A new study published in Men and Masculinities has found that straight men who identify as feminists likely have had sex more recently than their non-feminist counterparts. In other words, men who respect women get laid more.
No duh, right?
Right. But that’s not what’s necessarily interesting about this paper. What is interesting is what these guys are doing in bed. To get at that, I recently spoke with Max Stick and Tina Fetner, the sociologists behind the study. Along the way, we also talked about the orgasm gap, why so many men are still reluctant to label themselves as feminist and how clitoral stimulation is a significant data point in determining gender equality — both in and out of the bedroom.
In your study, you find that men who consider themselves feminist are more likely to give their partners oral sex as well as pay more attention to their breasts. As with the fact that they’re getting laid more than non-feminist men, isn’t this also pretty obvious?
Fetner: Not necessarily. There’s solid evidence that men who claim a feminist identity don’t always live up to that in all of their actions. So it was an open question whether claiming a feminist identity would result in putting the time and attention into a different repertoire of sexual behaviors.
How is men giving oral sex a significant data point in this conversation?
Stick: Studies have shown that performing oral sex on a woman is critical for orgasm, so it seemed like a good link for men who want gender equality to also commit to equality in pleasure in the bed.
What else can we learn about masculinity from the sex practices of feminist men?
Stick: We’re not used to seeing the incorporation of femininity and more fluid gender identities in mainstream men. But masculinity has changed recently. A lot of research has looked at this increase of feminism, but it mainly looks at it in the public sphere. We haven’t really known what’s going on in the private sphere, which is what we wanted to look at. We hear a lot about locker room talk these days and how men act differently around other men than they do in public. We took the opposite approach — looking at how men behave in the most intimate moments with their female partners to find out if there’s a difference.
Fetner: An open debate in masculinity studies right now is how deep men’s presentation of feminist behavior goes. When they take it home, do they really value gender equality? There’s some evidence that they do, and other evidence that they slack off a bit. If you look at the way people distribute household labor in heterosexual couples, for example, men who claim to want an equal split of household labor don’t always follow through.
In the bedroom, there’s a consistent orgasm gap between men and women in heterosexual sex, with women always on the lower side. Men’s orgasm during heterosexual sex is upwards of 90 percent, and women’s varies from 40 to 70 percent. A myth about women’s bodies is that they’re more difficult to bring to orgasm. That’s clearly not the case, which we’ve known since Kinsey proved that female bodies are just as easy to bring to orgasm as male bodies. So the question then becomes, what’s really going on? In some of my other work with Nicole Andrejek, we figured out that it comes down to a much greater focus on penile stimulation than clitoral stimulation. That’s what’s producing the gender gap in orgasms. But why?
One of the most striking things about your study was the small percentage of men who actually identified as feminists — barely 20 percent. So despite your finding that feminist-identified men pay more attention to certain sexual practices, it’s still a small percentage of all Canadian men who are doing this.
Stick: Men are still wary of identifying as feminist due to stereotypes about feminist men being less masculine, weak and unattractive. So although many didn’t claim to be feminists, they still may agree with gender equality and support feminist ideas.
Fetner: Right. And yet, it’s still a very common understanding in Canada that attention to women’s pleasure is secondary.
What would you say to a man who wanted to be more feminist but wasn’t quite sure how to do it? What are the first things he needs to be paying attention to?
Stick: How is their daily behavior affecting gender inequality — whether that be in their public lives or in their personal lives? Because few see how their behavior actually creates gender inequality in sexual pleasure.
Fetner: Empathy and listening is a good place to start. Since the 1970s, feminism has focused on teaching women about their bodies and breaking the taboo of women’s sexual pleasure. We can shift that kind of activism to men, moving away from an understanding of sexual intimacy as domination and notches in the bedpost to a place of mutual pleasure, communication and closeness. That would be progress.
If you conduct this study again in five or 10 years, would you expect more people to identify as feminist, and thereby be more focused on women’s pleasure?
Fetner: That’s a tough question. An important takeaway from this work is that identifying as a feminist influences the most personal, intimate behaviors. There’s a tie between our value system and how we treat our partners. That said, I don’t assume that we’re always and forever on an upward trajectory toward greater equality. But confirming that value systems and intimate behaviors are tied is an important thing to know. And if we manage the difficult challenge of convincing a greater proportion of men to think of themselves as feminist and supporting gender equality, we’d see an overall proportionate increase in female sexual pleasure.