Tag Archives: Love and sexuality

Manufacturing Female Anxiety

mirror+mirror+on+the+wallI am 22 years old. I weight 52 kilograms. My height is 164cm (I’d like to think of myself as “petite”, although I’m perhaps too tall for it). I do think of myself as attractive. The size of my breasts is not ideal, but I’ve long ago come to terms with it. Of course, every once in a while I think of myself of a bit “chubby”, but I have never went out of my way to pursue thinness… The one major thing I have always disliked about myself is the gap between my front teeth. This is why my teeth never show up on photographs. I never managed to get myself braces and I’m probably too old for it now. Yet, as my mom happily noted: “There are many gap toothed models these days…” This should put my discomfort to rest.

Don’t let this confession give you a wrong impression: I like my body. Yet, every time I walk nearby a surface I see my reflection in, this inevitably produces a reaction and not a neutral one. No matter how well-looking I perceive myself to be, I still want to be a tiny bit better: “Goodbye, cellulite: Hello, perfection!”, as advertisements tell us. Thinking about my own experience as an “embodied Self” and as a woman, I am suddenly forced to ask: “How come anxiety regarding body image has become so naturalized, it does not even present itself as an issue? Where does it stem from?” In trying to answer these questions, I will look at a variety of contemporary feminist texts identifying the processes through which female body image anxiety is “manufactured”.

women-think-they-are-fatIn her book “The Body Project: an Intimate History of American Girls” Joan Brumberg uncovers a troubling phenomenon: since the twentieth century “the body has become the central personal project of American girls” (Brumberg, 1997, p. 91), yet this hasn’t always been the case[1]. While girls today reach sexual maturation earlier than females from previous historical periods, their transition to womanhood is much more difficult because of a mismatch between biology and culture which leaves them particularly vulnerable to influences by peer pressure and mainstream culture (Brumberg, 1997).

In contrasting 20th century American girls to their Victorian counterparts, Brumberg highlights the importance of historic contexts in shaping young female’s attitudes towards their bodies: “Every girl suffers some kind of adolescent angst about her body; it is the historical moment that defines how she reacts to her changing flesh” (Brumberg, 1997, p. xviii). The extent to which females tend to their looks is presupposed by the cultural expectations and norms of the time they live in: in their personal diaries nineteen-century girls write about striving to improve their character and behavior, while a century later American girls predominantly focus on managing their appearance. Looks beat character over one’s sense and expression of identity.

Historical context as an origin of female anxiety over body image can be traced to particular innovations which the 19th century gave rise to. The quest for slimming, one of the major ways in which female (but not only!) anxiety over physical appearance manifests, began in the 1920s, after Parisian designer Paul Poiret introduced a silhouette which uncovered the legs and created a new female figure ideal: one that was “slender, long-limbed and relatively flat-chested” (Brumberg, 1997, p.99). Another historical predisposition for the newly developed “weight-awareness” among women was the discovery of the calorie. The changing notions of what the female figure should look like drastically transformed the understandings of the body, whereby image became the site of identity: it turned into “a way to visibly announce who you are to the world” (Brumberg, 1997, p.97).

While young females are particularly vulnerable to fixation on their physical appearance, women of all ages are affected by dominant expectations for beauty and fitness. Despite the fact that women who undergo plastic surgery or develop eating disorders due to self-starvation are seen as deviants, scholars have argued that they only represent one extreme on a continuum “which all women today find themselves, insofar as they are vulnerable, to one degree or another, to the requirements of the cultural construction of femininity” (Bordo, 1993, p. 47).

Popular culture, feminists insist, is where female anxiety is manufactured and capitalized on.  Magazines, advertisements, mainstream music and TV are among the instruments used to produce and perpetuate the often unrealistic norms women internalize and embody. Labiaplasty, a plastic surgery procedure involving cutting off labial tissue of “labia, that have been deemed excessively droopy” (Davis, 2002, p.302), constitutes a rather shocking example of this process.

In her article “Loose Lips Sink Ships” Simone Davis demonstrates how advertisers capitalize on expectations created by widespread access to porn, as well as preexisting shame surrounding the vagina to escalate women’s unease with their body parts or- if missing- create it: “Before people will spend money on something as expensive as plastic surgery, they need to be motivated not only by desire but by concern or self-doubt” (Davis, 2002, p. 304). The breeding of inferiority complexes is intentional and highly profitable, yet the manipulative nature of this process gets obscured by the idea of “free choice”. Comparing labiaplasties to African genital mutilation practices, Davis suggests that the two closely resemble each other because both produce consent through cultural coercion (Davis, 2002).

In the case of eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa, the role of the sociocultural environment in producing “disability” is similarly concealed: medicalized and defined as psychopathology, these conditions are portrayed as failings of the individuals who must suffer from lack of self-esteem, perceptual malfunction or otherwise distorted reasoning. Yet, feminists challenge the disability politics revolving around eating disorders: if 75% of the 33,000 women surveyed by Glamour magazine in 1984 regarded themselves “too fat” (Bordo, 1993), did they all suffer from distorted perception or is there something else to blame? Proponents of anorexia and bulimia as “disorders” commonly remind that not all women, but only some develop an eating condition, thereby claiming that the reason for this is to be found in their individual predisposition to psychological and physiological disability (Bordo, 1993). But while “reaching epidemic proportions today” (Bordo, 1993, p. 139), a century ago eating disorders were distinctly rare. To that end, feminist scholar Suzan Bordo claims that culture is not merely a contributing factor to the manufacturing of female anxiety over the body, but its main producer (Bordo, 1993).

