Richard Prosapio confronts his sexual shame.
I waited in the cell in the Canadian Customs office and remembered:
I was about 10 and I lay on my stomach looking under my bed for a lost toy. My mother eased the door open and said in a tone still solidly frozen in my memory; "I know what you're doing!"
She didn't have to explain anything. I knew immediately that she was talking about masturbation, and I wondered how she could know. I was a nice-boy, and I knew that nice boys weren't supposed to do what I was doing. Her reproach confirmed my own fear that I must keep that part of me secret.
I'd been drawn to the Northwest because of my work in the Men's Movement. I was doing what I loved to do; building and leading the sweat lodges, and creating the kinds of ceremonies that helped men on their road to healing. Healing the alienation we as men all felt from ourselves and each other.
Now, in this locked room painted institutional green, I felt that familiar alienation again. My sexual interests were about to be exposed, and I wanted to run from that part of me, to be safe in the definition of "nice boy". Otherwise, who would have me?
At the end of this journey to the Northwest, I was to meet a wonderful girlfriend of mine and we were going to have a weekend of sexual debauchery. We had been writing to each other for months and had begun to trade sexual fantasies. Hers were sweet and tangential. With each letter exchanged, mine became more overt, intense and literal. She liked mine. She was, she said, both fascinated and frightened and she wanted to know more. We could hardly wait for the opportunity. I had loaded up my "sex toys" for the trip. They were all in the attaché case in the camper of my truck; the leather, the dildos, the blindfold, the silver chains and locks.
The truck was now being gone over by two young female border guards seeking contraband and/or dope. I had fit the "m.o." of a smuggler with my pony tail and my New Mexico license plate. They had pulled me over into an inspection stall and had already found the new .22 target pistol in its box behind the seat so I had been placed under arrest for smuggling. I feared a jail term for that alone.
But what I feared most was the uncovering of that attaché case. Someone I didn't know or trust was going to find out about me. Any moment now I would be exposed for the monster I was sure I was.
I guess I was about 10 or 12 when I had first thought those scary, highly charged erotic thoughts about being tied up, we didn't know the term "bondage" then, I had feared this day would come. And now a lifetime of nightmares was coming true. I was a stranger in a strange land and my deepest secrets were going to be discovered.
My hysteria created headlines in my head. I would be disgraced. EVERYONE would know. Worst of all, my mother would know.
I sit here in my office typing out this story, and looking out at the mid morning shadows on the snow in my front yard and I remember Canada. The memory still churns my insides, still evokes the guilt and shame I carried with me for so long. But now that I've begun to speak out, my guilt melts and my shame shrivels in sunlight. I have already begun to deal with this coming out privately, between my self and me and my new wife. But when I think about the possible long term ramifications I am still frightened. After all, a "nice boy" like me is supposed to have either never had such thoughts or to have "evolved" out of them through therapy or some such process into a soft lover. Sensual, not sexual. Eroticism should be candlelight and soft music. Silk and gentle touch. That's what I read in all those women's sexual fantasy books. That's what was politically correct, not to mention morally RIGHT. That's what so-called feminists demanded.
I've been working in the Men's Movement for the past seven years and I would have thought that if anything was going to set me free it would come from that work. But I have found that even in the encouraging climate of men honestly working to access their feelings and make the world a bit safer for everybody, even there MOM looms shaking a critical, shaming finger in the face of those who would dare be too honest. This is especially true if the honesty has anything to do with sex.
"MOM" speaks through the personages of psychotherapists coming out of graduate schools which for the most part don't have a single Men's Studies program available. "What for?" one head of a Social Work graduate program asked me. These therapists are trained and politically correct, but they are not healed.
Most in the Men's Movement have tried to be well-meaning and liberal, but shame and fear stunts their growth in the area of sexual expression. "If we speak out about sex"; one prominent movement leader told me, "they (the radical feminists) will crucify us in the press and we will lose credibility everywhere."
Once again we have got to be nice little boys or mom will be angry. Not only that, she will tell all her friends that we really are very nasty at our core, and then they will all agree that they knew it all along.
Now the term "addiction" is being applied to a man's normal interest in sex. Five men at a breakfast outside of Las Vegas, Nevada were concerned that they were addicted, as defined by their female therapists because they masturbated more than once a week!
At a gathering in Arizona a few years ago, the subject of sex came up and three or four of the men became agitated about our free and open discussion.
What they were saying sounded like someone else was speaking through them. I knew full well that I was hearing each man's female therapist. MOM was alive and well and there! The remaining forty-plus men in the circle retreated from the issue in the interests of what they called; "harmony". Even though making up a minority, one angry mom or mom representative is more than any number of men dare face.
