Insecurity: Words and Deeds

If you were to read a genre romance novel, you might be a little startled by the effort the author spends describing the heroine’s physical beauty. You’d think that with a largely female audience in mind the writer would concentrate most on the attractive features of the hero, so that the reader could be turned on by his rippling muscles, chiseled chin and all that jazz. Why, you might wonder, would a heterosexual female reader be all that interested in the swelling breasts and mobile hips of a female character?

Women tend to respond best to erotic material that portrays both partners to the sex act as beautiful and sexy human beings who are enjoying the entire process with their whole bodies. This is one reason why there is considerably less interest among women in looking at pictures of naked male strangers than there is among men in looking at naked female strangers. It’s not really that women are all that much less “visually oriented,” as conventional wisdom has it. They just tend to get turned on more by imagining themselves as the gorgeous female body experiencing the mutual process, rather than by looking at a male body and imagining themselves Doing Things to it.

What does all this have to do with your wife’s libido, though? It means that she might need to visualize herself as a sexy woman before she can be one. If she feels ugly, if she dislikes her own body, she could very well dislike the way she “looks” to herself in her sexual imagination, so she will avoid thinking about sex. It’s sometimes pretty difficult in the American cultural environment for ordinary women to feel sexually attractive. It’s easier in Europe, where the sexual ideal is not quite so uniformly young and perfect.

Worse, though, is if she believes that YOU think she’s ugly or inadequate or significantly flawed physically. That’s the erotic kiss of death to any marriage, guaranteed. Under those circumstances she is going to find it very hard to believe that the sex you want to have with her is motivated by your love or genuine attraction to her. She will instead tend to believe that if you’re turned on, it’s not by her, so she is just a handy hot vagina you’re reluctantly having to use instead of the Pornobabe you really want. And if she believes that, she’s not going to want to submit her “ugly” body to your critical gaze, in her imagination or in reality.

Again, it’s not that she can really articulate all this to herself. She probably won’t understand this consciously. She only knows that she’s “not in the mood,” that thinking of sex with you not only doesn’t turn her on, but makes her obscurely angry, irritable, or pissed off for no understandable reason. That’s the “fight” response to something that makes her feel insecure. And sometimes the coldness and annoyance she feels about something that she’s Supposed To enjoy makes her feel guilty, too. So the very thought of sex becomes a terrible cause of anxiety, and the spiral continues.     … continued …

Your wife probably doesn’t understand that you have a couple of ways of looking at her: the cool, analytical, status-conscious Power Man, who would like her to lose weight or fix her hair or wear sexier clothes (mostly because the way she looks reflects on you), and the sensual Lover Man who doesn’t give a shit about any of that when you’ve got her in bed, because she looks gorgeous without lipstick and you love the way her skin feels. But in Power Man mode you unthinkingly criticize her clothes, bug her about her butt, “joke” about her wrinkles. You don’t really mean to hurt her, you think, but THAT stuff is what she remembers and thinks about. THAT is what she internalizes. And it destroys her ability to think of herself as a sexual being.

She probably doesn’t even know about the Lover Man side of you. So maybe you need to tell her. Yes, out loud. In real live words. It doesn’t have to be all complicated and flowery. The simpler the better, actually. How about something like, “Honey, I know I criticize your looks sometimes, and I shouldn’t do that, because when we’re in bed together I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world.” You could even add some particular detail of her body that you especially like in that context.

And then there are physical gestures of affection, things that you can do that express your sensual side and your admiration of her body. These can be primo confidence and libido boosters for many women. But all too often men cause themselves a huge amount of sexual trouble with the way they use their hands in an attempt to communicate their desire.

You may think that your physical gestures of affection toward your wife should be enough to reassure her regarding her attractiveness to you, but it is very easy for your…umm…shall we say enthusiasm? in that regard to be misinterpreted or even resented.

One of my readers wrote that she is

a young woman who has had my sex-drive crash and burn and is desperately trying to both rebuild it and explain to the beloved boyfriend that grabbing my butt or groping me before even saying “good morning” is not equal to showing affection

In other words, this guy is way, way overdoing it. He may think he’s turning her on or demonstrating how much he admires her physical form with these constant lunges at her erogenous zones, but he’s actually doing the opposite.

