There’s something untoward about a married woman of my age writing about lust, let alone feeling it. I should be spending time managing my hormones rather than hot flashes of an entirely different sort. But I am here to disclose that, yes, lust continues well into middle age. And here lies the problem: lust continues well into middle age. Even if I want to stroll quietly into my elder years, tending my senility alongside the geraniums, sexy advertisements block my path. I barely open a web page without some scintillating image reminding me the seduction game is always afoot. (And then there is porn, just a free click away.)
Yet despite the seeming worldwide sex obsession, sex isn’t what sells. Lust sells. Lust, like sex, physically stirs, but lust is a longing that exists separate from fulfillment. Lust draws us to the object of desire – or as it happens on the web, to an image of what we desire.
Social life depends on separating lust from sex. Although lust can go on interminably inside us, acting on lust without another’s consent is to breach personal liberties. Sexy advertisements and porn exploit the division between lust and sex, doing all they can to stimulate lust. Implicitly they suggest that escape from social
prohibitions and personal limitations can happen through the pitched product or experience. They flirt with taboos and stimulate hidden fantasies for objects, people, and experiences that are usually off-limits.
In a less rapacious world, cautious awareness of lust’s penchant for rasping at Pandora’s Box is enough to contain the shadowy parts of ourselves stirred by lust. But caution has been thrown to the wind. In the virtual world, a lust feeding-frenzy is going on.
Sex is a central way us humans feel enlivened and why so many just can’t stop thinking about it. Sex matters. A LOT. How else explain the evolution of 8000 nerve endings on the clitoris, making it the most sensitive part of the female anatomy? Granted, the “male equivalent” [term omitted because of search engines] has about half the nerve endings, but that certainly doesn’t mean men don’t also feel something pretty extraordinary. But all this sensitivity can go to waste when tied to status, purchasing power, or a habit of gorging on lusty images.
Sex is also one of the most vulnerable and intimate connections people can have. But having a mental storehouse of lusty images can reduce the power of sex for mind-bending intimacy to the banal practice of being a consumer. Granted, there’s the possibility of mentally flipping through fantasies to find the one that drives the encounter to an explosive finale. (Note: this is not an argument for or against casual sex.) But such mental preoccupation can also lead to feelings of power over sex, which lessens emotional dependency and feelings of vulnerability. Objectification of lovers is a possible result, along with a preference for the internal mental landscape over the real deal — both of which are becoming such common outcomes of habitual porn consumption that mentioning them feels obvious. Nevertheless, the point is an important one. As one man remarked:
“It can be a kind of problem to think about porn as much as I do, especially when with my girlfriend. It means I am not really present with her, my head is somewhere else.”
For an increasing number of people, especially the generation now reaching sexual maturity, the first exposure to sex is the formulaic sequences portrayed in online porn. Such initiations into sexuality can impede sex’s power to deeply stir the senses and soul. They also teach the practice of viewing one’s body (and oneself) as an object, which is deeply depersonalizing, if not depressing. Rather than experience oneself in an authentic, embodied way, taking the perspective of another can make sex feel like a performance as well as feed the need to have a perfect body. Dana Crowley Jack associated this “over eye” view of the self with women’s experiences of depression, but when it comes to porn, men can similarly suffer. (How many men, without chemical enhancements, can actually match stamina with one of those porn stallions? But how many men who regularly watch porn think they SHOULD??) As one man put it:
“Porn taught me all I know about sex. My parents never mentioned the word sex at home, and sex ed in school was a f**king joke. I had this image of how great sex would be, both of us going at it for hours. So it was kind of a shock the way the real thing turned out…she didn’t [have an orgasm] and I came really quickly.”
The current inundation with images of sex (and Fifty Shades of Grey) has me wondering about the need to dominate the ‘objects’ of desire, and if it is now “normal” to overlay sexual encounters with the recesses of fantasy. Why all this need for control in the current free-for-all, which oddly seems to police intimacy rather than sex?
The web is a social experiment. Ignore what the software updates tell you; we’re still in Beta version. We have no idea what the long-term impact will be of continual exposure to lust-provoking images. Yet some parallels seem to exist with what we know about the lingering impact of trauma, and in particular, sexual trauma.
A common marker of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is intrusive imagery. Without conscious intent, intrusive visual memories of a traumatic event can pop into mind when something in the present is a reminder of the original trauma. Surprisingly, this can be something benign in the environment – such as seeing a person in a red coat if once assaulted by someone wearing a red coat — or it can be something internal, like worrying about an upcoming presentation, and the feelings of anxiety trigger fear associated with memories of a past traumatic event. Thus both external and internal events can be triggering.
We can also repeatedly have fear-based responses to certain situations, although our reactions are not the result of overwhelming, traumatic events. An example might be a penchant for blowing up in anger when it feels like a partner is losing interest, which if traced back to childhood is eerily charged with fears of abandonment once provoked by a parent’s depression.
Trauma therapists talk about the distinction between Big “T” fear-based trauma and little “t” attachment-based trauma. With both “T” and “t” traumas, we get caught in old patterns of needing to protect ourselves from a perceived threat, regardless if the threat is actually present.
Typically, when we think of the lingering impact of trauma, we think of overwhelming emotions and people responding intensely and irrationally to a perceived threat. While this can certainly happen, trauma also causes us to disconnect from feelings, our bodies, other people, and the environment. Especially when there are histories of chronic trauma like childhood abuse or combat exposure, and thus lots of experiences are triggering, shutting down is the best way to feel safe.
When there’s a history of childhood sexual abuse, and memories of the abuse are triggered, there can be a strong activation of visual images of sex as well as sexual arousal. This may seem strange, however, from a survival perspective it makes sense. If the body is already sexually aroused prior to sex, there is less likelihood of physical injury due to forced sex. Furthermore, just the overwhelming nature of sex can be too much for a young body and mind to comprehend. Even if sex was coerced rather than forced, there can be a compulsive need to master the sense of overwhelm experienced with the molestation, as well as a sense that “release” corresponds to the end of the encounter. Both situations can lead to compulsive sexual behavior, including compulsive consumption of porn. (I wrote here about trauma and the repetition compulsion.)
Furthermore, for many people with histories of sexual abuse, the abuser was an attachment figure. But the sex of abuse is not about attachment or intimacy, but rather power, dominance and control. Surviving sexual abuse almost always involves high levels of dissociation and emotional shut down during the molestation. One consequence is that intimacy is not experienced as part of sex, and may even be intimidating. Sadly, sex can actually become an obstacle to intimacy and not an avenue to it.
So much of what we call trauma involves an overwhelming situation. And I think continually seeing lust-provoking images can potentially be overwhelming on some emotional or physiological level, even if reactions go unregistered. These reactions may be similar to those experienced by sexual abuse survivors, such as emotional shut down, intrusive imagery, intrusive body sensations, and a resistance to intimacy due to sex feeling overwhelming. Having a history of sexual abuse may not be a prerequisite (although a significant minority of Americans have such histories). Perhaps it’s a little “t” trauma, impacting the attachment between lovers. It could be called “t-i,” or image trauma, for the lost capacity to experience sexuality without lusty images intruding at least some of the time in ways that threaten to depersonalize the encounter. If there is such a trauma, perhaps it’s happening to just about everyone who regularly surfs the web and has sex.
On that Orwellian note, a cautionary quote by C. L. Rawlins might be in order:
“Mass culture draws collective power from blocking individual development.”
None of us can develop on our own. We need each other — although in intimate, embodied, and authentic ways.
© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.
Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a Mental Health Scholar and Registered Marriage & Family Therapist Intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.