Tuesday 13th December 2016 @ 5:15 pm
This is an Advent post. But it won’t seem like it. It won’t seem like it because you’ll think the post is about sex. It’s not. It’s about intimacy, vulnerability, and expectation. And Advent is about vulnerability and expectation.
Recently I started listening to/reading Brene Brown … and I’m loving her work on vulnerability & transformation. In the section below, she writes about interviewing a class of young adults (the people I spend my life with) and having her (and their) perceptions on sexual intimacy and masculinity smashed. It’s just a straight quote …
“In 2006 I met with twenty–two community college students, male and female, to talk about shame. It was my first co–ed large group interview. At some point, a young man in his early twenties explained how he had recently divorced his wife after coming back from serving in the military and finding out that she was having an affair. He said he wasn’t surprised because he never felt “good enough for her.” He explained that he constantly asked her what she needed and wanted, and that every time he got close to meeting her needs, she “moved the goalpost another ten feet.” A young woman in the class spoke up and said, “Guys are the same way. They’re never satisfied either. We’re never pretty, sexy, or skinny enough.” Within seconds a conversation broke out about body image and sex. The discussion was mostly about how it’s so scary to have sex with someone you care about when you’re worried about how your body looks. The young women who started the conversation said, “It’s not easy to have sex and keep your stomach sucked in. How can we get into it when we’re worried about our back fat?”
The young man who had shared the story of his divorce slammed his hand down on his desk and shouted, “It’s not about the back fat! You’re worried about it. We’re not. We don’t give a s**t!” The class fell completely quiet. He took a couple of deep breaths and said, “Stop making up all of this stuff about what we’re thinking! What we’re really thinking is ‘Do you love me? Do you care about me? Do you want me? Am I important to you? Am I good enough?’ That’s what we’re thinking. When it comes to sex, it feels like our life is on the line, and you’re worried about that crap?”
At that point, half of the young men in the room were so emotional that they had their faces in their hands. A few girls were in tears, and I couldn’t breathe. The young woman who had brought up the body image issue said, “I don’t understand. My last boyfriend was always criticizing my body.” The young vet who had just brought us all to our knees replied, “That’s because he’s an a*****e. It’s not because he’s a guy. Some of us are just guys. Give us a break. Please.” A middle–aged man in the group joined in, staring straight down at his desk. “It’s true. When you want to be with us … in that way … it makes us feel more worthy. We stand a little taller. Believe in ourselves more. I don’t know why, but it’s true. And I’ve been married since I was eighteen. It still feels that way with my wife.” Never in my life before that moment did I think about men feeling vulnerable about sex. Never did I consider that their self–worth was in any way on the line. I didn’t understand. So I interviewed many more men about the topic of sexuality, shame, and worthiness, including mental health professionals. In one of my final interviews on the topic, I sat down with a therapist who had spent more than twenty–five years working with men. He explained that from the time boys are eight to ten years old, they learn that initiating sex is their responsibility and that sexual rejection soon becomes the hallmark of masculine shame. He explained, “Even in my own life, when my wife isn’t interested, I still have to battle feelings of shame. It doesn’t matter if I intellectually understand why she’s not in the mood. I’m vulnerable and it’s very difficult.” When I asked him about his work around addiction and pornography, he gave me an answer that helped me understand that issue in an entirely new light. He said, “For five bucks and five minutes, you think you’re getting what you need, and you don’t have to risk rejection.”
The reason that response was so revelatory to me was because it was so utterly different from what women felt. After interviewing women for a decade, it was clear that women see the issue of men and pornography as having to do with their own inadequate appearance and/ or their lack of sexual expertise. At the end of my interview with this wonderful and wise man, he said, “I guess the secret is that sex is terrifying for most men. That’s why you see everything from porn to the violent, desperate attempts to exercise power and control. Rejection is deeply painful.” Cultivating intimacy—physical or emotional—is almost impossible when our shame triggers meet head–on and create the perfect shame storm. Sometimes these shame storms are directly about sex and intimacy, but often there are outlying gremlins wreaking havoc in our relationships. Common issues include body image, aging, appearance, money, parenting, motherhood, exhaustion, resentment, and fear. When I asked men, women, and couples how they practiced Wholeheartedness around these very sensitive and personal issues, one answer came up again and again: honest, loving conversations that require major vulnerability. We have to be able to talk about how we feel, what we need and desire, and we have to be able to listen with an open heart and an open mind. There is no intimacy without vulnerability.”
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