“You’re not meeting my sexual needs.”
Have you ever thought this about or said this to someone else? Has anyone ever said this to you?
I have heard, and most likely will continue to hear, clients say this in my office. Either in an individual session about their partner or in a couples session to their partner. In a couples session, it generally becomes a high stress and high stakes moment because so many people interpret this statement to have negative implications within the context of whatever is going on in their sexual relationship. For example, it may be used to: complain about what one partner perceives to be the other partner’s deficiencies; ask (or threaten) to open the relationship; justify the decision to have an affair; or end the relationship all together.
This is a tough moment, no doubt about it. But IMO this language is misleading of their experience mainly due to folks not understanding themselves and having a consumeristic mindset. There are several things going on here, so settle in and let’s unpack it all.
First, the issue is when someone does not understand themselves. This is a common issue that people come to therapy for. For example, just the other day I asked a client the question, “What was behind that decision you made? What was going on for you to make that particular decision?” The client said, “I don’t really know.” And my response was, “That’s OK because that is what we are here to figure out!” So often people create really complicated sexual lives for themselves (and their partners) without examining their underlying motivation(s). Some folks have poor insight and struggle to make sense of their inner experience or are flat out scared to examine themselves. So in therapy we slow things down, get curious about what is going within them, and identify the thoughts and feelings that may drive their choices. We also look for patterns in thoughts, feelings, and themes, to (a) see if there are any and (b) if there are what does that mean. You know, ‘know thyself’ type stuff.
The second issue going on is about needs and wants. Generally speaking, many people confuse a need from a want. A need is a must-have, a requirement in order to live. Oxygen, food, water, shelter, safety, love and companionship, things like that. When the need is not met, a person generally deteriorates. By contrast, a want is a choice and I like to think of it as something that is added to or on top of a need. It falls into the category of “it would be nice to have.” For example, you need food because without it you will die; you want it to be tasty because that is pleasurable. If you have ever gone a long time without eating and then eventually do eat whatever food is available or given to you, you realize all foods are delicious - even the foods that you previously thought you disliked. Needs do not generally change over the course of your life, wants can and do change. That is part of what makes wants so interesting.
As I stated earlier, a problem in our complex 21st century life is that it has become increasingly difficult for many to distinguish between some needs and some wants. I believe capitalism, advertising, and consumerism have played a big role in our confusion about wants and needs. Is a cell phone a want or a need? It could be argued that it is now a need. But that sexy, slick, and fun commercial you just saw tried to convince you that you need the newest and most expensive iPhone in order to stay in touch with others - which you do not. That new iPhone with all the fun and cutting-edge features is a want. Is a car a want or a need? Depending on where you live, where you work, and where your family is located it could be a need - but you do not need a Tesla. That Tesla is a want. All reliable cars serve the same function: they get you from point A to point B. So I come back to my idea that a want is generally added to or on top of a need.
Third, where people, including mental health professionals, get confused is understanding an individual's reaction when a want is not met. Like I said, when a need goes unmet, a person generally deteriorates. However, when someone does not get what they want they may become grumpy or angry, irritable or impatient, slip into a low mood, or feel deep emotional pain. This is not the same as decompensating.
Fourth, in addition to making many of us confused about our wants vs. needs, the culture of capitalism and consumerism has also turned much of our wants and needs into commodities, things that are bought and sold, things that are exchanged. I need food - but where will I exchange my money and get my food, grocery store X or grocery store Y? Or let’s say I need a vacuum cleaner: I do my research, think about my budget, and then buy the vacuum cleaner that fits my criteria. I use it for a while but then it breaks. Since the vacuum cleaner stopped meeting my wants or needs and these days it is cheaper to just buy another one versus get it repaired, I throw it away and purchase a new one. When the very thing that meets a want or need has been commodified in this way, it is seen as only serving a function. Once it either serves its function or it breaks, it is time to move on. That want or need now has a transactional quality to it: I’m trading something (in this case of my vacuum cleaner, money) for a want or need to be met. And this perpetuates the consumeristic mindset, subconsciously commodifies our wants and needs, invites objectifiying the things (and people) that I think can meet them, and encourages throw-away culture. Yowza.
(BTW, my grandparents’ generation did not live in a consumeristic culture — when their vacuum cleaner broke they took it to get repaired at the vacuum cleaner repair store. They kept the vacuum cleaner and tried to fix it/make it better. Hmmm. Maybe that is a useful metaphor here and something we can learn from on several levels.)
