Men wanting women
The White Lotus shows how male sexual desire is a mixed blessing, but it is a blessing nonetheless
I just watched the second season of White Lotus. Yes, I know. I’m very much behind the curve. (It’s worse than you think: I only recently watched Breaking Bad). People who know I work on issues of boys and men had been saying to me for weeks, “you have to watch White Lotus!”). And there is in fact lots of material in there about men and masculinity, and especially men and sex. Indeed, male sexual desire is a major theme.
One moment really stood out to me at the opening of episode 6. Ethan and Harper aren’t having sex, and the question of his desire for her is a thread running through the series. At one point she says he’s “too into his porn”, and she wonders if he even desires her. Here’s the exchange:
Harper: Do you even want me anymore?
Ethan: I love you.
Harper: So depressing.
Ethan: "I love you" is depressing?
Harper: No. No. I love you, too.
It’s depressing because Harper doesn’t only want his love. She wants his desire. She wants him to want her, and to show that he does. There’s a similar dynamic between two other characters, the painfully politically correct Albie and the young woman he is attracted to, Portia.
Albie thinks that all differences between men and women, in terms of sex, are the result of socialization (he studied at Stanford), and is determined to avoid the philandering ways of his father and grandfather. He is careful to ask Portia’s permission before kissing her. Portia laments of Albie that he “doesn’t get the heart rate up.” Portia ends up with a manipulative, alcoholic Brit. Albie ends up with a manipulative Sicilian prostitute.
In one scene, Albie walks past a series of gorgeous, bikini-clad women without so much as the slightest turn of the head (the camera is set up to give us his point of view). He either genuinely doesn’t notice, or is so well socialized that he knows to not even glance their way. But in the final scene, a gorgeous Italian woman walks past him, his father and grandfather. All three heads turn. As always, the message is ambiguous. Has Albie turned to the dark side, towards toxic masculinity and the objectification of women? Or has something primal been set free, a natural and healthy sexual desire?
At one point, I planned a whole chapter on sex in my book, Of Boys and Men. I decided against for a few reasons. First, I didn’t feel I had enough knowledge in the field. Second, I didn’t know what policy proposals were likely to follow, and I wanted the book to be wonkily solutions-based. Third, I feared it would distract from other themes. As a friend warned me: “If you have a chapter on sex, nobody will ask you about your ideas on technical High Schools”. As it turns out, very few people have asked me about technical High Schools in any case: but I urge you to read this excerpt of the book on the subject, published by Compass, who are really into this stuff. Here’s a teaser:
By my estimates, there are currently around 1,600 technical high schools in the country, accounting for about 7% of all public high schools. These are clustered in larger urban or suburban school districts in the Northeast. Overall, only 12% of school districts have a CTE school. We should aim to add at least 1,000 new technical high schools across the nation by 2030, enrolling around one million students. If the federal government offered states a subsidy of $5,000 per student for these schools to address the higher cost associated with high-quality technical education, the cost would be around $5 billion per year. But the positive result would be to allow around 15% of all high school students to attend a technical high school.
Want to get back to sex now?
I did end up writing a bit about differences between men and women when it comes to sex, but really just as one example of the way that biology does influence preferences and psychology, along with risk-taking and potential for aggression. Here’s some of what I wrote:
As a matter of biological fact, men are just lustier—or have what Konner labels more “driven sexuality”—than women. A comprehensive review of 150 studies found overwhelming evidence that men have a higher sex drive, “reflected in spontaneous thoughts about sex frequency and variety of sexual fantasies, desired frequency of intercourse, desired number of partners, masturbation, liking for various sexual practices, willingness to forego sex, initiating versus refusing sex, making sacrifices for sex, and other measures.”
As Billy Crystal’s character says in the movie City Slickers, “Women need a reason to have sex. Men just need a place.”
Again, there is a good evolutionary reason for this difference. With a much higher chance of failing to father any children, men have had to be ready to take almost any opportunity for procreation. “Physically, men in their prime are hardwired to be in a state of near-perpetual readiness to couple with any female in their environment who is likely to be able to conceive and bear children,” writes Marianne Legato, director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine. That is why Legato and others see erectile health as a proxy for overall health in men.