“Rigorous dieting”, “excessive jogging” and other forms of exercise of control over the body may not have as staggering effects as the development of bulimia or anorexia, yet they are similarly fueled by the messages of a culture that has “taught women to be insecure bodies, constantly monitoring themselves for signs of imperfection, constantly engaged in physical ‘improvement’ (…)” (Bordo, 1993, p. 57). The medicalization of eating conditions obscures how common body shame and hatred are in contemporary society, as well as how valid anorectics’ presumed “flawed reasoning” that slimness will have them be perceived as “better” or “smarter” is given the predominant association of positive qualities with slenderness (Bordo, 1993).

Realizing the all-permeating nature of the forces which lead to the manufacturing of female anxiety could be disempowering. After all who we are (or aren’t) is largely defined by the specific sociocultural and historical context we were born and live in. To live with and “nurture” the complexes others have created for us, however, becomes a choice once are made aware of it. Yet, the choice presupposes its answer unless radical cultural transformations are made- rejecting sociocultural norms of beauty and fitness cannot be inconsequential, for this is how the system perpetuates itself.


  • Brumberg, J. J. (1997). The body project: An intimate history of american girls. New York: Random House.
  • Davis, S. W.. (2002). Loose Lips Sink Ships. Feminist Studies28(1), 7–35. http://doi.org/10.2307/3178492
  • Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[1] While Brumberg’s work primarily focuses on American females, the descriptions of their preoccupation with body image could perhaps be extended to girls and women from other Western, industrialized countries, as well.

Desire and Pleasure of the (Un)Sexed Body


The “sexing” of bodies is inevitably a social process whereby certain bodies are categorized as pertaining to men, while others- to women. The “in-between” remains invisible, concealed by the widely-accepted notion that there are only two “regular” ways of existing:  either being male, or female. Within this context, social power dictates not only the assignment to sex, but also an accompanying gender and with that a whole series of roles, expectations, preferences and life choices one is pressured to adopt in order to “fit”. While concepts such as “desire” and “pleasure” and their resulting behaviors and actions may rather be seen as a concern of  the individual’s “psychology”, social power circulating around both the sexed body and its sexually unclear counterpart dictates the characteristics of desire and pleasure and their respective perception as either “deviant” or “normal”. Within this paper I will explore how the subject of pleasure and desire is construed historically in relation to sex and gender. Simultaneously, I will focus on the ideas and narratives pertaining to sexual “appetite” and “enjoyment” situating them in the sociohistorical context that made them possible.

To begin with, it is important to outline briefly how the social “sexing” of the body occurs and perpetuates itself. In “Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality” Anne Fausto-Sterling unequivocally claims that “labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision”[1]. This decision may be presented as grounded in science, yet the production of scientific knowledge itself is not unaffected by existing beliefs about gender. Indeed, throughout “Brainstorm: The flaws in the science of sex differences” Rebecca Jordan-Young demonstrates how research of sex differences and particularly “Brain Organization Theory” (the theory presupposing the existence of “female” and “male” brains, differentiated to serve complementary roles within the process of reproduction) has been flawed by unchallenged “commonsense” assumptions and neglect towards historical and cultural shifts in understanding of gender, in addition to lack of reliable data due to the quasi-experimental design of most studies [2].

Instead of being all about hormones and biologically-determined processes as researchers would have liked us to have it, sex (meant as a category) is invariably dependent on definitions and as such is largely human-made. This point is all the more important in dealing with intersex babies whose genitalia is not fully developed until puberty, yet which begins to be inspected and assessed from birth. This practice creates the risk that “doctors may remove a small penis at birth and create a girl child, even though the penis may have grown to “normal” size in puberty”[3].

Moreover, to account for the importance of socialization, Fausto-Sterling draws on stories about children, raised away from society, in the absence of other humans’ presence. These children, as she describes, do not develop sexuality because while they have the “raw material” for reproduction, they have not learned the set of meanings that predispose desire and give one “consciousness” of her “bodily functions”[4]. For sexuality to be even possible, it is not merely enough to have a certain set of genitals.

In attempting to answer the question “Who is the subject of desire and pleasure in the context of gender and sex historically?” I first need to identify the existing possibilities. Once a baby is born (that is in most of the Modern World), it is assigned into one of three categories: “girl”, “boy” or more rarely: “intersex”. Yet in most cases the “intersex” child is not allowed to exist as “ambiguous” for very long. Its “ambiguousness” is accompanied by so strong a drive to include it in either of the two “normal” categories that numerous irreversible surgeries and loss of much sensitive tissue become justified. In many cases, surgical “fixing” is guided by social, instead of medical needs: “whether it ‘looks right’ to other boys, whether it can ‘perform satisfactorily’ in intercourse”[5] ends up being more important than the penis’ function for its owner’s physical wellbeing.

I will claim then that the intersex child born with sexually unclear genitalia is altogether denied pleasure and desire. It will either be “fixed” and, theoretically, “find belonging” to either the “male” or “female” cohort of its peers, or “live always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration”[6], the last exemplifying the “rhetoric of tragedy” construed by parents and medical personnel, alike.

