Another Guy Who Isn’t a Sex Addict

March 27, 2015

He was 50, married, and he had all the symptoms of “sex addiction.” Let’s call him Joe.

As he travelled the country lecturing (he was a pioneering ear surgeon), he’d hire an escort to spend the night with him. He’d lie about it to his wife, of course. He became a regular—or rather he had a few “regulars”—in cities he visited frequently, such as Chicago and St. Louis. What had started 12 years ago as an occasional treat eventually became a virtual necessity.

While he wanted to be an attentive father and husband, he worked long hours and was emotionally distant from his sons and his wife. His sexual desire for her was erratic—sometimes overwhelming her, other times leaving her disappointed and confused. Always a frequent masturbator, he became a devoted consumer of online pornography. He put up a profile on Match.com and OkCupid, although it was only to cruise, never to actually hook up.

He eventually got caught. The escorts were the big headline of course, an institutionalized, long-term infidelity that completely outraged his stunned wife. But once the matter was opened, his over-involvement with porn, the mercurial desire for his wife that seemed not quite personally connected to her, his periodic inappropriate comments to waitresses, flight attendants, and baristas, all became fair game for her angry and frightened outbursts.

“I love you, which for me is simple,” she said bitterly. “What’s wrong with you?” For once, he told the truth: “I love you, but for me, that’s complicated,” he said.

He promised he’d stop with the escorts, but didn’t. He agreed to share his online passwords, but simply opened new accounts. He took down his profiles on Match and OkCupid, but found other websites on which to cruise.

And that’s how it was when they came into my office. Two years after he’d been caught cheating, they were trapped in a cycle of his promising, her believing, and him lying and getting caught again.

Over and over. She was terrified of losing her marriage, and outraged at the repeated humiliation. He was tired of her monitoring him, of her “still processing her feelings, after two whole years,” and of her periodic suspicions.

When they came to me they were getting “sex addiction” treatment, which their individual therapists had both encouraged. As the spouse of an “addict,” she was in S-Anon, endlessly talking about her trauma and her “co-dependence.” He was going to Sexaholics Anonymous meetings, but not regularly, and he was reading about the 12 Steps, but not quite enthusiastically.

She wanted me treat his “sex addiction,” and he was willing to do almost anything to end their nightmare of mistrust and chronic conflict.

But in the very first session, I told them that I don’t use the category of “sex addiction.”

“You don’t treat cases like this? You won’t see us?”
“I do treat cases like this, all the time, actually. I just don’t use the ideas around sex addiction to explain people’s behavior, or to make treatment decisions.”
“What do you do instead?”
“I do therapy. Couples counseling or individual therapy, as seems appropriate.”

Although they were skeptical, they decided to see me anyway.

And that’s what we did—therapy. During the course of our work, here’s some of what Joe realized:

* He turns to sex when he feels lonely.
* Because he knows his wife loves him, there’s a limit to how proud he feels when she tells him he’s great. He gets more emotional value from strangers’ appreciation than from his family’s. And sex workers are the perfect strangers.
* He makes promises about calling or texting his wife when he travels for work. But then he feels so controlled when it’s time to contact her that it’s a struggle to keep his promises. For him, not calling is a small adolescent rebellion that feels oddly satisfying. But her experience is that for him, giving into these feelings is more important than their marriage or his commitment.

In fact, we talked about what other non-sexual feelings he has that are so strong he finds it difficult to keep his commitments. It was eye-opening for both of them.

Mostly Joe talked about these things–with his wife. She didn’t like some of what she heard. I gently encouraged her. When she tried to avoid or limit conversations by saying she was “being triggered,” I gently insisted the conversation continue. When he tried to avoid or limit conversations by referring to her obvious discomfort, I wouldn’t let him.

And so they talked. They fought, but they were fighting about new things, and eventually they were fighting in a new way—as partners attempting to find truths, rather than as adversaries trying to persuade each other about who was wrong.

I didn’t tell Joe what he couldn’t do (like use pornography), so he didn’t have to defend his autonomy with me. Of course, he got defensive anyway, periodically feeling misunderstood and judged.

We talked about that as part of our relationship. She observed us. He thought about it. They talked about it. They were watching intimacy in action. They practiced it. They cautiously liked it.

He backslid, hiding a few inconsequential things for seemingly no reason. Of course. I interpreted this: yes, he was wrong, but he wasn’t bad. This was big news for both of them.

He voluntarily disclosed more about what he had done in the bad old days—months after he had supposedly told her everything. She wailed about him victimizing her again. I reframed this, encouraging them to celebrate it. Backed by her therapist, she once again insisted on “full transparency.” I suggested something slightly more modest, so he could succeed and she could enjoy it.

