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“If our sex life were determined by our first youthful experiments, most of the world would be doomed to celibacy. In no area of human experience are human beings more convinced that something better can be had only if they persevere.” - P.D. James, The Children of Men
This article describes four ways people can make two different mistakes in intimacy and sexuality. Providing clues as to how they might be avoided. Guidance for our perseverance. The two mistakes, I refer to, are considering other people too little and sabotaging our wider goals. Mistakes that have often been set apart from other human activities. As if they could not be understood and avoided.
This setting apart comes at a cost. It ignores everyone's capability to make these mistakes. Making them more likely to happen. This article is my contribution towards ending that oversight. It aims to complement welcome advances of the 'me too' movement. I begin by describing the ways people make these mistakes when they feel too much.
Feeling too much
“Sex is an emotion in motion.” - Mae West
You may have had the experience of feeling too happy, too anxious, too sad, too disgusted and/or too angry. At these times your emotions may have felt out of control. You may not have known what to do. At the same time, as we grow up, we may learn that experiences of intimacy and sexuality, can be a way to contain our emotions. Could this be a healthy way to solve our problem feeling too much?
Possibly, but to do this safely we must remember these experiences involve another person. So mistakes can happen if we indulge in private fantasies or choose to act them out. In these ways we may intrude into another person's experience with our over spilling emotions. A non consensual experience that is likely to be distressing for the other person.
So the better we are able to experience emotions, without having to immediately act upon them, the less likely we are to make these mistakes. The skill of emotional regulation in other words. I think language is key to this skill. So if we are able to talk about sex we are more likely to be able to safely engage in it. Specifically, talking with the person we would like to have sex with, before we do. Conversely, these mistakes can also occur when we feel too little in intimate and sexual encounters.
Feeling too little
“Sex is always about emotions. Good sex is about free emotions; bad sex is about blocked emotions.” - Deepak Chopra
Who has done that? Why did you do that? Why didn't I do that?' These questions may occur to us if these mistakes occur without it being a conscious decision. This can be understood as the result of a dissociation. Dissociation is when we disconnect from our immediate environment. Providing an escape when, it feels like, there is no other escape.
Perhaps, an escape from particular feelings or memories. Feelings, or memories, we may not want to identify with or re-experience. Depending on what we have found unbearable in the past. Feeling this way again may lead us to dissociate. Then act in ways that we normally do not want to. Perhaps unconsciously playing out an avoided memory or emotional state.
Reducing the chances of these mistakes occurring includes pausing when we feel detached from intimate or sexual experiences. Identifying and talking about dissociative experiences and uncomfortable memories. Developing our ability to stay consistently connected to ourselves. Especially in the presence of another person. Another way people can make these mistakes is by separating their intimate attachments from their sexuality.
Separating intimate attachments and sexual experiences
“Sex without love is as hollow and ridiculous as love without sex.”- Hunter S. Thompson
Separating our intimate attachments from our sexual experiences may be a conscious decision or an unconscious habit. The motivation may be to preserve an intimate attachment, we are scared of losing, through making it more sexual. Alternatively, to preserve a sexual experience we are scared of losing by making it more intimate.
Separating intimate and sexual experiences makes the interaction of these needs impossible. Eliminating a range of blended intimate/sexual experiences which may be differently helpful. So in the context of this separation, neither intimate attachments nor experiences of sexuality may feel sufficient. Requiring more attachments and/or sexual experiences, to meet our needs. In contemporary culture, this pattern of behaviour, is less likely to be seen as considering other people sufficiently or fitting with wider goals in life. Instead we might consider reconnecting our intimate attachments with our sexuality.
This reconnecting, to wanting what we already have, is a skill. It involves meeting our needs for security and adventure in one relationship. It has been suggested, there are at least three habits which help : 1) an absence from your partner 2) the observation of your partner in their element 3) being surprised by your partner. Sex 'stop[s] being a thing we do and instead becomes a premeditated place to go together' (Perel, 2013.) Our final way to may make these mistakes is through having an excess of sexual desire.
Excess sexual desire
“My head’ll explode if I continue with this escapism.”- Jess C Scott, EyeLeash: A Blog Novel
'We are excessive when something about ourselves needs to be recognised and we need other people to help us work out what it is' (Phillips, 2008.) For example, political violence as a response to long term injustice. Paradoxically the same excess behaviour, that indicates that something needs recognition can blind us to what that something is. Overwhelming our abilities to think by flooding us with emotion. This inaccessibility of meaning places a limitation upon our ability to understand who we are and what we really need.
When the excess is sexual desire, our behaviour may demand recognition. Considering other people too little. Excess sexual desire that feels like an irresistible urge to act. The individual, and people who come in to contact with that desire, can end up feeling 'mad' about sex. As if they had no choice. Consider John Malkovich's character in the film 'Dangerous Liaisons.' He asserts, to Michelle Pfeiffer's character, that his seduction of her is 'beyond my control.' When in reality this is not the case.
In addition, an individual may overly rely on intimacy and sexuality to meet a different unidentified need. So sabotaging their wider goals. Avoiding these mistakes invloves increasing our awareness of our sexual desire, talking about it and restraining our actions. As well as finding additional ways to identify and get our needs met. In summary, I hope you have seen, through this blog, that there is a common theme of insufficient understanding of ourselves, and others, that leads to these mistakes of intimacy and sexuality. In sum, how can we avoid making these mistakes by conscious interventions?
“He'd noticed that sex bore some resemblance to cookery: it fascinated people, they sometimes bought books full of complicated recipes and interesting pictures, and sometimes when they were really hungry they created vast banquets in their imagination - but at the end of the day they'd settle quite happily for egg and chips. If it was well done and maybe had a slice of tomato.” - Terry Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant
It appears that healthy interpersonal intimacy and sexuality, can occur through a combination of shared play, talking, stopping and starting, and restraint. Marking safe enough relationships by negotiating boundaries. Being present without overwhelming each other. Acknowledging and apologising for small mistakes. In particular those that occur from the temporary overwhelming of our minds by emotional experience.
So with thought, insight, and practice, we can provide ways for each other to tolerate each other's feelings without violating each other's boundaries. So making intimacy and sexuality, safer, more fun and a healthier container for our emotions. Mastering these tasks seems to be made easier by talking about these issues. As individuals, in therapy, as couples and in wider discourse. So we may become, for each other, someone we are not too much for.
Benjamin, J., (2017). 'Another take on the riddle of sex,' in Beyond the doer and the done too, (chp 4,) Routledge.
Perel, E. (2013). The secret to desire in long-term relationships [Video file]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sa0RUmGTCYY (extracted 23/10/2022.)
Phillips, A., (2008). 'Sex Mad' BBC Radio 4. [Video file] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hpbu3QmNIdM (extracted 11/10/2022.)