Initiated by women of color, “The #metoo Movement” has sparked collective self-reflection and accounting that continues to unfold new layers of complexity and discomfort. People, largely men, are being held to account for coercive, assaulting, and harassing sexual behavior. The rest of us are left to contemplate our own sexual histories and behavior at work, to think of the myriad examples of times when we were thoughtless, disrespectful, tried something and thought we got away with it.
My audience for this writing is men because I am a man and I see my work as helping men get free of the life-negating bullshit of our culture. In most studies, men are the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of sexual abuse, assault, coercion, and harassment, but we are not the only ones. We are, moreover, people who get abused, assaulted, coerced, and harassed—by other straight and queer men, by women in positions of power, by intimate partners, by bosses and caregivers, by friends and relatives, by people whom we needed to protect us.
The ever-present threat of rape, along with the threat of economic and professional ruin for resisting sexual coercion, undergird all of our sexual interactions. It leads to bad sex. Feminist Andrea Dworkin once famously argued that “violation is a synonym for intercourse,” which has become popularly restated as “all heterosexual sex is rape,” an interpretation that she believed missed the point. How I understand her argument is that when women as a class are materially inferior to men, and when the threat of rape and murder for disappointing the “wrong man” is ever-present, and when it is impossible for anyone to know who the “wrong man” will be, there is no possibility for genuine consent to sex. Though I think many men go through life without being aware of these looming threats, it affects all of us.
(This same dynamic informs other power differences—when a child is exploited by a parent, family friend, teacher, religious leader, almost any adult—that child is emotionally and economically vulnerable, and cannot consent.)
Many men get uncomfortable and even angry to think about this. Many of us don’t experience ourselves as powerful, threatening beings. We may feel anxious, insecure, deeply sensitive to rejection, shame-filled about our sexual longings. As sex is a powerful inner drive and carries a lot of meaning around male identity, men may feel a kind of desperation attached to whether they’re found desirable. Our partners’ willingness to have sex is a kind of currency that determines our sense of self-worth. Therefore such men may think their partners have all the power, and deny sex out of a kind of cruelty.
And some of these men may well have experienced violation, abuse, coercion. They may not understand living as women and queer people with the constant threat of physical violence, but they understand their own experiences of feeling humiliated, taken advantage of, cruelly ignored. Repeated experiences of loneliness and rejection begin to sensitize the nervous system to future social interactions.
Unfortunately, chronic loneliness becomes self-perpetuating. According to John Cacioppo’s Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, too much loneliness begins to make us more desperate and mistrustful. We more quickly perceive even innocuous and friendly social interactions as hostile mockery or rejection. We settle for relationships with people who take advantage of us. Then we feel even lonelier, and solidify our view of humans (or our desired lovers, whomever they may be) as basically cruel and self-interested.
With this at stake, it makes sense that we’d also be impaired in our ability to engage in loving, passionate, hot sex. Everything is too personal, too meaningful, too laden with intense emotions that overwhelm better judgment. It’s not testosterone that’s the problem, it’s poor emotional self-regulation mixed with patriarchy.
Patriarchy and years of media have set us up poorly for having sex in-person with other humans. We imagine that sexual desire is automatic and instinctive, that really hot sex should just happen without any kind of planning, conversation, or preparation. We’re also taught to separate out sexual desire from emotional intimacy—this happens for straight and queer men. Because we feel shame about our sexual longings, because intimate sex often brings up feelings of shame, we learn that we can only access our sexual fantasies with someone we don’t care about. We objectify ourselves and our partners.
That shame, I think, is tremendous. Where we have shame, we have a reservoir of life force and desire that desperately wants expression and integration. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hot to find someone willing to share an act otherwise considered taboo or wrong: we really get to be seen and desired as we are. Some of our desires, however, would manifest as behaviors that are dangerous, unethical, illegal, or not wanted by the partner. These are the desires that could be worked through in therapy (to curb dangerous behaviors and sublimate the desire into something prosocial) or explored in fantasy, in role-playing with a consenting adult.
But at heart, I think, shame is about our longing for connection. So many of us long for and fear being seen in all our sexual wants and needs. As much as we crave full connection, we fear the devastation of full rejection. We split sex into an imaginative fantasy of perfection or an inadequate, unsatisfying reality of denial and poor communication. To include our messy feelings, to make space for them in sex, creates an opportunity to be seen and known with highly charged erotic intimacy. It is something to approach slowly, with patience for one’s self and one’s partners.
So now here it is. The one weird trick: emotional safety leads to hot sex.
What’s sexy is a partner with the confidence to notice what’s going on with his lover, stop what he’s doing, and check in. “Are you into this? What’s going on?”
What’s sexy is a man who is able to not take his partner’s response personally. A man who can wait patiently and listen. Who is able to hear anything partners want to share without lashing out in guilt or shame. Who communicates with his body, his actions, and his words that he expects nothing from his partner but is grateful for what they are willing to share with him. That he truly wants to enjoy sex together and is okay with stopping if that’s what needs to happen.
This safety communicates to your partners that there is no threat of rape or punishment in this encounter. You don’t have to tell them you’re not like that, you are demonstrating it. That frees up you and your partner to get access to your sexual longings and desires together, to truly see each other and connect. That leads to great sex. There’s no longer a need to worry about whether you have consent, because you’ve laid the foundations for true consent. If your partner is too emotionally distressed, too intoxicated, or frozen to have those conversations, then it’s time to stop.
What do we need to establish emotional safety for ourselves and our lovers? Emotional safety for our selves. We need practice recognizing, naming, and offering acceptance to our feelings. One practice that I like for emotional safety is offering okayness. In this, I notice the emotion and offer okayness to it. Take a moment to notice your breath, letting it slow down and deepen into your belly. Notice what’s going on in your mind, heart, and body. For everything that bothers you, acknowledge it one by one, saying, “It is okay that I feel _____.”
“It is okay that I feel rejected.” “It is okay that I feel scared that I’ll be alone.” “It’s okay that I feel guilty.”
This is not about surrendering to the bullshit stories I tell about myself. “I’m going to be alone forever, and that’s okay.” This is about getting beneath the story, letting it be there while also making room for the rest of me. “It’s okay that I’m afraid I’m going to be alone.” When I see these stories and feelings as something intolerable that must be fixed, that leads me to do rash things that I end up regretting. When I allow these stories and feelings to exist without needing to do anything about them, I begin to see they are not the entire truth about me. I see there is no “bad” feeling, nothing to be fixed.
Learning to recognize and accept emotions, moreover, helps us to stay in our bodies and access more of our capacity for intimacy and sensuality. Which also leads to better sex.
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