One of the best things about having a self-proclaimed Big Honking Geek for a boyfriend is that he is thoroughly conversant with the wide world of web comics and frequently turns me on to artists whose work is hilarious, outrageous, beautiful, and/or instructional. Latest example: Oh Joy Sex Toy, the blog by Erika Moen who reviews sex toys for a living and writes up her responses in posts that are delightfully graphic in every sense of the word. She recently posted the most thorough, accessible, user-friendly guide to pleasuring a female partner I think I’ve ever seen. Check out “How To Eat Pussy” — like everything on her site, it’s decided NSFW but adult sex education at its finest.
Contemporary Sexuality, the newsletter published online by the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT, of which I’m a member), has posted in its latest issue an article that spotlights a little-discussed issue: “How Chronic Illness Can Affect Sexual Function.” I’m glad to read such a thorough and thoughtful consideration of the topic.
I have worked with a number of men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer. That’s a situation that clearly, undeniably, and almost universally forces men to deal with sexual issues before, during, and after treatment. That’s an easy example. But I’ve also worked with people struggling with how to reclaim or manage their sexual feelings in relation to other health challenges — one woman who suffers crippling migraines and who wanted help keeping her erotic body alive even when the headaches erased virtually every ounce of recognizable libido; other women navigating the mysterious straits of menopause or post-childbirth sexuality.
The AASECT article by Steph Auteri focuses primarily on cancer patients but opens out to discuss people dealing with the full spectrum of health challenges and their impact on sexuality. Auteri, a sexologist and author, lists a number of not-so-obvious symptoms that can affect sexual functioning. A couple of other passages that stood out for me:
Dr. Sage Bolte, a sexuality and oncology counselor, points out that, “All chronic illnesses have this shared theme of grief and loss. And then, you’re tasked with establishing a new normal. What this means may change on a daily basis.”
Much of this is ignored when a patient is first diagnosed, partially because it doesn’t seem so important at the time, and partially because most medical providers don’t even think to bring it up. Dr. Anne Katz, who regularly gives lectures to oncology care providers, says, “Medical school and nursing school curricula are woefully inadequate when it comes to teaching about healthy sexuality. We need to ask our patients about their sexuality. Otherwise, they think either that it’s not important or that it’s taboo.”
There’s an epidemic afoot in the land these days that has gone unreported and rarely discussed but I see it so much that I’ve given it a name: PIPA, for porn-influenced performance anxiety. Starting with the advent of home video in the early 1980s and amping up in the last 15 years when the internets have become an essential part of everyday life, access to stills and films of sexual activity has become so easy and ubiquitous that pornography has shifted from an entertainment medium to an educational model. Mostly without even thinking about it, people who watch porn – whether casually, obsessively, or somewhere in between – have started to internalize its formulaic choreography as if it were the rule book on How to Have Sex, not unlike the way fashion magazines with their freakishly skinny, digitally airbrushed models brainwash young women into thinking that’s what they’re supposed to look like. As a result, a lot of guys have started to put enormous pressure on themselves and/or their partners to Perform Like a Porn Star, with the result that sex is not nearly as much fun as it’s supposed to be.
Let’s think about some of the myths perpetuated by gay male porn:
- everybody is good-looking, white, buff, and healthy;
- everybody has a big dick that always gets hard and always shoots;
- everybody loves to suck cock is good at it;
- everybody loves anal sex, bottoms love to get fucked and open their asses easily;
- everybody is able to move into sex easily on a moment’s notice;
- nobody ever has difficult getting and maintaining an erection;
- nobody ever has difficult staying hard while putting on a condom and achieving penetration;
- nobody ever says “Ow, ow, take it out, it hurts”;
- nobody ever has conversations about HIV status or negotiating likes and dislikes;
- nobody ever has difficulty ejaculating.
Meanwhile, many of the things that are most enjoyable about sexual intimacy you never see in porn, because they’re not especially photogenic:
- taking your time and getting to know each other;
- making out at length, keeping your clothes on for a while, at least your underwear;
- holding, cuddling, and spooning;
- frotting (rubbing bodies or dicks together without penetration);
- napping afterwards or making tea;
- laughing together;
- lying on the couch together after a stressful weekend with the family….
It’s funny to break down the differences between porn sex and real-life sex, but plenty of guys fall into the trance of not knowing the difference between the two. If you can’t Perform Like a Porn Star in every way, there’s something wrong with you. If your partner can’t Perform Like a Porn Star, either he’s not attracted to you or there’s something wrong with him. If the rigidly enforced chain of events that typifies a porn encounter – meet, lock eyes, strokey-strokey, sucky-sucky, fucky-fucky, shoot-shoot, the end – doesn’t feel so good when you try to reproduce it in your own life, there’s something wrong with you. If what you like doesn’t match what you see in porn, there’s something wrong with you….
