I remember once hearing someone say at a sex therapy conference, “Everyone, absolutely everyone you see walking down the street, has a sex life.” At first, a trite, mundane, rather obvious remark suddenly seemed profound. That submerged within everyone is a teeming subterranean universe that is mostly never shared. It may or may not include live human others, and what goes on there spans a range as wide as the world.
Of course, plenty of violence and harm originates there, as well we know much of my career has and continues to be centered on that. Thinking, however, about this week’s blog, I thought, well, we have talked about poop and masturbation. What’s next? What other tabus can we bust? What else can we talk about that is not likely to be uttered aloud or explained in the vacuous neglect family, if anything is spoken about at all.
It has been said, only somewhat tongue in cheek, that people become sex therapists because they think about sex twenty-four hours a day. I doubt it has been researched, so I can’t say if it is universally true, but I will leave that one to your capable imagination. In our conferences, we learn about all sorts of provocative themes, some of which I have and some admittedly I had never heard of or even imagined. Our presenters are physicians, serious researchers and academics, not only therapists like me. So although my tone may be light, I don’t by any means wish to make it sound like this is fluff or, even worse, titillation. I thought I would scratch the surface, if cursorily, of the broad topic of sexual fantasy.
I remember once hearing someone say at a sex therapy conference, “Everyone, absolutely everyone you see walking down the street, has a sex life.
A number of brave clients have divulged to me, usually after knowing them for a fairly long time, their persistent, even distressing sexual fantasies. They may be alarmed, ashamed and mystified, even horrified by the content, but unable to uncouple it from their erotic arousal, leaving them feeling somewhat alienated from or mistrustful of their own bodies. It becomes even more complex when these fantasies are the most direct, even the only way to get to orgasm. “What does that mean about me?”
After several conference presentations, I read a whole book on sexual fantasy, (Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head: The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies January 2009 by Brett Kahr) a hefty scholarly tome. Well researched, It recounts the sexual fantasies of his 23,000 subjects. By the end, I was more than satisfied, and the point was made: the sky is the limit.
And like dreams and other sorts of fantasies, they surely relate to something. Sometimes if we dig deeply on our own, with or without the help of a good therapist, we discover something interesting. That has certainly been true for me.
Sometimes if we dig deeply on our own, with or without the help of a good therapist, we discover something interesting. That has certainly been true for me.
Am I a Pervert?
I do have some important take-away points about this. Especially because the child of neglect perennially has no one to ask and so is trained by a lifetime to not ask – not even need to ask. And these are topics tabu to ask about in most circles anyway.
First of all, there is no shame in what appears unbidden in your head. Just as your hideous nightmares are not your “fault” or your monstrous alter-ego, neither are your sexual fantasies statements on your character, with the caveat, of course, that we know the difference between fantasy and reality.
An unorthodox or worse fantasy may be a turn-on only insofar as it stays in one’s imagination. If it is enacted in real life, on another being, especially non-consensually, that, of course, is something else entirely. I hope that is unmistakably clear. This is not license to have a field day with one’s sexual fantasies!
Secondly, research to date has shown that sexual fantasies appear to be deeply wired and very difficult, if not impossible to change. I don’t know if this has been studied with neurofeedback or any other brain training modality. Who knows what might be possible if someone made a project of that? At one conference, I heard a heartbreaking case presentation about a woman Holocaust survivor, sexually brutalized at a young age while in Auschwitz. As a therapy client in her 50s, she, for the first time, disclosed to the presenter – who was her therapist – that her entire life, her orgasm had been inextricably wound in with her Nazi torture. She could not get off without the fantasy of her sexual torture, which caused her unending conflict and shame and a sense of betrayal by her own body. And which made her want to avoid sex which she otherwise quite enjoyed. The best the highly competent therapist could do for her was to help her ultimately make her peace with it. Perhaps we could do better now.
Danger, Fear and Risk
My long time friend and colleague, Pat Love (yes, her real name!), whom I still think of as the best couples therapist in the world, cited formal research showing that danger, fear and risk had proven aphrodisiac properties. Something about being under threat heightens erotic interest and sensation. Perhaps that is part of what makes illicit sexual liaisons all the more exciting. It may also shed light on some of the sexual practices that I have found harder to understand because they are not to my taste or even involve pain and fear.
More recently, I began to learn about some neuroscience research about the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN). It is a primitive brain region, deep in the brain stem, where a sense of self emerges. It is where the brain “idles” or retreats when not “under task”, meaning not “doing” anything else. And it is a hotbed for self-reflection of whatever kind. We are all familiar with the tendency, when not busy with a task, to think about number one, that’s me!
Neuroimaging research has shown that the brains of survivors of developmental trauma and/or neglect show negligible activity in the DMN. It is largely cavernously dark. Only under threat does the DMN start to fire in these brains, and then it lights up almost brightly. Whatever their trauma story, terrifying experience is what brought the subjects’ DMN to life. So the tendency persists, that terror and even pain makes them feel alive. I am curious about this as it relates to sexuality. At this point, it is merely speculative. My own mind wandering. Perhaps in time, we will know more. Meanwhile, in the words of Mary Oliver:
…Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,
over and over, announcing your place
In the family of things …
Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Uncharacteristically, today’s song is instrumental to allow more leeway to your imagination. It’s a fave of mine.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.