ESSAY: Sequester This! The Perils of Masculinity and the Truth About Sex | Public Books
A review of the tell-all exposé authored by Harvard urologist Abraham Morgentaler, MD, whose new book, Why Men Fake It: The Truth About Men and Sex
It’s hard to be a man these days. For years, men enjoyed the trappings of hegemony unencumbered by guilt, reproach, or self-loathing. Men smoked like Don Draper, drank like Foster Brooks, and drove like Jimmy Dean. The world was theirs, and they paved American roads as pathways to their enjoyment. Men worked hard and dallied even harder. A plate of meatloaf, Lassie, and a chipper nuclear family waited dutifully at home until they returned.
Now, however, it takes a lot of work to keep things in order. This is not to say that the system is not set up for male privilege—indeed, the system slants in men’s favor like never before. But a growing group of men apparently feel persistent anxiety that things are not as they were, that a golden age is lost. These men are being encroached upon by politics, public health, and a society that wants what they have.
Nowhere is this inquietude more pronounced than in men’s own bodies; indeed, in the very bodies that men once flaunted as symbols that demonstrated how the laws of nature were made for others, not for them. Men were Mickey Mantle, who gallivanted all night and hit three home runs the next day. Or characters in a Jack London short story, braving the cold with three matches, wet socks, and their wits. Or suave George Hamilton, who tanned so much he made the tanning-booth mom look albino.
Now men learn that demonstrations of their embodied authority are decidedly not good for them. Cigarette packs pester men with warnings about mortality. Bacon and eggs cause high cholesterol. And driving fast kills men, and kills them more than it kills everyone else. So the public-health police compel men to wear seatbelts and motorcycle helmets and eat egg whites. Meanwhile, men’s most basic instincts, such as the innate aggression that evolutionary biologists say demonstrates men’s animal instincts, are by this logic legislated by a government that forces them to sign up for healthcare or comes into their homes and takes their firearms.
Men still have old-school heroes, to be sure. Johnny Knoxville and other stars of Jackass franchise the indestructability of the male body. They launch it, probe it, catapult it, and show how it remains laughingly intact. Mixed martial arts warriors like Brock Lesnar and Dan Henderson kick, stomp, and punch their way to caged success. And Coney Island champion Joey Chestnut eats sixty-eight hot dogs and buns (HDBs) in ten minutes and still has room for dessert.
However, these men are the holdouts and the holdovers. And for every one Johnny Knoxville we see a hundred examples of things men used to enjoy about their beautiful bodies turned into warning signs about longevity and well-being. Magazines like Maxim and Men’s Health temper the authority of a man’s scopic gaze with seemingly endless lists of exercises that men need to do to maintain their physiques. The good old six-pack morphs into the pressure of maintaining buns of steel and six-pack abs.
We can add sex to the list. The demise started with Viagra, Cialis, and other drugs that promised four-hour erections at the drop of a hat. Men met the advent of these medications with bliss; but beneath the joy lay the uncertainty of why they needed chemical assistance in the first place.
Now men learn that pointing is not the only problem; they have issues with shooting as well. This news comes from a tell-all exposé authored by Harvard urologist Abraham Morgentaler, MD, whose new book, Why Men Fake It: The Truth About Men and Sex, uncovers a heretofore untold epidemic spreading through the ranks. Morgentaler details how modern men buckle under the pressure of performance expectations. In the privacy of the bedrooms in which men used to be kings, men now fail to seal the deal. And so, in response, they have begun a shameful performance long thought scripted only for women. Men, according to Morgentaler, increasingly fake the big O.
IN THE PRIVACY OF THE BEDROOMS IN WHICH MEN USED TO BE KINGS, MEN NOW FAIL TO SEAL THE DEAL.
Morgentaler’s evidence for the ways in which the expectations of modern relationships cast men into previously feminized roles comes not from the types of data to which newfangled scientists and readers have grown accustomed. His is not a book marred by outcome studies, population statistics, or unsightly numbers or graphs. Instead, Why Men Fake It is a throwback that unfolds via the anecdotal weight of a seasoned doctor’s observations and his recollections of intimate details told to him by his patients.
