How Sexuality Works: Part III
This is the third post of my Sexuality is a River series and my second post applying the analogy of a river to Morin’s theories of eroticism. You can find the 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 II
What is Erotic and Why? Part I sets up Morin’s theory of eroticism which provides context for the final three Cornerstones of Eroticism which you will find below. If you want to just keep reading, the important thing to know about the theory so far is that there are some characteristic patterns that describe why we find things erotic. Recognizing those patterns, can help us remove shame about our turn-ons. Below you will find three more of those patterns. I highly recommend Morin’s book which you can find here.
Violating Prohibitions: Breaking the Dam
When there is no place for a person’s sexuality to flow (or when the allowed expressions aren’t the ones desired) because of restrictive sexual mores of the community or religion people often find that breaking those taboos is itself a source of erotic energy. For people who support or even reinforce the sexual mores in other roles in their lives, the obstacle and therefore the erotic payoff can be even higher. It is in this cornerstone, that the power of the metaphor really lives for me. What happens if there is nowhere for a river to flow? It doesn’t just stop. It builds pressure. The reservoir behind the dam gains volume. Though downstream it may appear that there is a desert and the sexuality has stopped flowing, the river is waiting to express itself again. Then, whether there is a tempting stimulus (a downpour) or an expression opportunity that just catches the person off guard (an earthquake that cracks the dam) suddenly all of the force of the river previously held in abeyance by the dam, rushes forward flooding the river valley.
When breaking taboos is expressed in ways consistent with the sexual health principles, it can feel like a liberation. For example, a person from a previously restrictive background might feel empowered to engage in sexual behavior, they might become proud of their sexual expression, or they might feel an increased sense of self-esteem as they shed restrictive limitations on who they are or who they can love.
Sometimes, like all of the other cornerstones, breaking taboos can show up in some ways that don’t align with the sexual health principles. Sometimes for example, having broken a taboo the person feels shame and the fear of losing community connections. This shame and fear leads to commitments to not engage in the behavior again. The paradox of this of course is that it rebuilds the dam and the river begins building up force again. The shame which rebuilds the dam can fuel a compulsive and potentially destructive cycle. Please note how I phrased this last sentence. It is the shame, not the breaking of taboo itself that fuels the compulsive behavior. When clients come to me with this challenge, normalizing their desire for sexual expression and pointing out the nature of the expression-shame-avoidance-arousal cycle often helps them decrease the compulsive nature of their behavior in just a session or two. While there may be more work to do, the core treatment element was removing the idea that the river shouldn’t flow. It will flow somewhere and in treatment I help clients develop their plans for where they do and don’t want it to flow.
Searching for Power: The Whirlpool
A third cornerstone of eroticism that Morin’s research identified is Searching for Power. That is, in fantasy or behavior, the person eroticizes a power differential between them and their sexual partner(s). For some people, they desire a feeling of power and control relative to their sexual partners. They are freed to be more erotic when their partner is submissive, inexperienced, or worshipful for example. Other people have erotic rivers that flow in the opposite direction. They more easily access their eroticism through having a powerful, sexy, experienced, or dominant partner. In one case the freedom to sexual expression is found through the force of your eroticism, in the other the eroticism of the other sweeps you into it. Using the concept of the river, these powerful currents can sweep the participants past any self-consciousness or fears. Flowing in opposite directions but always towards each other, these erotic currents create a whirlpool. The opposing currents bring the people rushing towards each other for an erotic consummation that leaves everyone feeling a little dizzy.
In alignment with the sexual health principles, this whirlpool could look like a protective and a nurturing partner, a consensually kinky dominant-submissive couple, or a high-powered roleplay between a “nurse” and “patient”. There are many other possible expressions and honestly, the details don’t matter that much. The thing to remember about that the erotic charge is intensified through partners occupying polarities.
