Parental Advisory: Explicit Content
One of the truths about our neurophysiology is habituation, feeling less and less with repetition of the same stimulation over time. But our habituation can be overcome by our capacity for attention. Attention can be drawn by survival relevant events and powerful emotion, but also by our cortical capacities. We can pay attention to things because of conscious goals, things we are actually aware (or have convinced ourselves) that we are trying to do. We really can “engage brain” on purpose, because doing so may give us perspective, or advantage we otherwise would not have. Arousal is reduced by habituation, but attention can mitigate it.
If you know everything someone is going to do, you may stop even being aware that they are doing it. The surprises of someone being more than you expected cannot last. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it hardly sustains desire, especially when a partner becomes a “sure thing.” So what happens when we remember Zillman’s suggestion that coition be added to fight and flight as a third variety of sympathetic hyperactivity? What are the practical implications of the interdependencies produced by the sympathetic commonality? Preceding and concurrent arousing events that are not sexual can nevertheless alter precoital and coital behaviors as well as their experiential quality.
We’ve got a big overlap of coition with fight/flight. There are close brain proximities. Electrically stimulating near areas that control erection in male nonhuman primates produce fight/flight responses, and vice versa. Directly stimulating fight/flight areas eventually produce sexual excitement. Fight, flight, and coition are all served by sympathetic outflow from T12 and L1, the last thoracic and first lumbar nerves (the middle of the back), which prompt the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medullae. This also reaches the sexual organs, producing what is called the psychogenic sexual center, i.e. the one responding to distal (visual and auditory) sexual stimuli, which produce both sympathetic excitation and genital tumescence (not just limited to men).
For sexual arousal, Masters and Johnson reported heart rates from 110-180 bpm for both genders, respiration rates of 40 per minute, BP increases of 40-100 systolic for males, 30-80 for females, even diastolic up 20-50 in males, 20-40 for females. Of course, the skeleto-muscular activity is also up. Really? But you also get the increases with the “auto-manipulative techniques” employed in research, and only slightly lessened effects when all you are doing is looking at porn (excuse me, “explicit portrayals of precoital and coital behaviors”). The second reflexogenic center, of parasympathetic outflow from S1 and S2, the first two sacral nerves, produces “sexual reflexes” including, you guessed it, “genital vasocongestion,” which means that, with direct tactile stimulation it will also happen for someone who is in a wheelchair. The good news? Reflexes don’t habituate! Obviously there is an “obtrusive discrepancy” between fight/flight and sexual arousal with the “ “parasympathetic outflow that makes for the reflexogenic sexual center.” Ahem. This also reaches the detrusor muscle of the urinary bladder and the distal colon and rectum, which not only plays a specific part in sexual functioning (as Masters and Johnson point out), but in nonsexual emergencies as well (which we talked about in “Passion and Ease”), so it isn’t exactly fair to view sexual arousal as clearly differentiated from nonsexual emergencies. Moreover, anthropological research also points out that “uncovered men” show some degree of erection during most sympathetic emotions. But I guess the rapine commonly associated with combat for most of human history is too shocking and offensive for modern sensibilities. So let’s just not talk about it. I remember my Latin teacher trying to convince us that rapio just meant “to grasp,” so that the Rape of the Sabine Women in Caesar’s Gallic Wars was actually about the “grasping” of the Sabine women. Even we virgin teens understood that rapio might not be just “grasping.” What about Wendy and the pirates? Shut up!
