In lust with lifeby Jed Walker
I was asked to write this piece after trying to give a talk titled ‘Sex, Lies & Intimacy’ at a men's network meeting. I say trying because the evening turned into a farcical sort of brawl. I can’t say how much the relative influence of presentation style vs content determined the degeneration of the talk, but I did leave convinced that sex remains a much less comfortable topic for the men's movement to debate than those such as work, fathering, or retrofeminism.
For any relationship I've been in that has lasted more than a couple of years, I've found sustaining deep intimacy and scorching passion tends to become a problem. It can go several ways: comfy, content, rather mundane; picky, resentful, cold-war type hostility; fiery, dramatic, strife-torn; rampant mutual lust, bliss, nirvana. Once I would have settled for the first (better than the next two), now I see Life’s Great Challenge as maintaining the latter category.
It is difficult not to measure my self-worth by my sex-life. Making pots of money, fighting wars, driving fast cars, being a sports legend - all these things have lost their currency in the world of new men and women. But it's pretty hard to deride being a great lover, and pretty hard not to get a fraction agitated when there's no great loving to be had. But so often the marriage vow (mutual deprivation pact) drifts from ‘You shall have no lovers but me’, to simply ‘You shall have no lovers’. How does this come about? I'll tell you what happened to me.
Marriage - babies - breastfeeding. Whining little creatures wanting a piece of mummy's body. Why did she treat me like just another creature? When we did have sex it was often unsatisfying. Sex became like the thorn in the riddle:
I went to the woods and I got it,
Sex has at times become just too difficult - such a torment I couldn't afford to want it any more. I practiced psychological emasculation and spent a lot of time mastering my computer. Alas, even saucy jpegs from alt.tasteless and a left-handed mouse couldn't assuage my libidinous longing. I told myself I was taking care of my own needs, but actually it was a combination of distraction and withholding - I would have done better to spend time with my wife, but without the on-her-back expectation of sex at the end of a good talk and cuddle. My motivation for sex was for reassurance; I was coming from a place of insecurity and emptiness, rather than easy confidence in my own desirability and worth. My resentment at existing in this degrading position fuelled my hostility and childish responses. I would sulk and stomp, demand more ‘freedom’, argue about red-herrings. Such behaviours do not a sexy lover make. My ever-kind wife, not wishing to hurt my feelings, professed a lack of interest in sex, rather than admitting a lack of sexual interest in the dependent little sook her husband had become. Maintaining her integrity however, she refused to respond to my neediness, ultimately forcing me to recognise my responsibility for my own happiness, and my role in our binary system. Slowly, wrenchingly, painfully, I grew to become the person I wanted to be. Luckily, but not really surprisingly, this man is one that she wants.
We found, (and you can stick this on your fridge), that people aren't frigid, relationships are. This process was not pleasant. Having ritual circumcision while lying on hot coals and getting one's front teeth knocked out is probably the easier route to manhood. (But how will I convince my sons of this?)
To elaborate: We came together not long out of the terrible teens with our psyches bristling with that mess of spikes and tendrils variously known as childhood patterns, baggage, or "stuff". Before we knew it we were struggling with our new roles of parents and breadwinners. The tendrils became densely enmeshed, manifesting as expectations, obligations, highly conditional love, and a fickle sex life. We were interlocking systems, one could not move without the other reacting. To break out required tearing this tangled mass in two, releasing us from the stultifying interdependency. In our case the blood did flow, and wounds (or what were felt as wounds) needed to heal. Part of the healing involved giving each other time to reflect, together (sitting talking, especially about our past together and significant events and feelings around them), and apart (time with increasingly-non-mutual - friends, holidays alone). We moved from being an amorphous couple to being two differentiated individuals. From needy love and dependency to confident, adult, self-contained love and mutual respect.
The process reminded me of living with pregnancy (shudder). At that time I theorised that the purpose of pregnancy was to train the husband, by means of a schedule of negative reinforcement (a human bomb), to be the sensitive, caring, responsible man that is required for the duties of fatherhood. I think of it as nine months of enforced sainthood. Outside of pregnancy the schedule is a bit less harsh. The reinforcers are good sex, bad sex, and no sex. BUT, unlike pregnancy, allowances do not have to be made for emotional storms begat of rampant hormones. No one has to take any shit. In fact to stand firm, and take no shit, earns me the begrudging respect of my wife. Sex improves. To mistake taking shit for taking unwelcome feedback about my slackness, unfairness, or whatever-well- deservedness, is a fatal error. To insist on a night out when it’s my third in a row is asking for it. To give in to her demands for the same is also asking for it. If either of us sacrifice our integrity the relationship - and intimacy and sex - will suffer. It felt like a grief reaction moving from dependency to integrity. I spent considerable time in foetal position moaning softly. I had made my moves to tear away from the bind, and paid for it. She made her moves, I took them personally, I paid again. Eventually I was forced to grow through the pain because I couldn’t tolerate it any more. She did the same. To reconnect, now as adults, separate and not enmeshed, was to feel the excitement of adult love and desire. It’s so much stronger and more positive than loving a younger version of mummy. The downward spiral now became the upward spiral. A spirit of goodwill, and spirited sex with a repertoire of emotions and meanings. Instead of the act of sex being some empty reassurance of not lagging too far behind the national average of frequency (what small aspirations!), it became the ultimate sharing and communication. Things actually get played out in bed. Just as the everyday life system affects what happens in the bedroom, so too is the converse true. Ever had a juicy piece of conflict and then gone to bed and fucked wildly? There's your resolution.
And so it goes. I'd like to say it just gets better and better, but actually one of us usually manages to do something the other doesn't handle, and resentment and sexual disinterest prevail for a while. So far we've been able to talk and fuck our way out of these periods. And we don't get stuck for months on end any more. I know what's required, and luckily it only takes one of a couple to start acting like a loving adult - the other tends to look rather silly playing child by themselves. Having good sex again isn't the conscious goal, but it does tend to correlate with a healthy and happening relationship. Our sex life is a barometer, and a window.
I have done a lot of reading (and writing, if anyone's interested), but mostly concur with the "life is the best teacher" adage. If I look at a particular period in our relationship, or fight, or exactly what we did in bed one night, I can learn a great deal about the bigger picture. So much the better when these things are openly discussed with my wife. Our weekly reflections probably do more than books or a counsellor could ever achieve, at no cost too. I'm particularly wary of books along the lines of "Getting the love from your spouse you never got as a kid". They have a "The world owes me" feel. It doesn’t. I owe myself.
I used to resent my sexuality, curse it for the hold it had over me and the power I surrendered because of it. I'd be one of the guys who’d glumly remark "sometimes it’d be better just to chop off the lot." It's a relief to now be able to welcome periods of burning lust, ride my desire rather than fight it or try to distract myself from it. (Though my computer skills have suffered). I've even taken to reading some of the new erotica the alternative press has been publishing lately. That would have been way too frustrating once, and probably unsound too. Now, having lightened up and let go of my angst about sex, I feel comfortable immersing myself in sexual thoughts and feelings, letting desire seep into everyday life, imbuing all that I do with passion. Does that sound a bit religious? Well, if it's a path to spirituality, it sure beats being a monk.
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