If I thought I was treading difficult territory when starting to write about money, writing about sex feels even more risky. It's even more private, in some ways more charged, and equally considered off limits. I am only doing it because the conversation I had with a dear friend was so inspiring to us, that it seemed to me that what emerged might offer something of value to others, and I was encouraged by my friend's enthusiastic response. I hope I don't live to regret this choice.
The starting point of our conversation was a recognition of a peculiar way in which so much that is related to sex gets talked about as if we have no power or choice: either sexual attraction is "there," and we "must" follow it; or it's not, and we "can't" enter a sexual relationship.
For years I have felt a persistent discomfort when people around me talk about sex. One of the most important things in the world for me is something about honoring human dignity. Within this, I've always wanted speaking about or engaging in sexual relationships to be done in a way that honors that human dignity.
I often wonder what life was like in earlier cultures, before the split between the sexual and the spiritual was institutionalized, before the body became the site of sin, before being spiritual became associated with celibacy, asceticism, and withdrawal from the world. Were the conversations different? Did the experience of being sexual feel different?
When we have a powerful desire for something that has been associated with sin, or is seen as "animal-like," this creates a strong tension. If, on top of that, we have been trained to believe that in order to sustain the social order we need to suppress what we want, the complexity of what happens can easily lead to a complex response that allows us to choose to follow the desire by playing with the edge of "badness" while telling ourselves that we have no choice, that the very experience of sexual desire takes us out of control.
I also remember so many times when sexual partners urged me not to talk about my experience, not to think about it. I have always found these invitations painful. When I look back at my most cherished sexual memories, all of them involved a kind of profound transcendence. That transcendence emerged from being fully present with the experience instead of disappearing into it. As hard as it may be to find words for these experiences, I know that for me they have all been times of holding the union with another person together and explicitly. The transcendence, for me, is about leaving no barriers.
I just finished reading a book I would never have dreamed I would read: Neil Strauss's The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. This book was sent to me by his assistant in response to my inquiry as to what led him to sign up for one of my NVC Academy classes. My curiosity as to that choice remains unanswered, although I have learned many things I never wished to know about how some men and some women relate to each other. The entire thrust of the "community" or pickup artists that Strauss became a central member of is to create situations in which women "find themselves" responding to the overtures of the pickup artists, as if without choice. Reading this book as a woman caring about dignity was painfully educational. I reached the conclusion that the level of dehumanization of women that takes place in these rituals is also dehumanizing the men who choose to follow the guidelines. As Strauss himself says, engaging in pick-up activities "could be hazardous to the soul."
I am no expert, and I have certainly never been a man. Still, it seems to me, based on reading this book and on my own life, that the denial of power and choice when it comes to sex is an attempt to hide the intrinsic vulnerability that is fundamental to being sexual.
What would happen if we embraced that vulnerability in full, opened up to being with the experience and sharing it with our sexual partners? What if we chose not to hide or disappear at all? My intuition and my love of our humanity tells me that the experience of transcendent sexuality, the blending of the sexual and the spiritual, might just become so common as to change our experience of being alive.
Indeed, what ultimately got Strauss out of the seduction community was not the progressively more disturbing behaviors he witnessed in the men he lived with. Rather, it was the willingness he found with one particular woman to embrace rather than hide from the vulnerability. It was that move which gave him, in the end, the necessary strength to leave the community and turn to what he calls "real life."
Reading this book reminded me of a classic essay by Audre Lorde: "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power", an essay from 1978 that feels just as fresh today as when I first read it (the essay appeared in the collection Sister Outsider.) Lorde, never afraid to use strong language, talks about how men "keep women around ... at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked." This is precisely what the pickup artists do, what Neill Strauss did for a while until he found a way to make a different choice. Like pornography, pickup artistry is "a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling."
Lorde sees the power of the erotic as residing squarely within the capacity to feel, "acutely and fully." She bemoans the reduction of the erotic to the sexual, and the divorcing of the spiritual from the erotic. She calls for exactly what I long for: full integration of all our longings and needs, in all their dimensions. I can't imagine anyone who finds a way to inhabit that level of internal knowing and intensity who would be drawn to mindless pursuit of sexual satisfaction. "The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful," says Lorde, "for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance." This is how I understand the paradoxical phenomenon of sex being at once suppressed and obsessed about.
