As a former network White House correspondent and congressional reporter, I believe in putting what journalists call "the lead" where it belongs -- at the beginning of the story. In this case, the lead is good news for both men and women. And here it is: There are strong indications that at least one of the defining characteristics of male sexuality is beginning to change, and that change could eventually lead to an end of sex as we know it.
I hope that got your attention. I'm serious. An end to sex as we know it, I'll bet you're thinking. "If that's the good news, I just can't wait to hear the bad!"
But if I'm right, these early indications are that we are in for some changes that will make our sex lives better than ever.
When I first started researching and writing this book my working assumption was that erotic fantasies would provide a window through which we could observe important aspects of male sexuality. I was right, but early in the process I made an unexpected discovery that amazed me.
Many of the fantasies that men shared with me -- only the themes of the ménage à trois and group sex occurred more often -- involved physical intimacy with women who were about as far from the stereotypical passive, semireluctant partner as you could get. These fantasies and those women were hot.
At first, the fantasies seemed like more of the same old thing. Men just want to get laid -- or so they've always assured us -- and dreaming of steamy sex with an Olympic gold medal sexual athlete fits the image. Yet, I actually saw there was more involved than a carnal triathlon. A pattern soon emerged, and men were telling me about fantasies that involved women who were totally comfortable with sex. They enjoyed it, knew what buttons to push (and what to do to have theirs pushed) and didn't pretend otherwise.
And guess what? These guys love the new order of things. Nobody fantasizes about stuff that he or she really dislikes. Nightmares are another thing entirely. The process of dreaming while asleep is a separate subject, which I'm not addressing. Fantasies, however, if nothing else, are forms of harmless recreation or no-fault wish fulfillment. Reality gives us more than enough hard knocks, disappointments and headaches. There's no need to fantasize about those.
What we're dealing with in our fantasy life is a glimpse of ideal sexual scenarios, including some that would have no real-life appeal whatsoever. The ideal does not have to be real and it is not necessarily the one and only ideal, but something that has powerful appeal. And what's so appealing? Great sex is one obvious answer. Another is a desire to step clear of the constraints, the responsibilities and the liabilities of a traditional sexual role that requires men to be the central actors in sexual encounters.
By day, in the boardroom, what the world could be seeing is a powerful, decisive, take-no-prisoners kind of guy. By night in the bedroom, he's a different man -- or wants to be. Instead of 100 percent control, he fantasizes about a woman with whom he can share or to whom he can relinquish the power and authority he wields from nine to five.
This shift away from unquestioned male sexual predominance is of great importance. All human behavior patterns are subject to change -- some more than others. But sexual behavior patterns are among the most stable. A shift, even in the form of fantasy, in those roles is a big deal.
Roles are the products of generations of custom, habit, practical necessity, convenience, folklore, prejudice, taste and dumb ideas. Along the way, men got to sit up front in the cab of the engine and drive the erotic train; women were stuck with being passengers. No matter whether it's right or wrong, it happened, and we were all railroaded.
The forms taken by this status quo have many variations, ranging from "Me Tarzan, You Jane," to "My place or yours?" Men are expected to take charge of the sexual process and women are supposed to relinquish this function and pretend that the arrangement is just fine with them.
Not all men relish that assigned role and the same is certainly true for women.
What is so illuminating about sexual fantasies, no matter what the theme, is that they are a means of escaping these roles. Without having to actually defy conventional expectations and attitudes, men and women, in the privacy of their own heads, are able to counterbalance sexual assignments that they find constricting and unsatisfying. Even if the fantasy is never acted out -- and probably it won't be -- it is still an important sexual safety valve and a means of improving the quality of an unfulfilling sex life.
I think these fantasies are telling us that contemporary men are now buying into sexual equality in ways that their fathers and grandfathers would never have accepted and, certainly, would never have expressed openly. A woman who is confident of her sexuality is no longer a threatening harridan bent on robbing men of their masculinity. She's more of a partner than ever before, one who shares many of the same sensual desires and has the right to express them. In other words, the "nice girl -- bad girl" foolishness is losing its power to beguile men into believing in a false and destructive sexual double standard.
These fantasies of sexually confident women are reflections of the dawning change in our sexuality and are also a means of furthering that change.
I ran my observations past Doctor June M. Reinisch, the former director of the Kinsey Institute. In her view, men have probably always had the confident-woman fantasy, but what's significant is that they have not been willing to admit it and freely articulate it until now.