She’s still waiting, I think, for the “full transparency.” Do grownups really provide that to each other about important topics? Your favorite flavor of ice cream, sure. But your sexual fantasies, your sense of guilt for not being a better spouse, your secret flirtation at the airport? It isn’t easy, and if it comes, it rarely comes all at once.

Therapy continued, all three of us working our butts off. He developed a new standard of sexual behavior for himself, which he’s been living up to—at least, that’s what he says, and I believe him. She’s still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Her therapist says she has PTSD. That strikes me as a heavy burden to place on this woman, who is still upset, maybe a little too upset, almost three years after her husband’s betrayal with professional escorts.

If there’s an addict here, maybe it’s her, rather than him.

Teaching Sexuality in Hong Kong

March 9, 2015

“Yam tho.” It’s pronounced “yomm toe,” except you form the syllables in the back of your throat rather than the front, and you end the words with a tight jaw rather than a loose one.

It means “vagina” in Chinese, and it became my secret weapon. When I can’t get a non-U.S. group to loosen up and participate in a seminar, I have them teach me how to say vagina in the local language, and then a few bold ones and I practice together. By doing this periodically for the length of the seminar, everyone eventually gets involved. So I got good at saying Yam tho, and they got good at saying it as well as at hearing it.

Other than “yam tho,” most of the group of 32 professionals hardly said a word; in fact, some of them looked down when I spoke to them.

I taught The Sexual Intelligence Approach to Therapy, and I worked my butt off. How many different ways can you say “Any questions? Any comments?” and still get silence in return? When I asked “does this material seem relevant to your work?” they still stared at me blankly. Did I mention that I was working my butt off?

Fortunately for me, I have taught in many Asian countries, and so I expected this. But it was still frustrating—all the more so because I had to respond to the silence and blankness with my own big smile and renewed energy.

But that’s the Hong Kong way: respect the authority of the teacher. Don’t talk about your own experience, even if the teacher begs for it. The interesting exception: over a third of the participants came late, straggling in by ones and twos during the first half-hour of the seminar. They apologized perfunctorily.

By the end of the day most participants were at least smiling, and I ended the day by talking about their silence and my informal style of teaching. I discussed how our patients want to show us deference, which can either help or hinder the therapy. And of course therapists have to find a way to show respect to patients—without hindering the therapy as well.

I told the group I understood they wanted to be respectful to me. I said that challenging their own inhibitions would be one way to do it, and that coming on time the next day would be another. They nodded, and the next day, they were all on time. They even spoke during the day. And we talked about it all as a therapeutic issue, which was a first for almost every one of them.

In Hong Kong, most young people live at home until they marry, which makes dating an interesting activity. Almost no one has a car. Pre-marital sex isn’t that common, and so we have the interesting phenomenon of newlywed couples who are sophisticated in every way—except sexually. This is different than virginal couples in, say, Pakistan, who lack sophistication in most ways in addition to sexually.

Will that change with a new generation of young Hong Kongers? It doesn’t appear so. The 79-day Occupy Central event was no Woodstock, no 1969, no anti-Vietnam War movement. Although young people did mobilize together for the first time, there was virtually no lifestyle component to it, certainly nothing involving sex or drugs (or even progressive music). No one is going to suddenly leave their parents’ home and live a new way.

The power of sexuality to transform lives, then, is still a sleeping dragon for young people here. Sexual expression, of course, is the ultimate form of personal autonomy, which is why both authoritarian regimes and organized religion want to control and limit it. Most young Hong Kongers have still not personally experienced sexuality freeing them from the earth’s gravitational pull. They’re not demanding more access to it, and still rarely kiss or hold hands in public.

And so teaching therapists about sexual empowerment and integrity, and how to bring such topics into the therapy room, wasn’t quite so straightforward as it is in the U.S.. Our two-day seminar at Tung Wah College progressed slowly, although the feedback was that it had been profound for many participants.

The following day I lectured about sexuality education design and delivery at the Hong Kong Family Planning Association. I had two primary messages: that we should be teaching young people life skills, which they can then apply to sexual situations and decisions, and that sex education should not be focused on harm reduction but on life enhancement.

Hong Kong’s young adults need that just as much as their eight-year-olds.

 

Ten Erection Disappointments That Are NOT “ED”

February 27, 2015

Men, women, and couples come to my practice each week talking about “ED”—erectile dysfunction. The term apparently refers to anyone who can’t get an erection when he wants to—once. This, of course, implies that penises should behave like ATMs—ready to do business 24/7, rain or shine.

