Erotic Transference in a World of Online Therapy

 
What happened when therapy became virtual at the pandemic’s beginning? Did erotic transference die quietly because of the physical separation of counselor and client? Did the small screen reduce the scope of sexual feelings?
 
Perhaps not, since I read no obituary in the news. Still, it is worth thinking about what has become of the inevitability of desire in the human interaction of some who seek treatment.
 
Erotic transference refers to the patient’s growing sexualized affections for the clinician in talking about her feelings and the significant players in the drama of her life. Parents, caretakers, past lovers, abusers, or others might metaphorically slip into these one-to-one settings unseen, producing an outsized and complicated response to the therapist.
 
The analyst begins to evoke dormant emotions he didn’t create.
 
In the pre-pandemic period, all sorts of detailed cues existed within the office, qualities that might have contributed to the sexualization of the other. The consulting room made these accessible to the client in a way they are not on a computer screen.

A shortlist included the following:

  • A view of the entire face and clothed body, front and back, bottom to top.
  • More noticeable eye contact.
  • Grooming characteristics and their impact on the sensory organs of the observer. Subtle skin tones, makeup, natural bodily scents or odors, perfumes, shampoo emanations, cologne, and pheromone production could encourage sexual arousal.
  • The way the person walked, moved, sat, reached, and shook hands.
  • His attire.
  • An intimate and unvarying background domain, quiet and the same each week.
  • The healthcare professional’s voice was unaffected by the distortion of a computer speaker or headphones.
  • Small facial expressions.
  • An absence of distractions as opposed to a less controlled setting.

Put simply, the office was an environment decorated and modified by the healer, made consistent and safe by him. It included objects little changed in successive sessions. Physical nearness to him was one of those stabled features.

Unintended changes from the old way of doing things should have worked against the emergence of passion in post-COVID treatment relationships. But perhaps there are other considerations:

  • The current unavailability of nearness to a doctor or psychiatric social worker might make them more attractive to some people. Imagine a client whose past experience with parents or lovers included their tendency to push her away or display inconsistency in expressing affection.
  • A new analyst, “out of reach” due to a change in the provision of psychotherapeutic services, could serve unconsciously as another chance to achieve the kind of love she’s searched for, the person “difficult to get.”
  • Unlike the doctor’s office, online contact gives the patient possible control of 50% of the framework for the meeting. Clients set up computers in bedrooms, bathrooms, automobiles, nearby pools, and other locations.
  • Although not all possess the ease of finding privacy, some capacity to arrange the decoration, lighting, and background is more available than prevails in another person’s building.
  • Since travel to and from the psychologist’s location is unnecessary, attire can also be controlled and sexualized.
  • Without the need to leave home, it becomes easier to drink alcohol or use other substances to disinhibit one’s emotions and become more provocative.
  • Many people watch TV and movies on their computers, iPads, and phones. The device thus transforms into a place of “performances.The sexualization of the session exists in a world of potential unreality, encouraging a client’s inclination to take a performative risk.
  • The power of words, an analyst’s kindness, and a level of attention the patient might never have experienced can still serve as potent aphrodisiacs. Remember, love relationships began and survived in the pre-computer age of letter writing.
  • In 2020 pet ownership rose to 70% of American households. Pandemic-driven starvation for physical contact and touch (skin hunger) may explain a part of this phenomenon. It might motivate an increased want for the caress (and more) from someone who appears devoted to your wellbeing.

To sum up, we don’t know the extent to which virtual (online) therapy increases or diminishes erotic transference. Many of the various effects of the pandemic are little studied, leaving anecdotal evidence at best.

We all recognize that humanity would not exist but for sexual appetite. Sex and love endure through wartime, plagues, environmental destruction, and more.

Think of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey. She waited 20 years for her husband’s return when he left to fight in the Trojan War.

The power of another’s gaze, warmth, careful listening, and voice remain available to us, no matter the change in therapeutic format. The enlarged distance from the therapist might even enhance his sense of mystery.

The hope for intimacy and the heartbeat of desire have survived with less assistance.

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The first image is called Sculpture in Paradise by Philip Jackson, located at the center of the cloisters of Chichester Cathedral. The photo is by surreyblonde from Pinterest. Next comes Khao Luang Cave Temple, Phetchaburi, Thailand, sourced from Cheezburger.com/ Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, a 2019 work by Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

A Checklist For Change

Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens)

If you meet someone not seen in 20 years, only to discover he is unchanged, you might ask

Why not? Shouldn’t he have been altered by time and experience?

Unless your old friend has been “on ice” — freeze-dried, flash-frozen, cryogenically preserved — isn’t change a reasonable expectation?

The writer Mark Twain thought so. He saw the long-gone youthful version of himself in need of lots of revision:

Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckleheadedness — and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all, that is what I was at 19 and 20.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as self-observing and motivated to reshape himself as was Twain. According to Edward Young in Love of Fame:

At 30 man suspects himself a fool;
knows it at 40, and reforms his plan;
At 50 chides his infamous delay,
Pushes his prudent purpose to resolve;
In all his magnanimity of thought
Resolves; and re-resolves; then dies the same.

The 19th-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson was less amusing and more scornful on the same subject:

To hold the same views at 40 as we held at 20 is to have been stupefied for a score of years, and take rank, not as a prophet, but as an unteachable brat, well birched (spanked) but none the wiser.

