This might come as a shocker, but this post was very hard for me to write. I spent most of my life not even talking about sex, let alone writing about it publicly. So why? Why put myself out there like this? Why admit to all of these wrong-headed notions I lived with since puberty?
Because of shame. When I decided to write about the breakup of my marriage, it was to dispel the shame I felt at being left by my husband, by suddenly being unloved by the person I thought loved me the most. And, yes, it felt shameful. Like I failed to love him properly, like it was my fault he left. Like I had been judged and had been found wanting.
It was important for me to tell my story without sweeping any of the uglier bits under the carpet, to say out loud all those weird, toxic notions that had grown so big they were killing all my joy. I needed to speak out loud because I was in danger of forgetting how to speak at all.
As an aside, Monica Lewinski has an amazing Ted Talk about taking control of one’s voice. It is worth watching.
But that’s the thing. Once you start recognizing shame in one aspect of your life, you see how it has been leading you around by the nose in others. I felt shame about my body and my own sexuality long before I was married. It has made me waste many years worrying about things that if I had had the sense to talk to someone about, would have been dispelled years ago.
I am on a crusade against shame. I want to talk about these things openly, because the more we do, the less space we give to these noxious weeds in the gardens of our mind. I want words like joy and confidence to be the words my daughters grow and nurture inside themselves, not shame, and ugly, and I am not enough which were the words that dominated the first 40 years of my life. I want to eradicate the notion that any of us could ever be seen as inadequate for simply being who we are.
So. Here goes.
Inadequacy. Inadequate. Not adequate. From the latin: ad= to and aequus= equal. Adequate= made equal to.
Inadequate=not equal to. Lacking. Insufficient.
Objectively speaking, I know that I am not a hideous looking woman. I am relatively fit. Have no caricature-like protrusions or troll-like deformation. In the eyes of society, I am a perfectly “adequate” looking woman. A little on the short, stubby side, but completely within the adequate range.
Until I turned 40 and my husband lost interest in me, I was okay with being perfectly adequate. I could go through the world not feeling too ashamed of the way I looked, in fact comforted by the invisibility “perfectly adequate” affords. Just another 30 to 40 something woman. Nothing to see here. Move along.
I could do that because the person I loved still loved me. Still thought I was more than adequate. I was noticeable to them and that was all that mattered. I could push to the back of my mind all those feelings about my body that have plagued me since I was a teenager- the unforgivable fact for this day and age that I have a belly instead of board-like flatness, that my thighs are tattooed with marks like dried river beds. All the weird little anomalies and flaws we see in our bodies that I suspect are much larger in our eyes than in the eyes of our loved ones.
When my marriage dissolved, the first stop on the desperate and heart-broken thought train was here: I am no longer attractive; it’ s because I am bad in bed that he left me. I have not been assertive enough. Not adventurous enough. Not…enough. That my body disgusts him. That I am too naïve, too timid, too…too.
Now, I am ridiculously shy about these things. And I have come to realise that for most of my life I have been scared of my body. Of its needs, its desires. I am scared of my own ridiculous health and power. It makes me hide, makes me shy, makes me unassertive. In turn, it has made sex a passive thing for me, something that is done to me by others.
This was a cop out. I was not being the steward of my own body. I passed the buck onto other people, hoping my needs would be satisfied by default, but never taking ownership of them. An example of how much I internalized this passive attitude towards my own sexuality is that it did not even occur to me to masturbate until well after my husband left.
In the back of my mind I knew this had to change, that there was something fundamentally wrong with my relationship to my body and to sex. But it is easy to get complacent when you have been married for 20 years, when you have kids and jobs and you are busy. The sex thing just sort of didn’t seem important enough to really deal with.
That is until there was no sex. Until there was no touch.
For someone who was never really a touchy feely kind of person, whose personal space bubble I have been known to refer to as one guarded with barbed wire and machine gun turrets, not being touched for so long really fucked me up.
There is no other way to put it. The lack of physical contact after having it for so many years was the most bone-deep loneliness, the most forlorn I have ever felt in my life. Longing is an intensely physical sensation.
