Anthony Synnott Ph.D.

Rethinking Men

Seriously, It Is Not Easy

Sex, gender, sexuality

Posted Mar 27, 2017

“Seriously, it is not easy to discover what is covered by the concept ‘sexual.’” Freud was right then, but it is truer than ever today. Almost everything about sex, genders, sexualities, and identities has changed in the last two generations, and mostly in the last one; and almost everything is intensely controversial.

Sex used to be relatively simple, back in the 50s: a 2 times 2 table. Male or female (fixed at birth and immutable), straight or gay (gay was often regarded as a sin and a crime, just wrong, (e.g. Wilde, Turing, Matthew Shepherd,) and still is, by some people and in some countries. But it all began to change in the 50s and 60s with the pill, the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, then the gay movement, the men’s movement and the LGBTIQ movement. And it’s still changing as activists fight for their rights, and about other people’s wrongs.

GENDER: You can still be male or female, but today you can be both or neither or refuse to identify as either. And you can transition. This gets complicated with a disjunction between biological and psychological sex, and even more complicated with negative rather than supportive societal reactions. Furthermore some desire a new range of gender pronouns to describe themselves. And the bathroom issue (allowing students to use bathrooms according to their identities) has been divisive, with President Obama’s legislation rescinded by President Trump, who in turn has been roundly criticized by Caitlyn Jenner. And the Supreme Court has refused to rule on the issue. The latest research, reported in the New York Times and extrapolated from surveys conducted with adults, indicates that “One in every 137 teenagers would identify as transgender.” This would be about 150,000 teens aged 13 to 17. Overall those who identify as trans are estimated to constitute under 1 percent of the total population (Chokshi, 2017). Some cultures recognize three sexes, and three are listed as options on visa applications to India.

The intersex individuals also have issues. Fausto-Sterling suggests that there are five sexes, three of which are intersex, apart from those recognized in many other cultures. The binary of male and female is challenged by the intersex population, estimated at up to 1.7 percent of the global population, due to variations in hormones or internal or external organs. Cheryl Chase founded the Intersex Society of North America in the 1990s to raise questions about identity, gender and surgery without consent; and recently Hanne Gaby Odiele has become another activist for intersex rights. (Time 13 Mar: 42).

Gender fluidity was a new word for 2016. And so far in 2017 Gavin Grimm is taking his trans case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Spain a sex doll brothel has opened plasticizing the way to a robotics of sex. Neither men nor women will be necessary, nor emotions nor relationships, simply gratification. This divorce of sex from love and the marketing of sex like any other product causes some joy and some concern. And Hanne Odiele is speaking up for being intersex. So gender becomes, not so much pink or blue but a continuum, including masculine women and feminine men, with both terms disputed.

In the old order the two sexes were defined as opposite. This tradition persisted in the western world from Parmenides and Pythagoras through Pauline and Thomistic Christianity up to Tennyson’s couplet: “Man to command and woman to obey; / All else confusion.” This binary has persisted through to the Mars and Venus franchise of Thomas Gray, equal but different and without the same hierarchy. No more. Post-modernism has broken down the old binaries into more fluid and integrated multiples. The old order and traditional sex roles have changed. Women are heads of state, pilots and CEOs. Men are nurses, kindergarten teachers and secretaries. And transgender Chris Rehs-Dupin gave birth to his daughter in 2014 (O’Leary, 2017). Policemen became police officers, firemen became firefighters and spokesmen became spokespersons. (But manhole covers are still manhole covers, so there is still something left of the old order, if you want it!) As the smiling young woman who held the outer door for me and insisted that I walk through, (while I held the inner door for her), remarked: “It’s a whole new world!” Reverse chivalry.

Yes, a change. But I wonder if the hostility between the sexes has ever been greater. It is not universal but it is ubiquitous

SEX: Not only has sex as gender changed, so too has sex as action – not so much the motions as the emotions, the technology and the ideology.

