A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed by Hugo Schwyzer for his article He Wants to Jizz on Your Face, but Not Why You Think. Without stepping into the latest internet uproar about Hugo and the various things people are saying about him online (feel free to google it, if you like), I think there’s actually more to be said about the topic of that post.
Hugo’s thesis was that, while facials can certainly be an act of degradation, they can also be interpreted as “men’s desire for that same experience of being validated as desirable, as good, as ‘not dirty.’” For some people, male sexual desire and male bodies are seen as dirty, disgusting, or unpleasant and men who have internalized these ideas might seek a variety of paths to redeem them. Those can take a variety of forms.
Some of the responses to that post have argued that US culture glorifies penises and denigrates vulvas and vaginas. They claim that the premise that some people feel disgust towards penises is a falsehood, at best. There are at least two problems with this argument, though.
First, there are many different subcultures within the larger US society and there’s a lot of variation in how they view male sexuality. As a sex educator, I can tell you from years of professional experience that there are plenty of people who see penises and male desire as shameful or gross. Whether that’s due to personal experiences, religious backgrounds, familial influence, or anything else is relevant to the individuals, but the important thing to remember is that these different beliefs exist.
Second, the construction of masculinity that is commonly presented is constantly reinforced precisely because it is so fragile. Without in any way excusing or mitigating the very real harm that this dynamic causes, the fact that it’s effectively omnipresent is a sign of its weakness, not its strength.
But even so, there’s a key point that I think is missing from Hugo’s analysis, though he’s touched on it in some of his other writing. He ends his post with this anecdote, taken from one of his classroom discussions:
A female student turned to the guy who’d brought up the topic of semen and validation and asked him, “So you’re saying that when a man comes on a woman’s face, it’s not about making her dirty — it’s about making him feel clean?” The young man blushed, the class tittered. “Yes,” he said, “that’s it. And that’s what makes it so hot.”
If I were talking with this man, I’d ask him what he’s doing to overcome or change his belief that there’s something wrong about his sexuality. I’d ask him what messages he’d been told that made him think that his semen or his penis or his body were dirty and that they needed redemption. I’d ask him what makes him think that the way to change that and to get the validation he seeks is to get it from his sex partner.
The notion that it’s women’s job to civilize or redeem men is nothing new. And ironically, there’s a parallel between the idea that women’s virtue is responsible for saving society and the belief that a sexual act between men and women can give men the validation they seek. Both of these are examples of coddling men and absolving them of any responsibility for their own self-determination and ethical conduct. So while I have sympathy for the guy who seeks cleanliness from his female partner, my sense of fierce compassion inspires me to call this out.
Getting validation from someone else makes you dependent on her. It means that you never have to learn the skills of emotional self-regulation and responsibility. It limits you and requires you to seek your value from outside, instead of building up a solid core of self-worth and self-respect. And ultimately, it’s doomed to fail because the only place that validation can truly come from is within.
That doesn’t mean we can’t get support from others. I’ve certainly had times when I was stuck in a shame spiral and needed some validation from a friend to help me out of it. But that process is only effective to the degree that we can explore the reasons we feel shame or self-disgust and process through them. We need to be able to lean into those painful edges and heal those wounds. Otherwise, we’re likely to create a situation that “almost works”. It feels like it should make us feel better and when it doesn’t, we try harder or we escalate. This is one way in which addictive or self-harming cycles form.
I still have no problem with two (or more) people doing facials if their consent, pleasure, and well-being are attended to. There are different reasons that people might enjoy it and I think it’s the height of arrogance to tell them that their desires are wrong. Some people have a kink for body fluids. Some people get a thrill from getting dirty or nasty, without demeaning their partners or disrespecting them either in or out of sexual contexts. Just as some people enjoy the sensation of vaginal fluids on their faces after cunnilingus, some people enjoy the sensation of semen on theirs. There’s never just one reason why people do anything sexually.
I also know that a lot of people do facials because they’re copying things they see in porn. That might be because they don’t realize that porn is terrible sex education. Or they actually do want to demean or degrade the other person. That’s why it’s useful to be able to talk about what our fantasies mean to us and decide if they’re compatible with our partner’s desires.
But in the end, if you’re trying to get validation or you want to overcome your feelings of shame, a sex act isn’t going to do it. Neither, for that matter, is your partner. If you really want to change how you feel, you need to stop dodging and do the work. And you need to stop laying responsibility for your validation on anyone else.