There was a study done in the sixties exploring attachment behaviour with puppies. They waited until the puppies formed an attachment to the researcher. Once they were attached, the researcher turned around and kicked the puppies. The puppies responded to this abuse by running to the researcher. (Got this from the wonderful Emily Nagoski’s blog, The Dirty Normal– see below)
Yeah. I know. Puppy kicking experiments. Bastards. But leaving aside the animal abuse for a moment, this reaction is a familiar one.
Apparently there are 4 stages of broken attachment:
- Proximity-seeking: This is what made the puppies run back to the experimenter even if he was abusive. You want to be near your object of attachment, because that is the person that has given you comfort in the past.
- Safe haven: You want your object of attachment to comfort you, even if it is that object that is hurting you. You have the counter-intuitive reaction of desperately seeking comfort from the person responsible for the hurt you need comfort for, a catch-22 if ever there was one.
- Separation distress: When the person you are attached to leaves, you feel a physical pain. Attachment is that strong. And when that person has been your object of attachment for over twenty years, the pain is in proportion to that.
- Secure base: They are your secure base. They are what allow you to go out in the world and be a citizen, do your projects. When that is gone, you are lost without compass or direction. It is hard to get anything done. Your brain won’t function. Everyday life becomes as hard as walking through a swamp wearing a snow suit.
When my ex left my first reaction was to think that if only we could keep the physical closeness, if only I could show him I could be better, more… more, things would be all right. The problem was, I had no idea how to do that. Hence, to the library (or, um, Amazon) I went.
Mating in captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel
I was reminded of this book a few days ago when a friend of mine shared an article of Perel’s from The Atlantic, “Why Happy People Cheat”. When I went to Amazon to look up the link, I was helpfully reminded by the Amazonbots that I have already purchased this item and that I did so April 4, 2015. That was only a little over two months after J’s revelations. I bought it along with the book below, “What Women Want”.
The problem with reading this book at this time is that it could have been very helpful if I still had a marriage to help. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, my marriage was already over. When I think of reading this book, I think of me trying desperately to find some information that could keep us together, that would help me be a better, more seductive wife, more passionate and unpredictable and exciting.
Now that I think back on it, I was reading it to find a way to not be me anymore.
My success rate on that is about what you imagine.
In her book, Perel explores the modern marriage, and the issues and problems that arise from having one union that is supposed to be all things: a practical life partnership where you navigate the domestic drudgery together, a best friend who always has your back and with whom you can’t wait to sit down and watch the next Game of Thrones episode with, and a passionate, erotic lover who is always on hand to titillate you when the need for titillating arises.
She makes a fair point- we might just be putting unreasonable demands on this relationship.
I flipped through the book and found this telling passage that I underlined at the time, in my effort to decode what the hell went wrong with my own marriage:
“If uncertainty is a built-in feature of all relationships, so too is mystery. Many of the couples who come to therapy imagine that they know everything there is to know about their mate…I try to highlight for them how little they’ve seen, urging them to recover their curiosity and catch a glimpse behind the walls that barricade the other.
In truth, we never know our partner as well as we think we do. Mitchell reminds us that even in the dullest marriages, predictability is a mirage. Our need for constancy limits how much we are willing to know the person who’s next to us. We are invested in having him or her conform to an image that is often a creation of our own imagination, based on our own set of needs…We see what we want to see, what we can tolerate seeing, and our partner does the same. [next part is what I underlined at the time] Neutralizing each other’s complexity affords us a kind of manageable otherness. We narrow down our partner, ignoring or rejecting essential parts when they threaten the established order of our coupledom. We also reduce ourselves, jettisoning large chunks of our personality in the name of love.
Yet when we peg ourselves and our partners as fixed entities, we needn’t be surprised that passion goes out the window. And I’m sorry to say the loss is on both sides. Not only have you squeezed out the passion, but you haven’t really gained safety, either.
The fragility of this manufactured equilibrium becomes obvious when one partner breaks the rules of the contrivance and insists on bringing more authentic parts of himself into the relationship.” [marginalia: Shit. Is this what happened?]
