MEDIA: Esther Perel interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”

Esther Perel is a Belgian-born sex therapist who has become widely known for her speaking and teaching about sex, intimacy, and relationships. Her first book, Mating in Captivity, examined and overturned a lot of preconceptions about how to sustain emotional and sexual intimacy in a committed relationship. Her TED talk on desire (“The secret to desire in a long-term relationship”) has gotten over 11 million views online. And her new book, The State of Affairs, inspired another juicy TED talk distilling the essence of the book, “Re-thinking infidelity.”

Perel has achieved media stardom partly because she’s a strikingly attractive blonde woman with a charming European accent — I mention her photogenic personality to make the point that it combines with a sharp intellect and a gracious sense of humor to get across some very provocative and challenging ideas in a remarkably accessible way. She was recently interviewed about the material in her book on NPR’s “Fresh Air” by the ever-appealing Terry Gross. Few therapists in the public arena have impressed me so much with their sensible approach to the subject of sex and relationships.

In particular, I was struck by how Perel talked about a subject that I encounter frequently in my own practice, which is the situation where there is a big difference in libido: one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t.

Terry Gross: How do you deal with relationships where one partner desires something that the other partner isn’t willing to give? Doesn’t enjoy sex, doesn’t want it frequently, therefore they’ve become sexually incompatible. What’s your position for the partner who desires something that partner can no longer get within the marriage?

Esther Perel: If you ask about what to do with the discrepancy around desire for sex within the relationship, thinking that what people miss is the act of sex, you fail to understand what people are really asking for. Sexuality is often a pathway for connection, for intimacy, for tenderness, for sensuality. For playfulness, for power, for curiosity, for relaxation. When people are deprived of sex, it’s this whole set of feelings and experiences they are deprived of. They can have sex in various places. What they want is everything that the connection gives them. When they are deprived of that, what they experience is a depletion of energy, of vibrancy, of aliveness, of vitality. That’s what they’re yearning for. So the conversation begins not with sex but with loss. Loss on both sides. The person who is no longer interested is not so happy about that, either.

To me, this was the most interesting part of the interview:

Terry Gross: When someone no longer feels sexually aroused by your partner, is that something you feel they can get back?

Esther Perel: Arousal is one thing, desire is something else, and willingness is a third. We do not start sexually only because we are aroused and turned on. We sometimes start to be involved sexually because there is willingness. You’re not always hungry. But then there is food in front of you, and it looks beautiful, and it smells really good, and you have a little taste, and you think, “Hmm, after all, I wouldn’t mind a little bit more.” And even after you ate, you may say, “That was delicious, I wasn’t really hungry,” and you still enjoyed it. So we have multiple doors for entering into an intimate engagement with our partner. Excitement is just one of them. Sometimes you are desirous but you don’t have an arousal, you’re not turned on physiologically yet. But you have the idea, you have the wish for it, you’re in the mood. And sometimes you are excited and turned on but you’re not necessarily in the state of desire. I think we need to separate these concepts and these entry points, first of all.

Second of all, I think the more important question sometimes is: “I turn myself off…how? I shut down my desires…how?” That’s not the same as “You turn me off when…” and “What turns me off is…” That puts the responsibility only on the other person: if only the other person did amazing things it would move me. The fact is, if I’m shut down, if I’ve closed the door, you can do a lot of things but there will be nobody at the reception desk. There needs to be receptivity, an openness, a willingness, and that is the fundamental sovereignty of desire. That is something that I own. I decide if I want to open that or not. What they’re talking about is the ways they have closed themselves off from possibility of touch, of connection, of sensuality, of pleasure, of surrender, for a host of reasons that range from sexual trauma to self-criticism to lack of self-worth to negative body image to issues of self-esteem. It is those things that make us close ourselves down.

Terry Gross: Is that something you can help fix?

Esther Perel: Yes, many times. That’s the work. The work is about helping people often to reconnect with parts of themselves they’ve neglected or they’re in conflict with or that they despise. Or that they feel loathsome about or don’t feel deserving of because they gained too much weight or they haven’t performed well enough at work, because their mother left them for another man so they decided they would be all mother and they killed the woman inside of them the day they had a child. Or because their father was violent and aggressive and they don’t know how to bring together love and lust. Those are the deeper conflicts around desire and intimacy and sexuality that I work with in my practice.

I encourage you to listen to the entire half-hour interview yourself online here.  Check it out and let me know what you think.