As a general “rule”, if a baby is born with a vagina or “fixed” into having one, it would, “naturally”, be assumed to develop as heterosexual and to be female-presenting. In regards to desire, late into twentieth century the grown-up woman was expected to develop a “feminine” sexuality, understood as passive (“in the absence of a partner, a ‘normal’ woman waits”[7]), sentimental and romantic longing. The “feminine” woman deemed “normal”, as interpreted by the infamous Brain Organization Theory pioneer John Money and his colleagues, would not enjoy various sex positions, would not experience erotic response to anything else, but kissing and touching, and would primarily find interest in marriage and motherhood.

Historically, the understanding of “female” sexuality underwent great transformations. In Renaissance Europe women were perceived as sexual insatiable-s, while men were thought to be more successful at restraining their urges due to their inherently greater rationality[8]. Men who “slept around” were seen as “de-masculinized” since they failed to enact the expected manly self-control. Yet, this paradigm shifted drastically in the centuries to follow and led to the advent of the Victorian ideal for a “lady”, whereby females were expected to erase their sexuality in order to gain status and respect.  Sadly, while social and political movements in the 1960s were disrupting traditional ideas about sexuality and “a revolution in birth control and the legalization of abortion increasingly separated sexuality from reproduction”[9], it wasn’t before 1980 that brain research on sexual differences began to adopt a model of female sexuality that didn’t follow the Victorian model which portrayed it as “romantic, receptive, slow to waken and only weakly physical[10]”.

The underlying assumptions in this gendered profile began to be addressed in the 1980s when a more “egalitarian” understanding of female sexuality began to emerge. Or rather, elements of “masculine” sexuality were neutralized and become “common” for both “male” and “female” sexuality.  Upon this radical cultural and scientific shift women’s sexual desire expanded to include masturbation, genital arousal (which before was considered to only pertain to men), sexual arousal, high libido, frequent sexual activity and multiple partners, to name a few[11].

In fact, sexual pleasure had a lot to do with the stereotypical depiction of women as “passive” and “passionless” which still circulates mainstream culture (and science). In “Making Sex” Thomas Laquer explains how Orgasm was used in the creation of a sharp distinction between women and men “sometime in the eighteenth century” when “sex as we know it was invented”[12]. Prior to that, sex was understood through the “one sex” model, whereby females were seen as underdeveloped males, whose genitalia were the same as men’s, yet turned on the inside[13]. Within the “female-as-male” model men and women possessed identical physiological functions. Female orgasm constituted a mandatory element in the process of reproduction. The idea that a woman would not get impregnated unless she reached orgasm was accepted as “commonsense” late into the 1800s, yet evidence was building up to demonstrate that female orgasm had little role in conception. In 1770s experimenter Lazzaro Spallanzani succeeded to artificially inseminate a water spaniel and in 1879 Mabel Loomis Todd tested her hypothesis that she would not get pregnant if her husband ejaculated inside of her after she had orgasmed, only to give birth nine months later[14].

Following this discovery and as the “two sex” model emerged, the woman’s ability to receive sexual pleasure was altogether contested. The rejection of female orgasm as unlikely served to further differentiate the sexes and justify the obsoletion of the “one sex” paradigm. According to Laquer this had at least two important dimensions: firstly, while earlier it was thought that both the man and the woman needed to orgasm/ejaculate for a baby to be “made”, with the discovery that female orgasm was not instrumental for conception, men were elevated to “creators” while women began to be seen as a mere physical “container” for reproduction (“the material cause is inferior to the efficient cause”[15]). As the Bible reads: “For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man” (Corinthians 11:8, English Standard Version). Women’s seemingly inferior contribution to reproduction justified their subordinate position in society. Secondly, the revelation of female sexual pleasure as “unrelated” to conception soon translated into larger claims about “most women’s” lack of sexual “feelings” which in turn led to the identification of a variety of characteristics now perceived as a “sign of gender”.

As evident, “Female” pleasure and desire have been the concerns of inexhaustible controversy within the scientific community and outside of it for centuries. For most of history, women have not been seen as “subjects” of desire and pleasure, but rather- “objects” of male desire, in service of male pleasure.  The male “subject’’ is the assumed subject. In choosing to limit my analyses to only “sexually unclear” and “female-sexed” bodies and their interactions with desire and pleasure, I not only exercise my feminist right to “reverse” privilege and attend to those, who have traditionally been either omitted from or exploited by scientific research, but also have a theoretical justification. For once, in describing ideas and narratives related to female sexual pleasure and desire, I am (inevitably) simultaneously, if not directly, presenting ideas and narratives about “male” sexuality since the two were most often than not seen as contradicting. The man is what the woman isn’t: “Masculine and feminine sexuality could be represented as not just distinct, but polar opposites”[16] in the view of early Brain Organization theorists and many more, even today.  We can only hope they don’t remain a majority.



  • Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. P. 58
  • Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.





[1] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 3.

[2] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 58.


[4] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 23.

[5] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. P. 58

[6] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. P. 47

[7] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 116.

[8] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 110.

[9] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 112.

[10] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 113.

[11] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pages 138-141.

[12] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 149.

[13] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 4.

[14] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 181.

[15] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 151.

[16] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 118.

A Bulgarian “Guyland”

This is an academic research paper written for my class “Sociology of Gender” at Middlebury College. If you have any feedback, please, use the comments section under the article! Happy reading! M.


