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Why Are We Depriving Men of Agency?

The way society views men is that they need to be monitored so they don’t ‘stray.’ And who has to do that monitoring? Women.

“What is it that stops young women from having as much sexual agency as they should have, which includes being able to say no when you want to and yes when you want to?” when I interviewed her not long after her book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus was published. Women owning their sexual agency is essential. But what about men? What kind of sexual agency do they have?

A rather complicated one, writes philosophy professor Elena Clare Cuffari in the book New Philosophies of Sex and Love: Thinking Through Desire. In her essay,” Cuffari says that the way society views men is that they need monitoring at all times to make sure they don’t “stray” — their “natural” way of being, needing to spread their seed and whatnot. And who has to do that monitoring? Everyone but the men themselves, evidently:

Recent years have witnessed a growing trope in television ads of the ‘dumb white guy.’ This Everyman can’t be trusted to manage money, feed himself, clothe his child properly, or hang out with his friends without doing something bone-headed and dangerous. Certainly he cannot interact intelligently — on equal footing — with an attractive woman. So we — as scientists, as marketers, and as women — make sure men are not expected to do any existential heavy-lifting, so to speak.

Sadly, when it comes to romantic relationships, the majority of which are monogamous, that means girlfriends, fiancees and wives must be ever-vigilant lest their man not be able to control his own impulses. That sucks for women for many reasons — not only is monitoring someone exhausting, but it also makes us bitchy, overbearing and competitive with other women — but it also sucks for men, too. As she writes:

[S]cientific and popular discourse about male fidelity in heterosexual monogamous relationships deprives men of agency, reducing their decisions either to sub-personal biological processes or to supra-personal norms and the universal rationality of cost-benefit analysis. … The science we have now also perpetuates a culture in which heterosexual women are isolated in suspicion and insecurity. The terror that looms in the words “contexts in which the men might encounter other women” is palpable and likely not placed accidentally. If, in my felt sense of the relationship, the only thing standing between my husband and the sex organs of another woman is my diligent attention and sly hormonal manipulation, I cannot be his friend. At best I am his babysitter, if not his parole officer, zookeeper, or mad scientist progenitor. This is the burden the myth of male nonage places on women: they must be the constant caretakers and vigil-keepers. Such a deep asymmetry built into the structure of a relationship cannot but be a problem for both parties. For women, it means being profoundly alone, because they are the half of the relationship that is expected to be a fully-actualized adult person, managing her own agency and yet also tempted into bad faith by the perpetual management of another.

Reading about the “contexts in which the men might encounter other women” reminded me of the shock that many of us felt after it that Vice President Mike Pence has an agreement with his wife, Karen, to never eat alone with a woman or attend events with booze without her. (No way to know if this was her idea, his or theirs together.)

It’s not just Pence; a published shortly after that revealed that a lot of Americans are a bit freaked out, or at least wary, of one-on-one situations with members of the opposite sex. That’s ridiculous. Except it proves what Cuffari is saying — we don’t trust that men have agency.

But, let’s get back to what it means for women. Cuffari says believing that men don’t have agency makes monogamous heterosexual relationships a constant challenge for women, whether our guy is a “good guy” or not:

Given the high existential and emotional stakes of monogamous commitment, a woman who find herself in a relationship that is defined by sexual exclusivity, but that takes place in a scientific-discursive horizon that renders men non-agentive and non-trustworthy, finds herself in a true double-bind, to which manipulation and paranoia are expected coping strategies. This situation reaches its extreme in a world where even a ‘good’ man is perpetually susceptible to being turned: women who have no evidence of untrustworthiness are in the very same boat as the ones who do.

I don’t know about you, but I do not want to be any man’s “babysitter, parole officer, zookeeper, or mad scientist progenitor.” Not only is it not my job, but I also know that I because I can’t control anyone else’s behavior or actions — I can only control my own. And, that’s all you can do, too.

Which is what Cuffari suggests. If we are going to favor monogamous relationships, she says, well, we need to come to peace with all of its complications:

[T]he logical structure of monogamy is in tension with the dynamic, contingent, and impermanent nature of life and human sense-making. This tension is what calls for commitment as the dedication of one’s efforts towards a certain practice or manifestation of a certain way of life over and against other options or competing forces. Commitment does not eradicate the tension; it is one way of assuming it.

Which, in a way, is what Esther Perel says about the — it’s not a “problem to solve; it is a paradox to manage.”

Ultimately, Cuffari says, “heterosexual women may be able to approach their male partners as humans, and eventually as friends.” That actually sounds pretty great.

Want to learn how you and your partner can have have agency in your marriage? (Of course you do!) Find (Seal Press) at your indie bookstore or on follow us on and like us on .

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Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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