Men, Sex, and the Rhetoric of Need

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A man has needs.

Ask yourself how many times you’ve heard the above statement, or some variation of it? If you’re like me, you’ve heard it so many times that you’ve internalized it, learned to accept it as fact.

Now ask yourself how much bad behavior those four little words have excused? How many cheating partners, rapists, human traffickers, and pedophiles have deployed those very words to justify some unconscionable act? It’s time to remove this statement from our modern parlance because it’s dangerous. Don’t believe me? Let’s break it down to find out why.

First, A man

The indefinite article “a” allows this statement to be applied to any and every man–past, present, and future. And we are, obviously, talking about men. I suppose you could substitute woman for man, i.e. A woman has needs, but that’s not how this statement is commonly used. A woman has needs simply doesn’t have the same power–more on this later. The point is that any man anywhere can pull out this little dictum whenever he needs to rationalize some inappropriate behavior. 

Next, has

The verb “has” serves many functions, but in this sentence it denotes ownership or possession. A man “has” needs in the way my youngest child “has” a cold. The slippery thing about “has,” however, is that the word is often passive, obscuring the subject or actor of a sentence. In this case, we don’t know how the man got his needs. They’re just sort of there. And he’s just sort of there, hanging out. With his needs.

Which brings me to, needs

“Needs” carries the most weight in the sentence, in a few ways. At five letters, it’s the longest word. The sentence is iambic, like a heartbeat–da dum da duma man has needs–which means “needs” is stressed when the sentence is said aloud. Try it. “Needs,” like “has,” is slippery. It can be both a verb and noun, but in this case it is a noun. A need. Need-the-noun is defined as a thing that is necessary or required. Human need is often thought of in connection with survival. So we can understand how the word need is functioning in this statement if we think about other things that a man “needs” to survive, for example: food, water, shelter from predators, healthcare, you know–the essentials. The specific need this statement refers to is sex. So the most obvious question is: Is sex a need?

In barest terms, no, it is not. Is sex necessary for the survival of our species? Sure. Individuals? Absolutely not.

Some people might hate that I’m saying this. After all, when sex is cast as a need, some of the stigma around sex is removed. If you’ve been raised in a culture that is both sex-obsessed and sex-phobic (read: America), removing stigma surrounding sex is a good thing. After all, there’s so much shame associated with sex and that shame can lead to an unhealthy self-loathing, which is bad for us as individuals and as a society.

But there are serious problems with calling sex a need.

First, what happens when you deny someone something they need? If someone is starving, and you have food to spare but don’t give it to them, what kind of person does that make you? Cruel. Heartless. Selfish. Cold. Frigid. If a man wants to have sex with me and I say no, if I believe sex is a human need, I refuse with the understanding that I’m denying him something he needs to survive that is in my power to give. Can you see how I or others might be convinced to have sex with a man, even if we don’t really want to, out of a sense of duty or generosity? That is not a good thing.

Second, “needs” have this slippery way of morphing into “rights.” (So much slippage!) We can see this with the healthcare debate. Politicians are beginning to call healthcare a human right. Nobody should be too poor to go to the doctor, they say. Lives are at stake; therefore, something people need to survive is cast as a right they are entitled to. We can see the same sort of argument in this age-old ethical problem: if a man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, is it a crime? The law tends to break down in this instance. The implication is that the man shouldn’t be punished for stealing because human life is at stake. Regulations around housing costs are another example. People seem to believe that we have the right to affordable housing because housing–shelter–is a human need. So, can sex morph from a human need into a human right? I think we all know that it can and does (Research “Pick-up artists” or “PUAs” for short). This is really dangerous. It allows people–let’s be real, men–to move through the world believing that they deserve access to others’ bodies for the purpose of sexual gratification, and that the person who denies said access is in the wrong. When a man rapes, which is a crime, are we willing to overlook that crime, much like we are when a man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, because he needs to have sex? THAT IS A BAD THING.

Where did the idea of sex-as-need come from? I think, and this is just a hypothesis, it’s rooted in our once emergent and rudimentary understanding of the physicality of male sexuality, i.e. that something is produced inside a man that comes out during sex. A primitive conception of physics might have convinced people that because it can come out it must come out, kind of like a vessel that will only hold so much water before it overflows. I mean, can we have a discussion about men and sex and need and not talk about blue balls? Yes, blue balls are real, but no, they will not kill you. This is why I think the statement A woman has needs simply does not have the same power. So much of the physicality of female sexuality is unseen, especially if you don’t know where to look. Ahem. 

All joking aside, the fact is, for whatever reason, we have privileged male sexuality for centuries, probably longer. Sex-as-need is merely one manifestation of this, but it’s a pernicious one.

Recently, Barbara Streisand, yes, that Barbara Streisand, offered this sentiment about Michael Jackson’s molestation of underage boys, “His sexual needs were his sexual needs . . .” She said more, and worse, then walked back her words and apologized after much criticism, but her invocation of “need” here is an effort to shift blame, to justify or excuse an egregious sexual violation of CHILDREN. Michael Jackson’s sexual needs are placed above the minor boys’ actual need for safety. I can’t think of a clearer example which shows how very dangerous A man has needs is, but here are a few more: R. Kelly, Robert Kraft, Jeffry Epstein, Bill Cosby, Bryan Singer, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., The Catholic Church, . . . . Need I go on?

We could eliminate the statement entirely as I suggested before, but I think I’d rather modify it thusly:

A man has needs.

A man has needs.

A man needs.

A man needs consent.

There, much better.

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