From a sociological perspective masculinity is everything but “innate” and “ahistorical”. The definition of “manhood” is socially constructed by culture. In the words of sociologist Michael Kimmel, masculinity is “a constantly changing collection of meanings that we construct through our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with the world” (Kimmel, 2000, p. 58). “Hegemonic masculinity” characterizes normative masculinity in opposition to sexual and racial minorities and particularly- women (Kimmel, 2000, p. 58). Its construction and enactment are grounded in the patriarchal social order and its resulting mechanisms, ideology and self-perpetuating tools. The acquisition of power, seen as a natural consequence of being perceived as “properly male”, together with the fear of being judged as “insufficiently masculine” and suffering stigma and ridicule, at best, and physical violence and life threat, at worst, prompt male-identifying individuals to constantly seek homosocial approval, attempt to behave in alignment with hegemonic masculinity and continuously reject and differentiate themselves from femininity.

In “Guyland: The Perilous world where boys become men” Michael Kimmel outlines his theory for “guyland” as a stage of life in between childhood and adulthood when “the struggle to prove manhood becomes even more intense, in part because it’s no longer as easy to differentiate between men and women as it was in the past” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 42). Inspired by Kimmel’s book and detailed (even if exaggerated and border-line extreme) depiction of college-aged American males’ problematic relationships with masculinity, I decided to conduct a survey to collect and analyze data about young men’s perceptions of masculinity in my home-country, Bulgaria.


To that end, I created an online survey consisting of demographic measures (for age, location, sexual orientation and level of education), six open-ended questions aiming to cast light on one’s self-identified concepts of masculinity (What does it mean to be a “man’’, according to you? What contributes to your identification as a male? What are 3-5 adjectives that characterize a “real” man?), as well as questions exploring the relationship between masculinity and otherness (What differentiates men and women? Does sexual orientation contribute to being perceived as a “man”?), and a question requesting respondents to identify times when their masculinity has been questioned or challenged (When does your “masculinity” get questioned: in what context? How do you react? Do you need to prove yourself as a man?). Finally, there was a space for comments and feedback.

The survey was disseminated through social media (Facebook) to my social network, as well as through the help of friends and through posting on numerous groups (student groups, interest groups (such as groups for bloggers and entrepreneurs). A friend who is involved with the biggest LGBT organization in Bulgaria posted the link to the survey on their Facebook page which perhaps resulted in the high participation of non-heterosexual individuals.


The survey received a total of 48 individual responses. The target group for my study was young Bulgarian male-identifying individuals, aged 18-25. The median age of participants was 22 (see fig. 1 for age representation). Most study participants came from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria (35 respondents), the rest indicated that they lived in other major cities (a total of 8), with some living abroad (a total of 5).  My sample consisted of 54.2% heterosexuals, 29.2% homosexuals and a total of 16.6% identifying as “Other” (I had initially forgotten to include a separate category for “bisexual”, so it will be more accurate to look at bisexual and other together). In terms of education, 45.8% hold undergraduate degree, 31.3% have only Secondary education (High School), 10.4% hold Master degree and 12.5% indicated “Other”.  I coded the collected data paying attention to common themes and word usage and repetition.

Fig. 1 Age (Color codes represent ages between 18-25)


Fig. 2 Sexual Orientation (Color codes: Blue- homosexual, Red- heterosexual, Yellow- bisexual (this category was created later, so it doesn’t include all individuals identifying as bisexual), Green- other)

Sexual Orientation

Fig. 3 Education (Color Codes: Blue- undergraduate/ bachelor degree, red- master’s degree, yellow- Secondary education (High School), green- other)



A portrait of a Real Man

When requested to write down 3-5 adjectives that characterize a “real” man, the survey participants listed over 75 “male” features which nevertheless could be grouped in several categories, including characteristics of strength and ability; rationality; adherence to principles; stability; respect; care and warmth.

Foremost, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mandatory characteristic for a man is to be “strong”. Yet not just physically strong, as one participant highlighted and several others echoed. In fact, male strength is described in multiple ways: for one, “strength is being able to deal with your problems without violence”, whereby using violence is a weakness, an attempt to prove your masculinity (which in reality you’re lacking)”, for others, strength is associated with diligence and resilience at work (“men should be able to endure more work and pressure, but these days women have become more “masculine” in that sense and men- the opposite”, a survey participant wrote). A man has to be strong physically and “psychologically”: this psychological vigor includes the category of security which also appears by itself (“(To be a man is) to be the pillar of the family, to always have a solution to the emotional problems of the gentle sex…”), as well as motivation and ambition for achievement (“Men act, while women think”), whereby independence is critical to marking the real man (“to be motivated to achieve your goals, without counting on anybody”).  As evident some of the statements made explicit gender distinctions between men and women, while others did not include a specified comparison subject. Perhaps the unnamed comparison subjects are boys- the younger males who have the potential to become “real” men, but have not yet proven themselves as such.

“Real” men are honest and direct. A man is one who “keeps his word” and is therefore “reliable” (eight men specifically or solely mentioned their “word” as the most significant factor to their identification as men). Similarly, a man has to be secure and stable, to be responsible, especially in the context of family life. To that end, a number of men highlighted that “a penis does not make you a man”. Evidently, “being a man” is a form of achievement of itself, one that not even all biological men can fulfill.

