How to Overcome Naked Terror

(About an 11 minute read)

One morning, a few weeks after I’d met Becky, I decided to call her in the hopes of having a lively little phone chat.

“Hi Becky!  It’s Paul!  What a beautiful Saturday!”

“Hi Paul!  I’m good, but I can’t talk right now.  The kids and I are about to leave for Valley View Hot Springs.  Would you like to come along?”

I’d never heard of the hot springs, but I had a policy back then of accepting invitations.  Any kind of invitations, except — perhaps — to bank robbery.  Bank robbery was where I drew the line — usually.  So I told Becky I was in.

“Great, Paul!  But let me first make sure it’s alright with Aaron and Leah.”  Presently, I could hear her asking the kids, but I couldn’t hear their responses.  Then Becky came back on the line.

“They want you to come with us, but on one condition: You have to keep your clothes on.”

“My clothes on?  Why would I take them off?”  I thought the kids were joking.  I was about to say something goofy in response to the them when Becky said, “I forgot to tell you, Valley View is clothing optional.  I’m going nude, but you should bring a swimsuit or shorts.”

I had never in my life been to a clothing optional resort.  I hadn’t even gone skinny dipping in all my 38 years, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as the “type” to enjoy getting nude in public, whatever that “type” was.  So I was secretly glad the kids had given me an excuse to wear something, bless their little candy-begging hearts!

Valley View Hot Springs turned out to be a rural place, twenty-five miles distant from the nearest city, and purposely kept as close to its natural state as any resort could possibly be kept.  It wasn’t at all crowded the day we went, but there were enough people around that I noticed something rather peculiar:  About a third to perhaps a half of the people were speaking in low voices, nearly whispering, as if in a cathedral or some other sacred space.

When I asked Becky why people were whispering, she whispered back that she didn’t know, but that it was common there.  Then she speculated that it might be the natural beauty.  “I think the people whispering might be respecting the spirits that live here.” She added.

I myself didn’t believe in spirits, but I had learned by then that Becky uses such words to describe something real.  Maybe not real spirits, but something that’s nevertheless there, if you can only see it as well as she does.  Once, for example, she told me that a mutual acquaintance of ours was “possessed by a bad spirit today”.  I didn’t know what she meant until I ran into our acquaintance to discover she was in the pissiest mood I’d ever seen her.  So when Becky told me Valley View was inhabited by spirits that people respected, I wondered what it was that people were respecting?

Becky wanted to go soak in the Upper Pool, which was the pool furthest up the mountainside that the resort is located on.  We set out on a dirt trail to it, Becky in the lead, followed by Leah, then Aaron and I.  Aaron was seven that year, and rather short, even for his age.   About half way to our intended destination, we came to an obstacle.  The trail suddenly took a sheer leap upwards of about three feet — too much for Aaron!  After making several attempts to negotiate the slippery earth, he cried out after his mother and sister, “Go on!  The pioneers must go on! Some will fall behind to perish, but the wagon train must go on!  Remember me when you reach the promised land!”

I was quite impressed.  Only seven?  I hoisted him up on the ledge, both of us laughing.

The Upper Pool turned out to be occupied by a fair number of people.  Becky, who hates crowds, turned us back down the trail to a couple lower pools.  She then told the kids to go play in the lowest of them, while she and I would watch them from above.  “Quietly!  I don’t want to hear any noise!” She commanded.  I looked forward to a peaceful afternoon soaking in a naturally warm pool in the midst of nature — and in my shorts.

It was about then Becky said, “You can take your shorts off, if you want.  It doesn’t matter either way to me, but the kids won’t be bothered by it now — they’ve got their own pool.”

My younger brother says of me now and then that I am, “the calmest man under stress he’s ever known.”  He says that about me because he’s only ever seen me caught in quicksand, about to slam into the back of a semi-truck in an auto accident, or in the process of losing my home, wife, and business within the course of a few short months.  He’s never seen me under real stress. Unimaginable stress.  Mind crippling stress!  Had he seen me that day, moments after I took my shorts off, my brother would have taken back every good word he’s ever spoken about me and stress.

Why did I do it?  Honestly, I didn’t anticipate the degree of embarrassment involved.  Becky made it look easy, natural.  So easy and natural that she made it look in comparison hard and unnatural to stay dressed.  I thought, “It’s a little out of my comfort zone, but it looks fun.”   But just three or so minutes later, I was thinking, “OMG! I’m blushing!  I can feel my face on fire!  Jesus!  My arms are red!  I’ve never blushed like this in my life!  My chest is red!  My chest!  Do penises blush?  Oh, I am so going to die if Becky asks me why my penis is red!”