The freedom from guilt and the support to experience that freedom is not coming, and cannot come from inside the Men's Movement because of that primal mom power. Instead, once again, it is the women who are breaking the trail toward more honesty about sexual expression.
And what are these women saying? They are saying that pornography is as healthy an expression of sexual fantasy as romance novels. That s & m and other forms of esoteric sexual games are not only politically correct, they are NECESSARY for us to acknowledge that we are wonderfully diverse and passionate beings and that ALL expressions of our consensual, creative sexuality are right and good.
Enter Ann Rice, a successful, out-there woman writer who has written about sex in her "Beauty Trilogy" without censoring her erotic imagination. She has captured the sensuousness and raw sexuality of s & m and bondage and without any dues to pay to guilt. She even included a happy ending! No moralizing, no punishment for her or her characters for having lived or thought these thoughts. She followed her fantasy, and fantasy, as someone said, leads inexorably to truth.
Reading Ann Rice forced the first crack in the dam of my personal repression. Then came Canada and there I was, caught crossing a boundary with "illicit" cargo. Not my .22, but my long suppressed and shame-filled fantasy life.
The Mountie came into the room. They had finished their search. Thank God he didn't have the female cops with him I thought. At least I'd be spared the horror of being smirked at.
He charged me with smuggling. No word on the contents of my case! No jail. No censoring. No shaming. "Just pay the fine and be on your way."
I was outta there!
In that moment I knew what the outcome of the bust must be. I knew, with everything that had been locked up inside of me for all those years by guilt and shame, that I had to risk speaking out.
I told the story to a friend that day and to a group of men the next. Some of them were uncomfortable. Many told me later that they finally felt relief of the shame they had known all of their lives about their own sexuality.
After that, I began to find reinforcement everywhere most especially in a compendium of writings by women who didn't belong to the reactionary wing of the feminist movement. I read about one of them, San Francisco writer Carol Queen , who was already out:
"I cherish s/m because participating in its intense rituals tells me that I have begun to break down the wall of fear about my own (and others) sexual possibilities. .......this is the heart of the matter as regards my involvement with s/m: I get to explore the continuum of power and powerlessness with partners I choose because I trust them and communicate well with them. This trust allows the possibility of vulnerability, surrender and profound intimacy." (The Erotic Impulse, Tarcher/Perigee, 1992, p 234.)
Another writer, Paula Webster, was questioning the radical feminist party line, "How do we understand the differences between ourselves and the women.....who dream of being dominated or becoming dominatrixes? We cannot remain indifferent to the sexual tastes and subjects of women's lives if we are to create a feminist discourse on female sexuality that will replace the familiar one of commiseration." (Impulse, p 137.)
And Ann Rice, in a Playboy interview (March, '93); " ....I think the masochistic fantasies explored in my pornography and rape fantasies in general, are fascinating things. They have to do with our deep psyche and they transcend gender. Both men and women have these fantasies. And to pretend they don't is ridiculous." (p 56)
It seems ironic now that it was the judgment of women I feared most, all starting with mom of course. And it all had to come to a head with the searching of my belongings by women. For if it had been men, I would not have been so filled with fear about the potential for exposure. I knew men would understand. And finally it was the willingness of outspoken women to risk the censure of their peers, a controlling force among women, that helped me in my own struggle to become more free.
That the men in my life could ever help in this healing process was out of the question. After all, they were as suspect as I when it came to perversity.
Because I condemned myself, I knew they too must be condemned. In my life, it has always been women who held the position of thumbs up, thumbs down on the sexual playing field. I either celebrated or restrained my expression, depending on my partner's reaction to me and my fantasies.
But I know now that I, and we as men, must learn that we do not need anyone's permission to be as fully diverse as we were born to be. If we would destroy, cover over, or deny what is inside of our natures because of fear or political correctness, we will have begun to unravel our own wonderful tapestry of diversity. A diversity that includes BOTH the light and dark passions of our being.
Listen again to Carol Queen; "For me, being authentic about my own sexuality leads to a greater authenticity in all things." (The Erotic Impulse, p 234.)
To my wonderful wife who does more than support me, she elevates me and my sexuality. To my new children, my grown children, my grandchildren. To all of those who come to me in my professional capacity as therapist and/or mentor, I can do no less than live my own life more openly today than I did yesterday. I can do no less than throw off the oppressions and embrace the truth of my own sacred sexual nature.
And thank you, Canada. Crossing your boundary forced me to confront my own.
And now, on this side, I have found my freedom.
ÓRichard Prosapio, ceremonialist, psychotherapist (ret.), author, and leader of experiential workshops for 22 years lives in New Mexico.
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