“My wife is my best friend”/”My wife is my only friend”: the Guy Code, and the inability to get naked without getting naked

I’ve been thinking lately about some friends of mine, getting a divorce after more than a decade of marriage. Children are involved, but the two spouses are as amicable as one could hope to expect. What is clear, however, is that the husband and the wife each have very different support networks — or more accurately, that the wife has a fairly strong support network of family and friends, and the husband has virtually no one. And looking at the two of them is a reminder of one of the particularly unfortunate ways in which we structure white American middle-class masculinity; too often, not only is a wife a man’s best friend, she is his only friend.

We live, after all, in a culture which shames displays of male vulnerability. Though some sociologists detect signs of a shift among younger men, millions of boys in this country still grow up with the “guy code” and its rules about toughness, competitiveness, and a steadfast refusal to cry. Even those young men who do everything they can to avoid playing by the “guy rules” — the sensitive, bookish lads, let’s say — find it difficult to find other men with whom they can be open, vulnerable, and safe.

A great many young women have had this experience: they’ve been dating a fellow for a while, things have started to get serious. A fight happens, or perhaps the dude has a setback of some sort or another. One night, he breaks down in front of her, surprising them both with his sudden vulnerability. He may say something like “This is the first time I’ve cried in years” or “I’ve never cried like this in front of someone before, not since I was a kid.” Now, it’s possible that he’s just being manipulative, seeing how far this kind of emotional flattery will take him. But dollars to doughnuts, there’s a good chance that he’s being honest — it’s only in romantically and sexually intimate relationships that many men find the chance to be vulnerable.

One rather flippant but generally sound piece of advice I gave (and still do give) in youth group about sex: “Don’t get naked until you’re ready to get naked”, meaning that in relationships, it’s often wise to have some degree of congruence between emotional and sexual intimacy. Generally speaking, emotional intimacy is a good precondition for sex; the danger lies in the attempt to reverse cause and effect, and using sex as a way of generating enduring intimacy. But of course, for many men, sexual intimacy is a kind of trailhead into some deeper and more concealed parts of themselves. This doesn’t mean that heterosexual men can only trust those women with whom they are sleeping, but it does mean that sex gives a kind of permission for a man to be vulnerable. (If I had a dollar for every woman who has ever asked me if it was “normal” for men to cry after sex, I’d have enough to take my family out for a nice vegan dinner. Many women are floored by these sudden post-coital displays of strong emotion; though not universal, it’s more common than many think.) Continue reading

Babies, family planning, environmental stewardship and the needs of the preborn: the real roots of the culture war

Regular readers know that I tend to discourage my conservative commenters from derailing threads by questioning the very suppositions on which this blog is based. This is a feminist blog, for example, and one which seeks to explore various things from a feminist perspective. This is not a place to question whether the feminist lens is an appropriate one through which to see the world; similarly, a Calvinist blog which seeks to offer a Calvinist perspective on current events is not the place to question the essential tenets of Calvinism. This is why I read quite a few very conservative blogs, but rarely — if ever — comment there. I’m interested in what is said, but since I reject the fundamental premises on which their worldview is based, I don’t think I have much to offer to the conversation. It would be like insisting on speaking Finnish to a group which prefers to dialogue in Thai.

That said, reading all these blogs, I’m increasingly convinced that the core of the split between social conservatives and progressives in this country revolves around not abortion or gay marriage, but a more fundamental disagreement: population. Religious conservatives have become increasingly vocal about their desire to see larger and larger families; indeed, their arguments against abortion and gay marriage seem less couched these days in an assumption that these are intrinsic evils, and more in the language of concern that these practices pose a threat to the large families which the right venerates above all else. Hostility to feminism is surely a sine qua non of contemporary social conservatism, but reading what the pundits on the other side have to say, it seems more and more obvious that their hatred of feminism is rooted in the recognition that increased sovereignty for women over their own bodies is inextricably linked with the reasonable desire to not have, in Amanda Marcotte’s happy phrase, their “vaginas turn into clown cars.”

