Here are some of my favorite myths; and here’s why they’re not true. Read on…..
MYTH #1: True love is always highly erotic.
Only in men’s magazines. More likely, true love has highly erotic moments. Like when you’re on vacation. Or just after you’ve had a fight, or just before you decide to try to have a baby, or when one of you comes back from a business trip. Most deeply loving, warm, satisfying relationships are semi-erotic or erratically erotic. But always? Never.
One reason we have trouble with this idea is that we’ve created a monster called the Perfect Couple. And there they are, this dazzling duo, living their intensely erotic lives, unable to keep their hands off each other, always fighting fairly, agreeing on how to spend their money and their time, having precisely the same ideas about childrearing. They love the same foods and have equal amounts of sexual passion, which arrives simultaneously and at frighteningly frequent intervals.
The only couple I ever knew who couldn’t keep their hands off each other after many years of being together happened, for business reasons, to live in different countries. They were together about once a month. So yes, they were in a prolonged state of starvation for each other.
We know this ideal is nonsense, yet it’s so deep in our cultural couple-mythology that I have to say it over and over: Finding a lovely man with whom to share your life neither guarantees constant heights of sexual ecstasy, nor simultaneous anything–even if he happens to be your sexual ideal. Desire isn’t about him, it resides in you. Sure, sexual craving can be enhanced or discouraged just as food cravings can, but the mechanism in our brain that controls true appetite–when and why and how often we get hungry for sex in the first place–is highly individual and idiosyncratic. No wonder we think desire is external: Don’t we learn early how we should appear in order to be considered “sexy”–as if sexuality were a question of the right leg length or lipstick shade? Don’t we, as young girls, learn all about being desired–how thin or fat or tall or short a “desirable” woman is; how assertive or passive or experienced–from others’ point of view? Because we’re encouraged to look at ourselves, we learn astonishing little about our own wants and needs–particularly our sexual wants and needs–which requires focusing on our own point of view rather than others’. Many women tell me they have trouble separating what they feel they’re supposed do and say and feel in bed, and what they would really like–a reflection, I think, of our training to be desirable but not desiring.
Oh, and about turning our volume way, way up? It’s usually Mr. Wrong, not Mr. Right, who does that. All those “Good-hearted woman in love with a two-timin’ man” songs keep getting sung because the paradigm of the saintly woman endlessly awaiting the affection of the ignominious guy, well, we learn THAT tune early.
Which may be why Jenny still longs, sexually, for the guy she dated before Tom.
His name was Fred and he was married. He came to town twice a month, on alternate Tuesdays. He had this little problem with fidelity, he admitted sheepishly, but claimed he no longer slept with his wife and so was therefore “totally faithful” to Jenny. He loved Jenny with all his heart, or so he claimed, but had no plans to leave his wife. Nor could he be there at any moment important to Jenny unless it fell on an alternate Tuesday at around 6 PM. Oh, and his bouts of impotence were nothing she couldn’t handle, he implied– if she were just a tad more, well, understanding. And sexy. And welcoming.
And Jenny craved that guy bigtime. She learned then that desire doesn’t follow rules; that it’s as complicated and intricate, and as rooted in childhood, as the rest of her psychological makeup. It can be perverse, perking up more at the illicit, the dangerous and the unattainable than the nice (a woman whose father left home at the age of five might, to this day, keep hoping finally to conquer that frustrating scenario by setting it up–endlessly attempting to seduce men who won’t stay.) Psychoanalysts will talk about split-object triangles and the Oedipal object to explain some of the reasons why we just adore those unavailable or unappreciative or just intolerable men, but regardless, it’s important to accept the vagaries of desire–to know that what we crave and what’s good for us don’t always jibe. And that to be a grownup and opt for the healthy choice sometimes means literally excavating desire out of its hiding place. Which brings me to Myth #2.
Myth #2: If passion wanes, too bad: It cannot be revived.
Not true. You can’t will desire, nor magically feel like making love just because he does. But you definitely can tease desire out from under, if you become seriously interested in where it went–that is, in what emotions are covering it.
Naturally, you’d look at whether you’re angry at the man you’re sleeping with, or hurt. Even a little of either can muffle sexual stirrings, since one of the finest mechanisms of defense against getting more hurt is not to let him in closer, and one of the savviest ways to have your anger without actually expressing it is to “punish” your partner by simply making closeness impossible. To wit: When Elaine’s twin brother died suddenly and left her devastated, her boyfriend got impatient with her for grieving longer than he expected. “Aren’t you over it yet?” he asked irritably, and she–still mourning and further alienated now by her mate’s seeming refusal empathize, found it impossible to sleep with him again until her grief subsided and her rage at him was expressed.
