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What to Do With the Animal Self?

Posted: 05/11/2012 10:32 am

The following was a talk I delivered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, May 1, 2012.

Raise your hand if you've ever been cheated on in a relationship. Raise your hand if you've ever cheated on someone else in a relationship. How many of you have ever done something in bed that you would not want your mother to know about? OK, so this is a pretty "animal" crowd.

Ever since the 18th century, when a French anatomist named Meinard Simon du Pui declared us "Homo duplex" due to our two-sided brains, we have understood that humans are "not one but two." We are divided creatures balancing impulses ranging from the saintly to the bestial, starting with our sex lives.

Germans say that when the penis gets hard, the brain goes soft. Robin Williams says that God gave men both a penis and a brain, but not enough blood supply to run both at the same time. Our bi-hemispheric brains are, in fact, running different hardware for different tasks. The job of the older part of our brain, aka the reptilian or limbic brain, is to make snap judgments about what we want and don't want, whether to fight or flee, or what smells good and therefore should be touched. The newer, much weaker part of our brain, the cerebral cortex, is in charge of reasoning and takes a slower, more methodical approach to choices, considers options, weighs consequences, and makes what we think of as rational choices. Ethical life is a tradeoff between our primitive and evolved natures, our comparatively feeble powers of reasoning struggling to cut a deal with our unyielding animal appetites.

Some psychologists call this design gap between reason and emotion "the enemy within." A marked feature of human psychology, experts tell us, is the inability to bring our motivation in line with what we know to be prudent. So often in life what we want to want and what we actually want are at odds. The "gut mind" contradicts the "head mind," which contradicts the "groin mind," which leaves us all in a heap. We tell ourselves stories about who we are, but they're mostly fabrications built from the oughts and shoulds we absorb from our culture, and which have little impact on desire itself.

Some experts use the analogy of a rider on the back of an elephant. The puny rider, the rational mind, kicks and screams in its efforts to steer the emotional elephant the way it wants to go. Most of the time, once the elephants wants something, the efforts of the rider are completely futile. If you have ever tried talking yourself out of something you crave, you know that this is true.

In fact, studies show that our reasoning abilities decline in proportion to our passion. The more intense the feeling, the more ineffectual the rational mind becomes. As a way of testing this hypothesis, behavioral economist Dan Ariely asked a group of teenagers a series of questions about how they make ethical choices once they're aroused. The results were shocking. When asked about their propensity to engage in questionable activities, such as unsafe sex, the youths' predictions were off by more than double (136 percent) once they were in a hot, aroused state. When asked about sexual preferences and the likelihood of engaging in "somewhat odd" sexual activities, their predicted desire was nearly twice as high (72 percent higher) when aroused than cold. In other words, once we find ourselves in heat, we become even more predictably irrational, as Ariely puts it. What people say they will do in a cold state fails miserably in predicting the influence of arousal on things like sexual preferences, morality, and safe sex.

For gay men inventing our own rules, this can present a serious problem. I know a psychotherapist with intimacy issues who gorges on anonymous sex. I met a judgmental, straitlaced Tea Party couple who host gang bangs in Guadalajara, a cancer doctor who does porn films anonymously on the Internet, a yoga instructor who gives blow jobs in the Rambles, and a philosophy professor who can't seem to stop himself from seducing his undergraduate boy students. For gay couples this sort of carnal feasting all to often leads to sexual famine. Conjugal bed death is as common in gay relationships as it is in straight relationships. Four of my friends who are devoted to their lovers have stopped having sex with them completely. They take their lovers back when they cheat and sublimate most of their own desire into work or therapy, tranquilizing their own libidos with excuses about being middle-aged. Instead of taking the risk of asking questions and finding out how to solve their long-term ennui and risk finding out too much, perhaps, they withdraw into a sexual no-man's land. What I'd like to talk about tonight is why this happens, and if there's anything we can do about it. How can our animal self not sabotage the rest of our lives?

I've been thinking about this problem since I was a boy. The animal ran the show in our house. My mother had been a promiscuous girl who married two men she didn't love (including my father) in hopes of respectability, all the time being in love with another woman's husband. When my father found out, he disappeared, and this left me with the unshakable sense that sexual freedom could ruin an otherwise happy life. Our erotic natures endowed us with enormous pleasure but also cursed us to follow them wherever they led, even if it was off a cliff. When I entered gay life at a very young age, I saw adventure, skin hunger, and plenty of lust, but very few successful relationships. As men we seem doomed to stop wanting the ones we care about and wanting those we don't. Once the glow of attraction cools, there seems to be three basic options for couples: We can cheat, we can stop having sex, or we can become creative ("monogamish," as Dan Savage calls it), having threesomes, foursomes, or pre-agreed-on sex with others. These arrangements did not appeal to me. The couples I knew who went this way seemed more like best-friend "fuck buddies" than lovers of the kind I wanted to be. They cruised together. They seduced together. But where was the romance? Romantic love requires the illusion of exclusivity in order to thrive, the willingness of two people to act as if they only have eyes for each other, at least when they're together. But maybe this wasn't possible for gay men? Maybe we couldn't be that way long-term, I started to think.

