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Rewriting Sexuality: How I Unlearned Toxic Masculinity

Sometimes I make a decision or a change in my life that rewrites the way I think about and understand the world around me. Exploring polyamory was one of those things. Finally deciding I am atheist was another. It should come as no surprise that coming out as a trans woman was one as well.

The thing is, I thought my perspective had already changed. Before I told anyone I’m trans, when I’d merely accepted it within myself, I thought, “wow, this has changed the way I think about everything in my life.” But I’d still barely scratched the surface. When I finally announced to everyone in my life, “Hey! I’ve been a woman all along!”, things began to change more rapidly, and to greater degrees than I’d expected.

I fully expect this to continue, especially once I begin HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy, for those not ‘in the know’), but I’ve already changed so much from just this single step. Some of the ways that things changed has come as an absolute shock. My relationship with sex, for example, has been completely rewritten. I don’t think I even realized the degree to which being socialized as a “straight White male” affected the way I thought about sex and relationships, but the simple act of coming out has unraveled thoughts and ideas that I didn’t realize were built up and wrapped around lies.

Being Socialized as Male

I want to start off by saying that everything in this blog is a combination of “things I was told” and “conclusions I drew on my own,” and not everyone has the same experience I had. That being said, I know a number of my other male friends drew the same conclusions I did, because we talked about them extensively at sleepovers / parties / etc.

My personal knowledge base was influenced heavily by the Catholic Church, where I spent every Sunday of my life for the first 18 years. It’s hard to parse how much of what I learned about sex and sexuality came directly from religion, and how much of it came from other kids at public school, but I know in my case, the most toxic and harmful beliefs came straight from the mouths of the priests at my Catholic church. Looking back, it’s honestly unbelievable the number of things I was told as a young “boy” that were, at best, horrible advice, and at worst, actual dangerous and predatory behavior.

Because I had sisters, I would sometimes witness the advice they were given, often for committing the same “crimes” I did, and it was wildly different. I have an early memory of learning to masturbate (and when I say early, I mean 5 or 6 years old), and being so excited about how good it felt that I wanted to share it with my sister. I told her about it and wanted to teach her how, so we sat on the couch and touched ourselves (I believe still fully clothed). My parents discovered us and dragged my sister away to scold her in another room. I don’t remember how long the conversation lasted, but when she came out, she looked absolutely ashamed of herself and apologized to me for participating. She “should have known better.”

I was not taken into the other room to have a discussion. I was simply told, “you won’t be doing that with your sister anymore,” and that was the end of it. I walked away feeling lucky, and intuiting that the reason I hadn’t been punished and scolded like my sister was because I was a boy.

I learned, even though I had done the exact same thing my sister had, and had in fact been the instigator, I was entitled to do such things without being punished, while my sister learned that she should be ashamed of herself. I learned that being a boy was “better,” and being a girl meant not being allowed to experience pleasure.

“Listen, chica, you should be ashamed of yourself. Your brother? He’s A-OK in my book. I’m actually proud of him!”

This was a belief I carried into adulthood. In high school, I genuinely believed that women, across the board, did not enjoy having sex. I walked around school feeling sorry for the girls who I knew were having sex with their boyfriends, silently judging them and asking myself, “how could they allow those boys to do that to them?” I felt strongly that I would be a “good guy” by simply telling girls that I would wait until we were married to begin forcing them to have sex with me.

Add to this the fact that the priests at church would often remind us all that “it is a wife’s duty to please her husband,” and that women who did not “submit” to their husbands were sinners and deserved to be punished for their crimes—if not by their husband directly, then by Satan in the afterlife. It was a profoundly fucked up way to view sex, and it’s a profoundly fucked up message to send to men, women, girls, and boys about how sex in relationships is “supposed” to work.

“Boys are just different,” they tell us. “Boys are hornier,” “boys can’t control themselves,” “boys will be boys!” For years and years, we’re fed these lies as universal truths, and they impact and affect how we treat one another. Religion doesn’t give a reason as to why men and women are different in these ways, apart from saying “God made it that way,” so in attending public school and learning about biology and hormones, I, like many other foolish people before me, attributed all the differences to that. It doesn’t matter that people of the female sex also produce testosterone, or that people of the male sex also produce estrogen: these are the biological rules of men and women, and that’s that!

The other big lie that we all seem not to notice as we grow up in a male-dominated rape culture is the concept that masculinity is directly linked to how much sex you are having. Growing up, just about every boy I knew was trying to have sex, and with as many women as possible. The “popular” boys were the ones who had the highest number, and the “unpopular” boys, of which I was one, would have been happy to even have sex with one person. But not another boy! Don’t forget about that little nugget: sex only counts if it’s with a girl. If you have sex with a boy, it sends you immediately to the bottom of the social totem pole because it basically counts as -1 to your “sex score.”

