The Art of Ambiguity

Jeremy Sherman unpacks the paradoxes inherent in love and daily life.

Are You Horny Or Merely Anxious?

With three tips for answering that question if you dare.

People tend to get frisky at conferences, famously the hotbeds of short-lived trysts. We know the obvious reasons. What happens in Vegas stays there; when the cat’s away the mouse is at play, at conferences there are so many wonderful new prospects. 

Still, I wonder if it’s also because conferences can make us anxious about our social status, and sex helps us cope with that anxiety. At conferences we’re suddenly exposed to lot of collegial competition, people in our field of interest, some doing decidedly better than we are.  Back home we’ve lined things up as best we can to sustain our sense of worldly prowess and figured out ways to ignore evidence that we’re merely big fish in a small pond, or not big fish at all.  In a conference’s big pond, we can feel especially small, and for some of us, the shortest path to restored confidence is winning a little late-night affirmation and affection.

Not just at conferences, but in all arenas, I think we’re poor at distinguishing our horny lust from our anxious lust; our biological drive for sex from our social drive for affirmation.  Whereas the sexual urge to procreate originally drove us to seek social status, by now the reverse is also true.  Sometimes we seek sex as a means of bolstering our social status.

Freud argued the libido drives everything, and the best we can do is sublimate it—channel that sexual yearning into our work and its vocational ambitions. I’m talking here about reverse sublimation—channeling our vocational ambitions into libido, for example discharging a little social pressure in a conference hotel room.

Winning yourself some classy arm-candy can be a great way to increase your social status.  Of course, some people may be simpler souls than that, biologically blueprinted for love and lust, but I doubt as many of us are as would claim to be.

A lot has been made of studies showing that men’s testosterone levels decline after losing at sports: a loss in status; a loss of libido.  Less has been made of ways men and women too, might seek sex to restore both status and libido after a fall in status.

Like many psychological stimuli, a shaken ego can motivate us in opposite directions, both reducing and increasing our drive for sex and romance.  I know that sounds inconsistent but think about how often such antagonistic responses show up in psychology, for example, a threat stimulus produces either fight or flight, a child either goes into, or avoids a successful parent’s profession, growing old might moves us to either surrender status or fight to maintain it.  

It’s not inconsistent at all, Indeed there may be no more fundamental principle in all of psychology than that our drives drive us in opposite directions.  Think of it in serenity prayer terms:  If sex is available you, have the testosterone and courage to seek it so you can improve your social status. If sex is unavailable to you, have the lowered testosterone and the serenity to accept lower social status.

Romance is a strange dance, one we might feel embarrassed about if we didn’t have ways to claim its simplicity and naturalness. We claim love is a virtue. It makes the world go round. We want to share and be helpful, selflessly raising a family. Or we claim to yearn for sex because we’re only human, sexuality blueprinted in our genes.  Either of those explanations are more honorable than the alternative, that we don’t feel as big and important as we want and can convince ourselves we are more important if we can set up a mutual admiration society with someone who will hold us in high regard for a night or a lifetime.

We get a taste of this tawdry alternative explanation for what drives us when wives talk about their husband’s mid-life affairs: He was feeling deflated and was idiot enough to try plumping himself up with some bimbo’s cheap admiration. Yes, that is what I’m talking about—status anxiety sublimated into sex, but I suspect that it’s more common—in both men and women--than we care to notice.

So how can you tell whether it’s driving you? I mean if you dare to ask yourself that challenging question.  Here are a few ideas:

Glass half drained? Next time you’re feeling especially frisky, or affectionate, reflect on your recent past. Were you just taken down a peg in status? Did you just enter a new environment affording you fewer of your usual props of affirmation?  Did you just have a dependectomy—a former dependent cutting ties that affirmed you? A job lost? A friend telling you off? A partner gone?

I find a high correlation between my drops in status and increases in appetite for love and sex. In general, the more I miss someone or something recently departed, the more I seek a replacement, in other words to refill the glass recently drained, so I can sustain affirmation in the manner to which I’m accustomed.

Are sex and love go-to affirmations for you? Not everyone reaches for sex or romance when they’re feeling shaky, but some of us get a lot of practice doing just that. Those of us who have long felt free to masturbate without shame--and that would be many of us in today’s culture--have had ready access to that outlet for social status anxiety.  The slightest perturbation to our sense of self-esteem could send us back to the Internet, the most bountiful virtual harem in human history.  If you’ve done that for long, consider whether it’s become your coping strategy and not just for libidinous stress but for anxiety about your place in the world. 

And it’s not just the Internet’s bounty of pornography. The way dating sites are set up, they too are harems, the hetero men only see women’s postings and the hetero women only see men’s postings.  Between porn and dating sites, you can feel like a kid in a candy shop, a buyer in a buyer’s market at least temporarily bolstering your confidence that it’s your world whenever you don’t feel like it is.

Mind your language:  Pay attention to the things we say and imply about our motivations for sex and love. When flirting, there’s no turn-off as bad as desperation, and of desperation’s many flavors none is so bad a buzz kill as sounding like you need sex and love to restore our overall sense of confidence. 

We scorn the status-needy, like they’re degenerates laboring under emotions we never experience. Indeed scorning others for being needy can be an effective way to achieve deny your own neediness (exempt by contempt I call it): “He’s disgusting.  He just wanted to use me to feed his ego.  No way would I ever do that! Yuck. I’m not needy.  For me love is sacred or at least a pure and vital impulse.”

Truth is, we all need affirmation. Some of us get enough that we don’t have to notice our need. Some of us get so little than we learn to expect less. Some of us get so little attention in the sex and love marketplaces that it’s never our market and so we seek affirmation by other means.  But many of us seek status affirmation sexually and romantically if those are avenues open to us.