The commercialization of the male sex drive is as old as recorded history; there are twenty-five words for “prostitute” in Latin. It is almost entirely men who pay for sex, and there are about 1 million prostitutes working in the U.S. today, far outnumbering priests and pastors. . .
This is why men watch porn and visit sex workers. This is why men have affairs not, usually, for love but for sexual novelty. (There’s more on these topics in the book).
Again, it hardly needs adding that, for good or ill, culture hugely influences the expression of the driven sexuality of men. One of the most important things young men learn from their surrounding culture is how to express their sexual desire in an appropriate way. But greater male lust, on average, is a fact of life.
There have been a handful of books recently arguing that the sexual revolution, or “sex positivity” have not worked out that well for many women. I’m thinking especially of Louis Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex: A Provocation and Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. (I had Emba and Bachiochi on my podcast, Dialogues). From different cultural and ideological perspectives, all three proceed from the basis that sex is different for men and women. Sex for men is more physical; for women it is more relational. To some that sounds controversial. To me it sounds like common sense.
But there are some important caveats here. Like all differences between the sexes, the distributions overlap. Some women have a “male” attitude to sex, some men have a “female” one. One of the huge gains of the sexual revolution has been to reduce the shaming of women who have sex for its own sake, perhaps with a number of men. There’s clearly a danger of going too far the other way, and shaming women who prefer not to. We should aim for a world that recognizes diversity in sexual preferences, in women as much as men, without any of the outliers incurring social stigma.
There are no sluts, and there are no prudes.
The fact of male sexual desire may be a fact of life, but how it is expressed is vitally important, and very largely context-dependent. As boys become men, they learn how to read the cues of women for signs of interest, or disinterest. They learn how to approach respectfully and appropriately. They learn how to gracefully accept “no” for an answer, and they learn that rejection is an inescapable part of the enterprise. These are hard-won skills, and ones we need to help all boys and men develop. But we won’t do that by denying the reality of male sexual desire in the first place, or by only equipping boys and men with a long list of “don’ts”, important though those are, without some “do’s” as well.
Mature masculinity does not require an abandonment of sexual desire. Quite the opposite. That desire is one of the things that is great about being a man. Expressed in the right way, it is a vital and valuable ingredient in most relationships. Harper wants Ethan to love her, of course. They are married, after all. But she wants him to want her, too. And that’s not just OK, it’s wonderful.
Richard first let me say that as someone who cares about these issues deeply and works with men every day in the trenches you have written the most important book on the modern man to date. Full stop. I/we are in your debt. Having had my own brushes with the men's rights groups I full appreciate your comments on Ezra about how communication does matter from CDC et al. I was super interested in this post because a lot of my work with men (I also focus a ton on suicide and addiction, both of which have been part of my personal story) involves male experiences of sex and intimacy. To me this is actually the 3rd rail. The place where we as men have the most growing up to do. I want to gently and respectfully push back on your conclusion that for men sex is physical and for women it is relational. That is over simplistic. There is actually a lot more going on under the surface that I do not think you are seeing. Here is my respectful response on my substack to this one from you... I sincerely hope you will read (and anyone else who cares about these issues):https://tommatlack.substack.com/p/why-men-need-to-talk-about-sex
Discussions of "male vs female sexuality" are inescapably reductionistic. For example, I'd wager that those studies Konner and you cited are based on undergraduates in the US. So we take one age group, one slice of an economic spectrum, one country, in one point in history ... and we extrapolate to "male and female sexuality."
How do our sexual appetites change over time and circumstance? Are the desires of a 60 year-old man those of the 20 year-old who sat for the survey? What about women's libido as they age? What about foragers in the Amazon or the Arctic? How about 19th century French villagers?
If you look across cultures, historical periods, and closely related primates such as bonobos, I suspect you'll emerge much less confident in these seemingly obvious premises about how males and females innately experience their sexuality. Turns out, it's far more nuanced and complex than it seems.