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MEDIA: interview for La Revista Diversa

Luis Antonio Capurro is a friendly, enterprising young blogger and informal minister of culture to the gay male community in Lima, Peru. He recently interviewed me (by email) for his online magazine La Revista Diversa. Check it out here and let me know what you think.

MEDIA: “Pleasure, Anesthesia, and the Burden of Consciousness”

RFD fall 2016 cover

Last fall RFD, the radical faerie quarterly reader-written journal, devoted a special issue to the topic of Substances. The magazine includes some extremely honest and searching writings looking at many different practices involving party drugs and sacred medicines. I continue to marvel and chuckle at the powerful, witty cover image created by managing editor Bambi Gauthier and art director Matt Bucy (above). I contributed a very personal essay about my own experience of using various mind-altering substances, what I’ve gained, and how closely I monitor the balance of recreational and ceremonial explorations, what’s excessive and what’s enough. The essay is titled “Pleasure, Anesthesia, and the Burden of Consciousness: Notes on Substances.”

Early on, I say:

I am at heart an epicurean. I believe that pleasure is the greatest good in life, and in my sacred intimate practice I’m a champion of healing through pleasure. I’m quite attached to the pleasures in my life: the four cups of strong black tea that fuel my day, the couple of glasses of wine or beer that are my treat at the end of the day, my robust sex life, my enjoyment of music, and the occasional toke that my stoner boyfriend has taught me to enjoy. At the same time, I’m aware that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish pleasure from anesthesia, and sometimes I wonder what pain or fear I might be medicating or numbing with the substances I routinely enjoy. I’m sure I’m a bit hypervigilant about this because my father’s alcoholism left a strong imprint on my life. But I like to believe that I remain in choice rather than compulsive about my pleasures, and I’ve noticed that when I diet to prepare for sacred medicine ceremonies, I get quite cranky about giving up tea and wine and still spend considerable energy thinking about and craving them. There are writing projects that are important to me that I’m trying to summon the energy and stamina and concentration to complete, and it’s unclear to me whether my use of substances helps or hinders that. The constant existential battle between Living a Good Life and Getting Things Done.

RFD has a fairly small readership, so after sharing the essay with a handful of friends, one of them suggested I approach Reality Sandwich, the online magazine created by Evolver Learning Lab, about republishing my piece. The editors there enthusiastically embraced the idea, so now it’s available to read in full. Check it out here and let me know what you think.

R.I.P. Mark Thompson

The latest issue of RFD, the radical faerie digest, is rightfully dedicated to commemorating Mark Thompson, the visionary gay writer and editor who died last August at the age of 63.

As I say in my contribution to the issue:

The radical faerie world will always be indebted to Mark Thompson for his skill and generosity in chronicling the emergence of this gay spiritual movement as a professional journalist and as an observer-participant. He attended the legendary first “Spiritual Conference for Radical Fairies” Labor Day weekend 1979 in the Arizona desert, convened by Harry Hay, Mitch Walker, and Don Kilhefner, and he wrote about it in Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, his ground-breaking anthology of writings that linked contemporary gay liberation thought to previous generations of gay visionary writing by the likes of Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, and Gerald Heard. Few books ever published have had as big an impact on the gay world as Gay Spirit did. It emerged from and contributed to a hunger for deep exploration of gay people’s evolutionary purpose on the planet, and it spawned a small but important pocket of gay scholarship that manifest in essential titles such as Randy Conner’s Blossom of Bone and Walter L. Williams’ The Spirit and the Flesh.

I am pleased to have my short essay published alongside the work of many dear friends and colleagues, including Andrew Ramer, Winston Wilde, Robert Croonquist (Covelo), Keith Gemerek, Bo Young, Stephen Silha, and Leng Lim. You can find the magazine in the kind of bookstores that still carry small-press gay journals, or you find out how to order it online here.

Here is my piece (click to enlarge):

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MEDIA: Presidential penis size

I’m as amused as anyone else by College Humor’s new video, “Donald Trump: Show Us Your Penis.” But I’d like to shift the conversation a little bit, out of compassion for my small-dick bros, who die inside a little bit every time they hear jokes about little dicks.

For the record, Trump never said, “I have a big dick.” He said, “I guarantee you, there’s no problem.” You can read that any number of ways. Perhaps he would like you to read it as, “I have a big dick.” He could also be saying, “No one’s ever made any complaints. My junk works.”

In any case, I’d like to go easy about equating “small dick” with “problem.” Mostly because “small dick” is entirely relative, and the ubiquity of porn (in which no one has a dick that is not big and hard) has oppressed legions of men into fearing that they are somehow inadequate because they don’t have a porn-star dick.