Also, consumerism also creates feelings of entitlement - “I deserve that Tesla” is code for “I deserve to have my wants met.” Which on one level is true - I want all of us to get whatever it is that we want! Imagine that. The problem is, that is just not real life. In the real world there are plenty of times we do not get what we want, even when we want it really, really badly. And for many people that hurts like a MF and brings up all kinds of psychological issues. I am reminded of a quote by Jim Carrey that tells us that getting everything we think we want is, ultimately, insufficient: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
This is not to say I am critical of wants in general or specifically sexual wants. Hardly. Like I wrote before, I would love it if everyone got what they wanted. Getting what we want can be a means to personal growth, which I have written about before. I also firmly believe you have the right to want whatever you want, including in sex. What I want (ha!) you to do is own that it is a want, not a need. And to recognize that no one, including your partner, is required to meet your wants or needs. The fault is in expecting your partner to meet 100% of your wants or needs 100% of the time. And to also not demand or threaten that they must meet your wants and needs…or else. Because your partner has agency and autonomy to make decisions about their life just like you do. It becomes about practicing empathy, acceptance, and understanding more deeply the existential issues inherent in the interpersonal dynamics of relationships.
And finally, when it comes to sexual wants and needs, we tend to think of them as in a separate category. I can hear someone reading this and thinking “Well of course, Diane, I know that a new iPhone or Tesla is a want and not a need! But when it comes to my sex life, it’s different. If I do not get what I want sexually, it cuts so much deeper. It feels like my partner doesn't like me/has rejected me/has judged me/has shamed me.” And yep I have seen this happen for my clients. When partner A asks partner B for a sexual want and partner B judges or shames them for it or partner A perceives judgement or shaming, you bet it can just flatten partner A. However, I think that is about several things: for many people sex is an act of vulnerability, of revealing oneself to another, and risk-taking. So asking a partner to meet a want is like divulging a personal secret; it can be so private and intimate and it feels like so much is on the line that if it does not go according to expectation it is painful. But if your partner in fact judges or shames you for your sexual want, remember that is about them not you. And if your partner was not judging but you felt judged, you are practicing a type of cognitive distortion called emotional reasoning: “It feels like you’re judging me so you must be judging me.”
It is precisely this heady and murky convergence of mental, emotional, and sexual elements I just described that can lead a person to tell their partner “You are not meeting my sexual needs”. Because the pain is deep and the want is sincere it can easily be misunderstood if the person does not know themselves and they can default to certain socially-created scripts. It can have the person believe it is a need when it is probably a want. It is implying the want or need is a commodity to be traded in a transactional manner, and there is a sense of entitlement behind it. No wonder it is a high stress and high stakes moment for many couples - and their couples therapist. It is a rabbit hole that individuals and couples can easily fall down into. And in my experience if they hold tight to these damaging ways of thinking and relating it is impossible to climb out of that rabbit hole without harming each other and the relationship. Remember, you partner/relationship is not a vacuum cleaner, something you have in your life to serve a function and then get rid of/trade/get fixed in when it stops working.
The way through this high stress and high stakes moment is to make the conversation about the deeper experiences underneath the pain. The conversations and accusations are mistakenly about wants and unmet wants but they need to shift to being about assumptions (“Even though we never talked about it I just assumed you would do this for me”), disappointment and grief (“I’m disappointed and sad because my want is not being met”), and fear (“I’m afraid what will happen if I do not get my want”). The conversation needs to also be about how that partner copes when they feel disappointed, sad, or afraid. That comes back to the “know thyself” part. This is a multi-layered process: taking responsibility for your part (the assumptions, your feelings of disappointment, grief, sadness, and fear, and how you coped with them); then fully recognizing your partner has choice in the matter - when you ask for them to meet your want, they will decide if they want to do it. And once you can do these things, it becomes about practicing empathy for the both of you, acceptance of the both of you for wherever you are at, and understanding more deeply the existential issues inherent in the interpersonal dynamics of sexual relationships. And doing all this will probably bring up even more stuff.
Welcome to therapy.
We are finding ourselves in a horrible combination: fears about an unseeable contagion plus the need to socially and physically isolate from others. This is a brutal mixture for many because we often turn to other people to help lessen our anxiety: socializing with friends, going church or temple, time out in the world at restaurants, bar, clubs, shopping, and of course partnered sex. Most of those options are, for now, not possible, with the exception of sex (as long as you live with your sexual partner[s]). So where does that leave you and your libido?
