Sex and power are inextricably linked and both are powerful aphrodisiacs. But what about their effect on relationships between the sexes? Don’t believe the stereotypes. The interaction of sex and power is more subtle than you might think.
Western society is founded on patriarchy, where men are dominant and women are submissive. While things have changed for the better over the past few decades, the battle between men and women still rages on.
Many feminists argue that men still dominate women, who are forced by various pressures in society to submit. They suggest that throughout history, society has been organized according to gender, with men having all the power and women being consigned to submissive and powerless roles. Even when it comes to sex, they say, men have always reigned supreme.
This was perhaps the case years ago, but people’s views of the balance of power between the sexes haven’t always been so one-sided. Today, it is too simple to make the blanket assumption that men have all the power and are to blame for all of the ills from which women suffer. Apart from anything else, this theory tends to treat women as passive victims, unable to make choices about their own lives – a view that so-called ‘post-feminist’ women reject.
A modern approach
A more enlightened way of thinking of the relationship between gender and power is to consider first the biological and genital differences between men and women and the different sorts of power that they can both exert; secondly, that both sexes are exposed to stereotypes which they can choose to live up to or disregard; and thirdly, it is important to remember that there are struggles for power between men and rival men and women and rival women all the time. Battles aren’t always fought along lines of gender.
A fact that many followers of the patriarchy theory ignore is that women bear and socialize sons. They help to influence the development of the men of tomorrow – future lovers and rapists, law enforcers and criminals. Some women socialize their sons well and others do it badly, but their hand in the moulding of manhood should not be overlooked.
A man’s world?
What is power? How is it linked to sexuality, and why does the equation of men being powerful and women being powerless still persist in these so-called ‘liberated’ times?
Power, in most instances, means control. The traditional stereotype of men portrays them as strong, thrusting and unassailable. This extends into the sexual arena where they are often portrayed as being dominant in the sexual act, always initiating sex and dictating what happens. Most of us are aware, however, that stereotypes do not necessarily reflect real life and real people.
Research carried out over recent years among prostitutes would seem to bear this out. They consistently report that a large proportion of their clients want to remain passive during sex as this frees them from acting out the dominant role ‘expected’ of them in the outside world, and at work.
Interestingly, many women also believe the stereotypes and enforce them by appearing to be submissive, always relying on men to initiate sex, and leaving it up to the man to decide what they should do.
This conforming to stereotypes can mislead observers into believing that a dominant/submissive scenario is being played out. In reality, however, the two parties have simply chosen to act according to one of many patterns available to them.
Men, women and pornography
Many people believe that masculinity and power go hand in hand. They say that to be powerful is to be superior or to be a ‘real man’, and that this is most evident in the images in pornographic magazines, where men are portrayed as aggressive and women as always waiting and willing for the ultimate moment of submission.
It is argued that the stories and images in pornographic books, magazines and films portray men’s idea of how sexual scenarios should be played out, and that they serve to foster and shore up age-old views of sexuality and women’s place in the world. Such stories are also held responsible for allowing male readers to imagine that they themselves are the thrusting heroes, bending women to their sexual will and never failing in their sexual conquests.
The opposing argument says that anyone who has seen a broad range of pornography can cite many instances where women are portrayed as the aggressors in sex, more dominant and powerful than men.
Also, many pornographic stories are written by women, either just for fun or for publication in magazines, and today an increasing number of adventurous couples are using pornography to enhance their sex lives. There are now women’s pornographic magazines portraying men as amenable to women’s power and control.
In the modern world, the belief that male sexuality equals women’s subjugation is not as strong as it used to be. It may be true that a tiny minority of men confuse the macho content of some pornography with real life, but the majority accept pornography as being based largely on fantasy, and not as reflecting reality.
Penis versus vagina
Some people argue that the very imagery of power is male-centred. The famous psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, saw knives, guns and swords as penis symbols, which led to many people suggesting that the penis is, and always has been, the ultimate symbol of sexual power.
The opposing school of thought suggests that the ultimate imagery of power for many men is the vagina. It has been found that many men are affected by feelings of insecurity about their penis – its size, shape and performance. On the other hand, they view the vagina as entrancing, irresistible and energy-sapping.
Anyone who has examined the expressions of an audience at a stag night will notice the men’s rapt, fascinated expressions when exposed to the naked vagina. Many strippers report feeling a sense of immense power when they perform before a group of seemingly hypnotized males.
A lot of people suggest that rape is a matter of using the penis as a weapon to establish which is the stronger and which is the weaker sex, and that it has more to do with power than with sexual desire. Many studies have shown that sexual assault is often carried out not by men who believe that they are dominant, but by men who feel powerless and inferior, as a way of asserting their power.
Rape and power
Rape has often been shown to be the reaction of someone who is a loser in many areas of their life, professionally and sexually. These people have also often been shown to be individuals who don’t understand how women feel and react, or men who are unable to cope with sexual rejection.
Studies show that rapists often have significant obstacles in their life. Perhaps religious beliefs forbid them from enjoying the kind of sex they want, or they may regard themselves as physically unattractive to women. Perhaps their status is such that they cannot make contact with women.
Of course, there are men who have all of life’s advantages and freedoms who still rape, and men with insurmountable problems who don’t, but it is generally true that most rapists are severely damaged socially or sexually and could be described as victims as well as the women they assault.
Two-way sex power
For many men, the concept of their masculine power is focused on their penis. Power is sex, and power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Any loss of power is a loss of potency, a physical or psychological castration.
Many people believe that what men fear most is this emasculation, for if it happens women will take on the dominant role and men will be relegated to second-class citizens in a woman’s world.
Also, for many women, the concept of power is focused on the vagina. They are tremendously aware of their feminine attraction and use it to manipulate men. So who exactly is exploiting who?
The story continues
Of course it would be false to suggest that there will not always be disputes between the sexes. On a domestic level, women are often unhappy with the contribution their partners make when it comes to housework and child-rearing. At work there are still instances of harassment from male colleagues, and women are still subjected to wolf-whistles and cat-calls in the street. On the other hand, the successful campaign by the women’s movement has led to increasing opportunities for women – and overall, the imbalance of power is nowhere near as extreme as it was a couple of decades ago. With effort and understanding from both sides things are improving all the time.