Of all of my clients, one had truly ruffled me. She was more secure, more certain in her point of view than I had ever been. Lilu made a compelling argument against love. She claimed that “Romantics are the new Victorians,” and “The pursuit of love is oppressive.” A woman’s energy was best directed toward productivity, she exhorted, and her motto was Louisa May Alcott’s line, “Liberty is a better husband than love.”
As such, she eschewed relationships and took up sex work to pay off student loans and capitalize a business venture. All was going well. She was proud. Yet, she was in my office. Before sharing the issue that brought her to my couch, she spoke at length about her lifestyle, and I was so stimulated by the conversation that my mind drifted into reactions, having its own conversation. How could she not want love? I felt a bit defensive, ready to find some diagnosis for this aberrant women who defied the holiest of virtues. But I also felt a strange admiration. Lilu described a life like a female sultan with a harem of men competing for her affections—a life I could never have because I was about to get married. I wondered if she’d made the superior choice. She was mentally stable, confident, and certainly made more money as a sex worker than I did as a sex therapist. Entertaining this fantasy put my happiness in question. In my head, I was engaged in a philosophical battle. Was love morally oppressive? Could Lilu strip away love, sentimentality, ethics, and all other “artificially constructed” notions we have about sex to find freedom in a sex without meaning?
Not all of my clients are so self-assured. In fact, the prevailing theme on my couch is ambivalence. In the grey area of modern sexual choices, the progressive, urban ethos is anything goes. One should be “down for anything,” be a Cool Girl. My practice is based in LA, in a neighborhood of hipsters, musicians, and artists. I hear about every kind of kink and coupling imaginable. If anybody feels free to fuck who they want and how they want with less stigma than ever, it’s these guys. And the reactions are varied. I’m told about good times and adventures, but of course being a therapist, I mostly hear about vague dissatisfactions, emptiness, addiction, and deep wounds from relationships. And despite their general sense of entitlement to pleasure and experimentation, despite their not being trapped in the clichéd loveless suburban marriage, the top complaint, as in sex therapy practices nationwide, remains low libido—with men reporting a lack of desire for sex in equal measure to women.
Listening to clients struggle for sexual satisfaction, it became clear to me that they were suffering from alienation—not just from each other, but from sex itself. I began to wonder if we were missing a deeper conversation about what sex, in an era of liberation, means to us. Sex is going through an existential crisis, a crisis of meaning.
I thought of D.H. Lawrence. At the end of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one of literature’s most infamous erotic tales, he wrote a postscript, a screed directed at the critics that had called his work obscene and barbaric. He wanted to make clear what he thought was obscenity.
“In contrast to the Puritan hush! Hush! Which produces the sexual moron, we have the modern young jazzy and high-brow person who has gone one better, and won’t be hushed in any respect, and ‘does as she likes.’ From fearing the body and denying its existence, the advanced young go to the other extreme and treat it as a sort of toy to be played with…”
Lawrence blamed urban intellectuals for their emphasis on separating the mind from the body, thus overriding instincts of the soul to love and connect deeply. He went on at length about how the “young jazzies,” enamored with their own ideas, would force their bodies to do as their minds commanded—and their minds wanted to be cool.
Lilu was an example of a woman raised in a world where sex had been so deconstructed that it had lost all significance. For her, sex was a tool, a transaction, and a source of ego fulfillment. Lilu didn’t see herself as immoral or narcissistic but practical and efficient. I took her point of view seriously and tried to play out the consequences in my mind. How would a shift away from love impact society? Did it have a connection to the phenomenon of low libido I’d been witnessing? Lawrence believed that the body will rebel:
“The sex, the very sexual organism in men and women alike, accumulates a deadly and desperate rage, after a certain amount of counterfeit love has been palmed off on it. The element of counterfeit in love at last maddens, or at least kills sex at the deepest sex in the individual.”