Interestingly, a number of traditionally-termed as “feminine” characteristics make their way into the list, thereby creating a complex image of the Bulgarian male, as one who needs to both be evidently masculine, therefore, cultivating in himself and acting out of strength, security, responsibility, hard work and initiative, yet in the same time be gentle, empathetic, emotionally mature, caring and supportive of others (especially, beloved women, children, relatives: “(To be a man) is to follow the object of your passion- whether a man or a woman- but specifically with women: to want to create a family and to then take care of it” and “A real man has to be gentle, kind and patient with his other half, to have real feelings for her…”).

Indeed, commitment to family and love partner seems to be crucial to participants’ understanding of what it means to be a man: how one treats women and children is seen as a definite marker of whether or not he deserves the title “A Man” (“For me, the man has to be next to the people he loves until the end, no matter of what, to be ready to do anything for them” and “a man should not hurt women, not make them or their children suffer, he has to be caring and loving as he would like others to be towards him when time comes”).

Fig. 4 Most frequently repeated words in response to prompt to list 3-5 characteristics of a “real” man

Word Frequency of appearance in sample’s responses
Strong 13
Honest 12
Stable, calm, secure 11
Responsible 9
Reliable, principled 7
Caring, altruistic, 7
Diligent, hardworking 6
Understanding, empathetic 5
Fair 4
Sensitive, emotionally mature 3


Masculinity as Homophobia

My question “Does sexual orientation impact whether a man is perceived as such? Why/ Why not?” posed some difficulties in coding because at times it was difficult to tell whether respondents were ironic or not, and whether they voiced their own thoughts on the subject or outlined their perception of societal attitudes against gay men.

The majority of respondents agreed that on a societal level sexual orientation is directly linked to how a man is perceived, whereby a man who is gay is directly assumed to be less of a man. While some brought up family to account for why a gay man is not “sufficiently masculine” (“Amongst the main priorities of a man is to create family and have offspring” and “being homosexual, the individual rejects all religious and familial values; the man needs to be the basis of the family”), other claimed that for a man to be gay is “against nature” and so they are not worthy of being called “men”. While some acknowledged the social biases against gay men, noting that “(In society) homosexuality is accepted as lack of ‘masculinity” and “the characteristic to like men is immediately accredited to women”, others expressed various opinions regarding gay males’ masculinity according to their gender performance (“sexual orientation impacts whether a man is seen as such, because homosexuality often is characterized by lady-like manners and thinking”). Arguably, some claimed that they don’t perceive gay men as less “manly” because “to be a man is pure biology”, as one participant put it. Yet, another noted the existence of a prejudice that “a man who doesn’t have an active sexual life is not a man”- a requirement that affects all men regardless of sexual orientation.

Challenged Masculinity

Asked whether their masculinity has been questioned or challenged, a majority of the respondents answered with “No” or gave an abstract answer.

A couple of recounted experiences include: being caught in a sexual act with a man (“(My masculinity was questioned) when I was caught giving a blowjob at a party, I was ridiculed and considered suicide”), having homosexual friends or defending homosexuality (“My own mother questioned my sexuality when I shared that I have many homosexual friends at my college in the US and rejected the idea that their homosexuality is a psychological condition… She started wondering if I’m not defending them just because I’m homosexual, too”).

In order to be perceived as a man, one needs to assert gender-appropriate interests:

“There have been times when I’ve felt uncomfortable having to talk solely about women and cars and the related (topics) which are typical for men and that all representatives of the “strong sex” are experts in. In such situations you are just forced to repeat the words of some evident “macho” in the group, so that you don’t look too weird and unmanly”

and act as a “man” in all expected ways:

“People are slaves to their stereotypes about what a man should be like, what he should do, how he should behave, etc. Something I get across often is that being a vegetarian when I’m around strangers, I am always met with the question: “How can you not eat meet, what kind of a man are you? Even my mother has told me: “You are a man, you have to eat meat”, paradoxically, she has been vegetarian for forty years😀 I try to explain that it has nothing to do with masculinity (…) not eating meat does not make me less of a man then someone who eats 5kg of meat a day😀, but I usually find lack of understanding (…)”.

Still, coming out as gay is perhaps the biggest challenge to being seen as a man (“Since I came out to a close friend of mine, her comments (about how much of a man I am) haven’t stopped with and without reason. Interestingly, she stops when we’re with someone who doesn’t know my sexual orientation, as far as I can tell it’s a defense”).  Indeed, the homosexual participants in the survey varied in their approaches and understanding of how “masculinity” interacts with their sexual orientation.

One said that his masculinity is challenged “all the time because I don’t fit the characteristics of a ‘macho’ (I have a small and thin body), I have a different sexuality and I’m not afraid to do things typical for women like dying my hair or painting my nails, sitting with crossed legs and liking things associated with gentleness.” He continued: “I frequently receive comments like ‘What kind of a man are you?’ but I don’t feel the need to prove myself to anybody… I don’t feel it’s offensive to be associated with women and women qualities, so I don’t feel bad if it happens”. Another explained that being gay “liberated” him from having to defend his masculinity: “I haven’t had to (defend my maleness), I’m always saved by the fact I’m gay”. Yet another explicitly stated that despite being homosexual, he is not “feminine”, therefore he doesn’t have to prove himself as a man.

