My daughter Alyssa, a psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon, knows me well enough to question and even challenge my thinking where other colleagues might not. Despite my forty years of practice, Alyssa is able to introduce me to the latest scientific thinking and research and, with freshness and excitement, her own counseling discoveries.
As a therapist, friend, and father, I do not shroud sex in secrecy and silence. That causes dysfunction and exploitation. My desire is to break down barriers and encourage healthy attitudes towards sex, acknowledging its value as a healing experience and emphasizing the meaning and satisfaction that smart sex can bring to our lives, an approach to healthy sex I have termed Intelligent Lust.
The ideas that I have explored in this column about sexual freedom and Intelligent Lust are the ones that Alyssa has employed in her practice as well.
She and I have reached some rather profound conclusions from discussing what patients really divulge about their sexual truths.
We discovered that while there were some gender and generational difference that may influence the direction of a particular case, for the most part it was the individual psychology of a client that made the greatest difference. Further, among our most striking discoveries was that when it comes to understanding the other gender’s sexuality, men and women were often at a loss other than to accept what evolutionary scientists tell us – that sexual difference originates in the hardwiring of our brains.
Even contemporary psychology casts the sexes in alien roles, with “men from Mars” and “women from Venus.” Religion only codifies sexual differences as divinely ordained.
Yet, Alyssa and I kept challenging ourselves to look beyond gender stereotypes and we continued to find that when it comes to sexual desire, men and women are far more alike than different.
Here is what we came to appreciate:
Some men do, in fact, focus more on orgasm than women, but not because of a male evolutionary imperative to procreate. On the job site or in the locker room men are socialized to focus on achieving a goal and, like other aspects of life, success in the bedroom requires the same kind of single-mindedness and emotional detachment as it does in the boardroom. Men learn to reduce complex sexual desire to its least common denominator – ”getting laid.” Some men may even take the goal a step further and measure their success in bed by whether their partner has an orgasm, their self-worth enhanced by “winning.” And even in today’s post-feminist world, women who enjoy casual sex or place sexual fulfillment high on their list of needs, are considered “whores or “sluts” by men – certainly not relationship material, or are judged by other women as lacking in self-worth for trying to win love or approval through sex. And yet women are still expected to be sexy while at the same time nurture the intimacy and connectedness necessary to create and maintain long-term relationships and families. Even for the liberated “Sex and the City” crowd, it was Carrie who fought for greater intimacy with Mr. Big.
Sadly, these popular misconceptions reduce the complex meaning of sex for each of us as individuals, pitting men and women against each other in a never-ending battle of the sexes. No wonder we have so little understanding of each other.
As Alyssa and I looked deeper into the nature of human sexuality, we confirmed an important truth: what turns any of us on, that is, what defines and directs our true sexual desire, originates more in our personal histories and psychologies than it does from any social or biological imperatives of gender. Already known but rarely acknowledged, men’s true sexual desires are just as complex, layered and individual as women’s. Like women, men have fantasies and longings that lie at the core of their identities.
It cannot be overstated: regardless of our gender, our sexual fantasies are windows into the deepest level of our psyches.
The mind, just as the body, is naturally driven toward self-healing and sex is among its most powerful allies. Desire often grows out of unmet childhood needs or unresolved past conflicts. The longing to satisfy needs or reconcile old conflicts drives men’s sexuality as much as women’s. We all use sex to connect, communicate, negotiate power, give and receive pleasure and remake old relationships. Our desires grow out of our unconscious attempts to work through deep-seated feelings.
During our many conversations with people in and out of the therapy room, my daughter and I have found that sexual fantasies are a human phenomenon. We learned that men’s fantasies are just as deep and complicated as women’s. During the heightened sexuality of adolescence and young adulthood men sexualize the same painful childhood feelings as women, encoding them in fantasies – stories they tell themselves to solve deep issues and conflicts. And by surrounding them with erotic pleasure, men counteract feelings of powerlessness, guilt, shame, rejection, abandonment, inadequacy, loneliness, and insecurity in much the same way as women do.
Thus, as Alyssa and I have discovered, what brings people to climax was often more about what was in their thoughts than about the actual physical activity taking place. Because most of us don’t understand the true nature of our desires, we fail to consciously set out to have sexual experiences that satisfy them. Instead, we leave the details of sex to happenstance. Consequently, men and women often fantasize during sex because the stories or images they have eroticized in their thoughts are more meaningful and authentic. Often it’s the fantasy that helps them reach orgasm.
When they move beyond the issues of shame and guilt that stood in the way of honestly acknowledging sexual truths, both men and women reported fantasies involving romantic sex, domination and submission, verbal abuse and dirty talk, forced sex, sex with a stranger, bondage, worshipping and sex with multiple partners. It also became clear that sexual chemistry was directly related to these fantasies. The subconscious mind reads the physical characteristics and mannerisms of another person and interprets them in relationship to our individual fantasies – our reading of them echoes deeper psychology themes. When there is a match between our fantasy and what a physical trait represents to us, we feel the excitement in our bodies.
Most of the men and women who were able to identify the themes of their fantasies reported that they were limited to a few over the course of their lifetimes; the details of what we eroticize seem to remain fairly consistent. Only those who acted out their true desires within the context of a relationship in which they felt sexually and emotionally could develop new preferences and desires, slowly, over time. We theorized that those men and women who fulfilled their fantasies may have created relationship experiences which counteracted and repaired old conflicted ones and the persistent claim of unmet needs from which their original sexual desires originated. As we grow and evolve as people, so does our sexuality.
Perhaps as husbands, wives and parents of our world we can recognize the exquisite similarities in men and women’s relationship to sex and teach our children to accept, honor and celebrate who they are as individuals rather than members of a specific gender. Women may then feel entitled to genuinely express sexual desire without fear of judgment and men can feel free to view sex and relationships with openness, respect and trust and not feel as if they have betrayed their gender.