When all roads lead to that recurring refrain, maybe it’s time to consider where you’re getting these ideas about what constitutes acceptable/pleasurable sexual behavior. What you like to watch in porn may be different from what feels good when you’re having sex with a partner. How do you know? How do you keep from confusing the two? Talk to your friends. Talk to your playmates. Talk to your partner. Talk to your therapist. You can always talk to me. Let me know what you think.
At the Rowe Labor Day retreat in Massachusetts for gay, bisexual, and questioning men, I conducted a workshop called “Learning from Porn.” I felt ever-so-slightly scandalous broaching this topic while attending a conference at a Unitarian Universalist retreat center. At the same time, like my teacher and mentor Joseph Kramer I’m committed to healing the split between sexuality and spirituality in our culture. We all have bodies, and it is our spiritual invitation to inhabit them fully and mindfully. And reading a poster in the Rowe library enumerating the core values of Unitarian Universalism, I resonated with its championing “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
As a number of participants in the workshop immediately acknowledged, almost every male adult has some kind of love/hate relationship with pornography, that ubiquitous form of entertainment that heavily influences the norms by which we judge our bodies, our desires, and our sexual partners — but we hardly ever talk about it to anyone. I wanted to create a safe, non-judgmental context in which to consider a few pertinent questions: What is hot about porn? What myths about sex does porn perpetuate, for better or for worse? What aspects of pleasurable sexuality never show up in porn? I quickly learned that men have plenty to say on all these topics.
Most public discussions about pornography tend to focus on addiction, abuse, exploitation of women, and so on. Those problems clearly exist, but I believe that as human beings we always have a positive reason for doing what we do. And as a sex therapist, especially one who works with a lot of gay men, I’m acutely aware of the paradox of porn — that however much it contributes to shame, compulsiveness, and distorted ideas about sexuality, looking at pornography is for many men an important doorway into erotic existence. So I purposely wanted to open the discussion by asking what’s valuable about porn…. Read more
“Ask for what you want” is advice that’s easy to give but often strangely difficult to practice. What gets in the way of identifying our desires and sharing them with others? Growing up gay, we probably learned early on to view our deepest desires as shameful, socially unacceptable, or at the very least subject to other people’s negative judgments. No wonder we’re a little gun-shy when it comes to letting others know what we want, especially in the realm of love and erotic play.
As a gay sex therapist, I spend a lot of my working hours listening to people talk about the nitty-gritty details of their sex lives. I meet a lot of smart, soulful, intelligent men frustrated at their inability to find love and connection.
Many gay men live with the nagging feeling that they missed that day in school when everybody else learned to identify their desires, to inhabit them, and to express them to others. Mostly, as gay kids, we were shamed for our erotic desires. We absorbed the message that our hunger for touch and affection, wanting to see and hold other guys’ bodies (or, let’s be honest, their penises) were bad or wrong and we should keep them hidden away. Sometimes we learned that lesson overtly by being punished, harassed, or bullied for showing our desires. But sometimes we picked them up indirectly from the absence of positive expressions of same-sex desire. Either way, we developed a hyperawareness as a defense mechanism. Any hint of desire can feel like a threat to survival: am I going to be okay, or am I going to be rejected, or beat up?
Is it possible to choose what thoughts you think? I’m not sure you can choose what thoughts float through your mind any more than you can choose what you’re feeling at any given moment. If you could, we’d choose to be happy all the time, right? I do believe, though, that you can choose what thoughts you give weight to. That’s probably the biggest benefit of learning to meditate – getting quiet and still enough to notice the obsessive/brutal/anxious thoughts that occupy your monkey mind and to practice turning down the volume or replacing them with thoughts that create serenity rather than suffering.
Is it possible to choose what kind of people you find attractive? That’s the tougher question that came up today in my therapy session with Roger (not his real name). He’s a fit, perky, reasonably attractive middle-aged guy whose consulting job requires him to spend a lot of time on conference calls. The other day he met in person someone he’d only previously encountered as a disembodied voice. Matthew turns out to be an extraordinarily handsome young guy in his early thirties, and Roger’s crushing out on him already.
We had an interesting conversation about the rules of attraction and what body types gay men are trained to idealize. Roger tends to prize men who are young and handsome, and when it comes to dating, he tends to rule out men who are older and heavier than he is. I know that many gay men of a certain age were socialized to have that specific taste in men, which I consider somewhat tragic – tragic because 1) most people aren’t young and handsome, 2) the ones who are don’t stay that way very long, and 3) if you’re only turned on by young, pretty guys, the pickings get slimmer as time goes by. Maybe I’m a bit of a pervert (“Maybe?” I can hear my friends saying) but I never bought into the classic gay stereotype of drooling over hairless skinny young twinks or muscle-bound guys with six-pack abs. A pot belly and a receding hairline have always been more likely to turn my head, and I think I’m far from alone in that predilection.