It is an interesting look at marriage with a lot of thought-provoking passages about who we are as a society, about the tension between individuality and coupledom. She gives anecdotes culled from her experience as a therapist as well as some suggestions to either avoid or get out of certain obstacles.
The best kind of “self-help” books are those that make you confront uncomfortable truths about yourself. Perel’s book definitely brought me to some uncomfortable places, ones I am still exploring to this day. Perhaps just for this reason I would recommend it.
What Do Women Want By David Bergner
This is the first book I read on the subject after having stumbled across yet another article in the Atlantic. I am pretty sure my thinking was that perhaps I can approach this problem scientifically. Look at it from a purely biological standpoint, so to speak. Engage in some rigorous research. In the words of The Martian, “science the shit out of it.”
It was going to be less scary that way.
To be honest, I don’t really remember this book and after scanning some pages I noticed that it was before my marginalia rebellion, so no passage was underlined.
I do remember it being an interesting read though. In a nutshell:
- studies show that women like sex just as much if not more than men,
- That we are able to be turned on by more things,
- that our attitudes to sex are more malleable than those of men. And most importantly,
- the notion that women’s libido is more suited to monogamy is pure hogwash.
Interesting stuff and glad to know it. But definitely did not help in my quest to be BETTER AT SEX NOW in order to hold on to my husband. I guess science can’t solve everything…
Come as you are by Emily Nagoski
Sometimes, all of the infinite variables align in the world to deliver the right book at the right time. Emily Nagoski’s book was this for me. It shifted my perspective on this quest from trying hard to find ways to be what I thought someone else wanted me to be, to focusing on my own relationship with sexuality.
For the first time ever. At the age of 40. Yeah. So. Much. Time. Wasted.
The underlying message of the whole book, one Nagoski repeats in many helpful ways, is that whatever you look like, however you get aroused, whatever size of your genitals, chances are you are perfectly normal:
“The information in this book will show you that whatever you’re experiencing in your sexuality…is the result of your sexual response mechanism functioning appropriately…in an inappropriate world. You are normal; it is the world around you that’s broken.
That’s actually the bad news.
The good news is that when you understand how your sexual response mechanism works, you can begin to take control of your environment and your brain in order to maximize your sexual potential, even in a broken world. And when you change your environment and your brain, you can change—and heal—your sexual functioning.”
I really, really needed to hear that at the time. It sounds simple and silly and obvious, but I did not think I was normal. I did not think I was normal because I never talked about sex with anyone. Not with my girlfriends, not with my sisters, not even with my husband. My scientific knowledge of sex was pretty much limited to that grade eight class about the birds and the bees.
Sex was something that one did; one did not talk about. I know. How perfectly Victorian of me.
The result was a skewed idea of my body and the way it worked. I thought things that were perfectly normal were viewed as disgusting. Because of that, I felt a lot of shame.
And shame, I have come to believe, is the root of much of our emotional heaviness and consequent folly and bad behaviour, the brick in our biographical baggage, so to speak.
It is how we become monsters.
The impact of Nagoski’s book on me was not so much to do with sex per say. After all, sex was no longer a part of my life at that moment. In my mind, there was no reason for me to go through her helpful little worksheets, because I was alone. There was no one to explore this new world that had suddenly opened up to me.
I think I might have missed the point there. But you know. Baby steps.
It was about me and only me. About how I had been going through life getting in the way of my own pleasure. Of being so mortified by my own body I could not enjoy it.
Judging by how many times Nagoski repeats the “you are normal!” message in her book, I don’t think I am the only woman to feel this way. Her book explains the science of sex in simple, relatable terms. How gender and culture have come to distort women’s sexuality and how we can reclaim it.
Because Come as You Are is not just a decoding, but a celebration of women’s sexuality; because it lets us know that a lot of sex happens in our brains, and our brains are heavy with responsibility, and burdens and stress; because throughout the book there is a much needed giving of, and pleading for, self-compassion when it comes to our bodies, our sexuality, ourselves; because of all this, I think every woman I know should read this book. And if you read it, honour yourself more than I did and damn well do the exercises. I know I will.
I will leave you with her TED TALK on the subject.