Feminists and environmentalists have formed common cause over the vital issue of family planning. Those who believe that the world’s resources are already over-taxed by humans whose behavior is frequently parasitic have allies in those who believe that women can and should be encouraged to find fulfillment in pursuits other than motherhood. The longer women wait to marry or reproduce, the less likely they are to have large families; the more opportunities we can create for women to pursue happiness outside the home, the greater the likelihood they will delay marriage and childbirth. The intersection of sound environmental policy and the campaign to give women the precious right of personal autonomy is a fortuitous one indeed! And almost to a man and woman, social conservatives despise this alliance, one which is changing family structures across the western world — and increasing the possibility for greater happiness for the earth and its creatures.

Here, replete with grammatical error on top of grammatical error, is a piece by David Goldman in First Things: What Should Conservatives do about Obamanomics? It takes the “we must have big families” argument to a new level, by suggesting that the collapse of the real estate bubble is due — wait for it, can you guess? — to, yes, birth control:

The first thing that conservatives have to tell Americans is: “You are poorer because you failed to bring up enough children. The decline of the traditional family is undermining the American economy.”

Right. Apparently, that’s why the countries with the highest birth rates, like Sierra Leone and Chad are so rich, and countries with among the lowest, like Sweden and Switzerland, are so desperately poor?

This isn’t the place to point out the risible foundations of the “we must have more babies or the world will collapse” argument. Plenty of economists have pointed out that the “growth” model can be replaced by a healthy “sustainability” model. The transition may be wrenching, but far less so than the apocalyptic impact on our planet of ever-growing voracious human appetites.

What I’m wondering — to get to the point of this post — is why religious conservatives are so eager to have large families? I get the economic argument (we need more future workers to maintain retired ones), but the churches were urging their flocks to “be fruitful and multiply” long before anyone thought up modern pension schemes, or modern feminism. Beyond the instinct to reproduce and survive, what are the theological roots of this obsession with making babies?

I know my Mormon friends believe, or so they tell me, that there are countless billions of “pre-born souls” wandering around up in the ether, each longing to be born. Thus, having a large family is an act not of irresponsibility but of self-sacrifice: parents give up their freedom in exchange for the satisfaction of helping as many of these pre-born souls as possible become incarnate. (My LDS friends, please tell me if I’ve misrepresented the idea.) Some of my friends in the Kabbalah Centre believe that in the Beginning, God created a “vessel” which then shattered into trillions of tiny sparks. Each of these sparks is a sentient soul, and each longs to be born into human flesh for the sake of reassembling the broken vessel and completing what in Hebrew is called tikkun olam, the repair of the world. Thus for Mormons and Kabbalists, family size limitation is selfish on an eschatalogical level — it delays the final redemption and robs the “pre-born” (the term sends chills down my spine) of their shot at participating in the glories of incarnation. Continue reading

The most elegant egghead: of Obama’s new masculine paradigm

One of my former students, knowing that I’m once again teaching my “Men, Masculinity, and the American Tradition” course this semester, asked me if I had any thoughts on Barack Obama as masculine archetype/role model. I replied that I’d have a lot more to say in a couple of years, but would offer at least some preliminary thoughts now. After all, the president has been in the public spotlight for several years, and for the past eighteen months or so, has been perhaps the most visible man in America — and indeed the world. I followed his campaign, read his wonderful first book (but not the follow-up), so I ought to be able to write something. Indeed, the very nature of his extraordinary celebrity has made me reluctant to do so until now, perhaps fearing that I’d be treading on too popular a path.

Michael Kimmel, our pre-eminent historian of American masculinity, points out that “manhood” has been a defining issue for presidents since at least 1828, when the hyper-macho war hero Andrew Jackson posited himself as the “one who could fight” against the effete incumbent, John Quincy Adams, the “one who could write.” That dynamic would show up again and again in American history, even as recently as 2004 with the Bush and Kerry campaigns. It’s worth pointing out again that from the beginning, these campaigns have always been about perception: the real war heroes tend to lose to those candidates who had less military service, perhaps because those who didn’t actually fight tend to over-compensate with bellicosity. (Think of McGovern, a war hero, being beaten by Nixon, who was anything but; or Kerry and Bush).