Discussion of findings and limitations

In “Guyland: The Perilous world where boys become men” Michael Kimmel outlines a profile of the American male in his twenties as “emotionally numb” (Kimmel, 2004, p.53) “white, middle-class, college-bound, in college, or recently graduated” (Kimmel, 2004, p. 8) young men, having a “diminished capacity for empathy” (Kimmel, 2004, p. 59). While perhaps this description overstates the impact of hegemonic masculinity over individuals and more closely represents characteristics of groups of young men in all-male environments (sport clubs, fraternities, etc.), I found that it is also strongly influenced by culture.

While the data from my study did yield a tendency to construct masculinity as a “repudiation of the feminine” (Kimmel, 2004, p. 45) and assertion of heterosexuality and reliability, it also defined masculinity in relationship to community, family and love. Aggression did not seem to partake an important role in the construction of maleness.

Before I continue with the analyses (and speculation about) my findings, I must acknowledge the limitations of my study and present a rationale for the limited generability of my data. Certainly, my sample does not represent all young Bulgarian men, since the study participants were predominantly educated males from urban settings. Perhaps youth from rural Bulgaria who have been exposed to less diversity and educational opportunities and who live in areas where patriarchal values are stronger would have more extreme positions than the ones presented here. Yet, I am confident that introducing the thoughts and experiences of my survey participants can be useful to identifying tendencies in constructing and understanding masculinity in Bulgaria.

To that end, making sense of the presented data cannot be achieved without a look at the sociocultural context of Bulgaria. An empiric sociological study on organizational culture in Bulgaria based on the methodology of Geert Hofstede (Davidkov, 2004) contended that the Bulgarian society ranks among the countries with low level of individualism (Davidkov, 2004, p. 14), whereby Bulgaria ranks 21st, France 10th/11th, UK- 3rd and USA- 1st (Davidkov, 2004, p. 13). Within this theoretical frame, a collectivist society is one where “relationships prevail over tasks”, “identity is based in the social network to which one belongs to”, and “people are born into extended families or other in-groups which continue to protect them in exchange for loyalty” (Davidkov, 2004, p. 14). Furthermore, the Hofstede model provides an empirical formula for the calculation of a country’s “masculinity” (through identification of “masculinity index”).

A country is “masculine”, if its dominant values are success and progress, whereby  conflicts are fought out and people “work to live”. Women’s and men’s roles are, thereby, clearly defined: men are tough and ambitious, while women are tender and focused on relationship-building and maintenance (Davidkov, 2004, 18). According to these and other criteria, “the definitions of masculine and feminine define us as a nation having rather feminine behavior” (Davidkov, 2004, p. 18). In a “feminine” nation the normative values are caring for others and preservation: people and quality of relationships are seen as more important than money and success and both men and women are allowed to be tender, and both mothers and fathers deal with facts and feeling (while in “masculine” nations mothers attend to feelings and fathers- to facts). In this context, one works to live and resolves conflicts by negotiation and compromise (Davidkov, 2004, p. 18).

Within this sociocultural context, the attitudes towards masculinity found in my survey fit rather well the societal norms of a collectivist, “feminine” society which prioritizes interpersonal relationships and interdependency over an individualistic, materialist and achievement-oriented agenda.  Despite moving towards more capitalist, “Western” modes of production, trade and lifestyle, Bulgarians (and highly educated Bulgarians, at that) are still deeply affected by traditional and modernized values, highlighting the importance of community and mutual care. Despite exposure to American (and more broadly- Western) television and music and changes in dating and marriage patterns, the Bulgarian young male still constructs his identity as a man in relation to his upcoming roles of a romantic partner, father and responsible member of society. His less pronounced emphasis on professional and educational growth does not exclude such orientation, yet clearly demonstrates an operating hierarchy, whereby work does not score first.



  • Kimmel, M. S. (2000). “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity”, 213-219. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism. New York, NY: Routldege.
  • Kimmel, M. S. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York: Harper.
  • Davidkov, T. (2004). Where do we stand? Papeles Del Este, 8, 1-22. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/PAPE/article/download/PAPE0404120001A/25824.


Marxism in the Bedroom

More than a century ago, Oscar Wilde stated what may seem an eternal truth. “Everything is about sex except for sex. Sex is about power,” he wrote. But what power could this be? As Marx posits, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” and “the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” (Marx, 1845). A society ruled by capitalists will not only have its economic system shaped by capitalism. As a self-reproducing whole, capitalism becomes more than a tool for market organization— it spreads as a mindset and becomes an invisible guiding force in every aspect of the societal life, including the most intimate. Applying Marxist concepts such as commodification, the market economy and alienation, one can see how capitalist ideology profoundly influences our sexual practices, preferences and choices.

Capitalism depends on the production of goods and their exchange for profit. Simultaneously, in order to remain in business, the capitalist constantly competes with others, improving his production by exploiting the labor of others, as well as other available resources. Our sexual lives mirror the marketplace in several fascinating ways. First, to find a sexual partner, one needs to subject herself to various practices aimed at gaining the interest of potential intimates. In the process of doing that, the person commodificates her body and/or self in order to sell it for the desired exchange value—in this case, sex. At a typical party, for example, women dress in revealing clothes and wear make up to emphasize their attractiveness. Both men and women to varying degrees attempt to bolster or hide different aspects of their selves, in order to meet each other’s expectations and go forward in the transaction of sex. Online dating profiles almost entirely focus on the display of photos and descriptions of physical appearance. These tools for self-promotion closely resemble the marketing techniques used to sell objects in trade of more traditional commodities.