Becky, though, had pulled a book out of her backpack and was now laying in the pool, her head propped up on a bank, and engrossed in reading, totally ignoring me.  Mercifully, I might not have even been there so far as she was concerned.

Becky and I had met perhaps a month or six weeks before, and we were quite rapidly developing a brother/sister friendship.  Neither one of us seemed sexually interested in the other, a fact I found comforting because I was just two years out from my second marriage, which had been to an exceptionally cruel woman.  At the time, I tended to run faster than lightening from any woman who seriously hinted at our becoming sexually intimate.  I wanted no repeats of being pieced through my chest by the intense suffering and loneliness that only comes from making your bed with someone who fundamentally rejects you as a person.  But Becky was as reassuringly asexual towards me as she was free spirited towards life itself.

But for the next couple hours I wasn’t thinking of that, not even thinking about Becky so much as I was self-consciously thinking about myself.  I felt the eyes of everyone who came and went on the nearby trail.  I dreaded that someone — or, worse, some group — would arrive to share our pool.  And I poured over in my churning mind every detail of my body, questioning whether my body met the standards for being “acceptable”.

At some point though, it simply occurred to me that I was being an idiot.  That is, I had the sudden insight that all my present troubles came from my not accepting myself just as I was.

I don’t recall it was easy, but over the next few minutes I somehow managed to shift gears from feverishly judging myself to calmly accepting myself.  About then, I began noticing things, things that had escaped me while I’d been so concerned with me.  The breeze through the pines sounded like a river, insects were chirping, the sunlight dappled the pebbles on the floor of our pool, there were dust devils crossing the fields in the valley below us, and Becky was asleep.  When had she fallen asleep?  I didn’t know.  I only noticed it after I quit thinking so much about myself.

A couple weeks after that first trip, I was invited on another trip to Valley View by Joe (A quite remarkable eighteen year old friend whom I’ve written about here).  Soon after that, the invitations from Joe, or from others in his group, became fairly frequent.  I never asked to go along, but I didn’t need to.  For reasons of their own, that group of 15 to 22 year old men and women had adopted me, and had made it a habit to include me in many of their numerous road trips to Valley View, or to other destinations.  So, I became an old hand at going nude in public.  I learned that speaking in a low voice or even whispering at Valley View was just as common as Becky said it was.  And I also learned more about acceptance from those trips than I’d ever learned before in my life.

A few years ago, a friend of mine, a Christian minister, told me that she and her husband had visited a nudist resort.  It was a new experience for both of them, and she said the experience was a bit overwhelming.   “But not overwhelming for why you might think, Paul.  I never expected such acceptance from people.  The nudists at the resort were more accepting of themselves and each other than my congregation is on a Sunday after services.  Paul, it was as if they were practicing Christian love.  Practicing it!”

By the time she told me that I had already formed my own impression that nudists were remarkably accepting of both themselves and others.  I wasn’t quite ready to testify to it before Congress — and I still am not — but acceptance has usually seemed thick in the air at the resorts I’ve been to.   And most of the people I’ve gone with to those resorts have at one time or another mentioned it.  Naturally, I have cooked up an idea or two about it all.

As I see it, going nude in public is comfortable to the degree that you accept yourself as you are.  But so far as I can see, it’s not really possible to completely accept yourself while still being judgmental and non-accepting of others.  You can’t give up one without giving up both.  And if that’s true, then it might explain why nudists tend to be much more accepting of both themselves and others than, say, the typical congregation after a Sunday service.   Moreover, I’ve come to wonder whether it’s those feelings of acceptance and being accepted that make so many people at Valley View think to speak in whispers, as if in a sacred place.  Are those feelings of acceptance the spirits Becky talked about?  My guess is that’s what she was getting at.

But what do you think?  Am I sniffing down the right trail here, barking up the right tree, sticking my nose in the appropriate crotch?  Or should I get out my bong and indulge in more Colorado weed while re-thinking the whole thing?  Please feel free to offer your advice, guidance, opinions, observations, wisdom, and, of course, generous cash rewards!


Hat Tip to Quinn, who blogs at “When Do I Get the Manuel“, and who inspired this post with a post of her own, Stripping Off in Suwa, Japan.  If you are not familiar with Quinn’s writing, you would be doing yourself a favor to click over to her post and become acquainted with some of the best, most engaging writing that I’ve come across on a blog in the past ten years.  I know.  I know.  You’re thinking, “She’s not some decrepit old fart from Colorado telling us boring stories of his flaming embarrassments and shamelessly hounding us with his alarming theories about nudity, so how can she be that good?”  Trust me, she is:  She’s going to spoil you!