This point of view is intense, judgmental. It’s chaste even; in his own puritanical way, he believed sex itself is profaned by intellectualism. While the concept of mind-body integration is now commonplace in the mental health and greater culture, it’s still generally accepted to separate sex and love and further, to separate sex and spirituality, and sex and nature. These were the divisions that Lawrence called the greatest of all obscenity.
Meaning is created, according to Lawrence, by reconnecting to the body, to earth, and to spirit. We don’t think ourselves into libido. We find the fire in our souls. We don’t need fancy theories, games, or ideas.
Lilu’s nihilistic philosophy was missing something concrete. Other people. She was so personalized about her sexual choices and preferences that she didn’t consider the desires of her partners. Lilu came to me because she’d developed feelings for a man. She was on the edge of love and presented it to me as some kind of malady. Lilu could recognize the gravity of sex in the lives of others, but wanted to refuse its power over her own life. As a result, she developed a sexual dysfunction. The veil between body and mind was thinning. I’d hoped she’d face her vulnerability. Her solution was to leave him—and me.
Sometimes, it had seemed to me that sexual liberation had a shadow side. Even as a therapist, I suffered from a state of anomie. In graduate school I’d developed a stance of unconditional acceptance and yet it took years for me to ask, What did I actually believe in? I sat there in my therapist chair, like a sea urchin, an open receptacle with waves of perspective crashing all around me. My groundless position began to feel empty, or what Victor Frankl referred to as an “existential vacuum,” a painful void due to a lack of meaning. I needed some form to my practice but didn’t want a system of rules or even ethics. Religion has proven to stagnate sex. Psychology ignores soul. I think sex more appropriately belongs to the realm of art. Art is about expression. There is no right or wrong. But there is devotion. Art is recognized as valuable—and therefore the feelings expressed are valuable. Each painting, dance, or poem reflects a part of human life that may appear personal, but is actually transpersonal. Sacred sex, to me, doesn’t mean that it’s religious, but that it matters; that our collective longings are not buried behind cool girl facades; that our fantasies are seen as poetry, as universal symbols and metaphor, where sex is a canvas upon which our stories are painted, then gazed at in awe; and that a simple touch is savored in the same way one eats a fresh summer tomato.
Victor Frankl says the path to happiness is in finding meaning. We need a purpose, beyond our basic instincts, a deeper reason to be doing anything from our job to sex. So I began to contemplate how in therapy, we could revive meaning in a deconstructed world—a meaning without judgment, fundamentalism, or absolutism.
I began to look outside of psychology for inspiration. In my new book, The Women on My Couch, a collection of essays about the sexual choices women face, I also share my explorations. Tantra offered me practices for deeper connection. The Kama Sutra created sublime rituals around the mundane. Taoism helped me to contextualize sex as greater than myself and my partner, as an important part of the nature, harmony, and peace in society—and they can practically meditate into orgasm. Minoan art taught me a radical new way to view the female body. Buddhism provided lessons in love, and nothing has taught me more about the possibility for reverence in eroticism than poetry.
I don’t want to get so lofty that I believe I can see the sacred in everything, all the time. There is a place for irreverence also. It’s an old question in philosophy and the arts: Is everything inherently sacred or mundane? This is a dialectic, a moving conversation. For me, after spending time around art and poetry and spiritual traditions that do revere sex, I finally saw past my education (psychology and pop culture) and began to integrate body, soul, and earth into my approach to sex.
I don’t follow a specific path, but have embraced the idea from monk turned psychotherapist Thomas Moore, who says that soul is not a thing, but a quality of experience; and that the soul should be cared for. And this “care” is, specifically, attention and devotion—both of which are powerful acts of love that can apply to masturbation, a hook up, or a marriage. I do believe in love, but not in the way Lilu defined love. It’s not a Nicolas Sparks kind of love. It’s a way of being engaged and present to the humanity in ourselves and others; a path without structure, fueled by grace.