Want Your Partner to 'Man up'? Be More Specific.

November 24, 2020 5 min read

“What does it mean to be more ‘masculine’ while having sex?” This was the question posed by a frustrated boyfriend, who took to Reddit after his girlfriend asked him to ‘man up’ in bed. Replies ranged from “growl, grab her by the hair, neck and body, be primal dude,” to another which described masculinity as a “nebulous concept” whose definition varies based on cultural context. “Instead of trying to figure out what masculinity means, ask her again what it is she wants from you specifically,” the comment advised.

Despite a growing body of research on sex, figuring out how best to fuck on our own terms is harder than it seems. Good sex looks different for everyone: whether you’re into being rimmed, fingered or smashed in the face with a birthday cake, there is no one formula for a good bang. Yet despite this fact, plenty of us still use broad terms like ‘masculinity’ and ‘dominance’ to describe our fantasies to potential partners, and it could be doing more harm than good.

Culture plays a role, too. When Amber Rose was slut-shamed by her ex-boyfriend Kanye West, she lifted the lid on her sex life and got #fingersinthebootyassbitch trending worldwide. The implication was that there’s something inherently feminine or shameful about guys liking butt stuff, when in reality, anyone assigned male at birth has a G-spot which is literally inside their asshole. Since then, plenty of cis, straight guys have spoken on-record about wanting to be pegged by their strap-on-wielding girlfriends, indicating that men are getting more experimental and less bothered about ‘masculinity’ in the bedroom.

There’s obviously still work to be done, though. Swedish sex toy company Lelo recently marked International Orgasm Day with a study showing that 66% of men cum during sex, compared to 43% of women. Plenty has been written about the ‘orgasm gap’, and it does seem to be closing slowly, but research shows that guys still aren’t asking what it takes to make women cum. Instead, it seems they’re making assumptions based on gender roles and avoiding frank conversations about what women want. Here’s a clue: it almost definitely involves the clit, and probably doesn’t include being jackhammered into oblivion.

For cis, queer women, the chance of orgasm is significantly higher – the key to closing the orgasm gap right now, it seems, is to remove dick and ‘masculinity’ from the picture altogether. Things are more complicated when it comes to gay men, though. Hook-up apps still use the top/bottom binary as cultural shorthand, and as with any binary, that means making a whole load of assumptions which replace actual communication.

Reddit’s ‘askgaybros’ community of “manly” gay men is a good cultural barometer for these questions. When I ask if masculinity can be limiting in bed, I get some pretty insightful responses: one guy highlights the difference between an unhealthy attachment to masculinity, which is “fragile” and needs to be consistently proven, and a natural tendency to behave in a way that’s coded “masculine” by society. Generally, the assumption is that ‘masculine’ guys are Dom Tops, and ‘feminine’ guys are Sub Bottoms. This seems to be changing; these guys indicate that more ‘manly’ men are happy to be fucked, and don’t feel like that compromises their masculinity. “It’s not like you have to be penetrated to be sub,” another guy writes.

Another writes that “total versatility” has helped him with these conversations, and that sometimes means no anal at all – which, in gay communities, is still treated as a weird concept. “It’s exhausting,” he writes. “I have to go into this whole detailed explanation of why I don’t subscribe to the whole top/bottom thing and how I’m not really looking for random anal sex.” Just like the women begging to be eaten out, these gay guys are frustrated that fucking is treated as the inevitable goal of a hook-up when, in reality, it’s not for everyone. “It’s almost like guys who realise they’re into guys just kinda blindly follow the standard cultural assumptions about what gay sex is supposed to be without ever really thinking outside of that,” he concludes.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking about ‘masculinity’ and start talking about ‘masculinities’. Shine Louise Houston’s Heavenly Spire porn series is a good example: whether it’s a queer woman, a trans man or a non-binary performer doing the fucking, ‘masculinity’ is treated as a performance of dominance that requires communication but ends up being sexy as hell. Then there’s the stereotype of the businessman desperate to take a break from performing masculinity, who gets a kick out of being dominated hardcore. His relationship to masculinity changes in those kink scenarios, which are hot as fuck primarily because they prioritise communication, but otherwise, there’s nothing to suggest he’s not one of the 66% of men pounding away without making his wife cum.

In other words, it’s not masculinity that’s limiting us: it’s our reliance on these broad, hazy ways of describing good sex. Discussions of sex are filled with loose cultural shorthand because we’re still reluctant to hammer out the specifics and pinpoint exactly what turns us on. So don’t be like the frustrated Reddit boyfriend: if your partner asks you to man up in bed, sprinkle in a few follow-up questions to make sure you both cum.

Jake Hall
« Jake Hall is a London-based freelance writer fascinated by everything from sex and sexuality to music and culture. » All posts →