But that’s not how penises or the human brain are built. Penises actually need a lot of conditions in order to do what their owners, or their owners’ partners, want them to do. Those conditions can involve emotions, environmental issues, or features of the partner. If one of those isn’t quite right, even the healthiest penis will stubbornly stay small and soft and quite calm.

So here are ten common situations in which penis owners—or their partners—often expect or demand an erection, and don’t get one. Such cases are examples of unrealistic expectations, not ED.

* You’ve been drinking a lot
“A lot” might be as little as a couple of drinks. You don’t have to be drunk in order to be compromised by alcohol. You know how drinking slows down your reflexes for driving? It also slows down your erection reflex.

* You’re really tired
Sometimes sex is available exactly when we’re most tired—and worse, we may fear it won’t be available when we’re rested (or a potential partner has had a chance to think things over). Besides, many people leave sex for the last thing at night, when they can no longer do anything productive. When we treat sex so disrespectfully it’s no wonder if our bodies don’t respond.

* You’re afraid sex will lead to pregnancy (or an STI)
Even if you’re telling yourself over and over “it won’t happen,” or you’re repeating to yourself “don’t forget to pull out,” that can be pretty distracting.

* You don’t really want to have sex with this person
Sometimes it’s a long-term partner we’ve lost interest in, but we have sex in order to prevent conflict. Sometimes it’s a casual partner that we’re not that attracted to—but hey, it’s sex, right? Actually, wrong.

* The stuff she’s doing isn’t sexy to you—in fact, it hurts
Long, long fingernails where you don’t want them, too much teeth, thrusting or bouncing on your penis in a way that scares you—these can all chase away an erection. And a look, a phrase, or lingerie that she thinks is sexy but just strikes you wrong can also get in the way. Turns out men are more sensitive than some people give them credit for.

* She’s sloppy drunk
Why you’d want to have sex with a drunk woman is an important question. Among other things, it’s hardly ethical (although I understand that you both might be). But once you’re into it—or trying to be—it usually turns out to be way more trouble than it’s worth. Most penises don’t find it to be a pretty sight.

* She doesn’t want to have sex
Trying to talk someone into it—or roughly pushing them into it—gets some men excited, caveman-style. Most men are simply too human to enjoy it. And no matter how desirable she was before she said “no,” once a woman says “no” it’s hard for most men to keep their self-respect if they keep pushing. And erections usually leave when dignity does.

* You’re in a big hurry
If you’re in a big hurry, you’re either thinking about the thing you need to do next, or you’re worried about being caught (or simply running out of time). Not conducive to erection.

* You’re just not in the mood
Many men have been told that since women control sex, a man doesn’t have the luxury of not being in the mood when sex is available. If you’re not in the mood but proceed anyway, your penis may reveal the truth by refusing to participate.

* You still haven’t gotten over the argument you recently had
That argument hurt, didn’t it? And even if it didn’t, it made you feel separate from your partner, right? Besides, a productive argument actually gives you something to think about afterwards. If you’re thinking about that, that’s good—but it may not leave much of your attention available for sexual interest.
* * *
Why does it matter what we call a situation that may be, variously, aggravating, embarrassing, confusing, or shocking?

For one thing, getting beyond the narrative of ED means the lack of erection may not mean a lack of desire, arousal, or affection. For another, it means that the lack of erection may be quite temporary—as soon as the right conditions are arranged (an hour later, a week later), an erection may be quite available. And finally, it means that erection drugs may not be the right approach to getting the desired erection.

As in so many things sexual, honesty with oneself and communication with one’s partner are frequently the first steps toward improving your sexual experience—in this case, getting more reliable and drama-free erections.

What Part of “Fantasy” Don’t They Understand?

February 23, 2015

The success of “50 Shades of Grey” and news about Pornhub’s most popular search terms has too many people buzzing about the alleged dangers of each.

Both traditional conservatives and some self-identified feminists are condemning 50 Shades as encouraging violence against women. Clearly, these people know nothing about S/M, and not nearly enough about violence against women. Similarly, groups like xxxChurch and other anti-porn crusaders are dismayed that “teens” was the most popular porn search term last year, fearing this means we’re about to see a rash of adults trying to have sex with teens.

The panic about both of these things is founded on the persistent myth that enjoying a fantasy is the same thing as desiring it in real life. If that were true, millions of our neighbors would be punching their bosses, sleeping with their brothers-in-law, selling their homes to start over in Boise, or urinating on the very next TSA guard that hassles them.

