Unfortunately during my week off from seeing clients between Christmas and New Year’s I got sick with a nasty cold. So instead of all that I had planned to do, the week was a perfect opportunity to both rest and read. I knew immediately which book on my nightstand I would grab: Esther Perel’s latest, “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.” It turned out to be a great week after all.
This book is not a how-to-recover-from-infidelity sort of book — those books have been written. Rather, think of this book as a meditation on infidelity, relationships, and sexuality. Esther spends most of the book discussing and exploring the many facets of relationship betrayals and highlights some of the more interesting, and existential, issues that are always present. Her writing style is beautiful and poetic. Just like any good book, this one was a true pleasure to read. I hope you will consider reading it; you don’t need to have experienced an affair to ponder and learn.
In particular, I was so impressed with chapter 11 “Is Sex Ever Just Sex?”. This chapter was about male sexuality and compulsivity. And it was like none I have yet to read in a major book on the subject of human sexuality. Esther put words to what I have been thinking and seeing in my office for a long time. It’s time we start talking about it more. So let’s start with…
“Men want sex and women want love.” Oy. You hear this sad, pathetic, tired, and old heteronormative trope over and over in every corner of our culture. This is absolutely not true! I sit with men every day, I help them learn about their sexuality, and I can tell you with great certainty it’s not just sex that they seek.
(BTW, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that trope said by a woman in my office. And yet that very [false] belief is getting in her way. This sort of message is so damaging to relationships. I spend a good portion of my week dismantling them and helping my clients take the emotional risks to really interact with each other — and not interact with their faulty perceptions and projections of their partners.)
In reality, men are just as complex sexual creatures as women. Generally speaking, besides the sensual pleasures of sex, I’ve found that men turn to sex to feel emotional vulnerability and relational connection. This is something us women need to learn and learn NOW. “Men want sex” because it’s the one place they can safely experience being vulnerable with another person — and straight men want to experience that with women. Wow! What a humbling compliment, ladies (truly).
Men get so many toxic messages about what it means to “be a man”. “Man up.” “Brush it off.” “What are you, a pussy?” They may hear those statements as children or teens and stop hearing them as adults but those memories and messages remain. Those are all harmful messages about masculinity. Even in adulthood it doesn’t really stop. Other men at the office or on the dating app are seen as competitors, people they have to defeat in order to win the prize.
All these kinds of messages tell men it’s not OK to (1) have feelings, (2) recognize those feelings, (3) give voice (internally or behaviorally) to those feelings, and (4) let alone work to soothe those feelings in a constructive, healing way. So how do a lot of men cope instead? By stuffing their feelings and/or withdrawing. That’s when a man “solves the problem”…of their uncomfortable feelings. Sex can definitely help distract us away from our emotional discomfort and create a mood change. (Enter sexual compulsivity.) Ours is not a culture that makes it easy for men to cultivate caring relationships with other men. No wonder sex is so important to them — it’s where they can finally let their guard down and maybe, just maybe feel a full range of emotions (like maybe vulnerability and connection) with another person.
Another thing I have seen repeatedly that Esther discusses in chapter 11 is the dilemma of the sensitive and caring man. This is the guy who maybe self-identifies as a feminist, maybe was raised by a single mom, maybe had a sister or two who had great influence on him, or maybe it’s the guy who is paying attention, close attention, to all the things women in our culture are saying right now about toxic masculinity and the use of power. This guy wants to honor and respect his female partner (and all women) and be their ally in the fight for greater equality for women…and he has sexual urges and desires. Urges and desires that may not fit nicely into the egalitarian relationship he and his female partner have fostered outside the bedroom. How do those sexual urges square up with that? It’s confusing and perhaps shameful for him.
The fact is, there is an element of sexuality that is aggressive. This is eros, the life force. It’s big and powerful and intense at times. We all have this aspect to our sexuality, men and women alike, and we need to learn about this part of our sexual selves if we are to have healthy sexual relationships based on self-awareness and mutuality.
I’ve worked with quite a few men over the years who have an uneasy or unknown relationship to their own sense of their masculinity and sexuality. They want to be strong and powerful and successful. They want to be admired by other men…and of course women. They want to be caring, sensitive, and skilled lovers. Just as the 21st century woman feels a lot of pressure to “have it all”, most 21st century men feel an equal amount of pressure to be all those things — a superman. Each man has to go through a process of examining these messages to decide what sort of man — what sort of human being — he in fact wants to be in the world. It’s no minor task and the implications are huge. And it has the potential to change his relationships and our world for the better.