It seems like most human beings need an "Other" through which they demonize aspects of sexuality they fear, obsess about, or feel guilty about.
That Other may be considered slightly less than fully human; more or less out of control; immoral, uncaring about the consequences of his/her/its actions; dangerous, either in its coercive power or (just as often) its seductive power; ultimately, Not Like Us.
For much of history that Other has been homosexuality. But at various times, the Sexual Other has been Too-Sexual Woman; Masturbating Child; Adulterer; Perverted Child Molester; Pornographer; Compulsive Rapist (recently updated to Campus Rapist and Internet Predator); even the Drug Dealer whose goal is/was to get you so high that you couldn't resist doing sexual things you shouldn't.
As The Homosexual has gained respectability—as he/she has become more like "us" (even getting married and shopping at Ikea)—the Sex Addict and Porn Addict have become an Other. They can't be trusted with sex—they use it for the wrong reasons (to escape from their cares, to feel young or attractive or desired), mocking "real" or "adult" sex (attached, monogamous, non-kinky). We're even told their sex/porn activity makes their brains different! That's as Other as you can get.
The latest Sexual Other, of course, is TransPerson. He/She/It/Them is so different from "us" that "we" don't even know what to call him/her/it/them. And apparently we are so disoriented by these alien people that the deepest question we can ask about them, the most important policy issue they inspire is…WHAT BATHROOM WILL THEY USE?
Indeed, America is different from other countries when it comes to public bathrooms. For starters, we don't have a fraction of the public bathrooms that Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan have. Even if you're in downtown America, surrounded by bars and restaurants, you have to apologize or even lie in order to walk in off the street and use their bathroom. You know you've done it: "My wife is pregnant, we need the bathroom;" "My kid's diabetic, we need the bathroom;" "The FBI has declared our house a crime scene, we need the bathroom."
In civilized countries, you don't need to obfuscate or prevaricate for the privilege to urinate. Public toilets are everywhere, and toilets in places serving the public are open to, um, the public.
There are always demands to limit the rights of Sexual Others—to limit their ability to hurt everyone else (or themselves). Because they're seen as Different, however, the way this is done typically ranges from tragic to comic.
We withhold accurate information (including words, for heavens sake!) from teens to prevent them from being sexual, which hasn't worked since the beginning of time (does the lack of information prevent you from doing what you want?). We withhold civil rights from gay people (and used to actively punish them) to discourage homosexuality, which hasn't worked since the beginning of time. The federal government now demands that unwanted sexual jokes on campus be investigated by the university—a cruise missile aimed at a flea—which undermines male-female empathy rather than promote it.
Yes, on campus, Heterosexual Male is the Other. Especially if he's stupid or naïve enough to have sex with a woman who's been drinking. Now that unwanted kissing and non-physical, non-coercive pressure to have sex are enough to get someone thrown out of college and labelled a sexual wrongdoer for life (forget about grad school, forget about scholarships, forget about internships), people will believe anything about Heterosexual Male. Even the President will believe that 1 in 5 college women is sexually assaulted, higher than the rate in the hellish Congo civil wars or the barbaric wars that tore apart Yugoslavia 20 years ago.
As the father of two college-bound daughters, the President should have checked how the researchers came to their conclusion. It's pretty simple—they didn't ask women if they'd been sexually assaulted, they asked them to check a list of experiences, and the RESEARCHERS decided which constituted "sexual assault." Like unwanted kissing. Like insistent pressure to have sex. As unpleasant as these experiences are, would you call them sexual assault?
Any group can find itself marginalized, demonized, and persecuted for its sexual practices or beliefs. You can have your legal medication withheld from you; your hospital visiting privileges limited; your physician forced to recite (under pain of prosecution) "facts" s/he knows to be false; you can be forced to endure such recitations, or even forced to endure an unnecessary vaginal ultrasound probe as the price of getting a legal abortion. You can have your private place of sexual recreation closed down as (an unproven) public health hazard. You can have your group's medical problems deemed insufficiently "normal" to warrant a place in physician training ("if you'd use your butt only for what it was intended, you wouldn't be in the Emergency Room right now").