We talked about how gay culture has expanded over the years to acknowledge a wider spectrum of physical attractiveness and a richer diversity of erotic affinity groups – daddies and daddy-hunters (noting that “Daddy” no longer connotes “Sugar Daddy” who pays for everything), white guys and men of color who are drawn to each other, bears and their various sub-subcultures, the many flavors of kink. We talked about Bob Bergeron, the New York City-based psychotherapist who wrote a book about gay men aging gracefully — and then committed suicide on the eve of its publication, a victim of the toxic belief that you have to “stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved.” And by contrast we talked about the great gay poet James Broughton, the subject of the new documentary film Big Joy, who lived to be a juicy old man. We talked about how one of the roles for elders in any community is listening carefully to and bestowing blessings on younger people, and how challenging it is to give blessings when you don’t feel that you have received as many as you would have liked.
We cycled back to Roger and his thoughts about Matthew, which vacillated between “He’s so handsome – I wish I were that handsome – I’ll never be that handsome” and “He’s so handsome – I wish I had a partner that handsome – I’ll never have a partner that handsome.” Neither of these trains of thought left Roger feeling very happy. I proposed an alternative: “He’s so handsome.” Period. Bestow a silent blessing. What happens if you give weight to that thought?
Choosing what has meaning to you and choosing where you want to put your energy and awareness is also the subject of a famous commencement speech given by novelist David Foster Wallace (another suicide, for what that’s worth) to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. Check it out and let me know what you think. What thoughts plague you, and what other choices are available to you?
A college professor in his early 40s, Jeff has been in therapy with me on and off for ten years. [I’ve changed his name and occupation to preserve confidentiality.] I’ve seen him through the ups and downs of a couple of relationships and a struggle with substance abuse. He’s currently single and reasonably happy with that. Like many gay men, when he’s in a relationship Jeff often has a hard time juggling his partner’s desire for together-time with his own desire for alone-time. (Gay men are far from alone in this. The great lesbian folksinger Ferron nailed the phenomenon in a couplet from her song, “Our Purpose Here”: “It’s a woman’s dream, this autonomy/Where the lines connect but the point stays free….”) Yet the freedom of being single rubs up against loneliness, the sheer pleasure of companionship.
Lately we’ve spent time exploring a split that he notices in his interactions with other men. He has no problem getting slutty with guys he meets on Grindr or Manhunt. But when he meets a guy that he likes and might consider dating, he suddenly becomes weirdly reserved, reluctant to show his sexual self. Some of that may be the residue of a Catholic upbringing; girls aren’t the only ones who internalize the Madonna/whore dichotomy. When he found himself repeating that pattern with another guy recently, a light bulb went off: Jeff realized that he drags his heels when it comes to having sex with a Nice Guy He’s Dating because he’s HIV-positive and he dreads having The Disclosure Conversation. With his characteristic bluntness, he says, “If I’m blowing a guy, I feel like I don’t have to tell him because I’m not putting him in any danger, and chances are I’m never going to see him again. But if it’s someone I might want to date, then I feel like I have to be honest. But then it’s scarier because I have more to lose if he can’t handle it and walks away.”
Now Jeff is an extremely outgoing guy and an unusually assured public speaker. He has no problem speaking, often without notes, to his classes and at professional conferences. Yet the prospect of having the intimate conversation about HIV-status with a guy he’s dating fills him with terror and, more to the point, shame. His friend Daniel, one of the few in his social circle who is also HIV-positive, has developed over time a matter-of-fact attitude about telling people in his life that he’s healthy-poz-undetectable. Jeff is not there yet. In his blackest moods, he considers himself to be “a filthy, diseased creature.” Mind you, that’s not how he views other people with HIV. And no one else has ever judged him that way. The people in his life that he has told have been kind and supportive without exception. And yet he struggles with the sense of being “damaged goods.” This is something probably every single person has wrestled with at some point after being told they’re HIV-positive. What about you? How have you coped with this personal/social dilemma?
I thought about Jeff when a Facebook friend shared a moving essay that appeared on Buzzfeed.com called “My Virus, My Husband, and Me.” Author Michael Broder, a long-term survivor of HIV, writes with honesty and some humor about the evolution of his feelings and practice around disclosing his HIV status. Check it out and let me know what you think. He references a “Puppet Service Announcement” about HIV awareness that was created by the cast of the Broadway musical Avenue Q and that aired on RuPaul’s Drag Race. You can view that video online here.