When I was a young man I thought sex and intimacy were linked inexorably together. Actually I thought sex was linked to just about everything. Once I discovered one linkage, I wanted to find the next one. I was a precocious kid and began sexual experimentation young. My next door neighbor and I played “doctor” when we were six or seven. Somehow we had the idea that if I peed inside her that would be fun. I have no idea how I got that idea. Getting my little penis hard was easy, getting it inside her, sort of, wasn’t too difficult, but peeing was impossible. I learned an early lesson that some things went together and some things didn’t. Being hard and peeing at the same time didn’t go together.
Seven year-old sex was forbidden. So being adventurous 7-year-olds, we had a great time playing, until we got caught. We were both punished and forbidden to see each other for months. I went back to playing with sticks and stones and looked forward to my next big sexual adventure.
When I was 8-years-old, my 10-year-old sleep-over buddy introduced me to masturbation. He didn’t call it that. He just said, “Stroke your penis up and down, faster and faster. It will feel great, and you’ll get a surprising reward.” I did as instructed. And it did feel good, but the only reward I received was chafed skin. He said I might be too young, but to keep trying. It didn’t seem worth it to me to try harder and I went back to sports and my balls and bats.
I discovered my mother’s vibrator when I was 9-years-old. She said she used it for sore muscles. You plugged it in and it vibrated like crazy, giving off a very unpleasant buzzing sound. One day when she was away I plugged it in and ran it around my genitals. At first the sensation was, well…, weird. But it gradually began to feel pleasurable. I was getting a massive erection (or at least as massive as a 9-year-old’s erection can be) and I was on the brink of some kind of physical explosion. I was sure I was on my way to the “surprising reward” my 10-year-old buddy had promised me.
I exploded all over the liberator, my hands, and the couch and I realized that my friend was not really my friend after all. I realized what I had done, but it was too late. My penis went from super-inflated joy-and-wonder to a dissipated dangle of lifeless flesh. I instantly knew what I had done. I had heard about children in bathtubs when the radio fell in the tub and they were electrocuted (yes, that was something we were really afraid of when I was growing up). I knew what had happened. I had electrocuted my penis and this wet, lifeless, little being I held in my hand was the result.
I didn’t believe in God, but I prayed like crazy that if God would restore my lifeless penis, I would be a good boy for the rest of my life and would stop my sexual adventuring. In the world of sexual adventuring, God is great. She restored my penis to life and it still had the magical ability to inflate at times of excitement, which as I got to be 10, 11, and 12 it seemed to do all the time. It was embarrassing. It would pop to attention at the most inopportune times, like when I was asked to stand before the class and recite the weekly poem we had learned. I never asked God to kill it, but I once asked God if she’d consider giving it a mild sedative so it would go to sleep like a good little chap. That never happened and the other boys would tease me relentlessly, “I’m wise to the rise in your Levis.” The girls seemed totally uninterested, though I was soon to learn they had their own sexual desires and adventures.
I continued my adventuring and learning lessons about sex, life, and intimacy. I never fully understood the relationship between sexuality and intimacy until I learned about the different brain systems that are involved. Helen Fisher, author, of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, divides love into three categories involving different brain systems and hormonal mixtures:
- Lust (the craving for sexual gratification), driven by androgens and estrogens;
- Attraction (or romantic or passionate love, characterized by euphoria when things are going well, terrible mood swings when they’re not, focused attention, obsessive thinking, and intense craving for the individual), driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin;
- Attachment (the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels with a long-term partner) driven by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.
By this time I had experienced both lust, attraction, and attachment. I was devastated when my first real love interest dumped me for another guy. The loss was way worse than what I had experienced when I thought I’d killed my penis. I was heart-broken and depressed. I felt suicidal.
For the first time I learned that love and loss can be deadly. Dr. Fisher cited one study where 40 percent of people who had been dumped by their partner in the previous eight weeks experienced clinical depression and 12 percent suffered severe depression. It is estimated that 50 to 70 percent of female homicides are committed by lovers and spouses. Annually one million women and 400,000 men are stalked.
Clearly these brain systems and powerful hormones are part of the reproductive dance that assures the continuation of our species. “I think the sex drive evolved to get you out there to get looking for anything at all,” says Fisher. Romantic love, she thinks, developed to focus one’s mating energy on just one individual while attachment works to tolerate this individual long enough to raise children as a team.
These systems are inter-related. We often lust after people we are attracted to and when we have sex with a partner we become more intimate with them. When we develop deep bonds with someone (like people we work closely with) sexual sparks can fly.
So, when it comes to intimacy, is sex over-rated? We might well ask the reverse question. When it comes to sex, is intimacy over-rated? The truth is throughout our lives all three of these brain systems are active. There are times when I’ve been much more interested in sex than intimacy. And times when I’ve been much more interested in intimacy than in sex. As I’ve gotten older, sex has taken on a new meaning. It used to be tied to intercourse and orgasm (handy when you’re in the reproductive years). Now sex is more related to intimacy, touch, taste, pleasure, and the power of two. Life is a dance and like all great dances, we’re not always in control. We have to risk everything and often operate at the edge of “falling on our face.” Sex, love, and intimacy are like that. But I want to dance them to the end.
Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.