It is as if a ship’s captain should sail to India from the Port of London; and having brought a chart (map) of the Thames (River) on deck at his first setting out, should obstinately use no other for the whole voyage.”

What follows is a short (and incomplete) checklist of areas of personality or behavior that might be expected to alter during adult life.

The Thing You Cannot Do. Let’s start with something different for each person.

Late in her long life, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked what guidance she might give to the people listening to her on the radio. She said,

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Indeed there is no better or more crucial potential area of change than whatever the “thing” is for you. What is it that is too hard, too scary?

Only you know the answer.

Physical Activity. “Use it or lose it.” T.S Elliot put it in a few more words —

The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.

Don’t let your bodily capacities go without a fight. Concede only what age requires, not more.

Interests. Do you read only the same types of books, listen only to the same music, engage in the identical hobbies of your youth? Some people keep learning, exploring, and investigating new things. They say that it keeps them young.

Beware of retirement without friendships and other interests to fill your former workday. Those who lack such things are often miserable. One is well advised to diversify one’s investments in activities and people, not just a financial portfolio.

Appearances. Ecclesiastes tells us “all is vanity.” That portion of the Bible reminds us that much of what we value has no real meaning or purpose. Thus, perhaps your attitude toward the “appearance” of things, whether it be a dress or your residence, might be subject to modification as you age.

The wise man or woman recognizes what is worth esteem and dismisses many contrary opinions of others.

Material Things. To continue the point just made, no one gets out alive. In the end, you leave life with as little as you had when you arrived. Nonetheless, some become more covetous, continuing to shop and buy in an apparent effort to outlast their possessions.

In contrast, others care less for “things” and disencumbered themselves, including giving their money away.

Self-Assertion/Anger. One might hope to learn diplomacy, be more direct, enlarge the capacity to stand up for oneself, and reduce sarcasm, not to mention outbursts and a desire for vengeance.

Food. Do you eat only what your mother made for you? Other things might be delicious. Do you dine the same way you did growing up or moderate your appetite and control salt intake?

Time. Most people become more mindful of time’s passage as they age, sensing its increased velocity with less of the race track of time ahead. Robert Southey wrote,

Live as long as you may; the first twenty years are the longest half of your life!.

If this notion doesn’t alter how you use the fleeting moment — cause you to employ it wisely — you are not paying attention to a basic fact of human existence. For example, famous musicians (Artur Schnabel, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Bruno Walter) narrowed their repertoire as they aged. They wished to concentrate on the music most meaningful to them, knowing the day was short.

Sex. Biology and age dictate some changes in this department.

Plato applauded the reduction of passion in older men. He believed they were not as much the plaything of emotions as those in the burst of early manhood. Rationality was thereby increased in his view.

An old joke about intercourse and marriage goes something like this. If you put a penny in a jar for every time you have sex in the first year of a permanent relationship and take one out for every time after that, you will never empty the container!

Money. If you know someone who lived through the “Great Depression,” you may realize traumatic events can generate long-lasting effects. Many of those who survived a decade of 25% unemployment remained very careful about spending.

On the other side are those who spend without regard to the possibility they might need it for a rainy day or their child’s education.

Ambition. Most of what is excellent in the world, and too much of what isn’t, is due to ambition. I’m speaking of blind and belligerent ambition in the latter case.

This quality tends to swallow younger selves, but some of the power-hungry are only chronologically mature, to humanity’s misfortune. Here are thoughts from Colin Davis, a 38-year-old symphony conductor when he offered them:

I think that to so many what happens (as we age) is the death of ambition in the conventional sense. The great driving motor that prods you and exasperates you and brings out the worst qualities in you for about 20 years is beginning to be a bit moth-eaten and tired.

I find that I’m altogether much quieter, I think; I don’t love music any less; but there’s not the excess of energy that I used to spend in enthusiasm and in intoxication (with it). I feel much freer than I’ve ever been in my life.

Friendship. Besides freedom from physical pain and financial instability, little produces mature life satisfaction as much as friendship. Many realize this as they age and come to value fraternity and intimacy more.

Appreciation. Some of us see the downside of life, others the upside. The unlucky may have good reason to be unhappy.

Unhappiness can also be found in how an individual perceives the world. His lived reality may not be much worse than the norm. As the losses pile up later in life, we do well to nourish our sense of gratitude.

Being Like Your Parents. Just about everyone tries to make sure they imitate only their parents’ good characteristics, leaving the rest behind. The act of disencumbering ourselves of this unwanted baggage is the job of a lifetime if one is honest.

Robert Lowell described its difficulty in “Middle Age” from For the Union Dead:

At forty-five,
what next, what next?
At every corner,
I meet my Father,
my age, still alive.

A sobering thought. But then, much depends on cherry-picking the best of your parents.

No time to lose. Or, perhaps you needn’t make haste.

I guess it all hinges on what you think about the need to change.

But trust me, you do need to.

So do we all.

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The top photo is of Mark Twain.

Erotic Transference and the Fantasy Lives of Therapists

My father, a man of uncommon decency, kept an issue of Playboy Magazine in the closet he used for his overcoats. I discovered this item while snooping around the house, not expecting that. The featured model was Jayne Mansfield.