Not that Madonna speaks for all women or all connoisseurs of cock, but when I interviewed her for The Advocate in 1991 at the time of Truth or Dare, we had a playful conversation about her sex partners, in which she modeled the proper attitude for any sensible sex-positive person who has sex with men:

madonna coverHow do you feel about dildos?

I’m not really interested in dildos.

How about sex toys of any kind?

No. I like the human body. I like flesh. I like things that are living and breathing. And a finger will do just fine. I’ve never owned a vibrator, if that’s what you want to know.

Tell me about your boyfriend Tony Ward. Is it true he has an ass you can serve drinks off of?

Well, I’ve never been served a drink off his ass. But he does have a great ass.

How big is his dick?

I don’t know. I haven’t measured it, but it’s big enough for me.

Does size matter to you?

No.

Do you used a strap-on with Tony?

No. I don’t know where that story came from….

Tell me about Warren Beatty. How big is his dick?

Once again, I haven’t measured it, but it’s a perfectly wonderful size.

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As for Donald Trump, I don’t care about his penis. Nobody cares about his penis. The problem with him is that he’s a racist demagogue and a pathological egomaniac who isn’t qualified to lead anything other than his own demented reality TV show. If you need concrete documentation of any of that, here’s the video you need to watch.

THE PARADOX OF PORN: “Your Brain On Porn”

In his 2012 TED Talk “The Great Porn Experiment,” physiology professor Gary Wilson addresses the impact of watching online porn on the brains and sexual functioning of young heterosexual men. “Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse found that most boys seek pornography by age 10, driven by a brain that is suddenly fascinated by sex. Now, users perceive internet porn as far more compelling than porn of the past. Why is that? Unending novelty. With internet porn, a guy can see more hot babes in 10 minutes than his ancestors could see in several lifetimes. The problem is he has a hunter-gather brain. A heavy-user brain rewires itself to this genetic bonanza so it carefully becomes associated with this porn harem. Such behaviors that are associated with this are being alone, voyeurism, clicking, searching, multiple tabs fast-forwarding, constant novelty, shock, and surprise.” These habits develop in contrast to and sometimes to the exclusion of the behaviors involved in real sex, such as  “courtship, touching, being touched, smells, pheromones, emotional connection, interaction with a real person.”

How does watching porn become addictive? Wilson talks about the “reward circuit” in the human brain that evolved to drive us towards natural rewards such as sex, bonding, and food. “Extreme versions of natural rewards have a unique ability to capture us. For example: high-calorie foods or hot novel babes give us extra dopamine. Too much dopamine, though, can override our natural satiation mechanisms.

“For example: give rats unlimited access to junk food and almost all of them will binge to obesity. This is also why 4 out of 5 Americans are overweight and about half of those are obese. That is, addicted to food. In contrast to the natural rewards, drugs such as cocaine or alcohol only hook about 10% of users whether they are rats or humans. This binge mechanism for food or sex was once an evolutionary advantage. But what if mating season never ends? All those hits of dopamine can tell your brain to kick in a molecular switch called Delta-FosB, which starts to accumulate in the brain’s reward circuit. Now, with excess chronic consumption of drugs or natural rewards, this buildup of Delta-FosB starts to alter the brain and promote the cycle of binging and craving. If the binging continues, the Delta-FosB builds up and it can lead to brain changes seen in all addicts. So the dominoes are: excess consumption, excess dopamine, Delta-FosB, brain changes.


“One of the first changes is a numbed pleasure response. It kicks in so everyday pleasures really don’t satisfy a porn addict. At the same time other physical changes in the brain make the brain hyper-reactive to porn. Everything else in a porn user’s life is sort of boring, but porn is super-exciting. Finally, his willpower erodes as his frontal cortex changes.”

It’s possible to reverse these changes in the brain, says Wilson, but only by giving up looking at porn.  “Probably you want to know why any porn-loving guy in his right mind would give it up. Two words: erectile dysfunction. Internet porn is killing young men’s sexual performance. Young guys are flaming out with women. Sexual enhancement drugs often stop working for these guys, if they ever did, because the problem isn’t below the belt where Viagra works. Nor is their problem really psychological. It’s due to physical changes in the brain. Their numb brains are sending weaker and weaker signals to their bananas. As Dr. Carlo Foresta says: ‘It starts with lower reactions to porn’s sites. Then there is a general drop in libido, and in the end it becomes impossible to get an erection.’