What we had better talk about is Zillman’s “excitation transfer theory,” empirically supported by lots of evidence that arousal from a prior or nondominant emotion will facilitate the subsequent or dominant emotion. Since anything mediated by hormones dissipates slowly (remember the mismatch between the time course of emotion and of that of thought), residual excitation will be part of later experience (the “back seat of the car effect” after an arousing movie), and we don’t tend to partition the contributing sources (emotions don’t come labelled with their sources), so we will attribute whatever arousal we feel to the most salient stimuli at hand (“Johnny was such a turn on after Friday the 13th” -- XIII due out soon!).There are over 40 years of data from Zillman and others showing increases in sexual arousal produced by prior “agonistic” (fight/flight) stimuli, and vice-versa, suggesting different ways of understanding both the excitation of “make-up” (or even “angry”) sex, as well as the greater intensity of irritation and annoyance, as well as hostile and aggressive action produced by sexual pre-arousal. Interestingly, just about any kind of pre-arousal, including exercise, can have these effects. Have you ever been around athletes after the game? Does it matter if they won or los
Interesting so far? It’s going to get politically incorrect very quickly, as, in all honesty, we really do need to talk about some gender differences. Remember, as always, that we are talking about statistical differences in bell curves that have huge overlaps, and there is no experience that one gender has that doesn’t include members of another that share it. OK, so blame Freud, who essentially thought that male sexuality benefits from aggression (anger, the fight part of fight/flight) and female sexuality from fear (the flight part). He also argued that denial, frustration, and repression are prerequisites to sexual passions, as obstacles will desire, and that when natural barriers weren’t enough to thwart sexual satisfaction, history would erect cultural barriers for love to be enjoyable again. He went so far as to say that without such barriers, love becomes worthless and life empty! But even my favorite bad girl feminist Camille Paglia, in the wonderful first chapter of Sexual Personae says “Sex is a far darker power than feminism has admitted. Behaviorist sex theories believe guiltless, no-fault sex is possible. But sex has always been girt round with taboo, irrespective of culture.” Her theory is that “whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind. Romanticism always turns to decadence.” If you read nothing else Paglia has ever written, you owe it to yourself to read this chapter, even if you find it offensive. It will make you think. You don’t have to go back to Ovid’s (Artis Amatoriae) for a description of male delight in coition with a maiden “struck dumb” by fear.
Zillman reports a study done 40 years ago which induced fear in female subjects and then immediately exposed them to sexually arousing stimuli. As measured by vaginal blood-volume changes, the distressed females became more rapidly and more intensely aroused than did controls. Some controversy surrounded the fact that the pre-arousal, a distressing film of a tragic automobile accident, including the occupants’ death cries, was “empathetic distress” rather than an actual experience of pain, or its anticipation, though one might expect the generalizations to be rather conservative! In men, the accident film didn’t produce as much arousal, and less tumescence than a control, but a film about anticipated amputation of limbs did! The accidents film produced more depression in men, which inhibits erection. Subsequent research clarified that while any sympathetic arousal (including from exercise) which leaves unacknowledged residual excitation facilitates subsequent sexual arousal in both genders, the effects of distress-related pre-arousal was virtually indistinguishable from that produced by sexual excitedness.
If you are gasping at this kind of research, let’s not forget that it was a mere ten years ago that an episode of a reality TV game show called “The Rock of Love” had Bret Michaels being aroused by sexy phone calls from female contestants. We just saw the graph on the computer screen, but his arousal (remember that “genital vasocongestion”?) was measured by a sphygmometer attached to his junk. Yes, really. The show’s theme song was from Bret Michaels’ fifth album, Rock of Love, entitled “Go That Far.” I wondered if fellatio competitions were next. The important point of the scientific research, however, was to show that the hedonic quality of the pre-arousal was immaterial. As we have noted before, negative emotions tend to produce higher levels of intensity than positive ones.So let’s cut to the chase. The fading of libido, that is “sex-related excitatory habituation,” is a fact of life that only increases with age, despite fully operative reflexogenic control of coital preparedness. That the “excitement is gone” is the characteristic comment of sexually dissatisfied partners. Reliance on reflexogenic control by genital manipulation, though reflexes do not habituate, is apparently unappealing in comparison to the pulsating sexual eagerness of psychogenically controlled sympathetic excitedness, given memories of juvenile exuberance or even more mature indulgence. On the other hand, as the septuagenarian lover of a much younger woman once told me: “There are many ways to please a young woman, and my fingers never grow soft.” Over thirty years of research has shown that heavy exposure to repeated and potentially massive pornography considerably diminishes sympathetic reactions in both men and women, including a diminishment of genital vasocongestion in men. As Zillman put it “If the portrayal of eager bodies and sexual activities in living color fosters a loss of sexual excitedness, can it be assumed that exposure to usually less enticing and fewer bodies in the bedroom does not?” Since the advent of high-speed Internet, the use of pornography has become mainstream and normalized. While the overall proportions may have declined since the 1999 finding that 4 or 5 out of the top ten searches were for porn, even conservative estimates say 10-15 %, and no longer male-dominated. Survey research shows that greater pornography use results in more negative attitudes toward women, more positive attitudes toward sexual assault, more sexual partners, and lower distress with a partner’s use of porn, research recently replicated in a college population of 80% females averaging 21 years of age.