This happened in the late 1950s, long before the unending pornographic video flood undercut the thrill of “dirty photos.US citizens of the time lived in a post-Victorian, white man’s dream world, just prior to birth control pills and the sexual revolution. Then they continued in a non-Victorian, more sexualized version of the same thing.

I was old enough to fathom why a man might be interested in perusing color pictures of the famous blond beauty in all her air-brushed nakedness. I put the magazine back as dad left it, never confessed my discovery, and didn’t try to interrogate.

If my sire had fantasies despite sleeping next to the woman of his dreams every night, I imagined everyone did.

Therapists do, too.

I notice beautiful women still and didn’t close my eyes when they entered the office for psychotherapy. Another psychologist mentioned such beauties energized him, helped him focus his attention on “the person” behind the attractive face and form.

Hmm.

This man maintained an active sex life, by the way. To my knowledge, he didn’t engage in affairs with his patients but acquired a reputation for more than a few of the extramarital variety at one of the hospitals where we both practiced.

Counselors are not eunuchs. Acquiring a license to practice doesn’t require neutering.

We “notice,” and some few do more than take in the visual, feminine glories of the natural world despite ethical codes forbidding the mix of romantic engagement with those who come with personal problems.

Intimacy with a therapist is never the solution to those problems, though some professionals persuade themselves it is a different manner of “helping.In case you haven’t realized it yet, we homo sapiens can convince ourselves of anything, justifying murder, robbing our kids of their credit cards, and more.

I can’t tell you I never fantasized about the women I treated. I don’t recall doing so, however. But then, we don’t remember every dark night dream of body and soul, do we?

Did I have those fantasies or not? I still can’t be certain. Most of the time, I compartmentalized or separated home from work. What fantasies I do recollect didn’t derive from doctor-patient interaction.

I never overstepped professional limits, despite invitations offered in straightforward confessions of love from female clients. These included one lovely who brought a kit of sex toys and a variety of condoms to a session and proceeded to unload them on my desk.

The topic of sexual transference continues to pull in readers to my blog, as well as the writing of others. The humans alive today, every one of us, are here because the drive to procreate remains in the DNA passed to us and through us.

I heard females, a limited number, mention our sessions stimulated their lubrication.

I recall another dear person I referred to a different psychologist because we couldn’t resolve and move beyond her transference, aka, her obsessive wish to be my lover.

In our final meeting, she asked for a parting hug. Weeks before, she presented a pencil drawing of me holding her. Since I couldn’t predict how far she might take an embrace, I refused. Anger followed.

Another woman, paradoxically, could not have been further from capturing my interest. She did refer to her satisfying sex life with her husband, but this wasn’t what prompted her to consult me. Nor was the brief report remarkable.

I found nothing stimulating in her intellect, personality, appearance, or her way of walking or moving, speaking or smiling. She didn’t flirt and didn’t wear revealing clothing. I guess the lady was in her 40s or early 50s.

And yet, I felt drawn to her. By the process of elimination, I can only conclude she produced an oversupply of pheromones.

My boundaries and respect for those who requested guidance stopped me from considering the pursuit of touch outside those limitations, as did my love for my wife and a set of clear principles. I never needed to think about potential public humiliation, financial ruin, and vocational catastrophe.

None of this makes me a saint, in case you wondered. If you can find one, let me know.

But, I heard a few stories from men who did destroy their lives and those of their victims.

Two of my patients, defrocked former ministers, sought my services because they’d taken advantage of their religious authority and charismatic charm with multiple members of their separate congregations. One still retained an imposing presence and a powerful voice, a capacity he’d used to deliver stirring sermons. His shame was almost palpable.

Another man I’m thinking of, a doctor, employed several ex-patients in his office of female employees. Those with whom I spoke all admired him, but people in authority who provide treatment to a person in distress often receive this kind of attachment and appreciation.

This is what erotic transference tends to involve. The transferential object needn’t be Brad Pitt or whoever is the latest heartthrob.

Well, the odd man I’m describing owned lots of “presence,” an indefinable quality of strength or self-assertion, self-confidence, or magnetism setting an individual apart from others. One might describe it as an aura of sorts.

Most of humanity becomes invisible in a crowd, while those with “presence” stand out no matter their size.

Thus, perhaps it should be without surprise to discover the physician I’m describing took one of his employees, a former patient of course, into his office about once a week.

The couch doubled as a foldout bed. If you entered his “castle” after she exited, the scent of sex remained.

Back to me. I confess I sometimes could be a bit too attentive to the faces and bodies seeking psychological assistance. At least my eyes were. As a psychologist, you need to remind yourself of what you are doing, what your duty is and return your attention to the patient’s needs.

This isn’t difficult if your role remains well-defined internally. Most get this right, I suspect. Otherwise, malpractice insurance costs would be closer to those of medical specialists.

Patients test therapists. Not all, but some of those whose life histories included soul-breaking physical and emotional violations.

A few push their new doctor with displays of anger or intimate provocation. They come to the consulting room with memories of people who appeared kind and turned cruel, the ones who offered comfort as an avenue to their own carnal and controlling advantage.

These injured folks don’t want to be hurt again. They plan attire and enticement to assure themselves the kindly and wise Dr. Jekyll won’t become Mr. Hyde. I also encountered a couple of traumatized women who brought small knives into the office in an attempt to menace me.

