Jonathan Seidler is an Australian writer. This is his column for Esquire.
“JONNO’S GOING TO A SEX PARTY TONIGHT,” my wife tells friends over coffee at the bakery near our place. “Wow,” says Alex, one of the husbands, as he grips my shoulders. “You really do have all the fun.”
I should preface this story by stating that we don’t have one of ‘those’ relationships. My wife and I are more likely to lose our car keys than throw them in a bowl on a Saturday night. But still, I am going to a sex party (of sorts). It’s hosted by Normal, a new-ish start-up that sells toys and products for the bedroom as a means of funding freely available educational resources around sexual wellness. On this particular night, the focus is a course the company’s launching around body image and its psychological impact on how we enjoy—or don’t enjoy—sex. Holistically speaking, the focus is pleasure, which, in theory, should be a broadly universal, gender non-specific topic.
I try to explain this to Alex, who says if I’m getting a complimentary vibrator, he’d prefer his to be blue.
After 10 minutes, it dawns on me that I’m one of three men in a very crowded room, and almost certainly the only straight one. While this is not a situation alien to me, it strikes me as strange that for a pastime beloved by the entire population, only half of it is represented at this particular party.
“Am I the token guest?” I wonder aloud to a group of 20-something-year-old women I meet by the vulva cupcake stand. They laugh politely, and we discuss their relationships to sex and pleasure in general enough terms that I won’t have to sleep on the couch when I get home. I’m struck by how remarkably well equipped everyone here seems to be with the language of pleasure, not to mention the understanding of how they can achieve it, both in company and alone.
But I’m also left wondering when this particular demographic learned to express themselves this way. Was I too busy listening to sad indie bands in my uni years that I missed the memo? And what about other guys I know, who still make jokes about wanting to nail their hot babysitters from ten years ago? Inside the party, as I listen to conversations about mutual masturbation and finding partners with similar kinks, it really does feel like a new sexual revolution is in full flight.
So I have to wonder, where are all the dicks? Are we being left behind, or, more pertinently, are we leaving ourselves behind?
Dr David Demmer is a clinical psychologist with a research background in how gender and sexuality influence mental health. “Sex for men is often considered very much a physical act with few cognitive or emotional elements to it,” he tells me.
“Given that pleasure, or at least the exploration of what we find pleasurable, needs to contain all of these, many men may feel that these opportunities are not open to them.”
Stacks up. I learned about sex-ed by rolling a condom on a banana, having ‘the talk’ with my Mum and watching increasingly high resolution pornography that started in printed form before ending up on the same phone I use to take calls from… my Mum. I’ve also worked with a number of health companies that specifically target men, and Dr Demmer’s assessment checks out; it’s all about the physicality. Specifically: can you get a boner and ‘stay up’ for as long as humanly possible like all those unrealistically endowed plumbers with 11-inch dongs who, in the adult film universe, always seem to be conveniently ‘in the neighbourhood’.
Georgia Grace, known simply and delightfully as ‘G Spot’ on social media, is a certified sex and relationship practitioner. She knows a thing or two about male anxieties that tend to overwhelm conversations around sex.
“A lot of the cisgender male clients I see in session are concerned with lasting longer or getting hard and staying hard, and their arousal impacts their sense of self, their gender identity and what they assume sex should look and feel like because of the heteronormative narrative that sex equals penetration,” she says. “When I’m working with men, they will often identify a great deal of shame they have around not being able to live up to what they think it means to be a sexual man.”
This is not to throw sexual wellness companies, who’ve played an outsized role ushering in this revolution in how we think about pleasure, under the bus. They don’t all design their courses or products solely for women, but it doesn’t take much online sleuthing to see that female-identifying people make up the majority of their audience.
Lucy Wark, Normal’s founder, is straight up about it.
“We set out to make products and education that supports everyone to have fulfilling sex across a lifetime,” she says. “When we run workshops, we’ll often hear feedback from straight women that they’ve done the hard work on overcoming shame, learning about what they like and building the confidence to ask for it—but [they ask]: can we please go talk to their partners? Because ultimately good sex is a two-way street. And when we speak to cis men, they’ll often turn their pleasure into a punchline, or not realise there’s more pleasure to be experienced.”
So, where are the brands turning boys and men into good lovers? At risk of sounding twee, perhaps it starts with loving ourselves, which may help explain why Australian companies like Pilot or Mosh—start-ups that typically deal with what’s happening beneath the belt—also tend to offer stuff that’s designed to enhance the way we feel about ourselves, such as weight loss supplements and hair regrowth drugs.
But popular culture is also accountable for our ingrained attitudes around sex. I come from a generation that grew up on a steady diet of Johnny Bravo cartoons, listened to Limp Bizkit in high school and watched ’90s romcoms where the womaniser, no matter how slimy, always ended up with the hot chick. And while I wish I could write this without mentioning the extreme misogyny of internet figures like Andrew Tate, the detrimental impact his views around sexuality and the role of women are having on young men all over the world is impossible to ignore or deny.
It’s not difficult to see why traditionally, most men are fine with discussing sex as a concept. Yet Dr Demmer points out that today, it’s usually still confined to damaging notions like conquests or ego boosts.
“Pleasure, on the other hand—beyond the idea of ‘getting laid’—doesn’t neatly fit within traditional masculine discourse,” he says. “We need systemic change, early in sexual development, to encourage the exploration and identification with pleasure rather than just sex.”
As a straight man, my experience by no means encompasses the totality of the male or male-identifying population. But it’s telling that the only friends I know that seem readily able to have real conversations around pleasure and sex are queer. According to Demmer, this isn’t by accident. “Given the LGBTQIAP+ community has not been confined by the traditional conceptualisations of sex—such as no sex before marriage, or sex for procreation— that community has been left to focus on other variations, such as sex for enjoyment and sex for connection,” he explains. “Sex is able to be seen as just a fun activity, so engaging in it simply for pleasure is a key element.”
Back at the party, I’m deep in conversation with two young women who are espousing the values of the various vibrators. One tells me that she and her girlfriend liked them so much, they got one each. The other says she takes hers in her carry-on for long flights. This pair didn’t know each other an hour ago. I cannot imagine talking about this with my best mates, let alone strangers at a party.
I try to think back to the last conversation about pleasure I had with anyone other than my partner, and I remember the cousin of my old boss, with whom I had a brief fling in my early 20s. In bed that first night, she’d asked me what I liked. I didn’t really know. Sex up until then had always been the destination.
Based on evidence gathered during her sessions, Georgia Grace agrees that while my experience is not unique, attitudes towards pleasure in men are changing. “I am noticing a difference in more spaces opening up for men to be vulnerable and to challenge these outdated, harmful stereotypes,” she says. “However, patriarchy is a big old oppressive system and it can take a lot of work to unpack and rewire these hardwired ideas about what it means to be a man having sex.”
I grab my gift bag on the way out. There’s a palm vibrator inside and lo and behold it’s blue. The instructions say it’s perfect for partners—and beginners. I wonder if acquainting ourselves with these items is the first step to becoming fluent in the language of pleasure. The lubricated, liberated folk at the party certainly seemed to think so.
I guess Alex will have to wait.
Jonathan Seidler is an Esquire columnist and the author of It’s A Shame About Ray (Allen & Unwin).
Like all proper columns, this one will be back next week. You can see every one of Jonno’s columns for Esquire here.