What you believe may keep you from greater intimacy and satisfaction.
They walk into my office as adults. Plagued by shyness, erection problems and a phenomenon that seems to be increasing in men, low libido. Some are needy, dependent and at times, violent. Many feel angry and alienated from women.
All of the above are symptoms.
My job as a psychologist is to get to the root of the maladies of modern sexuality. I trace the issues that men bring to me all the way back to childhood and find a particularly seminal period is puberty.
The messages young men receive about sex and women commences a pattern that sets boys up to have the very issues landing them on my couch. If they don’t result in some sexual dysfunction, at the very least, they can make a man a bad lover. If I could summarize the messages men receive and just write it out like a list of commandments, it would look like this:
Thou shalt have sex with as many women as possible.
The more girls you sleep with, the higher your status. Further, a real man should want to have sex with any woman, any time. Sex is about conquest, a game, a challenge. Racking up numbers is a competition and a quest in which a man proves himself to other men
How does this make a man a bad lover? This behavior is about ego more than it is about sex. Narcissism isn’t hot. It’s greedy and exploitive. The underlying message is that sex is not special and neither is the girl. Women want to feel special, even if for one night.
Thou shalt separate sex and love.
Loving a woman is wimpy. You don’t even have to like her. In fact, the dislike of women is often eroticized . You can see it in the use of pejorative language. “Bitches” and “hos” isn’t always just innocuous dirty talk; it’s the sexualization of disrespect. The hitch is that most men don’t want to disrespect women. This leads men to compartmentalize women into love objects and sex objects.
How does this make a man a bad lover? This split might work when single, but it bites men in the ass when they get married or involved a serious relationship. The pattern I see most often in my office is a wife down for anything and it’s the husband who can’t bring himself to fuck her. Women usually need to respect a man to want to sleep with him, and men to disrespect a woman to sleep with her.
Thou shalt perform.
It’s all about getting an erection, how big it is, how hard it is and how deftly he brandishes it around. What about the other person in the room? Young men learn a penis centered versus relationship centered interaction.
How does this make a man a bad lover? Of course, women want a man who knows what he’s doing with his penis. However, if you’re more focused on doing something to her rather than being with her, she’s likely to walk away unsatisfied. Rather than being in the moment, you’re monitoring your performance.
Thou shalt not be aggressive.
That’s right, despite all the media messages telling young men to be aggressive, there is also strong communication from parents and educators about not being aggressive. Yet, guys quickly learn that girls don’t like nice guys. A pubescent boy has his first crush. Then he watches the bully get the girl. He tries to approach her and she ignores him or laughs at him. She’s only interested in the football players. Girls seem to have so much power (actually, they’re just acting out the same socialization). Later these guys try to learn the Game, or become masters of cunnilingus, they buy her things, they try to be her best friend (winding up in every girls friend zone).
Worse, they try too hard to be what she likes.
How does this make a man a bad lover? The desire to please can become over-valued. The worries about what she will think or about what she wants have men ingratiating, anxious. Some men tamp down their own desires for her leaving women hungry for a man’s internal muscularity. Women will say, “I want to be ravaged. Throw me down, tear my clothes! Spank me!” and the guy will tell me in confidence “I can’t. I don’t have it in me.”
The end result of these commandments is a sexuality constricted to the following themes: conquest, performance, pleasing, validation.
Men in their 20s and 30s come to therapy when they begin to realize that this kind of socialization doesn’t reflect who they actually are. Men don’t want sex all the time. They want certain favorable emotional conditions to be in place. They want sex to be meaningful. They want to feel love and lust at the same time. They’re trying to undo the conditioning of their youth and create new definitions for what it means to be sexually actualized.
Social messages affect how the body responds. Sex is like a barometer; erections, ejaculation and libido are effected by the feelings rising from the beliefs formed about sex. These commandments are cultural constructs, not truths about the nature of male sexuality. This narrative that men are supposed to be depraved and emotionless while women are disinterested hasn’t been around that long on the world stage. There was once a time when young men were taught to be good lovers.
Two thousand years ago in China, there were actual “Love Masters” and a manual called the Tao of Loving. Men and women could learn the arts of sexual pleasure. Harmony rather than hierarchy between the two sexes was emphasized and love was a necessary component. Sex was not merely a pro-creational or recreational activity; it was actually a branch of medicine. Sexual fulfillment was important for health, longevity and even peace on earth. Men were trained in highly sophisticated skills including the ability to love. Imagine a system teaching men to measure their masculinity, not by conquest, but by their capacity to love. I wonder how that affected a woman’s desire. It was also a profoundly sensual period of openness. Pejorative sexual language did not exist as it does today; genital terminology were couched in florid poetic language, such as the jade stem for the penis and for the vagina: the jade gate, the golden lotus, open peony blossom, and the receptive vase. Human bodies and various sex acts were widely exalted in art and literature in an ever-present poetic expression of life.
In ancient India, the Kama Sutra honored all kinds of sexual impulses. They acknowledged the joys of separating sex and love, though sex with love was recommended. They also supported a place to express aggression in a healthy, passionate way. They have very specific instructions for biting, slapping and using force to demonstrate that normal mix of anger and passion.
There is some great Latin American poetry that really addresses the dilemma of how to integrate love and lust. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda celebrates the carnal desires with a mix of love and aggression. He wrote not for a mistress, but for his wife:
Then, in a leap
Of fire, blood, teeth
With a claw slash I tear away
Your bosom, your hips
I drink your blood
(from “The Tiger” in The Captain’s Verses)
And here is some inspiration from Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez for those paralyzed by the anxiety of a woman’s rejection:
You, in your bamboo chair.
Me, standing her consumed by love.
You, naked under your umbrella.
Me, dressed and burning alive.
You, with nails and teeth,
Looking at me with a desire to kill.
Me, backing up a bit,
Filled with a crazy desire to bleed.
(from “The Umbrella,” trans. By Reinaldo Garcia)
These guys allow themselves to be totally consumed by a passionate desire. Rather than fear its power, they hail it. She isn’t receptive, but this doesn’t shut him down. He doesn’t get angry about women having all the power to reject. Requited or not, he continues to celebrate his longing. He doesn’t need her approval. He desires for the sake of desire. He even eroticizes the idea that she isn’t going to want him back. Consider this instead of sexualizing disrespect.
These Latin American poets don’t act like they’re too cool to care. The take away: show you care and be cool with that. Displaying interest and confidence at the same time is a turn-on for most women. These guys know how to portray being vulnerable without appearing weak.
There is no modern guide for adolescent boys. No Kama Sutra or Tao of Loving for the modern man (although I think they suit just fine). Rather than allowing movies, pornography or other teenage boys to be your avatar, ask yourself: what does it mean to be a good lover? Ancient wisdom shows us that sex affirms life. For the Taoists, it’s good health. For the Kama Sutra period in India, eroticism was considered a virtue. What they have in common is that they allow sex to matter and they allow the woman to matter. In this permission lies an important message about masculinity and a foundation for being a good lover.
Image credit: /Sean/Flickr