Safety and testing take many shapes. It can also serve to control the practitioner, rather than submitting to control by him.

I’ve read nothing about erotic transference and countertransference (when the counselor experiences a desire to pursue a client) specific to the new virtual, computer-mediated age of treatment.

It will be interesting if research informs us whether the power of transference can jump over and through the Zoom screen. I imagine it sometimes can.

From a distance of 10 years since retirement, my take on all this is that we psychologists and other helping professionals cannot but bring the whole of our humanity and personality into our vocation. Knowing yourself well as a healer means you should keep your focus and actions in check.

Of course, we are human, and humans do many things they shouldn’t. Be grateful, then, to find those talented professional souls who don’t, no matter their line of work.

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The first photo is of Ingrid Bergman and Mathias Wieman in a promotional shot from the 1954 movie Fear. The following image is a screenshot of Eva Marie Saint from On the Waterfront, also of the same year. Finally, a screenshot of Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace, a 1956 movie. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

If You Could Have Dinner with Anyone, Anywhere, Who …

Have you changed your mind in, say, the last nine years? How about the most recent six-months?

I hope so.

In 2011 I wrote a post about an invitation to a feast. Any reader might choose anybody to be his companion in my hypothetical scenario.

The possibilities were unrestricted. Any person alive or dead would qualify: If You Could Have Dinner with Anyone in the World …

What I didn’t consider in offering the challenge and posting responses was a thing called time. Time appeared a near-infinite concept. No one who responded to my query lived in the presence of Azreal, the Grim Reaper, so far as they or I knew. Infection did not stalk the earth.

People made bucket lists assuming the planet would be as open to them in, say, nine years, as it stood on the day my essay popped up on WordPress. The normal human concerns about money, romance, and work remained ... normal. My respondents weren’t locked down, mask-wearing, social distancing creatures.

If you wanted to hug someone you’d hugged 100 times before, you might reach for embrace #101 without a thought. No dread needed to fill your head.

The value of skin against skin hadn’t skyrocketed. Closeness wasn’t an existential issue. Your loved one didn’t carry Death’s scythe with which to harvest you.

Now we esteem lives in a different way. Some of us do, at least. Indeed, there is a partisan difference even in Americans’ sex lives: Sex in the Era of Coronavirus.

But overall, perhaps we understand, in a less abstract way than we did in the pre-pandemic era, nothing is guaranteed. OK, taxes and death, the old standbys. Nothing else. The topic today is the same one in the earlier article, but with a guarantee of safety unneeded then.

If you could have a meal with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be? In this imaginary opportunity, the food will be safe; the virus will be vanquished, no caution to keep six feet apart, or wash hands again and again.

Is the question too easy? Are the answers predictable? I’m guessing the list of people is more limited. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Surprise me. Or not.

—–

The first image above is Death and Life by Gustav Klimt, sourced from Wikiart.org/ The one below it is Grim Reaper obtained from FreeSvg.

Thinking About the Erotic Leap in a World Without Touch

The human world is aching. Hands and shoulders and skin are beyond reach. We have awakened to a sensual world in flight, moving at least six feet away.

What would you give for a handshake or a hug, a kiss independent of memory, arousal satisfied by a hand not yours. Perhaps you recall your head resting over another’s heart, hearing the life pulse, moved by the rise and fall of breath.

There are fleshly palms I’d like to surround, soft cheeks to brush past, downcast heads to lift in my hands. I’d spread high-fives all around, eyes close up, too.

Our on-guard stance against illness doesn’t permit either the comfort or intensity we seek in embracing. Our passions are chilled, bottled-up, beaten down. The perspiration of the skin almost asks permission to release itself.

We are amid a famine, even we lucky ones who remain nourished by food and don’t live alone. We want the bodies, the faces, the nearby smiles we lack. Artificial substitutes are earth-bound and distant, no matter that man was not meant to be alone.

We make do. The voices speak on phones across the world. Masks hide faces speeding through stores. Proximity is shunned. The Zoom-altered space-time continuum offers lips that move … followed by broken, inhuman sounds. If space aliens appeared, immune from our looming affliction, we would surrender and rush into their strange arms … all five of them.

I once treated a woman so starved for affection, she coupled with a canine. I believed her at the time but now understand her more.

We want sex, no mistake. But I heard many female patients talk about their need to be held – just held, including those with a regular bed partner. It is worth remembering what one hears on the battlefield among the wounded. They call not to lovers but to mothers.

Humans survived because love and care and emotional intimacy signified more than lovemaking. The buttons to such responses overlap the erotic zone, but one can also be mistaken for the other.

The sex of things is not solely dependent upon what catches the eye. It can be kindness or words or a voice or a gentle touch as much as security or a reminder of someone else. No wonder we experience the presence of erotic transference in the therapist’s office.

We are befuddled creatures, we humans: confusing and confused, less rational than we’d like to believe, unable to predict our feelings far ahead of the present. Kirkegaard acknowledged this truth:Life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forward.Backward, indeed, but not always grasped even then.

In 1900 the average life expectancy for men in the USA was 46.3 years. People laughed at home and made love at home. They gave birth, got sick, and died at home.