When I was 45 my lover of 10 years became a crystal-meth addict. After I was forced to throw him out, I found myself single for the first time since I was 20. For years I'd been hearing adventure stories about online dating, and now I found myself in the thick of an alternate universe. It was like a funhouse with distorting mirrors, a smorgasbord, a candy shop, a bottomless cookie jar. The online dating world was both amazing and vapid, seductive, intriguing, and terrible. I had no moral qualms about the promiscuity, but I did question the emotional toll of so much hooking up. Did having sex with so many people, so easily, so often, handicap the ability to be personal? When you shop for sex like a gastronome at an open market, targeting your search with labels -- top or bottom, drugs or no drugs, LTR (long-term relationship) or looking for sex only -- what did that do to your sense of self? Not understanding the online etiquette, I made constant, embarrassing faux pas. I found myself having more graphic conversations on the phone with total strangers before we'd even met than I'd ever had with my lover. I did not know that foreplay in the sense of flirting was considered rude. Instead of meeting in person, talking, and letting desire build to a physical connection as it might in the natural world, there was the "gimme!"/"hurry up!"/what's your problem?" impatience of people on a crowded cafeteria line, eyeing the dishes, feeling the pangs, wanting to get something on our plates already. I underestimated how quickly people want to hook up and how quickly affection can turn to aggression, especially when they're drinking or drugging. Sober men on the hunt can be ugly. Drunk or tweaking men looking for sex can be ridiculous or worse.

I felt torn. As fun and indisputably hot as this online dating could be, I realized quickly what a trap it could become, as well, how it could desensitize a person and play to men's natural tendency to have sex and run, to overindulge, to keep their distance, to be limited by labels and pre-choreographed dances. Fast-food sex could be both liberating and imprisoning. I was filled with admiration for gay men's ingenuity, brazenness, and erotic specificity, and I was demoralized by the shallowness. You could order up sex the way you ordered chow mein -- only the sex got there more quickly. This new sex technology enabled men to get laid like kings but unloved like paupers. A friend of mine, a perennial bachelor, became a sort of Schwarzenegger of online dating: unstoppable, voracious, but unable to meet a single man, out of the dozens and dozens and dozens with whom he had great, sometimes mystically bonded sexual experiences, whom he could take seriously as a potential partner. Still, he wants one, he says. Were his voracious sexual habits inhibiting his ability to connect emotionally? Was it possible to so so habitually and so completely disregard what I believed to be the natural order of things -- meeting, getting to know each other, perhaps even seeing each other more than once before being physical -- without losing your emotional bearings? What about things like courtship? What about not knowing too much too soon? Or what if you met the love of your life, like I did, in the thick of the sexual game and then had to struggle to step back, together, to the quieter, more protected place where emotional relationships can actually take root and grow? For me, this wasn't always easy.

The truth is that gay men are connoisseurs of pleasure and geniuses of animal satisfaction, but there's one area where we haven't moved an inch: emotional intelligence. Though sexually sophisticated, many of us are emotionally naïve. Gay men have a blind spot against self-restraint; on principle, we rebel against the notion of limitations, because our lifestyle is supposed to be about liberation. But liberation is just a beginning; what you do with the freedom is another story. This is a tricky and unpopular piece of news. Though men resist admitting it, we can't really have it all. We can't, and we shouldn't be able to, because then we wouldn't learn anything. In addition to being about fun and love, relationships and intimacy are about learning to open the heart and become real. Fucking 500 men on Manhunt will not make you real. Tolerating one imperfect person's presence beyond your tolerance, because you love him, can make you real. This brings us to an old-fashioned word that makes a lot of people uncomfortable: sacrifice. For many people, "sacrifice" is an ugly word, but it shouldn't be. To sacrifice is to make something sacred through conscious choice. Our relationships increase in value and intensity when we choose them over passing fancy, like aiming a magnifying glass at a piece of paper till it starts to burn.

This is a paradox. The sexual self survives on paradox. Sexual wisdom lives in paradox. Mark Epstein, a Harvard-trained Buddhist psychologist, explains that our willingness to engage in mystery keeps desire alive. Another teacher explains that passion in a relationship is commensurate to how much uncertainty you can tolerate. Esther Perel, who wrote an amazing book called Mating in Captivity, writes that eroticism resides in the ambiguous space between anxiety and fascination. What makes for good intimacy, she explains, rarely makes for good sex. When people become fused, sex no longer happens. Aggression, objectification, and power all exist in the shadow of desire, components of passion that do not necessarily nurture intimacy. Desire operates along its own trajectory.