“Social Fretwork” by Dermott Hayes

(About a 1 minute read) 

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone:  I am very pleased to republish with permission here a beautiful poem by Dermott Hayes, who blogs at “Postcard From a Pigeon”Among other things, Dermott is a distinguished journalist, novelist, poet, and, most recently, a film maker. Please enjoy Social Fretwork!

By the way, there is a video of Dermott reading another one of his poems, City of Thought,here.

I posted a thought,
it flew away
down through dark, cavernous
cyberways,
to bump and grind
with other lonesome thoughts
in the hotbeds of social fretworks.

And worried then
where it might go
unguided, misunderstood
to liaise, frolic and fret
argue, debate,
opinionate
in a world of posts,
untethered,
away from me,
gone, awaiting its return,
alone.

A Life that Passed Like a Wind

Thirty four years ago last November, my former roommate, Dan Cohen died at the age of 25. He was an extraordinary individual, and if you have a moment, I’d like to tell you a little bit about him.

Dan had the misfortune of being born a Thalidomide baby. He was significantly less than five feet tall, slightly hard of hearing, nearly blind but for his exceptionally thick glasses, and he had purple tinted teeth — which were always on display since his lips did not easily close over them. But the worst of it was that he had an exceptionally weak heart.

At the time I knew him, Dan could walk only a few hundred yards without stopping to rest because his heart would within that short distance pound like he’d run a marathon.

At an early age — maybe nine or ten — Dan’s doctors told his parents that, because of the weakness of his heart, he would most likely not live beyond 25 years old, which proved to be an accurate prediction. His parents made the decision to tell Dan what the doctors had told them, so Dan knew early on that he wasn’t going to live a long life.

I met Dan in college. He and I lived on the same dorm floor for awhile. We became roommates because no one else on the floor wanted him as a roommate. Frankly, Dan was one of the messiest people I’ve ever known. But when he asked to become my roommate, I figured I could handle it on the one condition that he didn’t let any of his mess stray to my side of the room.

It wasn’t long before I learned that Dan’s one ambition in life was to learn everything he could possibly learn as fast as he could learn it. Because of his circumstances, the university allowed him to study anything he wanted to study without pressuring him to graduate. His official major was biology, but he took courses in every major field of science along with many courses in the humanities. He was an engaging thinker, and introduced me to many ideas that were new to me.

The only thing Dan seemed to like more than learning something new was a good joke. Most of our conversations were laced with his wit, and even to this day, I can hear in my mind his laughter.

He also had an well-informed empathy for the underdog, the oppressed, that I myself at the time did not fully share with him. For instance, he was deeply concerned with injustices suffered by the Palestinians.

We only roomed together for one year before I left the dorms. Then one freezing winter night, Dan got a phone call from the hospital. My brother was seriously ill and had been taken to the emergency room. Could Dan give them my new number?

As it happened, Dan only had my address, but not my phone number. Without apparent thought for himself, he set out past midnight, in the middle of a blizzard, to walk to my new home because he didn’t have cab fare and couldn’t find anyone who would lend him the money. It took him, he said, almost two hours to reach me. He had to stop every block or so and rest his heart in the freezing wind.

What impresses me most about the man was not the selfless, heroic effort he made to inform me of my brother’s hospitalization, but rather his extraordinary love for life, his courage, and his sensitivity to others.

Dan knew he didn’t have much time in this world, but I never once heard him complain about it. You can say life was unfair to him, but that’s not a judgement he himself ever gave an indication of harboring.

Instead, I only recall his passionate enthusiasm when he would toss out to me some new idea he’d had, or some bit of knowledge he’d discovered that day. I think he made the most of the tragic hand he was dealt in life, and over the years, he has become something a personal inspiration to me.

Thank you for listening. I believe Dan deserves to be remembered.

Life’s “What Was That All About?” Moments

I’m about three-quarters and a dime convinced that a certain blogger I’ve been reading on and off for years writes so well that she could, if she wanted to, transform the journey of a common black ant tediously meandering across a boring concrete sidewalk into a New York Times best seller.

Her eye for detail, sharp wit, and fresh, nearly poetic prose enrich commonplace life events with emotion and (often enough) laughter.  She not only makes me feel, though: She makes me think, too.  And thinking about something she wrote earlier tonight is what I’ve been doing for the past hour or so.

Should you like to read her post, it’s here.  The soul of it is a “What was that all about?” moment that she had on her way to the gym.  She wrote it up in a way that left me feeling like it had happened to me.  So I commented on her post.

We had a brief exchange during which she proposed that her whole life was one WTF? moment after another.  That got me thinking, “Yeah, there’s probably at least some truth to that for nearly everyone of us”.