The cycle of life had many witnesses. Death made his place in the next room, overheard in an unfair wrestling match, an unbeatable competitor you recognized. Those people knew what we have been reminded of.

Perhaps hellos and goodbyes meant more in those days. No planes eased the route to reunion. Travel required time and patience. Letters were sent by snail mail while the writer lived, many arriving when he or the reader or both were dead.

Now we recognize (or should admit) “next time” is a wish without guarantee, a blessing when fulfilled. We’ve sobered up from a mass delusion of early death as an oddity, a fantasy never bothering to say goodbye. It left too many the parting gift of the grim reaper’s embrace.

The lessons of our ancestors need relearning. Catastrophe has a way of forcing its muscular arms around us. Remember that when all the unhugged-hugs – the ones pressing out from the prison of your skin – finally emerge from captivity.

Like Times Square at the end of WWII, when strangers swept each other into their arms, the reborn world will discover our reconstituted virginal state.

Our mundane existence will be reenchanted.

There are simple things worth waiting for.

—–

The three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. First comes The Embrace by Auguste Rodin, then William Adolph Bouguereau’s Admiration (Cupid). The final artwork is Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress.

Sensuality Is More Than Sexuality

James Baldwin, the towering black writer, can widen your comprehension of things you thought you understood. Take the word sensual.

The essayist and activist wrote this in The Fire Next Time:

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.

Baldwin feared for those who are unable to “renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives.”

At times he found such renewal in his black community of the ’50s and ’60s, a quality “of zest and joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster. … a freedom that was close to love.”

He observed this characteristic at “church suppers and outings … where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about the (white) man. We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not.”

Baldwin is talking about being in touch with all emotions and all five senses. A thing natural and unstudied.

He noticed this in unself-consciousness, in losing oneself to the sound and feel and texture of things. We see it in a gifted athlete’s abandon and grace as he speeds toward a distant, perhaps catchable ball and the same young man’s sense of muscular weariness after expending all his energy at the game’s end.

You needn’t search far for these experiences. One can reach down and claw up a clump of earth on a rainy day. The fragrance is the aroma of life and the potential for regeneration.

The sensual is at hand in rejoicing over birdsong and the concentrated, savoring, unrushed consumption of a tasty meal. It is there without charge in a subtle perfume evoking the skin of someone you love and the heartache when you are distant from her.

The songs that quicken us access the hidden truth we know of ourselves and in ourselves. When we say we are “moved” by an event, we should remember this: movement speaks to the urgency of the body to do what it was made for.

Sensuality inhabits the morning light of the bluest skies and the coyness of a shy smile. You recognize the sensual in the goosebumps of a homecoming where everyone waits for you – when you and they know of their incompleteness without you.

Perhaps you’ve found sensuality in poetry recited in hoped-for words from the right voice or a father’s protective arm around your shoulder. The mutual grip of his handshake would do as well. Your senses are engaged in each of these.

We give away too much of this in a cloud of unawareness. Routine and habit kill our aliveness to the world. Now is a moment to attend to our forgotten contact with nature outside of us and our nature inside of us.

Traps we call custom and convention interfere with showing our emotional response to the sensory corporeal world. We make sure no one sees our openness and sensitivity to the planet’s pulse, lest we become ashamed.

Concern about the opinion of others is necessary for civility, but causes us to hide anything the group might question. Religion’s focus on the sin of the erotic, for all that institution’s civilizing effects, inhibited mankind by comparison with our freer mammalian cousins.

One can find the possibility of the sensual in walking instead of riding in cars, in the buoyant life of the ocean’s salt rather than the antiseptic backyard or public pool. The computer screen offers digits and electric communication, but not the enlivening smell and slipperiness of sweat.

Weather makes no difference to our senses. Each season and atmospheric change presents its own physical gifts. Sensuality is not buttoned up or closed down, but the drumming heart of our essence, no matter the forecast.

Even in a time of limitation and disease, you can discover the reason you want to live in photos, melodies, and trees. No wonder children love fingerpainting. They don’t care how their art turns out so much as how the paint feels in their hands. They remain more at one with their bodies, joys, and sorrows than many of us.

Reawaken yourself.

All you need is in you.

All of the photographs are the work of the extraordinary Laura Hedien, reproduced with her generous permission: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/ The first was taken at Wasatch Mountains, Utah. The second image depicts the Bobby Sock Area of Yellowstone National Park. The final picture shows The Milky Way and a Southwest, USA Arch. The single painting comes from Wikimedia Commons. It is Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still Life with Ham, Lobster, and Fruit, c. 1653.

The Truth About Sex Frequency and How We Know It

Depending on who you consult, people are either having lots of sex (more than you, by the way) or a significant amount less than they report. Which “truth” shall we believe?

A June 11, 2019 Cosmopolitan story tells us Millennials are blessed in this department — “killing it in the bedroom,” reports Julie Vadnal. There are reasons to hesitate before accepting the conclusions in her article, however.

What people say they do and what they do in reality can be different. Furthermore, her definition of sex covers considerable ground, including “non-penetrative sex, vibrators, porn,” etc.

Is masturbation (solo variety) sex?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s (S-D) 2017 book, Everybody Lies, offers an alternative perspective. His inquiry suggests people lie about many things, and physical intimacy is high on the deception list. Moreover, this research analyst mistrusts surveys, the usual authority on what we know about private acts.