It was a confusing world to grow up in. I simultaneously believed that I was a “failure” as a man because I wasn’t having sex, but also that I was a “great catch” because I wasn’t going to force women to have sex with me like all those other jerks who didn’t even care that women didn’t like it.

Men being men! No emotions. Grilling. MAN STUFF. Is Greg smiling? Beat up Greg!

The truth is: I felt like I was better than other people. Better able to control my urges. More respectful. More “pure.” My entire life, I was just playing a game called, “Be the Best Man of All the Men!” and I never stopped to question whether it was a game I even wanted to be playing. As far as I knew, this was the only world that existed, and it was the world everyone lived in.

When I found out that some girls did like having sex (and I stress my own ignorance that I couldn’t expand to the possibility that maybe all except asexual girls enjoy sex), I assumed, thanks to pornography, that those women were a different kind of woman, known to porn-watchers as a “nymphomaniac.” These women had no respect for themselves—they were sluts! Ready and willing to fuck any man who came along! They just needed sex so bad, and they were trouble.

Of course, if a man were having trouble getting laid, he could always choose to have sex with a slut, but it wouldn’t count towards his “being a man” score to the same degree. Having sex with a slut was easy, it required no skill and was therefore unconnected from whether or not he was a “real” man.

It’s embarrassing to write these things now, but they are truly things that I actually believed, and things that I recognize men still believe today. I see it everywhere online, whether on Twitter when men feel the need to judge women for expressing their sexuality, in the comments section on porn videos, in the discourse behind Cardi B’s & Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP, and just in the general conversation surrounding whether women are good at things like video games or comedy. The divide exists, and it is based on lies that I once believed.

The Breaking Point

When I was a junior in high school, I had an experience that shook me to my core and challenged all of my beliefs about sexuality: I dated a girl who had had sex with her previous boyfriend. I didn’t discover that fact until we were 4 or 5 months into the relationship, and I honestly believe that if I’d known about it before we were together, I might have chosen not to pursue the relationship.

Up to that point, I’d judged every girl I knew who had had sex for any reason. But this time, I was already in love with her (or at least what I considered to be love at the time), and it was too late to change my feelings. Instead, I became intensely jealous and inquisitive, demanding to know every detail about when they’d had sex, how far into the relationship, how many times, and whether she’d felt pressured into it. She didn’t have to answer these questions, but she did, and she answered them honestly. They’d been in love, and she did it because she wanted to.

I didn’t understand. I thought women who have sex before marriage are sluts, or they don’t have respect for themselves. She wasn’t a slut, and she had a tremendous amount of respect for herself. It didn’t compute. It didn’t fit into my worldview. So I came up with any number of alternate explanations.

Maybe her boyfriend had been so good at manipulation, she’d honestly thought having sex was her decision, when really it wasn’t. Or maybe he’d raped her, and she’d come up with a justification for it afterwards. In any case, the only thing that made sense was that he was a villain for tainting the purity of my girlfriend. I had a class with the boy in question, and I had a difficult time paying attention because I was so hung up on the idea that he was sitting there, smugly judging me or laughing at me for dating his “sloppy seconds.” I felt an urge to prove I was a man, and to prove that he wasn’t “getting to me.”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fantasize about beating him up to prove my dominance. Thankfully, somewhere deep down, I knew that wasn’t the answer. Unfortunately, what I thought was the answer, was that my girlfriend and I should have sex.

“You said you had sex with him because you loved him,” I argued. “And you also say that you love me, but you won’t have sex with me. That doesn’t make any sense!”

“I’m not ready,” she said.

“That just makes me feel like you loved him more than you love me. But that doesn’t make sense, or else wouldn’t you still be together?”

I didn’t realize how disgusting this was. I didn’t realize I was using her to make myself feel better, to feel “more like a man.” I wanted to feel superior to her ex, and I wanted her to be the one to make me feel that way.

At a certain point, she challenged me: “How do you even know you’re ready to have sex?”

I didn’t know what that meant. So I said, “I’m a guy, guys are always ready to have sex.” Because that’s what I believed. That’s what years of being raised as a Catholic Conservative taught me: there are strict rules for how boys and girls feel and behave, and anyone outside of that is wrong.

She cried and hung up on me. I felt terrible for hurting her feelings, but I still didn’t understand. I apologized, and said I’d drop the subject of sex. I kept having my feelings, and felt inferior, and felt betrayed, and felt weak, but I stopped talking about her ex and my weird sexual hangups. Eventually, we both decided we were “ready” and attempted to have sex, but I was so in my head about everything that I wasn’t able to perform, which just led to her feeling bad about herself. The relationship didn’t last long after that.


Unlearning Toxicity (CW: rape)

Over the next few years, I slowly came around to understanding her point of view. I started reading feminist literature in college and realized that women have exactly the same types of feelings as men, but are socialized differently. I’d never stopped to think how my treatment as a child was different from my sisters’, and how that might have affected them. For so long, I’d merely considered the women in my family to be “dramatic” whenever they expressed their feelings, never bothering to stop and hear the reality that I was denying. I never considered how it must have felt for my sister to be scolded and punished for being curious about sex, when for me, it was chalked up to another instance of “boys being boys.” I first declared myself a feminist when I was 23.