Most grownups know that fantasy doesn’t equal desire and that it doesn’t predict behavior. One of the ways we cope with the pressures and complicated decision-making of adulthood is fantasy. We watch Star Wars and Star Trek, CSI and Grey’s Anatomy, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and James Bond (and yes, Wonder Woman and the Million Dollar Baby) and we think “If only that were me…if only I had the chance…”

And we make damn sure we never have the chance. That mayhem stuff is dangerous. Fun to imagine, but nothing to mess with.

Which explains the appeal of 50 Shades of Grey: Fun to imagine, but nothing to mess with. And the appeal of porn featuring 18 and 19 year olds (the only teen porn you can find on the overwhelming majority of porn sites): fun to imagine, but nothing to mess with.

Yes, there are people who coerce women sexually. And adults who romance college kids, even some high school kids. But 50 Shades isn’t making that happen, and neither is porn. According to the federal Justice Department, the incidence of each has gone down in the last decade.
* * *
Anyone who looks at 50 Shades and thinks that women like to get roughed up is (a) not really watching the movie, and (b) thinking that before they watch the film. The idea that women like to fall in love with guys who rough them up was popular before E.L. James was born. Jimmy Cagney and Jane Austen come to mind. 50 Shades isn’t the problem. Given economic options, most women don’t stay with someone who roughs them up. And, of course, 50 Shades isn’t about roughing someone up, it’s about two people collaborating on an experiment.

The concern about porn and teens is amusing, and as completely ignorant of history as only Americans can be. Teens have been the center of human erotic attraction since the beginning of time. Evolutionarily, they’re perfect for mating. And their bodies are as close to perfect as human bodies get. Of course they’re attractive to us today—they were attractive in Shakespeare’s time, in the Middle Ages, in Jesus’ time, and in the Greek heyday before that. Nothing novel about it.

Interestingly, Pornhub’s number two search term was lesbian, and numbers 3 and 4 were MILF and stepmom. Where is the outcry about everyone watching porn at risk for turning into, or desiring, lesbians? Or all the porn watchers suddenly turning toward older women, thereby depriving younger women of the relationships they deserve? Don’t forget granny porn—does its popularity predict an abandonment of all women under 50?

The accusation that 50 Shades is not a “feminist” book is telling. One hundred million women buy the book and it’s not feminist? That many women are not to be trusted to express their own eroticism? 50 Shades is not great literature (nor a great S/M manual), but it has flushed pro-censorship, anti-sexual diversity, fascist-style feminism out of the bushes.

Assuming they’re not obsessive, unwanted, and intrusive, fantasies are not dangerous (even then, the fantasies themselves are not the problem). What is dangerous are shame, guilt, and fearing that we’re not normal. And the forced secrecy that results from these. They’re more constraining and dehumanizing than Mr. Grey could ever be.

Speech Codes, PC Politics: When America is NOT “Charlie”

January 27, 2015

I am Charlie Hebdo, standing with Free Expression and against the violence that would destroy it. Perhaps you are Charlie Hebdo, too.

But is America Charlie Hebdo? In many crucial ways, no, as America becomes more offended and less tolerant of free expression every day.

Last week, I called CNN’s management cowards for refusing to show Charlie’s first post-massacre cover (it was neither obscene nor libelous). They self-righteously claimed their decision reflected respect and tolerance. Nonsense. Self-censorship to protect yourself from violence may be smart, but it expresses neither respect for others nor tolerance of diversity.

Pathetically, The New York Times announced a similar policy, refusing to show the image that is one of the world’s central stories of 2015—but refusing to admit their reason was fear of violence. CNN and The Times boldly support the publication of the cartoons abroad, but not here. That Atlantic Ocean inspires a lot of courage for others’ risk-taking.

So how would Charlie Hebdo and its covers fare if published here? Not just reported on as news, but actually published and distributed. Sadly, that’s where America’s ambivalence about free expression would become visible. I’m not talking about “We shouldn’t insult Muslims, they’re people too;” no, it’s much worse. America has descended into a parody of a Waldorf kindergarten in which no one’s feelings must ever be hurt.

If those cartoons were published and distributed here,

* Their distribution (whether for money or for free) would be prevented on most college campuses (as speech hurtful to others);
* Students on many campuses would successfully insist they not be discussed in class;
* Dozens of cities would pass a resolution condemning them and attempting to limit their availability;
* Many high schools would suspend any student caught with one;
* Many adults would complain that they constitute a hostile work environment and demand they be banned from the workplace—and employers would comply, fearing lawsuits.