Andrew Jackson scornfully called John Quincy Adams a “professor”, and called himself a “plowman.” Invoking the so-called heroic artisan ideal, Jackson introduced into the American discourse a contempt for intellectual sophistication that has survived, lamentably, for nearly two centuries. Think of the anti-intellectual derision directed at Adlai Stevenson, a so-called “egghead”, or at the cerebral Michael Dukakis, who refused to abandon his thoughtfulness when asked how he would respond to the murder of his wife. Think even of this most recent campaign, when in the minds of some of her strongest defenders, Sarah Palin’s lack of intellectual sophistication was seen as an asset rather than a defect. “It took her six years to get through the University of Idaho? Well, that shows she was well-rounded rather than just a grade-grubbing grind.” (A conservative friend of mine actually said that. My jaw hit my breastbone.)

Often, men who have run for high office have gone to great lengths to appear more as “one who can fight”, hoping to be seen as a Jackson rather than a Quincy Adams. Think of Michael Dukakis’ unfortunate decision to be seen driving a tank. Or, more sinisterly, think of Bill Clinton making a special trip home to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign in order to sign the death warrant for a mentally disabled man; the draft-dodger needed to bump up his “tough guy” credentials, and signing an execution order was the next best thing to pulling a trigger. Of course, one might think of George W. Bush mysteriously reinventing himself with a West Texas accent, deliberately losing the clipped cadences of his privileged heritage. Rather than deny that he had been a mediocre student, Bush celebrated it as evidence that he was a “regular guy”, rough-and-tumble and full of hearty masculine fun rather than a thoughtful, reflective, intellectually curious person.

And into this rather depressing American legacy comes one Barack Hussein Obama, he of the unusual name, the unusual heritage, and the absolute absence of fear of being labelled the smartest guy in the room. I am thrilled that America has a black president, of course. But I am even more thrilled that we have a man who not only has extraordinary intellectual gifts, but who is utterly unafraid to display them. Barack Obama was not only a community organizer, he was the chief of the Harvard Law Review and a professor at the University of Chicago. While Democratic candidates before him would have felt compelled to downplay their erudition, Obama bravely and rightly used his considerable academic credentials as part of his resume for the presidency. Though he didn’t say “Elect me because I’m better educated than my opponent”, he never betrayed even the slightest hint of embarrassment about his intellectual background. Continue reading

Learning to long for what is good for us: some thoughts on sexual recovery for unquiet minds

Yesterday’s post about emotional affairs and betrayal elicited this comment from jennyfields:

I am relating to today’s post on many complicated and vague levels. I wonder how this applies to “entertaining” fantasies that would be an emotion betrayal of yourself instead of a partner. Is it the same thing or is it different? Where is the morality when it’s only to yourself that you have made certain promises?

I know quite well what jennyfields is referring to, both because she and I have corresponded and because it’s an issue I’ve had ample opportunity to consider in my own life. I’ve written before about the issue of feminist men and the problem of heterosexual desire, and that touches a bit on the topic jennyfields raises, but not entirely. What she’s talking about is breaking unhealthy sexual patterns, and how to cope with the intrusive fantasies that often arise as we make our way in recovery.

Lots of us, for example, have a history of being attracted to people who are not good for us. Call it the “bad boy syndrome” or what-you-will, but it’s common enough to be the subject of biting humor and endless reflection. Women and men, queers and straights, a great many folks have struggled to reconcile what our head tells us is healthy with what our libido (informed as it so often is by childhood traumas of one kind or another) or our heart longs for. And a great many of us, myself very much included, developed unhealthy patterns early on in our sexual relationships. To use one classic example, a young woman who had an emotionally distant father may form destructive sexual relationships with inappropriately older men, hoping (whether she’s conscious of it or not) that she will be able to earn attention and validation through sex. Assuming her father didn’t sexualize her inappropriately, sex for her becomes the one missing element that made her invisible to the older man she needed most when she was small — and thus she pushes that sexuality front and center in her adolescence, hoping that it willl be the missing piece of the puzzle. That’s a hard habit to break. Some men may get into the “knight in shining armor” pattern in which they seek out women whom they imagine need them desperately — which often leads them to become the so-called “Nice Guys(tm)”.

