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Chapter 4: self: Emotional Skills

Sexual Liberation

One of the most fundamental aspects of being human is a sense of division between what seem to be our higher and lower selves, the former focused on tenderness, generosity, responsibility, reason and respect, the latter obsessively directed towards that constantly disruptive, exciting and puzzling force: our sexuality.

Our sexual instincts generally compel us to want to do things which stand completely at odds with our more sober commitments in other areas of our lives. Summing up the disruption, in old age, the English novelist Kingsley Amis commented of his own libido: for 50 years it was like being chained to an idiot.

The most understandable but at the same time pernicious response to the apparent peculiarity of our sexual desires is shame. We have – as a species – been ashamed for a very long time. The story of Adam and Eve largely hinges on the birth of disgust for our bodies and their wants. A God furious at our first disobedience burdens us with a guilty relationship to our own physical – by which one understands principally sexual – nature.

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Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam & Eve, 1424

If the Biblical story resonates outside of a theological context, it is because it is also and at the same time the story of our own path to physical maturity. We too once wandered innocently and unselfconsciously around the garden of Eden, which might have been our backyard, unconcerned if anyone saw us naked, our three-year-old bodies cherubically acceptable and inoffensive to all. But adolescence forces us all to adopt far greater circumspection, to consider that what we desire could appear ‘dirty’ and taboo to almost everyone we meet. We begin to stand divided against ourselves, unreconciled to what half of us is and wants. Our priorities rarely change as dramatically and swiftly as they do in the moment after orgasm.

Despite all this, at one level, our shame sits oddly with us because we’ve taken to heart the idea that we live in an era of sexual liberation. We tell ourselves a story of progress, from the repression of the Victorians and the religious fanatics to the openness of modernity. There are some signs of genuine change. Stand up comics can make jokes about masturbation, women’s sexual appetites have been recognised, bathrooms are designed to feel airy and open. Yet the notion that we are liberated causes us problems all of its own, because it brings with it the assumption that hang-ups and awkwardness cannot legitimately exist any longer.

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But in truth, of course, true liberation remains a radically unfinished project, ‘unfinished’ because we continue to struggle – today – to admit some key things about who we are from a sexual perspective. This becomes especially painful around relationships, given that for many of us, the dream of love is that we will, at last, be able to admit to who we are sexually without embarrassment. Yet the reality is more awkward. We frequently find ourselves facing an apparent choice between being honest and being liked.

The choice is not good for us. The sense that we need to hide, deny and bury away key elements of who we are is not, overall, very good for us. When we repress things that are important, they make themselves heard in other ways. As psychoanalysis has revealed, the ‘dirty’ parts of ourselves can show up disguised as greed, harsh opinions, bad temper, the longing to boss other people about, alcoholism or other forms of risky, damaging behaviour. There is a high price to disavowing powerful parts of ourselves. Our sexuality can become entirely split from our more enduring relationships, we may lose potency and desire with those we love, so unacceptable does our sexuality appear to be to us, so at odds with our higher feelings in a pattern that Freud first noted in early 20th century Vienna: ‘Where they love, they cannot desire. Where they desire, they cannot love.’

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True sexual liberation or self-acceptance doesn’t have to mean abandoning all control or the deliberate flaunting of our less elevated needs at every turn. We don’t have to fully embrace every impulse, we still need privacy and bathroom doors; we just need to be able to admit in an unfrightened way to ourselves and at points to our partners who we really are. There’s still a central place for restraint and politeness. And yet the core point of true liberation is to reduce the unfair and debilitating burden of shame with which we continue to wrestle only too often.

Shame means that too many couples still find it difficult to be honest with one another about who they are and what they need to feel satisfied. This cuts them off from sources of affection and honesty. Sexual loneliness remains a norm. We shouldn’t suppose that we can always and invariably share our every sexual proclivity with others, but there’s a lot we should perhaps feel more confident about expressing. Things that seem strange can turn out to be quite understandable when we consider them rationally; there’s an important role for philosophical analysis in the path to sexual liberation, enabling us to stretch the understanding we have of our own desires.

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Our goal should be to adopt a mature unfrightened perspective on our own sexuality and to increase opportunities for moments of courageous and relationship-enhancing honesty.

The core skill for a more properly liberated sexuality is a richer, more enlightened vision of what sexual desire actually aims at. It is so easy to become disgusted with ourselves because our desires seem so opposed to our more caring or intelligent sides. But properly understood, the most apparently ‘dirty’ or peculiar practices reveal a logic that is far more connected than we might have imagined to our more standard self-image and sense of dignity.

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We get disgusted by ourselves when we feel that our erotic longings move directly against the promptings of our better nature. We generally want to be kindly, dignified, reasonable and loyal. But our erotic selves appear at crucial moments to have a radically divergent agenda. We might want to violate or be violated, we want to slap someone hard or be beaten up, we want to be rough or say incredibly coarse things; we long to wear garments we’d not normally be seen dead in or wish our partner to dress in ways that run entirely contrary to our usual preferences. We may want to enter someone anally or lick their sexual organs. There’s an infinite variety of individual variations on this theme but they all point in one direction: the apparent unacceptability to our normal selves of who we are around sex.

The key move here is to examine more closely and more generously our seemingly bizarre erotic wishes. What we are really seeking – via sex – is usually something very admirable (and entirely in line with the rest of our lives): closeness to another person and warm recognition of who we are. The means might be disconcerting but the goal isn’t. If we can take this point deeply to heart we can see that we’re much less divided in ourselves than we often suppose. We’re not really going against our own better nature, we’re just pursuing it in less familiar guises.

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Really lust and erotic excitement are for the most part just equally intense longings for communion that happen to be expressed via the body. The other person’s willingness to do the most intimate bodily things with us is the outward sign of their inward acceptance of who we are. They feel close enough and trusting enough to lower their guard and let us into the most private and guarded spaces of their being.

We are constantly drawn to the idea that sex is primarily about the body, reflected in our essentially athletic conception of great sex (involving piston like thrusts and acrobatic changes of position). But at its core, sex is a mental and psychological phenomenon. It is the meeting of two minds or souls – enacted with the help of the body. However, some of our darker and more complex desires might initially look, our sexuality is really built around a longing for acceptance and the communion that acceptance allows. We get erotically excited by deeply tender things – even in the midst of words and actions that look quite aggressive, degrading and bad.

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We can examine this thought via a closer examination of four particularly striking sexual practices/ideas: cunilingus, anal sex, rape fantasies and pornography:

 

Cunilingus

Oral sex can seem like a quite strange way of enjoying oneself sexually. The mouth – which is normally reserved for speaking, eating, coughing, yawning and breathing is put into service on the genitals of another human being. It is jammed up against someone’s vagina or pressing towards their testicles. In the light of everything we’ve learned and are, there are few things weirder to connect than a face and the sexual organs.

