It’s time we start having some serious conversations. And I think there is no better, or more relevant, subject than sex.
Do you know what has been the most surprising thing to me in all these revelations about sexual dysfunction? That people are surprised! I’m being very serious right now. I am surprised that people are surprised. I am surprised that so many of my male friends were surprised at how many of their female friends participated in the #metoo campaign online.
For a bit of context: I’ve always connected and related to women because 1) I’m very sensitive; 2) I grew up surrounded by women. I wasn’t just surrounded by them, but also felt like I had a front row seat to the dramas unfolding in their lives. I was very much an outsider growing up, so I did a lot of watching other people’s lives. I was always aware that there were different rules for me, than there were for my friends, my cousins, my colleagues, my aunts, my mom. I’ve witnessed the effects of discrimination, assault, abuse, and hate towards women all my life. I have witnessed women close to me being called whores, for daring to just be themselves. I had friends at school – school!! – who were beaten up by boyfriends who controlled them through force and power. I witnessed women being shut down every day of my life, in both explicit and implicit ways. And I say I witnessed this, because, I too, felt completely powerless to say anything about it. As the token gay person of the school/town/village, I was made to feel lower than any other social group around me. If I dared to say or do anything outside of my very controlled invisible presence, I would be punished for it. Harshly.
And as I came to grow into my sexuality and started having sex with men, I saw these same patterns being applied to me. As the receptive partner in sexual relationships, I found myself facing the exact same name calling, use of force, oppressive power, and violence that I had seen my female friends face in the hands of men, but this time, it was me in the hands of fellow gay men.
So, what I want all of us to start talking about is this: sexual dysfunction in ALL of its forms, guises, but most importantly, its origin!
I’ll admit, I’m feeling a bit aggravated. This was triggered after a therapy session where yet another client disclosed being a victim of sexual dysfunction growing up as a child and teenager. And let me tell you everyone: sexual dysfunction is REAL and it’s EVERYWHERE! And by sexual dysfunction, I mean the entire spectrum of psychological and emotional patterns which drive individuals to commit sexual harassment, assault, abuse, violence.
People who know me, know that I have a really high threshold for emotional distress, dysfunction, chaos, pain. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a therapist and I’ve been exposed to serious and complex lived experiences, or because I have lived through serious and complex life experiences myself, or even because I’m somehow more open and aware than most people. Whatever it is, I must say that one of the things that shook me to my core, and raised that threshold even higher, was the extremely high prevalence of cases of childhood and adulthood sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape in the life stories of my clients in addiction services. All of it completely unacknowledged, unresolved, running people’s lives in absolutely destructive and unconscious ways. And as I accrued more clinical hours in my other field of work, HIV, similar patterns were present. And as I moved on to private practice, and to other life experiences and clinical presentations, there it was again! Statistics on childhood sexual abuse in the UK from the NSPCC may be depressing to acknowledge – https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/child-sexual-abuse/sexual-abuse-facts-statistics/ – but my own clinical experience would say that these statistics are simply the tip of a very large iceberg!
So, in the past few months, I have been really reflecting on this, particularly the origins of all this dysfunction, not simply in relation to all the clients I have encountered in the past few years, but even my own personal experiences of aspects of this overall dysfunction. And let us not forget the current socio-cultural moment we are all living through at the moment!
For those outside the field of psychology and therapy, Abraham Maslow published a paper in 1943 where he proposed a theory of hierarchy of needs – you can read more about it here https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html. According to this theory, represented by a pyramid, people are motivated to achieve certain needs, and some will take precedence over others. The needs at the bottom of the pyramid are our most basic ones, and the highest one is self-transcendence, or the fulfilment of a person’s spiritual potential. Guess where sex is on this pyramid? At the bottom, that’s right, with all the other physiological and biological needs. Right next to food, drink, sleep, warmth, breathing, etc. Let me repeat that again, in case you can’t see the profundity of our relationship with sex: it is on the same category as food, drink, sleep, and wait…breathing! And yet, if you think about it, how many of these other basic needs have been the subject, target, and used as a weapon of oppression, morality, misunderstanding, and misuse of power, not just for centuries, but for millennia? Think about that. Reflect on that. Let that sink in. Most of us are taught to dismiss, judge, oppress, repress, and shame, one of our basic needs. Perhaps the times in which he lived did not allow Sigmund Freud to tackle this matter in all its vastness, but he was definitely onto something with his focus on sex and sexual urges.