karl_marx_pop_art_queen_duvetConsequently, the person simultaneously plays the role of a worker, commodity and capitalist. When one performs or manipulates her social image during an interaction, this requires effort and at least a certain sense of awareness of one’s actions which can be seen as constituting labor. Since the person decides to offer herself (including her body, time and consciousness) to another, she takes on the role of a “capitalist.” Yet, what has really been sold? Since neither the person’s body nor spirit changes its beholder (even though still commodificated to make the transaction of sex occur), then it must be sex itself. Sex, therefore, turns into a fetish, a commodity that is sought of itself and which people fail to see as anything more than a physical act.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx claims that: “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” (Marx, 1848). In saying that capitalism has stripped social relationships from emotionality, he believes: “It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation” (Marx, 1848). Indeed, the corporate mentality born by capitalism shapes how sex is viewed and practiced. When personal profit is its sole motivation, sex becomes a consumer item you purchase to be aroused and orgasm- a statement which rings true for many, yet breeds dissatisfaction and isolation. The more you consume, the better at the marketplace. The more sex you have, the better in the bedroom— or so it seems.

Having adopted the market value system, one takes its measures of value for his own, thus, prioritizing instrumental relationships as most significant. The US college student perfectly illustrates this philosophy. The majority of students seemingly find satisfaction for their sexual frustration in meaningless weekend hookups they usually do not even repeat. Why waste time and effort, after all, if you can get what you want at minimum price? The cost-and-benefit analysis, however, is the deathbed of affectional action where emotion reigns and inner feelings find expression.

e3486226The commodification of self, body and sex, together with the deprecation of non-instrumental relationships, inevitably leads to what Marx termed “alienation”. Just as with labor, in the realm of sex, alienation occurs on multiple levels. When having sex for the sake of sex, the human becomes both objectified and “a servant to his object”. Not only is his being reduced to his body, but his sweat, his moans, his movement and actions do not belong to him but are seen as pertaining to sex. His emotion is invisible. Alienation is experienced not only as an estrangement from the self, whereby the individual loses his human traits and becomes an interchangeable pawn in the sexual spectacle. It also occurs on an interpersonal level. When you see others as commodities instead of as living human beings with emotions and feelings, you cannot connect with them on a personal level and do not accept responsibility for harming them. Irresponsibility becomes a symptom of emotional numbness directly caused by the estrangement from feelings.

Sex also mimics labor in that those who carry it out become estranged from it. When during sex the individual “does not affirm himself but denies himself,” (Marx, 1844) he, thus, attends only to his primal desires, and not his spiritual ones. This reduction is, indeed, catastrophic for “he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal” (Marx, 1844). By the virtue of possessing consciousness, however, once he becomes aware of his treatment as a sexual object, the human grows incapable of accepting this perversity. Sex, then, becomes an activity one does not do voluntarily, but is forced to engage in. This coercion he feels, at the very least, stems from the biological urges of the human being which he needs to attend to every so often. The worker has to remain a worker in order to make a living despite his alienation from the labor. Likewise, when an individual feels exploited in the sexual act, yet is forced to engage in it (whether to satisfy a biological need, to procreate or receive other reinforcement), sex is committed as an act of self-sacrifice and mortification.

Capitalistic ideology profoundly affects the sexual relations in society as illuminated by the examples provided. Evidently, Capitalistic sex, as well as the system it stems from, does not allow both parties to win. When you have adopted the capitalistic mindset, you expect to either exploit or be exploited. In the way Marx sees the only solution to the alienation of labor to be the overthrowing of capitalism, the only way to liberate sex from its capitalistic influence, is to replace the capitalistic ideas that govern it with a set of values that will inspire people to treat each other with respect and dignity. This requires our society to place a value on relationships, regardless of their usefulness, in order to create solidarity- in and out of the bedroom.


  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Manifesto of the Communist Party. N.p., n.d. Web. Retrieved March, 17, 2015 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm
  • MARX, KARL. 1844. “Estranged Labour.” N.p., n.d. Web. Retrieved March, 17, 2015 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.html

The Reign of Monogamy

Durkheim and the reign of monogamy

I started practicing polyamory[1] three years ago in an attempt to free myself of the unbearable attachment, dependency and conditionality that came with monogamous relationships. Needy, shattered and incapable to fulfill my deep need for love and intimacy with others, I longed for change. I first heard about the tempting concept of “love without attachment” at a meditation retreat in Thailand. Soon after starting to open myself to the possibility that relationships may be built on mutual respect, love and appreciation instead of fear of losing the other, desire to dominate or fit social expectations, I was ready to embrace polyamory. The freedom and happiness it brought me inspired me to celebrate it, share it, spread it. I knew it was meant to be challenging, because of the normalcy associated with monogamy in society, yet I thought the status-quo was reversible and people only needed to learn about polyamory to at least give it a try, if not adopt it.

It didn’t take long to figure I was wrong. While I remain optimistic for the sake of not losing my energy as an agent of change in society, I now see the invisible strings that control it. “The practice of having a single sexual partner during a period of time”[2], or otherwise monogamy, fits Emile Durkheim’s concept for a social fact, introduced in The Rules of Sociological Method. Social facts are ways of thinking, acting or being which are normalized, generalized throughout society, constraining and external to the individuals who perform them.