Everyone is having different experiences when it comes to the impact of this moment in time on their libidos. Some, in the face of all this, are reporting that their libidos are increasing while others are reporting a decline or as someone described it to me “it's like it’s dropped off a cliff”.
In the last week I have seen several memes about how the quarantines/self-isolating/shelter-in-place orders have made some people more horny (like this one here). And I have been asked a few times how someone can cope sexually during this period of self-isolation or quarantine. In order to do that, let’s first talk about sex drive.
A person’s sex drive needs just enough anxiety/tension/uncertainty to get activated but not too much anxiety/tension/uncertainty or else the person can get overwhelmed, flooded, and then sex drive goes underground. Think of it like the Goldilocks principle: not too much (anxiety), not too little (anxiety), but just (the) right (amount of anxiety).
So maybe you are one of the ones who are finding that your libido has increased. Why might that be? Perhaps it is because there has been a refreshing twist in your usual daily/weekly routine; you are not spending mind-numbing hours commuting to work and that has enabled you to get more sleep; maybe you are working from home and therefore your usual work stress has diminished; maybe you are spending more time with your loved ones; maybe you are doing some creative projects; maybe sex and orgasm are a form of physical and psychological release for you; or maybe this pandemic has made you tap into your Eros energy. Eros was the Greek god of love, of creativity, of passion, and represented the life force. You might be one of the folks who is rising to the challenge with these unprecedented turn of events. Like I said, sexual energy needs just enough tension in order to flourish; you are feeling that tension and riding the waves. Jack Morin wrote about this in his book, “The Erotic Mind” — when there is an obstacle to overcome erotic energy can blossom. You are overcoming obstacles and feeling pretty darn good about it and yourself.
But maybe you are one of the ones who are finding that your libido has disappeared. Why might that be? Perhaps it is because you find yourself extremely worried about this contagious virus and what it might do in your community/country; maybe the stress of having the kids at home and adapting to distance learning has been hard; maybe you are preoccupied with your finances; maybe you are catastrophizing about the still-unknown future; or maybe the level of uncertainty you are experiencing is too much at times and you are having to do an immense amount of self care in order to just get through your day without falling apart. You find yourself in fight/flight/freeze often. Nevermind the constant need to adapt, adapt, adapt. Like I said, sexual energy needs just enough but not too much tension in order to flourish; you are feeling too much tension and uncertainty and your Eros energy has decided now’s not a good time and gone into hiding for now.
These are simply different ends of a spectrum. Or you may find yourself on one end of the spectrum one day and the other end the next day. That’s OK. There is no one right way to cope with what is happening and your sexual energy is coping just as much as you are. If you have an available sexual partner who is also feeling their Eros energy and open to sexual encounters during this time, I hope you are having a wonderful and wonderfully hot time together. And it is also OK to tell your partner “Not tonight, dear. I’m feeling too anxious about everything.”
But keep in mind what I repeatedly preach: touch is so powerful. Touch can help activate our parasympathetic nervous system, our “rest and digest” system, and that can calm our fight/flight/freeze response. Just make sure you communicate to your partner that you are wanting physical touch and not an erotic/sexual encounter. Hang in there. We will get through this.
We have to socially distance right now, but let's not emotionally distance.
With my own county officially in a shelter-in-place order, schools closed until who knows when, kids at home, many non-essential businesses closed down, people working from home/remotely (I myself am now conducting all my sessions with clients via videoconferencing), concerns about our under-resourced health care system, and everyone having the same spoken and unspoken fears of economic instability and insecurity on the micro and macro levels, shit is hard right now. Our collective future is unknown and uncertainty causes all kinds of anxiety and psychological disruption. This virus is calling on all of us to cope in ways some have never coped before. We are having to stretch hard and fast. That is generally not easy to do. How are you coping with it all?
I am going to stray from writing about my usual human sexuality content today; hope that's OK. In psychology there is a concept: dissociation. This is when a person disconnects from their own body and stops being present to and with whatever is happening for them in that here and now moment. If you have been an astute reader of mine, you know that I frequently write about a person’s inner life. Your inner experience - what are your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, reactions, decision-making processes, values, etc. What you are noticing and how you are taking that information in. Similarly, dissociation is another kind of inner experience - however it is not taking any information in at all.
