What I Know About Men
Author and feminist icon, Naomi Wolf.
I’ve been very lucky in my experiences with men. That’s why I’m a feminist, because the men in my life have been so wonderful, starting with my father, Leonard, who is in his 90s now. He’s a poet, a free spirit, a creative, mystical guy. He apprenticed me early and taught me the craft of writing, and he took my thoughts seriously. He was also very nurturing – more than my mother – way before men typically did this. He wasn’t the stereotypical emotionally inarticulate man. He loves and respects women and has always been connected to them. My sense of what men are came from him: you could talk to them, laugh with them, they took care of you, made you feel better, cheered you on – that is what I experienced at home. Of course, he’s not perfect … I have this half-brother I discovered in my 30s. But Dad was nurturing and emotionally present. Like my father, all of my partners have been wonderful supportive men. My children [Rosa and Joseph’s] father [David Shipley] was nurturing and a totally hands-on dad. My partner now [Avram Ludwig] is wonderful and supportive. It’s not that I haven’t had my heart broken or that every relationship I’ve had has been successful, but I’ve been blessed with men who are fun to talk to, attractive, and nice to women. So someone would have to be wilfully ignorant or not look very far at all into my work to assume I hated or even disliked men. I’ve never signed on to a feminism or world view that pits people against each other. That’s the opposite of what I care about.
Feminism’s roots are in 18th-century enlightenment views of human rights in which we are all in this together, and we all have the innate right to freedom and equality. It went astray a few decades ago in the West when it began to create an us-versus-them, men-versus women dichotomy. But you can analyse patriarchy without getting stuck in divisiveness.
As a mother of a son, I’ve always had a lot of compassion for the pressures that men face in terms of rigid masculine roles. It’s tough to be a guy sometimes. I would hope any young man would not be measured on his income alone, for instance, or his physical prowess, and that he’d be in an environment where if he wants to express his emotions, then that would not be considered unmanly. Anorexia is on the rise among young men, as is bulimia, exercise fixation, steroid abuse. I’m hearing the same kind of anxieties from young men on college campuses that I hear from women. That’s not good, that’s not progress. We’re in a culture in which the marketing incentive for expanding anxiety and lowering confidence is to colonise young men after they colonise young women. Nobody wins from that except marketers.
Fundamentally, morally, men and women want the same things. I don’t think there are more good women than good men, or more evil men than evil women, I think all of us have the same propensity for good or evil.
It’s a choice. On an intimate level, however, there are some interesting differences in the brains and bodies of men and women that don’t define us, but are fascinating because they explain a lot of things we misunderstand about each other. I understand so much more male behaviour since I did research for my latest book [Vagina: A New Biography, Virago]. It makes you see the other gender in a more compassionate and fonder light.
For instance, a terrible thing is happening to men in the West. The porn industry is exploiting a vulnerability in men’s evolutionary wiring. Porn, like cigarettes, should come with a health warning. No one is disclosing to men that when they consume and masturbate to pornography habitually, their neurotransmitters are binding them to porn rather than to their lover, so over time men will lose interest in real women … including the women they love. This isn’t good for anyone.
Also, overexposure to porn desensitises men, so over time the stimulation they need has to be more extreme, which can lead to trouble with erections and delayed ejaculation. Their brains have been hijacked. And men are suffering more health and emotional consequences. Another example. Men are always looking at women’s breasts, and that can be annoying or objectifying, depending on the context. You might think, “You’re a pig”, but there is a theory that female sexual desire partly works in an evolutionary way … that men are fascinated by women’s breasts partly to get them to stimulate women’s nipples, which releases oxytocin. Oxytocin helps women bond and feel close to whoever they are making love with, so women will like them and hang out with them so that the baby can grow up to be a toddler safely. Which is in everyone’s evolutionary interests. Men are not just scumbags [laughs]!