April 13, 2014 § 4 Comments
As a single twenty something, I subsisted on stories of sexual exploits. Brunch with friends consisted of dishing the dirt on what happened the night before. All of our experiences seemed like some kind of amazing movie, where the hot musician/artist/stranger from out of town walks in and sweeps away the night with his own unique way of wooing, either leading to mounting sexual tension or strewn sheets.
I also worked at a brand new restaurant where they only hired you if you were beautiful or Irish. Everyone was sexy. We worked hard, played hard, and then all ended up in bed together. To be honest, it was the best job I ever had, with the strongest sense of community. The drama kept it interesting, and persistent flirtations kept my adrenaline pumping. People with commitments didn’t fare so well working there. But I had no strings, no attachments, and just a couple of obsessions. I was at that age where you were allowed to be just a little bit stupid. I learned that you probably shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but it’s a lot more fun when you do.
Ten years later, I look back on that time as my heyday of singledom. It was an adventure to sleep with all kinds of men, and I’m glad that I did. I learned a great deal about life from all of those experiences. I never imagined that my life would change so much since then, and that I would choose to be in a monogamous marriage.
We’ve both admitted that the single thing we miss most about dating is the variety. Once married, that excitement of the brand new person in your arms is a thing of the past. The challenge is to go beyond the familiar to create a fresh erotic experience. Biologically, the familiar is a warning signal that keeps us from committing incest, and once your family, there is nothing more familiar than your spouse.
At times, we get our kicks from listening to stories told by our single guy friends. But as they talk, I find myself feeling depressed and left bored. They check young girls off their list, and are consumed with looks rather than substance – the type of girls who like to flip their ponytail in your face; had a boob job at eighteen; and fail in conversations with comments like, “Alcohol was once illegal? That never happened!” In the meantime, the fully formed human beings are relegated into friendship territory.
For much of our lives, love and sex are two very different things. If you marry a person based on your passionate sex life, you’ll wake up one day to find that you have nothing in common. If you marry your best friend, you’ll realize that as love grows stronger, keeping sex fresh is a challenge. Love and sex only come together completely in the first initial phases of an intense relationship, and as familiarity takes over, lust wanes.
Everything that I’ve ever felt about the nature of human sexuality is explained and affirmed in Sex At Dawn – How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’. As their theory goes, we owe much of our culture to the rise of agriculture, but the earth was a more balanced place when we remained hunter-gatherers in pre-history. There was no famine, no malnutrition; people grew taller and lived longer; finding food took up to three hours a day leaving the rest of time for play; when food and resources were scarce they kept moving; and communities were kept small so that everyone could be accommodated for. Strength came from how little you had – as in possessions as well as people. Greed represented failure, and sharing was the ultimate benefit. As food was not withheld, neither was sex.
During ovulation, women slept with as many men as possible, letting the best sperm-match for her egg battle it out inside her body. The baby could be anybody’s, and this ensured protection for the child. Everyone took responsibility for raising the children. There are many communities throughout the world that still function in this way, though outside pressures threaten to stamp it out.
Our bodies perform functions that are basic to this mode of sex and reproduction. As a woman vocalizes during orgasm in the throes of sex with one man, she is calling attention to other potential mates in the area. When a man thrusts, his action combined with the coronal ridge of his penis creates a suction that removes competing sperm from a woman’s vaginal canal. A woman’s body will actually attack sperm that are not the right match for her egg. But when sperm and egg are the right match to make a strong and immune child, her body is more welcoming. These various functions are called “sperm competition.”
There is a lot to be learned in this regard from our primate cousins. With Gorillas, the largest male wins all the females. He competes with his strength, but his scrotum is tiny – an example of male competition rather than sperm competition. With bonobo chimps, the females lead with a sexually free society, where the males can enjoy themselves instead of posturing to win the ladies. When there is enough sex to go around, everyone can relax.
Most social primates are non-monogamous. In fact, it’s a real stretch to find any animals anywhere that are monogamous. I hate to burst the bubble, but even penguins find a new mate after the hardships of protecting the young are through. Sometimes penguins engage in threesomes that are beneficial for the male in times of keeping the egg warm – double duty.
Of the primates, gibbons are a standout for their solitary existence up in the trees, with a generally monogamous existence. Among the gibbons, males and females are exactly the same size. Humans have much more in common with chimps and bonobos in regards to male/female size ratio and the general size of male sex organs. We also share 98.8% of the same DNA.