“There are three takeaways from this. First, Foresta is describing a classic addiction process — gradual desensitization. Second, internet porn is qualitatively different from Playboy. Widespread youthful ED has never been seen before. And finally ED is often the only symptom that gets these guys’ attention. The question is what lesser symptoms are they missing? Most don’t figure that out until after they quit.”

In response to the physical changes caused by obsessive-compulsive porn consumption, some young men have taken it upon themselves to launch a movement called NoFap to encourage and support each other in breaking an unhealthy, addictive attachment to masturbating to porn. The trademarked website NoFap.com hosts short- and long-term challenges in which participants abstain from porn and masturbation (for a week, a month, a year, a lifetime) with the clearly stated intentions to “recover from porn-induced sexual dysfunction, stop objectifying and establish meaningful connections, improve your interpersonal relationships, and live a more fulfilling life.”

Wilson notes that guys in their early twenties aren’t regaining their erectile health as quickly as older guys. Even though older guys have been using porn longer, they didn’t start on today’s internet porn. Research indicates that older guys didn’t start having sexual problems until after they got high-speed internet. “Today’s young teens start on high-speed internet when their brains are at their peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity. This is also when they are the most vulnerable to addiction, but there is another risk. By adulthood, teens strengthen heavily-used circuits and prune back unused ones. So, by age 22 or so a guy’s sexual taste can be like deep roots in his brain. This can cause panic if a guy has escalated to extreme porn or porn that no longer matches his sexual orientation. Fortunately, brains are plastic so his taste can revert once he quits porn. As a guy returns to normal sensitivity his brain looks around for the rewards it evolves to see, such as friendly interaction and of course real mates.”

(You can watch Wilson’s TED Talk online here. If you’re curious to know more, you can buy his e-book Your Brain On Porn here.)

Other commentators have questioned the scientific validity of studying sexual behavior the same way that as drug and alcohol addictions. In an article republished online by Psychology Today, clinical psychologist David J. Ley argues that the high levels of brain activity that anti-porn advocates pathologize as addiction could also signal healthy adults with high libidos. I have tended to side with those who prefer not to apply the terminology of addiction to sexual behavior, partly for semantic reasons — alcohol and drug dependencies can be quantitatively measured and treated — and partly because I’m aware that what constitutes normal/acceptable/healthy sexual behavior relies heavily on the values of the observer. Wilson’s talk and the studies he cites deal exclusively with heterosexual men and so have nothing to say about the ways that pornography has historically played an important role in validating the desires and experience of non-heterosexual men.

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In contrast to Wilson’s research, the refreshingly colloquial British gay publication FS (published by the health charity Gay Men Fighting AIDS) conducted an admittedly unscientific study of gay men’s porn habits. More than 1000 readers responded, 87% of whom watched porn at least once a week. One in four watched porn every day. Although the report acknowledged that some men felt out of control with their porn-viewing, the study reflected more concern about the impact of bareback porn on gay men’s sexual behavior offline than with issues of addiction.

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That being said, it’s undeniable that there are plenty of people whose social and sexual functioning has undeniably been damaged by excessive porn-watching. And I am always impressed, inspired, and moved by anyone who chooses to sacrifice short-term pleasures for long-term mental and physical well-being. It takes tremendous courage and self-compassion — not to mention support from others — to stop drinking, to stop doing drugs, or to make a profound change in sexual behavior, including looking at pornography. I want to be a resource and a champion for anyone for whom that’s a good choice to make.

Have you ever found that looking at pornography has become a problem for you? Did you ever try to stop? Did it work for you? Have you ever found that you were spending too much time on hook-up websites and/or mobile apps? Have you tried deleting those apps or taking a break for a while? How did that go for you?

MEDIA: interview online with filmmaker Brian Fender about “DICK: The Documentary”

When I met Brian Fender many years ago, he had completed one short film about LGBT youth (xyQ), and he was just beginning the process of making a documentary about men talking about their penises. I heard from him occasionally over the years and knew that he’d been diagnosed with ALS, a seriously debilitating illness. So I was pleased to read this EdgeMedia article online by my friend Killian Melloy to learn that a) Brian has completed his new film, DICK: A Documentary and that b) he is hanging in there, despite all the difficulties of living with ALS. In this interview, you can see a trailer for film, read about the making of it, watch xyQ in its entirety, and learn about the nonprofit organization Brian is funneling his energy into called Artists Lend Support.

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