And when these events were covered on the 10 o’clock news, the troublesome magazine cover would not be pictured, for fear of offending a few viewers and a local anti-hate-speech group.

If you doubt this, consider the following recent events.

* The annual production of the Vagina Monologues was recently discontinued at Mt. Holyoke College—a prestigious all-women’s school with a proud liberal tradition—because it might make transgender students who don’t have vaginas feel left out.

* Model and former Miss Universe Australia Erin McNaught has been trashed in the blogosphere for posting attractive bikini photos of herself four weeks after giving birth. Apparently many non-model new mothers women feel implicitly criticized by McNaught’s proud display.

* College students are increasingly demanding “trigger warnings” on class lectures and reading assignments. This feminist-based concept claims that students need assistance in protecting themselves from material they will find upsetting and hard to engage.

* More and more events are being described as “microaggression” and “microassault,” the feminist concept which claims that everyday interactions that make someone feel lonely, ignored, unattractive, judged, or inferior should be seen as part of a broad political dynamic—and eliminated.

* Worst of all, virtually all college campuses have now institutionalized speech codes, which dictate that a student must not say or do anything that another student might find emotionally hurtful. Sitting around campus reading—not proselytizing, just reading—Playboy, or Mein Kampf, or a history of the KKK (even one that denounces the KKK) is enough to invite disciplinary action or even expulsion. Yes, really. (See www.TheFire.org for examples.)

So a publication like Charlie Hebdo which routinely satirizes and criticizes Muslim violence, Jewish avarice, religion in general, the nationalist right, and politicians in general would not find a welcome home here in the U.S.. We can cheer the overseas courage that publishes and protects it, but as a people we are simply not strong enough to tolerate these emotional challenges in our own country.

But isn’t satire a right?

“No,” says The Humanist editor Maggie Ardiente, “It’s an obligation.” And the more it’s condemned, the more it’s needed.

Some gays slow to catch on to religious exceptionalism

January 19, 2015

In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times writer Frank Bruni says “I’ve been called many unpleasant things in my life…but I chafe at this latest label: A threat to your religious liberty.”

Bruni is gay, and he resents people claiming that their religion allows them to discriminate against same-gender couples and individuals in arenas such as marriage, parenting, and employment. Indeed, an increasing number of bakers, photographers and other wedding vendors are claiming the right to not serve gay couples.

I totally agree—it’s pathetic that adults hide behind religion to selfishly and piously opt out of our American constitutional covenant.

Many gay people seem shocked, SHOCKED, that religious people would do this to them. But as I documented in my 2007 book America’s War On Sex, religious adherents have been doing this to a majority of Americans for decades. (It typically, though not always, centers around religion’s obsession with sex.)

Just to pick a few recent examples, under the guide of “freedom of religion,”
* Christian pharmacists claim they have the right to not dispense medication whose purpose they disapprove of;
* Muslim taxi drivers claim they have the right to not carry passengers who carry alcohol;
* Orthodox Jews claim that Rabbis have the right to suck babies’ penises as part of the circumcision ritual;
* Congressional Christians blocked the proposed requirement that school sex education be scientifically accurate;
* Many Christian organizations have sued the federal government, claiming that they are exempt from the mandate to provide employees the option of free contraception. These same recipients of federal grants claim the right to discriminate in employment and service delivery.

As a conscientious American, I am sick of the religious exceptionalism we pay for every day. Religious people believe they should get a break from the normal rules that govern us because they believe in something that’s supposedly bigger than the rules; or because of “tradition”; or because lots of other people believe as they do. That’s just wrong.

Who decides what’s a religion (whose adherents get government privileges), what’s “just” a cult, and what’s plain silly? (Remember, every “religion” starts out as a cult.)

According to the most radical part of our Constitution, government is NOT supposed to decide—it isn’t supposed to “establish” a religion. When the government decides that Judaism is a “religion” but the Church Of Bacon isn’t, the government is “establishing” a religion. And when the government decides both are “religions” (the Church of Bacon is now “established” by Nevada law), the government is still taking sides against some other groups it derides as a mere “cult” (funny, no one has proposed the Church Of Broccoli).

When the government decides which Iron Age desert hallucinations form a religion, and which are simply delusions, it is “establishing” a religion.

The Constitution does NOT say that all religious practices are legally acceptable (female genital cutting? Mescaline as an adolescent rite-of-passage?). Nor does it say that government should facilitate every behavior inspired or required by religion (covering your face in a driver’s license photo? Refusing your kid’s life-saving blood transfusion?). Nor does the Constitution promise that government will help people PRACTICE their religion—only that it won’t prevent people from BELIEVING what they choose to believe.