Dissociation happens on a spectrum. On the far, severe end of the spectrum is the type of dissociative episodes people describe doing who have experienced extreme bodily violation and/or abuse (torture, rape, profound abuse): “I left my body” or “I watched it happen to me from outside/above my body” or “I have no memory” or “My memory of the event is spotty, like flashes”. (Those flashes of memory represent how the person came in and out of their body.) On the other, lesser end of the spectrum of dissociative behavior is what every single one of us does, probably several times a day: daydreaming. We mentally leave wherever we are and let our minds wander to something more pleasant. “I wonder what my life would be like if X was different?” or “It would be so nice to be back on that beach in Hawaii right now instead of dealing with this.” Other language people use to describe this lower-level dissociation is they “check out” or “numb out”.
Dissociation is at the root of most compulsive behaviors. Have you, or anyone you know, ever said or done the following: “I started binge watching Netflix/playing video games/watching porn and before I even knew it 4 hours had passed”? This is another example of that lower-level checking out, of dissociating. Not staying present in your body to experience whatever you were experiencing.
Dissociation has been pathologized by my profession, and I disagree with this interpretation. Why? Because it is a perfectly appropriate response to a terribly difficult experience. It is the psyche's attempt to lessen the pain.
A “terribly difficult experience” is, of course, subjective. What may be intolerable to one person may barely register as a blip on the screen to another. That does not matter; we are not here to rate the legitimacy of anyone’s coping response. In my experience as a mental health professional I have repeatedly seen my clients over the years “check out” when they experience things like boredom (cue sexual dysfunction); anger, resentment, or overwhelm (cue sexual dysfunction); pain or fear (cue sexual dysfunction); and even joy and pleasure (cue sexual dysfunction). This is a way of emotionally distancing from the pain or intolerability of that particular emotion. Dissociating is way of distancing from your present reality.
So, like I wrote earlier, shit is hard right now. You may be having moments of being gripped by panic and fear. You may be struggling to regulate yourself in the face of near-constant Coronavirus information on every single media platform. You may even find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of reading/watching everything Coronavirus. And when you get overwhelmed, you most likely dissociate a.k.a. check out a.k.a. distance yourself emotionally from your current reality. You pull away or numb out. But I am curious: where do you go? Into your phone? Your own private thoughts? A mood-altering substance? A compulsive behavior?
It’s OK if you find yourself doing this. Like I said, it’s a perfectly appropriate response to a terribly difficult situation. For most people I know here and around the world, this qualifies as a terribly difficult situation. The key is, once you notice you have emotionally distanced from yourself and those around you, just come back. Please. Don’t judge yourself for emotionally distancing - that will most likely start up your particular brand of shame spiral. Instead, praise yourself for noticing where you were and what you did. And then come back to the present moment. And breathe. Your community needs you.
© 2020 Diane Gleim
Hi friends, I apologize for not updating this space recently. As of late all my writing has been posted on my Psychology Today blog, Underneath The Sheets. So while I have been writing, I have not posted them here. I will start cross posting. In the meantime, if you wish to see what I have written feel free to go here and look on the right side under "Recent Posts":
I have been using previous blog posts I've published here to start my Psychology Today blog. I have written something new that I am sharing both there and here. Read on...
Like fish swimming in water, we are swimming in sexual shame to the point where most of the time we are utterly oblivious to it. No one is immune from sexual shame, not even medical and mental health professionals, and it can even happen within or by institutions. Sometimes a person’s sexual shame is so ingrained and feels so much a part of their deepest self that they simply cannot imagine themselves without their shame. Sexual shame is so ubiquitous that when someone or something does not evoke sexual shame and is actually “sex positive”, it can be a shock to the system and cause reactivity like discomfort, anxiety or fear, judgment, anger, threats, and sometimes even violence. All of us have seen this before. It's a difficult topic for many. So let’s pause, take a breath, and look at shame more closely.
Shame is considered a “social emotion” vs. “basic emotions” like happy, sad, mad, glad and what that means is that it is learned via socialization (all the complexities of interacting with others) and through the transmission of group norms. Whereas guilt can be described as “I feel bad because of something I did,” shame can be described as “I feel bad because of who I am” and examples are “I am unworthy” or “I feel unlovable.” Shame originates from morality and when we are talking about morality we are talking about what we believe is “good” and "bad” or “right” and “wrong”. Where do we learn good and bad, right and wrong from? Things like our family, church, school, storytelling (like movies, TV shows, books), art (like music lyrics and music videos), video games, peers, and the legal system all have influence on our sexuality and specifically our sexual shame. (Think about it: when one is charged with a crime in our legal system we plead “Guilty” or “Not guilty” and not “Ashamed” or “Not ashamed”.)
