CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Weinergate -- and America's problem with sex

What is it with politicians and their... you thought I was going to say "wieners" didn't you?

When Anthony Weiner joined a growing list of sextroverts that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, John Ensign, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, Mark Sanford -- help me out, I feel like I'm forgetting 20 or 30 -- it said a mouthful about men, power and our society's complicated relationship with sexuality.

What fascinates me is not the fact that each man strayed; I care a lot more about public policy than private peccadilloes. Rather, what stood out was the stunning poor judgment, the hypocrisy, the insensitivity to loved ones, the belief that each man was somehow too powerful to be caught, and especially the ridiculous denials.

And it's not just politicians with roaming eyes and stunning lies. Sports stars (hold that Tiger!), celebrities, musicians and other outsized rich and famous folk are forever being caught with their pants down in the most stunning fashion. And America can't get enough of it. What does this say about men, power, powerful men, and our country's contradictory Puritanical/pubescent attitudes toward sex?

The fact that the laundry list Lotharios is made up exclusively of men says as much about both women's continued exclusion from power, as it does about the attitudes of the genders toward sexuality. At the risk of getting all "Men Are from Mars" on you, for many males, sex is a way to exhibit potency, prowess and control. The phallus is the ultimate symbol of masculine power. Rape, as we know, is not so much a sexual act as one of domination, aggression and humiliation.

While for many women sex is a vehicle to express vulnerability and foster intimacy, for men, it can be a means of denying those same potentially shameful feelings. (Women, for their part, may shy away from the more healthfully aggressive sides of sex, although I hesitate to make pathologizing generalizations.)

Just like anger can be vitalizing for someone riddled with depression or insecurity, I have worked with many sex addicts (the vast majority of whom are men) who report that sexual conquests, particularly with someone with whom they do not feel warmly attached, can temporarily abate feelings of emptiness.

Professions like politics and sports that thrust men into the spotlight attract those starving for power and adulation. In a word: narcissists. Their hunger for power and acknowledgment must be fed with the regularity of penguins at the zoo. Admiring young interns, groupies and hangers-on not only fit the bill, but are eager to have their own needs for recognition met by attaching to powerful others, which may be why so many political wives stand by their husbands.

Additionally, America has a hard time talking about sex. More than ever, titillating messages bombard us through an ever-expanding world of media -- from Twitter to tabloids to sexting. Sex sells and makes us squirm at the same time. And so we talk about sex (when we talk about it all) out of both sides of our mouths. It makes us giggle because we equate it with being dirty. And it's pretty hard for many couples to bring what's dirty into the bedroom -- instead it gets acted out outside. The message: sex in relationships is loving but boring. Outside, it's girls gone wild!

Any pre-adolescent can log on to a porn site, yet try to introduce sex education into the schools and parents become livid. Despite its being all around us, sex remains taboo. How else to explain why so many men have affairs and sexual dysfunction at the same time.

As a psychoanalyst with an interest in sexuality, I understand the importance of psychodynamic psychotherapy in this area. Sex -- dirty, clean, and in between -- should be a healthy part of life. When complicated, shameful feelings can get put into words rather than actions, they can be better incorporated into our everyday existence.

And that can be pretty sexy.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

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