And so we meet a slew of well-endowed men who, in moments of passion, moan and curl in apparent pleasure, rush to the restroom, and then tiptoe off to urologists. These are men like David, “a nice-looking engineer, twenty-eight years old, with wavy, dark brown hair and dark, deep-set eyes,” whose “trim torso, blue jeans ripped over both thighs, and slightly distressed leather loafers completed an image that said, ‘I am one hip dude.’” David’s outside signaled confidence, but his insides protested too much. “How can I help you?” Morgentaler recalls asking David. “I can’t have an orgasm during sex” is David’s reply. “I faked an orgasm … and now I fake it whenever [I] have sex … when I figure it’s time, I do the whole thing. I groan and tense up for a while and then relax.”
Similarly “Barry, a patient of mine,” dates a woman who, “every time we had sex, she would stop me on my way to the bathroom and inspect the condom before I pulled it off, checking the end of it.” And Ramon, a twenty-nine-year-old auto body detailer who “walked in with a bit of swagger. His hair was slicked back, and he wore a pencil-thin beard that outlined the contours of his jaw … ‘My erections are okay. I just don’t come.’” And Sylvester, “handsome, trim and muscular … ‘I meet a lot of women during my travels. I enjoy sex a lot—don’t get me wrong. … I don’t come during sex.’”
Morgentaler expertly walks us through a host of explanations for this scourge of denouement fictus. Indeed, Why Men Fake It unfolds like a present-day version of the 1950s-era women’s magazine self-help column “Tell Me Doctor,” only here the patients are men. Thus we learn a great deal about male biology, the pressing differences between orgasm and ejaculation, and the vulgarities of the vas deferens. We sit on the doctor’s shoulder like little birds as he performs surgery: “I opened his abdomen through a vertical incision from his pubic bone to his navel, and immediately found two fine-looking testicles, floating happily inside him.” And we learn about such topics as “male menopause,” “better living through pharmacology,” and “the penis reflected.”
MEN ONCE RULED THE ROOST AND RULED THE ROOSTER, THE LOGIC GOES. BUT NOW MEN FEEL THE PRESSURE TO BE SENSITIVE, RESPONSIVE PARTNERS AND THOUGHTFUL, INTUITIVE MATES.
Beneath it all, however, lies an entirely cultural mechanism: the very fact that men see performance as a problem in the first place results from the changed nature of relationships. Men once ruled the roost and ruled the rooster, the logic goes. But now men feel the pressure to be sensitive, responsive partners and thoughtful, intuitive mates. As Morgentaler puts it, modern men “feel awful if they believe they have sexually disappointed their partner[s].” Indeed David, the “hip dude” whose case frames the book, comes to medical attention only because he meets Sarah, the love of his life. “We’ve been dating for a few months,” he tells Morgentaler, “and we’re really into each other. … Sarah is a beautiful woman, but I could tell she was feeling bad about herself because I couldn’t come.”
Why Men Fake It joins a growing list of books that link the crisis of the modern-day man to modern men’s efforts to go with the flow. In Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success, psychologist Thomas Joiner argues that men’s inalienable rights of money and power are punished by today’s world, leading men to alcohol and drug abuse, and ultimately to self-destruction. And in The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession, a team of mental-health experts detail how men respond to the pressures posed by the women’s movement by obsessing about, and punishing, their own bodies.
One can hear men everywhere reading these books and saying, how much more can we take? We have bent over frontwards and backwards to accommodate everyone else. But doing so has only driven down our manly confidence and driven up our medical bills.
It is no surprise, then, that men are fighting back. Enough Mr. Nice Guy, no more getting the shaft. At long last, men are retrieving the power and authority that, as psychoanalysis agrees, is their pre–Oedipal crisis birthright.
We see this across the land, as the small whispers of protest now become a tumescent men’s movement. Men rally to protect their Bushmasters—for guns, as Morgentaler, Freud, and Dick Cheney shows us, are what it’s all about. And men fight to roll back the political changes that threaten their well-being—for as everyone knows, more affirmative action, equal pay, and voting rights for you means more urologic office visits for us. Most of all, men now have the courage to sequester, to legally retrieve and hoard the glory that is rightly theirs. Liberals and man-haters contend that sequestration may not be the smartest economic strategy. But who can blame men for sequestering their special purposes, and rescuing for posterity the manhood now firmly in the grasp of health-care providers, ambitious women, and other special-interest groups?
Go men, we can only say in wonder as we watch the “truth” about them unfold writ large. Go take back your bodies and yourselves.
This essay was originally published in Public Books