I stopped judging and labeling women, and started actually listening to them. And what I realized was that men and women really aren’t very different at all. Our feelings and responses to circumstances are nearly identical—we’ve just learned wildly different coping mechanisms and are permitted by society to express those feelings in very specific ways. I realized my beliefs had harmed other women throughout my life, and that society still views and treats women as objects to be owned by men, whether that be through marriage or sexual domination.

When I was 25, a man who held a position of power over me coerced me through threat of violence into doing things sexually that I was uncomfortable with, for the sole purpose of his own sexual satisfaction. After a couple years of therapy and soul searching, I finally understood the meaning of enthusiastic consent. Because just because someone has sex with you doesn’t mean they wanted to. It might mean they were terrified of what might have happened if they didn’t. And whether you consider that to be rape or not, it is.

After doing the hard work of unlearning and relearning the definition of consent, I thought I was done learning about sex. How much more could there be?!

Then I came out as transgender.

Identifying as female has completely changed the way I think about sex yet again. For one thing, my sex drive has decreased significantly. Not because “women have lower sex drives” (like men, women have sex drives on every corner of the spectrum), but because I realized some amount of that male toxicity remained inside me. On some level, I was still using sex as a way to build up my ego. I didn’t know it at the time (and am horrified to look back and realize), but sex was still all about me, and not so much about the person I was having sex with.

If you’d told me this at the time, I’d have told you you were out of your mind. “How can it be all about me? My entire goal is for my partner to get off!” That’s all well and good, but sex isn’t about getting off. Sex is about being intimate with someone, forming a physical connection, and allowing your bodies to listen to one another. It’s about having fun and enjoying yourself… because otherwise what’s the point?

No one told me that. At the end of a sexual encounter, if I hadn’t gotten my partner off, I felt like a complete failure. And if for some reason I was feeling like a failure in my life for any other reason, I’d seek out sex to attempt to fill that emotional hole. I was still using sex as an outlet to fill my emotional void, which meant I was using my partners, yet again, to feel good about myself.

There were a number of times in college where I’d go out on a weekend with the sole motivation of finding someone to have sex with. I could literally never see myself doing that now. If all I wanted was to get off, I know how to do that alone, and could probably do it a lot better than a stranger could. There was a part of me, back when I was still living in the “toxic male” mentality, that felt like masturbating was a sign of weakness. A sign of “giving up.” A sign that nobody wanted to have sex with me. Now, I feel like it’s just a way to spend a little time getting to know myself and form a connection with my body. And if I want to have sex with someone, it’s because I want to connect with them, because I like them and want to get to know them better on a physical level.

I haven’t stopped wanting to have sex. I’ve stopped needing to have sex. I’ve stopped trying to use sex as a way to build my ego, because as a woman, I don’t equate “amount of sex” to my value as a human being—which isn’t even something I realized I was doing.

Putting the Bow on It

Gender actually has very little to do with sex. Or maybe a better way of phrasing it is sex has very little to do with gender. As humans, we all like having sex. We all have egos. We all have the capacity to learn both healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms for our feelings. And deep down, we all want to feel loved and understood. The key difference in how “men” and “women” relate to sex is in how we are taught about sex, and how we are treated when we express curiosity and ask questions. If you’re assigned male at birth, you’re told, “sex is how you prove yourself and keep your girl!”, and if you’re assigned female at birth, you’re told, “sex is shameful and you must be very careful who you share yourself with.”

I don’t claim to be an expert. I’ve just lived the life that I’ve lived, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, which have forced me to step back and ask myself questions. I’ve had to interrogate my own beliefs and realize that I was an incredibly selfish person, and I probably hurt more people than I even realize.

I know there are people out there who claim toxic masculinity isn’t a real thing—I was one of them for a long time. But that’s only because you can’t see something while you’re inside it. Much like I couldn’t see my religion was wrong while I was inside it, or that my gender was wrong while I was inside it. We all live in prisons we cannot see, and its up to us to do the work of breaking out.

—Chloe Skye, January 11, 2021

If you enjoyed reading about my process of learning new information and changing my mind about things, check out my podcast Modern Eyes w/ Skye and Stone! My partner and I look at movies from 10 or more years ago and discuss what holds up, what feels out of date, and how you could modernize the films if you remade them today. It’s heavy on the “oh wow we definitely didn’t see this before, look how far we’ve come!” dialogue.

Published by Chloe Jade Skye

Hello! I'm Chloe Skye. I'm a trans woman currently living in Los Angeles. I write, I podcast, & I think too much. Check out my podcast about women in history, Broads You Should Know, my film review podcast, Modern Eyes with Skye and Stone, or my TV review podcast, Skye & Stone do Television!

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