In relationships we often castrate ourselves and one another with puritanical ideas of what's loving and what's not, what's permissible and what's not, and wonder where the heat goes. We force one another into squeaky-clean boxes and wonder why we're suffocating. The "Madonna/whore complex" is as polarizing and destructive for gay men as it is for straight men. That's because while few of us want to marry "whores," most of us still want to sleep with them. Sex happens on a spectrum, from the most intimate to the most objectified, the most unique. There was a time in my life when this bothered me, when I thought I should be more elevated, somehow, more enlightened, that love meant taming the animal, till a therapist finally set me straight. At the time I was complaining to him that I was bored out of my mind with my married sex life but didn't know why. I told him that I was trying to be more conscious, more sincere, more tender, slower, because I wanted to show my lover how much I cared, but it was killing my libido. I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. The therapist just laughed and explained that that's not how men connect. Testosterone likes to attack first, then cuddle later. I needed to honor the beast. We all contain a spectrum of desires, behaviors, moods, appetites. The challenge is to make relationships where what happens in the bedroom is allowed to stay there, to allow ourselves a forbidden zone so that we don't have to look for it elsewhere.

One of the problems with being in love is that we forget that sex isn't about a person, or that it's not only personal. Romantics resist this fact, but it's true. Your lover wanted men before he wanted you; he was attracted to a certain flavor of sex before he had it with you. In other words, you are, in addition to being your own wonderful, unique self, a thing to him, an animal, a type, a tool, and that is exactly how nature designed it. By demanding that our lovers treat us too personally, all the time, we kill their appetite. You want your partner to be able to see you as an object, or he won't be able to love you erotically as a person. It is healthy to be able to slip out of your mundane, work-day self into something more forbidden with the person you love. When couples stay plugged into this archetypal level of things, this lust source, they can keep desire alive forever. They've connected to something larger than themselves, mastered the art of putting the general into the specific, the type into the specimen. The animal inhabits this archetypal realm, the shadow self, the primitive side of human nature that wants to be bad so that it can feel good. One of the things our puritanical culture does is polarize virtue and the shadowy parts instead of understanding that they are integral to one another, that much of what we do in bed is healing the psyche by enacting the shadow. In the same way that we would go crazy without the ability to dream, we go crazy when prevented from embodying this primitive animal self somewhere in our lives, and the bedroom is the natural backdrop for stepping into this parallel world.

This could not be more important. When we make the animal the enemy, we set ourselves up for disaster. As conscious, well-read, flossed, and polished as you are in most of your life, when the lights are low, you are still an ape. I was doing an interview once at the BBC, talking about sex and enlightenment, when a young producer cornered me by the drinking fountain. He told me that his girlfriend wouldn't sleep with him because she said he treated her like an object. This boy was very upset, because that was how he liked to have sex, but his girlfriend would have nothing to do with him until he learned to behave himself. This guy, who looked like the love child of Daniel Craig and Ryan Gosling, didn't know what to do with all his animal energy. He wanted to pound his chest. He wanted to make her scream. I've never forgotten how lost he seemed, how self-hating and utterly confused. I hope his girlfriend came around or he found himself a woman worthy of his ferocity.

But this is a slippery slope. To deny the horrific, disgusting, subhuman, self-destructive, genuinely heinous things that the overindulged or repressed animal can be capable of is not intelligent. Think of Jim Baker preaching the gospel of hypocrisy, praising the anti-sodomite Bible with one hand while fondling a call boy with the other. Or Coach Jerry Sandusky raping boys in his care in the shower room at Penn State. Or Congressman Larry Craig in that bathroom stall with his "wide stance." When we suppress the animal, it grows fangs. If we try to ignore it, it becomes a monster. That's why Eros follows his sister Chaos in the Greek myth; the animal holds both power and madness. As gay men we are part of an experiment in erotic evolution on this planet, to see where two sets of XY chromosomes will go when unchecked by female wisdom and restraint, how far we will let ourselves venture, what works and what doesn't in the dance with our own unruly natures. Because the sexual impulse, the animal self, has no morals. It doesn't live in that side of the brain. But that doesn't make it evil; it makes it a riderless horse. Describing the human psyche, Plato compared it to a charioteer driving two horses, one dark and one light. The rider, the "wisdom mind," can't go anywhere without the animal, appreciates the animal, enjoys the animal, knows that as consciousness, it stands apart from the animal. It is greater than the animal, extra-animal. It animates the animal. The "wisdom mind" enjoys the animal but is free of it, too, and that's the point, the response to the riddle of how spiritual beings can love with a body, how "Homo duplex" can live peacefully as one creature. Being conscious that we are more than the body allows us to ride it without becoming its slave. This is the master stroke, the bridge between the animal and the spirit, recognizing that the beast is a beast and stopping trying to turn a Rottweiler into Mother Teresa. You can train a dog to do new tricks, but you'll never train it to be a saint.

 
 
 

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