We’ve looked at sex and gender all across history, but what about me? What’s my sex and gender? How do I attempt to live out a non-toxic straight male masculinity in the modern era? It’s an exclusive tell-all exposé today as we celebrate 100,000 downloads.
Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review. Support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/btnewberg. Research, writing, editing, and production by B. T. Newberg. Logo Design by Rachel Westhoff. Animation by Maxeem Konrardy. Additional credits, references, and more at www.historyofsexpod.com.
Hey folks, guess what – we just hit 100,000 downloads! Which is just… wow. So today, we’re doing something special to celebrate. Thank you to all you hardcore listeners out there. This one’s for you.
Okay, so… confession time:
When I first started this podcast, I was… terrified.
I was terrified because I had committed to making a podcast about sex and gender, exploring all kinds of different genders and orientations and sexual differences across history, and I realized…
I’m just a straight dude.
I’m a straight cis dude. What business have I got talking about this stuff, when many of you out there may have a much more personal experience of these issues than I do?
Now, to be fair, everybody’s got a story, plain vanilla or not. And my story ain’t that plain vanilla. My senior thesis in creative writing was a feminist comic book script. I’ve probably spent more time in drag than 99% of my graduating class. Hell, I’m not sure my dad even believes I’m 100% straight.
But still, at the end of the day, I’m a straight cis guy.
I never had anyone try to run me over with a truck because of my orientation, like my gay friend Mark. I never had to struggle with the budding knowledge that my true gender was not what everyone assumed because of how my body appeared on the outside, like my trans friend Britt. I never had to ask myself how to parent a daughter who says she’s a tomboy, like author Lisa Selin Davis, who we interviewed on this show. I never had to deal with any of these things, so what business have I got talking about the history of sex and gender?
But no one else was doing it. I couldn’t find, and still can’t find, another podcast that focuses specifically on sex and gender across history and across cultures and brings it all together in a way that makes sense. No other podcast spans the sex and gender gamut in a way that cuts across audiences, so that straight cis folks learn about queer stuff and queer folks learn about straight cis stuff. No one else airs episodes on this topic from guest podcasters to knit those audiences together and amplify each other’s voices. No one else was doing it, so I thought… maybe it could be me.
But I held off saying too much about myself and my background, because, well, I wanted to prove that I could do it first. I wanted to prove to the listeners, but more importantly to myself, that I could talk about this stuff with a reasonable degree of sensitivity and nuance, even though I enjoy pretty much every kind of privilege there is.
Well, I think by this point I have proven that. 100,000 downloads is… a milestone I never thought we’d make it to.
And so, today, as a special episode, maybe it’s time to pull back the curtain a bit. This one’s going to be a little more personal. This is for you, the listeners out there – new listeners as well as those who have stuck with me over the last 55 episodes. Many of you are patrons who I’ve drawn portraits for, so I know your faces and have talked with you. Some of you even followed me over from my other show, Dead Ideas, and I’m forever grateful to you for that.
So, today, I’m going to share my story. How do I fit into this sex and gender landscape that we’ve been talking about on this show?
Last but not least, there’ll be an update about the future of the show at the end of the episode.
That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
I’d like to thank our new patron Shelley Botts for making this episode possible.
So today’s episode is about, well, yours truly. And I’m finding it hard to talk about myself (I know, shocker, right?). I don’t know where to start, so I guess I’ll just start somewhere…
I grew up in a small rural town in Minnesota, where life revolved around what I call the three ch’s: church, trucks, and tractor pulls.
It was almost all conservative, almost all white, and almost entirely cis-hetero.
Or at least that’s what was apparent from the outside. In retrospect, one of my friends in high school was a raging butch lesbian, but it just didn’t really occur to me to even be wondering about that kind of difference at the time. It was the 90s, which wasn’t that long ago, but things were really different back then. There was much less public awareness around sex and gender. We knew the guy who ran the flower shop was fruity as a tequila sunrise, but everyone else was just assumed to be “the norm.”
But that norm, like all norms, was artificial. Norms are created and enforced in a way that feels “natural” and can appear almost invisible from the inside, but thinking back, I can definitely see it now.
To go back all the way to my early childhood in the 80s, I remember the only cartoon I wasn’t allowed to watch as a young child was Jem & the Holograms.
Why? Because it was for girls. For those who don’t know, Jem is about an all-girl pop band, and I was forbidden to watch it. But I liked the colors. I liked the face paint. So, I watched it anyway in secret.
And that forms kinda the template for the rest of my story, and for many people’s stories, I suspect: always kinda intrigued by the grass on the other side, but solidly whacked into traditional cis-hetero-normativity.
As a a small child, I remember my mom liked to watch Flashdance
or some TV knock-off adaptation maybe whose name hasn’t survived the wreckage of my memory, and anyway I was kinda intrigued by it, but she when I’d sit down she would turn it off or change the channel because that wasn’t “for me.”
You know, norms are artificial. We create them through hundreds if not thousands of little actions like these. Kids aren’t born with an innate sense of how to perform their sex or their gender. They pick it up through all these subtle (or not so subtle) little cues.