I had so many unhealthy patterns that they intersected and wound ’round each other into a perverse patchwork quilt of romantic and sexual dysfunction. With an addictive personality since birth and a drinking problem (well-concealed at first) since I was fifteen, it’s no surprise that the women I was drawn to were often close to my own level of emotional stability. And though my first two wives (the ones I was married to in my using days) were very different from each other, and though some of the women I dated were remarkably stable, my “unhealthy type” was usually the same. I liked my fellow addicts, preferably with a dual diagnosis of manic depression to boot. When I was newly single after my second divorce, a clueless acquaintance, hoping to “get me back out there”, asked me what sort of women I was interested in meeting. Without skipping a beat, a cousin of mine who was part of the conversation said “Hugo likes short-haired brunettes with sex addictions, high IQs, eating disorders, and a bipolar diagnosis.” Continue reading

“Sin boldly”: against the trap of the “emotional” affair

A friend of mine with whom I’ve had many conversations about feminism and older men/younger women relationships wrote me a note last week about a close acquaintance of hers, a young woman of 21 who is having an “emotional affair” with a man of 44.

I’ve blogged enough lately about age-disparate relationships, and I intend to do much more writing on the subject. Today, I’m interested in writing about this strange and troubling beast called the emotional affair, a phenomenon enormously abetted by modern technology.

I’m not treading on new ground when I remark that when it comes to love and sex, humans are generally very good at deceiving themselves. We are particularly good, as a rule, at justifying certain kinds of betrayals because they don’t meet our own contorted and legalistic definitions of what constitutes genuine infidelity. The paradigmatic example, of course, is that of Bill Clinton. A great many of us believed, and still believe, that our 42nd president was absolutely sincere when he denied an adulterous relationship with Monica Lewinsky; he had constructed for himself a moral calculus in which only intercourse constituted authentic infidelity. In 1998, as the nation watched the Clintons’ all-too-public agony, a great many folks were challenged to think about their own little webs of deceit and justification. If the politicians we elect are mirrors for our best and worst aspects of ourselves, then President Clinton — a man of extraordinary gifts and extraordinarily banal frailties — reminded us of our own capacity for duplicity.

Most people have no trouble labelling oral sex with an intern behind your wife’s back as adultery. Bill Clinton is easy to admire, and easy to ridicule. But lesser men than he — and a great many women too — have shown a similar capacity for self-deception. And we are particularly prone to this sort of self-deception when it comes to affairs that don’t have a physically sexual component. For those of us who define fidelity in terms of what actions we don’t undertake with other people, it’s all too easy to slide into an emotional affair.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll define an emotional affair as a non-physically sexual relationship characterized by mutually intense psychological intimacy, accompanied by words or gestures that traditionally are reserved for one’s romantic partner. That’s a vague definition, of course; emotional affairs are notoriously difficult to define. (One thinks of the perhaps apocryphal Potter Stewart remark about knowing obscenity when he saw it.) The slipperiness of the line between “good friend” and emotional “lover” allows those involved in these affairs a great deal of plausible deniability, both to themselves and to those around them. “We’re just friends”; “It’s totally innocent”; “You’re reading too much into this” are the sorts of things that can be said with genuine sincerity in response to suspicious queries from others. Continue reading

“Overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, understimulated, and shamed”: some thoughts on relationship, libido, having children, feminism, and so forth

Amanda Marcotte has a short piece up at RH Reality Check on women and libido. For such a brief post, she manages to touch on two separate but interlinked issues: one, the problem with pathologizing low female libido; two, the root cause of widespread “lack of interest.” Here’s the marvelous final paragraph:

It’s an indicator of how male-dominated our society is that the fact that women have diminishing libidos and don’t seem to care that much about it is treated as the problem, when in fact it’s merely the symptom of a larger problem–that women feel overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, understimulated, and shamed about their bodies. If we treated the actual problems that women face, higher libidos would be the happy result, I’m sure. But in order to do that, we’d have to treat male domination like a problem to be solved, and since few people really want to do that, instead we’re left with articles that note women’s lack of libido, but carefully resist asking why.