Psychologists, among others, will tell you that we humans tend to naturally turn strings of events into stories, or “narratives”, as they call them.   Where most other animals might see just a string of events, we see a narrative.  For our species, such a string of events is often enough perceived as (1) causally linked, (2) progressive or unfolding, (3) thematic, and (4) tending towards a climatic moment followed by (5) a resolution.   That list might have left out some things, too.

Seeing stories in events is not really something we learn, it’s something we’re born with.  An instinctive way of perceiving or ordering reality.  To feel the force of that instinct simply recall how you felt the last time someone told you an interesting or engaging story that…left you hanging.

FIRST PERSON: “It was the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied with two outs when Fisher stepped up to bat.  The first pitch was super-fast, too fast for him to swing in time. Strike! But on the second pitch he connected.”

(long pause)

SECOND PERSON: “That’s it?  But what happened next?”

On a subtle note, when you read the name “Fisher” did you for perhaps a brief instant wonder, “Why Fisher?  Who is he?”, or something along those lines?  If so, that’s your mind trying to change a simple fact (i.e. the name “Fisher”) into more story, more narrative.

I’m not going to spend time here speculating on why we see stories in causally related events, because I’d like to focus on something else instead:  I think it’s highly arguable that life mostly is not what we so often think it is.

Mostly, life does not fit quite so neatly into the frame of a story.  But do we easily remember how often that’s the case?  I don’t think so.  When life fails to fit into a story, I think we tend to dismiss it, downplay it, forget it, unless there is some distinctive reason not to forget it (e.g. an event was funny, poignant, moving, disturbing, scary, etc.).  What’s mostly left are memories of when life did make passable sense as a story, and thus we have an impression that life is more often a story than it actually is.

Put differently, I think it might be arguable that life is more often composed of “What was that all about?” moments than it is composed of more tidy and satisfying conclusions.

For instance, shyness was quite a problem for me from an early age through to my late 30s.  But the shyness ran beneath the surface, beneath the mask I wore of a fairly outgoing person.  I myself was keenly aware of it, though.

Then, sometime in my late 30s or early 40s it all but entirely disappeared.  I’m 60 now, and I can probably count on my ten fingers the number of times since age 45 that I’ve felt shy.  Why it went away, I have no idea.  I can speculate endlessly on that question, but I cannot find a convincing answer to it.

My shyness thus makes a mostly unsatisfying story.  Sure, there’s a sort of resolution (i.e. it did go away), but I am left hanging on the why.  Consequently, when I look back on it now, I have feelings of “What was that all about?”  And those feelings are magnified for me by the fact that I spent so much time and effort in my younger years trying one thing after another to eradicate my shyness.  Not one of those things worked for me.  Then. for no apparent reason, it was gone.

When you read about my shyness, do you feel an urge to explain why it went away?  If you’re like me, you do.  My mind wants to just jump in there with the most plausible explanation it can conjure, regardless of the fact there’s no practical way I know of actually testing any explanation to determine if it is really true.

“What was that all about? moments might just be far more common than we think.  It’s even arguable that they are more characteristic of life than moments when things do make a heap of sense.  But whatever the case, it’s a fact our minds see strings of causally connected events as stories.  In light of that, a “What was that all about?” moment can be thought of as the “conclusion” to an aborted story.

Please feel free to share your favorite “What was that all about?” moment! And, by the way, some of my earlier views on the topic of our narrative minds can be found here.

Late Night Thoughts: Friday, March 17, 2017

I turned 60 a couple months ago. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about getting older has been that I don’t worry as much about my mistakes as I used to when I was younger.

I still make as many — or even more — mistakes as I ever did, but I just don’t worry about them as much. Instead, I let the victims of my mistakes do the worrying, for part of my getting older has been my learning how to properly delegate responsibility.

I recently got involved in a discussion of nudity.  Someone said that nudity was against Christian principles for women.  That is, women should be modest in their apparel.

Then someone else pointed out there wasn’t much that was more modest than nudity.  “Hard to put on airs when you ain’t got nothing else on.”

Do you suppose American women, by and large, have similar handwriting?

At least, it’s my impression that a woman’s handwriting usually resembles other women’s handwriting to a greater degree than a man’s handwriting is apt to resemble other men’s handwriting.  Put differently, it seems more difficult to tell women apart than it seems it is to tell men apart.

If that is indeed the case, then why is it the case?

And if it is true of American women, is it true of women elsewhere?

I’ve heard people say we can never know for certain what it feels like to be someone else.  But is that really true? Is it never possible to know for certain what it feels like to be someone else?