But America’s religious leaders now demand that government help people practice any silly thing they believe their religion requires, which is a threat to our way of life. Gay people are not the only ones who are considered “a threat to religious liberty.” It’s everyone who wants to do something of which some religious people disapprove. If that sounds like tyranny, it is. It’s why the Puritans left England—because they didn’t want their lives controlled by others’ religious beliefs.

Crucifying democracy on a cross of religious liberty is a crime against humanity.

Je Suis Charlie

January 8, 2015

I write for a living. I lecture large audiences for a living. I piss people off for a living. Je suis Charlie.

My comrades were murdered for expressing opinions that others don’t like. Ordinarily, we’d call those murderers psychopaths. But because their instructions to kill supposedly came from their god rather than from random psychic noise, they’re considered “religious extremists.”

That’s too polite. It subtly helps limit their responsibility for their behavior. Of course, that’s a primary goal of religion—to codify the ways in which people are not in charge of this world, and to provide a vocabulary for not thinking about difficult things. That vocabulary is called “faith.” Faith is the exact opposite of thinking. It’s therefore in opposition to others thinking.

Here in the US you aren’t likely to be murdered for expressing unpopular ideas, but our society is becoming increasingly unsupportive of self-expression. College campuses now have “free speech zones.” If a student wants to hand out leaflets criticizing the government (or the college), she has to apply for a permit. If she gets one—generally several weeks hence—she can only hand out leaflets in a tiny area on the outskirts of campus. Ironically, most campuses can expel anyone who starts a spontaneous rally about my dead colleagues tomorrow.

And in the classroom? Students are warned not to express ideas that will hurt others’ feelings. Professors are asked to warn students before giving lectures or assigning readings that might make students uncomfortable.

Around campus? Most universities now have speech codes, which demand that students not express ideas that will make others feel unwelcome, or embarrassed, or challenged. The student with the weakest sensibilities now has veto power over what others can say. And no one has to develop critical faculties for rebutting arguments; they can simply faint, or complain that they feel insecure.

Public libraries? Increasingly, Americans are demanding the removal of books with ideas they don’t like. Parents are demanding the removal of books from school reading lists that might upset their children, or portray actual adolescent feelings of shame, lust, guilt, confusion, or anger.

Pornography? It’s everywhere, but no one wants to teach kids how to handle it (beyond “stay away from it”), psychologists don’t want to teach clients how to handle it (beyond “porn causes addiction and impotence”), and “morality groups” are working to eliminate it from the internet.

Je suis Charlie. But there are more ways to reduce free expression than murder. America’s becoming more and more comfortable with too many of them.

Is everyone on Match.com looking for a match?

December 29, 2014

In a word, no.

The problem is, I see a lot of couples in which one partner is caught using Match, or Tinder, or Ashley Madison, or some other dating/hookup website. Partner B flips out, accusing partner A of cheating, or wanting to cheat. Partner A denies it, but doesn’t sound convincing: “Uh, I was um, you know, just looking around.”

Sometimes that’s nonsense—A is cheating, just as B suspects.

But frequently, A is window shopping. We all do it—we look at ads for things we can’t afford, look in shops at things we’ll never buy, look on EBay at things we don’t need. Cashmere toilet paper. Front-row seats at Scarlet Johansson’s delivery. A ticket on a rocket to the moon (if you’re asking, you can’t afford it).

Some couples window shop together, which can be fun: “Wow, imagine being married to that sloppy guy!” “Wow, do you suppose that sexy dish can cook, too?”

But sometimes window shopping takes a more serious turn, as when people start to wonder: at my age, could I attract someone now? If someone desired me, what would they say? What might someone find attractive about me? What about someone of a different race, or someone much younger?

In the old days, there was mostly one way to pursue such thoughts: in person, and very carefully. At church, at the train station, at the market. Light flirting—very light, if you didn’t want to get in trouble or get taken too seriously.

Now, of course, the internet has created endless options for window shopping, through dating sites. Dating sites: where no one knows you’re a dog, and where half the gorgeous young women are wrinkled old men. And where, nevertheless, a huge percentage of the nation’s dating goes on.

Many people are more or less satisfied in their relationships—certainly not even thinking about leaving—but they’re restless. They wonder about the life not lived. They wonder about their market value. They feel loved, but they don’t feel desired—and for better or worse, there’s something special about being desired by someone who doesn’t know you and love you.

