Monday, May 26, 2008

Sex Roles: A paradigm shift

In the fifties and sixties we definitely lived in a patriarchy and it is fair to say that it was a man’s world. The roles for men and women were relatively well-defined and non-changing, but the last 20-30 years have brought about dramatic changes in male and female sex roles. The changes have forced many men to reevaluate the traditional notions of manhood and masculinity. While many men welcome these changes, this redefinition of roles has caused confusion and frustration for others.

One approach to understanding what is going on is to recognize that whenever any issue heats up, when old beliefs and attitudes begin to be debated and challenged, it is a good bet that we are on the threshold of a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift occurs when there are fundamental changes in thought about some previously accepted aspect of society which comes under scrutiny and begins to be rejected. A paradigm shift is more than a change in thought; it also means a fundamental change in personal behavior. We can get some clues on where this paradigm shift is going by focusing in on the basic structure of the current paradigm.

Under the patriarchal paradigm, the masculine stereotype emphasized the importance of males being strong, independent, inflexible, and emotionless. In relationships the male roles were clear; be the provider, be the “boss” and don’t get too emotionally close to anyone. Not showing any vulnerability was central to this role. Male sexuality was characterized as genitally focused, detached from other parts and conditions of our lives, and performance oriented. For men sex was not so much a sharing of intimacy but a conquest to provide for our own gratification and to prove our manliness.

Patriarchy is under attack. The liberation of the sixties heightened the sexual contradictions of the typical Western view of sexuality and sparked debate about rigidly defined male and female sex roles. The Feminist movement has shaken the foundations. As one very perceptive bumper sticker states: “Feminism is the radical notion that males and females are equal.” This statement very nicely captures the present-day paradigm shift. Shifting sex roles in this country now encompass more equality for males and females. Whereas older, more traditional, notions of sex roles emphasized the superior power position of males, more recent formulations of sex roles emphasize equal power for males and females and even in some instances empower females to assume the dominant role. Gay liberation has also raised profound questions about sex roles and behaviors.

Like it or not, though scary and confusing at times for many sex role expectations are changing in this country. Newer definitions of being a man are much less rigid and clear. Males are now expected by their partners to be open emotionally and to be able to communicate effectively. New role models of masculinity stress both strength and vulnerability; the ability to be strong and the ability to be vulnerable. Simply put, we are in the process of redefining sex roles in our culture. Today’s culture requires males to expand the traditional notions of masculinity. It is important to know how to be strong and vulnerable, independent and dependent, logical and emotional. Clinging to old notions of what being male means will not solve the problem. New roles are evolving and it is important for males to experiment with these new notions.

More and more males are beginning to see the advantages of these new sex role expectations. Embracing the notion of equality with females or even the more “radical notion of submission to dominant females can actually be freeing for males. No longer having to be the “provider”, males now have more flexibility in their careers and work life. No longer having to be "strong and silent", men are seeing that their health improve and their relationships becoming more satisfying. In short, equality gives men options they didn’t have before. Are changing sex roles sometimes confusing? Yes. Are they freeing? Yes they are definitely freeing for both women and men. Improved health and less stress, more satisfying relationships, and more lifestyle options are but a few of the advantages.

Along with acceptance of the new sex role expectations, the basic structure of the way men think about sex must radically shift. First, men must learn that the new male sexuality engages the entire body in a diffused experience and is not just a genital experience. All forms of touch could be considered sexual in themselves, not just “foreplay.” Men could learn to have orgasms (no longer synonymous with ejaculation) that become a total body experience. Sexuality might be integrated into all other parts of men's lives. We could begin to see how a certain sexual glow can actually enhance our effectiveness at work and in our relationships, rather than be an impediment to healthy functioning. Sexuality might be pleasure-oriented rather than performance-oriented, a relaxing experience, energizing instead of depleting. Sexuality might become a multifaceted range of experiences, not just a single experience (intercourse) repeated over and over again, more or less successfully. This image, upon reflection, has many elements of a more feminine view of sexuality but it is also the new image of male sexuality.

Ultimately, the future of male sexuality and the dominant image of male sexuality will be the work of all of us men who decide to tackle this question in our own lives. We will start with what we have: our doubts, our fears, our sense of inadequacy, as well as our hopes and our best intentions. We will work towards gaining a sense of responsibility and integrity about sex that we may not feel now. We will learn about it together. What we need is a little courage to give up the old paradigm, to recognize that it doesn't fit in our lives anymore, and to start embracing a new one that fits us more comfortably.

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