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.

11 Comments

  • Thanks for this perspective, one I never really thought much about. All I can say is it ain’t no picnic for women of (past) a certain age. It only occurred to me recently that I could not relate at all to the supposedly universal raging hormones of adolescence. I didn’t have to -try- to be a good girl because I wanted to do spanky things, not fucky things. That worked exactly once. I won’t go into the delights of being Not a Sweet Young Thing.

  • I have seen comments on other blogs where people say, “Oh, it is just so very brave and soul-baring of you to post this!” — for posts where I’m shrugging and thinking, “Ok, special *how*?”

    But this post does seem to me to be both very brave and very soul-baring. To start with the latter, it’s one thing to pick apart a trait you notice in other people. (I’ve done some posts like that myself!) But to include yourself as part of the group you are analyzing … is something not often done! To say, “And I myself resemble these remarks” — that’s pretty damn open and amazing.

    And then there is the brave bit — I wonder how other men who “resemble these remarks” are going to take them? Obviously, if they attack you too vigorously, they will be telling the world that they feel you’ve cut too close! But, seriously, you have very closely wielded the razor of introspection here, and others may resent the sting. I hope you provoke serious discussion and not the usual interwebz backlash.

    Thank you so much for sharing all of this. It’s a really brilliant perspective into a problem which has been talked about in both the BDSM and spanko worlds, but nothing has been done about it — at least nothing to help the poor guys who have fallen, through no fault of their own, into that gap.

    • Zille,

      If you saw my stats, you wouldn’t worry about a backlash, truly. But in any event it’d only be brave if I actually cared what people think. (Those two sentences might be related somehow. Hmm.)

      …the poor guys who have fallen, through no fault of their own, into that gap.

      That’s a generous way to put it. While I definitely don’t want to be all boo-hoo-don’t-men-have-a-hard-time-of-it (because they don’t, especially), I suppose a greater awareness of how they’re sometimes motivated is useful — not least to the men themselves. But that does only go so far. Like poker, life isn’t just about the hand you’re dealt. How you play it is also important.

  • This is a really valuable analysis. You say “All of this is old-hat and uncontroversial” but from my position of internet-enabled, youthful, female-bodied privilege, it’s not, and thank you for increasing my awareness.

    It’s something I’m very aware of from the chats I’ve had with hobbyist photographers, and the gents I’ve met joining spanker friends in 2-2-1 sessions. There’s a whole demographic of people – and the gender dynamics mean I’ve only met blokes – who fit exactly this description. I’ve always found it much, much easier to be empathic about people e.g. cheating on their partners in this context, and aware of my privilege in having access to the internet so young. But you are absolutely right that my privilege goes beyond that – having dramatic, explosive, alternative relationships from the age of 13 was a privilege, getting my first heartbreak over with so young and learning how to go forward from it. I hadn’t really thought of that in those terms before, but you’re right.

    Where do submissive/bottom-identified men fit into your analysis? I’ve met a lot of them, and they’re less likely to fall into the trap of ending up being inappropriate daddy figures without the emotional/relationship experience, but other than visiting professional spankers, is there a place for them at all?

    • Pandora,

      …my privilege goes beyond that – having dramatic, explosive, alternative relationships from the age of 13 was a privilege, getting my first heartbreak over with so young and learning how to go forward from it.

      Right, it’s definitely useful and healthy to do it early. My fear is for men who haven’t just had that process delayed, but who — like the mega-rich film star who never forgets a poor background and makes unwise career decisions because of that — need a constantly renewed source of affirmation. It can become a kind of drug habit, I think.

      WRT submissive/bottomish men, I honestly don’t know how/if they fit. Certainly I was writing with dominant/toppish men in mind. Despite self-identifying as a switch, male bottoms are a bit of a mystery to me. There’s obviously a lot of neediness there, but I’m not sure it comes from quite the same place. My gut feeling is that a better place to look might be the relationship between living in a world of (generally speaking) male privilege, in which they have (generally speaking) a lot of power, and the desire to give up that power.

  • I’m not sure that all women of a certain age had an advantage. I know I didn’t. Those of us who are bigger spent the years before the internet wondering if men would want to spank us. Once on the internet, falling for the first man who talked to us, without seeing us of course, was the biggest risk. I fell for two men who EVENTUALLY said that they were married. Luckily they didn’t last long. I had never dated much pre-internet, and got married to the man I thought was my one shot at it. I’ve been single for 13 years now, and the relationship stuff is still not something I’m great at. I can understand why male Tops have that problem, because they want somebody to spank, and there are women who won’t play with just anybody. The thing is, I think men in general are used to being shot down when it comes to asking, whether it’s for a date OR to be able to spank somebody.

  • @Paul: I agree with Zille that this is a particularly brave and open post. Even though I’m a woman of an uncertain age, rather than a man, you’ve provided me with valuable perspective about my own experiences. I’ve tried to gather my thoughts in this post on my own blog: http://wp.me/pHj5n-lp

    @Jen: I actually understood Paul as implying that it might be even harder for women because of the desirability of the middle-aged male in the spanking scene. Of course, the flip side is that men outnumber women, so maybe it’s a wash.

    • Indy,

      I actually understood Paul as implying that it might be even harder for women because of the desirability of the middle-aged male in the spanking scene.

      Right, that’s what I was saying, although as an outsider’s impression rather than my own experience, obviously. I think the men I was referring to have had it both harder and easier. Harder because they’re not especially well-equipped for the relationship minefield, and easier because the image they present to the world has a serendipitous intrinsic attraction. Looking right and talking the talk gets a middle-aged man in the scene a long way, even if emotionally he’s a bit under-developed.

  • I’m just barely old enough to fall into the demographic you’re talking about, and I have to say I recognize myself in this: “The engine which powers adolescent connection never really got going, and the result was a turning inwards.” I never really had a relationship until I was 24 when I found a vaguely-kinky lady, and that didn’t last, in part because I was clueless about how to act. I always found it astonishingly hard to date or even flirt because I never learned those skills. It wasn’t until 2003, shortly after I started my blog and put my kinky sexuality out there, that I found myself the object of sexual interest. That was affirming and exciting and wonderful, but it’s very true that I didn’t know how to act, and I fear I may have hurt (or at least puzzled and confused) several ladies who made me the object of their online flirtations.

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