Last month, we spoke to Filippo M. Nimbi, the author of a study on how, counterintuitive as it sounds, wanting to be a father kills your sex drive. Among the many other thoughts he shared on sexuality and masculinity was this:
“We should always consider that sex is a pillar of male sexual identity in Western culture, rather than paternity.”
The idea — one that I hadn’t considered until he said it, but which made sense — stuck with me over the next few weeks. Growing up, the number of times my dad, uncle or grandfather asked me: “How are the girls?” — code for, who are you fucking? — was enough that I found myself fabricating stories about not only the number of girls, but the number of instances and the durations of my sexual experiences.
I wasn’t alone either: Recently, I spoke to a friend of mine that I’ve known since middle school who told me he’d had a frighteningly similar experience with his dad. “Honestly, sometimes it felt like the only thing he cared about was which ones and how many girls I was fucking,” he told me.
Considering the intensely personal — and somewhat gross — nature of these questions, it raises the question of just why men might be asking them of their younger male family members. The answer, as Nimbi’s quote above suggests, is simply that this is how men have traditionally defined their level of masculinity.
When I reached back out to Nimbi to ask why men view their masculinity through this arbitrary lens, he told me that most of it just comes down to stereotypical gender roles. “Female identity in Western culture has been based on maternity and caring,” says Nimbi. “Male identity is based on work, strength and sexuality. So men have sex for pleasure and supremacy, women for intimacy and reproduction.”
As for whether this is purely a Western phenomenon — also implied by his quote — Nimbi is reluctant to speculate. “I’m not really into Eastern cultures, so I don’t want to tell you the wrong information. But I know for sure that there are some differences in gender roles and sexuality,” Nimbi explains. “For example, in oriental philosophies, sexuality is an important expression for both men and women.”
Two words: Kama Sutra.
But back to male sexual identity in the West. Nimbi believes that the pervasive, albeit stereotypical, categorization of male identity is actually based on two pillars, the second being work. “This means that people grow up with the message that ‘real men’ have to do a lot of sex (the more, the better) and to be good in their job,” says Nimbi.
These two pillars, of course, often end up being intertwined. “Is it not the case that commonly when a man is fired, he usually has some fallouts in his sexual life?” Nimbi asks. According to a 2015 study that looked at the criteria for how men and women with sexual problems should be diagnosed, the answer is a resounding yes. “The researchers said that one ‘interesting’ finding was that ‘unemployment was associated with male but not female dysfunction,’” The Daily Mail reported. Furthermore, a study from 2008 found a link between unemployment and “sexual dysfunction in men, specifically erectile failure,” wrote the study’s author.
Nimbi also claims that men tend to be focused on the quantity and performance of sex, while women, generally speaking, are more into quality and feelings. And while he admits this is based purely on gender cliches, rather than scientific evidence, there’s certainly historical precedent. “The female role was mainly to take care of the family in history — not in all cultures, but most,” says Nimbi. “Historically speaking, women generally have only one pillar: Maternity. Obviously I’m speaking about stereotypical ideas, [but these] unfortunately are still strong in our society.”
There are a few biological and evolutionary theories that try to explain the importance of sex to male identity, including — according to a Washington Post interview with anthropologist Donald Symons — the idea that it has to do with increased competition amongst men. Nimbi, meanwhile, suggests it has to do with the fact that men associate sex with dominance, power and control. “Many men define their virility on the basis of being a good ‘women-hunter’ — that’s true also in many gay men,” says Nimbi.
Whatever the cause, it’s clear that male identity is stagnating while, as Nimbi points out, the definition of what constitutes a woman’s sexual identity is quickly changing. “Nowadays a lot of women don’t care about building a family,” says Nimbi. “Women are more free.” Which isn’t to say that women don’t get judged for some of these choices: “[Women] have to face the difference from the general idea of being categorized as a woman/bride/mother. Sometimes they feel ‘wrong,’ or they’re labelled as ‘not real women’ by society.”
But as hard as the change may be for women, it’s at least occuring. Men, on the other hand, are stuck in the same patterns — patterns which, as the last six months have made increasingly obvious, aren’t working for anyone. “There are less benefits [to this behavior] now than ever before,” agrees Nimbi.