As a social function, sex throughout history has been a solidifying exercise between people groups – a way to create bonds, establish friendship, welcome distant travelers and gain their trust. Marriage, on the other hand, was a negotiation – an economic and political maneuver. Typically, patriarchs chose who you married, before the Victorian era built up the idealistic idea of marrying for love. That same era was the most uptight, restricting, and repressive time. No one thought that women actually wanted to have sex. They were idealized as angelic creatures, all the while getting their orgasms at the doctor’s office in treatment for Hysteria.
“Otto Kiefer, in his 1934 Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, explains that from the Roman perspective, “Natural and physical laws are alien and even opposed to the marriage tie. Accordingly, the woman who is entering marriage must atone to Mother Nature for violating her, and go through a period of free prostitution, in which she purchases the chastity of marriage by preliminary unchastity (Ryan, Jetha, 124 – 125).””
Sound advice. There is a reason why “gang bangs” are such a popular porn feature. The truth is, it takes us back to our roots in the ultimate expression of sperm competition. Monogamy has caused an increase in fertility issues in men – some 20% of men suffer, and the numbers are rising. These issues would never arise in a non-monogamous society, where the strongest sperm win, weeding out the weak. In monogamy, the weak just keep trying.
A man’s sexual preferences become rigid in his youth, while a woman’s preferences are infinitely flexible (whether she knows it or not).
“Gay or straight, the men were predictable. The things that turned them on were what you’d expect…. The female subjects, on the other hand, were the very picture of inscrutability. Regardless of sexual orientation, most of them had the plethysmograph’s needle twitching over just about everything they saw. Whether they were watching men with men, women with women, the guy on the beach, the woman in the gym, or bonobos in the zoo, their genital blood was pumping. But unlike the men, many of the women reported (via the keypad) that they weren’t turned on. As Daniel Bergner reported on the study in The New York Times, “With women… mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person (Ryan, Jetha, 273).'”
Despite the major shift in consciousness through the last one hundred years, women are still very good at being sexually dishonest with themselves. And why wouldn’t they, when society at large anxiously awaits that moment when they can label a woman a slut or a whore? Women are still punished for being sexual, when it should be celebrated.
I’ve never fared well with overly idealistic women. When they ask me to tell them how I met Michael, how he proposed, where we got married – I cringe a little bit. They are all great stories, but they sum up our relationship into some bizarre fairytale narrative that has nothing to do with our day-to-day reality. Those stories are mere blippits on the radar at this point. They remind me of the whirlwind that I was swept up into, left almost unrecognizable to myself, as I planned a wedding and turned into a girly girl, entering into a mainstream institution.
I’m still confused by what, exactly, happened to me. I’m still difficult to deal with, yes, but my personality did a back flip in response to Michael’s triple lutz. He made me a better person. I became strong and secure, simply because he believed in me so much. And now, five and half years since we met, we’ve changed so much together that I have little in common with the person I was back then.
I know that I could handle an open marriage, but Michael is not interested. And would I want to go back to that way of life? I see the other options out there, and it all pales in comparison. Before, so much energy went into thinking about sex, when now, we put our energy into the work that we love doing. I was not that productive before Michael came along.
We have a shared narrative that makes life enjoyable. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, and sometimes we forget to have sex for a few weeks, and at other times, he feels more like my brother or my son or my father than a husband. But then it all comes back around, and it’s like we’re at the beginning again, in our own little world, with the sheets in wild disarray, and the hours passing by undetected.
I think the important thing is to not look at a relationship as a given. To not give up on life and let everything go. It’s the outside world that keeps the inside world invigorated. It’s the community at large that keeps love alive. An insular relationship is doomed to end in boredom. With trust and openess, fresh energy flows, and you find that the person you married never stops changing.
September 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
Today marks the anniversary of being married to my favorite person in the world, Michael Barnhart. In honor of the event, I am sharing from a different kind of book – an old journal of mine. Every time I read this entry, I remember again, just how it felt in the initial stages of finding the man who would become my life.
December 2, 2008
Feeling a little melancholy today and don’t know why. Michael had to rush out this morning and I felt sort of deflated after he left. A strange flow between us. Intense confessional conversations, and this fiery passion that brims up and overwhelms us. And then, the mind is gone and this expansive place wells up which our melding energy creates, and I’m soaring through a place I’ve never known before.
But then when it’s over, life feels disproportionate when he is away. It’s gotten to the point where we can’t sleep without the other. It’s not quite codependency. More like ravenous to be in each other’s presence. Though sometimes I look at him still as though he’s a foreign object and a mystery I can’t solve.