  • Sex is now battery-charged with vibrators, and computerized with teledildonics and cybersex. No physical, personal contact is necessary.
  • Sexual relations may now be inaugurated, not by courtship, but by hook-ups using apps like Tinder, Grindr, and Bumble: slide left or right, click here or there.
  • Or by science, using tested algorithms or DNA analysis.
  • We now have sex without pregnancy thanks to contraceptives (the pill was first approved in 1960), and pregnancy without sex, thanks to IVF from the 1970s (Economist 18 February p.9)
  • Far from sex being normal and natural it is now chemicalized by prescription drugs from Viagra (first marketed in 1998) and Cialis to Flibansarin or Addyi approved in 2015.
  • And commodified by visits to sperm and ovum banks. It has long been commodified by prostitution, but banking took sex to a whole new level. So did Rosie Reid, an 18 year old English student who sold her virginity on eBay to a 44 year old engineer for 8,400 pounds.
  • A man born female may now be father and mother to his children, thanks to gender re-assignment surgery (Time 12 Sep 2016).
  • The value-shifts about sex and sexualities are very evident from the language shifts. Films about sex were, in those old days, called dirty then blue then adult and then erotica. Evident too in attitudes to masturbation, gay sexuality, inter-racial marriage (in the U.S.). A shift of values, from sex negative to sex positive.
  • And another shift about gender equality.
  • The genitals were once considered private, even pudenda (things to be ashamed of). Now, since sexting, the pubic is public. The epitome of this awkward behavior is former congressman Anthony Weiner.  
  • Sex too was considered a private matter. Now Belle de Jour has written about her life as a call-girl, Sophie Morgan about her masochism, Kathryn Harrison about her incestuous relationship with her father and Cathryn Millet about her sex life with anonymous men everywhere.

SEXUALITIES: Once there were only two sexual orientations, even for Freud. Now you can still be gay or straight, but also bisexual, polysexual, pansexual (popularized by Miley Cyrus), asexual or solo-sexual. (Transexual refers to identity rather than to orientation.) Clearly there are more personal options than there once were, at least in terms of popular understanding. Beyond these options the DSM-5 recognizes a wide range of paraphilias. Some are criminal, including pedophilia, exhibitionism and voyeurism; others seem to be recognized as components of the diverse range of human sexualities (e.g. sadism, masochism, fetishism and others). The DSM-5 also recognizes hyper-sexuality and controversially hypo-sexuality, which the drug industry is trying to medicalize (Ellwood-Clayton, 2012).

HOW? How did it all change? And why? It was not just the pills and the chemistry and the technology. It was everything. The music: the 50s saw the rise of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and his pelvis, Chuck Berry. The magazines (Playboy, 1953, and then Penthouse and the rest). The novelists: D.H. Lawrence (“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” finally released in 1956); the sexologists: the two Kinsey reports were published in 1948 and 1953, and Dr. Reuben’s popular (“All you wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask”) came out in 1969; the much publicized sex change of Christine Jorgensen occurred in 1951-2; the comedians from Lenny Bruce and Red Skelton, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor to George Carlin, who pushed the envelopes, and still do; the films and film stars (notably Marilyn Monroe who eclipsed and out-glammed her predecessors). The Civil Rights movement had shifted race relations in the 50s, and in the 60s the pill (1960), the rise of the women’s movement and the gay rights movement shifted gender relations. Woodstock (1968) and Stonewall (1969) were not the beginning, but the end of the beginning.

POWER: Some things don’t change, however, and one is the power of sex, in its various forms of desire, love, jealousy, cash, children and more. Sex is everywhere, almost omnipotent and multivalent. It buys and sells almost everything. Thousands of porn sites constitute billion dollar industries. So much so that some have described American culture as hyper-sexual and a “porn” culture and a “raunch” culture. The rise of pornography since the internet is thought by some to distort sexuality and even to replace interpersonal sexuality with solo sexuality.   

Sex is the ultimate power. It has populated the world, creating a global population of over 7.3 billion people, and is still doing so with about 130 to 136 million babies born every year, and about 350 thousand a day. That is a lot of sex and enormous power. The ecological consequences alone are slowly destroying the planet and steadily extinguishing species.

The power of sex is not just simply demographic, economic and ecological. It is also political. Given the ethical consensus, and lack of same, it almost toppled an American president and spoiled the chances of Gary Hart in the U.S. and DSK in France, and perhaps Berlusconi in Italy – but not Trump. The power is also social, and often associated with romance, love, family and children.

