[Intelligent Lust Part Six | Part One: How Smarter Sex Can Change Your Life | Part Two: How Sex Heals: Embarking on the Journey of Intelligent Lust | Part Three: What Brings You To Orgasm? Part Four: What Gets Other People Sexually Excited? | Part Five: Decoding Sexual Chemistry]
Step 3: The Meaning and Purpose of Desire
Not all sexual desires grow out of conflict, but for the vast majority of us, our sexual fantasies represent the story we tell ourselves to solve deeper issues and conflicts. We need to understand and respect these stories if we are to make the best choices for our lives.
Most of us have at some time wondered where our sexual fantasies come from and how they were formed – why we prefer certain kinds of sex; rough versus sensual, oral versus genital or why we get off on being dominant or submissive.
Outside of biology nothing influences our sexuality more than our families. At the base of our desires lie fragments of our family history that reach far back into the forgotten past, yet continue to shape the present and future of our lives.
None of us leaves childhood without suffering from some unresolved conflicts or unmet needs. Sometimes their impact echoes long into adulthood, and even though we may try to deny or bury them, we continue to respond to their demands. They never entirely disappear. To varying degrees, we continue to feel helpless, detached, rejected or lost. We interpret new situations based on these feelings, unconsciously re-enacting old dramas in our everyday interactions with lovers and friends. We act inappropriately, or overreact, we feel constantly angry with our spouses, hurt by our friends, or abused or victimized by our bosses, sometimes even incorporating these emotions as aspects of our personality.
By the time we’ve reached young adulthood we have already woven these emotions into our sexuality, encoding them in the erotic images and narratives of our fantasies in an unconscious attempt to gain mastery over them, turning painful emotions into pleasurable ones. Yet few of us are aware of the importance of these emotions in defining the direction of our sexuality, and we are even less conscious of the conflicts that originally gave rise to them. This step of Intelligent Lust helps us untangle the emotions we have sexualized and their ties to unmet childhood need or conflicts.
To appreciate the meaning of our sexual fantasies, we need to review the past to understand the history that has helped shape them. Here are a few of the most common emotions and descriptions of the family dynamics that give rise to them. More complete descriptions can be found in my book, Your Brain on Sex, along with many examples from my practice. Use these descriptions to identify the feelings that most describe and define your childhood experience. Then ask yourself how you might have sexualized those feelings in themes of the fantasies you already identified by completing the previous steps of Intelligent Lust described in past columns.
Feelings of Powerlessness or Helplessness
Feelings of helplessness are a natural part of our childhood experience since our well-being depends upon how our parents nourish and nurture us from the innocence of childhood to the maturity of young adulthood. By the time we reach adolescence and begin to assert our autonomy by making our own decisions about how to care for ourselves, we have learned to trust our parents’ guidance and understand that it grows out of their genuine love and concern for us. We internalize that love and encapsulate it in feelings of self-worth. We experience the world as a safe and manageable place.
But when a parent misuses his or her authority in an effort to influence or control our choices, we grow into adulthood lacking confidence. When a parental relationship has been defined more by domination and discipline than understanding, compassion, and trust, we feel less than cherished and fearful of life’s challenges. Some of us sexualize these feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, or worthlessness in an unconscious attempt to minimize their pain. We learn to find sexual pleasure in fantasies or acts of submission, punishment, discipline, or humiliation. In our fantasies, we imagine surrendering all control. Where in the past we were helpless victims of our childhood experiences, now we invite these feelings of powerlessness and convert them to pleasure, paradoxically gaining control over them.
We may also have the opposite response to the same family dynamic. Instead of eroticizing submission, we identify with our aggressor and find satisfaction and mastery by dominating someone else. We’re aroused by being in total control, turning our feelings of helplessness into ones of power, excitement, or thrill. In our fantasies, we get off by demanding, commanding, or abusing our partner into submission. We might even go as far as imagining enslaving a partner – a symbolic a means of counteracting feelings of having been enslaved as a child.
Feelings of Guilt and Shame
For some of us, parents, teachers, or church officials over-used guilt and shame to teach us lessons, influence, or in extreme cases, control us.
To deal with these feelings, we sexualize them, encoding them in the themes in our fantasies. We become aroused thinking of ourselves as naughty boys or girls engaging in secret or forbidden sexual acts. Or maybe we feel excited by getting away with things or it’s opposite, receiving fitting punishment or discipline as retribution for our misbehavior. We might even imagine being tied up and forced to engage in sex. If we are given no choice except to surrender to an overpowering aggressor, we can engage in sex without feeling guilty.
Others might respond to underlying feelings of guilt and shame by sexualizing the idea of overpowering a partner; even exaggerate these feelings in themes of incest or other extreme forms of sexual behavior, attaching pleasure to what are considered unthinkable acts.
Feelings of Detachment or Emptiness
When we suffer trauma as children and don’t have the opportunity to process it through the guidance of a loving parent or mentor – whether it’s the result of a parent’s sudden death, daily drama of slammed doors and raised voices, physical abuse, mistreatment, or even extreme over-involvement in our background – we may become emotionally detached or even numb to our feelings and to the feelings of those around us as a means of surviving the pain of the experience.
We feel empty, blank, dead, bored, or numb, as if there is nothing inside us. We learn so thoroughly to cut-off our emotions that we believe we don’t have them at all.
In contrast to internalizing the soothing memory of a loving parent, we experience feelings of emptiness, which is actually a form of repressed grief. When we feel hollow inside, we avoid intimacy with everyone.