I remember in first grade (which for my international listeners is primary school, about 6 years old) the teacher asked everyone to say their favorite color. And even at that age I thought you know, that’s a really weird question. How can one color be better than another? You can have a lighter pink or a deeper green, but how can you compare one color to another? They’re not on the same scale. It doesn’t make any sense. But when my turn came, I just said “blue” because that was my dad’s favorite color. And that’s how gender happens. Even something so innocuous as a favorite color can be gendered and reinforce who you’re supposed to emulate. By the time you grow up, you forget how weird it was when you were a kid, and it all just feels “natural” from the dawn of time, but it’s not. It’s fake. It’s all a big Truman Show getting us to conform and perform our assigned sex and gender roles.
Alright, fast forward to high school. So, we’re in the 90s again now. I’m a teen, and like many teens, I got that urge to be a little more edgy. So, I started growing my hair out. I wanted to have hair like Gavin Rossdale from Bush.
And I even got it permed once to try to mimic Gavin’s curls (it didn’t work, it looked horrible, so then I just let my hair do its own thing). My hair was naturally more straight, more like Kurt Cobain’s actually, and I kept it about shoulder-length, nothing too crazy really. But my dad says to me once, “You know earlier, I saw you walking outside from behind and I didn’t recognize you right away, and you know what I thought? I thought it was a girl.” And he said it in this way like he expected me to be mortified. But I actually felt this rush of pride.
Why pride? Because I just felt like that was what someone in the modern world should be doing. You should be mixing it up a little, you should be breaking down stereotypes, you should be secure enough in your masculinity to risk a little. And it’s not like I was gender-bending or something, I looked like Kurt Cobain for crying out loud, a friggin’ rock icon. A male rock icon.
And that pretty much encapsulates my approach to masculinity: all the same virtues but turned to modern ends. Western masculinity has long been about courage, defense of others, and being a provider. Well, why can’t that be courage to stand up against chauvinism and homophobia? Why not defense of women’s rights, or trans rights? Why not being a provider of not just material security but also emotional security for those who depend on you, regardless of their different from you? To me, being a man means being tough enough to change, and to put others’ interests before your own. In other words, my masculinity is all the same traditional virtues but attuned to the needs of the day.
That’s where I differ from a lot of what’s out there today encouraging men to be “vulnerable”, to be “not ashamed to cry”, and so on. I do actually agree with that, I think those are genuinely healthy things for men, but I totally disagree with the messaging. Because those are female-coded virtues in our culture, and by emphasizing female-coded virtues, you’ll never reach a man who’s not already on board with that. You’re just preaching to the choir.
Instead, I feel we as a culture have to talk to men in men’s terms. We have to emphasize and celebrate strength, courage, endurance, and self-sacrifice. But we need to put these masculine virtues to modern ends.
And I try to live that, to model it, not just in big ways like, you know, making a friggin’ podcast about sex and gender, but in little ways too. Because as we’ve seen, it’s the accumulation of all the little things that artificially creates gender norms.
So, for example, I won’t necessarily open the door for a woman. Yes, I know it’s a courtesy and a nicety, and if I know that she appreciates a door held for her then sure I’ll do it, but in general I feel it is a far greater courtesy to her to grant her the equality of being able to open a friggin’ door for herself, and not have something assumed about her just because she’s a woman.
Similarly, if a girl is getting into an argument in my presence, or even a physical altercation, I watch carefully to see if my help is needed, but if she’s got it, then she’s got it. She doesn’t need a defender to step in if she’s got it. Be ready to be the defender, but don’t assume – that’s how I try to play those situations.
I don’t have to be the driver in a car either. In the case of my wife and I, it so happens that she’s a much better driver than me, and I don’t really like driving and she does, so I’m happy to ride. Who cares? But even today, in 2021, I still get coworkers or friends or whoever who see us and say something like, “So, Rachel always drives, huh?” And then I know that even something so small as that is a ding to my masculinity in their eyes, but to me it’s a point of masculinity. That’s traditional masculine virtues turned to modern ends. It’s being secure and courageous enough to risk a ding to your masculinity in order to stand up for others. That’s being a man.
Being a man is being secure and confident, too. I’ve spent more time in drag than 99% of my graduating class because, well, who cares? Costume parties – sure, why not? And my wife actually likes to play make up with me and see me in gender-bent outfits, so if we’re going out to dance and it fits the vibe, who cares?
Being a man is being a feminist, too. I know that may sound like a contradiction, but it’s certainly not one to me. I wrote my senior thesis in creative writing as a feminist comic book script. And there was an avowed feminist girl in my class who had to read it (I probably would be more hesitant today, but I was younger, dumber, and more ballsy back then). And at the end of the day, she told me she was ready to hate my script, but I captured that feminist voice really well.
That’s what it means to be a man for me.
So that’s all about my masculinity, but I suppose I should talk about my sexual orientation too, but there’s not that much to tell except that I’ve found the best way to become secure in your orientation is to be open to exploring otherwise. In university, one of my friends took me to a gay club and I even flirted with a guy there to sort of “try that on”, but it was just like yep, straight. I felt a little bad about the flirt just cuz I know what it’s like to be led on, but as far as becoming secure in my straightness, I mean there you go.