To me, that amounts to even better news. The presence over time of the fantasies confirms the presumption of their importance as ideal sexual scenarios. But the fantasies were too dangerous, too threatening to bring out in the open. By finally acknowledging them, men are moving away from denying or suppressing the ideal and moving toward its possible fulfillment.
And I blame women for this momentous shift. But blame is hardly the right word. Let's call it giving credit where credit is due.
The birth control pill and the civil rights and equal rights movements allowed women to examine their own sexual identities and to take action to alter what they didn't like. This seemed to be a sex-specific process. Women changed, men stayed the same. There were inevitable conflicts as a result, and male bashing became a national and international sport.
Finally, after thirty-five or forty years, men have started their own examination of sexual roles and are taking the first tentative steps -- via fantasy, at least -- toward making changes.
What are the consequences likely to be? In the future -- who knows how long -- I'd like to hope that men and women would be free, in terms of both their psyches and societal norms, to fully explore their sexuality without regard to roles. If he wants to be aggressive on Monday and passive on Tuesday, and if that works for her -- great. Both partners are full partners with the right to say yes or no, make suggestions and offer alternatives without feeling that his masculinity is threatened or her personal freedom and femininity compromised.
And now for the bad news. In our case -- yours and mine, as author and reader -- the fantasies can indeed tell us a lot about the composition of male sexuality, the part that exists independently of prescribed roles. We can see what's going on backstage. And yet, fantasies may also tell us nothing more than he likes to think about having his clothes torn off by a gorgeous redhead. End of story.
Either way, we end up knowing more about him through this aspect of his secret life than we would otherwise be privy to. Less is not more when it comes to understanding our sexuality. More is more. In this case, quantity almost certainly affects quality.
The unexamined sex life is not worth living -- and I'm only half kidding.
I believe that lovers should -- and must -- talk about sex with each other. Why shouldn't they? We talk about other pleasures -- food, wine, music, vacations. The pleasure is enhanced and so is our understanding of the experience. The same is true of sex, but conflicts and ambivalence about the propriety of articulating our sexual needs and desires draw a curtain of silence across the subject for many people.
In addition, men have traditionally been reluctant to share their fantasies with their sexual partners, particularly if traditional sexual roles are being challenged. Potentially, it exposes them to ridicule and rejection. There are real concerns that if a man tells his wife about fantasies that are at variance with their actual sex lives as a couple it will harm the relationship. This book is a way around that obstacle.
To speak directly to my female readers: Instead of your lover telling you that he fantasizes about women who are completely comfortable with sex, the men in this chapter can say it for him.
And now, equal time for male readers: The guys in this chapter and the rest of the book are just like you and me. Their penises are not subject to recall because they dared reveal their fantasies or to enjoy them for what they are -- pure pleasure.
I believe this is liberating information for both men and women. He can see that he is not alone or out of the "man" stream. We have enough to feel guilty about. Feeling guilty about fantasies is a bit much! Save guilt for reality.
For women, this information can provide an opportunity for reevaluating the sexual roles that have been assigned to them. She may see that he is as frustrated with those roles as she is.
As the former host of CNBC's Real Personal I received a lot of mail. At one point, I got a letter from a Roman Catholic priest who was a regular viewer and said he enjoyed the programs. He went on to add, however, that one night he was wondering if all the openness about sex doesn't actually rob it of its mystery. He included his phone number and I immediately called him because I wanted to tell him -- and I did -- that's the point! There's too much mystery about sex.
Let's go to the fantasies. Notice the similarities in style. They tend to be written in the first person present tense. Most read like play-by-play descriptions of actual events, which reflects just how "real" the fantasies are to the men who have shared them with us.
In many cases, the choice of words comes out of the same grab bag of erotic phraseology that's been the inspiration for what I call the literature of dripping loins and throbbing shafts. Some of it grates on me, too. But keep it in perspective.
By now, all of us know about uncommunicative men. Without subscribing to the stereotype, I have to say that men are so unaccustomed to talking about their secret lives that they frequently fall back on what they've read in the more explicit men's magazines. It's not surprising, in a way. How does one learn to talk about sex, or any other subject, for that matter? Imitation, initially. But when it comes to sex there aren't many role models. Dad wasn't much help. Hence, it's the poetry and prose of Penthouse and Playboy that set the standard.
As I said -- let's go to the fantasies.
Copyright © 1997 by Bob Berkowitz