How Sexuality Works, Part 1: Sexuality is a River
“They should teach this in schools.”
This is a phrase that I hear repeatedly as a therapist. Most often this phrase comes after I have explained a principle of relationships or sexuality. It is one of the reasons that sex therapists use the PLISSIT model for therapy (which stands for Permission giving, Limited Information, Specific Suggestions, and Intensive Therapy). The PLISSIT model includes giving people information about their sexuality because that alone may be enough to resolve the problems. Even when people get accurate, value neutral information about sexuality in school, the information that we get is usually medical information but not about the subjective experiences of sexual desire, arousal, and attraction.
I’ve decided to try to write out the core principles that I have learned about sexuality. I’m going to be frank about the source and nature of these principles. Some of these principles have science behind them and where I am aware of that, I will provide citations. However, other principles here have come more through my repeated experience of providing therapy to individuals and couples about a wide range of sexual issues as well as my experience navigating and learning from the nature of my sexuality. In that sense, I have a skewed sample of people who have problems with their sexuality (people without problems with their sexuality don’t come in for sex therapy). My personal experience is also biased. As a bisexual, polyamorous, cis-presenting, white, Midwestern, male-bodied person I have an experience of my sexuality that may inform these principles in ways that won’t generalize to people with gender identities and biological sexes different from my own. Not to mention the many other biographical details that have informed my personal sexual journey. Please take these principles for what they are worth to you and discard anything that is not of service to you. They are not necessarily truths, but my truth for now. I’m going to begin with a broad metaphor for sexuality that I will use throughout this series.
I want to add a final caveat about the limits of this analogy. This analogy is not intended to help people understand sexual predation. People who engage in those behaviors work with different kinds of therapists than me. I do not know enough about those behaviors to use analogies to explain them. Moreover, what I do know about nonconsensual sexual behavior it is that the causes are less about sex than about power and violence so this analogy wouldn’t explain them. So, when I’m talking about sexuality finding expression past obstacles in this series keep in mind that I’m not talking about rape, sexual assault, or other forms of nonconsensual behavior. When a person does that it isn’t about sexual expression anymore, that is violence.
Sexuality is a River
This metaphor seems to work well for helping people understand some important elements of the nature of sexuality. Like most rivers, sexuality flows more vigorously during some seasons of life and at others, the force of the river decreases. For people who identify as sexual, the river or the potential for that river is always present. It is a constant potential energy that is a part of our experience. We identify things that are sexually relevant in the environment, we have a sense of our own sexual nature, we notice the sexual nature of others, and at least sometimes, our sexuality seeks expression. In the language of the metaphor I’m using, sexual expression is the process of the water flowing downhill. Just as rivers flow, sexuality seeks expression.
This metaphor gives us a lot of analogies for playing with how sexuality behaves. For people with out-of-control sexual behavior (see another post about treating out-of-control sexual behavior here) the river floods parts of their lives in undesirable ways. For others, the river creates fertile ground for cultivating nourishing of crops like connection, pleasure, and stress relief (see a post about sexual generativity here). Some people try to dam their rivers by limiting certain sexual behaviors. For some who do this, they are able to sublimate their sexual energy and use it for other purposes. In the language of the metaphor, they create hydroelectric power with their dam. Others find that the flow of the river is greater than their dam can sustain and the river threatens to spill over in uncontrolled ways. By comparing the flow of sexuality to the river, we can remove shame. A river is a force of nature. We can manage it with dams, dikes, locks, and spillways, we can utilize it for industrial purposes, entertainment, crops, and transportation but we are not in any of these uses ever really in control of the river; we are in relationship with the river. We cannot simply will the river to behave a different way. We must attend to understand and accept how it actually behaves in order to have a hope of living with it harmoniously and safely.
We do not shame nature when it behaves in ways that were unexpected or unusual. We notice that this has happened and then we make adjustments to how we relate to the river knowing what we have learned about its capacities. Similarly, when sexuality comes with an interest in something that is unexpected or expresses itself somewhere not desired by self or others, shame does nothing to resolve the challenging expression. The nature and capacities of the river do not change with shame. That your sexuality has the capacity to find that thing attractive is now know. That it might express itself in that way in this person, is now understood. This is the nature of your sexual river. We can ask, why it flooded. We can inquire about whether it is possible for this river to flow other ways. We can even identify that we don’t want the river to flow that way (in a future post I will discuss erotic conflicts). But neither these questions nor their answers will change the nature of the river. To say that it shouldn’t flow that way will not stop it from flowing that way anymore with a sexual river than an actual one.
This is not to say that we do not have choices about the flow of our sexual river. In my experience as a person and as a clinician, we can in fact divert and direct our rivers to some degree but we must do so respectful of the nature of the river or our efforts will fail. This capacity to direct our sexuality is limited though. We cannot change our sexual orientations and a future post will describe why not using the same analogy. We also cannot will our sexuality to not exist. However, if a person has not satisfied their sexual desires for a long time, they might seek sexual expression through an avenue they wouldn’t normally choose and might later regret like an affair. To prevent them from making that choice of expression in the future (i.e., have an affair), we might suggest that they not create the conditions led to that expression (i.e., maintain regular pleasurable sexual expression through desirable outlets). Using the river analogy, if the river overflowed in way that was not desirable, try to find ways of allowing the flow of the river to continue so that the force does not build, waiting for an opportunity for expression.
Over several subsequent posts, I will continue to identify new principles and to use the analogy of the river to articulate what I hope are some valuable principles about sexuality.