Home Classic Blog Essays and Articles Beyond the Man Cave: Sex Pollution and the Retreat of Men from the Arts

Beyond the Man Cave: Sex Pollution and the Retreat of Men from the Arts

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Originally published online 2022 as part of the CHEST Magazine project. 

Men have created the vast majority of human culture. For thousands of years, men painted almost all of the paintings and sculpted almost all of the sculptures. Until recently, men wrote most of the songs and poems, as well as the plays and all kinds of books. It was men who designed all of the castles and cathedrals, the pyramids, and the Parthenon — almost all of the structures we have ever associated with beauty and high culture.
In the Twentieth Century, the arts became associated with the subversion of masculine culture, but for most of human history, the opposite was true. The arts celebrated heroic masculinity and masculine achievement and demonstrated a distinctly masculine eye for beauty.
Men crafted the cultures of countless civilizations in their own image. In fact, that has been one of the major feminist critiques of patriarchal culture. Feminist John Berger’s 1972 series Ways of Seeing famously discussed the “male gaze” and how men’s desires and interests have influenced the character of art throughout human history.
Today, we see women and feminist men creating culture in their own images. By contributing their own perspectives, women have enriched and expanded the scope of human expression and undeniably created beautiful and moving works of art. But it is not women’s job to inspire masculinity in men. It also makes sense that a lot of what women want to see most simply won’t appeal to masculine men.
In recent years, a large number of men have come to view the arts as feminine or effeminate pursuits, despite the fact that the creation of culture has been a predominantly masculine endeavor throughout recorded history.
Men see the arts as being hostile to masculinity, and they often are.
There are many reasons for that, but I believe that one of them is that masculine men, for the most part, stopped creating culture.
Men ceded the territory of cultural creation to women and effeminate men and cultural and political subversives.
I believe that part of the reason why has to do with a phenomenon described in anthropology as “sex pollution.”