A phone voice or in-person interviewer might not elicit secrets you’d shrink from telling your best friend. A promise of anonymity makes little difference in his view, even online.

Instead, S-D mines information drawn from Google search results. He concludes that the respondents to surveys say they are having more romance than they are.

An example illustrates the point:

Based on 2016 data from straight women who took part in the General Social Survey,* the average female adult has sex 55 times a year. Sixteen percent of the time condoms are worn.

Do the math and you get 1.1 billion rubbers put to the rub per annum.

Before you believe those numbers, consider the following.

Figures from heterosexual males reveal 1.6 billion episodes of latex-type prophylactic employment, about 145% more than the ladies who are their partners!

More doubt about the findings comes from Nielsen, a giant tracker of consumer behavior. Fewer than 600 million condoms are purchased each year. Unless the men and women are making their own contraceptive devices in the basement, both are exaggerating the frequency with which they “do it.”

The General Social Survey used by S-D was repeated last year. Suffice to say, even the GSS indicates the passionate part of many of our lives is on a downhill course. To take one illustration, 51% of 18 to 29-year-olds reported having sex once a week or more in 1996. In 2018 the number was 39%.

Commentators speculate as to the reasons for the decline. Causes might include the reduction in the portion of young adults with live-in lovers and a similar diminution of those with a steady romantic companion.

A smaller percentage of young men with a reliable source of income must also be factored in. The lack of career prospects is presumed to reduce a male’s chances of amorous success.

The overall GSS results are also tipped in the “diminishing copulation” direction by an increase in the proportion of those 60 and older in the population, from 18% in 1996 to 26% in 2018. Though seniors often have a satisfying sex life, Viagra doesn’t transform them into the rabbits of their youth.

Take U.S. adults as a whole and nearly one in four were celibate in the year covered by the last study. Let me repeat: no sex at all for almost 25%.

Stephens-Davidowitz states that grown-up Americans are (surprise!) not happy about the situation.

On Google, “The top complaint about a marriage is not having sex. Searches for ‘sexless marriage’ are three and a half times more common than ‘loveless marriage.'”

Stephens-Davidowitz continues, “Even unmarried couples complain somewhat frequently about not having sex. Searches for ‘sexless relationship’ are second only to ‘abusive relationship.'”

The findings, according to Everybody Lies, suggest more anxiety about love-making than many admit. Our body parts and their size, both too much and too little, haunt us. Other troubling matters unsettle us, as well, not least performance.

From my angle, the preoccupations, inhibitions, and prohibitions likely come from several places. Centuries of religious teaching, fear of disease, and a personal history of self-doubt and rejection can interfere with intimacy.

Add emotional attachment or its absence, the chance and import of pregnancy, and comparisons with movie personalities, models, and X-rated stars. All this and more ratchets up the stakes of getting naked.

Surely the unprecedented level of stress found by the American Psychological Association, greatest among Millennials, enhances no one’s sex life. Life complications and frustrations enter the bedroom on tip-toe, unseen and not discussed. If past events join present and future worries, little space for joy remains.

No therapist can alter the backdrop of our fraught social, work, and political life. Climate change troubles those with lots of time ahead, who should be lustful, more than anyone else. But is the separate worry over muscle tone, shapeliness, execution, and ego justified?

Stephens-Davidowitz comments on this question in passing. The researcher believes there is more forgiveness about the short-falls of bodies, shapes, and sizes than people think. Being in love makes us more forgiving creatures.

Yes, sex is in the air, but love tends to bring out our best selves. For a guy who writes about Big Data and impersonal numbers, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz turns out to be a bit of a sweetie-pie.

_________________________________________________________

The first image is Self-Portrait with White Gown by Egon Schiele. Second comes A Portrait of Madame Sohn by the same painter. The photograph following is Egon Schiele by Josef Anton Trčka.

*”The General Social Survey (GSS) is a project of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, with principal funding from the National Science Foundation.”

You might also want to look at other sources for this essay, including Stress in America — Charted/, Record High in Americans Not Having Sex/, and The Millennial Sex Recession is Bullsh*t/

A Therapist’s Private Life: An Indelicate Moment Requiring Delicacy

Some things ought not be mentioned in mixed company. Perhaps, therefore, those of refined sensibilities should not proceed further. The tale, if I can call my saga that, might prompt shock, sympathy definitely, and wonder — about who I really am that I should place this in public view. You have been warned. By reading, you are indemnifying me against psychological damage you might suffer.

Sunday, September 2, 2018.

I was minding my own business. The last three words are chosen with care. Confused? OK. Let me get closer to the matter. I stood in the smallest room in my home — not, I must add, before the mirror or the sink below and in front of it. Those still with me should recognize your number is smaller than when I began the paragraph.

The question is one of proper handling of equipment. Human, fleshly equipment. How many thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times do men use this device for one of the two activities we are required to perform with said attachment. Put differently, I had lots of rehearsal. I knew how it worked, how the object should be held, where to direct its attention. Even without time spent at a firing range. I had some practice in using a garden hose dating from a Chicago childhood, but this experience came only after acquiring my washroom competencies, not before.

