Increasingly, we live in a world of powerlessness. Climate change, inflation, galloping censorship from all directions, spiraling teenage depression, confusing reports about COVID, international & domestic efforts to undermine democracy—it’s a terrifying world out there.
Yes, we feel powerless.
That seems to be my patients’ relationship experience, too. They’re afraid to ask for what they want, they’re afraid to say no, they can’t occasionally ask their mate “please just do this my way because I’d really appreciate it.” They’re too busy to keep their promises, and if they don’t make promises that creates conflict, too.
Yes, we feel powerless.
My patients especially feel powerless around sexuality: afraid to ask for change, feeling forced to hide their fantasies, lying about porn and masturbation, faking desire, faking orgasm, and quite silent in between.
This is what I call surplus powerlessness—it’s quite unnecessary, unlike, say, how we feel watching the war in Ukraine or hearing about anti-gay legislation rolling across the country.
My patients are continually telling me what isn’t possible regarding their sexual expression. I generally challenge these narratives. Most of the judgements that we fear from others (“she’ll think I’m a pervert”) we actually fear from ourselves.
Most of our fear about “failing” sexually is a response to arbitrary standards that we could actually break with impunity. And limiting sex to what’s “dignified” or “manly” or “feminist” or “anti-racist”—life’s just way too short to squeeze our sex lives into arbitrary categories like these.
In fact, psychological risk-taking is one of the greatest gifts sex has to offer.
Sure, the sensory delight, the intimacy, even the orgasm (if it’s part of things) are great. But what’s also great, maybe greater, is the experience of freedom, of sooo many choices, and (assuming you have birth control covered) the luxury that for a few moments, nothing matters. Where else can you go in life where nothing matters? Perhaps only on the floor playing legos with a four-year-old.
My patients who are engineers call this cherished state “optionality”—the situation of having choices, even more choices than you can actually use. For people who feel constrained all day and all week long—because of jobs, kids, money problems, health issues, in-law problems, or other externals—the experience of optionality is a radical one. It contradicts everyday life.
In that sense, sexuality can be revolutionary. It can be the way that ordinary people can experience their own power: breaking norms, violating taboos, and challenging old narratives, and getting away with it.
That’s revolutionary. George Orwell portrayed that in his novel 1984. Most totalitarian governments also understand that, and thus discourage or forbid sexual autonomy. That’s certainly true of almost all organized religion—they do not want anyone experiencing sexual autonomy.
Even in the U.S. today, conservatives continually pass laws limiting products, procedures, and behaviors that make sex safer, easier, or more enjoyable.
The Italians have a wonderful saying about how sex is an opportunity for even the most ordinary person to experience their own grandeur, their own power, the wonder of their physicality, and the beauty of self-expression. Il sesso è l’opera d’arte del povero: “Sex is the peasant’s opera.”
If you like videos, check out my library of “quickies”, all 8 minutes or less.