One doesn’t need statistics to establish that monogamy reigns over Western Societies and is deemed “normal” and “normative”. Monogamous couples caress each other with lips, touch and public acknowledgement practically everywhere. Yet, expressions of intimacy between their “deviant” counterparts are not to be found in the daylight, out in the open. Non-monogamy is only allowed to exist in secret locations, particular subcultures and specialized online communities.

My personal experience with polyamory showed me that the influence of the social act lies in that “it asserts itself as soon as I try to resist” (Durkheim, 51). As long as I complied with monogamy, I was oblivious to its great coercive power. Once I dared to reject it and self- identify as polyamorous, I found I now had to deal with a number of negative stereotypes (polyamorists are “sluts” being one of them) and consequences (such as sexualization, shaming or being emotionally abused by partners because of my choice). Choosing to comply with the rules of monogamy seemed to be the only way to restore the violated social order and to bring myself and others peace. It seemed more like an ultimatum.

11004518_972925636058611_161370367_n My friends often tell me: “I get it, but I know I can’t (do polyamory)”. Monogamy, I am told, feels “innate”, it is our “nature” and therefore inalterable. But is it? Durkheim says that: “we are the victims of an illusion which leads us to believe we have ourselves produced what has been imposed on us externally” (Durkheim, 53). Children’s fairytale books, Hollywood movies, popular songs all project the images of idealized monogamous romance as the only way to experience love and happiness with another. As if nothing else exists. “All education consists of a continual effort to impose upon the child ways of seeing, thinking and acting which he himself would not have arrived at spontaneously” (Durkheim, 53)- Durkhaim claims, yet, how can the grown child perceive something as external to herself if it’s all she has seen and no alternatives have ever been presented?

Monogamy, as a social fact, perpetuates itself through a number of cultural tools, indoctrinates individuals and transforms them into blind followers who reproduce the very same devices which have been used to inculcate them. Furthermore, if monogamy was “natural to” and “inborn in” individuals than all human societies would be monogamous. According to George Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, however, globally: “of 1,231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry”.

Coming to Middlebury, I expected an environment that was more receptive to polyamory due to its increased media coverage in the US, as well as the relative “abundance” of individuals and communities practicing polyamory compared to other places in the world. However, I was surprised to find that not only wasn’t this a “hippy school”, but even the largely popular “hook up culture” on campus served as a perpetuator of mono-normativity. Both hooking up and having multiple romantic and sexual partners are seen as profane alternatives to the sacred long-term, committed monogamous relationship. Yet, only the former is perceived as a legitimate substitute.

Hooking up allows busy, career-oriented, fun-loving students to “have a good time” without the commitments and effort involved in sustaining a committed relationship. An important aspect in being successful at hook ups is to make sure the person knows you are not actually having a relationship with them (also helping you to maintain position in the power game and remain desired). You don’t need to answer their every text. You don’t even have to be that nice to them. They are not your partner after all. Vulnerability and being real with each other are treasured as a domain held exclusively by one-on-one relationships. The hook up happy ending, thus, mirrors monogamy in that it requires the rejecting of others by choosing a preferred partner and coupling of.

512d9d9c8b780.image                 Social facts are hard to shake. Neither a single person, nor a small group of people can negate the overwhelming presence of social facts with their choice and actions. Whether or not I decide to be polyamorous instead of monogamous is irrelevant with regards to overcoming the stifling rule of the ideology of monogamy. Ironically, even when we reject the social fact, it influences us beyond our imagination. By allowing hooking up as a temporary alternative to monogamy, yet rejecting polyamorous relationships in which people build committed relationships with multiple partners, a paradoxical situation is created in which it is so hard to find a sole person to be with that monogamy is embraced again by lack of any other alternative. Practicing polyamory necessitates the presence of a diverse community of independent, mature individuals who value and seek relationships (whether monogamous or not). Within that arrangement one can hope and expect to meet and connect with a manifold of potential romantic and sexual partners with varying preferences for relationship styles. Yet, at places like Middlebury where relationships are feared, viewed as a hindrance to personal progress or otherwise rejected, if one “hits the jackpot” and finds someone willing to be with them, they would hardly risk the relationship by suggesting alternatives to the assumed monogamy.

[1] Defined as “the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time”, Marriam Webster Online Dictionary

[2] As defined in Collins English Dictionary


Choose Love over Fear

Today and every day, choose love over fear until it becomes your habit. Wayne Dyerdownload

Today I reminded myself of the time I was freer when I could Love without fear and find strength in vulnerability. In the past months I had grown fearful of hurting others and being hurt which naturally limited my ability to give my love without holding back and looking for reciprocity. It stopped me from being direct and honest to the degree I wanted to. (But if we are, indeed, destined to live our own separate realities, isn’t the only way to bridge the inherent gap between each other precisely direct, honest communication?!)
Ironically, I had put myself and others through a lot of pain simply by trying not to cause pain.
Back then when I lived life to its fullest intensity, I accepted pain as a normal part on the path of learning.
I have been hurt and I have, certainly, hurt others. But may be we shouldn’t villainize pain and strive to escape it.
One thing I had embraced before and forgotten recently is that pain and being hurt is a catalyst of change and transformation.
Being afraid of hurting others or being hurt petrifies us and leaves little space for the good stuff in life- like Love and Empathy. If we accept the possibility of occasionally getting hurt or hurting others (without it being intentional, of course!) as an inevitable part of life that we can nevertheless celebrate, we may find that in the end fear isn’t really worth it and that guardedness is much more dangerous than vulnerability.