If a couple is together long enough, one or both will have feelings like this. Most couples don’t discuss it—it’s too scary, too unpredictable, and besides, after a few wary sentences and a couple of sighs, what’s to be done about it anyway? Most couples are not going to experiment with non-monogamy, or incorporating their fantasies into their sex, or even add a toy, game, or costume.

So for most couples, the “I know you love me but I wonder if others think I’m sexy” or “Haven’t you ever wondered what sex with a young stranger would be like?” conversations don’t happen. Most people don’t really want to do these things—but they wonder. Wondering is part of adult life, especially mid-life, when options begin to close. When the consequences of choices that were gladly made become clearer and clearer.

Enter the internet: private, cheap, with more possibilities than a mid-life crisis can shake a stick at. Sites on which we can flirt, pretend to be dominant or submissive, and where we can live an alternate life for a minute or two. For a day or two. For a month or two.

It’s seductive—a Coney Island of rides, each inviting our attention. And if we do choose a site, and succeed in attracting someone, the magnetism is tremendous. Ironically, IT people say the best of these sites are “sticky,” meaning they’re hard to leave. And yes, the reinforcement of being attractive to someone in an alternative universe is very, very sticky.

Which brings to mind another thing people do on dating and hookup sites—jack off. Every photo, every little bio represents someone (supposedly) saying “I’m interested in sex—what about you?” Perfect masturbation material. Sticky.

So if you catch your mate on one of the internet’s 20 jillion hot websites, how do you know what it means?

Ask. If your partner says it’s nothing, ask what it’s all about–not as an accusation, but as an exploration, as a way of getting closer. Your mate probably may have a few things to say about him/herself or about your couple. So ask. Gently. Assume your partner’s being truthful, and say so (if your partner isn’t, you’ll find out soon enough). Don’t waste this opportunity to build intimacy.

And don’t assume that a mate that’s on Match is looking for a match. Maybe he or she is just looking for him- or herself.

Aphrodisiac? For What?

December 9, 2014

According to The New York Times, the Chinese are buying up the world’s supply of maca, an exotic root grown in the Andes. Their demand has driven the wholesale price of maca powder from $4 per pound to $20 per pound. Soon the indigenous Indians won’t be able to afford it as a nutritional staple.

Why? Along with the horn of the rhino (now practically extinct), the penis of the tiger (now practically extinct), and the fin of the shark (heading toward extinction), maca is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

That’s men for you: searching, century after century, for “aphrodisiacs.”

And after 34 years as a sex therapist, my response is—why? Why this mad rush, why this willingness to exterminate innocent species and now to vandalize Peru’s agricultural patrimony?

Aphrodisiacs are supposed to increase libido–magically, within minutes after ingestion. They’re not about erection or orgasm, just desire (thus Viagra is NOT an aphrodisiac, since it addresses erection, not desire or even arousal).

So guys, let’s say you can eat, drink, or chew something to increase your desire. Then what? If your mate (or harem, for that matter) hasn’t taken it, will they be so pleased at your explosive libido? If your partner is agreeable but doesn’t delight you in bed, will your enhanced libido be a blessing? If your partner typically turns you off with her moods, her words, or her demands, will you really enjoy wanting her?

And if your flesh is weak, once the spirit is more than willing, will your flesh rise to the occasion? That’s not generally how things work.

Historically, some cultures (like China) have believed that a big sexual appetite—whether ultimately sated or not—is an expression of masculinity. The philosophical question for men in such regimes is not simply how much sex are you having, but how much are you wanting? How much are you ready for? Bragging about feeling hungry or deprived is an odd definition of masculinity, but by no means rare. We should feel sympathy toward men who are culturally instructed in this direction.

So why the obsessive gallop to increase libido? Do most people want to DESIRE anything more? HAVE, yes; desire? I suppose I would take a pill to increase my desire for exercise, but other than that? Like almost everyone, I want to have more of what I want, not to desire it more.

Now if the traditional male project were “Let’s find an aphrodisiac and give it to all the women,” at least that would make some sense. But historically, men view female desire as a double-edged sword. Men have wanted women to want sex more, but not too much more. I suppose the traditional male ideal is to find an aphrodisiac for women—which men would administer, rather than letting women themselves control.

There are, of course, plenty of substances that supposedly promote erection, virtually none of which work. Some people swear by testosterone (which, even if it works, is among the world’s scariest drugs). And there are two medical products, PDE-5 inhibitors (Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra) and papavarene. But they don’t increase desire.

In fact, less than half the men who get a prescription for an erection drug request a second prescription. There’s more to most erection problems than not having erections on demand, and erections on demand aren’t enough to solve most cases of erection problems.