You could even find people who want to be the U.S. President, the leader of the Free World, demanding laws determining which bathroom you can use. Because one in five women who use a public bathroom are sexually assaulted, you know. I read it on the Internet.
I have a close friend in Santa Cruz, a therapist named Michelle, with whom I have lunch once a month. It's usually pretty glorious, with several conversations going on at once—professional, personal, political, and mmm-this-bagel-is-perfect-isn't-it.
Yesterday we talked about women's breasts.
We were talking about breasts as symbols of sexuality—whether their owner wants that or not. We reminisced back to junior high school—when Michelle (in California) already had adult-sized breasts, and I (in New York) just gawked at such things wherever they were, whenever I could.
Like a large number of early-teen boys, I was so overwhelmed by how amazing breasts were that I could hardly relate to the humans they were attached to. It was much easier back then to talk to girls who weren't fully developed. Their humanity wasn't obscured by the very breasts to which I was so attracted.
Michelle, of course, had the reverse experience growing up—way, way more attention than she wanted, and too much of it on those big things on her chest rather than on her as a person. Of course she continually had to deal with the assumption that she wanted sexual attention. I remember thinking (if you can call it that) the very same thing—that girls with big breasts were obviously very sexual. If that wasn't true, and they didn't want that kind of attention, why did they grow those big breasts? Like I said, I was 12.
Michelle also recalled how some individual boys were perfectly nice to her—until they were in a group of 4 or 5 guys. "You could count on teasing when guys were in groups," she recalls. "They all must have felt pressure to prove themselves in front of each other. And of course being in a group allowed some of them to say things they couldn't say as individuals while relating to me one-to-one."
As she spoke, I remembered all this like it was yesterday. Does any heterosexual man ever forget his initial encounters with those glorious, magical, desirable, unattainable, mysterious treasures? If only access to them wasn't controlled by alien creatures—girls!
Ah, if only we could all just talk about it. If only boys could be allowed to look, really look at some breasts for a few moments, without guilt or shame; eyes ablaze, jaws slack, no shame or deceit.
If only girls could talk about how complicated it is to have those things—the combination of pride, responsibility, frustration, and even alienation. The new burden of having to administer something with enormous social value—when just a child, with limited administrative skills. If only boys and girls could sit down and connect with the humans behind the banter, the intrusive looks, the defensiveness, the sensitivity.
Call me dense, but at 12 and 13 it never occurred to me to ask a girl my age what it was like to be the focus of desire. It never occurred to me to talk about the insane desire I felt, how respect and empathy were so far away when driven mad by a lust I didn't understand—and hadn't asked for either, by the way.
Eventually Michelle turned our conversation to "the male gaze." I'd been hearing the term a lot while researching my forthcoming book on pornography, and Michelle had been receiving it almost her whole life. She reminded me that even in a perfectly safe situation, the full attention of a male almost twice her size could be intimidating. She suggested that most men don't know the impact their own gaze has on most women.
She's right about this. Most men eventually learn exactly how to look at women in public—how long you can look, how explicitly you can look, when you have to look away, etc.. At the airport or supermarket, competent adult men don't compliment strange women on their nice butt—it's much better to admire a woman's shoes. Mentioning your wife while doing so gets you bonus points.
On the other hand, heterosexual men are always looking at women in public, and of course women know this. Michelle says women have to learn to forget this, at least temporarily; the inability to forget that you're being looked at by strange men can make going out a nightmare. It's not so much that the male gaze promises violence or even mild intrusion. It's that it requires women in public to be engaged with the men around them whether they want to be or not. The male gaze can be a bully, even when not intended that way.
Of course, some men and women are so self-conscious that being out in public is unnerving; sitting in a waiting room or standing in a long bathroom line can be challenging. It would be nice if such people could soothe their anxiety about being "seen" by others. Regardless of the male (or generalized strangers') gaze, some people really are way too sensitive about others' (alleged) perceptions, and they paralyze themselves.
