Men* of an Uncertain Age
I don’t come either to praise or to bury them — not least because I count myself among their number — but to acknowledge the existence of, and characterise in a very low-rent amateur psychology sort of way, a generation of men in the kink who, due to temporary and never-to-be-repeated circumstances, are more than usually fucked up.
The men I’m talking about are those whose traditional period of sexual and emotional development — basically, puberty and adolescence – occurred before the popularisation of the Internet, but who then landed in a post-popular-Internet world in young adulthood or middle age with desires and skills that suddenly had a place and a value, but without the hardening and emotional maturity of years of relationship beginnings and endings when those would normally have occurred.
It’s probably bizarre to the point of Four-Yorkshiremen-sketch quaintness how meagre the scraps available to pre-‘net kinksters were — at least those with a measure of insecurity or introversion sufficient to keep them from the small, secret, metropolitan underground. For most, the experience was of differentness and isolation, with no particular expectation of that situation changing. At best, there might have been unfulfilling vanilla sex — society’s pressures to conform being pretty strong — and clumsy fumblings towards BDSM. At worst, vanilla sex not being interesting or fulfilling at all, the engine which powers adolescent connection never really got going, and the result was a turning inwards. In any event, the exploration and maturation of what they were really into was retarded, delayed, postponed, perhaps indefinitely. Crucially, not only were idiosyncratic BDSM desires not explored and understood, but the basic social grammar of relationship management wasn’t learned by direct experience. Crushes were distant, and hearts didn’t get used to being broken and put back together again by the next fling.
For previous generations, this situation was just how it was, and for most entailed a settling into an incomplete but safe relationship, perhaps with an illicit cherry on the side. The Internet changed all of that, offering education, kinship, and the possibility of a complete and fulfilling expression of kink. And so a generation of kinky men launched themselves into a brave new world in which their desires fit, and were valued, with raging hormones and long-held fantasies, but little in the way of relationship skills and experience. Being male and middle-aged in this world was/is no particular disadvantage, since father figures are highly sought after — ironically for the experience that many such men conspicuously lack.
All of this is old-hat and uncontroversial, but I’d like to add something that I think is a key aspect of the dynamic. Many kinky men whose sexual and emotional development was pre-Internet, but whose expression of kink is post-Internet, missed the learning curve that ought to have come with normal relationship patterns, but they also missed something else: affirmation of their desirability. And also: absent some pretty expensive therapy and self-awareness work, for many I’m not sure that lack ever goes away. The corollary is to see kink expression as an adult as a search for affirmation that one is desirable; that what one can do, or provide, is cherished and valued.
If the search for affirmation never goes away, how does it express itself? There are lots of ways, I think: men who keep a pseudo harem of partners, for example; or who flit from one bright young thing to the next; or who seek out models as trophy play partners or “interviewees”. In myself I recognise that, curiously but revealingly, I value the fact that someone might express a desire to play with me more than the play itself. The play might be fulfilling, but the expression of desire is affirming. I would rather know that someone I found desirable found me desirable in a kink setting, but we never played, than play with someone for whom the desire wasn’t there in the same way. This might seem self-evident, but it clearly isn’t universal. It’s one reason — in a mess of reasons — why I’m very unlikely to make a first move towards playing with someone: one can have greater trust in the existence of desire if asked to play, than if one’s own request is accepted.
It’s obviously true, but worth reinforcing anyway, that even if any of the above is true, it’s a small part of a complex of emotional issues that men have with kink relationships. But I do think that the pre- and post-Internet aspect of this issue for a specific generation of men is significant. Assuming there’s some validity, is it just kink-related? Probably not, but it’s what I have the greatest experience and visibility of. It seems likely that any emotional or sexual trait which led to a difficulty forming significant relationships during childhood and young adulthood — and a consequent lack of affirmation — but which difficulty was then alleviated by the popularisation of the Internet, would contribute to similar patterns of male fucked-upness.
It’s also worth reinforcing that none of the above is meant to condone being a wanker, just to discuss some of the context. In any event, it won’t be very long before time helps to work this out; pretty soon, “pre-Internet” will go the way of “WWI veteran”, or “Titanic survivor”.
* I’m only talking about men here, partly because I don’t feel qualified to do anything else (and barely even that), and partly because the situation for women is/was somewhat different. For example, a woman launching into a kink world in middle-age is faced with a very different landscape than a man of the same age.