Many years ago, a friend of mine wanted to initiate a sexual relationship with me. I was not feeling any particular attraction, and I told her so. I also told her that I felt open to the possibility, because of the depth of the connection between us. Soon enough, the opportunity arose, and she was at my place, sitting across from me on my bed. I was still not feeling any attraction, only endless curiosity. At a certain point I had an epiphany, an experience that affirmed much of my intuitive understanding and opened up new possibilities for me. I saw and felt that sexual attraction was essentially a willingness to expose a certain vulnerability to a person. In that sense, I saw attraction as a deep choice rather than a thing that happens. I had an inkling that on some level perhaps any person could be sexual with any other person, if that choice and opening become possible. Recognizing the choice, I decided to exercise it, and noticed myself opening up to the possibility with that woman. I don't remember ever before or since being so fully aware of choice, and therefore power, in the experiences of sharing sexually with anyone.
Recently, I went out on a few dates with a woman I liked a lot. I liked, in particular, the quality of her presence for dialogue, willingness to engage on so many levels, total aliveness in any exchange, and voracious, intense, curiosity of mind and heart. I didn't know if being in a relationship with her would work or not. I did know that I was open to exploring that possibility with her. Then I heard from her that although she really liked dating me, enjoyed my company, trusted me completely, and felt totally comfortable with me, she didn't see our interactions going in a romantic direction. She didn't have a particularly clear or specific way of explaining the why short of the idea of "chemistry."
Beyond the immediate disappointment of not having the option to continue exploring possibilities with a woman I really liked, this exchange brought up two far stronger reactions. One was overall despair about the prospect of finding someone to be in a relationship with, an overwhelming sense that it always has been and always will be so challenging to find someone with whom I could have true companionship on all the levels I long for, someone to form a bond with of facing life together. This reaction was intense for that one evening, and has since been integrated and accepted, though clearly there, ready to arise again in a similar situation.
The second reaction took a few days to crystallize, and has since stayed with me till now. It is, in fact, part of why I decided to write this piece. It has to do with the role of "chemistry" in choosing whether or not we would enter a relationship with someone, and the peculiarly modern habit of making lifelong decisions on the basis of an experience of attraction.
I want to be sure I am understood clearly. It's very clear to me that spontaneous and intense attraction between two people happens and has happened throughout our existence on the planet. As far as my non-expert knowledge goes, humans have followed these urges - into the barn, to the fields, or to a secret backroom in a mansion - independently of their choices about a long-term life partner to bond with, to build a life with, to have children with when that was also possible. Those choices were based on entirely different considerations: family relations, advantage to this or that person, and, in the more benign contexts, someone's careful consideration of what would create a robust and sustainable match. People then found themselves in relationships, and faced the imperative to form a sexual relationship.
It seems that in our generation we have all but lost the capacity or the willingness to develop sexual relationships without a spontaneous attraction. If there is no "chemistry," so to speak, most people choose, and fairly quickly, not to continue to explore a relationship potential, even in situations such as the one I just described, when there is a clear and evident basis for intimacy. This, to me, is the flip side of the loss of control that is associated with sexual attraction and is so sought after. Once again, choice is denied. For me, the presence of intimacy is erotic ground, regardless of context. With enough intimacy, with enough of that sense of removing barriers, the physical barriers can also be removed, and the sharing of erotic energy becomes an option even if spontaneous attraction was not there initially.
I am nearing the end, and coming back to the sense of immense vulnerability that writing about all this entails. I feel vulnerable about my opinions in this arena, more so than any other opinions I have. I feel even more vulnerable about speaking about my own experiences. I note, with sadness, that as hard as it has been for me to speak about the longing for companionship around my work and vision, it is that much more challenging and, I fear, less acceptable, to talk about my longing for personal companionship, for someone to face life together with. I am still choosing to talk about this longing. I am making this choice as part of my determination to embrace all that is life.
Images: Top: Eric Gill, Stay me with Apples. Bottom: by Kristin Noelle