Unfortunately my profession has contributed to our culture’s sexual shame. We have our own shameful history of getting it wrong when it comes to understanding and working with sexual issues. “Treatments” have included shock treatments, castrations, torture, medications, lobotomies and most recently reparative and conversion therapy. Dated theories and treatments focused on so-called abnormality and malfunction and are based on traditional relationships, assumptions, roles, and beliefs. There has been an inability to see the influence of morality and shame on how we analyze (pathologize?) what sexual behavior is done, how much it is done, with whom it is done, and where it is done. Even today, my profession marginalizes sex in most education and training environments and as a result many clinicians’ own personal sexual shame goes unexamined and unchecked as it relates to its impact on their work with their clients. Therapists are humans swimming in sexual shame too and, just like our clients, are vulnerable to the same complex, contradictory, and confusing sexual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That is why it is imperative that we collectively proceed with caution on the huge topic of our clients’ sexuality and not continue the traumatic legacy of harming those who have the courage to seek out our help.
Having said that, here are some examples of both the sexual shame a person may have or where it may have come from. I hope these examples are helpful to you in identifying your own sexual shame. We can have sexual shame:
All of these examples of sexual shame are learned. They came from somewhere. You picked them up along the way. And they can be embarrassing, confusing, or even downright scary to look at in yourself. The good news is that since they were learned thankfully they can be unlearned. However, that is no easy task, it doesn’t happen overnight, and takes courage to do.
And like our own individual psychologies, sex is full of contradictions and paradoxes! That is what makes it so fascinating and gives it its edges. There is no reason sex should be feared, thought of as dangerous, judged, or shamed. In fact, your sexual shame is abundant material to explore in therapy. You might learn to move past your judgment and shame and into radical acceptance, experiencing pleasure more fully, and inner peace.
I am excited to announce that I am now an expert contributor on Psychology's Today's website. My blog, Underneath The Sheets, is now live. You see see my posts on that link. I will split my time writing for them and here. I hope you will check it out!
When you study human sexuality, you inevitably study human morality systems. How and why humans value what they value. And I think this is part of the reason why studying human sexuality is so threatening to some: if we examine something like sexuality (that is so laden with values and has been for centuries) then there is the possibility of separating out each piece of that puzzle, re-evaluating each piece, maybe hearing new information, deciding what to do with that new information (i.e. allow it to affect our value or not), then there’s the possibility of those new conclusions not being in alignment with our current life, and the cognitive dissonance that comes with that situation. Eeek, a scary prospect indeed.
Thanks to the work of Bill Stayton, a psychologist, sexologist, and Baptist minister, what I’ve learned is how human beings have three different value systems:
- The combination of acts-centered + relationships-centered
So let’s break this down.
Acts-centered value systems place an emphasis on acts or behaviors and believe that behaviors are choices. Acts-centered value systems (ACVS) have clear delineations between what is “right” behaviorally and what is “wrong” behaviorally. This is a black-or-white, straight-forward value system and way of relating in the world; you know what the limits are and what the consequences are if you do that “wrong” behavior. It’s about rules and it’s all very clear.
Relationship-centered value systems place an emphasis on relationships: with yourself, with others, with society. Relationship-centered value systems (RCVS) focus on identifying the motives (your relationship with yourself) and consequences (on yourself, on others, on society) of acts or behaviors and those motives and consequences determine if something is moral or immoral. This value system requires some amount of gathering information and some amount of critical thinking skills and predicting. RCVS believe context matters and that in one situation a behavior may be “good” while in another situation that same behavior may be “bad”. This way of thinking is more gray and takes time to come to a decision.
A perfect example is Robin Hood. Was he right or wrong to do what he did? Yes he robbed, and with an ACVS this is “bad”. But he robbed from the rich to help the poor, and in a RCVS this is “good”.
The combination value system borrows from these two other systems depending on the issue and the comfort with the “act” or behavior in question. It’s even murkier than a RCVS. It is generally confusing and it ebbs and flows. On some issues you may be black-or-white while on others you explore the motives and consequences.
Despite what you may think about yourself or others, the combination value system is the value system held by most people. For example when it comes to sexuality most people, or so it seems, seem to be acts-centered on things like pedophilia and bestiality — they have clear, straight-forward opinions about it being “wrong” (whatever their reason). Laws have been created to support this way of thinking on these two issues. While at the same time those same people might be relationship-based on another sexual issue.
So now let’s apply these and take an example straight from current events…abortion. First, let’s all take a deep, deep breath. It’s a heated topic right now and one that, IMO, maybe we can work to bridge the divide if we slow down and better understand ourselves and our perceived opponents.
