The Sex Lives of Male Characters: Our Cultural Assumptions in Action

Today, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

My editor for The Shadow of the Sun was my dear friend Brett Shanley. We’d worked together on a number of projects by the time we came around to this one, though this was the first time he had edited me. One of his first observations, made in his usual quietly introspective fashion, was,

“Um, Ellion’s kind of a whore, isn’t he?”

Which made me laugh, and which I had to admit was true–but which I found an intriguing reaction to a male character, particularly from a male reader. Brett’s response was a valid one, and shared in prticular by women–but it stood in opposition to our cultural norms. That sort of deep thought and ability to look past our assumptions were among the things that gave Brett power as an editor, of course.

I find writing the sexual life of a male character surprisingly easy. It’s true that I am and always have been female (at least within the confines of this particular incarnation*), but I’ve got plenty to work from when it comes to the inner sexual lives of male characters. I believe, rightly or wrongly (and research does tend to bear this out, for what that’s worth) that the internal lives of men and women are largely the same: that where we differ stems partly from inborn traits but mostly from socialization. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is in the area of sex that the most data about the inner lives of the male of the species is most available. We need only look at 99% of what we receive through popular culture for clues.

Entire volumes and thousands of blog posts have been written on the male gaze and its effect on the way women perceive themselves; it’s not my intent to recapitulate that here. But if you want a broad sampling of what arouses men and how they process sex and female beauty, you need only watch movies, particularly those made to appeal to the male demographic. I don’t mean to assert that all men see women the same way, think the same things, etc.–but movies written and filmed by men for other men, which is most movies that are not romantic comedies, give us a good window into the areas of general agreement among that half of the species in Western culture.

Further, as a woman who has absorbed those images, I have absorbed, whether consciously or not, the same set of ideas about what is arousing. All women, whether conscious of it or not, who participate in popular culture have learned to see other women as sexual. Most heterosexual women map those images onto their psyches as things to be achievedthings we want to look at rather than people we want to touch, but we still know what is considered sexy: i.e., what men as a demographic want to look at and experience in their sexual lives. Most of us spend our lifetimes trying to measure up to those things. That, of course, is a somewhat different topic.

So, to drag this back around to the original question, I find it surprisingly easy to write a male character, even when it comes to his sex life, because I have access to an entire cultural heritage, have absorbed it as fully as any man. It’s actually far more difficult for me to stretch my brain around the rest of the experience of being male, because the clues popular culture gives us for those things are harder to access. Those are the areas where I must do the most research and extrapolation.

As usual, nrlymrtl has tossed me a question worth intense unpacking, because I still haven’t touched on how I write another person’s sexual experience. And that trick (no pun intended) is one of endless interest to writers (and readers, it seems!)–so I’ll roll that question over to another post tomorrow.

* I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t disbelieve in reincarnation. Neither truth would surprise me. As Alice said to Dorothy, “I’ve seen some weird shit.”

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3 Comments on “The Sex Lives of Male Characters: Our Cultural Assumptions in Action”

  1. nrlymrtl Says:

    That’s an excellent observation on modern Western culture. We, whether male or female, are inundated with images of of a male dominated culture. While this swings both ways (telling women and men how to look and act), I can totally see how this would make it easier to access the ‘inner male’ when writing a male character.

    The flip side of the coin, of course, is that men aren’t inundated with what a woman wants (as this is not a matriarchal society) and many men through the years have complained about not understanding women. Media just doesn’t make it easy for them, does it?


    • It’s true. Seems I’m always standing in the checkout line reading headlines on women’s magazines telling us (or so they would have us believe) how to be better lovers and WHAT HE’S REALLY THINKING. Men’s magazines don’t do this. Men just walk around looking bewildered.

      I’m having a good time playing with the inner life of a man from a matriarchal society as I’m writing HEART OF DARKNESS. It’s a different flavor of male bewilderment, coupled with a sort of sideways feminist rage. But more on that anon. :)


  2. [...] The Sex Lives of Male Characters: Our Cultural Assumptions in Action: The first of Barbara’s responses to nrlymrtl’s question for Part 3 [...]


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