Sex Pollution

Sex pollution is a concept found in cultural anthropology — specifically in the work of Mary Douglas.
In her book Purity and Danger, she examined some of the different ways modern and more primitive peoples determine what is clean and unclean.
Douglas explained that “dirt is essentially disorder.” When we clean something, we are “positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea.”
When something or someone is determined to be dirty, it has been contaminated by a thing from a different category. Until it is cleaned or purified, it is partially out of order.
In Douglas’s words, “rituals of purity and impurity create unity in experience.” What is out of order becomes alien, dissonant, and suspect, making everyone else uncomfortable.
Sexual pollution occurs when the sexes interact in a way that blurs or offends boundaries between males and females, and disorder is created between the sexes.
In the case of men, it is usually believed that sexual pollution weakens virility and diminishes their masculine power.
Some readers may be familiar with the primitive practice of constructing “menstrual huts” that separate menstruating women from men. Tribes that engaged in this practice viewed menstruating women as impure or tainted in some way, and believed that their feminine impurity could infect or pollute the masculine energy of the tribe’s men — ultimately weakening them and making the tribe as a whole more vulnerable.
Menstrual huts are a simple example of a practice dealing with the concept of sex pollution. There are a wide variety of other ways that cultures have sought to contain female energy to maintain an ordered separation of male and female sexual identity.
Symbolically speaking, masculine identity always represents the creation of distance and separation from the feminine, the safety of the nurturing mother, and a protected womb-like existence. Virility is established and maintained by venturing away from the world of women and out into the wild, dangerous world of the men who contend with danger and uncertainty at the edge of the cultural perimeter and beyond. Establishing a masculine identity always means establishing that men are not women through the creation or revelation of contrast between the sexes.
Not all cultures appear to be equally concerned with sex pollution. Concerning the different levels of concern regarding sexual pollution in various cultures, Douglas observed that:
“When male dominance is accepted as a central principle of social organisation and applied without inhibition and with full rights of physical coercion, beliefs in sex pollution are not likely to be highly developed. On the other hand, when the principle of male dominance is applied to the ordering of social life but is contradicted by other principles such as that of female independence, or the inherent right of women as the weaker sex to be more protected from violence than men, then sex pollution is likely to flourish.”
Douglas compared and contrasted various primitive cultures to support this statement with regard to sex and sexual contact.
Feminist economist Claudia Goldin advanced the theory one step further in 2002, applying the idea of sex pollution to the workplace. Goldin theorized that men discriminate against women in occupations that have remained dominated by males because “new female hires may reduce the prestige of a previously all-male occupation.”
I first read this many years ago and recognized its truth and naturalness. Since then, I have repeatedly observed this phenomenon play out in different cultural spaces.
Simply put, when females enter a previously all-male space, it becomes “polluted” and loses the value it once held as a space that was sacred or exclusive to men.
The mixed space no longer serves the purpose of affirming the masculine identity. Because men and women interact differently with the opposite sex than they do with the same sex, the entire social dynamic of the space is altered by the presence of any female.
This ultimately holds true whether she means to disrupt the group intentionally or is just trying to become “one of the guys.” In response to the introduction of a female presence, men become less interested in that space or sometimes even become hostile to it.
The same is often true of behaviors, articles of clothing, particular brands of products, and so forth. If a particular thing or behavior becomes closely identified with females, males will spurn it and shame other males for behaving that way or having that thing. This can be entirely cultural and have absolutely nothing to do with the intrinsic aesthetic or conceptual masculinity or femininity of the object or behavior.
No matter what it is, “men shouldn’t do that because women do it” or “men shouldn’t have that, enjoy that, or wear that because women do.”
To borrow some of Douglas’ language, expand her theory of sexual pollution, and orient it in a contemporary context, I’m going to say that:
In a society where sex roles are uncertain and male dominance is not accepted as a central principle of social organization, when women or extremely effeminate men become heavily associated with an interest, an action, a behavior — or even an object or product — many men will respond by making it taboo and consider it a form of sex pollution to maintain a distinct masculine identity.
You can observe this happening all over the world right now concerning all kinds of trends as they emerge, especially in the online world, where new practices become gendered quickly.
In the “manosphere” and the broader movement of men who have taken an interest in identifying and perpetuating masculine identity, there is an obsessive concern with differentiating between “alpha” and “beta” behavior. “Alpha” has become a marketing buzzword that essentially means “masculine” and “beta” is its antithesis, which indicates submissiveness and pollution by the feminine.
Real masculine social hierarchies are far more complex and flexible, and I’ve often contended that “alpha” is not a fixed “type” but a social role that shifts as a man moves from group to group. A man who takes the lead role in one group may not be the obvious leader in a more accomplished group of men, and he will naturally take a subordinate role to the leader of that group.