The ACVS approach to the issue of abortion is: those people that are anti-abortion believe that abortion is “wrong”. These folks are basing this on their belief that life begins at conception and therefore ending that life via abortion is an act akin to murder so therefore this act is “wrong”. Remember, to those with this value system acts are choices so you can choose to act or not act — meaning you can choose to have an abortion or not have an abortion. If you choose to not act, then you are not “wrong” but if you choose to act and have an abortion, then you are “wrong”. Those people who have a RCVS ponder the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy and look at the relationships with and consequences to those involved: what was the relationship between those two people who had sex and caused the pregnancy? Why is it an unwanted pregnancy (i.e. violence or trauma like rape or incest)? What are the consequences if the pregnant woman brings the pregnancy to term or terminates? What are the consequences if government bans abortion full stop? This is where factors like consent, ages of those involved, access to health care, financial means of support, the role of public school sex education, etc. come into play for the RCVS folks.
One “side” is focused on the behavior/act itself while the other “side” is focused on motive/cause and consequences. One “side” frames their position as “pro-life” because they value the life that they believe was just created while the other “side” frames their position as “pro-choice” because they value examining the consequences of a choice. These are two entirely different and separate aspects of the same abortion issue. They are not addressing the other "side's" assertions. Why aren’t the ACVS folks talking about the motives and consequences of an unwanted pregnancy? Some actually are: those who say abortion is permissible if it was caused by rape or incest. And actually, if someone believes that then I would argue theirs is a combination value system on abortion and solely ACVS. And why aren’t the RCVS folks talking about when life begins? No one is listening to “the other side”, that “other side” feels it, and when we feel not heard we usually talk louder, assert our position more unkindly, and get into a fight. On top of it all, emotions naturally run high on an issue like this. So things stay contentious, the divide between the “sides” remains deep and wide, and the impasse unfortunately calcifies.
This so reminds me of high conflict couples; it’s really not that different. Any good couples therapist would teach a high-conflict couple the importance of understanding. That understanding your partner’s “side” does not equal endorsing or agreeing with “their side” and it does not diminish “your side”. It simply means understanding their perspective, why they believe what they do, while holding on to “your side”. Unfortunately many people are defended against understanding their partner; it’s somehow threatening because it requires vulnerability (a.k.a. putting our shields down). But when we understand our partner it can lead to a more respectful dialogue and maybe, just maybe, finding a middle ground. This is what is desperately needed in today’s cultural and political climate. Acting — and listening — respectfully to our perceived opponent requires good self-management skills. I know that’s a big ask but I believe we can do it.
I’ve thought for a long time that Washington needs couples therapy. And so maybe this blog can help you look at this issue, and maybe other issues, and your so-called opponent, with a little more insight, understanding, and calm. IMO it’s the only civil way through this.
I usually write about sex and relationships, but on this sunny spring day I’m going to veer off that a little bit and write about technology with a little bit of sex thrown in.
I cannot seem to find a person who doesn’t have a smartphone anymore. Now I realize I live in northern California, one of the more affluent places on the planet and a mere 100ish miles from Silicon Valley and 50ish miles from San Francisco. Technology is what my region is known for (and on a micro level wine and weed too, but that’s another conversation for another time). People say that technology, and specifically smartphones, have radically changed our lives and our norms. True. Fifteen years ago would you have imagined you might willingly pay to sleep in a stranger’s home while you are on vacation or pay to get a ride in a stranger’s car?
(As an aside, I think it’s worth briefly mentioning how most everything we get from our smartphones is based on our own literacy. It seems lost in the conversation when we talk about technology. Last year I attended a conference where a speaker talked about the challenges her medical center had in providing care to patients who could not read or write *in any language* but who had smartphones. Think about that. It’s wild how quickly we take literacy for granted when it comes to smartphones.)
Back to technology. Lately I have been increasingly noticing the very language we use to describe what we are doing with our smartphones and other technology. We say we are “more connected” - but what we really have is more correspondence in the form of emails, texts, likes, and comments. We say we “go online” to look something up — but where are we going exactly? We are not going anywhere with our physical body - we are probably sitting on our couch or at our desk - and instead using the internet as a research tool or library. We say someone is “using porn” — when in reality they are most likely sitting by themselves viewing pornographic imagery. (Do you say you use walking? Do you say you use dinner with friends?)