PROBLEMS AND CONTROVERSIES: Sexuality is personally subjective, culturally relative and historically contingent: topics for psychiatrists, anthropologists, and historians. And as such it is amazingly problematic and controversial. The personal problems may include the usual: lack of opportunities, libido, infidelity, malfunctions, violence etc. The social problems are more elusive. There is the problem of definition. What IS sex? Americans disagree; so do Canadians. Sex is also problematic in terms of double standards, by both sexes. This is too well-known to need data here.

And sex is highly problematic in terms of meanings. It may mean anything from nothing to everything, from anonymous physical gratification to union and communion, from lust to love; and they can get confused. We can distinguish four types of sexual relations, not totally distinct for they may blend and merge, but still distinct. Recreational sex: fun, relief, lust, including one night stands with no particular commitment or relationship, forgettable, maybe a mistake. Romantic sex: marked by some love and possibly marriage, procreation, and family. Instrumental sex: for personal gain, typified by sex workers for cash but also by others who by offering threats or promising rewards (pay raises, promotions, verdicts) try to get what they want. It’s a trade-off, a power game. Criminal sex: which would include rape, pedophilia, exhibitionism etc. and in some places sex work. Criminal codes vary widely in sexual matters, but for the record the rape rate in the U.S. dropped 11.1 percent over the last 10 years according to the FBI (2016) report for 2015. But even if down, the rate is surely underestimated, and probably excludes most prison rapes.

Attitudes to sex also vary widely from rather indifferent to wildly enthusiastic, the ascetic to the hedonistic. Dissimilar attitudes might create problems. Lord Chesterfield was positively glacial: “The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous and the expense damnable.” But apart from that…

The other amazing thing about sex, apart from the speed of change in North America and elsewhere is the amount and intensity of the disagreements and controversies. Definitions, double standards, meanings, types, attitudes, especially religious and cultural attitudes, make for an alphabet of controversies: abortion, AIDS, adultery; bigamy, BDSM, bisexuality; clitoridectomy, circumcision, contraception; all the way to zoophilia (another paraphilia). Almost every action and body part below the waist is controversial, sometimes lethally so (e.g. adultery, homosexuality).

Human ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, legal and illegal are highly polarized around sex, gender, and sexuality. It is almost frightening how much humans disagree about all this, and why.

Sex is dangerous. Who can do what with what and to whom, where and why can be matters not only of legal or illegal and right and wrong but also of life and death. AIDS has killed over 40 million people over the decades, often by unprotected sex, and is still doing so at a rate of about one million a year. 

Painful too, not only with STIs and HIV/AIDS, but also with jealousy, break-ups, divorces and also spousal homicide and intimate partner violence. The latest FBI statistics for 2015 report that 113 husbands were killed by their wives and 509 wives were killed by their husbands (that includes common-law and ex-spouses) from a total of 15, 696 homicides for the year i.e. 4.0 percent of the total, with the women constituting 79 percent of the total “spousal” homicide victims (and 3.2 percent of the total)  (FBI, 2016).

In sum, sex, genders, and sexualities are minefields: locally and globally. The changes, the powers, the types, the problems, the controversies, the pains and dangers both physical and emotional, make them all shape-shifters in their variety and mutability, lethality and creativity. Still, whatever the genders, sexualities or bathrooms, and issues, with about 350,000 babies born every day, sex is clearly a very popular activity.

But what to make of all this? Some will no doubt be prosaic: What? We grew up with this. It’s normal. Others will be utopian: this gives more people more joy and pleasure than ever before. It’s a glorious new age of positive sexuality and greater gender identity freedom. Elders may be more dystopian about the divorce between sex and love, the plasticity, mechanization, pornification, commodification, and mutual objectifications (it’s not just one-way) and dehumanization perhaps. Still others may be more nuanced and suggest that some processes may be utopian, others not so much, but as usual there will be disagreements about which and for whom and why. Today Freud might sigh: “Seriously, it is STILL not easy…”


Chokshi, Niraj. New York Times 24 Feb 2017.

Ellwood-Clayton, Bella 2012. Sex Drive

FBI, 2016. Crime in the United States. 2015.

O’Leary, Abigail 2017. “Pregnant Man gives birth to Daughter.” Mirror 25 March.

Synnott, Anthony 2016. The Power of Sex.

More Posts