The solution for low desire is understanding (1) what we actually want, as well as (2) what makes us not want. Each of those typically involves more than sex. That’s what makes the search for aphrodisiacs and treatments for erectile dysfunction so complex. A pharmaceutical can give a man an erection, but it can’t make him feel aroused; if a drug could give a man desire, it wouldn’t make him feel wanted.

Desire without feeling wanted—or friendly, or competent, or connected—may seem like a fine thing, but in real life, it isn’t. Especially for grownups.

Especially in a couple. For sex to work, people need more than sex. For desire to be satisfying (and to lead to satisfaction), people need more than desire.

So the question is not what’s an aphrodisiac. The question is, why would you want one?

UK Censors Domestic Porn; No Pattern To What’s Banned

December 4, 2014

The United Kingdom just passed a law prohibiting domestic filmmakers from depicting certain acts in online pornography. It is an absolutely perfect example of how dangerous, how confusing, how pointless, and how downright stupid such a law can be.

The law now lists thirteen things actors and actresses may not portray in domestically-made online porn films. Here are some facts about these thirteen:

* The behaviors in every one of them are legal in real life.
* You (yes, you) have almost certainly done at least one of these, and probably will again. Maybe tonight.
* Every one of them is done consensually by thousands or millions of people somewhere every day of the week.
* None of these necessarily causes harm. If consensual, most of these can’t possibly cause harm.
* More than of half of them do NOT involve the genitalia.
* None of the banned depictions involves children.
* These criminalized depictions have nothing in common with each other.
* Each of these can be defined in a wide variety of ways (which will lead to self-censorship and arbitrary enforcement).

Did I mention that each of these activities is legal in real life? At least for now.

So why this particular list? Nobody knows. Which means it could change tomorrow.

Are you eager to know what the specific depictions are, so you can decide how you feel about the new limits on Brits rights to create (and therefore to watch) what they want?

It’s a common enough response, but it shouldn’t be. How do you feel about the government limiting what adult depictions adults can create or watch? The answer shouldn’t be “it depends on this image.” Why? Here are some depictions the government could add to this completely arbitrary list tomorrow:

Same-gender sex
Same-gender kissing
Anal sex
Interracial sex or kissing
Sex or kissing between two adults with a large age difference
Sex where one partner is in a wheelchair or otherwise disabled
Sex between senior citizens
Sex with a blindfold
Sex where one or both partners have erotic piercings
Sex where one or both partners’ pubic hair is shaved

Many people think that pornographic depictions that make “normal people” say “yuck” ought to be banned. Let’s say that none of the above depictions make you say “yuck”; the truth is, plenty of people would say “yuck” to one or all of these. So who should be in charge of what’s illegal—you or them?

That’s the same problem with the list that’s just been published. There are things on that list to which you might say “yuck”—but others wouldn’t. Again, who should be in charge?

Like all censors, the British censors justify their violation of adults’ civil rights by saying this makes Britain safer for children—without even bothering to say how. Rather than the porn, it’s laws like this that damage British children: they reduce the freedom these kids will have as adults, and will reduce their respect for the law when they eventually watch foreign-made porn featuring material that’s banned if made in Britain.

Are you curious about what acts are banned from being depicted?

Does it matter? Does it matter if they make you frown? (Some of them certainly won’t; a few might.) Does it matter if the list focuses mostly on one gender? (There’s one specifically female activity; the rest are gender-neutral.) Does it matter if the actors are generally smiling while acting? (For most of these depictions they would be.)

Does it matter if the activity doesn’t depict physical “sex,” but depicts mind games played by people in costume? If person A can watch a mind game on film and not get aroused, while person B gets turned on watching it, should it be considered pornography? And if so, should it perhaps be prohibited just for people like B rather than for people like A as well?

And if certain erotic mind games can’t be depicted, does that make them thought crimes?

Pornography is the canary in the coal mine of democracy. No country protects anything less than it protects porn; porn is the bottom threshold of free expression. Raise that bar and we have more artistic, political, and social freedoms. Lower it just to prohibit a picture that lots of people don’t like, and the bar for all expression is lowered.

This latest law comes from one of the most democratic, freedom-loving nations in the history of the world. We’re not talking Egypt or Russia, where the government is committed to stifling expression; we’re talking about a country that has spent centuries investigating the outer limits of free expression.

There is absolutely no reason to think that if it happens in Britain, it can’t happen here.

* * *

You still haven’t seen the list; do you feel a little teased? FYI, some kinds of erotic teasing are on Britain’s updated list of prohibited depictions.


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