The thrill of oral sex is connected to the brief, magnificent reversal of the generally quite sensible taboos we’ve internalised. It’s a potent symbol of our trust and feeling of acceptance and closeness that with a partner, we can do this otherwise forbidden and shameful thing. The act of caressing with one’s tongue and lips and gently nibbling and sniffing a penis or vagina breaks down the barrier of loneliness that usually surrounds us. Our partner is in effect saying to us – the usual barriers don’t hold anymore. With me you can forget about your learned anxieties and prohibitions. With me you don’t need to be ashamed or disgusted with yourself. I am excited by who you are – especially by the parts of you that aren’t supposed to be nice and acceptable. The act is physical but the ecstasy is really emotional relief – because oral sex permits our secret self, with all its ‘bad’ and dirty sides, to be witnessed and enthusiastically endorsed by someone we like. The privileged nature of a relationship is sealed by an act which, with someone else, would have been sickening. The bond of loyalty between a couple grows stronger with every increase in explicitness. The more unacceptable our behaviour would be to the larger world, the more we feel as if we are building a haven of mutual acceptance.

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Sex has the power to liberate us for a time from that punishing dichotomy between dirty and clean. It can literally purify us – by engaging the most apparently polluted sides of ourselves in its games. We can press our mouths, the most public and respectable aspects of our faces, eagerly into the most contaminated parts of the other – thereby symbolising a total psychological approval, much as a priest would accept a penitent, guilty of many transgressions, back in the fold of the Church with a light kiss upon their head. The pleasure of oral sex is deeply rich and significant. It isn’t primarily about a pleasant physiological sensation at all, it’s about acceptance – and the further promise of an end to loneliness.

 

Anal Sex

Much the same holds true for anal sex. For long periods, and in many places, anal sex has been regarded as contrary to nature. In a limited but important sense this is obviously right. Sticking a penis into another person’s rectum does not aim at procreation, which is the primary objective of sexual activity in the animal realm. The anus was regarded as not having evolved to accommodate a tongue, two or more fingers, a length of rubberised plastic or a string of latex beads.

The error has been to suppose that being contrary to nature is bad thing. It’s not; going deliberately against nature or evolution is one of the most important things we ever do. It’s not natural for people to recover unscathed from smallpox; evolution left us vulnerable to the bite of the Yellow Bellied Sea Snake; it is contrary to nature to live in centrally heated houses, to fly in planes across multiple time zones or use knives and forks (when we have beautifully adapted fingers). The fact that ejaculating into somone’s anus does not lead to procreation is a quality shared with writing novels and playing tennis, which are also interesting and often enjoyable activities that have no direct connection to having children.

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By common consent, the anus is the most disgusting part of the human body. It’s the most strongly connected to germs and disease rich outputs. We’ve developed strict rules about the need for extreme privacy around our bottoms. We take care to shut the bathroom door; it’s horrific in public restrooms to sense that there’s someone in the next cubicle and nauseating to hear them going about their business. The sphincter muscles tend to clench whenever we feel anxious.

But all this feeds into the tenderness and sweetness of being allowed to explore this part of another person or of letting them do this to us. The more powerful the social barrier the greater the sense of intimacy is when it is lowered. We’re not forgetting that the anus is the locus of special disgust – we’re relishing this fact. Anal play would quite possibly lose its capacity to delight us if it were regarded simply as clean, healthy fun. If the anus were seen as no more ‘dirty’ than someone’s forehead or shins, its capacity to fascinate us would be reduced. Anal sex would be robbed of its deep psychological significance – which is dependent on someone letting us do something avowedly filthy with them.

For many couples, anal sex remains off limits even if they have been together quite a while. The sense can persist that this is not a very nice thing to do. But this feeling isn’t necessarily the end of the matter. Far from signalling something you should avoid, the reluctance might actually be a good target for gentle, generous investigation. Because it is exactly the feeling that something is wrong, perverse or obscene that makes the mutual agreement to try it so great a mark of love.

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 Rape Fantasy

There are many things that it would be wrong, illegal, dangerous or crazy to do in reality but which we enjoy thinking about doing in ways that are innocent, kindly, safe and very sane. This is very familiar outside of the sexual arena.

As a child one might have enjoyed imagining going to the South pole, wrestling and then making friends with a polar bear, adopting a pet penguin with a broken wing, feeding it chocolate cake, getting trapped in the worst blizzard of the century (for one and a half minutes), then spending the night (another 37 seconds) in a cosy, dry igloo before getting rescued by some outlandishly dressed but charming pirates cruising past in their four masted, nuclear powered, ship in search of a youthful captain. In the real world this would be by turns horrific, impossible, dangerous and in breach of maritime law. But in our heads it is lovely. Make believe is so enjoyable because it takes a scalpel to experience and cuts away everything that would be genuinely awful in the real world.

We understand make-believe when we read novels. It can be delightful to curl up on the sofa, munch a toasted sandwich and imagine being a cold-blooded hitman, an alcoholic spy in the process of betraying their country, the narcissistic, luxury-addicted mistress of a provincial French doctor, a power-obsessed tyrant or a member of a disorganised gang of drug-traffickers.  As we enjoy these things we don’t worry that we’re about to turn into the character for real. We’re very good at seeing the difference – and the many safety-guards in our minds and in our society that make it impossible for us to do, or even to want to do, these things for real.

After a long, sensual soak, you are lying on the bathroom floor, touching yourself and getting more and more turned on. What if a thuggish character climbed through the window, aching with aggressive lust? They’d not care what you wanted or felt, they’d seize you roughly and force themselves on you; you wouldn’t be able to do anything; you’d try to scream but they’d clamp a hand forcefully over your mouth; you’d try to struggle free but they’d have your arms pinioned behind you. Your brain is on fire with excitement as you edge towards orgasm.

But once this story is finished, you might be struck by a wave of guilt and self-disgust. How could you get excited by this thing which in actual life would be abhorrent? When – sickeningly – you hear that anything remotely like this has happened for real you feel a savage anger and hatred towards the perpetrator.

But fantasising about being raped is profoundly different from the appalling reality. At any moment you could flick a switch in your mind (or just get distracted by noticing a cobweb on the ceiling) and

the mirage would vanish. The character in your mind has no life or volition of their own, they are entirely your own creation. The nice things about being overwhelmed and giving up control and being forced are cut cleanly away from the horrors that would accompany them in the real world. The fantasy has nothing to do with sly approval or encouragement of sexual crimes (no more than enjoying a film about someone who wants to blow up the world means you secretly want the planet to explode).

From the other side, imagining forcing oneself on another person can be exciting precisely because one is so intensely conscious that it would be totally wrong (not to mention deeply traumatic) to do this for real. Imagining being wicked does not on its own suggest one has any desire at all to really do awful things. In playing this out with a partner one is entirely reliant on the fact that they are having a great time and if for a moment one even suspected that they were not deeply excited and thrilled, it would be a complete turn off. This is the diametric opposite of the mentality of an actual rapist for whom it is decisive that their victim is unwilling and unhappy.  