Yesterday, I was with my friend Don for a late lunch. Don and I go back a long ways and we know each other pretty well.

At one point during our lunch, he said something that was so profound it went completely over my head and I couldn’t even begin to fathom what he meant.  I felt lost and stupid.

Then I suddenly realized: “Surely, this is what it feels like to be a politician!”

Who am I?

If you ask most of us who we are, we will answer you by naming one or another relationship. We are, for instance, a husband.  Or a golfer.  Or a businessman.  But to say we are a husband, or a golfer, or a businessman, is each case to define our self in terms of the relationship we have to something.

In contrast, we tend not to define our self in terms of what is happening with us at any given moment.  I do not think of myself as someone whose shoulder is itching. Or as someone who happens to be looking at a computer monitor.  Or as someone who is wishing it was dawn.  All of those are transient things — too transient for me to think of them as “me”.

Yet, being a husband, a golfer, or a businessman are also transient.  That is, if you really think about it, you are not simply “a husband”.  You are only sometimes a husband.  Just as your shoulder only sometimes itches.  And it is only a convention of thought that you imagine yourself to always — or continuously — be a husband.

The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest. – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968, p. 229.

While it might be true Nietzsche never wrote what Campbell attributes to him, Campbell’s “paraphrase” of Nietzsche’s views ranks as a sharp insight in itself.

We humans sometimes wish to construct systems of thought — worldviews — that are consistent throughout and encompass everything.  Yet, such “views” are simply beyond us, and might even be logically impossible.

So, perhaps the best we can do is to become Cosmic Dancers.  That is, folks who are capable of looking at things from many angles and perspectives, who are capable of dancing between views, but who do not settle dogmatically on any one point of view.

The mane is thought to keep the neck warm, and possibly to help water run off the neck if the animal cannot obtain shelter from the rain. It also provides some fly protection to the front of the horse, although the tail is usually the first defense against flies.

Wikipedia

I’m not buying it.  I find it implausible that manes would evolve because horses with manes had warmer necks, and that their warmer necks proved to be significant to their reproductive success.  There must be some other reason manes evolved.

But what would that be?

I was thinking sexual selection.  That is, I was thinking manes are like the male peacock’s tail.  It provides no survival advantage, but the female peacock’s like it. So the females pick the males with the best tails to mate with.  That’s what I was thinking.

But then I remembered that both male and female horses have manes. So now I’m thinking sexual selection probably isn’t the reason horses evolved manes.

But what is the reason?

For the sake of discussion, let us assume there’s an able god.  By “able”, I mean that god is capable of doing anything that does not violate the rules of logic.  For instance, it can create the universe, but it cannot create a square circle because a square circle is logically impossible.

Next, let us assume that god unconditionally loves all of creation, including each one of us.

Is that scenario logically possible?

Well, I think it is possible. I would not account it very probable. It’s not something I’d bank on.  But possible?  Yes.

Now, let us assume the same two conditions — an able god and that god’s unconditional love — plus a third condition.

The third condition is there exists a hell that is a part of creation and to which people are sent after their death if they disobey the god.

Is the new scenario logically possible?

I do not think so.  Instead,. I think the new scenario involves a logical contradiction and consequently cannot exist.  That is, it cannot be real.  But what is that contradiction?

Well, how can you logically have an able god that loves you unconditionally and also causes you to go to hell if you disobey that god?

So far as I can see, you cannot.  An unconditionally loving god would neither impose a condition upon it’s love ( i.e. if you do not obey me, I will not love you) nor would an unconditionally loving god, if it were able to prevent it, allow it’s beloved to come to harm (i.e. if you do not obey me, I will cause or allow you to go to hell).

But what do you think?  Is it an amusing logic puzzle?  Or have I just had too much caffeine again?

Four Quotes From Voltaire:

Les habiles tyrans ne sont jamais punis.

— Clever tyrants are never punished.

C’est une des superstitions de l’esprit humain d’avoir imaginé que la virginité pouvait être une vertu.

It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.

Nous cherchons tous le bonheur, mais sans savoir où, comme les ivrognes qui cherchent leur maison, sachant confusément qu’ils en ont une.

We all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.

Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois: Vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de malfaire la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre coeur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.

Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

(Source)

A while back, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I noticed — just beyond the window — a girl of about 14 or 16 dressed in a highly sexualized manner.  That is, her clothing was flamboyantly sexual even for an adolescent.  Moverover, she was flirting with a boy, who appeared a bit older than her, and she very soon straddled his lap in order to grind against him.  I couldn’t recall when I had last seen in public such an overt display of sexuality — outside of an erotic dance club.

