It takes a lot of courage for a person, especially a man to consult with someone like myself. Often the individual has struggled for a long time with a sexual problem and tried hard to resolve it by himself or herself. Their approach per se in attempting to resolve the issue is always informative and usually forms part of problem they are trying to fix.
For the purpose of this blog post, I will focus on male sexuality as this idea of “fixing a problem” is commonly referred to by my male clients rather than by my female clients.
When ‘the problem’ is not the problem
Many of my male clients view their sexual functioning as an operational problem that can be fixed. And who can blame them? There is no doubt that we live in a world which puts a premium on efficiency. Faster is almost always better, control equates to power and performance is valued over process. If we have a problem, we are encouraged to be proactive and to assert our sense of control by investing in pragmatic solutions. This approach to dealing with unwanted outcomes certainly works in most areas of life. You break the problem down into its separate parts, assess which component is malfunctioning and come up with a strategy or solution which can be applied to deliver measurable results.
And when it comes to sex, there is no shortage of technical solutions on offer. If the problem is low libido, we can get a prescription for testosterone and if the problem is erectile dysfunction, there is always Viagra or Cialis at hand.
But while this problem-solving model may go some way in addressing people’s sexual issues, for many, the hard work in trying to obtain a straightforward fix for their sexual issues often fails to deliver the desired results and with that, a lot of self-blame and generally a sense of hopelessness sets in.
In my sex therapy practice, I have seen many people struggle emotionally when they can’t simply take their sexual problem and fix it. They are left feeling bewildered and frightened by what they cannot seem to control.
Efficiency: the protestant work ethic
In her book Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel points out that behind this approach is the old protestant work ethic, the belief that that with the right amount of effort and unflagging determination, there is nothing you can’t achieve. Hard work is rewarded by success. Conversely, if you fail, you are lazy, unmotivated or just not trying hard enough.
When the ‘solution’ is the problem
The common model of male sexuality views the body as divided into a collection of discrete parts and satisfaction is seen as sexual proficiency typically viewed as performance and reliability similar to that of a mechanical engine. This emphasis on genitals and physical achievement reduces male sexuality to erection, intercourse and orgasm. In other words, you end up with a model that focuses more on the mechanics of sex and sexual functioning than on sexual feeling.
This way of approaching sex is fine for most people until there is a problem. And given that the idea of ‘performance’ in of itself inevitably generates inherent anxieties in all of us, there is a high risk of there being a problem or dysfunction when human sexuality is reduced to perfect sexual functioning.
Sex is a totally different matter which does not operate under the same rules as fixing a machine no matter how hard we try. As Perel points out, applying the same principles of the problem-solving model to sex often exacerbates the very concerns it seeks to solve. That’s because it fails to take on the fundamentally complex and existential issues of human eroticism that are far beyond a neat technical fix.
This is not to say that practical advice and solutions are never useful or necessary. But human sexuality simply does not lend itself to pragmatic solutions for “doing sex”. More often than not, the subjective experience of desire and sexual pleasure which is at the heart of human sexuality unfolds in a safe and non-result-oriented atmosphere.
Making a paradigm shift: from efficiency to eroticism
In our over-committed lives, there’s a tendency to simplify our existential complexities because we just don’t have the time and patience for open-ended reflection. We prefer instead to be proactive and thereby assert our sense of control which is often more illusory than real.
Perel states that ‘solving’ our sexual problems involves taking a leap which entails a loss of control that we are taught from a very young age to guard against. Because social order is built on this restraint, we are socialised to tame our unruly impulses and sexual urges. But eroticism challenges us to seek a different kind of resolution to our sexual angst which is to relinquish control intentionally and to learn how to squander time and resources purely for the sake of pleasure and enjoyment. In this erotic space, efficiency and productivity have no place.
All this is summed up beautifully by Adam Phillips who was quoted in Mating in Captivity as saying, “In our erotic life work does not work…trying is always trying too hard. Eroticism is an imaginative act, and you can’t measure it. We glorify efficiency and fail to recognise that the erotic space is a radiant interlude in which we luxuriate, indifferent to demands of productivity; pleasure is the only goal”.
Material for this post was drawn from:
Perel, E. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Harper, 2006