Sometimes you have to search deep inside the culture, as well as your psyche, to find reasons for your numbness. Many young women have told me, for instance, that the moment they got married, they began to feel a subtle but often surprisingly abrupt diminution of pleasure. Now why would a sexy, smart, savvy, new wife no longer feel sexy the moment she has a ring on her finger? Evolutionary biologists might argue that she’s got her mate now; she no longer has to woo him. Psychiatrists might counter by saying she’s retreated because her mate feels too much like family–the forbidden father or brother– than a lover. I think there’s another possibility: that she feels the taboo against being deeply sexual in the role of wife–a role that conjures up goodness more than it does steamy sex. Once inside the hallowed halls of matrimony, with all the respectability and maturity and social approval that welcomes you there –well, being hot in bed can suddenly seem inappropriate or unseemly or even frivolous.
Sex, after all, is adult play. And marriage, we learn, is the very opposite of play–it’s a very serious business. Some of the most playful–read: sexual–couples find that the minute they have a ring on their fingers they feel swamped with such heavily weighted ideals of what they’re supposed to be, now that they’re in the world of socially sanctioned sex, that they lose their erotic edge. Lofty notions of “settling down” and “responsibility” and “family” can have such a sobering effect on on a couple that they begin to feel “immature” and “silly” and even guilty having the very good sex that may have been what made them want to get married in the first place!
Whatever you find that’s interfering with erotic delight, discuss it with your partner. Say it. “You know, since we’ve moved in together, I’ve felt strangely distant, sexually. Could it be because we feel more like siblings than like lovers?” (Or, “I feel as if I’m looking at us the way the neighbors do; I’ve fallen into a role to look good to them! I think it’s drained me of my libido, all that pressure! Does that sound possible?) Ask him outright: “Is there a way we can, together, fight off these images that haunt me (or us)?” Let him help. Maybe he feels like a boring roommate; maybe he grew up with three sisters, and suddenly feels thrown back in that gawky, adolescent place. Maybe he’s tired. Certainly whatever you feel, he feels part of. Maybe you both need more patience atop that precarious seesaw called desire.
But don’t fight desire issues alone. You developed them as a couple, and you’ll solve them most deftly by delving in deep, together.
MYTH #3: If I’m thin enough, kind enough, pretty enough and sexy enough, he’ll desire me.
Oy. Good luck. How thin, kind, pretty and sexy?
The idea that sexuality is earned somehow is the most insidious myth of all–doing nothing but harm to generations of women who love sex, but fear they don’t deserve to be desired because they’re so flawed. The prospect of thinner thighs and a perfect haircut conjures up images of being desired, so we beat ourselves up and work ourselves out to win sexual interest. But one does not, cannot, “earn” desire. Desire comes from within each of us, not from the other. Also, the sexiest and most desirable men and women are neither necessarily pretty, nor thin, nor brilliant; they’re just lucky enough to find partners who share their enthusiasm for sex and for each other. This idea of becoming better, more perfect, whether as a housekeeper or a cook or a lover or a wage-earner–as if you should look like you just stepped out of a GAP ad while you’re climbing the career ladder, makes women crazy. It’s a particular plague among young wives who fear that their marriages are turning tame–and that somehow they’re to blame. And right there is where the “If only I were better” routine starts–and they go in hot pursuit of thinner thighs, smoother skin and shinier hair. Which is nice, but has little to do with being erotic, or sexual, or sensual. Once you begin thinking that desire is external rather than internal; poured on from the outsicde rather than contained within, there’s no end to the anxiety.
Lastly, a word on “Desire”
“I look over at him in bed and think ‘What a great guy he is! How lucky I am!’ and then I realize this horrible thing: I used to want to rip his clothes off, and now, two years later, I’ve morphed into this person who could care less about having sex…. ”
Not a twinge of lust has Jenny had for this man she loves, not for weeks– no, if truth be known, months. She’s worried. “I feel defective,” she says. “Like, what happens now? Do I take testosterone? Are we over?”
Welcome to the wonderful, weird world of desire. Or, in Jenny’s case, and millions of others– the wonderful, weird world of the desire-impaired. In a culture that treats the libido as if it were a faucet that turns on at puberty and pours out uncontrollably and unabated till old age, it comes as a shock– worse, a humiliation–to discover just how sputtering and even trickling it really can be. Sure, I’ve heard tell of couples who make love eagerly and steadily year after year, but most of the women in long-term relationships I’ve spoken with say bouts of sexual apathy are commoner than the cold. No surprise, then, that a condition called Inhibited Sexual Desire is the number-one reason most American couples seek sex therapy.
The whole question of desire–what it is (a hormone? Idealized love? Delight? Dementia?), where it’s located (in our brains? Our genitals?), where it goes, how it operates; not to mention how to get more of it (Estrogen? Religion?) and how to keep it (!)–is one we’ll be returning to in this column, because there’s no end to the discussion of passionate love, that state so many of us want so much. That it is by nature an impermanent and even an unstable state doesn’t make it less, well, desirable. Right now I’m interested in dispelling two common myths about sexual desire that keep so many women feeling, as Jenny put it, “defective.” Because if there’s one thing that totally wipes out lust for women–much the way “performance anxiety” has long been known to knock it out for men– it’s this overwhelming sense of guilt about being in a relationship that is “not normal” sexually.