“Alpha” and “beta” classifications indicate that men are either winners or losers, but masculinity is not “zero-sum” in male groups. All of the men who are not the leader, or “alpha” — in the zoological sense — are not necessarily or even usually completely feminized supplicants. The “second in command” (which would correspond to “beta” in the Greek alphabet) is not the same as the lowest-ranking member of the group. Military hierarchies are far more representative of the way that men actually organize and rate themselves socially.
However, the awkward and simplistic practice of identifying men as either “alphas” or “betas” is an attempt to create and maintain boundaries between the masculine and the feminine or not-masculine in a world where the boundaries between the sexes are increasingly confused.
The “Man Cave” as a Response to Sex Pollution in the Cultural Space
According to Douglas’ theories about sex pollution, there are likely to be more rules about sex pollution and a greater concern with transgressions if “the principle of male dominance is applied to the ordering of social life but is contradicted by other principles such as that of female independence.”
In a society where the boundaries between male and female identity are firm and relatively unchallenged, men can demonstrate an interest in a broader range of things and exhibit a wider range of behaviors without having their identities as men come into question. A middle or upper-class European man in pre-feminist Europe was able to show an interest in all sorts of things that might be considered “feminine” now — because the different status of males and females was taken for granted.
In a far more nervous post-feminist America, where women do most things and are present in most spaces, the domain of masculine identity has dwindled substantially. I believe that, as Goldin suggested, when women enter a space and create a significant presence there, it becomes somewhat “polluted” for men. This applies to cultural as well as physical or occupational spaces. As women expanded their social and occupational roles and interests, and extremely effeminate, openly gay men — men who are viewed as being sexually polluted by the feminine — wielded more public influence, men abandoned what they identified as sexually polluted interests, social roles, and occupations.
I believe that this is, in part, why masculine men have slowly abandoned the arts over the past several generations.
Women and effeminate men showed more interest in the arts and established a bigger presence in that cultural space, so masculine men abandoned the arts, retreated to more safely masculine, “un-polluted” spaces, and created boundaries around the arts by socially stigmatizing them.
The joke of the “man cave” represents a masculine cultural redoubt — a dwindling collection of cultural interests and aesthetics that women and effeminate men simply didn’t care enough about to claim for themselves.
Men, who created all of the arts and the vast majority of human culture, have retreated from their roles as culture-creators and settled for a corner in the basement or garage where they can construct sad little altars to the superficial and caricatured masculine culture that remains solely “theirs” and therefore, “unpolluted.”
Men invented and wrote epic poetry, theater, and opera, but “man cave” culture elevates only professional sports and the occasional action movie—and, for younger men, certain video games.
Men wrote the great symphonies, but those are far too fussy and suspect for the culture of the man cave — which, depending on locale, is more or less limited to country, rock, and rap.
Men created all of the wines and liquors in the world, but in America, the only safely masculine drinks are beer and whiskey — which are elevated and celebrated as symbols of the “manly” culture of the man cave.
Men designed most of the buildings that have ever been built — men created Baroque, Classical, Egyptian, and even modernist architecture — but somehow every man worth being called a man today is supposed to dream of living in a log cabin.
Women don’t care much for cigars, so men take up smoking them as symbols of manliness (or not-womanliness).
The culture of the man cave includes backyard grills and tools, trucks and motorcycles, race cars, guns, hunting implements, and cartoonish representations of cowboy and lumberjack aesthetics.
Beard care products and beard fetishism have also worked their way into man cave culture, as most women (to date) remain unable to grow thick and luxurious beards.
The point here isn’t to suggest that there is anything wrong with any of these things individually but merely to demonstrate how limited and one-dimensional the scope of masculine culture and identity has become.
It makes sense that guns and trucks and hunting implements and tools would remain important aspects of masculine culture because they’re directly related to the evolutionary roles of men as hunters and fighters and builders. Those things should be part of masculine culture.
However, for masculine men to resume their roles as creators, connoisseurs, and patrons of culture at every level of society, the scope of masculine culture needs to include more than that.
Otherwise, we will be left with a culture in which masculine men wield no influence or authority.
Whatever your thoughts on how the world “should be,” we have no choice but to deal with it as it actually is in the present.
Complaining about the culture produced by others may identify issues and concerns, but the best and ultimate solution is to “do it better.”
If you don’t like the culture that is being created, it is your responsibility to make better culture yourself or help other men create culture by commissioning art and supporting artistic endeavors that better reflect your values and aesthetics.
To do this, men will have to overcome the barriers they have constructed around the arts in response to unconscious or semi-conscious concerns about sex pollution.
We find ourselves in an unprecedented situation in which women are everywhere doing everything. There’s almost nowhere to go that they don’t go and nothing to do that women don’t do, either. If men are to resume their role as culture creators, the only solution is to begin building our own parallel networks of sympathetic support and separate institutions. History is full of art “movements,” and men clearly need their own right now.
The alternative is to continue to rely on women, feminist men, and opportunistic Hollywood types to create the storylines and aesthetics — the dreams — of the future.
If you let people who hate you craft your dreams for you, do not be surprised if they are nightmares.

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