On thanksgiving it was like he was already family. He melded in so seamlessly, as though he’d always been there. All week after, he barely left my side, nursing me off another case of bronchitis. He brought me food, and I printed out the final edits of my novel. He read while I was in the bathtub and shared his immediate impressions. He mused over my understanding of men, the genderlessness of my writing, and called me the female Hemingway.
“You have to quit your job. This is what you need to be doing,” he said.
“I can’t do that.”
“If I had more money, I would help you make this happen.”
“It will happen. I promise.”
His boss knows a Blackfeet Indian chief and asked him for a remedy for my cough. Michael called me, “I have the cure! I’ll be there soon.”
He scoured the city for ingredients, collected pine needles on his jog around the lake, and even found a Blackfeet CD of chants with the appropriate song for administering the remedy. A cleansing garlic and elderflower tonic that could pretty much kill anything in its path.
“I am in awe of you,” he said while reading my book.
No one has ever believed in me this much. It invigorates me to finish the book. It’s exhilarating to watch him read it. The world outside of our realm pales in comparison. The world outside has become only stories to tell.
I thought I would always be alone. I thought life would always be a series of one dark, edgy character after another. Of all things. I loved to be alone rather than be with anyone else. Sex was just a remedy for my bodies needs; performed with a person I preferred not to know. Can’t imagine ever going back.
I trust him more than I even trust myself. There has always been an untamable strain in me that I cherish and am afraid of all at once. But so far he’s lifted me so high with his positive charge, I don’t think anyone could touch that or break the spell. Is it a spell, or will it keep going? I don’t want this to ever end.
At the pond, we tossed coins.
“Make a wish,” he said.
I wished we could be happy together for the rest of our lives. Long lives, I hope. But it’s still a mystery to me. I’ve never been attracted to someone like him before. Someone so full of lightness. Though he has a slight dark side too. I wouldn’t be so amused if he didn’t.
September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
After watching the excellent film The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I had no choice but to pick up Dalma Heyn’s book, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife.
In the film, Pippa marries a wealthy man thirty years her senior when she is a young runaway living on the edge. She mutates from being an expressive human being with problems into the stilted and empty role of being the Perfect Wife. But underneath all of her prim lines, you sense the real Pippa lurking underneath. She begins sleepwalking, ending up at the min-mart where she buys cigarettes. And then, out to lunch with her neurotic friend, Pippa begins to combust:
“You could be married to anybody, if that’s what you’re worried about. Marriage is an act of will. I mean, I adore Herb, but our marriage functions because we will it to. If you leave love to hold everything together, you can forget it. Love comes and goes with the breeze, minute by minute.”
When Dalma Heyn set out to write her book comprised of years worth of interviews with wives who committed adultery, she began with an armload of clichés, stereotypes, and societal views that had nothing to do with the feelings of actual women, their marriages, and their experiences. The problem that all of these women shared, was that they bought into the ideal of the Perfect Wife – she is selfless, giving, able to predict the needs of everyone else, without ever meeting her own needs. When these women don’t measure up to this idea of goodness (and no one ever does or should), they constantly feel bad – they are a failure, there is something wrong with them. In the process, they disconnect completely from themselves and go numb. They can no longer experience a fulfilling sex life either. They’ve become what they thought was their husband’s fantasy, but it has nothing to do with them. They are looking at themselves from the outside in.
“They spoke of a profound awareness that they were somehow no longer themselves, that they weren’t in a relationship but playing a role in one (Heyn, 103)…”
They wonder what became of the sexual outlaw they were before marriage. Some of the women had not even had premarital sex. Regardless, women from their twenties to their seventies, and all walks of life, experience adultery as a rebirth of self. They don’t experience shame or guilt – they experience life, total joy and an uninhibited place to reclaim their authenticity. They seek out men that have none of the prerequisites that they look for in a husband or even a boyfriend. They might not even be in love with these men, it doesn’t matter; the experience of total freedom is the same.
The women often have no desire to leave their husbands. But through the experience of adultery, they understand that they need to change the shape of their marriages, so that at last, their needs can factor into the relationship. There is no going back to the Perfect Wife. Some of the women never tell their husbands and fare well, while a large percentage of the women who do tell end up in divorce. But every marriage is different with different outcomes.
I never thought that I would get married because I loved being single so much. My sexuality was the ultimate adventure for me. So sometimes, I wonder, how did I end up married to a man whose sexuality is so vanilla. He’s turning fifty this year, and though he thinks of having sex all the time, it’s often the last priority. When it doesn’t feel like a routine, when he isn’t being too sensitive and careful, sex between us is wonderful, but rarely ever dark, or seductive, or unbridled. Can these things exist in a marriage? I always thought they could.