Fantasies around rape gain much of their excitement because they provide a relief (in imagination) from caring so much about other people. Caring too much kills desire, because it makes us preoccupied with being nice to the other person which is at odds with the sources of sexual excitement. The erotic charge of the fantasy does not reveal that deep down we are callous to the suffering of others. On the contrary it depends on the profound, extensive commitment we already have to the welfare of other people. It’s because we normally care so much that it’s occasionally exciting to cast off this attitude and briefly imagine ourselves as cruel and heartless.

We can, in this context, briefly consider the phenomenon of impotence. A man is with his female partner, they are kissing touching, foreplay is going well;  he slides on top of her or perhaps she sits up to straddle him, maybe he’s already inside her and thrusting away – but then his penis starts to wilt. She looks at him expecting him to increase his efforts and renew his potency. But nothing happens. He desperately wants to stay hard but the erection is fading. It’s what the French writer Stendhal termed ‘a fiasco’. He feels ashamed and desperate. He thinks he’s a sexual failure, no good in bed, messed up. His partner is worried too. She thinks that maybe he doesn’t find her attractive anymore, maybe he doesn’t really love her. If it happens repeatedly she might start to wonder what she is doing with this dud.

Often, the cause of impotence is something we’d not initially expect. It’s not lack of desire that leads the erection to fail. The man certain is turned on. But his desire is joined up with a fear. He’s worried that he’s imposing on his partner, that she doesn’t want him as he actually is. If he told her what he most wanted to do sexually she’d feel he was horrible and strange. And out of kindness and consideration for her feelings he holds back from pursuing what he’d really like. He’s terrified that she will be disappointed with him and find him unsatisfying as a sexual partner. It’s easily seen as a sign of not wanting. But that’s usually not the case. He’s impotent not out of lack of sexual desire but out of a worry that his desires won’t be welcome. Impotence is, at base, a symptom of respect, a fear of causing displeasure through the imposition of our own naked desires.

In passing, this sheds some light as well on a female experience which – to some extent – parallels impotence: the feeling of becoming disengaged and distant around sex which is sometimes called frigidity. Rather than being caused by lack of desire – which is what seems to be the case at first glance – she may be going through the same kinds of anxieties: the fear that her partner might be disappointed or upset if she was direct about what she wanted. Or maybe she feels that she won’t be able to please her partner and out of generosity is reluctant to get him excited. Again, the cause is not really lack of desire so much as tenderness and kindliness – giving so much space to what might not be very nice for the other person that one opts out for fear of distressing them in a more grave way.

The popularity of pharmaceuticals designed to combat erectile dysfunction or frigidity signals the collective longing of the modern era for a reliable mechanism by which to override our subtle, delicate, civilized fear that we will disappoint or upset others. It’s actually very touching that we have this problem – it’s a consequence of some very nice things about us.

A better, drug-free approach might consist in a public campaign to promote to both genders – perhaps via a series of billboards and full-page ads in glossy magazines – the notion that what is often termed ‘nerves’ in a man or coldness in a woman, far from being a problem is in fact an asset that should be sought out and valued as evidence of an evolved type of kindness. The fear of being disgusting, absurd or a disappointment to someone else is a first sign of morality.

This benevolent perspective on impotence also tells us how much ruthlessness can be welcome in sex. Of course, in general being very considerate is a great thing. But around sex not giving a shit is a turn on; it’s a welcome relief, for the woman, from her own self-consciousness – hence fantasies of rape. The point isn’t to abandon kindness across life. But just to be more accurate in our understanding of where and when it is genuinely helpful. Being unselfish is mostly a very admirable quality – but there are occasional points where we should abandon the desire entirely.

 

Pornography

Porn very often feels like the enemy of a sexual relationship. Instead of focusing their erotic desires on their partner a man or – a bit less frequently – a woman gets drawn to online content. Hours are spent seeking the perfect scenario. It can seem (to another person) selfish and rejecting.

All the same, a love of porn is deeply understandable. The business of living is so desperately hard, relationships are so challenging, work often so unfulfilling or boring, family dynamics so tricky and the capacity for honest, kindly conversation so restricted, we may through no particular fault of our own fall into despondency – of a kind that leaves us extremely vulnerable to the sudden intense highs offered by short films about lesbians trying anal or muscled hunks whipping each other. Also, our brains are setup to respond to visual erotic stimulation, which worked well enough when there wasn’t much around. We simply happen to be living at a time when, thanks to technology, the most powerful stimulants are on hand all the time. It’s a level of temptation we are scarcely equipped to deal with. We should forgive ourselves – and our partners – for being so drawn to these intense highs.

But a love of porn is more complex than it might at first appear – and is actually circling round some important and very good things.

Sympathy

Pornography takes our erotic interests very seriously. It doesn’t criticise you for being fascinated by threesomes or the idea of kinky librarians or films of people ejeculating on each other’s faces. Instead of saying: you are revolting and disgusting,  a porn site is welcoming and compassionate. It’s offering online something we might ideally wish to get from another person: acceptance of the curious ways our libido happens to work.

 

A reduction of loneliness

So often we feel ashamed of our sexual desires because we suspect that they run very much against what it is normal for people to want. We can easily imagine that we are unusually filthy. We worry about for being excited by things that – we assume – no-one else likes. In our normal social encounters with other people we never get to see what they are turned on by. Others seem so sane and reasonable, much of the time. We feel alone with our freakish interests. Porn sends out the consoling message that we are, in fact, much more normal than we tend to think. It revises in a helpful direction the notion of what normal actually means.

 

Distance

Closeness to a real life partner bring with it many complications that militate against excitement. There’s a backlog of unresolved resentments; there a daily need to put up with this person’s less reasonable sides or to be apologetic for one’s own failings; there’s the pressure to be moderately respectable and civilized. All of these are dampers on sexual exploration – and they fall away around porn. The porn site doesn’t care if you didn’t take the rubbish out or chewed a bit loudly; it doesn’t mind that you slammed the cupboard door or gave a monosyllabic answer when asked how your days was; it doesn’t want to go into detail about why you didn’t ring your mother on her birthday or take you up on your attitude to credit card debt. Porn in effect says: we don’t mind about anything else in your life – just concentrate on this for a bit. Porn can be – therefore – a huge relief from the burdensome complications of intimacy. It usefully – and blissfully – removes sex from the emotional landscape of a relationship.

 

Education

Porn invites us to think that there might be a lot about sex we don’t yet understand properly. It touches on a range of significant questions: What specific things (scenarios, actions, kinds of people) make me feel aroused? What, ideally, might my sex-life be like? What do I need from another person? And, what can I offer someone else?

Porn doesn’t – unfortunately – usually provide very good answers to these questions.  But the point is that what draws us to porn isn’t simply a desire for a quick thrill. In the background we’re searching for important kinds of emotional education and assistance.