Now, the girl was not physically attractive by American conventions. For one thing, she was much too fat to be fashionable.  For another thing, she had a rather plain face thickly coated with cosmetics.  And, though her clothing was notable for being revealing, it did not seem that she had put much thought into the combination she’d chosen.

So, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder whether the poor girl might be suffering from low self-esteem.  That is, it seemed possible that she thought of herself as not having much to offer the boys besides sex.

I was thinking along those sad lines when I heard a male voice at the table behind me say, “God! Look at that slut!”

Of course, I don’t know whether he was talking about the girl, or about someone else.  I didn’t ask.  Yet, I assumed he was indeed talking about the girl — and that made me feel old.  Old and tired.

You see, the one attractive thing I had noticed about the girl in the few minutes I’d been watching her was that she seemed so full of life.  Even if her dress and mannerisms were motivated by low self-esteem — and I didn’t know that for certain — she appeared at the moment happy.  She was, if only for a while, the queen of her universe.  It wearied me to think anyone would simply dismiss her as a slut.

“What is it Like Teaching and Doing Research at a University?”

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone:

Jon Horvitz is a professor and neurosciences researcher at the City University of New York.  He also happens to have been a frequent reader of Cafe Philos, back before I put this blog in a six year hiatus, and he is still one of my favorite commentators of all time because of the many insights he shared. 

Jon keeps a blog called, Brain, Mind, and Other Things, that he describes as, “a ‘here’s-something-funny-that-happened-to-me’ or an ‘i-can’t-stop-thinking about-this-idea’ blog”.  I am quite pleased today to re-post here a recent, short article that he wrote for his blog.   When I read it, the article immediately struck me for its unusual, counter-stereotypical view of scientists.  After all, scientists are commonly looked upon as experts, wholly knowledgeable in their fields; but as Jon points out, that’s not how a researcher is likely to actually think or feel about themselves!  Please enjoy Jon’s thought-provoking post…

I told the students in my class Mind, Brain, and Experience that we don’t really know most things about neuroscience. That really the feeling of being a scientist isn’t the feeling of knowing lots of stuff. It’s the feeling of not knowing something that you’re interested in. Kind of like not understanding a new relationship with someone who’s important to you. It’s the feeling of scratching your head and saying ‘I wonder how this works’, and saying to your grad student ‘How do you think it works?’, and doing an experiment that probably doesn’t reveal the answer completely, but maybe reveals a little bit about the shape of the thing.

When I was in college, the professors I had all seemed to know so much. They seemed to be looking out from a high peak at the landscape below. But that’s not the feeling at all. At least for neuroscientists, maybe all scientists. It’s more the feeling of looking up at a huge waterfall, and not being able to see the top of it. You don’t know where the water’s coming from, and you’re not sure how to get to the top so you can see where it’s coming from. Is there a road that you can drive and get high enough to find out? There’s no map. You don’t even see a road, just a lot of vegetation all around. Someday someone might find a way to get to the top, but probably not in your lifetime. And instead of discovering the origin of the waterfall you’d like to discover something important about the brain and the mind, like how neural activity gives rise to thoughts, or even how the brain allows us to form habits that we can carry out almost without awareness.

You spend part of your work hours sharing what you know about the field with the undergraduates taking your class (and i love my CCNY students). Then you go back to thinking about pieces of experimental research findings that don’t fit together well, and wonder how you might find out more about the waterfall.

Testosterone, Sex, and Intimacy in the Age of Porn

Why do heterosexual men seem disinterested in helping a lady along?  — Kacey

A lack of sexual satisfaction is more common in women than in men.  By all accounts, there are many reasons why that’s so:

  • Busy schedules can turn sex into just another task or chore.
  • Discontent with their bodies can leave women not feeling sexy.
  • Women’s reluctance or even their unwillingness to ask for what they want in bed can mean their partners don’t meet their needs.
  • Sex lives can be too predictable and thus boring.
  • Health issues can cause a whole variety of problems.
  • Stress can impact both the quality and ability to orgasm.
  • A woman’s socio-economic status can influence her sexual satisfaction (the higher the status, the better).
  • A history of sexual abuse can negatively impact sexual satisfaction.
  • Sexual guilt can also negatively impact satisfaction.
  • And additional reasons not listed here.

In doing the research for the above list, I noticed that none of the sources I used mention what to most of us might be obvious: A woman’s partner could be “unhelpful” in bed.  “You’re on your own, babe.  I’ve got mine, you get yours!”  It seems just a wee bit possible that might leave the lady a mite less than blissfully satisfied.

