“I’d like to appear more… sexual,” he wrote, “but I don’t want to appear… well… gay.”
In the middle of a secret kinky polyamorous Facebook group, a new member was addressing the absolute lack of seductive clothing for men and was frustrated at how few examples of healthy masculine sensuality there were.
He continued, “I’d like to dress more… slutty, but well, the only thing I can think of is women’s clothing. I don’t think women’s clothing is inherently sexual… but…” He didn’t need to continue. I understood exactly what he meant, especially as a trans man.
Times are a-Changin'
Transitioning over the last couple of years has been radical and transformative. It’s given me the rare ability to time-travel, and ultimately redo parts of my life. Still, one of the areas where I still find myself struggling with is expressing my sensuality and sexuality, especially when I engage with other men.
There are interesting experiences in growing up trans, and hard to explain. While it was difficult to keep up the facade of “playing a woman”, there were moments of ease, especially during sex.
One of the tricks I learned was to imitate women I saw in media, and become a method actor of sorts. I was quick to seek out role models in sensuality like Brigitte Bardot or Scarlett Johannson, and build on how they interpreted sexuality in a playful and powerful way. Being a woman in sexual environments was incredibly comfortable for me, especially as someone who appreciates being lusted after.
Something no one tells you about transitioning is that it is almost literally putting yourself through puberty for a second time. People expect me to make the first moves on dates now and expect a level of confidence that I struggle with, especially as a walking personification of anxiety.
What worked well for me was to “fake it till you make it”, but without examples of healthy sensuality to be able to model my own behavior off… I struggled and was at a loss. I went from seeing an absolutely and almost troubling abundance of examples of sensuality to nearly nothing.
I’ve also spent long amounts of time staring at my closet, trying to think up an attractive outfit for a NSFW kink event. Dressing for these events as a woman was a breeze! I boiled it down to a simple template, and would just don the most appealing combination of revealing and tough. Boots and nightgown? How very grunge, but sure! A strappy bondage bra and high-waisted black pants? Modern dominatrix, but still, classic! The options were endless.
Now... do I dress up in a shirt and pants, and potentially look like an awkward chaperone in a sea of skin? Do I push the sparkly queer aesthetic, attract other queer men but potentially fly under the radar with women and other folks?
So while I don’t share my Facebook compatriate’s fear of appearing attractive to men (quite the contrary), I still understand how difficult it is to appear both masculine and sexually attractive to potential partners, especially outside of a progressive and fluid atmosphere.
Sensuality vs Sexuality
Sensuality and sexuality are words that are used interchangeably to mean the same thing, but I’d argue that there’s a slight but powerful difference between the two words, and it relies on being a passive or active participant.
Sensuality, as the name implies, relies on the senses. A lovely meal can be sensual, or a massage from a caring friend or the coolness from sleeping on crisp bed linens. Sensuality returns to an idea of comfort and domesticity and does not require the presence of sexual gratification. It’s about being present in the moment of comfort, and ultimately being on the receiving end of enjoyable sensations.
To contrast that, sexuality is more active and relies on the person being an agent of their own sexual experience. Sexuality is often interpreted as a “masculine” realm and behavior, and one doesn’t have to go far to see how this concept falls short: queer women are asked to divide their sexual experiences into “who’s the man and who’s the woman?”, and everyone else is judged immensely for falling out of rank.
Cages Made Out of Insecurity
Femininity and masculinity are not natural laws. They simply aren’t. So when we judge ourselves as men for appearing too feminine by wanting to be desired, we’re ultimately placing a negative value on “femininity” and shaming ourselves and others for simply enjoying a dynamic.
Think about it: besides the almost satirical fantasies of the “ideal man” from chick-flicks, there are very few examples of what a man should do in order to appear desirable to a woman.
In books like Porn for Women, it’s just full of tame images of men doing domestic tasks or being an attentive partner. Step into any sex store, and there’s a clear discrepancy between the lingerie offered for men vs women. Even male exotic dancers stereotypically begin their acts in boring day-to-day professional uniforms and strip down to their skivvies.
In this limited template of society, sensuality has been reduced to a simple capitalistic exchange. Sex and pleasure becomes only a marketplace for men expressing a desire to be sexual from a position of being the consumer; they’re in charge, powerful and the bringers of pleasure for themselves and others. Men have the orgasms. Men give the pleasure. The realm of being sexually desired is then usually reserved for women or men seeking men. So when a man wants to be sought after and chased, it’s seen as a “reversal” of a typical “natural” order and his motivations are questioned.
The sad thing is that everyone loses in this limited understanding of sensuality. Heterosexual men shy away from trying to appear attractive to others for fear of being perceived as gay (the horror!) because heterosexual men are never allowed to be the objects of desire in the eyes of women. Heterosexual women experience absolute exhaustion trying to constantly be the objects of desire, and not have their partners expect to perform any acts of sensuality in return.
There’s a society-wide vilification of the desire to be desired. If a man wants to be wanted, he might be suspected of being a closeted gay man, or at worst pathologically vain or damaged. There’s an inherent mistrust around a man seeking to be pursued that leads people to unjustly question his sexuality or gender presentation. It certainly plays into the discomfort around bisexual men, which creates situations of discrimination where people are reluctant to date bisexual men because they perceive them as “secretly gay” or unfaithful.
In this limited view, it’s a woman’s job to appear sensual, attractive and desirable. It’s easy to find examples of this everywhere. In myth, Pygmalion created his perfect sculpture who became the ideal woman for him to lust after and observe. This myth plays into the larger issue that women are so often the objects of paintings, even modern social movements were created to combat this oversaturation of women as models but not creators. Women are just expected to be sensual. If a cis heterosexual woman wants to wear lingerie because it makes her feel attractive, there’s little shame placed upon her.
Talk to Your Doctor If Healthy Sensuality is Right for You!
Is there any kind of remedy to this pathological fear over men being objects of desire? I would argue yes, and by fighting our own society imposed limitations, we’re also fighting the framework of heteronormativity and sexism that limit our pleasure in a profound way.
It begins by challenging yourself. How many times have you seen a man spending time primping for an event, only to negatively judge him for vanity when you’d expect the same behavior from a woman? Have you been quick to promote a man’s “bravery” for wearing a dress in protest, but suspicious of men who wear similar articles of clothing for fun?
What models of manhood are you using out of laziness or fear?
After I started to question and rebel against the worries I had, I moved towards the fun stuff: aesthetics and brainstorming. I created folders full of inspiration, packed to the brim with Dandyism and men in crop tops from the late 1980s.
I especially sought out examples in wonderful local boylesque dancers who sexily pushed the boundaries, all while performing for an audience largely comprised of women, femmes and queer folk. There were no fears of men finding the male dancer attractive, because holy hell, he was attractive!
We need to fight the concern men have for being seen as gay or bisexual, and by creating our own narratives for sensuality, we can become more attractive and, incidentally, further our own pleasure.
So look to other rebels in our society, take notes of what you like and leave what you don't. In the process, you might very well find what you've been looking for.
Zack is a freelance writer and illustrator from Canada. He’s a geeky trans man with a penchant for discussing LGBTQIA+ issues, graphic novels and comedy, and an evangelist for accessible sex education.
When he’s not fussing over his writing, Zack is usually hanging out with friends discussing the merits of icing on cupcakes and non-hierarchical relationship anarchism.
His favorite word is bean.
Illustration by Anouk.