How Sexuality Works, Part II
This is the second blog post in my series describing what I understand about the subjective experience of sexuality using the analogy of a river. You can find my first post in the series here: Sexuality Is a River. That post describes the perspective I write from and some caveats about what this analogy does and does not apply to.
What is Erotic and Why? Section I
Let’s imagine a river starting in the mountains. As it begins to gather volume from tributaries and more rainfall, it picks a path downward based on a very simple principle, it follows the lowest ground, the path of least resistance. There are no human value systems involved in how the water flows. Even if guided or directed by human intervention, the water is still just following the physics of fluid-dynamics and gravity. Children scan the environment and learn about sexuality from their culture and their own bodies. How do we or how do we not express sexuality here? What are the options available to me? What feels good? How do other people respond to my good feelings? Children navigate this maze of personal, interpersonal, and cultural feedback and their rivers find a path for expression. Once discovered, their neurons reinforce the pathways, the early neurological river bed, that help establish that person’s erotic map, the branches, forks, deltas, and flood plains that their sexuality river traverses as it follows its ever-winding path down toward the lowest ground.
When my clients are frustrated about the specific destinations of their eroticism I invite them to consider what it is about that destination that they find so problematic. Often the problem is not a way the river harms someone or the client even indirectly, but the shame that they have because they believe rivers shouldn’t flow that way. They believe that eroticism shouldn’t seek expression in this or that particular fetish, interest, or behavior. From my perspective, their sexuality is following known patterns like a river follows the laws of physics, There are some very characteristic patterns that we know about how sexual rivers flow. So, as strange as your sexuality may feel, it probably has very common features that we’ll recognize if we look at and understand the flow of sexuality rivers in general.
The force of eroticism that makes us giddy with excitement, flushed, and breathing hard comes when our river, in its downward stroll toward expression reaches some obstacle. In the language of sexuality author Jack Morin, the Core Erotic Equation is Attraction + Obstacle = Excitement. That is, when the river is flowing downward but gets blocked it builds enough force to overcome the obstacle. The force will burst the dam, the rapids will rush over the rocks, the water bursts from its containment. Sexuality, like flowing water, will build the force that it needs to overcome obstacles raised to prevent expression. And once sexuality has found a path past the obstacle, it will flow more powerfully toward and through that avenue. That is, the obstacle becomes the very thing that sexuality seeks out and fetishizes and desires because your sexuality knows now how to surmount that obstacle. It knows that sexual expression can be found in that direction, so it flows in that direction over and over again. Morin’s book is excellent and even if it is aging a bit, I still recommend it highly as the best explanation of the what is erotic and why that I know of (Morin’s book on Amazon).
Longing and Anticipation: The Waterfall
Morin goes further with this idea. Through his research he was able to identify 4 Cornerstones of Eroticism. That is, these are four common ways that sexuality seeks expression through attraction and obstacle pairings. The first of these is Longing and Anticipation. I like to think of this as a waterfall. In the longing and anticipation dynamic, a person is thinking about the sexual expression they desire. They are unable to engage in that expression because of an obstacle like distance, parental vigilance, or choice over some period of time. From the moment of attraction to the moment of expression, the person imagines just what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. They don’t just want it but they build a multi-dimensional sensory, cognitive, and emotional, narrative around that sexual expression. The water leaps from the edge of the cliff and from that moment it is no longer limited by earth below, free-falling it is weightless. The fantasy can build force without the limitations or details of reality. Propelled out from the rock face by the speed it was flowing in the river bed above plays with the wind and the light in dramatic and romantic fashion until it joyfully, forcefully, and with spectacular noise and power crashes into the rocks below. Whatever the reality, when the longed for expression arrives, it Is the consummation and catharsis of a prior build-up of erotic force just like the force the water built by falling from above.
In a healthy expression this longing and anticipation is either mutual or at least accepted. Both people have agreed to cultivate allow the sexual energy to be built this way. Love letters, sexting, phone sex, and building mutual fantasies could all be positive erotic examples of the longing and anticipation form of the sexual river flowing.
As romantic as longing and anticipation can be, when the erotic energy in the sexual river is not managed well, it may find expression through longing and anticipation that can feel like going out-of-control over a waterfall. For the recipient of that attention it can feel more like being pummeled at the bottom of the waterfall by the pressure of a fire hose than receiving a rainbow-laced shower. When erotic energy is expressed in this way it might look like obsessive behavior, stalking, repeated contact despite requests to stop, or an internal fantasy life in one person that is not shared or may even be feared by others. These challenges can be helped with therapy.
Since this is the first time I’ve looked concretely at challenging aspects of sexuality, I want to take a moment return to the positive perspective embedded in this metaphor. If I’m working with a client who feels their arousal around longing and anticipation has gotten out of control they often feel shame and want it to stop. This metaphor offers a way out of the judgmental process that clients can easily fall into. That is, there is nothing wrong with longing and anticipation. Waterfalls are just fine. The client’s process of creativity and anticipation which they enjoy and which helps them connect to their eroticism in its essence is just fine. But where are they going to place that waterfall? How much energy are they going to put into it? And which partners love waterfalls and which ones don’t? These questions allow clients to free themselves from feeling that they are flawed in some essential way while also recognizing the value they have in being a more skillful manager of their sexual waterway.
As you may be able to tell, I place a lot of value in Morin’s frame work. Clinically I have found it very useful for helping my clients understand and accept their sexuality without shame while also working towards health. Here I have only presented the first of Morin’s Four Cornerstone of Eroticism. I will have to leave the remaining three cornerstones Violating Prohibitions, Searching for Power, and Overcoming Ambivalence to a subsequent post.