me to try to restore some of what I have lost through the skin stretching techniques which have been developed. This feels like another form of projecting my fears onto women, another form of holding back. I am shell-shocked and a post-traumatic stress survivor. I am proud that I survived. But I hurt. And when my lovers support my anti-circumcision work, I tell them about it, but I am careful not to talk to them about why intact men are better lovers, for fear they will leave me to experience the other side.

Making love and even dating are complicated transactions for me these days. I don't feel comfortable being expected to pay for the majority of dates, even when I have more money than my partner. It feels too much to me like the sort of gender-based expectations that I want to smash because they limit me, forcing me to slowly work myself to death to support other adults as well as myself. And yet I don't want to be so heavy either. I love an effortless give-and-take of dating when it can happen. I treat you now, you treat me some other time. And yet my anger over men's mistreatment weighs me down.

Even in my community, in which I am friends mostly with artists, communal livers and other non-conformists, I find that men are generally expected to make the first move sexually. I have heard even my extremely "liberated" and feminist friends talking about how they depend on men to make the first moves, in dating and in bed. I am tired of that load always being on me, so to speak. I don't necessarily mind shouldering it a lot of the time but I wish there were more reciprocity. This feels like another burden placed on men, another burden of which many women are blissfully unaware.

Feminist women put us in such a difficult place today. We must be loving and gentle and hard and masculine. It is tough being a "liberated man."

And yet I love too. Making love, for all the complications connected with gender issues, is deliriously wonderful, the most reliable way I know of to transcend my own self and join with another human being to create something larger than either of us. Blending male and female is so sweet. Man and woman are not the same and the difference is the root of much that is delicious about life. I love to reach out to the waist of a woman I want and who wants me and grab her and carry her to the bed and ravish her. Polarity is there and it's good.

Sometimes, when I am lost in the passion of lovemaking, I can attain some merciful forgetting of memories of my circumcision, of my shame, of my years of loneliness, of my still ongoing lack of a life partner. Sometimes I can come to the river of sexuality and dive in and go deeper and deeper and get wetter and wetter and immerse myself in the joy of the conjunction of male and female and hold myself in the wonder and dare myself never to come up for a breath... And then I remember I am only a man, and even men must breathe if they wish to live, and I come up for breath.

And I duck my head under the waters again.

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