That’s spot on.

The great sex therapist, David Schnarch, writes in his Passionate Marriage (the best sex advice book for couples in long-term relationships I’ve ever seen) that we do well to avoid the question “Why doesn’t my wife (or my husband, or my bf, gf, what-have-you) want to have sex with me?” The whole structure of the question, Schnarch says, misses the point. It assumes a strong libido is the default setting in any romantic relationship. Rather, we should ask “Why should my partner want to have sex with me?” And also “Why do I really want to have sex with him or her?”

This can be shaming, of course, if not asked rightly. Schnarch doesn’t want his patients following the “Why should my partner want to have sex with me?” with a sigh and an “After all, I’m unattractive, it stands to reason that they should have no reason to want me.” Buit it is a reminder, as I’ve written many times, that sex is never obligatory. The “I will” of the wedding day is not a blank check to be cashed daily, weekly, or monthly by whichever spouse has a higher libido. We ought to be answering Schnarch’s question not with “Because she’s my wife and it’s her job” or even with “Because we’re in love, and people in love are supposed to fuck a lot.” We ought to be answering it by having an honest discussion with ourselves (before we have one with our partners) about what it is sex means to us, what makes us in the mood, what we see as the purpose of sex in our lives. Continue reading

One mistake will not “ruin your life”: thoughts on “onesies” and the myth of female frailty

I’m on a fairly steep learning curve as a first-time father. Having changed fewer than five diapers in my life before a fortnight ago, I’m an increasingly efficient middle-of-the-night cleaner and re-coverer of baby behinds. I consider myself nearly an expert on working with teenagers, but this infant business is new stuff to me. Our beautiful daughter is teaching me a great many things.

Last week, I was changing her “onesie”, and was quite tentative about it, not wanting to bend or pull her little arms too briskly. My mother-in-law, who has been immensely helpful, came to my aid: “She won’t break, Hugo”, she said; “babies are less fragile than you think.” It was a reassuring thing to hear, though I’m still a bit frightened to pull too fiercely on any part of my daughter’s frame.

But my mother-in-law’s words reminded me of an essential feminist point: women don’t break as easily as we imagine. On Friday, I posted a rebuke to the sorry Zoe Lewis op-ed in the London Times which suggested that feminism led women astray with promises of independence, fulfillment, and satisfying relationships all at once. Part of the discourse anti-feminists like Lewis push isn’t just about feminism, however; they also peddle the notion that the bewombed are particularly easy to break. At 36, less than halfway through an normal lifespan for a woman in the Western world, Lewis is convinced that feminism has “ruined her life.” She’s wrong about feminism, of course, but she’s also wrong about something more fundamental: that women are easily ruined “for life” by either their own poor choices or their early capitulation to certain cultural messages.

In a post about how my students responded to Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism (a piece that played a small part in one of the many internecine wars to which the feminist blogosphere is lamentably prone), I noted that some of the most enthusiastic responses I received were to the author’s brief but memorable defense of making mistakes. Jessica wrote:

I’ve had more than a couple of embarrassing moments in my life and sexual history — but isn’t that what makes us who we are? Do we really have to be on point and thinking politics all the time? Sometimes doing silly, disempowering, sexually vapid things when you’re young is just part of getting to the good stuff.

I’ve had several excellent class discussions about this section of FFF since.

Thinking about Jessica Valenti’s book and about changing my daughter’s onesies reminds me of an essential truth: we tell a great lie to young women when we issue dire warnings to them about sex, men and other choices if we accompany our warning with the phrase “you might ruin your life.” I often ask the young women whom I teach and with whom I work how often they’ve heard “Don’t do x, or you’ll ruin your life.” Most raise their hands. Far fewer of the young men to whom I pose the same question respond affirmatively. Even now, with almost a decade of the 21st century under our belts, our culture still clings to destructive myths of female fragility. Girls born as recently as the Clinton Administration are taught that adolescence and young adulthood consists of a series of pitfalls to be avoided, and that one false step could mean a lifetime of heartbreak and regret. Do the wrong thing, this discourse suggests, and you’ll end up (for the literary minded) like Dickens’ Miss Havisham (possibly with the same fiery demise.) Continue reading

Love, calling, guardianship: the faith of a new father

I will eventually get back to blogging about subjects other than my new daughter, but surely I can be forgiven for being somewhat single-minded these days.

