sex, love, and relationships for those of us who don't quite follow the rules

Archive for April, 2010

being deliberate

Greta Christina has some great things to say about the cultural over-emphasis on spontaneous lust as the precursor to sexual encounters. She points out that sometimes you may want to want to have sex, even if you’re not turned on, and that those second-order wants “count.” She affirms that planned, scheduled sex is not somehow inferior to spontaneous, “got to have you now” sex. She mentions that this is especially important for long-term couples and older people, for whom the fires of youthful lust come more rarely. Rereading them, it strikes me that there’s another category of people who need to remember this: the chronically repressed.

A decade or more of repression doesn’t just evaporate once you’ve decided to become sexually active. There are deep-rooted habits of thought that only loosen their grip slowly. There are complicated identity issues (how do I get comfortable with the idea of myself as a sexually active person?) There’s the simple disconnection from your body; I am convinced that most of my body is less sensitive to sexual pleasure than it would be if I’d been exploring those sensations since my teens. I’m hoping I can rehabilitate myself in all three of these areas, but it’s going to take time. And meanwhile, there’s a lot of sex that I want to be having, even if I’m not hot and horny most of the time.

When I first started masturbating, there was a brief initial “can’t keep my hands off myself” phase. I was having great orgasms, and the thought of how I was going to pleasure myself later turned me on and kept me happy all day. At some point, though, the excitement waned, the orgasms became harder to reach and often unsatisfying, and my private sex life started to feel like a chore. I tried to maintain it for a while, because I did want to learn about my sexual responses, but often it was fairly perfunctory.

What I learned was sometimes akin to “101 ways to kill an orgasm,” but hey, that’s valuable knowledge too. I also learned, slowly and maddeningly, how to tune in to my body, concentrate my attention on the sexy bits rather than the running monologue in my head. Eventually, quite unexpectedly, I learned how to fantasize, adding a whole other delightful dimension to my private sex life. And little by little, I’m getting comfortable with experimentation and trying new things.

My point, I guess, is that practice is important, with sex as with most other activities, and if you didn’t start practicing sex at a time when your hormones were pushing you to do it all the time, you may need a fair bit of deliberate practice, letting your arousal follow the start of your sexual encounters rather than leading the way to them. And remembering that there’s nothing wrong with that.

being who I am, wanting what I want

I had an enlightening conversation with one of my best friends last weekend. We were talking about what each of us wanted out of love, which was an interesting point to begin with: how much time do we typically spend thinking about what “love” or “a relationship” really means to us, specifically? I think we tend to assume that it means the same thing to most people, when actually two people talking about the ideal love may have very different things in mind.

As I fumbled to describe what kinds and aspects of love I most desire, the word “enmeshment” became more and more prominent in the discussion. Enmeshment. Two distinct bodies becoming closely interlaced, due to features of their topography, such that it is difficult to see which parts belong to what. It’s a good word, no?

When Charis first introduced the word to this conversation, the context was negative: she was talking about the enmeshment between herself and one of her exes, and how excruciating it was to try and detangle herself after that relationship dissolved. Since then she has learned to keep herself more distinct in relationships, which is all to the good. But it left me with the uncomfortable awareness that enmeshment, and a very high degree of it, is something I crave, something without which a relationship would be barren and unsatisfying to me. I delight in moments where the boundary between thou and I becomes hard to see. I like it when “we” comes sooner to my lips than “I”. I like the feeling of almost having an extension of nerves in my beloved’s body and soul, so that I feel my their pains and pleasures directly, as things touching me, not simply as echoes and reflections of my beloved’s experience.

I recognize that there is something pathological in all this. Egos more robust than mine do not crave this kind of dissolving into a shared identity, and if it starts to happen they feel it as a burden, a calamity. I know I undervalue my independent self. I have a long list of weaknesses — not character flaws exactly, but areas of underdevelopment and malformation in myself — and this desire for profound enmeshment can be related to several of them. What I realized for the first time, in this conversation, was that maybe that doesn’t mean I can’t want what I want. In the past, I might see this hunger for enmeshment as a symptom of a disease, and try to create for myself desires that were more compatible with a whole and enlightened self. But guess what? Real desires aren’t created as easily as all that. A desire that has its source in truth, in the real me, is necessarily going to reflect the warps and wibbles that are actually there. And part of loving myself is letting that desire stand, owning it, instead of trying to mask it with a cleaner, more virtuous craving.