Women's bodies are the screen onto which men project our hunger, loneliness, uncertainty, innocence, humiliation, and narcissism. Most women don't ask for this, although they eventually resign themselves to it. In a really adult relationship you can even discuss this.
We men may know that our male gaze can be scary or discomfiting to others. We can think about our participation in this unfortunate dynamic, even consider the unintentionally hurtful results of our way of looking. Or we can say "not my problem" and stick women with it. And then complain about the results.
Well excuse me, I have some apologies to write. If only there were some way to contact people you haven't seen in a half-century. Meanwhile, I have to think about my next layover at the airport.
As a sex therapist for over 30 years, one of the most common goals people have come in with is "I want to be a better lover."
Of course, different people mean different things by that. These range from "I want my partner to enjoy sex more;" to "I want to compete more effectively with other would-be lovers (real or imagined);" to "I want to enjoy sex more." Some of these people are highly experienced, while others are beginners.
Most people who "want to be better lovers" are after some new technique, the latest sex toy, or a position they haven't thought of yet. But I don't think that's where people should look.
What's underrated as a tool is curiosity.
Not about how to twist two human bodies into a new kind of pretzel, or how to persuade someone to do something they've said they don't want to do. And I certainly don't mean some long-hidden secret about the sexuality of "all women" or "all men."
No, I mean curiosity about your sexual partner's subjective experience of their sexuality—of their experiences with you, of their body, of their fantasies, of their desires.
Empathy, of course, is important in every relationship: how do we imagine this other person is feeling? But to be truly empathic in a relationship (as opposed to with strangers in the airport), we need information about the other. Who is this other person? What are their beliefs and attitudes about sex?
And when it comes to sex,
* What does s/he want?
* How does s/he feel?
* What does s/he mean by various looks, silences, and sounds?
* How are you supposed to know the above?
Remember the concept of polysemicity (multiple meanings): Any given behavior may mean very different things to you and to your partner. For example, you may feel that a woman who initiates sex is powerful and confident. Your female partner might feel that such a woman is far too brazen, or is pressuring you in ways you will resent. Similarly, your partner might feel that using rough language during sex is a turn-on, while for you it feels theatrical or "not us."
So when people ask me about becoming "better lovers," I encourage curiosity, and the communication to satisfy it. Did your partner like the last sexual session you two had? Would your partner like you go to faster or slower (or is your pace just right)? Would he or she like more of anything you two already do? Whether it can be changed or not, is anything physically uncomfortable?
Other questions you might ask include, Thinking back to a time when you really enjoyed our sex, what made it so great for you? Did a scene in a recent movie or TV make you especially hot, and if so, is there something from that scene you'd like to try? Is there anything you do when you masturbate that you'd like us to try?
Curiosity: an undervalued quality in a sexual partner.
I don't hear many gay or lesbian couples quarrel about pornography. But if you're a guy in a sexual relationship with a woman, and she complains about your porn watching, you need to be curious. If she seems unreasonable (to you, not to herself), you need to be even more curious.
To get beyond the "porn is crap," "no it's not;" "porn demeans women," "no it doesn't" non-conversation, you need to get your partner talking about herself. How does she feel (as opposed to what she thinks) when she reflects on you watching porn?
How does she believe it affects your sexual relationship? How does she feel about your sexual relationship in general?
When a couple is in conflict, most people's instinct is to try and get the person to understand them better. If both people are trying that simultaneously, the exchange isn't likely to be productive. If instead one or both people are committed to understanding the other person better, there's a chance they can resolve the conflict.
And if your partner reveals that when you watch porn, she feels unimportant to you, or unattractive, or pushed away, don't disagree or even reassure her. Start by understanding how she feels, and why, and let her know that you understand. This is no small thing. When your partner feels understood you can then have a rational conversation about the options you have as a couple. These include making sex more enjoyable, and being more intimate or connected outside of sex.
It may be less glamorous, but curiosity will get you further than a new position or toy. Ultimately, the process of creating enjoyable sex generally isn't glamorous—it's more like creating a connection between two people who feel understood and cared about, and who pursue their mutual goals together as partners.
It doesn't start with your partner understanding you—it start with you being curious about your partner.