Confronting Western Definitions of Sexuality and Intimacy

Michael Ventura on Sexuality and Romance as a Personal Journey into the Self

Michael Ventura

Today, sexuality still seems to be a territory as private and filled with fear as ever it was. You might argue the opposite, because so much about sexuality these days is fearlessly public---and that's true, if by "public" you mean the merely visible. But privately, we haven't advanced far in our ability to talk of our own sexuality, one with another.

As in days of yore, we embark on our individual sexual journeys with minimal guidance---zip, really. There's scant discussion about being a sexual being: how it feels, what we do, who we are sexually, and what that means to us as we go about our lives. We don't have much idea of what sex is for, even. Rarely can couples in long-term relationships expand the scope of their shared sensuality. Psychotherapy has gone from viewing sex almost mystically, like Freud, to making sex something so clinical it's almost boring, in the tradition of Masters & Johnson and their many descendants. Much of contemporary psychotherapy seems to have minimized sexuality to something that's no more than an element of relationship, rather than a force in itself, a realm all its own.

That's part of what makes sexuality scary: it is a force in itself, a realm all its own: one in which the rational and the measured are overwhelmed and subsumed. But, if they last, relationships tend to settle down into a sexual sameness, or even not much sex at all. That's a familiar complaint from couples who find it necessary to enter a therapist's consulting room, when overfamiliarity can be a delicate dilemma.

What if "overfamiliarity" is a cover for something else? What if that "something else" is fear? Fear of the power that lies waiting in the dangerous places you may go in the realm of your senses, where you've been keeping secrets not only from your world and your lover, but from yourself? What is it, then, that lurks, awaiting discovery, deep in the senses, and why, for so many, is it feared more than desired?


In-betweenness, from my first experience of it, was interesting on every level---much more interesting than being, sexually, only "a man." But the in-between state had its ups and downs. Over the years---in relationships and brief encounters---I felt as though my body time-traveled. Sometimes, in sex, I'd inhabit my body fully; sometimes it was as though I was back in my up-tight twenties; and always it was as though my body shifted its valence, as it were, with each person, or shifted at different times during a sustained relationship, differently on different nights, or different from one year to the next, one stage of life to the next.

You can be in a relationship for years and suddenly see a face upon your lover that you've never seen and never guessed was there. Slowly I realized that it wasn't "as though" my body changed sexually with different people and different situations; it did change. Human beings are such powerful receptors and radiators that you quite literally change what I'd call your "imaginal body" in sexual intimacy with another, and the other changes in turn. This is so far from the model of sexuality presented by and to mainstream society that it took me some time to entertain the notion that perhaps it was society in general, and not me, that was sexually freakish. Society says you're one thing or another---male or female, straight or gay, young or old, human or animal. But the deeper you venture into the realm of the senses, the more you encounter the shape-shifting reality of your in-betweenness in feelings and sensations that are male and female, straight and gay, young and old, human and animal. This can get more than a little confusing.

"A Lesbian in a Man's Body"

I've been with a woman whom I'll call Zoe. She's a bisexual who usually prefers women and who's as often as not related to me sexually as though I were what she calls "a femme"---a designation that has nothing to do with my daily, walking-around, heterosexual persona, which I'd define as sort of tough-streetkid-growing-old-but-don't-mess-with-me. It's a persona I'm more than comfortable with, even sort of addicted to, yet being "femme" doesn't bother me. It interests me.

Zoe's explanation for calling me that goes something like this: "You're hetero, but you're not straight. I think of you as a lesbian in a man's body. Straight men---that I've been with, anyway---they're ignorant of the vastness of pleasure. It's all cocks with them. If the cock is up, they're happy. If it's down, they're crushed. Well, cocks go up and down! But we have lots of body, and any part of the body can come! You know what you are, Ventura? A heterosexual queer." I feel I've been given a significant compliment---a kind of flag that stakes out my territory in the vastness of pleasure that's in-betweenness.

At most levels and expressions of Western culture, how sexuality is framed, defined, and presented is confined and misconceived. In heterosexually "straight" thought, sexuality tends to be dealt with only as part of something else---one element of a relationship, one element of a marriage. Lesbians, homosexuals, bisexuals, and gender-benders of all sorts---the queer spectrum---have tended to approach sexuality with far more imagination (forced to, no doubt, because they're defined by their sexual activity). By "imagination" I don't mean this or that kinky act. I mean a recognition that the sexual act is psychoactive, psychotropic, psychedelic, opening us to states of being unattainable by other means. In this view, sexuality isn't only something one does; it's someplace one goes.

Put another way, sexuality is a means of communication in which what's communicated is sensory and imaginal, not easily transferable to the verbalizations of "relationship" or verbalizations of any kind. Zoe put it most succinctly: "Sex is a language. I speak it."

In the young phases of life---and we're young whenever we fall in love---we perceive sex as adventure, and that's when it's most completely satisfying, for that's when we're most open to journeys into the senses. Those journeys are genuine adventures. In the settled phases of our lives, we may miss the adventure, but we use sexuality for everything else: comfort, reassurance, release, and the confirmation of our sense of identity. In the settled phases of life, we don't want our identity threatened. But identity that isn't continually challenged grows stale and begins to lose its shape and firmness, for habit is poor nutrition for identity. That's when people begin to speak of something "missing." You hear that a lot in settled relationships. But what, exactly, is missing? What's missing are the unexplored realms of oneself.

Sexuality is scary because it's where we meet ourselves most directly, without filters, without verbiage, and, if we go far enough, without fixed roles. It's where we meet ourselves with and through the Other---this Other with whom we journey into the realm; this Other, a partner as fluid we are.

This blog is excerpted from "Journey to the In-Between." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Couples | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | Sex & Sexuality

Tags: counseling | psychotherapy | relationships | sex | sexuality | therapist | therapy | Michael Ventura | networker | love | women | Men | gay | romance | Self

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