I think my Dad wonders far more about my orientation than I do. Once, when I was studying abroad in England, my mom wanted to come visit, but he really didn’t want to, then suddenly changed his mind, and I realized why when he sat me down at a pub and said to me, “Son, it’s okay to be gay, but don’t give up on women.” And I was like, “Great, thanks, Dad. 100% straight, but… thanks.” I don’t know what put the bee in his bonnet that I might be gay or bi, that made him fly across the ocean to tell me that, but I guess two points for effort.
I think it’s just, you know, I’m a different kinda guy, and he doesn’t know what to make of me. As much as times have changed since the 90s, they’ve changed even more since his day.
And you know, every generation faces new challenges that are frankly a little hard to deal with. For me, the challenge is more about trans and cis issues. You know, I’ve told all these stories today, but when I think about being cisgender, honestly, I feel a little blocked. That’s a challenge for me. I mean, I’m assigned male and entirely comfortable with that, but it’s hard for me to interrogate my cis-ness in any depth. I’ve never wondered am I really male or not? – and that’s a privilege that I’ve enjoyed, to be sure, but it’s hard for me to get further than that. And I think it’s because for my generation, it was just not on our radars as a thing to question about yourself, whereas I think the current generation of young people would have a lot more nuance to say about their cis-ness or their trans-ness or their nonbinary-ness. I would be very curious as to what other people might have to say about their experience, if you wanna drop me a line.
So, to sum up, what’s my sex and gender? Straight cis male, plain vanilla, but not that plain vanilla, and I try my best to live that out in a way that’s non-toxic and fit for the modern era.
Maybe the best example that I’ve heard, to sum all of this up – and this is what I’ll close with too – actually comes not from me, but from my close friend Andre, who has similar values informing his masculinity. At one point in his life he decided to dye his hair wild colors, blue, red, magenta – which, you know, he just liked the colors, kinda like me and Jem and the Holograms, but I guess it kinda looked like a rainbow. And when he was walking in the street one day and someone shouted “Gay!”, then he was like oh yeah, it’s gonna be rainbow colors from now on. That was a while ago, but just recently he got that same cut and dye again: a rainbow-colored mohawk. He’s straight as straight gets, but it’s a point of pride for him to give a big old middle finger to that old-fashioned homophobic toxic nonsense. That’s masculinity done right. That’s good role modeling, that’s allyship, that’s security, that’s courage. Traditional masculine virtues put to non-traditional ends. I love it.
So, that’s me in a nutshell. That’s my masculinity, that’s my sex and gender. Not everyone’s like me, not everyone has to be, but that’s me. Like I said at the beginning, straight cis dude. Plain vanilla, but not that plain vanilla.
I was terrified to start this podcast because I felt I had no cred to be talking about this stuff, and there was actually a significant amount of, you know, imposter syndrome. But you know, everyone has a story, plain vanilla or not, and doing this podcast has actually made me more secure in my masculinity. Yes, I’m a straight cis man, and every month I amplify the stories and voices of women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, cross-dressers, nonbinary folk – and men too. And I try to do my part, in what little ways I can, to be a man for the modern era.
Geez, it’s a good thing my family didn’t let me watch Jem and the Holograms, right? Just think how I might have turned out!
Thanks for listening, everybody. That’s me, but what about you? What’s your take on sex and gender, and how does it show up in your everyday life? I’d love to hear from you. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram as @historyofsexpod.
Folks, if you like what we’re doing on this show, you can support us by subscribing, rating and reviewing on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcatcher. You can also pledge on Patreon where $5 a month gets you a portrait drawn in the time period and culture of your choosing. I will draw you rocking a raging rainbow mohawk, or whatever you want. It doesn’t even have to be you. I just drew patron Stuart’s one-eyed cat Leo as a Chinese pirate! Seriously, whatever you want, I’ll make it look awesome, I promise. Just go to www.patreon.com/btnewberg. That’s patreon.com/btnewberg.
Alright everybody, thanks so much for sticking with me to 100,000 downloads. We’ve got more coming down the pipe. Next month, we’ve got a very special guest episode coming up. It’s from a podcast that is one of the closest in spirit to this show that I’ve found. It’s called The History of Gay Sex, which you should definitely check out. They just released an episode on same-sex relationships in samurai Japan, which was really cool, so check them out, and look for a guest episode on this show next month. Then after that, we’ll probably head to the Wild Wild West – I’ve been reading up on the American frontier, so grab your Stetson hat and get ready to saddle up. Of course, every time I announce a plan it seems to go awry, so no promises, but that’s where my head is at right now.
Alright, we’ll see you next time, folks. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is the History of Sex.
Other audio from:
“Monster Truck Sound Effect” from Played N Faved
“Jem and the Holograms Theme Song” from Hasbro
“Flashdance – Final Scene / What a Feeling – 1983” (by Irene Cara) from Derya Pembe
“Bush – Comedown (1994 CD Audio)” from Naterade
Image by B. T. Newberg