When we get annoyed with porn for objectifying women or encouraging loutish behaviour or for encouraging inflated expectations we are – strangely – paying it a backhand compliment. We are recognising that porn influences people and lamenting the particular ways that influence can go badly wrong. We might not spell it out but the thought is: porn is an educator, just not a very good one. So the conclusion might be that porn should ideally be improved rather than just blamed for its very real shortcomings. Porn is where most of us learn about sex. And that opens the way to imagining a kind of pornograpy that educated us better.

 

 

Good Porn

The idea of good porn can seem paradoxical. Many of us are used to thinking of all porn as ‘bad’. Yet when people eat badly, we don’t try to stop them eating at all. We hope to improve their diet. The aim isn’t to abolish food, just because some food is terrible. We want good food to be more widely and easily available. The same move could apply to online sex sites. We can’t abolish porn. So the goal is to get good pornography. Better porn isn’t stuff that’s even more thrilling or exciting. It is ‘better’ in the sense of being better for us – less at odds with the rest of our lives.

We shouldn’t be negative about porn, just because of how most of it seems today. In 1800, many people offering medical services were quacks. They didn’t know what they were doing. There was a hunger for remedies – however misguided. So ‘being a doctor’ was nothing like the respectable career choice it is today. What changed was the realisation that we needed really serious, thoughtful and honourable people to go into this field. Health was too important to be left to self-appointed peddlers of fanciful potions.

We’re hugely aware of the terrible things that can go wrong around porn in the age of the internet. But the longing for sexual stimulation isn’t going to go away. Given how vast the demand is, and how crucial the role of sexuality is in life, it is tragic that comparatively so little talent, wisdom, intelligence, maturity and aesthetic imagination has been direct to it. We’ve rightly come to fear bad porn, because it damages so many lives. Good porn could help us deal a little better with the complex, tricky fact of being – at the same time – highly sexual and highly reasonable beings.

 

*****

We have to find a new way of thinking about our sexuality that is more alive to what we are truly seeking to do in our erotic lives. Throughout the 20th century, the biggest influence on how people thought and felt about sex came from psychoanalysis. The work of Sigmund Freud moved sex from being a marginal topic of discussion to the centre of the cultural conversation. Freud insisted that sex is profoundly connected with almost everything else in our lives. But unfortunately he made it sound as if everything else was degraded and made sinister by this connection: you might have thought you were interested in noble things like art or politics but really, Freud seemed to suggest, you are just being very dirty and base in a disguised way. By extending the range of topics coloured by sex, Freud gave the impression that pretty much everything was polluted by it.

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But in truth, sex seems strongly connected with high-minded concerns. The implication is exactly the reverse of Freud’s thinking. It’s not that when we look at art or politics, we are merely kinky. It’s rather that when we think we’re being kinky, we are actually pursuing some very serious and intelligent goals. Our sexual lives are much more impressive than we tend to suppose – much more deeply in contact with more elevated interests. What seems a bit filthy is actually an endeavour to reach some rather pure and honourable goals by bodily means.

 

The suggestion here is that sexual excitement is in fact fairly easy to understand and not at all contrary to reason. It is continuous with many of the things we want in other areas. Though our erotic enthusiasms might sometimes sound odd (or even off-putting), they are in fact motivated by a search for the good, a search for a life marked by understanding, sympathy, trust, unity, generosity and kindness. The things that turn us on are, at heart, almost always solutions to things we fear and symbols of how we’d like things to be.

Let’s analyse a few common turn-ons in this light:

GLASSES

The Anxiety: Glasses are symbols of thoughtfulness and seriousness. They’re worn by people who seem to have a lot on their plate and perhaps a lot of significant thoughts in their minds. The worry is whether these sort of people have any time for us. They may be too important to pay us and our desires much attention.

"Smashed" Portraits - 2012 Sundance Film Festival

The Erotic: Yet many sections of erotic websites feature people in glasses. Why? Because when glasses are invited into sex, a natural – and important – anxiety is being addressed and (temporarily) resolved: the worry that thoughtfulness and seriousness on the one hand, and bodily excitement on the other might be incompatible. The imagined solution is that the person in glasses can turn out to be not only thoughtful but also extremely interested in sex and the body. Sex with glasses symbolises that the life of the mind is not separate from that of sensual pleasure, that sensitivity and seriousness can be properly reconciled with, and profoundly sympathetic to intimacy.

UNIFORMS

The Anxiety: We often fear that authority will be hostile to us, that it will not understand or sympathise with our needs. It will simply make our lives irksome and dull. All the things we want to do will be forbidden and we will be required to be tame, uninteresting versions of ourselves.

BA pilots and sisters Cliodhna and Aoife Duggan

The Erotic: A sexual fantasy involving people in uniforms is an imagined solution to fears around authority. All kinds of uniform are capable of sparking excitement: most often business suits but also the outfits of doctors, nurses and pilots… These are the professions that scare and intimidate us, but in our sexual games, we invite the uniform in to reduce their power over us. The uniform still stands for authority but now authority has moved to our side, paying us exactly the right kind of attention. The pilot, far from being impassively at the controls, is thrilled to be here with us, she is no longer our enemy but our collaborator.

The ideal which we are seeing, played out in an erotic context, is that authority might help rather than hinder us, reassure rather than intimidate us. We are, as it were, imagining a utopia in which strength, organisation, neatness and order are there to make us feel more at ease, more relaxed and truer to ourselves.

SLAVERY

The Anxiety: We are taught from a young age that we must become independent. We live in an individualistic culture that constantly vilifies dependence and pushes us towards an ideal of solitary maturity.

Venus Erotic Fair 2012

The Erotic: And yet it seems, in our sexual selves, many of us are deeply turned on by the idea of thorough passivity and submission, as a form of escape from the over-strenuous demands of grown-up life. Being a ‘slave’ means that someone else will know exactly what you should do, will take full responsibility, will take choice away from you. This can sound appalling because most slave owners we can imagine (or even just most bosses) are awful. They won’t have our best interests at heart. They won’t be kind. So we want to be independent in part because there doesn’t seem to be anyone around nice enough to deserve our submission.

But the deep hope in the erotic scenario is that at last we can be with someone who is worthy of our complete loyalty and devotion.

It’s a common feature of all sexual fantasies that they do not – of course – genuinely solve the problems from which they draw their excitement. But we shouldn’t worry if the fantasy fails to solve the problem in reality. What we’re looking for here is simply a way of explaining and sympathising with the desire.

DOMINATION

The Anxiety: Modern life demands extreme politeness and restraint. We have to keep our bossiness in check. Of course, in private, we go through life often thinking that we know what’s good for another person or feeling that someone deserves some rather harsh treatment.  In our hearts, we might like to be very bossy, very demanding and insistent. We would like to enforce absolute obedience on all those who defy us. But of course, in the real world, this is made difficult by the  fact that very few people trust us to exercise such power; we simply are not able to rise to the status which would allow us to exercise power as we would want.