When searching for power takes place out of alignment with the sexual health principles several complications can arise. I’ll offer one example, but keep in mind that the content of the example is less important that maintaining sexual health can allow this cornerstone to flow abundantly and happily. One challenging expression of the searching for power cornerstone takes place when one or the other person engages in taking the stance of the polarity without the engagement or participation of the other partner. When one person sets their current in the direction of another person, for example trying to be dominant when the partner hasn’t agreed to it explicitly, the person receiving the energy might feel violated and the one sending the energy might feel shocked, guilty, or ashamed when their energy is rebuffed. Therapy can help in this case too. I help clients navigate sexual negotiations, clear invitations, and finding and choosing partners who have matching erotic styles. Therapy can help clients who eroticize power dynamics without judgment.
Overcoming Ambivalence: Rapids
Sometimes a person doesn’t quite know where they want their erotic energy to flow. My favorite example of this is that person that you find attractive despite yourself. One part of you wants them, another part of you abhors the idea of being with them. The erotic river flows towards them and the next thought redirects the energy elsewhere. In my analogy, this is the erotic rapids. Coursing through narrow canyon passages, directed and redirected around boulders and obstacles, the river churns up a froth and noise that can become a massive feature of the erotic landscape. There are more everyday examples of the eroticization of ambivalence too. For example, there are times when I recommend that a client try a new sexual behavior to aid them with their therapeutic goals. In the process of trying something new sexually many people feel some reservation. They might think, “If I do this does it make me a slut?” or “If I try this will I be able to stop?” physiologically the anxiety and the excitement mingle together to create a potent form of sexual energy. When the person then finally dives in and tries the form of expression they were ambivalent about, the newness, the emotional release of the unknown, can leave them feeling like they just shot the rapids of a river and emerged charged with adrenaline and a little more alive for the experience.
In alignment with the sexual health principles, overcoming ambivalence could lead a client to have an expansive and varied sexual repertoire as they tackle one ambivalent behavior after another. For other clients, there’s a particular behavior they do rarely and about which they are always ambivalent but it remains a treasured feature of their erotic life which adds excitement and charge no matter how many times they try it. We certainly wouldn’t be surprised if someone wanted to go river rafting frequently and found a favorite river on which to do so.
When out of alignment with the sexual health principles, overcoming ambivalence could lead a person to feeling erotically charged with a pathway they don’t actually want to follow but uncertain about how to resolve the erotic tension. If they try to stop, they increase one side of the ambivalence dynamic and actually increase the temptation of the undesired expression. Therapy can help in those cases by helping the client notice and become more clear about what is desired within the ambivalence. What is it about that person at work that you want? Are they expressing your feelings about the company? Are they vocal about their needs in a way you aren’t? Does disrespecting them make it easier for you to think about sharing your more wild and uninhibited fantasies because you won’t value their opinion if they are turned off anyway? We can also look for the ways that because of the associated erotic charge, maybe the client is avoiding looking at important aspects of the erotic focus. For example, maybe once you examine the reasons for hesitating, there really isn’t a reason to not indulge this desire. Or maybe when you really examine the partner that you are feeling erotic ambivalence about, you will see that aside from one erotic characteristic, you don’t actually have any interest in them. You mentally thank them for showing that characteristic to you and then go looking for a more suitable partner who has that characteristic along with others that are important to you. But again, we focus on understanding and acceptance above all. The fact of the ambivalence, the fact of the desire itself is not a reason for shame and it is not pathological in itself.
Introducing the Cornerstone of Eroticism from Morin’s “The Erotic Mind” has taken two entries but I hope that it has done for you a little bit of what I have found useful for my clients in therapy. That is, I hope it has given you a lens for understanding that the way that your sexual river flows probably isn’t that unique. The core nature of your eroticism is not pathological in itself. I have hope that if you are finding the expressions of those energies problematic in your life, that therapy with a sex-positive therapist skilled in working with sexual issues (like me) can help you navigate the waters of your sexuality more skillfully while continuing to allow it freedom to seek expression.