You may have heard of Dr. Abraham Morgentaler. His book, Why Men Fake It: The Totally Unexpected Truth About Men and Sex, has made quite a splash in the last few weeks. Yes, the title invokes some tittering and inevitable double-take (wait…can men really…fake it? The answer, according to the opening chapter, is yes). But beyond the salacious intro, this book contains a much deeper, and darker, look at what’s really going on inside the heads of men. As a doctor who’s spent decades treating men for every type of sexual dysfunction, Morgentaler is perhaps the best source to discuss what’s really going on behind all the culturally-condoned ideas of masculinity. We spoke to him about relationships, role models, and, of course, sex.
HOWABOUTWE: You’ve been helping treat men with sexual problems for a very long time. What’s the single biggest thing you’ve learned about men?
ABE MORGENTALER: I’ll tell you the biggest surprise for me. When I started doing this work, I didn’t have that high an opinion of men. I’d been around men my whole life — team sports, school, the locker room — and I thought the standard narrative about men was pretty accurate — men are insensitive, selfish, they care only about themselves in relationships — because that’s how guys talk to each other.
I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel like guys are not just admirable, but noble. The problem is that they get in their own way about how they present themselves. Men are stuck in ideas of masculinity and machoness that are holdovers from a previous era.
What changed me was not any one patient, but hearing the same concerns and worries and fears over and over again from so many men of all ages, races, etc. At one point, there was a guy in my waiting room who looked too cool for school — he presented himself as the hippest dude imaginable. He looked like someone who wouldn’t care about any woman. And when he came into my office, he breaks down into tears because he has a girlfriend and feels like he can’t satisfy her sexually because he suffered from premature ejaculation. There’s a HUGE difference between men in the waiting room and men in the exam room. Guys have a sense of needing to look cool, and to have a devil-may-care attitude. But in the end, what I recognize is that men, once they have feelings for a woman, acutally care MORE about their partner’s pleasure than they do their own.
Here’s an example of that: I describe in my book a 27-year-old guy who’s a paraplegic, so he can’t function sexually. But he’s married. I treated him so he could have sex again, and he comes back to my office a changed man. He says, “my wife is happy, and I feel like a man again.” Now keep in mind, he can’t FEEL anything during sex, no feeling below the waist, no sexual sensation at all. But he was able to make his wife happy. So he’s feeling like a man — he’s able to provide for his wife. In one way or another, thats what it’s all about for men.
HAW: So do men value sex in the way we typically think they do? As the key to everything?
AM: Almost everything we think we know about men and sex is wrong. The idea that all a man needs to get excited is a stiff breeze blowing by is nuts. Part of what perpetuates the myth [of men always wanting sex] is how men talk to each other. They talk in an ultra-macho way, but it’s not authentic. A man’s definition of great sex is when the woman says, “that was great sex.”
HAW: What about the trend of women wanting more sex than their partners? Is that a new thing? Or are we just recognizing it and discussing it now?
AM: Once a guy has adult responsibilities — a job, a child, a couple of gray hairs — he’s not getting erections the way he was when he was 17. I had a patient for erectile dysfunction — when he was in the city where he lived with his wife, he couldn’t have sex. But every weekend, they went to their country house, and he could have sex fine. The reason? During the week, he was busy thinking about his work, the pressures, his responsibilities, etc. In the country, he was relaxed. Guys get stressed.
The other part of it is that we used to think it was always the guy who wanted sex more than the woman. A friend of mine, who’s my age, likes to say, “it’s only a few years ago that guys figured out that women even enjoy sex.” When I was young, guys used to think that when a woman had sex with them, you had this feeling of eternal gratitude, like they’d done you a favor. That was the cultural wisdom in those days: guys want sex, and women don’t even like it. In the ’50s and ’60s, there was a popular expression: women performing their wifely duty. Women were supposed to submit to sex as part of the mariage contract of keeping their husband happy, and they supposedly got nothing out of it.
Now we know and recognize that women enjoy sex as much as men do. If women didn’t have sexual desire, there’d be no human beings on this planet. So now we have this strange variation — I see a lot of couples where the woman wants sex more than the guy. Sometimes it’s just life, and sometimes there are medical reasons. When men are on SSRIs like Paxil or Zoloft, the medications can reduce desire and make it difficult to ejaculate. In some men, testosterone levels decline. We think of lower testosterone as being common only for older men, but I’ve seen men in their ’20s with declining levels.
HAW: Pop culture tends to depict men as sex-crazed bumbling morons incapable of reason when they want sex (which, according to this stereotype, is always). I think we all know that’s a gross oversimplification. How do we get out of this social rut? It seems to damage both sides – men think they should conform to it, and women think that’s all men are capable of being.
AM: It’s gotten increasingly difficult over the last few decades to know how to feel good about yourself as a man. And one of the biggest problems men have is that they don’t talk to each other, and they don’t talk about anything that involves vulnerability for them. I think men are embattled right now. Sheryl Sandberg may be talking about what women need to do to break through the glass ceiling in the boardroom, but what no one disagrees with is that there are more women right now graduating from high school, college, grad school, So in a relationship, the woman often has the better job, and the higher pay. So the traditional male role as being the provider is fading.
How men can figure out a way to feel good about themselves as men, while embracing the strong, capable, and now sexually-aware and free woman — that’s the challenge for today’s man. There are lot of cultural hurdles for it. We don’t have a lot of positive role models. TV and music are, frankly, awful. TV shows where you just see everyone cheating and acting awful — how do you get inspired by that? How do you figure out how to live your life? A lot of young men I see know there’s something wrong with that [paradigm], but they don’t really have a model of how to be.
HAW: So what can men do to feel good about themselves, in a healthy way?
AM: Men do have an inborn feeling that they want to be providers. If they can’t do that outside the bedroom, there’s more pressure to do it inside the bedroom. Men who are perfectly normal and healthy ask me for Viagra all the time. I ask them, “what do you need it for?” They tell me, “it’s tough out there — I feel like I need to keep up.”
HAW: What advice would you give to a 25-year-old man today?
AM: I would tell him to have sex only with women he actually likes. Having sex doesn’t mean that he has to be committed forever, but it’s an incredible and hard-to-explain part of who we are, that brings about all sorts of feelings and emotions, and we are very vulnerable when it happens. Both for men and women. Life is so much better when sex is meaningful. There’s nothing manly about quantity. Let [sex] be something that is special, where you actually feel like there’s the possibility of something really good to come from it.