Dungeon Dwellers And Domination Enthusiasts Descend On DomconLA

The Erotic: The fantasy is that someone else will acknowledge our strength and wisdom, will recognise our talents and will put us wholly in charge of them. No more need for restraint, no more need to hold our tongue. In the sexual fantasy, someone puts themselves in our hands, as we always hoped might happen. This is an attempt to address the very delicate, and very real problem, of when one is right to exercise decisive power over another person. And now in the sexual game, instead of this being a situation fraught with anxiety – because one might be mistaken about another’s wishes, because there might be resentment, because one might hurt someone – the commands are met only with delight by the person on whom they are exercised.

VIOLENCE

The Anxiety: In childhood, we were able to jump around and hit one another a bit and that was fine, even great fun. But now in adulthood, we are infinitely more circumspect. All violence is prohibited. We are terrified of force, against us or by us.

Two boys wrestling

The Erotic: But in daydreams: it can be nice to take a swipe, to have someone hit you; they could get rough; and you could get forceful. It would be violent, there’d be a savage edge. And yet, magically, no one would really be harmed. No one would be left bereft. The other person would accept one’s violent, extreme possibilities. They wouldn’t be shocked. One wouldn’t have to be so careful; afterwards there would be love and cosiness, till next time.

It is the fantasy that violence is no longer bad for us and others; that our anger and aggression can be expended safely, will not make others unhappy, but in fact will be welcomed by them – and that the fury of another will not wreck our lives but, in fact, bring us a kindly thrill.

OUTDOOR/PUBLIC SEX

The Anxiety: We easily become shy about the public realm; we sense that we have to be guarded, on our best behaviour: out there in the elevators, public plazas, shopping centres, garage forecourts of the world. Even nature is seen as quite hostile – a cold, dangerous place where enemies may set upon us.

Spaniard David Molina (R) comes across I

The Erotic: So the longing arises that we could be as much at ease in the outdoors, in public and in nature, as we can be at home. It would be a solution to a kind of oppression to have sex in the elevator, in the library stacks, out behind the petrol station, in the park… Sex outdoors is pleasurable for the same reasons as picnics are: they are ways of taming the world by taking the domestic out into it. Any activity which has become linked to indoors can be blissful when done outside because it symbolises a conquest of our anxieties – it is a way of imagining being more at home in the world than we normally can be.

LESBIAN HETEROSEXUAL FASCINATION

The Anxiety: A man who is interested in women might quite often find himself thinking – and getting aroused by the idea – of two women kissing, fondling one another, licking each other and going on to do the whole range of erotic things that might appeal to him, one ties up her partner and drips heated wax on her nipples; they take turns with a strapon and eagerly perform anal sex. He seeks out online porn in which women do to each other every exciting thing he can think of. A great many straight men are hugely aroused by the idea of lesbianism. If they happen to have a female partner who knows about this interest, she’s likely to find it annoying. It seems like a sign of arrogance. Does he expect he’s going to be invited to join in? Does she think that they are only interested in each other because there isn’t as yet a man around?

There’s a more benevolent explanation that sees this fascination as addressing a basic problem of the male psyche – a problem that was identified early on in the history of psychoanalysis. The majority of men, during a crucial period of childhood  believe that their mothers are virgins. It’s a primitive, barely conscious, factually non-sensical notion. But it’s playing an important role. They imaginatively separate their (usually) kindly, intensely-loved mother from the alarming, exciting and naughty realm of sexuality. It’s offensive to the imagination of the young boy that his mother might be aroused by other males.

If things go reasonably well in childhood he will have many powerful experiences of her sweetness, tenderness as she says goodnight, as she helps him with his homework and gets impressed by the bulldozer he’s made out of Lego. She gets him to wash his face, eat properly, not have too many biscuits and listens carefully to his ideas. All these experiences point away from erotic life. He builds a picture of her as pure, devoted and focused on him and as someone who would be saddened and a bit revolted by sex and sexual things.

This fundamental template – formed around the most important female in the boy’s life – is then projected onto other women. The now adolescent boy thinks that if a woman  is loving and kind she can’t also be very engaged by anything erotic. And at key moments in his teens, it is very likely that this attitude will join up with the idea that females are more reluctant and more cautious around sex than boys. (He’s not necessarily right in thinking this, of course, but what matters is what’s going on in his head). And this happens at the same time as his own libido is probably gearing up, he’s maybe starting to masurbate and feeling obsessed with sex. This gap between the way he experiences himself and what he imagines women are like creates a lot of guilt around sex. He sees men, especially himself, as dirty and desperate. Sex is a nasty, compulsive but shameful male secret.

 

The Erotic: If lesbian sex is so exciting to him it is because it proves incontrovertibly (at least to him) that sex isn’t just some obscene, primitive, private male thing. The women, in lesbian porn, are shown as highly enthusiastic; they clearly want sex as badly and intensely as men. And they are like this entirely in the absence of men. They are presented as just as carnal and lust driven and dirty as men.  

Even if he happens to be excluded from this particular instance of female desire, the man gets relief from seeing that he is clearly not the only one who wants sex in general. The thrill isn’t the assumption that these women really want to sleep with him: that they are just waiting for a man to join them. It’s teaching a different, more interesting and more reassuring idea: namely that women don’t need men to get sexually excited. They contain the sources of excitement and (perhaps) depravity in themselves. They’re not – it seems – just being reluctantly talked into by men. The burden of guilt and loneliness is removed.

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One can analyse almost any so-called fetish (shyness, cardigans, flat shoes, boots, cigars, stockings, striped socks etc.) and find similar structures: an anxiety and a corresponding longing, to which an erotic charge has become connected.

Looked at like this, sexual scenarios can be explained to ourselves – and, crucially to other people in our lives – in fairly rational, sensible terms. We can take people into our history: we can explain how our fear that sensitivity and seriousness had to be disdainful of the body was formed. We can tell them how, when we were adolescents, there were some instances that really seemed to make this idea problematic, how we got searching for a solution to it, and how glasses got involved.

By talking like this, we can hope that sexual tastes will become less a little shameful and a little less threatening – and our erotic solutions a bit more reasonable and, in their own way, a lot more logical.

 

Unfortunately though, the fear of being ‘too dirty’ runs deep. They tend to come to the fore in long-term relationships. The qualities demanded of us when we have sex stand in sharp opposition to those we employ in conducting the majority of our other, daily activities. For example, an average marriage tends to involve – if not immediately, then within a few years – the running of a household and the raising of children, tasks which often feel akin to the administration of a small business and which draw upon many of the same bureaucratic and procedural skills, including time management, self-discipline, the exercising of authority and the imposition of an agenda of renunciation upon recalcitrant others.

