April 21, 2017

Men, Sex, Rejection & Shame

Sometimes sex is about more than sex

One of my favorite songs to belt out in Karaoke is Radiohead's "Creep." It is a song I reserve for moments when I feel low, because singing sad songs when I'm sad seems to make some of the angst dissipate. 

The song came to mind when I was thinking about writing this blog post about what sex means to men. There are many misconceptions about what sex means for men. One of the biggest ones is that men seek sex primarily to satisfy their own physical pleasure. Therefore, when men are rebuffed, it can't really hurt that much because they have just missed out on physical pleasure. Nope. 

I have found this to be a harmful misconception because it minimizes the importance of sex for men's identity and self-esteem. Look at the lyrics to "Creep" to illustrate in song what I have found that men can actually gain in a loving sexual encounter with their partner - identity, acceptance, self-worth and a sense of belonging. This may be a little bit dramatic, but, at its best, in the sexual union, there is a sense of the wander coming home. When you accept me sexually, I matter, I belong, I'm so very special.  

When you were here before
Couldn't look you in the eye
You're just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry

You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I don't care if it hurts
I wanna have control
I wanna perfect body
I wanna perfect soul

I want you to notice
When I'm not around
You're so f****n' special
I wish I was special

But I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don't belong here.

"Creep" also illustrates what happens when men don't feel accepted by their partners. There is a sense of rejection, of being a creep, a weirdo, and overwhelmingly, I think this leads to feelings of shame. Initiating sex is inherently a vulnerable act for anyone. 

Author, professor, and shame researcher, Brene Brown, talks about the concept of shame and sex for men in her book, Daring Greatly.  Here is an excerpt from the book. Apologies for the length, but it is well worth the read. 

It's Not About The Back Fat: Men, Women, Sex and Body Image

"In 2006 I met with twenty-two community college students, male and female, to talk about shame. It was my first coed 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**hole. 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.”

I read those passages to my husband and asked him if it resonated for him. Without hesitation, he said, "yes, of course." It seems so obvious now, but I had not really made the connection between sex and shame for men in that way. I figured that men could feel sad, bummed out, angry, or rejected when their partner turned them down, but shame goes much deeper. Shame is a pretty heady emotion based on the idea that there is something inherently bad or wrong about me.

Why deny your husband something that takes so little, but means so much?

I had a friend one time who said something to the effect of "Why do we deny our husbands something that takes so little time, but means so much?" That stuck with me. 

Take a chance on your partner

A note about initiating sex. In many relationships, there is one partner who almost always initiates sex. If that is working in your relationship, great, but I recommend having a conversation about this before assuming all is well.  The act of initiating can be a power symbol of your sense of desire for your partner, and we all want to feel wanted. If you are not normally the initiator, I recommend you try initiating more often. I realize this opens you up to rejection, but there is no intimacy without vulnerability. Take a chance on your partner. 

There are times when we just don't have it in us to have sex. We may genuinely be tired, or depressed, or dealing with issues of past abuse or pain. I get that. Some of you may read this post and feel that it is shaming you if you ever say no to your partner's sexual initiation, but please know that is not the intention of the post. Your body is your own and your choice to share it is your own. 

I have found, however, that sometimes, over time in our relationships, we get lazy and take each other for granted. I hope this post will encourage more discussion about sex and and an understanding of the power we hold over each other of acceptance and rejection. I hope it will encourage us to pursue each other's mutual pleasure and edification. And don't forget to have fun! 

If sex is a source of conflict, shame, or pain in your relationship, professional counseling can help. 
You can call our Houston counselors at 713 - 591- 3612, email at nancy @ wilsoncounseling. org or visit our website at www.wilsoncounseling.org to find out more.