Swell’s theme for August is States of Undress. How can we bare all this summer? Whether by yourself or with a partner, how can we expose our inner vulnerability and desires? “States of Undress” is a metaphor for peeling back the layers we wear daily for protection and performance. It’s time to be brave, open, and naked.
When I got this assignment, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Say it with me: Most cis men hate talking about their feelings. But if you hate talking about something, it’s a sign that you should probably talk about it more. Like many things in our culture, we tend to understand male sexual vulnerability through a binary model: The swaggering lothario fuckboi, or the nervous choke artist whose sensitivity is a hindrance. Each man, the model proclaims, is somewhere between these two, either unflappable or consumed with insecurity.
This binary smacks of oversimplification, so I asked some other men to break the code of silence and talk about their experiences being vulnerable—or not—with their sexual and romantic partners. I was surprised by how much anguish and ambivalence they expressed to me. But in each story, there was growth—and hope for even more in the future.
Gregory, 28, Hartford, CT
Whenever I get into any kind of sexual situation, I usually need to voice my insecurity. I have a lot of body insecurities. I have a lot of sex insecurities. I just have a lot of insecurities in general, and they’re really at the forefront of my mind. I’m kind of forced to bring them up, because I know my partner would pick up on them, anyway.
I didn’t want to admit that I was having feelings like jealousy or insecurity. They‘re just so painful and miserable that I pretended they weren’t there.
When I have brought these things up, it hasn’t gone horribly, but it has made sex a little less satisfying. Women are generally reassuring, but still, once it’s out there between us, it’s just hard to work with. I feel like I can’t assume the role of the strong, confident man anymore. Once I’ve had sex with a partner a few times, it does get better, but not completely. I find that once I’ve put all that shit out there, it defines the dynamic between us, and pigeonholes me into this role as a ball of insecurity. And that isn’t a sexy vibe to me. It’s associated with a lot of shame, because I learned from the culture that sexual insecurity is something men should be ashamed of.
With my previous girlfriend, there were a few times when we were first together when I couldn’t get hard. We talked about it and she was sweet and understanding, but her sympathy made me feel ashamed and unattractive, so it killed the spark. After we had a sex a few more times I stopped having the problem, and our sex got better in general. Later, we talked and laughed about it, but to me, it still felt like, by being so vulnerable early on, I could never fully escape my shame about it.
Kevin, 30, Lexington, KY
From the outside, I probably look like someone who is pretty comfortable with sex and dating. In many ways, I am. Flirting came naturally to me, and I’ve mostly had a pretty active dating and sex life.
I had a good deal of casual sex in my twenties, but it was rarely good or fulfilling. I would show no vulnerability. It felt like this performance that I was going to be judged on, and I was obsessing constantly in my head about if my partner was enjoying it. I had so much anxiety around it, but I never communicated any of it. I just thought that if I showed or talked about any of that, it would be really unattractive.
A lot of my sense of self-worth was tied up in how attractive I was to women. Casual sex, to me, was more about the validation of being wanted rather than the sex itself. That just felt more like just something I had to do, almost as an afterthought.
Even in longer relationships, I tended to not want to admit insecurity, because it just felt so embarrassing, and I thought my girlfriend would lose respect for me, lose interest in me.
People would sometimes underestimate or overlook me because I led with my feminine side.
But It wasn’t only that I didn’t want to show it—I also didn’t want to admit to myself that I was having feelings like jealousy or insecurity. They‘re just so painful and miserable that I pretended they weren’t there. Only very recently did I start to admit those feelings. With my current girlfriend, things are better. I feel a lot more open and free with her, sexually and romantically. I let her know when something she does makes me a little jealous. It’s really hard for me to do, but she’s been really nice. I’m starting to see my insecurity as just proof that I love her, something a little painful but natural.
Jay, 23, San Jose, CA
My early sexual experiences were kind of necessarily vulnerable, because they were with other men, and because of the taboos around that, there’s an intrinsic expression of vulnerability. It made me nervous but also excited. I never voiced any of this to my partner, I just tried to play it cool, which felt like it made it easier to explore it on my own terms. Showing vulnerability feels a little unattractive, but more than that, if I want to be sexually adventurous, I like to try to act a little more confident than I am, so I can sort of rise to the occasion. I don’t think it’s wrong or dishonest to do that. I think it just makes it more exciting for me and my partner, and lets us leave our hang-ups and insecurities at the door.
I tend to want to have the upper hand in sexual situations, especially when I don’t know the person very well. I’ve been thinking lately that this has something to do with the fact that growing up, I often felt judged for not being masculine enough, and people would sometimes underestimate or overlook me because I led with my feminine side.
After I’ve gotten more comfortable with a partner, and after I’ve had sex with them a few times, it becomes less and less possible to hide vulnerability. As it becomes more physical, figuring out what feels good and what hurts requires more honest communication, so that veneer of confidence goes away. Something that makes me feel very vulnerable and jealous is when a guy I’m with seems interested in a woman. In those situations, I’m pretty direct—I just let them know that I really don’t want to be in a competition with a woman.