I fully admit I am not a digital native. I remember when texting first really came into people’s lives. At the time I myself didn’t quite get it - why would I text someone but not call them? (Yep, I know I sounded a lot like “Get off my lawn!” and I own it.) Also at that time, I was a counselor at a middle school and of course the students had really grabbed ahold of texting with a frenzy. One day I asked one of my middle school-aged clients, “Why do you like texting so much?” And I will never, ever forget what that boy said: “Because there’s times I want to tell someone something but not have a whole conversation about it.” Aaaaaah, yes! From the mouths of babes. He described a one-way communication without a lot of risk or vulnerability. Ding ding ding! Ironically, soon after that conversation I was at a huge and loud outdoor concert and I was trying to find my friends…so I texted one of them and we found each other quickly and painlessly. Texting in that context made it so much easier to fulfill my goal. If I had tried to call my friends on the phone we probably would not have been able to hear each other, certainly not find each other in the mass of people, and just gotten more frustrated. Since then I have come to appreciate texting more and see the value to it as another means of communication/correspondence. But it is most definitely not connection.
IMO how we are thinking about and talking about the internet, technology, and how we use these two things is becoming increasingly problematic and inaccurate. The language we use to describe how we are incorporating the internet into our daily lives is sadly misleading and because of that our language is shaping our experience of it. The experience shapes our language and the language shapes our experience. It’s a peculiar feedback loop to observe. Now I also know that the same word can have different meanings based on a variety of factors. But I’m not sure we as a society get that when it comes to technology — certain technologies came into our lives so abruptly we adapted to it by using existing language to at best approximate what we are doing with that technology. We think we are connected when we are not.
We may have more easy access to other people and other information as a result of the internet but we’re most certainly not more connected. Most of the time we are sitting *by ourselves* having an internal-to-us experience with the technology in our hand or on our desks, several steps removed from real human-to-human interaction.
Technology is also a vehicle for our imagination and projections; it’s there for every flight of ideas we have without any limits. There is a growing body of evidence that tell us with the increased use of tech devices comes increased rates of dysphoric moods, not more euphoric moods. Using technology in certain ways makes many of us feel worse, not better. We think we are connected when we are not...and then we do not know why we feel bad. And when I work with couples and I ask them “What’s your goal in this therapy?”, it is quite common that I will hear the answer “To feel more connected to my partner during sex.” Connected - there’s that word again. If they are referring to that feeling we get when we are “connected” via the internet and technology, I don’t think that is what they are referring to; people don’t come to therapy to feel worse about their situation. Feeling connected from online activities is not even remotely the same event as feeling connected to another human being, in real life, who (maybe) loves and cares for you, and sharing a mutually pleasurable experience with them. Remember, while technology can make you cum it can’t hug you back.
I’m sitting in my office today and there’s a funeral happening in the church next door. (This happens regularly.) The church and my office building share a parking lot so the attendees’ cars have filled it up (the deceased person was clearly popular), the people are dressed up and wearing dark colors, there’s a couple of limousines, and of course there’s a hearse parked out front. Always stark imagery.
In case you didn’t know, my office is located in a building that used to be a Catholic school. After the school shut down, it sat empty for years. Then it was renovated I think about 30(?) years ago and converted into professional offices. It’s a majority of therapists in the building now. The church still owns the building (and I like to joke that I make my rent check out to “God” - because hey, don’t we all?) and it even still has a cross on the top it.
Having my sex therapy practice in an environment such as this has been a fascinating experience. One client many years ago who was raised Catholic said she could still smell the special incense used by the priests when she walked into the building the first time. My brother-in-law, who went to Catholic school, briefly came into the building one day to help with a quick furniture project and got the heebie jeebies. For those who have experienced the Catholic church first-hand, it most definitely has an initial effect and then they seem to move on. Other clients don’t notice a thing. Turns out it’s been a useful assessment tool, as sexuality is so often influenced by religion.
Setting aside the deeply troubling controversies of the Catholic church and its profound struggles with sex and sexuality, because of the funeral that’s happening next door today I’m thinking about sex and death. Those in my profession like to say, “Sex and death go together” and it’s true. Creation/destruction. Pleasure/pain. A beginning/an ending. Connection/abandon. Hope/despair. You get the picture. They are two sides of the same coin. It’s not a dichotomy but a complementary relationship. One exists because the other exists.
