Oral sex, hallucinogens or psychotherapy: Take your pick!

My boyfriend is averse to intimacy. How can I help him get over it?

Published December 30, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My partner has emotional difficulty with sex. It's both an intimacy and a reproductive issue. His first girlfriend nearly died because of an ectopic pregnancy. His second girlfriend became pregnant and chose to get an abortion. It has been 11 years since the first experience and four since the later. I am his third girlfriend, and after six months we've still yet to consummate our relationship.

We do have a passionate relationship without sex, but more and more he is unwilling to "make love" because of the level of frustration it causes him. While I'm very patient and understanding, more and more I feel unqualified to deal with our situation. He is a fairly healthy guy, though he has difficulty dealing with stress and often seems to feel inadequate. This stress manifests itself in his low calorie intake and abstinence from sex. He is 30, desperately wants to be "normal" and is unwilling to seek therapy.

I don't know what to do. I think I'm willing to wait for him, but I'd like to help as well, and this all becomes more difficult with his inability to discuss the situation. Our relationship is seriously lacking the emotional and physical intimacy we need. I feel he doesn't trust me, find myself jealous of his last girlfriend, and am just incredibly confused, frustrated and still so in love.


Dear Help,

Maybe things are more complicated than they appear, but the pattern seems clear on its face. These two experiences have said to him, Look what happens after you have sex: Either you nearly kill the woman or you kill the fetus! Sex equals death!

Most of us are dimly aware of a relationship between sex and death, having to do with God knows what patterns of infantile development, relationship with the mother, existential dread, individuation or whatnot (I'm just bandying about these terms like somebody in an early Woody Allen movie; I don't really know what I'm talking about!) But rarely does one get the message in such starkly literal metaphors. It's no wonder he's afraid to have sex: In some region of his delicate animal brain, he believes that if he has sex with you it will kill you or make you pregnant and kill the fetus, or both.

Because the pattern seems so obvious, I think it's silly of him to refuse therapy. Maybe he can fix it himself. But why try to do the wiring yourself when you can hire an electrician?

In a case like this, a skilled therapist might get him fixed up quickly. So I would try to persuade him of the benefits that are available to him. I might say: Here we are in the modern world, beneficiaries of the great Enlightenment and all the social freedoms and physical comforts that accrued from it. In this day and age, in which one unthinkingly avails oneself of modern medicine, air travel, Internet services, digital cinema and video, dance music, global news, heating and cooling technology, social science research, food technology and the like, to spurn one of the cheapest and most effective forms of modern technology available, something that can reduce pain and suffering and increase the quality of one's life, just seems, well, barbaric and backward.

How's that for an argument? It has nothing to do with male pride -- or does it? If it does, here's another argument: Would he insist on baking his own bread and pouring the concrete for his own floors? Would he refuse the services of the garbage man, preferring to dig holes in the backyard and bury the garbage there? Would he prefer to walk everywhere, carrying large packages, instead of taking a taxicab? What is his particular objection to the technology of psychotherapy? That it is some kind of witchcraft? That it implies weakness or sickness or rank insanity? That it would signal an admission of impotence or deep, scary emasculation of some sort?

Like I said, it's just a service, a benefit of the modern world.

I'm not saying that it's easy or painless. But neither is going to the dentist. We don't let our teeth deteriorate because we know it just gets worse. What is going to happen if he does nothing about this fear of his? Is it going to get better on its own?

Maybe. That's the one argument against psychotherapy that makes some sense to me. If he does nothing, it may just go away. Sometimes it happens. He may overcome his fear through willpower and action. No problem. More power to him.

As to you, what do you do while he tinkers with the thermostat of his amygdala or whatever (again, I'm afraid I'm in less than masterful command of the neurological facts!)? Maybe there's something you can do to help: What about oral sex? If this is all about the vagina and the womb, pregnancy, reproduction, the life cycle, mortality and disease, maybe oral sex might not have the associations of pregnancy and death that vaginal intercourse has. If you approached it as primarily about his phallic pleasure, maybe that'd be a way to move it from the frightening and engulfing arena of female sexuality and mortality to the arena of male pleasure and passion. Of course, after a while you could end up saying, "Not tonight, honey, my knees have rug burn." But by that time, he might be cured!

Anyway, now you have lots of choices: There's a homespun oral sex cure from an Internet advice columnist, there's professional therapy, and there's the option of doing nothing at all. Take your pick.

We could be done here. We should be done here. There's been enough damage done already. But I can't help feeling that, because of the connection he's making with illness and death, this is about more than just having sex or not having sex. I was looking back at a couple of the late Terence McKenna's books the other night, and thinking again about his notion -- certainly not unique to him but with a pharmacological twist -- that the purpose of our current life is to eat enough organic hallucinogens to prepare ourselves for death.

In our youth-oriented culture, things that hint of mortality tend to frighten us off. It's such a cliché that I hesitate to say it, so I won't. You know what I was going to say. It's all a part of ... you know.

So I'm spinning my wheels trying to conclude this last column before the holidays (they're not running in the order I wrote them), trying to find an ending for this one, and somehow that dearly departed highflying ethnobotanist of Occidental, Calif., made his way in, bless his heart. So here comes the ending, and happy holidays: Your boyfriend has experienced one of the wrenching paradoxes of sexuality -- that pleasure and fulfillment remain tied to reproduction and mortality. Who knows, maybe out of all this will come a lasting wisdom about the union of opposites.

Or maybe not. At least not tonight. The union of opposites is such a lot of work.

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