A friend of mine wrote me a note a few days ago, asking how becoming a Dad at long last had impacted my faith. She gently pointed out that I haven’t been blogging much about spiritual issues recently, and thought that this might be my opportunity to turn to that subject once again.

When I saw my baby born nine days ago, I think (I can’t be sure) that my first words were “Oh my God.” Those of you who are parents surely know what I’m talking about (those who actually gave birth know far more). It is an extraordinarily primal moment — blood and sweat and all sorts of other fluids, the grasping hands of caregivers, the gasps of a woman in pain and joy, and, after a few heartstopping seconds, the cry of new life. There is no hyperbole in saying that that instant two Mondays ago was the most wonderful experience of my nearly forty-two years in this incarnation. I felt God with me and with my wife and new child; I sensed the “great cloud of witnesses” looking on. I cried, of course, tears of joy — and tears of thanksgiving for the safety of my wife and child.

I’ve been saying “Thank you” to God every day, several times a day, this week. I’ve also been asking, constantly, for His help and guidance as I do this new thing called fatherhood. I’m smart enough to know that I can’t possibly do it perfectly, but am sufficiently filled with love and zeal that I want to do every imaginable thing that I can for my wife and daughter.

But at times, of course, I’ve battled a lot of fear, and have called out to God in my anxiety. I have the usual fears that first-time parents have: “Is that a normal poop?” “Why does her breathing change so suddenly?” But I have other fears as well which I am turning over to Christ. I call myself a “born again” (albeit one with universalist theology and liberal politics) because I know what it is like to be transformed and changed by faith. But the memory of who it was I used to be — the drug addict, the borderline, the narcissistic manipulator, the self-injurer, the womanizer, the utterly self-absorbed — has haunted me a bit these past few days. What if that Hugo comes back? What more can I do to ensure that my daughter never knows first-hand those aspects of her father, and only encounters them through fragments of old stories and the myriad scars she will find on my body? I’ve been talkin’ to God about this every day. I trust His grace, because I’ve felt it. I trust, too, that I will be given the strength to persevere (one way of translating the “p” in TULIP, for you crazy Calvinists) until the end and past the end. Continue reading

Pregnant women, personhood, and some paternal reflections

I suppose that many of my upcoming posts will touch, in one way or another, on the experience of becoming a father. My daughter is one week old today, and she and my wife are resting comfortably at home. Our little girl — whose name will be given soon — is perfect and lovely and captivating, and my wife has never been more beautiful and amazing in my eyes. It’s a happy time, albeit a sleep-deprived one.

It would be odd if going through this pregnancy with my wife and watching my daughter be born didn’t have a profound impact on how I see the world. The whole experience shaped, and is continuing to shape, many aspects of my thinking. I have no doubt at all that parenthood will continue to transform me, though that is hardly my child’s primary purpose in the world. My job is to love her, hers is to be loved unconditionally, and whatever insights come along the way are a bonus. And one way in which this journey has impacted me very profoundly is in my views on feminism.

Years ago, Susan Bordo wrote a wonderful essay: Are Mothers Persons? Reproductive Rights and Subject-ivity, which appeared in her Unbearable Weight. Bordo makes the point that our American legal system has an historic concern for the autonomy of the individual, but that a pregnant woman’s right to bodily integrity is uniquely subject to challenge:

The essence of the pregnant woman, by contrast, is her biological, purely mechanical role in preserving the life of another. In her case, this is the given value, against which her claims to subjectivity must be rigorously evaluated, and they will usually be found wanting insofar as they conflict with her life-support function. In the face of such a conflict, her valuations, choices, consciousness are expendable.