Why should that be, though? Maybe she loves to have him massage her breasts or squeeze her bottom when they’re deep in the throes of sex (although for some women a little of that goes a long way), so he assumes that it’s fun for her at other times, too. Why should she mind when he randomly cops a feel during the day? There are a lot of explanations that may or may not apply to any individual woman, but some are common enough that you should consider that one or more of them could be a problem for your wife.

Women are taught — for good reasons — to be protective of their physical space in daily life. Sudden, aggressive invasions of it, especially when directed toward their secondary sex characteristics, are usually perceived, if sometimes only subconsciously, as threats or dangers, and because of the “fight” response, they’re instinctively resented. When a woman’s mind is disconnected from sex, in routine distracted mode, it pretty much doesn’t matter that the “grabber” is a beloved intimate. To her it just doesn’t feel “sexy,” the way it might when she’s in bed with you, because she’s not primed to appreciate the sexual content when she’s at a cold standing start.

There is also the phenomenon of “overload,” which is common among mothers of infants and very small children. When women must accept repeated non-sexual invasions of their physical space and constant skin contact with other humans, as occurs with breastfeeding and carrying children, they can become even more protective of themselves regarding “elective” contact. (I’ll talk about this again when I discuss the Minefield of Motherhood). And if your wife is, say, a nurse or fitness trainer or child care worker, or has some other kind of job in which she must routinely touch or be touched by others, even if only briefly or lightly, that could be part of the problem.

Given that your wife can seldom can appreciate these gestures erotically because they usually come to her “out of the blue,” when she’s preoccupied with a household task or otherwise not prepared to enjoy them the way they’re meant, she might come to see them as unwelcome signals of dominance or “possession.” To be perfectly frank, this can be one of the reasons men enjoy them so much. You may not consciously feel that you are asserting your prerogatives or power in the relationship when you grab her breast, but let’s face it, any other woman would slap you silly. Your wife hasn’t given up her right to guard her body or personal space because you’re married.

What might be called “unprepared” groping is even more likely to be perceived as hostile or aggressive when it is done in an atmosphere of tension over sex. If she’s already feeling pressured or worried about your sexual expectations, the idea that you want her to respond positively to being squeezed at random times that YOU choose can become a source of even more insecurity and resentment. And if she’s already told you that she doesn’t like those aggressive “displays of affection” and you continue them anyway, you are in effect telling her that you have decided her preferences in regard to being sexually touched don’t matter, that you’re going to do what you want to do to her body, when and where you want to do it, and to hell with what she wants. Whether or not that’s what you feel or intend, when she “hears” that message from your behavior, things can get very tense indeed.

My correspondent with the “crashed and burned” sex drive notes that the thing she is struggling with the most is her boyfriend’s inability to understand that she would prefer more gestures of affection that are “subtle” and “sweet” and not overtly, red-light sexual. When a man is first wooing a woman he signals his physical interest and affection with small touches and movements and extended eye contact because he knows he’s not “allowed” to grab and manhandle her at that stage of their relationship, and that “coming on too strong” could turn her off. So even though he can hardly wait to get her down and under, he’ll take the time for little “moments.” He’ll smile and joke with her, he’ll fix the collar of her coat or brush aside a strand of her hair, he’ll gently touch the small of her back when “helping” her though a door. Later he’ll put his arm around her waist, or hug her or take her hand, but he’ll keep the sexual content of those gestures at a quiet, delicious simmer. He won’t grasp a handful of ass at the first opportunity, or stick his tongue down her throat when he kisses her for the first time — if he’s smart, that is!

What many men don’t realize, though, is that those gestures and rhythms of early courtship — that go-slow dance that pays attention to her signals, moves into sexual territory gradually and doesn’t take her physical acquiescence for granted — are part of what primes a woman to want to have sex with him in the first place. They’re “foreplay” in the most basic sense of the word. When a man thinks they have become superfluous, that because of the established relationship he can skip all that and go straight for the boobs because he takes pleasure in “owning” and handling them, he’s more likely to be pissing her off than turning her on.

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