This moment is not just a moment for specific victims and perpetrators. It’s a moment of reckoning for all of us: where do each of us fall on this long and vast spectrum of sexual experience, and where exactly are all these lines that people keep crossing every day? Who’s responsible? Think back to your education about sex. How did you learn about it? Where? With whom? Obviously, factors such as gender, race, sexual orientation, age, disability, and belief system, play important roles in our relationship with sex, but really, beyond all of that, sex is something no one ever wants to talk about. It’s not a men’s problem or a women’s problem, it’s everyone’s problem! Not only no one ever wants to talk about it, no one wants the responsibility of dealing with it. How many times did I have to challenge colleagues when they told clients that it was inappropriate to talk about sex in therapy sessions, because they didn’t want to deal with it?
What are we teaching children? Young people? Why are people surprised about sexual dysfunction in adults when sex is almost universally seen and taught as something shameful and secretive, from the moment we are born? Do you really think that when toddlers are beginning to discover their bodies, and adults admonish them for touching themselves, that that doesn’t somehow leave a mark in that toddler’s psyche? They won’t remember it as a clear memory, but the feeling remains for a very long time, or even forever: “touching yourself is bad”. And as toddlers develop into children, and then into teenagers, and begin to really explore their sexualities and pleasure, whenever they masturbate, there will be a lingering feeling that even though it feels great, that it’s also bad and something to hide, and possibly feel ashamed of.
We cannot expect a world where adults engage with each other sexually with respect, boundaries, and care, if we don’t even bother to teach them anything as children. Someone does not become a rapist or a paedophile out of nowhere. Men don’t learn to look at women as objects out of nowhere. Women don’t learn to think of themselves as passive or powerless out of nowhere. Everything has an origin, a cause, a seed. We can’t ignore that. Talks of how men should behave towards women are empty, if we are not willing to look at the root cause of many of these issues: our relationship with sex, with all of our judgements, misconceptions, fears, insecurities, power dynamics, morality, and shame. Because the root cause driving the behaviour of abusers is the same as what drives the silencing of victims: a dysfunctional relationship with this basic need of ours. Can you imagine applying all this morality to the basic need of breathing? It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Because it is!
Sex is a basic need because it provides us with specific nurturing, wellbeing, developmental, and healing qualities, but we somehow found a way to completely detach it from all the other needs and put it in a category on its own. But sex isn’t on its own – it is fundamentally connected to everything else about us as a species. If you had a group of children in a room, and you singled one out, and kept telling that child that they were bad, immoral, shameful, etc, how do you think that child would feel, and develop? This is what we do with sex as a need. We dismiss it. We hide it. We shame it. We avoid it. We disconnect from it. We compartmentalise it. How are you surprised about all this dysfunction? Oh, apologies. You most likely say to yourself that you couldn’t possibly commit some of these acts, or if you were a victim you would have reacted differently to the threat. Maybe, maybe not. The truth of the matter is that HUMAN beings commit and are victims of these acts every single day on this planet. I assure you that everyone will know someone who has been a victim of sexual dysfunction in their lifetime. And if we all know a victim, then we will all also know a perpetrator. Think about that, and let that sink in.
Going back to the list of basic needs listed above: food, drink, sleep, warmth, breathing, sex. Do you notice anything? I’ll point it out to you: sex is the only basic need that requires another person. Right there, as we grow up and develop, we receive the message that one of our basic needs, which is inextricably about how we relate to others, is something shameful and to be hidden away. If that isn’t the beginning of a whole lot of dysfunction, I don’t know what is!
I don’t have many answers. But I know we need to start talking about sex openly and authentically. We need to re-build the bridges between the physical and the emotional/spiritual aspects of sex in our lives. There haven’t been any bridges up until now, and that is how dysfunction has managed to thrive. We need to have these very uncomfortable conversations, shining light on this part of us that has been forced to live in the shadows. Some people’s lives literally depend on it. And I don’t mean just physical lives. Emotional, psychological and spiritual lives too! If your body is here, but your emotions and spirit are trapped, then you are surviving and coping, which is very different than living. All of our lives, and their authentic transcendental potential, depend on this. We can start this process by looking at ourselves, acknowledging and exploring what and how we feel about sex physically, emotionally, spiritually. And then we need to acknowledge where perhaps we have misused it, or been subjugated to its misuse. This part will be difficult. Very difficult. And then we can expand this process to other people. Perhaps sharing parts of our stories. Perhaps just listening to other people’s stories. Without judgement or shame. With compassion and kindness. With love. This will feel cathartic. But the healing will only occur, if we continue to follow these steps, consistently, continuously, and authentically. With each other.
If this resonates, feel free to share with friends, family, and networks.
Thank you. xx
Ryan Campinho Valadas
HCPC registered Dramatherapist