From the infidelities of politicians, entertainers, religious leaders, and athletes to the exponential rise of cybersex and porn addictions, the news is filled with stories of male sexuality run amok.
Sexuality is one of the most crucial and misunderstood human energies and activities. It makes us feel alive and connected and opens up new levels of intimacy. It can also destroy relationships and end careers.
When one considers the countless relationships felled by the diminution of passion and the scores of people who worry that their erotic life is too uptight—or kinky—it may not be unreasonable to claim, as Michael Bader does in his book Male Sexuality, that “except for new lovers at the height of their infatuation, almost no one in our culture feels happy with their sexuality.” In other words, sexuality is a realm that few have really mastered.
“If we look beneath the surface of sexual arousal we find a complicated psychological process of which most of us are completely unaware. People get sexually aroused only if their imaginations find a way to temporarily negate or overcome their psychological roadblocks to pleasure.” We live in a culture that is profoundly ambivalent about the erotic: alternatively voyeuristic and prohibitive. We are flooded with lascivious images and fantasies and censorious reactions. Indulgence, outrage, entitlement, guilt, and shame uneasily co-exist.
In Male Sexuality: Why Women Don’t Understand It and Men Don’t Either (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), psychoanalyst Michael Bader contemplates and compassionately illuminates this important and misconceived aspect of masculinity. Drawing on the seminal Freudian insight that conscious and manifest aims often obscure deeper truths about why we do what we do, Bader skillfully elucidates a range of topics, from the secret logic of male sexuality and sexual fantasies, to sexual boredom and infidelity and the appeal of pornography, to the myths and realities of sexual aggression and pornography and the psychological and political context underlying male sexuality. Bader reminds us that it’s crucial to distinguish between the motivation behind the behavior and the behavior itself. This enables him to clarify how erotic pursuits that appear perverse and invite contempt and scorn—think, for example, of politicians sleeping with prostitutes and tweeting lewd images of themselves—are better understood as self-protective strategies to lessen hidden emotional dangers and conflicts.
“The special developmental need not only to leave the mother but to reject her femininity casts shadows on male development, leading to guilt, an exaggerated fear of closeness, and emotional isolation in men. It is from this barren soil that male sexual fantasies and preferences develop.” Bader’s argument goes something like this: Sexual desire can seem straightforward, immediate, and reflexive. But psychoanalysis reminds us that like all human experience it is complex and multi-layered, is shaped by unconscious as well as conscious forces, and has various meanings and functions. Who and what we are attracted to—and what stimulates and gratifies us—has hidden and overt sources. “If we look beneath the surface of sexual arousal,” notes Bader, “we find a complicated psychological process of which most of us are completely unaware. People get sexually aroused only if their imaginations find a way to temporarily negate or overcome their psychological roadblocks to pleasure.” The chief obstacle is “pathogenic unconscious beliefs”—harmful experiences in the past that inhibit desire.
Sexual arousal, in Bader’s view, is shaped and shadowed by earlier life experiences—especially negative ones such as guilt and loneliness, fear and shame. Men have a different developmental trajectory than women, which influences and skews their emotional and erotic life. “The special developmental need not only to leave the mother but to reject her femininity casts shadows on male development,” claims Bader, leading to “guilt, an exaggerated fear of closeness, and emotional isolation” in men. It is from this barren soil that male sexual fantasies and preferences develop.
To an unrecognized extent, most men labor under unconscious emotional burdens from childhood—from being emotionally responsible for depressed caregivers to having to cope with narcissistic, suffocating, or detached parents. In attempting to manage these difficult emotional situations, their own feelings and needs are eclipsed. Many men (and women) unwittingly choose partners who have dynamics that are similar to their problematic parent(s) and then unconsciously repeat the same burdensome patterns from childhood. Such inhibitions interfere with arousal.
“Once we view sexual behavior as a creative solution to hidden emotional problems, rather than “biologic or moral deviations,” the distinction between the sexually conventional and perverse dissolves, which can lessen shame.” Fantasy, which we tend to feel guilty about, as well as relish, is a doorway into the hidden realms of the psyche—to what we expect, fear, and avoid. Fantasy is an attempted self-cure for our hidden and unrecognized emotional conflicts. In the face of fantasy there is a tendency to be judgmental: to condemn and feel disgusted. But fantasy is the private solution to lingering unconscious psychological dilemmas. Many of the most common male fantasies and sexual practices and preferences can be understood as strategies to “bypass or overcome the unconscious pathogenic beliefs that dampen erotic desires…beliefs involving feelings of worry, guilt, rejection, shame, loneliness, and helplessnesss.”
Once we view sexual behavior as a creative solution to hidden emotional problems, rather than “biologic or moral deviations,” the distinction between the sexually conventional and perverse dissolves, which can lessen shame.
Bader skillfully applies this model of “fantasies as solutions to unconscious problems” to male interest in pornography. Once we can put aside our knee-jerk repulsion, it’s easier to view pornography as one of the secret solutions to these emotional problems and challenges. For example, consider a man who was made to feel responsible for his mother’s emotional well-being. “Love” was only forthcoming when he gave up his feelings and needs and accommodated to a narcissistic caregiver. The anonymity of porn is a welcome relief for such a man: He not only feels no pressure to take care of an emotionally starving woman, but he can construct fantasy scenarios in which he is emotionally and sexually nurtured.
Bader’s thoughtful clinical vignettes highlight what he feels are certain perennial issues men struggle with, such as guilt, loneliness, and excessive responsibility. The men in his book labor under the burden of pleasing depriving and critical women. I initially found this illuminating, But I also began wondering toward the end of the book whether other men confronted different challenges.
Male Sexuality is an important and accessible book. You will never view sexuality the same way again after incorporating the shift Bader recommends from moralism—our tendency to judge certain erotic preferences and practices as bad—to “meaning”: striving to understand the secret purpose of our and our partners’ sexual fantasies and behaviors. Such empathic understanding has the potential to liberate your sexual life.