Here’s a common situation “Steve” outlined in the Comments sidebar to one of my earliest posts:
Man wants sex more than woman. Man seeks to find occasional sexual release in masturbation to pictures of other women. Woman throws giant fit, throws out magazines etc. Man feels woman is trying to completely control all sex by setting herself up as only provider, sees masturbation as harmless. Woman feels jealous, hurt and betrayed; feels threatened by masturbation. Man feels he has lost all control of sex life with woman completely in driver’s seat. Sex between them deteriorates.
Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: as much as I understand and sympathize with what’s going on in this woman’s head (something similar having gone on in mine once upon a time), she is not behaving well. At all. She has unreasonable expectations and is making unfair demands. She is W.R.O.N.G., and that spells “stoopit.”
There you go. Do you feel better now? I’m glad.
Now the less happy news: knowing that the woman is wrong in this situation might make the guy feel deliciously righteous and nobly long-suffering, but it does absolutely nothing … zero, zip, zilch, nada … to solve his basic problem. Let me repeat that in starker terms (because it can’t be over-emphasized): sitting around seething in virtue and moaning about how unfair women can be has never, ever in the entire history of the universe gotten a man laid.
So the guy’s strategy has to be to think the situation through and decide on something to DO rather than simply feel sorry for himself. The thinking part is crucial, because a (justifiably) angry person who is not thinking is likely to respond to this complex and hurtful situation with impulsive, destructive, counterproductive crankassity hostility. He might even throw a “giant fit.” Or several.
But as satisfying throwing fits might be to any done-wrong guy’s immediate feelings, a steady diet of hostility + reaction to hostility + more hostility is not going to improve his sex life. You may already be seeing the results of this kind of vicious cycle in your own marriage. Like it or not, and as much as it might interfere with your idea of What Should Be, breaking these kinds of emotional spirals requires ONE of you to use adult and disciplined brainpower in the struggle against furious emotion. Guess who it’s gonna have to be? (At least at first.)
Steve has offered a couple of places to start the thinking process. One is to acknowledge that the man’s sense of control over his own sexual enjoyment and expression is a fundamental part of the impasse: “Man feels woman is trying to completely control all sex by setting herself up as the only provider” and “Man feels he has lost all control of sex life with woman completely in driver’s seat.” Another place to start trying to analyze the situation is the man’s knowledge that the woman is acting the way she’s acting because she’s feeling “jealous, hurt and betrayed.” Why she should feel that way about his merely recreational jerking off while looking at pictures of women who are utter strangers to them both is what has him puzzled — and severely annoyed.
Human beings, living as we do in sentient appreciation of the uncertainty of nature and the randomness of our fate, have a very fundamental, irresovable existential problem: we are hag-ridden by insecurity. The thing we hate most of all is admitting that we cannot, in fact, make the universe do our bidding, or worse, that someone else can make us do theirs. As a result we, all of us, male and female, put an extraordinary premium on feeling some sense of control over ourselves, our environment and — most unpredictable and dangerous of all — other people.
The only thing on earth that can diminish this grasping, desperate and constant need for some sense of control (over something, someone, somewhere, somehow) is… you guessed it … L.O.V.E. Love, giving and receiving, soothes the essential ache of insecurity. So now it’s time to put the big, face-smackin’, outrageously obvious point on this post: what Steve’s man and woman are really responding to, in their own peculiar and roundabout ways, is a sense that their partner no longer loves them. Because it is only when we start to give up on love in a relationship that we begin to seek power.
Now when I say people seek power when they become unsure of love (and a guy can become very unsure of love when a woman doesn’t want to have sex with him), I don’t mean that this is a conscious process. Nobody in Steve’s scenario is thinking to themselves, “By golly, I’m gonna get OVER on that bitch/bastard!” If we could all recognize our instinctive motivations that clearly and admit them to ourselves that frankly, life would be much easier for all of us — albeit also a lot less interesting. Where would art be without repression?
So that’s what we’re dealing with here: two people who are hurt and feeling betrayed because they suspect that the person who was Supposed to love them forever doesn’t. Two people whose natural “background” level of existential insecurity has just taken an enormous jump into high-blood-pressure territory. It’s “fight or flight” time, and humans, whose personal pride is an essential bulwark against their knowledge of uncertainty, are notorious for choosing “fight.” So the woman has a fit (demonstrates aggression) and throws out the dirty magazines (disposes of the threat).
But this is the mystery to you: WHY do these magazines threaten her? You could understand it if she was jealous in regard to a real-life woman, who might actually succeed in seducing you away, but what the hell is the problem with a little porn? It’s not like you’re having any kind of genuine relationship with those glossy pictures, is it? You’re not going to leave her and go live happily ever after with a photograph!
In a sense her concern is not irrational. She does realize that you are not going to run off with paper and ink. What she is really afraid of is that you will come to love (or already do love) an Ideal Bimbo more than you could ever love the real person she is. She fears that with those images in your mind you will be comparing her to a standard she will never be able to meet. She is afraid that when you repeatedly take sexual pleasure with that ideal you are conditioning yourself to respond best to abstract perfection and are diminishing your ability to find fully satisfying sexual pleasure with an ordinary woman.
These are, I’m sorry to say, realistic concerns. These things happen. I’ll never forget the story of a woman whose husband had to have a porn magazine open on the pillow next to her head so he could look at it instead of her whenever they had sex. It’s not that fantasizing during sex is wrong. Not at all. It’s common and very useful on both sides of the marriage bed. So the fact that that this guy was having sex with the Betty in his head and using his wife as his rosy palm is no huge thing, it was that he was effectively TELLING HER that’s what he was doing. And it is unfortunately true that for some women, just knowing those magazines are in your underwear drawer can be the equivalent of bringing them into bed with you. (Don’t despair, though. If your wife has this problem, you can help her get over it. But it is part of the “advanced course,” so to speak. First things first.)
Then there are men like some who have responded to this blog in email or in the Comments sidebars, making it clear that they are seeking an impossible ideal: either a perfectly tuned, always eager, romantically “magical” sexual partner, or Pornobabe™, a woman who is not only airbrushed and siliconed physical perfection, but whose sex drive is so huge and so totally uninhibited that she’ll loll around poking her own pink for the delectation of millions of men and then have an orgasm (with theatrical screams) twenty-two seconds after a penis enters her vagina.
“But I’m not like that!” you say. “I love my wife, she turns me on great, I don’t need perfection. Aren’t I practically begging to have sex with her? She has to know she’s just fine with me!”
Well, yeah. That makes perfect sense to any logical observer. But maybe she’s not fine with herself. Maybe SHE’S the one who’s been bent out of shape by those images of perfect erotic womanhood. That could be her deeper problem with the magazine babes. Here’s one of the big “secrets” of female sexuality, at least in long-term relationships: a woman very often has to to think of herself as desirable in order to feel desire.
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.
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.