I had a similar experience with sexual fantasy — in fact thinking through that might be what allowed me this breakthrough. For many, many years, I didn’t have any sexual fantasies at all. I had romantic daydreams, but none that yielded real erotic energy, made me burn to touch myself. In the process of my sexual awakening over the last several years, I’d try to conjure up images and scenarios of sex, but none of them did much to turn me on past the initial spark.

Then one night a scenario popped into my head, I don’t remember why or whence. It was exotic, degrading, abusive, and it got me so hot I almost combusted on the spot. After having the best orgasm of the year, I considered this, and quickly remembered episodes from my late child/early teen years, when similar scenarios were a huge turn-on (before I even knew what a turn-on was.) I was always vaguely uncomfortable with my response to these, and never let them become full-blown erotic fantasies. In fact, I’d suppressed and largely forgotten about them through my adolescence and early adulthood. Erotic fantasies, I was quite sure, should be something completely different, should center around a well-sculpted body or something like that. Never mind that dwelling on well-sculpted bodies aroused me about as much as looking at a picturesque landscape; that was the kind of imagery that turned proper, well-adjusted people on, and if it didn’t work for me, well, maybe I didn’t have that much of a sex drive.

It’s the same kind of thing, you see? The fear that what I actually desire, what I actually respond to, reflects my pathologies and malformations of personality. Because guess what? It does. It has to: it comes from me, and not just the smooth-and-pretty bits of me. It’s shaped by everything in me, healthy and unhealthy, mature and underdeveloped. My response to that, for most of my life, has been to say, “Well then, I’ll just desire something different.” If you’re tempted to try that approach, let me just tell you right now: it so does not work. Your body, your psyche, will not be fooled into wanting something other than what its kinks and curves actually want. You’ll just be hopelessly confused, and have layers upon layers of repression to deal with before you can achieve authentic connections, whether sexual or emotional.

So yeah. My project for the next couple of weeks is to consider the possibility that my emotional cravings, while I can see how baldly they expose the cracks in my character, need to be honored for what they are.

Shaun

I am thinking about Shaun today.

This is not unusual. He is my lover, so I think about him often, and he was my first, so I will probably think about him recurrently through the rest of my life. But today I am thinking about him and want to write about him.

I met him under the rafters of my favorite pub. A friend of mine was having a small party and he was the only face I didn’t know. Slim, dark-haired, intelligent — I decided quickly that he would do. I was looking to make a conquest, having spent a previous hour crying over the withering of a promising affair. I slid in next to him and put on brilliance, vivacity, boldness. Somewhat to my surprise, he responded. He loved good beer and British sci-fi, his intelligence showed itself to be subtle and grounded in good judgement. By the end of the evening, he was lightly stroking my leg under the table. I am always startled into immobility by a blunt advance, but I did find the momentum to shift my leg an inch or two closer to him.

He lost no time in getting my number, in finding me on facebook, in reading my blog (the other one, the one that uses my real name.) He made it clear very quickly that he was polyamorous, that he had a girlfriend. I was intrigued. We communicated regularly throughout that week, and both expected to get together very soon. After three days, when the memory of his fingers on my thighs still caused them to squeeze together hopefully, I knew I would sleep with him.

Then his girlfriend left him, and the entire landscape changed. The bright, energetic, slightly goofy man I’d met was scattered, shattered, confused, and depressed. He’d be there, on the surface, and we’d be enjoying ourselves, and then with very little warning he would slide into raw, open despair. He had moved a thousand miles to be with her; she had left him dramatically and without explanation; he was broken and bewildered. I was in the right place at the right time to catch him as he fell, and strangely his confused and painful circumstances made him exactly the right person for me, at that moment, just as I was exactly the right person for him.

I got used to the rhythm of his misery, of the way, after we had sex, he would roll to the side and be consumed by grief once the pleasure had subsided. I learned what to expect from a long silence; I learned the exact way his face breaks when he is trying not to cry. I never discovered whether sitting silently beside him, stroking his hair, and kissing his forehead was the best way to respond to his low moments: I thought sometimes that a more bracing approach, a distracting liveliness, might be more helpful, but I couldn’t manage it.

We talked periodically of the two of us, of his fears, of my expectations. For a time, my expectations didn’t reach beyond honesty. I was prepared any any moment for him to leave the state, to forswear lovers, to date seven others, to suddenly hear from her and take her back. When I went to see him, I didn’t go for love; I went for companionship, for sex, and for the satisfaction I get from soothing the wounded.

I wanted to write about the changes that have taken place since, but I realized I would have to shift tenses. All the above, about meeting him and knowing him through the first weeks after his breakup, is in the past. The landscape has changed again, but the change is gradual and still going on. So I’ll leave that for another day.