When we were dating he struggled to keep up with me. He stayed up late with me till the early morning hours and we had sex everyday. He was working three jobs and started to feel the pressure.
Around the same time, I decided to give him a fashion show. I went into my closet and put on all my old fetish gear – vinyl, thigh-high fishnets, towering platforms. When I paraded out, he was not aroused by it at all. He said I was playing the part of someone else. Maybe it was who I was before he met me, maybe I never was that role to begin with. It just wasn’t for him. He wanted me to put on a sleek and elegant dress instead. I’d never encountered a man who didn’t go crazy over artifice. For a week after that, he struggled sexually, and then unbeknownst to me, Viagra saved the day.
For him, the two events were unrelated, but after that week, I stopped taking risks. I started feeling nervous about making him uncomfortable. I left my kinks behind. He loves my strength in all facets of our life together. But he has a puritan side, a clumsy embarrassment over anything out of the ordinary.
The other issue is that he’s not the string bean-types that I used to date. He’s like one of those massive warriors that you see in movies like 300. Built like a rock, solid, stocky, with huge hands that don’t know their own strength. When I told him that I like to be choked, he gave it a try and almost broke my neck. When he sleeps with his arm across my chest, my ribs begin to feel like they’re crushing under the pressure and I panic, trying desperately to wake myself. I’m still learning how to live with our differences.
But life is also easier, happier, more content with him. We can’t get enough of being together – we work together, go out all the time, talk openly about everything, and share our passions. It’s always fun, even when we’re fighting. We don’t buy into the term “settling down” like many couples do. I play the role of the Perfect Wife more for my parents than my husband. When they show up, everything is clean and dinner is delicious. When they’re not here, our lives are chaotic and slightly out of control.
I don’t idealize our relationship. I didn’t marry a man for his status or money. I married a fellow outlaw, who lives by his own rules, and makes me laugh. I’m well aware that the future is uncertain. I’ll be surprised if our marriage survives for the rest of our lives, and I very much hope that it does. And does that only mean the rest of his life, since I’m so much younger? I make jokes about being a wealthy old widow, living like a gypsy and on the prowl. But really, it’s just to make myself feel better about the unknown.
I went through some confusing changes in the process of our growing closer. Like a rubber band snapping back and forth. I was caught up in the whirlwind, in the romance in the beginning. Then after our engagement I rebelled and fought and wanted to leave. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing. But on our wedding day, it all made sense.
For a short while, I turned into an old lady, had no real friends, started to compensate for my husband’s reckless, accident-prone nature by being extremely anxious, nervous, overly careful. At times, the pressure of being a wife overwhelms me. I’ve often wanted to run back to when my life was more straightforward and simple – when I could just work, do my art, and have sex with random people every now and then.
Sex was self-discovery, mutual-discovery, empathic-discovery. Married sex is something completely different that I don’t quite understand. It’s like we need to learn to speak each other’s languages, and haven’t quite gotten there yet.
There is a strange role-reversal where in our relationship I am supposed to be more like the man and he is more like the woman. He wants to cuddle and be close, and I just want to get laid. He wants to work up to it for long periods of time, while I get bored waiting. He wants me to initiate, while I just want to feel wanted. And yet, he is enormously giving, patient, and selfless – which makes me feel like an impatient, selfish, taker.
No couple is perfect, and somehow our differences balance things out. My husband is the first man I was ever in a committed relationship with. I guess I got bored with everything else. Before we met, I had become an evil heartbreaker. The ego trip felt nice, but it didn’t feel right to hurt people and feel nothing. My husband didn’t buy all that crap. He saw right through it (though he admits to being scared of me at first). It was good to be seen at last. Really seen. It still is.
When I think of other men sexually, I wonder what would be the point, when there’s only one man who lets me be who I really am. Maybe not the dominatrix side, but every other side. Everyone else pales in comparison. Everyone else seems like they’re missing something. With everyone I dated before, I was never really myself, and was never accepted to begin with.
I am the subject of my husband’s life. He says that I give his life meaning. He even took my last name.
Yesterday was our 2nd Anniversary. I hemmed my wedding dress and surprised him by wearing it on our dinner date, along with my birdcage veil, and my grandmother’s jade necklace. We talked about our plans for building our future together. We talked openly and honestly about how we really feel about all of it. We raved over Sea Urchin, Veal Sweetbreads, Cavatelli with Morels, Chocolate Truffle Cake with Black Cherries. We even talked about this post, and how our memories are different, and yet the same.
This is the first openly honest thing I’ve ever written about my husband, stripped of all the idealistic tripe. I’m breaking my erotic silence.