In other words, my wife’s status as an independent person collapsed, in the eyes of the world, the moment folks started to realize she was pregnant. And while I’d been quite prepared to discuss reproductive rights theory with colleagues and students, nothing has shaped my gut feelings about the issue of women’s subjectivity like witnessing my wife’s pregnancy and the birth of this daughter. And believe me, nothing has made me more committed to feminist principles than this experience!

It is much commented upon, but no less remarkable for its frequency: an amazing number of people seem to believe that they have the right to touch a pregnant woman’s belly. My wife, who has a keen sense of body integrity, did not like to have her stomach touched by anyone other than me and her various professional caregivers. But for the last four months of her pregnancy, as her belly began to swell, family and friends and even strangers made all sorts of attempts to get their hands on her tummy. My wife got very good at fending people off politely, and I did my best to remain cool while helping (particularly with my family) to keep prying hands at bay. Continue reading

The danger of wanting to be first: a reply to bmmg39, updated with lyrics

Below this January 14 post on experience and numbers, bmmg39 writes:

…my view is that, often, people with little or no experience in a certain thing — it CAN be sex but it could also mean romantic love, or kissing, or slow-dancing, or whatever — often seek others with the same low level or non-level of experience. Someone who’s never “soul-kissed” someone else might not feel comfortable with someone who’s done that with a hundred people already. That doesn’t mean the first person thinks that there’s something wrong with the second; it means that the first person would like to be remembered fondly as someone else’s first experience in that department — with all the wonderful awkwardness and nervousness that is said to come with it.

The bold emphasis is mine. What bmmg writes sounds innocent and sweet enough. But the problem is clear: when one of our chief longings is “to be remembered fondly”, to be “someone else’s first”, we’re placing our own desires ahead of our partner’s. We’re using sex as a way of leaving a mark on another person’s body or heart, hoping — as humans tend to hope — that we won’t be forgotten. There’s no question that most of us would like to leave an impression on other people; perhaps it’s the historian in me, but there are few worse fears I have, to be honest, than that I will be completely forgotten! But bmmg makes the mistake of assuming that “first” equals “most memorable.” Ask around. Legions of people, particularly women, would rather forget their first experience of heterosexual intercourse. There’s not infrequently a world of difference between, say, the first partner with whom you had intercourse and the first partner with whom you truly felt close and safe.

When my wife and I were planning our wedding, she was hardly unaware that this was to be my fourth marriage — and her first. (Indeed, I have been the first husband to four different women.) A friend of ours did ask her, on one occasion, if it bothered her that she was doing something for the first time that I had done several times before. My fiancee, sensible as ever, said, “No, because this is the first time he’s doing it with me.” She was focused, bless her, on the marriage we were building together. She didn’t deny the reality of what had come before, but she rightly saw no reason to believe that prior experience on my part would diminish the unique intensity of what we were creating as a team. She knew better than to see me as a three-time loser and a has-been. So when we talked about rings and dresses and bands and caterers, she was aware — on some level — that I had had all those conversations before. But she was also clear that passion is not automatically killed by repetition; she knew enough to know that past behavior isn’t always the best indicator of future action. Above all, she believed that most of the time, the axiom of “post hoc ergo propter hoc” holds true: my ability to be a great husband in my fourth marriage was in no small degree a consequence of all the mistakes I had made in the previous three. Some folks hit a home run on their first at bat. Others… need to be sent down to the minors a time or three.

When a good relationship grows and endures, it does so in its own memorable ways. There is very little, from a purely physically sexual standpoint, that my wife and I could possibly do together that we haven’t each separately done with other people in the past. But that has damn all to do with the memories we create together and the marks we leave on each other. For heaven’s sakes, when I kiss my wife, I’m not comparing her tongue to that of umpteen other women; I’m fairly certain that she isn’t comparing my touch to that of her previous lovers! The tapes of what was are stored away. Why on earth would it matter that I’m not the first to make the woman I love call on the name of God in a moment of pleasure? It would only matter if I allowed my ego to trump my love, if the need to be the first was more important than the need to be the now. Continue reading