I finished. As you know, the process requires the replacement of said mortal apparatus back where it belongs, a familiar vanishing act. Most of the male persuasion wear zippered pants, though I realize string and buttons made their civilized appearance long before Herr Zipper created the metal or plastic method of opening and closing two pieces of fabric.

Allow me to correct the record. Whitcomb L. Judson, the type of name you don’t encounter much anymore, deserves the credit. His gadget’s first large-scale display was at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, some buildings from which still exist, including the Museum of Science and Industry. With such knowledge, I’m sure your visits there will never be the same.

Employing Judson’s invention, either closing or disclosing, does not demand brain power or concentration. You can’t do it in your sleep, but you can without sleep or preoccupied; and often when conversing, as sometimes happens when two men mind their own business while facing adjacent porcelain receptacles.

Ah, what arrogance! What foolishness! Too assured, confident, and mindless.

If you haven’t guessed what happened, here it is: the star of this essay (and I’m not talking about the whole of myself) — got snagged on the metal zipper for just an instant at, shall we say, its most sensitive point. An eye-opening moment. I should have remembered why the interlocking segments of the zipper are called teeth.

I am not much of a singer. Despite my limited musical skills, I immediately hit a high note only dogs can hear. In another second, I de-snagged the snag.

Carefully.

Some blood appeared at the accident site. To be specific, one drop. I felt better in a few more moments, soaping myself first.

Emergency rooms see far worse.

Now an apology. To my ex-patients, in particular. I suspect some of you never thought I owned this appliance or — occupied with weightier considerations — didn’t ponder its quiet presence in the room we shared. There were others, however, who — briefly at least — maintained focus on the additional function for which this machinery was designed and hoped to work their magic on it and on me. In either case, you might not have wanted to be reminded.

So sorry.

Now back to the six people who are continuing to read. Those who peruse counselor blogs are not all aware that therapists are regular folks. Our staged performances can fool you. Yes, but I am an iconoclast, a man willing to betray our slight-of-hand and step off the pedestal on which we perform, this for the sake of truth and a laugh.

Promise me something, dear reader. And by now, I do mean singular. Please do not tell my grandson any of this. He is just learning to master his small portion of the paraphernalia with which God equipped him.

I’m done, but worried a bit. Will you still respect me in the morning?

——

The perceptive among you will notice that the images above are almost identical, an Animated Zipper closing, the other opening (reversed). The creator of both of these is Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint). They are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Does Emotional Infidelity Consist of?

You tell yourself you are faithful. You love your spouse. You pray every day, attend religious services once a week. You believe in the strength of your will — the ability to resist temptation, the perfumed heat emanating from a delicate hand.

Ah, how we fool ourselves. All around are enticements. They are the banana peels you don’t notice, the black ice waiting to skid the vehicle of your soul into dyscontrol, the quicksand but a step ahead. Springtime and flowers and a glass of wine. A comely presence attached to a sympathetic listener (a therapist, maybe) when you are unhappy about something.

There can be so much in a smile and a tilted head. And those eyes!

How do you know when you are unfaithful, even a little? Or heading for it?

A few questions:

  • Do you sometimes think about the “other” when talking to your spouse?
  • Do you, even a bit, wish your mate were more like someone else?
  • Do you imagine what you’d do if free to pursue something elsewhere?
  • Does your present lover know the stranger exists?

The ice is getting thin, no?

  • What do you imagine your mate would think if he/she overheard you talking with this special person or read your email?
  • Does the arrival of a new message give you a rush?
  • Can you sense the “sex of things” even if you haven’t acted on it?
  • Do you lie to disguise any aspect of the new relationship?
  • Is the mental and emotional space devoted to the stranger enlarging?

None of the above necessarily includes any sexual contact, not even a kiss.

  • Do you engage in secret phone calls with the other?
  • Have you arranged meetings in a park, coffee shop, restaurant or the like?
  • Do you share confidences not offered to your spouse?
  • Is your sexual desire for your mate now much smaller or larger than before you became otherwise preoccupied?
  • Are photo exchanges part of your new, hidden life?

Many of these actions can be rationalized. The new friend perhaps is a co-worker or someone you met on a commuter train. Each step seems small enough and might be something you minimize. Flirtation is enlivening. Sympathetic listeners are necessary in any life. A new person is fresh by definition and the glare from the unwrapped cellophane hides whatever imperfections reside in the package.

At some point the frail self is caught in a wave, swept away, young again. The experience moves you from underneath a pedestal to the top of one. Routine breaks. Your spouse knows you too well, but the fresh friend is dazzled. Your life goes from static to ecstatic. You assume your mate will not find out. You don’t face what your friends or kids or parents might think. No one will be hurt, you say to yourself. STDs? You laugh thinking they can’t happen to you and nothing will pass to your mate.

You are a fool in love. The early stages of love make us all fools. I do not disparage amour here, but surely you recall muttering (in the past, of course), “What was I thinking?” The question comes too late.

Some argue you should simply enjoy the ride, ignoring that you are not encased in protective bubble wrap. Better, ask yourself what is of ultimate importance in your life. What are the reasons you chose your spouse? Consider the gratitude you feel still toward him or her; all you share and have shared. How can you enliven the relationship to make it better? Who are you really, your best self? Who do you want to be?