So what are the remedies? The historically and probably most frequent is the change of sexual partners, not likely mitigated by the substantially increased human life-span, as shown in the fluctuation of the current divorce rate (at least in the U.S.) at around 50%. A suggestive study with non-human primates simulated the continual receptivity of the human female (remember that most other mammals engage in sexual behavior only during ovulation) by putting rhesus monkeys in continual estrus. By three years, sexual activity was a fraction of that during the first year. Folk wisdom for human beings? Put a penny in a jar for every time you have sex for the first two years of your relationship, then take on out every time after that, and you will never take them all out! Ah, but introduce novel estrus females and sexual activity jumps back to initial heights, but it not sustained if you reintroduce the familiar ones. Sexual habituation can clearly be eliminated by dangerous liaisons, but the transfer model suggests acute guilt might also do
Zillman, in Connections between Sex and Aggression, suggests that pain, is the sexual enhancer par excellence, across history and culture, especially at extreme levels that might be characterized as ecstasy. The sympathetic accompaniment of acute pain is not only strong but resistant to habituation. Put on a new pair of shoes, and a day or so later they are just your shoes; put a pebble in your shoe, and you will be aware of it until you take it out. Scratching and biting are still popular even in contemporary life, this from The Rolling Stones “Don’t stop:”
The way you bit my lip and you drew first blood
It warmed my cold, cold heart
And you wrote your name right on my back
Boy, your nails were sharp.
But then, even lingerie and other bodily adornments can retard habituation, and their mass consumption suggests that such needs are widespread (witness the success of Victoria’s Secret). Through conditioning with sexual arousal, almost any stimulus can become fetishized, probably the most innocuous sex enhancement available, whose often innocent emergence is a private issue between stimulus and respondent, and whose use does not demean or victimize.
In cases of coercive sexuality, or rape, the warning is that, for a person callous enough to the welfare of another to commit such an atrocity, sexual excitedness may be enhanced. The victim’s terror can deliver sympathetic excitation, and the violators hostile action, together with fear of detection, can also add excitation. With unwanted but persistent tactile stimulation, the reflexogenic component is also outside the victim’s control. It is simply false to say that a victim “must have liked it” simply because the autonomic involvement of sexual physiology fosters conditions conducive to coition. It is false for the perpetrator, it is also false for the victim. Unwillingness to talk about this state of affairs is likely to produce more harm than good, It is also the case that while “victim blaming” is a travesty for society at large, and, in the long run, for the victim, in the short run, a belief that one could have and therefore can still take action to control these circumstances may be a step in the healing process. Why is it the case that students in a senior research course in psychology regularly assert that they would rather be shot than raped? The former is far more likely to produce death, and long-term physical damage. Is it possible that the role of one’s own body in a sexual assault is an added betrayal?
There is also a “Dark Side,” of course, in the “pure theater” of bondage, dominance, and sado-masochism, “BDSM,” whether through inducing fear, the triumph of domination, or the joy of submission. This is not to endorse coercion or violence, or any form of non-consensuality, but its milder versions are little more than simple extensions of scratching or biting, often as much theatrical. Stop at a leather booth at any Renaissance Fair in the country and you will need to specify whether the object you want to purchase is for “show or use”. The practice of using a “safety word” to voluntarily end an encounter has also entered the mainstream, simply to make certain of consent. So, non-exploitative use of sympathetic pain can easily be used to increase sexual excitement, like scratching someone’s back, or even as innocuous as using an ice cube on a hot day. Common college argot can refer to an attractive other as “spankable.” But then, ”Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2)
Given the current popularity of vampire fantasies, never mind Bram Stoker, while some commentators have criticized the Twilight series for its unconsummated eros, Anne Rice, author of one series of vampire novels, also wrote (under the name A.N. Roquelaire) a three volume series of fantasies about Sleeping Beauty, detailing sadomasochistic activities by both sexes. I remember Uma Thurman once confessed that she stripped her Barbies and turned them into sex slaves. Empirical data suggest that such fantasies are hardly aberrant for either sex. A study by the Masters and Johnson Institute from over 25 years ago showed daydreams of forced sex to be common for both men and women:
Men’s Daydreams of “Forced” Sex
Being kidnapped by a woman and obliged to do as she orders 46%
Being raped by a woman 46%
Seducing a woman who pretends to resist 45%
Being tied up by a woman who then has sex with him 42%
Forcing a woman to have sex with him 39%
Being tied up and sexually stimulated by a woman 36%
Raping a woman 33%
Women’s Daydreams of “Forced” Sex
Being overpowered or forced to surrender 49%
Being tied up and sexually stimulated by a man 48%
Having to submit to aggression 42%
Pretending to fight and resist before yielding 39%
Being a slave who must obey a man’s every wish 30%
Cross-cultural research shows that in promiscuous societies where sexual interaction can readily occur without coercion, the deliberate involvement of pain in coition is more popular than in societies which are less promiscuous. Such fantasies are part and parcel of contemporary American pop culture. Witness the daughter of Hollywood couple Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith (and grand-daughter of Tippi Hedren), Dakota Johnson, playing the role of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey in 2015, and Fifty Shades Darker in 2017. Between these two films she played Alice in the mainstream romantic comedy How to Be Single. Now, it may be part of perfectly healthy sexuality for consenting adults to enact these or even more bizarre fantasies, but given the continuing presence of social taboos, sex researchers understand that self-report statistics under-represent actual numbers. Finding that sexual fantasies during intercourse are as high as 94% of women and 93% of men suggests that many acts of love include both actual people and fantasized others. This is depicted even in Gustav Klimt’s “Love,” painted in 1895. Of course, in the realm of fantasy, anything goes, and consenting to share and enact a fantasy can not only be exciting and safe, but can counter habituation. Moreover, the empathy and understanding ideally present make the difference between “adult play,” and objectification or abuse. With two-way empathy, one’s partner is an autonomous subject as well, and the erotic power can increase to the point of an ecstatic loss of boundaries between self and other.