For example, have you ever been to a funeral or memorial service where there was laughter? I have several times. They weren’t just sad or somber events; they had humor too. Sometimes that humor was intentional and sometimes it was spontaneous. The times I’ve experienced this I’ve genuinely wondered if the laughter occurred because of what I thought was our collective discomfort with death and loss. But over the years I’ve come to think no that’s not the case. Rather, it seems like human nature needs the tension between these two forces of pain and pleasure, anguish and joy. Without it, life seems boring, one dimensional. It also makes life messier (and I say that in a non-pejorative way). Having adopted this opinion, it has certainly changed how I work, I believe for the better. It’s allowed my clients and me to have a fuller, more nuanced and layered experience of their lives both in and out of the bedroom. Helping my clients find all the layers actually brings me joy and a sense of awe for being human.
Sex isn’t just about a biological process in the body. Sex also includes greater ideas and mythologies we’ve internalized along the way. And like death, there is much in sex that is still a mystery. In my profession we call this the spiritual side to sex. Sex can be a transcendent experience, one where you feel an otherworldly communion with your partner(s) where time and space can temporarily fall away. We don’t really know how or why this happens; we just hear people say it happened to them — and maybe it’s happened to you. I sure hope so. It’s one of the better-feeling mysteries in life.
I say this often in my office. In fact, I said it just the other day to a client. I really believe people know this on some level. They understand that porn is meant for entertainment purposes, the majority of it with the male gaze in mind, and that like the rest of Hollywood it has all kinds of movie-making secrets and techniques to trick the viewer into believing what they are watching is really, authentically happening between the actors.
Yet in the absence of comprehensive sex education in our country, coupled with the inherent curiosity everyone seems to have about sex, I think it’s inevitable that some people look to porn to answer the questions they have about sex. Examples of those questions and curiosities can be:
“My body sexually functions a certain way - is that normal?” (And several of my clients know that the “n” word — “normal” — is not allowed to be said in my office because it’s a word predicated in shame)
“What do different shapes and sizes of bodies look like naked and sexually function like?”
“I’ve heard about or read about X but I’ve never seen it myself; in my imagination it turns me on. I wonder what that looks like.”
“I’ve always been turned on by and wanted to try Y yet I’ve never had a partner who expressed interest in doing it. Porn is where I get to experience Y.”
So much of porn is vicarious experiencing - of different bodies, activities, scenarios, and sexual appetites. It is fantasy brought to life. When we can understand and appreciate porn for this, then almost all of porn’s controversies practically disappear.
Let me also give mention the idea of ‘suspension of disbelief’, something I learned about as an undergrad when I took a few film classes. This phrase is often used to describe how viewers of film and television agree to follow along, so to speak, with the fictitious world they are watching. They stop thinking critically whether or not whatever is being portrayed can actually happen in real life - they are suspending (putting on hold) their disbelief (their doubts and skepticism) in order to join in with the fictional story. Doing this makes watching the story that much more fun for the viewer - gives us a greater, more intimate and emotional experience with the film or show. And this is precisely what art intends to do — give the consumer an emotional experience.
IMO, I think when people suspend their disbelief with porn and believe “it’s real” it’s because much of it does look so darn real. That’s precisely what porn producers are intending to do - making the viewer believe what we’re watching is really happening - and they go to great lengths to make the viewer believe. Believing this is actually happening, or could actually happen, can deepen the emotional investment for a viewer and thus give the viewer an even more enjoyable viewing experience. In online porn this translates to more clicks or pay per views. What is so interesting, however, is that we don’t seem to suspend our disbelief when it comes to animated/anime porn (a human-shaped cartoon character having sex with a unicorn for example). In that situation, we know with certainty it’s animated, we know it’s just make believe…so why can’t we understand that all porn is just make believe and enjoy it for the entertainment value it offers?
Because porn is about sex and we don’t know how to think critically about either porn or sex. There are common tropes in porn - like the pizza guy delivering a pizza and a beautiful, lusty woman answers the door. Do we *really* think this happens to every pizza delivery guy? Of course not. If we did, I can think of a few men I know who would quit their current jobs right now and go get a job delivering pizzas. Other, more noteworthy tropes in porn are: how women are always willing to have sex; how women don’t have any sexual boundaries or say “Ouch that hurts”; how men are always able to get an erection without an issue, maintain their erections, control when they orgasm, and demonstrate no anxiety about any of this/always appear confident; how everyone’s always so enthusiastic to have sex/no one’s tired or had a stressful day and just not in the mood for sex. I think you get the idea. Like I said, porn is fantasy.
And finally, a common critique of porn is that it leads to unrealistic expectations about sex and your partner. This is true ONLY IF you do not understand that porn is fantasy and entertainment. And it can also lead to unrealistic expectations about sex if your actual, real life sex life leaves you unfulfilled. But porn isn’t responsible for your sex life; you are.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist located in Sonoma county, California.