An emotional affair is still an affair of sorts, even if not yet so dreadfully complicated. The new romance will almost make you believe the other is Christopher Columbus and you are the America he discovered. And vice versa. All this while you are upside down and so much the plaything of your emotions that you will not even recognize you are drowning. Your stable life was built of blocks made of prose (and prose is essential to sustain any lasting relationship), but the weights pulling you under are full of poetry.

Perhaps you can find some of the old poetry back at home, too.

You have my best wishes and deepest condolences. No judgement here: these things happen even without seeking them. Friends and therapists are waiting to help.

Just remember:

The brakes on your being are balky. The steering wheel is unresponsive. You’re heading for a cliff at high-speed.

Think about it.

Oh, but wait!

I forgot your brain no longer works.

Escaping from Ourselves: Music, Crowds, and Other Ways Out

April 21 was Record Store Day, an international event celebrating the hunt for tunes you can hold in your hands. By coincidence, this classical music lover found himself listening to a rock concert at a stop where I hoped to shop, not bop. I’d never attended anything similar, but learned something you won’t in a Mozart-friendly venue: the pain people suffer to escape themselves. Or simply to have a good time.

Only a matter of feet from the amplified band, everyone was moving to the music, ear drums be damned by snares and cymbals. What was punishing to me in sheer volume got other people out of themselves. Big music doing a big job. The point was not to use thought, but to submit to the mood-altering bombardment and escape reasoned analysis and reflection.

We do need to get away from reality. Intensity of sound was the key. The straight-jacket of our brain gets loosened and our suffering is covered-over, swamped by an aural tsunami.

Music isn’t the only way. Take the extremity of self-mutilation: cutting your body, as some do, not for decoration, but replacement of emotional pain by the application of physical pain; like a new coat of paint.

Sports venues also use loudness to launch escape from self. Conversation is difficult. Even attention to the game on the field. “Play ball?” You’ll see it, but won’t hear the infield chatter or bat striking ball. No foreground of sound and background of silence, like visual art, but all foreground all the time.

Beyond a flight from acute emotional distress, why might we want to depart reality? Life can be rather too much, don’t you think? The vocational rat race, mortality, and inevitable comparisons and competitions come to mind. No wonder we drink, smoke funny cigarettes, and overeat.

The human being is a clever creature, tricking himself to fly without even knowing what he is doing or why.

Those who dissociate in the midst of a traumatic event describe their transformation as a “going away:” separating a part of themselves from the portion encountering the unsparing awfulness. By breaking into segments, another facet of the personality experiences the grotesquery in a muted fashion or not at all.

Nearly everyone sometimes compartmentalizes his experience. We take in what distress can be managed and screen out the rest, without the extreme loss of awareness in dissociation. “I’ll think about this later,” so we tell ourselves, and a door in the brain closes.

Crowds can help you get out of yourself. Not just at concerts, but political rallies. Size matters. We give up thinking for nonbeing, joining, submerging. At the crowd’s worst, rules disappear, exchanged for bad faith. Humanity and civilization are discarded. We return to more primal roots. The unity of the group is all. You are not solo, not separate, but swept into in a mob of homogeneous excitation. No wonder the mass goes crazy and the individuals lose themselves, surrendering their agency to the power of the collective.

Talented populist orators evoke a frenzy, a single-mindedness they manipulate with our complicity. Why? Because we desire this loss of responsibility and control; the mental weight of making a decision. Once unburdened, anything is possible with someone else’s permission and direction. Think Lord of the Flies and what happens to Piggy.

Sensation of a transcendent kind is found in sex. Sexual contact allows us to escape of our bodies in the body of another. We are swept away in the stretching, sweating, touching, playing, craving, and holding. Our surrender to flooding hormones and synchronous beating hearts yields ecstasy: escape velocity that returns us to our unthinking creatureliness, our animality.

But there is more. When wills and wants and sensibilities align we exchange essences. After, we take some portion of the other’s otherness with us. Each party is completed. We are less ourselves and alone. In the consummation we escape our own boundaries.

Dancing and religious rites can create self-abandonment. Some worshipful gatherings sanctify and applaud those who “speak in tongues.” They become unmoored, taken over by a language that is not a language.

Quieter ways to lose yourself exist, but they lack the drama and require concentration; say, on a book you are reading or by the discipline of a hard-won meditation practice. We can depart our self in a state of “flow” at work, too. But, if you want to leave your consciousness behind without industrious effort, these will not do.

Standard variety vacations suffice, especially if they take you to a place of anonymity, a strange culture, away from work and obligation: in the most positive sense, out of your mind. The tendrils of thought pulling you back to homely discontent are cut.

No judgement here. Relief is necessary. Distraction and diversion take many forms. We don’t always choose our evasive poisons or medicines wisely, but one cannot make the best of reality without the occasional departure from the realm of the hard and real. Passing time without flights of fancy would be too grim.

Here’s to the high flyers, the ones climbing toward the clouds in search of cloudiness. It is true, the upper reaches are opaque, but where is it written we must always be clear-eyed?

Smile, laugh, and make love. Or, as the old verse tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.”

So says the Bible!

———

The first image is Tape Floor by Jim Lambie. The second is Fenix by Josignacio. Finally, Dancers by Degas. All are sourced from Wikiart.org/