In his 2002 book, Can Love Last: The Fate of Romance Over Time, psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell suggests that while love can last, each action that we take to make our love “safer” is actually a nail in its coffin. Since risk and growth for both partners is crucial, a radical trust and acceptance, even the acceptance that some risks and much individual growth must occur apart, is sine qua non for lasting love. Intimacy may help protect solitude, just as solitude may provide the fuel which can keep the hearth of intimacy aflame. The groundwork for seeing romance as a viable adult experience, rather than an adolescent regression, is in putting less emphasis on safety and stability and more on vitality, creativity, and authenticity.
We can go a bit deeper. Allowing for risk and fragility also means dealing with dependency and the aggression and sadism which some theorists of eros see as central to sexual desire. Why? “Because we long to redress the humiliations we all have suffered as children in connection with our early longings” (p 140). A common claim is that the caring component of long-term relationships, by inhibiting aggression, makes erotic romance more likely in relationships with the alluring but unknown. Mitchell argues that it’s the other way around, that long-standing love is full of aggression, and the problem is not its absence but its presence.
"The momentary aggressive fantasies I generate in relation to strangers is nothing compared with the intensity of the homicidal fantasies I harbor toward those I live with and love most deeply. And the effectiveness and danger of aggression is directly proportional to how much one knows about its target."
"It is the very otherness of the other that defines the limits to one’s own omnipotence and creates the vulnerability, often the experience of helplessness, that accompanies desire. Thus romantic longing skates on the edge of humiliation. This is why objects of desire are too easily transformed into objects of revenge. It is their fault that one desires them, as if their very desirability were an instrument of torture" (p 141).
This means that one must be able to tolerate a sense of vulnerability and aggression in order to sustain romance. Unfortunately, risk can be managed by a diminished excitement that serves as both self-protection and revenge. “The thrill is gone.” The collapse of expectations can be a choreographed routine, in which each feels that the other is less exciting because of their familiarity and predictability. But this also lowers passion. “No risk, no gain.” To the extent that love generates hope, longing, and dependency, it always risks humiliation. So love is necessarily dangerous. Aggression is love’s shadow. Love is not degraded by aggression, but by being unable to sustain the needed tension between them, “The capacity to love over time entails the capacity to tolerate and repair hatred.”
We are our stories. To have a self means having a protagonist who does things, and to whom things happen. Without stories, there is no self. Our romantic narrative, recurring in the stories we tell others about ourselves, and the stories we tell ourselves to sustain a sense of who we are, is central to life as we know it. And if it is to be something other than a fairy tale, no such narrative lacks pain, hurt, and loss. Why is the Blues such a popular genre? As Son House said: “the blues is when you love someone and they don’t love you back.” So in romance, like life, our identity is determined, and our uniqueness symbolized by the catalog of scars that serve as reminders of past injury. The disguised Ulysses, returning to Ithaca to revenge himself against his wife’s suitors, is recognized from his scars by his old nurse. Like Ulysses we are recognizable, both to ourselves and others by our old wounds, our scars, the damage inflicted upon us by life. Why? Self-pity: “She done me wrong,” and guilt “I was a fool.” For many of us, the soundtrack of our lives is that baby borne to the Blues: Rock and Roll. In the words of the Jefferson Airplane: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, don’t you want somebody to love, don’t you need somebody to love. You better find somebody to love.”