Sex, with its contrary emphases on expansiveness, imagination, playfulness and a loss of control, must by its very nature interrupt this routine of regulation and self-restraint, threatening to leave us unfit or at the least uninclined to resume our administrative duties once our desire has run its course. We avoid sex not because it isn’t fun but because its pleasures erode our subsequent capacity to endure the strenuous demands which our domestic arrangements place on us.

Sex also has a way of altering and unbalancing our relationship with our household co-manager. Its initiation requires one partner or the other to become vulnerable by revealing what may feel like humiliating sexual needs. We must shift from discussing practical projects – debating what sort of household appliance to acquire or where to go on holiday next year – to making the more challenging request that, for example, our spouse should turn over and take on the attitude of a submissive nurse, or put on a pair of boots and start calling us names. The satisfaction of our needs may force us to ask for things which are, from a distance, open to being judged both ridiculous and contemptible so that we may prefer, in the end, not to entrust them to someone on whom we must rely for so much else in the course of our ordinary, upstanding life.

The commonsense notion of love typically holds that a committed relationship is the ideal context in which to express ourselves sexually – the implication being that we won’t have to be embarrassed by revealing some of our more offbeat needs to the person we have betrothed ourselves to for eternity, at an altar in front of two hundred guests. But this is a woefully mistaken view of what makes us feel safe. We may in fact find it easier to put on a rubber mask or pretend to be a predatory, incestuous relative with someone we’re not also going to have to eat breakfast with for the next three decades.

While the desire to split people into discrete categories of those we love and those we can have sex with may seem a peculiarly male phenomenon, women are far from innocent on this score themselves. The madonna/whore dichotomy has an exact analogy in the no less common nice-guy/bastard complex, wherein women recognise the theoretical appeal of warm, nurturing and communicative males but are at the same time unable to deny the superior sexual attraction of those cruel bandits who will take off for another continent the moment the lovemaking is finished. What unites the ‘whore’ and the ‘bastard’ in these two scenarios is their emotional and actual unavailability and therefore their power not to act as permanent witnesses to, and evocators of, our sexual vulnerability and strangeness. Sex may sometimes be just too private an activity to engage in with someone we know well and have to see all the time.

Sigmund Freud went far beyond than this. It was he who first, and most starkly, identified a much more complex and deep-seated reason for the difficulty many of us experience in having sex with our long-term partners. In an essay written in 1912 and bearing the awkwardly beautiful title ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’, Freud summed up the wrenching dilemma which seemed so often to afflict his patients: ‘Where they love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.’

By Freud’s reckoning, our sex life will gradually be destroyed by two unavoidable facts connected to our upbringing: first, in childhood, we learn about love from people with whom taboo strictly forbids us to have sex; and second, as adults, we tend to choose lovers who in certain powerful ways (though unconscious) ways resemble those whom we loved most dearly when we were children. Together these influences set up a devilish conundrum whereby the more deeply we come to love someone outside of our family, the more strongly we will be reminded of the intimacy of our early familial bonds – and hence the less free we will instinctively feel to express our sexual desires with him or her. An incest taboo originally designed to limit the genetic dangers of inbreeding can thus succeed in inhibiting and eventually ruining our chances of enjoying intercourse with someone to whom we are not remotely connected.

The likelihood of the incest taboo’s re-emergence in a relationship with a spouse increases greatly after the arrival of a few children. Until then, reminders of the parental prototypes on which our choice of lovers is subconsciously based can be effectively be kept at bay by the natural aphrodisiacs of youth, fashionable clothes, nightclubs, foreign holidays and alcohol. But all of these prophylactics tend to be left behind once the pram has been parked in the hall. We may remain ostensibly aware that we are not our partner’s parent, and vice versa, yet this awareness will have a habit of becoming a more porous concept in both of our unconscious minds when we spend the greater part of every day acting in the roles of ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’. Even though we are not each other’s intended audience for these performances, we must nevertheless be constant witnesses to them. Once the children have been put to bed, it may not be uncommon for one partner – in one of those slips of meaning Freud so enjoyed – to refer to the other as ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’, a confusion which may be compounded by the use of the same sort of exasperated-disciplinarian tone that has served all day long to keep the young ones in line.

It can be hard for both parties to hold on to the obvious yet elusive truth that they are in fact each other’s equals, and that however off-putting the thought of having sex with a parent may be, this is not really the danger they are facing. All this explains the role of rape fantasies (or sex with casual strangers). There are many things that it would be wrong, illegal, dangerous or crazy to do in reality but which we enjoy thinking about doing in ways that are innocent, kindly, safe and very sane. This is very familiar outside of the sexual arena.

As a child one might have enjoyed imagining going to the South pole, wrestling and then making friends with a polar bear, adopting a pet penguin with a broken wing, feeding it chocolate cake, getting trapped in the worst blizzard of the century (for one and a half minutes), then spending the night (another 37 seconds) in a cosy, dry igloo before getting rescued by some outlandishly dressed but charming pirates cruising past in their four masted, nuclear powered, ship in search of a youthful captain. In the real world this would be by turns horrific, impossible, dangerous and in breach of maritime law. But in our heads it is lovely. Make believe is so enjoyable because it takes a scalpel to experience and cuts away everything that would be genuinely awful in the real world.

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We understand make-believe when we read novels. It can be delightful to curl up on the sofa, munch a toasted sandwich and imagine being a cold-blooded hitman, an alcoholic spy in the process of betraying their country, the narcissistic, luxury-addicted mistress of a provincial French doctor, a power-obsessed tyrant or a member of a disorganised gang of drug-traffickers.  As we enjoy these things we don’t worry that we’re about to turn into the character for real. We’re very good at seeing the difference – and the many safety-guards in our minds and in our society that make it impossible for us to do, or even to want to do, these things for real.

After a long, sensual soak, you are lying on the bathroom floor, touching yourself and getting more and more turned on. What if a thuggish character climbed through the window, aching with aggressive lust? They’d not care what you wanted or felt, they’d seize you roughly and force themselves on you; you wouldn’t be able to do anything; you’d try to scream but they’d clamp a hand forcefully over your mouth; you’d try to struggle free but they’d have your arms pinioned behind you. Your brain is on fire with excitement as you edge towards orgasm.

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But once this story is finished, you might be struck by a wave of guilt and self-disgust. How could you get excited by this thing which in actual life would be abhorrent? When – sickeningly – you hear that anything remotely like this has happened for real you feel a savage anger and hatred towards the perpetrator.

But fantasising about being raped is profoundly different from the appalling reality. At any moment you could flick a switch in your mind (or just get distracted by noticing a cobweb on the ceiling) and the mirage would vanish. The character in your mind has no life or volition of their own, they are entirely your own creation. The nice things about being overwhelmed and giving up control and being forced are cut cleanly away from the horrors that would accompany them in the real world. The fantasy has nothing to do with sly approval or encouragement of sexual crimes (no more than enjoying a film about someone who wants to blow up the world means you secretly want the planet to explode).

