If you’re looking for one of the nation’s leading researchers and writers on masculinity, look no further. Michael Kimmel has the extraordinary gift of being able to examine and explain masculinity in phenomenal detail. Since masculinity is a great part of sexuality and thus sexual relationships, TCP was excited to get a chance to discover more about how gender operates in the bedroom. Although humble and modest about his knowledge of consent, Michael Kimmel showed TCP that when it comes to consent, there’s a lot more we can learn. It’s beyond an honor and pleasure to share Michael Kimmel’s ideas on consent with you today!
The Consensual Project: In one of your lectures on Youtube, you mentioned that when domestic labor is more equitable, sexual relationships tend to enjoy happier and healthier intimacy. This is one of many examples of feminism providing young men a tangible incentive to understand our movement. Would you provide an incentive based reason men should learn more about feminism related to consent?
Michael Kimmel: I think the real key here is the questions about consent around sexuality requires that we address men’s fear. And men’s fear is, at it’s simplest, is “if I sign up for equality, consent, etc, will it ruin my sex life?” What that says is sad because what that says is that quality based on lack of resistance from their partner. I think we can do a lot better and a lot hotter than that frankly. But, I remember the fear many men express is that this will put a damper on things. I remember distinctly when the Antioch rules came out in the late 80’s or early 90’s. There was a NYT article about it. They interviewed this one guy and he said, “If I have to ask for everything I want than I’m never going to get anything”. And I thought, “Yes! You actually understand what the rules are. Good for you.” Yes, it really is scary. But, the data shows that payoff is in everyone’s favor. The more equal the relationship the better the sex.
Traveling around college campuses, as you also know, people talk about all their hookups. They’re completely drunk and they don’t know the person. Look, you may get laid, but it’s not very good. The best you’re likely going to get is the next morning not remembering what happened last night. If you can’t remember, it couldn’t have been very good. Personally, I like memorable sex. It should be something worth remembering, not something you’re trying to forget.
The data here are very clear. Among married couples, for example, the more egalitarian the relationship (the more housework and child care he does), the more sex the men have, the higher levels of marital satisfaction expressed by both women and men. So, it’s really in our interest.
As I’ve described to my class, “so you’ve been making out for a while, so who moves?” He does. “What does he do?” He tries to put his hand on her breast above of her shirt. Does he say to himself, “Oh, this feels so good it’s so soft and warm, I really like this”? No. He says, “How do I get under her shirt?” And she says, “Do I really want him to get under my shirt?” So neither of them is actually in that moment, they’re thinking about the next step. So now he’s under her shirt, touching her actual breast. Does he say, “Wow this is really nice!’? Or does she say, “Oh, this is much better when Bobby did it last week”? No, she’s saying, “I know he’s going to try to get below my belt, do I want him to get below my belt?” And he’s saying, “How do I get into her pants?” He knows that it only “counts” when he puts it in. That question about the tense means we’re always strategizing about the future – where this is going to end up. And so we rarely take the time or have the energy to pay attention to the pleasure that a particular thing is giving us. So all the tactile sensual pleasure of sexual intercourse is lost to us because we don’t take the time to enjoy it. We can’t. We’re on a mission!
Now the next thing is who was he actually with. Here you are, and you have just had sex. What’s the first thing that ends up in his head, “Oh wow that was so great, that felt so fantastic, I really care about her. That brought us closer together.”? No. There’s an enormous homosocial element in heterosexual sex. Because the first thing he says to himself is “I can’t wait to tell my bros!” and the first thing she says is, “I hope nobody finds out”. So they’re both with their same sex friends mentally even though they’re with each other.
So with pacing, that was important for me. I needed to learn to say, “oh this feels good!” [Laughs] Sit with that for a moment. Just sit with it! You know? Allow it to feel good. You have the rest of your life to get the next step and this one is pretty great. I’d rather be doing this than pretty much anything else, so let’s stay in for a few minutes.
Our sexual experiences are a combination of so many emotions. Desire is only one of them. Think about how many times people have sex out for revenge, or have sex because they’re bored, or because they think they’re supposed to, or because they’re really attracted to the person. Respect is a much more difficult and deeper of an emotion because it requires respecting something that you don’t even give to somebody who is necessarily your peer but somebody who you put above you. You respect people you who you admire. So, if you hold women as a group in contempt, and we know that many men hold women as a group in contempt by the language we use to describe them. Or, to be even more revealing, the language we use to describe women who don’t conform. “Women ain’t shit but bitches and hoes” to quote Dr. Dre. If we hold a group a of people in contempt, and then it’s very difficult to extract respect for a particular member of the group. It ends up sounding like, “some of my friends are black”. It’s as if we’re saying “Some of the people I’m capable of respecting are women. But, by and large, I hold the entire gender in contempt.” It’s then very hard then to develop romantic relationships to your equals.
To me, the important question here is, “what’s the opposite of respect?” That is contempt. Which of those two positions are we taught about women? Yes, we’re told to respect women. We’re told to hold the door open for women, put our coat down in puddles, etc. But we are also taught contempt at the same time and it’s really confusing.
TCP: Who have been the most influential figures for you regarding consent?
Many of the women I’ve known – my friends and partners over the years. They have taken a risk and have said, “Here’s what I want.” And, “here’s what I want with you.” Some have said, “What you’ve been taught is not who I am. So let’s do it this way.” Sometimes I wasn’t particularly receptive to what they wanted and sometimes I was. When that worked out well, I was more receptive in the future.
TCP: In our current sexual climate, what are some behaviors we can relearn, unlearn, or simply learn to make establishing safe, fun, and healthy sexual relationships easier?
MK: Here’s the one word I would say. I think what I was saying before about being in the present tense. I think that the essence of consent as you’re describing it and as I understand it, is communication and negotiation. And the essence of communication and negotiation is to be present -to show up. I think a lot of times a lot of sexual experiences and sexual explorations are done on remote control we are not present. We’re afraid that if we were present it wouldn’t be any good or we wouldn’t get what we want. That’s the key word. It’s to be present.