I have no idea what percentage of men are incompetent lovers (nor, for that matter, what percentage of women are the same),  It could be high or low.  Like most folks, however, I’ve heard the horror stories.  To give but one example, a wife emailed me a while back asking how she could communicate to her husband the fact that 15 minutes of intercourse without much at all in the way of foreplay just wasn’t doing it for her. In their 11 years of marriage, she hadn’t once moved him to depart from his routine.  Worse, he’d taken to leaving her soon after his completion, often with the departing words, “I’m going to get out of your way now so you can have some privacy while finishing yourself off.”  Paradoxically, she told me her husband was otherwise a decent man to her.

The strange thing to me about the stories I hear is that their horrors often enough seem so unnecessary.  Granting there are exceptions — difficult partners, poor health, work stress, much too much blog reading, taking Sunstone’s sex advice, and all that, but it usually isn’t hard to pleasure a woman; we are not talking rocket science or Olympic gymnastics here.  So we might ask why is it some decent men who ought not to be incompetent at sex, actually are incompetent?

Naturally, we can’t get into all the possible reasons in a mere blog post, so we’ll need to be picky.  I’m guessing you will find one of the more interesting reasons to be the role that testosterone can sometimes play in a man’s sexual incompetence.  Besides, it’s always fun to blame testosterone for everything!

Theresa L. Crenshaw is a medical doctor and sex therapist who in her book, The Alchemy of Love and Lust, discusses the sexually of men and women during the different decades of our lives.  She notes that men and women in their 40s tend to experience much greater sexual and emotional compatibility in large part due the man’s naturally decreasing levels of testosterone.

Of course, testosterone is most famous as the hormone that produces horniness in both men and women.  Everyone agrees that men have much higher levels of testosterone than women, although I am not aware of any genuine consensus among scientists yet as to how much higher.  I’ve heard several estimates, however, and the one thing they all agree on is that male levels are much higher.  As in multiples higher.

Several decades ago, as well as I can recall now, a group of researchers wondered what would happen to women who were injected with peak male levels of the Big-T.   And so they did it.  The women, of course, were volunteers but were not told that they were being injected with testosterone.  Instead, they were told, “vitamins”.  Once injected, they were asked to spend the next half hour writing down their thoughts and feelings about sex — whatever came into their heads.

The women all but put the male authors of porn to shame.  They produced raw, graphic, sexually explicit streams of consciousness that were notable for being dominated by vivid images of naked men and their body parts.  Moreover, their writings seemed to reduce the men they wrote about to sex objects, or at least near to.  Furthermore, they wrote “eloquently” of their sudden, new-found feelings of intense horniness.   In short, the women’s thoughts and feelings were like those of young men whose testosterone levels are peaking, perhaps exceptionally high.

Comparatively few people know about the effects testosterone has on men other than to produce horniness.  For instance, many people have — or have noticed — the tendency of men to roll away in bed from their partners shortly after having had sex.  Far fewer people are aware that the cause of the behavior is ascribed to testosterone by at least some scientists.

But testosterone can play a much greater roll in how men treat women than just by rolling away in bed.  One of the foremost researchers into the effects of testosterone on men’s thoughts and feelings was James McBride Dabbs.

Dabbs found that high testosterone men can be driven to compete with and dominate others.  At its worse, this can involve brute force, violence, and fighting behavior of all kinds.  But even when that was not the case, Dabbs noted that high-T males can be “rough and callous”, their more tender feelings apparently “blunted” by the hormone.  Summarizing a few of Dabbs’ findings, Leon Seltzer has written:

…they [the high-T males] tend not to be particularly concerned about–or, for that matter, interested in–the feelings of others. And unmoderated feelings such as lust, resentment, or rage can easily preempt the softer feelings of love, compassion, or forgiveness.

Seltzer goes on to specifically address the problems high-T males (and their partners!) can face in dealing with intimate relationships:

I’d like to expand a bit on some of the points I made earlier about how high-testosterone males have difficulty treating the opposite sex with the consideration and respect they deserve. Insufficiently sensitive to a girl’s or woman’s feelings, they also struggle with simply appreciating these feelings. And so, among other things, they typically don’t function particularly well in marriages. In fact, the statistics available on this topic indicate that they’re more likely to divorce and–indeed–less likely to marry in the first place.

Additionally, having such a strong need for dominance virtually guarantees that their marriages will be problematic. Overall, they’re less satisfied in their marriage (as compared to lower-T males). And their difficulty accepting their mates as true (and non-competitive) equals assures a degree of conflict hardly compatible with the best unions. Here Dabbs cites the work of marital theorist John Gottman–perhaps the world’s pre-eminent authority on what makes intimate relationships work–by noting his findings that egalitarian marriages are the most successful. High-T males, with their propensity to dominate (and even pick fights–whether they be for fun or blood), hardly fit the picture of Gottman’s ideal husband, ready and willing to share power and control.