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From the other side, imagining forcing oneself on another person can be exciting precisely because one is so intensely conscious that it would be totally wrong (not to mention deeply traumatic) to do this for real. Imagining being wicked does not on its own suggest one has any desire at all to really do awful things. In playing this out with a partner one is entirely reliant on the fact that they are having a great time and if for a moment one even suspected that they were not deeply excited and thrilled, it would be a complete turn off. This is the diametric opposite of the mentality of an actual rapist for whom it is decisive that their victim is unwilling and unhappy.  

Fantasies around rape gain much of their excitement because they provide a relief (in imagination) from caring so much about other people. Caring too much kills desire, because it makes us preoccupied with being nice to the other person which is at odds with the sources of sexual excitement. The erotic charge of the fantasy does not reveal that deep down we are callous to the suffering of others. On the contrary it depends on the profound, extensive commitment we already have to the welfare of other people. It’s because we normally care so much that it’s occasionally exciting to cast off this attitude and briefly imagine ourselves as cruel and heartless.

 

If we think of skill in connection with sex, we usually have in mind some kind of technical or physical prowess. But there are two fundamental aspects to the emotional skill around sexuality that we need to learn: self acceptance and communication. Self-acceptance begins with a better understanding of what sex aims at. It also hinges on a secure appreciation of the enormous gap that exists between fantasy and reality. Fantasy – which may be unique to humans – is central to our sexuality for a big reason. Fantasy stresses what’s going on in our minds – not what our bodies are doing or will do. There’s a crucial difference between fantasy and acting out. You can fantasise rape, for instance, but that doesn’t at all make you a rapist or anything like one. It’s not that the person with the fantasy is gearing up to do this for real. They’re not readying themselves to actually attack someone sexually or be attacked.

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If during sex we want to be called a useless piece of shit or a heartless bastard it’s not because we genuinely wish someone to normally see us in this way – and (for instance) sack us from our job, divorce us or persuade our friends of our general worthlessness. The erotic charge of these words has nothing to do with how we’d usually want to be treated. In fact, the real meaning of the excitement is about trust and intimacy – I can risk you saying these things to me because I so deeply trust that you precisely don’t think they are true. We have to be very sure of the other person’s real-world regard for us before we can play at having them shout insults at us. The verbal abuse is (contrary to its initial appearance) a search for love and appreciation. Just as it is only to our dearest friends that we feel we can safely reveal our most awkward troubles: it’s because we know they will continue to be kind and supportive that we can dare to tell them about our failings and problems. What can look from the outside as a sordid episode is better understood as a deeply honourable endeavour to share the most vulnerable parts of oneself with someone who will understand. What seems ‘low’ and brutish is revealed to be actually rather tender and dignified.

Sexual liberation is also dependent on forming an accurate picture of what other people are truly like. Comparison is a fundamental source of doubts about one’s own normality or decency. One thing that makes us unaccepting of ourselves is the background suspicion that other people – particularly the people we know and like – have more straightforward sex-lives than we do. We know all our own erotic oddities, obsessions and quirks from the inside. But it can be hard to imagine that other people are like this too. It feels deeply weird to imagine the carefully suited colleague or a considerate friend furiously masturbating or getting excited at the thought of being flogged by a masked stranger or fantasising about being the opposite gender – it feels brutish and degrading to think of them in these terms, even if these are familiar features of our own erotic landscape. Very sweetly we readily give others credit for being wiser and more moderate than we are ourselves. And the fatal outcome is that we see ourselves as freakish when we’re almost certainly close to average.

Cyber Sex

The internet has been a very ambivalent friend in the search for a more correct grasp of the sexuality of others. Search engines potentially reveal that we are far from alone with our particular sexual enthusiasms. But this doesn’t necessarily have much of an impact because it doesn’t reveal anything directly about the people we take the strongest cues from about what’s acceptable: namely the people we live with and are around day-to-day. We can end up knowing that out there somewhere in the world there’s a band of fellow travellers equally fascinated by the erotic power of dressing up as a pirate or having hot wax dripped on their nipples – but still feel radically out of step with the people we meet in the real world.

And pornography may do us an unexpected disservice. The people we witness doing things we find exciting tend to be not at all like us in other ways. It’s as if they are saying: the people who are into these things are like us, not like you. They don’t show how to connect our normal world with our erotic interests. They don’t say: here’s someone who (perhaps like you) is interested in biochemistry, gardening and the Renaissance and who is also into fur-lined handcuffs and spitting. Instead they seem to be suggesting: the people who are into these things have no interests or much intelligence outside their narrow area of fetish. So one ends up feeling like a different kind of strange being – a grotesque hybrid.

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The solution, curiously, does not lie so much in finding concrete evidence of the sexual delinquency of those one lives in proximity to. Rather it’s a move of the imagination and understanding that is required. It means recognising that whatever the outward evidence might seem to show, others must be – in their own ways – as complex as oneself. It’s a very useful act of modesty to give serious weight to the thought that one is very likely to be not particularly special. There’s a crucial realisation that other people have exactly the same thoughts about you as you do about them. They know you from the outside so they’re not going to automatically associate you with the more wayward contents of your sexual desire. But you know you have these thoughts and feelings and longings. A reasonable, modest logic argues that what’s true of you is going to be generally true of many, many people. And that, irrespective of the apparent evidence one cannot really be terribly strange.

These thinking-moves change our feelings. They work against the feeling of self-disgust by showing that it is far from justified. By going over them often enough in our own heads we can move ourselves to a more sane and reasonable position: we are individuals but not, in fact, terribly odd ones and that we don’t truly need to think badly of ourselves for what are after all the ordinary impulses of human nature.  

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Sexual liberation involves improving the conversation we have with ourselves about sex – and also, subsequently, the conversations we can have with lovers. Honesty with lovers can be fraught. We would love to be understood by our partners – and welcomed for who we are. We’d love to be able to explain to them what we really want. But so often we find ourselves getting worked up, agitated, defensive or sullen. We go silent, we blame them for not automatically intuiting our needs; we feel hurt they don’t understand even though we don’t feel we ought to have to do any explaining. All this is connected once again with the assumptions Romanticism has made semi-automatic. Romanticism has been entranced by the ideal of wordless communication: we should look into one another’s eyes and intuit the depths of the soul. Around sex, Romanticism suggests, if a couple are right for one another their instincts will be magically aligned. Though in reality we are usually very far from these experiences we still tend to hold onto them as a description of what things are meant to be like.

Nothing sounds less Romantic than giving one’s partner a regular hour long seminar on why exactly one wants them to strut around the bedroom in a pair of thigh-high boots or how (despite being a deeply law-abiding citizen and respectful cohabitee) one would very much enjoy pretending, as realistically as possible, to rape them or have them shout foul insults as one approaches orgasm. The whole idea of having to provide lengthy, complex explanations to a sceptical partner seems almost farcically out of step with our picture of how things are meant to be. Yet actually a commitment to trying to explain ourselves sexually to our partners is a central sign of love: it’s because we want the relationship to go well that we have to do this apparently anti-romantic thing: we have to teach them about who we are sexually.

