It might not seem like it at first, but "They Flee from Me" is basically all about sex. The speaker tells us he used to get lucky all the time, but now he's in a bit of a dry spell. But it's about more than just the physical act. There are power plays involved. At first, our guy's in charge. These women come to him, and he seduces them. But suddenly, the tables turn, and the seducer becomes the seduced. So how does a Renaissance man like our speaker – who used to have all the power – handle a sexually assertive woman? The answer to that question remains a mystery.
"They Flee from Me" suggests that sex is never equal. There is always one person who is in control, seducing his or her submissive partner.
The poem's many references to animals and hunting suggest that our speaker sees sex as a way to control women. It's no wonder it bothers him so much that they no longer seem interested in being controlled.
Our speaker in "They Flee from Me" definitely has some abandonment issues. He says that a lot of women used to visit him, but they don't anymore. He's upset, miffed, and, frankly, a bit puzzled. Yet while the speaker plays the role of the victim, he also suggests that he, too, has abandoned plenty of women. This sure gives us an interesting glimpse into the sexual politics of 16th century England.
The real problem our speaker faces is that he is jealous of the sexual successes of the women in the poem. He feels left behind as they grow ever more promiscuous, and leave him for greener pastures.
The speaker unfairly suggests that a woman abandoning a man is the equivalent of being uncivilized: instead, she should be a "tame," functioning member of society.
Many readers see "They Flee from Me" as a poem in which normal Renaissance gender constructions are challenged. After the typical, male-dominated relationships of the first stanza, the second stanza flips to being female-dominated. Now the male seducer is the seduced, and the female is the aggressive hunter, seeking out her male prey. All these newfangled gender politics have our speaker totally baffled at the end of the poem, because he doesn't know what to do with a woman who doesn't quite fit the stereotypical female role.
"They Flee from Me" argues that gender roles are more flexible than fixed. Both men and woman can be dominant and passive.
Particularly in the first stanza, this poem suggests that fixed gender roles – "men are this, women are that" – is a way of reducing people to animals.
While the speaker of "They Flee from Me" brags about his sexual exploits, he makes it clear that there was at least one girl who was special. She was really pretty and sexy, and sometimes it even seems to us that he might have loved her. For the most part, though, love is conspicuously absent from the poem, and it's this absence that makes it all the more relevant. It seems our speaker loves sex, not women, and maybe that's the source of all his problems.
Sometimes sex involves love, but "They Flee from Me" shows us that often it's really just a form of control.
Part of the speaker's problem is that he loves the woman in the second stanza. But because he's been so promiscuous in the past, he doesn't know how to treat her, which makes him nervous and confused.