Later, when we become sexual, we eroticize that detachment, treating our partners as objects absent of human emotions. We act cold, harsh, or emotionally distant. In our fantasies, we objectify our partners, sometimes dehumanizing the sexual experience entirely, callously using them for our satisfaction without any regard to their needs. We might even fetishize parts of their bodies like breasts, penises, and feet, or even possessions associated with them such as shoes, eyeglasses, or clothing. Effectively, we convert our experience of emotional detachment or emptiness into one of excitement and thrill, while still maintaining no real emotional investment in our partners. We create a sense of pleasure, excitement, and intensity where emptiness existed.
Feelings of Rejection or Abandonment
When crisis or trauma – illness, substance abuse, job relocation, divorce – takes a parent away from us emotionally or physically for some period of time, feelings of confusion, loss, anxiety, and ultimately, rejection and abandonment, will follow. Even if the crisis repairs itself, we may live in continual fear of losing a loved-one again or re-experiencing the emotional poverty of the original loss.
Maybe we didn’t suffer loss. Instead our parents were physically present, but our childhood emotional needs were ignored or neglected. Our parents lacked warmth or empathy, and as a result we didn’t feel cared for, listened to, or understood by no fault of our own. A parent may have been so self-involved that the focus of family life centered on that parent’s needs far more than our own. A narcissistic parent can act charming, interesting, fun, or even indulgent. Or the opposite: demanding, critical, cruel, or judgmental. Either way, the child gets the message that his/her needs are less valuable than the parent’s. Whether a parent is always too tired and doesn’t have the energy or emotional resources to play with or attend to the child or she is too busy with work and other responsibilities, the effect is the same.
In families where a parent has acted overly critical or judgmental, it’s no surprise that later in life, we find ourselves chasing men or women who reject us or wind up in a dead-end relationship where a partner consistently places his/her needs first. It isn’t that we necessarily fantasize about getting rejected, but there is something secretly arousing in the pursuit of an unavailable partner.
For those of us who do eroticize rejection the feeling can be expressed in the themes of our fantasies that involve humiliation, name-calling, or submission in which we bring pleasure to what, at an earlier time, brought pain.
Yet, others can rebel against the childhood experiences of rejection and as a counter-reaction generate sexual fantasies in which they are highly desirable. These themes often involve romantic interludes in which we are pursued by extraordinary men or women, or sometimes threesomes and group sex in which we are at the center of everyone’s desire. We are adored or even worshiped for our beauty, charm, intelligence, or sexiness. We might imagine performing as the star of an x-rated film or strip show, or as hookers, or studs so highly desirable that no one could ever reject or abandon us. Through such fantasies we symbolically restore our sense of self-worth.
Feelings of Inadequacy
As children our sense of self-worth depends largely on how our parents hold and value us as human beings separate from themselves. Our self-esteem, sense of competence, and ability to cope in the world is shaped by specific family dynamics. Frequent interactions defined by negativity, critical comments, and diminishing comparison to others, leave us with deep feelings of inadequacy and unlovability. Whether we accept failure as our fate, confirming this negative vision of ourselves, or rebel against it and become an overachiever, the lack of self-worth influences all our interactions with the world. It can also define our sexuality. Eroticizing feelings of inadequacy leads to fantasies with themes involving submission, humiliation, verbal abuse, or extreme adoration of a partner. We are aroused by being treated as if we are useless, unworthy, or weak. Yet, by inviting our own humiliation, we become in charge of it, and through the sexual pleasure we receive, we weaken the impact of childhood pain.
Some of us, on the other hand, counteract feelings of inadequacy with ideas of grandiosity in which we imagine ourselves as important, powerful, or irresistibly sexy. We invent fantasies in which we are admired, adored, paid for sex; we recreate ourselves as competent, powerful, and often unattainable.
Feelings of Insecurity
For some of us life as a child was filled with chaos and uncertainty. A parent may have been emotionally unstable, alcoholic, or chronically ill, never affording us the security of knowing what to expect, or the constancy of that parent’s love. Life was a drama with bedroom doors slammed open and shut, weeping, anger, and remorse. In some cases, with no adult taking charge, we filled the void ourselves, assuming the role of a substitute parent, taking responsibility for our siblings, household chores, or meals while we observe our friends enjoying the safe and carefree existence of a protected childhood.
By adolescence we began to imagine being rescued or saved and, when we became sexual, fantasized about being taken away by a handsome suitor and given a life less burdensome than the one we lived. We sexualized stability, security, a gentle, loving spouse or maybe marrying for money so we will never worry again.
But, just as likely, we sexualized the role we so thoroughly assumed as children – the dutiful caretaker. We are aroused by being needed. In our fantasies we please, give, teach, or service, sometimes dressing up as the responsible teacher, kindly boss, helpful doctor, or nurse who slightly oversteps the professional boundaries.
By completing the first three steps of Intelligent Lust, we have begun to understand the deeper nature of sex. We have acknowledged the truth about our fantasies and desires and begun to unearth the hidden conflicts and unmet needs that generate them by making important connections to our past. We have dared to make thinking about sex a vital part of our lives, a rich fertile ground in which we can cultivate self-knowledge and self-acceptance.
In my next column, you will learn how to demystify the secrets of your sexual attractions and you can use that knowledge to make better choices.
Stanley Siegel, Intelligent Lust
First published in Psychology Today on September 21, 2011.