Although we have been talking here of an extreme — i.e. high-T males — it should be noted that even low-T males might echo, albeit more faintly, the behaviors of their high-T brothers. That’s to say, some effects of testosterone can be at least somewhat problematic for all men and, by extension, their partners.

When Kacey first suggested to me a week or so ago that I write a blog post on “Why do heterosexual men seem disinterested in helping a lady along?“, I thought of a number of possible reasons for it.  Culture, for instance, surely would be a huge part of any comprehensive answer to her question.  (I wrote a wee bit about the role of culture in an earlier post, “The Three Key Sex Acts that Cause Female Orgasms, According to Science”. )  But I think no comprehensive answer to Karina’s question is possible without mentioning the Big-T.

So, what can be done to ameliorate the negative effects of testosterone?  Well, we could encourage all women and girls to turn cynical and bitter about male sexuality, constantly snipe, whine, and moan about it, and ultimately refuse to have sex with males.  Ordinarily, that’s how I’d solve the problem, but I sense this time that might be a bad idea, if only for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.

I think the sane choice is education.  I have heard that currently, the public school sex education courses are generally in a deplorable state in America.  So I think they should be put back on their feet, and then expanded to cover not only the mechanics of sex and contraception, but also the psychology of our sexuality, very much including the effects of testosterone, and what to do about those effects.

I think I should mention here that I know of an educator, Dr. Karen Rayne, who conducts classes and seminars in sexuality, and who addresses some of these issues both in her classes and seminars, and in the books she has authored.  Dr. Rayne is top notch in her field.  You might want to contact her if you or your group happen to be in need of a seminar, etc.  Or if you want expert advice on how and what to say to your son or daughter about sex, romance, relationships and so forth.  Dealing with children and adolescent sexuality is her specialty.  (Full Disclosure:  I’m a huge fan of hers, she’s helped me out at times with my blog by arranging to have posts reprinted in online magazines, and I’ve had a crush on her for years.)

Now, I think internet porn factors into all of this as well.  Another renowned expert in human sexuality, Dr. Robert Weiss, was once asked, “What is the most common issue you see with today’s generation when it comes to relationships and sex?”  In response, Weiss pointed squarely to internet porn:

The most common negative issue I see with young people is a lack of understanding about how to build intimacy, trust and healthy sex.

This means that adolescents and young adults, because of their extensive exposure to internet porn, and sex without relationships (see Tinder) seems to be leading to untested expectations about what a partner should and should not deliver sexually and when. To put it simply, pre-digital age, if you wanted to get laid, and you weren’t going to pay for it, you had to be romantic, you had to have the charm and social skills to make someone feel safe and comfortable enough to want to be sexual.

Today, that skill set is no longer required [to get laid], but it is required to build romance, sexual intimacy and love. So I see heterosexual young men struggling with the idea that sex in real life should be like porn, and all the expectations that come with that.

I see heterosexual young women…with their new freedoms and openness to sex without relationships…. But also feelings of obligation and inferiority around sex with men who use porn as their standard.

I think the key to understanding the impact internet porn is having on the sex lives of men is to grasp that it is providing the model for what sex should be — especially for young men, who do not yet have more or less firm notions about what sex should be.

Another thing porn seems to be implicated in is the creation of a certain newfangled sexual dysfunction characterized by experiencing real people as less interesting than porn.  Weiss again:

When people become adapted to hyper stimulation (internet porn, webcam sex) that level of intensity becomes their expectation and norm. Therefore meeting with a real, live person just isn’t that interesting. This seems to be a different population than the sex addicts that I have treated for the last 30 years as it is a problem that seems to develop in adolescents and young adults rather than related to very early trauma.

There are quite a few other problems associated with internet porn, including more kinds of sexual dysfunctions, such as erectile dysfunction, anorgamsia, low sexual desire, delayed ejaculation and lower brain activation to sexual images.  Add to that the fact that some porn — not all, but some (e.g. rape porn) — seems to be associated with increased sexual aggression in men who heavily view it.

I have not fully answered here Karina’s question, but have instead stuck to the impact of just two factors, testosterone and porn.  I would submit that their impact on the sexual attitudes and behaviors of men is enormous.  For one thing, they are found everywhere.  Testosterone because it’s in all our bodies, and porn because it is available via the internet, so their influence is ubiquitous.  An interesting question to me is whether education will ever be enough to ameliorate the negative effects of those things.   I’m not so sure it will be enough.  But what do you think is the best way to deal with  these realities?  Your views are welcomed!