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The emotional skill of communication builds around a group of key ideas. Firstly, we need to accept the legitimacy of the task. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment: they can’t see into your head, they don’t know all the things that have made you as you are; they didn’t necessarily sign up for this kind of sex (you are asking quite a lot of them). So it’s not their fault that they are unaware of certain things you might like sexually and especially of why you like them and what they mean to you. Their ignorance doesn’t stem from a lack of love. Their fears and worries are legitimate – however irksome you may find them. Recognising the scale of the task is crucial because it allows us to budget properly for dealing with it. If we can admit that we face a big and fair challenge here we won’t be expecting to get immediate and easy results. Sexual Communication is a sub-set, specialised instance of teaching (though we don’t typically think of it in this way). And a crucial issue in all successful teaching is realising that certain things take a while to get across. We’ve collectively admitted this very well in some areas: we know it’s going to take a someone a while to learn to drive or master quadratic equations.

Recognising the scale of the task also means it matters a lot when and how communication takes place. We have to choose the moment – probably many different moments – when the stakes aren’t too high: not when we’re already keyed up and hopeful around sex and want to instantly persuade our partner on some point that feels urgent. We panic and teach badly because we have such a big interest in the outcome. Like any other complex, prolonged educational project, the teaching should take place when it’s safe enough for the message not to get across instantly. We need to factor in the assumption that it could take quite a while, that there will be a lot of tricky moments, that we might not be very adept teachers as yet. And we need, in some deep place in ourselves, to accept that it’s OK for our partners not always to get it.

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The explanations we give ourselves – the real insights and self-acceptance – are the key bits of material we need in order to help another person make sympathetic sense of us. We stumble around trying to think up on the hoof what to say to explain our sexual interest and desires. We get defensive – and teach badly – when we don’t really believe that our case is a good one. But if we really do believe we’ve got a good case we can afford to make it patiently and clearly. Yes, of course, they will raise objections, they will have fears, they will have pockets of disgust. But part of understanding ourselves and accepting ourselves is that we’ve already gone through this process in our own minds: we’ve faced our own feelings of shame, our own worry that we’re weird and our own confusion whether we can genuinely love the other person if we want to do these things with them. And we’ve come up with proper answers to them. This is the material we need to dig into in order to gradually make certain aspects of ourselves less frightening and less absurd in the eyes of a partner.

All this said, we may at times need to be settle into a melancholy or tragic view of sex – but it matters immensely that we can do so without bitterness or rage against a partner. Tragedy occurs not so much when something goes badly wrong, but when there is a conflict between two good and desirable things which – sadly – can’t go together in the life we find ourselves leading. We really want to be open and honest, to share the range of our inner life  with our partner. But we also might want to – or need to be – adventurous and exploratory in ways that would be deeply upsetting to them.

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This idea of tragedy as conflict between conflicting ideals has a long cultural history. It was very dear to the imagination of ancient Greece. It turns up in  Sophocles’ tragic play Antigone. In the play the lead female character, Antigone, is caught between two loyalties that can’t both be pursued in the situation in which she finds herself.  She has family loyalty to her brother – the warrior Polynices. But she’s also to loyal to the city-state in which she lives, Thebes. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem at all. But her brother has become a rebel and is killed leading an attack on the city. Antigone wants to bury him with honour. But this goes against the needs of the whole society – which see him as a terrifying traitor. It’s not in this case possible for her to be both a good citizen and a good sister. The two completely reasonable ideals she holds dear are in tragic conflict. 

The Greeks were helpfully admitting that not everything we care about can be reconciled. And they were heroically honest about admitting how severe a trial this is – how it can bring great sorrow in someone’s life. They took the view that the human predicament – with horrible regularity – sets us up in situations where we have to sacrifice one important thing to another.

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The mature response to a tragic situation is melancholy – the pained but justified view that life contains some deep sources of sorrow that can’t be put right. It’s a perspective on existence in which we’re not shocked when we have to sacrifice one good thing in order to save another. We can remind ourselves that Melancholy in relation to choice is not an aberration that visits us in this part of our lives alone: it is a fundamental requirement that keeps cropping up across the human condition. It was most clearly identified by the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in a famous intemperate comedic outburst in his book Either/Or:

“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”

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This melancholy attitude, and recognition of a tragic conflict, might well be the best response around desires which are simply too painful and threatening for one’s partner to hear. We have to accept that there will be barriers to communication that we can’t cross. There will be things we really shouldn’t try to share even with those we are closest too. We would love to be honest, we would love to be understood and forgiven. But we accept the melancholy fact that we just can’t say these things. If we hold back it’s not because we are devious or unscrupulous but because of a tragic flaw in the human condition – that not all good things can co-exist – for which we are in no way to blame.

Sex is supposed to be one of the great thrills of life – a source of release, closeness and huge pleasure. But we also know that often it is linked to shame, disgust, coldness and disappointment. This isn’t something we’re publicly keen to admit to but it’s a widespread experience. This doesn’t happen because sex is essentially wicked or nasty, but because it presents strange and difficult challenges to us. We long for communion but we are also very frightened of rejection. We are excited by things that don’t seem to sit easily with the rest of what we genuinely care about and the ways we’d like to be.

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The solution, we’ve been arguing, is to start by recognising that sex is an essentially complex thing and that it is more about our minds than about our bodies. In sex we’re trying to accomplish very honourable and important goals but we’re pursuing them in ways that shock and disturb our normal attitudes. So we should budget – in ways we don’t usually – for the idea that sex is likely to be an area of difficulty in life. When we assume that sex is always supposed to be great and easy we get very worried and panicked when it isn’t. The better starting point is the more accurate, more pessimistic, notion that of course sex is going to be an area that’s awkward, where there often are disturbing tensions, where communication isn’t easy, and where there are many opportunities to feel ashamed and ill at ease with oneself.

From this less rosy starting point we can then modestly and realistically start to put in place the skills that will help us get things to go better. Realistically this won’t mean that everything will go wonderfully well. We probably won’t get the ideal sex lives we want. Great sex is quite rare – so many things need to come together for it to happen. But that’s OK. Because the issue we face isn’t usually that our sex lives are just a touch short of perfect and we’re fretting about how to add the final little details that will make it everything we could ever hope for. We’re starting, mostly, much further down the scale. We’re just seeking real improvement, not erotic paradise. We’ll still face bouts of loneliness, we’ll still meet with incomprehension and dismay, we’ll still get touchy, we’ll still have to probably keep some secrets and have to give up on getting some things we really want. But we’ll be better equipped to cope with the inevitable difficulties and to work our way – fitfully and with reversals – towards a modest but highly important goal: a slightly fuller measure of sexual satisfaction and a few, possibly rare, wonderful experiences.

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