| 23 Sep 2003 @ 09:26|
September 18, 2003
He snapped at the leash and was unfaithful with a casual acquaintance. “Why?” howls his partner. “I don’t know why,” he barks back. We like to tell ourselves that men stray because they are hardwired for sex.
But Australian sex therapists refute this.
Most men are unfaithful because they crave intimacy and can’t find it, they say. Some, of course, just lack self-control, morals and good sense. Ironically, men — unlike women — tend to use sex as an escape route from their problems.
And unless men can learn to communicate their needs verbally, instead of sexually, the charge of infidelity that causes about 20 per cent of marriage breakdowns, seems likely to continue. It’s time for a call to arms.
Leading the way is Chris Dawson, a therapist with counselling service Acumen, who says men need to be able to explore their feelings within their relationships, before they resort to sex outside them.
“From an early age, men are taught to be disconnected from their internal worlds, from themselves,” says Dawson. “Women are also socialised to expect men to be strong and not to buckle. So often, when men become vulnerable, women shut them down … we all handle it very badly. It’s a common scenario.”
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies survey of 650 divorced men and women — Towards Understanding the Reasons for Divorce, June 1999 — 20 per cent said infidelity was the main cause for their marriage breakdowns but it it came third on the list of reasons given for divorce, after communication problems and incompatibility.
Clearly, not talking leads to him walking. At the same time, men rarely find the comfort they are seeking through affairs.
Those who try counselling say that extramarital sex only compounds their feelings of guilt, isolation and despair, which often leads to depression. Those starved of intimacy at home sometimes develop sex addictions, in the same way that bulimics binge harder, with zero relief. The cheater, like the bulimic, is hopelessly trying to fill an emotional void.
Women are fortunate in that they are able to find satisfying emotional connections through networks of friends as well as a deep, physical and emotional intimacy through their children, particularly newborns and toddlers, says Jane Keany, a sex therapist and social worker.
But in our man-as-pillar society, sex is often the only way men can achieve emotional closeness, she says. “Having more sex can become a desperate search to fill that void.”
Dawson is amazed at the number of men he sees who have no close male friends with whom they might discuss their fears and problems.
“By the age of 40, most men don’t have intimate male friends. These are just my own observations. But so many of the men I see might have people to play golf with, or to get along with, but they don’t have an intimate connection with another man. We lose the capacity (to form strong male bonds) because we’re taught (by society) to disconnect from ourselves. We keep practising that, so by the time we reach 40, we’re better at it.”
In spite of our best efforts to introduce the sensitive, new-age guy into society, there remains a backbone of Generation X and baby boomer men for whom a good cry or whinge about life remains taboo. As they age, this group is bombarded with unrealistic stereotypes of their sexuality.
Consider celebrity sex addict Michael Douglas, who recharges the myth of man as proud sex machine or Sean Connery and Harrison Ford, still playing romantic leads to relatively dewy younger women (Catherine Zeta Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer) in their movies.
“The hydraulic model of male sexuality, that it’s an inevitable force that must have release, I think, is largely nonsense,” says Dr Anthony Smith, a public health researcher at the Melbourne-based Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society.
“A lot of ideas that support that notion come from media representation that shows men as endlessly desiring and capable. And part of that is being reflected in the uptake of things like testosterone therapy that seeks to return men to the sexual prowess of an 18 year-old rather than accepting that as we age, we change ... It renders sex as something very mechanical and amenable to being fixed with a pill.”
There is already proof that men are feeling “coerced” into using drugs like Viagra, and that they feel “inadequate” without it, according to a 2001 New Zealand study of couples’ experiences with Viagra, funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. Another alarming finding was that Viagra encouraged some men to stray, according one of the authors, Dr Annie Potts, from the department of gender studies at the University of Canterbury.
“Several men in our study were experimenting with partners outside their primary sexual relationship as a direct result of taking Viagra and, as they put it, were experiencing a newfound youthful virility. Wives and partners were not aware of their infidelities ... One man commented that Viagra was the ‘catalyst’ for his multiple extramarital affairs.”
Smith fears this “medicalisation” of men’s sexuality will rob men of the opportunity to explore other forms of intimacy, particularly as they age. “Close physical relationships are based on touch, being held, being caressed and cared for in a physical sense, that doesn’t necessarily become equated with vaginal intercourse.”
Keany agrees wholeheartedly. Exploring different forms of sexual stimulation and intimacy is an essential skill for long lasting relationships, she says. One of the most common problems she deals with in her practice is the he-wants-more, she-wants-less-sex scenario.
It’s called sexual discrepancy, says Keany, and when it comes to that speed hump in a long-term relationship, our sex lives usually stall and mutual resentment shifts into overdrive. This is where exploring intimacy issues becomes vital for men.
When sex takes a back seat to demanding careers, families and the usual clutter of commitments, that is precisely the time that men need to start yapping and women need to start listening — really listening, the therapists say.
Brett McCann, the CEO of ASSERT (Australian Society of Sex Educators, Researchers and Therapists) says couples should probe their bad bedroom habits. Habit-forming sex — it helps him sleep, it relieves her boredom — or issues such as wrong timing — he likes to play at night, she prefers a morning frolic — are extremely common, but can be resolved. While the solutions may not be on either partner’s top five list of best sexual experiences, it is usually better than the frustration of no sex, the withdrawal of intimacy, the betrayal of infidelity and finally, breaking up.
“Some couples do deals,” says Keany. He may agree to look after the kids for two hours on a Saturday if she will masturbate him a few times a week. “If they can sit down and work it out, it’s quite a step forward.”
And when infidelity leads to counselling, how good are the chances of recovery?
“Then it’s about assessing how much do these couples want this relationship to continue: not for the children, not for society, but for themselves,” says McCann. “Their world will never be the same … It can either become stronger and more honest, but different. One, or both partners, have to decide if there is enough in the relationship to continue.”
However we define modern sexuality in our spin-obsessed, sex-as-commodity society, the girls are definitely some way ahead and men are only beginning the journey. So says Dr Stephen Carroll, a psychotherapist who specialises in the trailing field of men’s health and whose PhD dealt with the mystery of modern male sexuality.
“Women are transcending that (society’s definition of female sexuality). Men need to have their own sexual revolution. The group identity for women is very cohesive and able to be spoken about, whereas the group identity for men is stuck in a twisted mythology of what constitutes masculine behaviour. Men have a huge amount of fear about redefining themselves outside that square and how they will be regarded, if they do.”
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