In the new film “Shame,” an examination of the extremes of human sexuality, Brandon Sullivan, a successful, handsome New York executive afraid of intimacy, has frequent, random sex with prostitutes and strangers. At work, he sneaks off to masturbate in the men’s room or extends his lunch hour with trysts.
The movie harshly depicts casual sex as an emotionally disconnected, meaningless defilement, as reflected in the the title. Brandon Sullivan is never permitted sexual enjoyment. Instead, his getting off is presented as alienating and self-destructive. The only time he he attempts to have sex with someone he knows, a co-worker, he can not perform.
In the end, punishment awaits Brandon, the presumable fate for all who have casual sex, as punctuated by the suicide attempt of Brandon’ sister, who is similarly portrayed as sexually depraved.
In a recent interview, director Steve McQueen said the film is based on his research on sexual addiction–a condition whereby the insatiability of sexual cravings is rooted in self-hatred and the avoiding intimacy.
But “Shame” draws an inaccurate comparison between casual sex–an experience typically outside the context of a romantic relationship–and reckless sex. Under the right circumstances, casual sex can be deeply meaningful and more intimate than the sex in a long-term relationship. Those of us who have casual sex know that its not devoid of emotion, nor does it lead to the unhappiness Brandon suffers.
Society dictates that only within marriage or another long-term relationship do sex and intimacy exist and popular culture upholds this as the ultimate formula for happiness Despite the high divorce rate, tax laws, for example, continue to bestow benefits on married couples, while relegating single people to second-class status.
How many times have you heard: He’s afraid of intimacy? In arguing against casual sex, marriage advocates regularly flaunt research purportedly showing that spouses are happier than single people. But these studies contain a damaging methodology, which cannot be readily identified by their findings. That is, they fail to consider the guilt and shame that some single people internalize as a result of how society stigmatizes them.
The truth is, long-term relationships or marriage do not guarantee a satisfying emotional life or sexual intimacy. Everyone knows someone stuck in a barren marriage, whose members have lost their autonomy and in which sex has disappeared. Brandon’s assertion that people do not belong together forever is correct, but too many of us fear facing that truth or consider alternatives to that permanence.
There are times when casual sex actually deepens one’s self-knowledge. With intelligence and clarity of purpose, casual sex is more than instant gratification. By openly exploring our fantasies and true desires with different partners in a way that may not possible in a committed relationship, we can transcend our inhibitions. With each new encounter we can discover buried parts of ourselves and in time experience the totality of who we are. We can even experience profound, revelatory moments that unravel our past and show us things we never knew about ourselves. We can satisfy unmet needs by embracing those aspects of our sexuality that are deeply meaningful and we can choose to let go of those that no longer have importance.
Upon turning sixty-five, I recognize that casual sex has often been as intimate for me as were the two long-term relationships I have had. Unencumbered by a complex commitment, the freedom found in casual sex allowed me to move beyond self-consciousness and achieve a level of honesty and authenticity for myself, and my partner, in a way previously unknown to me. With each new experience, the process of discovering and sharing specific sexual interests required verbal and non-verbal communication that was intensely focused and rapidly telegraphed. And self-disclosure and vulnerability were as necessary a part of these exchanges as they were in a committed relationship.
In fact, my experience ran contrary to the myth that intimacy needs to be sustained to be meaningful. Even so, I have learned that not all casual sex is meaningful, even though you may get a physical “spike” from its novelty, but it is no more empty than the rote sex that typically happens in marriages.
Some casual encounters presented the unexpected, both splendid and repellent. Some led to love affairs, others to friendships. Together, these experiences offered insights into the deepest levels of my psyche that have been as rich and transforming as any epiphany I had during my long-term relationships. Over time, I refined my own sense of morality based on respect, trust, honesty and generosity. Finally, I maleedge varpos padidinimui stand in awe of the extraordinarily creative ways that we, as human beings, express who we are through sex.
There is nothing that I have asked of a patient that I haven’t asked of myself. Like many other patients, I took Jane on the journey of Intelligent Lust that I have written about in previous columns and in detail in my book, “Your Brain on Sex” where casual sex is of central importance.
Jane’s younger sister got muscular dystrophy at a very young age, for which Jane’s parents felt terrible guilt. They steadfastly tended to her sister, going beyond what was necessary to accommodate her handicap.
Not only did Jane feel guilty for being the healthy child, she also suffered silently from her parent’s inattentiveness towards her and wondered what it would be like to be the center of attention. Furthermore, in high school, Jane, taller than the boys and less physically developed than the girls, was cruelly nicknamed Olive Oil.
As she matured, Jane developed sexual fantasies in which she was a beautiful enchantress who could charm and seduce even the most handsome and unavailable man.
At thirty, Jane, feeling terribly isolated, came to therapy, after suffering what she called a string of “failed relationships” with men she described as “emotionally unavailable.”
“They put their work or families ahead of me,” Jane told me.
Jane soon recognized that by choosing men who gave her so little attention she reenacted her childhood predicament. And while she was highly sexual in her relationships, she also abandoned her true sexual desires in favor of pleasing her partners whose approval she desperately sought. Sex in these relationship quickly grew empty and inauthentic, misguided by a lack of self-understanding.
During therapy, Jane learned to identify her fantasies and true desires, where they came from and what function they served in her life. She gained insight into how she had eroticized her parents’ neglect as an attempt to turn painful feelings into pleasurable ones.
At first, Jane had a variety of casual sexual encounters, some of which did not require her to please the man. Not unexpectedly, she began to honor and express her sexuality more confidently. She also approached dating with a new perspective, one that didn’t anticipate rejection. She began to look for men who were a better sexual match, using Intelligent Lust as her guide. And she learned to replace her plain and neutral self-image with a more flirtatious and seductive one, like the enchantress she imagined herself to be.
Within a year, Jane met Bill, a man who had also been a tall and awkward adolescent with sibling issues. As a boy, Bill had been compared to his handsome and brilliant older brother. Despite his physical awkwardness, Bill was a varsity basketball player. Still, even as his star rose, he felt uncomfortable around girls and developed a reputation as a geek. In his favorite masturbatory fantasy, however, Bill imagined a harem of woman chasing him.
With my coaching, Jane got Bill to talk about his fantasies, and soon they agreed to act them out, setting up regular dates in bars. Together, they developed a script for their encounters. Pretending they didn’t know each other, Jane would flirt with the anonymous tall guy, flatter and charm him, then invite him home. At first, Bill would resist, but inevitably he would surrender to the intense seduction. In bed, he would make love to her for hours while she teased and taunted him until they both climaxed, satisfying their sexual fantasies.
The experience continued regularly over several months and as they grew more trusting of each other, Jane and Bill’s emotional and sexual exploration deepened as well as its intensity and satisfaction.
Acting out her fantasies changed Jane. She felt empowered. Not only did she feel her deepest needs had been validated and affirmed by Bill, but for the first time she felt “real.”
Although Jane ended the relationship with Bill several months later when she relocated for a job, it was a profoundly helpful experience that served to correct a lifetime of neglect. Their high level of intimacy served as a standard for her future relationships. The healing that occurred during her few months of sex in a non-committed relationship allowed Jane to vanquish her childhood hurt and feel empowered.