Men and Sex: What Women Need to Know

Men and Sex

“If sexuality is one dimension of our ability to live passionately in the world, then in cutting off our sexual feelings we diminish our overall power to feel, know and value deeply.”  ~ Judith Plaskow

Whenever someone talks or writes about gender-specific issues, there is always the danger of overgeneralizing what is being addressed as if it represents all men or all women. This is certainly not the case. While there are identifiable patterns related to gender, there are always exceptions (at times significant exceptions) to such claims as “women want connection before having sex” or “men hastily attempt to fix problems instead of listening empathetically.”

With this caveat in mind, in today’s How To Spice Up Your Marriage post, we look at men and sex (men’s sexuality)…in particular, the struggles some men have with integrating sexuality and sexual desire into a loving, committed relationship.

What follows are descriptions of the challenges some men have expressed in therapy—struggles that they initially couldn’t put into words; struggles these men would have initially denied to others and most importantly, denied to themselves; struggles that loosen their grip only when brought into the light of conscious awareness.

Men and Sex: 5 Struggles Men Sometimes Have with Sexual Intimacy

1) “I guess I use sex as an escape…”

There are many ways to hide one’s insecurities or dodge the relationship issues that make us uncomfortable. Overcompensating in order to mask feelings of inadequacy is the defensive gold standard for many. Avoidance maneuvers are another: Some of us may avoid sex altogether because we are ashamed of our body or feel shame or guilt whenever we attempt to express our erotic desires.

But then there are those who use sex for non-sexual, non-intimacy purposes.

Some men hide by using sex as a smokescreen to circumvent deeper emotional issues—sex can offer an escape from the deary and the painful, a temporary respite from underlying (and at times, unrelenting) concerns that we do not want to face. In these instances, sex takes on a function that has little to do with love or the expression of one’s sexual-self. Instead, sex acts as an analgesic that momentarily numbs. (Compulsive viewing of pornography can offer similar anesthetizing effects.) Little, if any, emotional connection occurs since the person using sex in this way is seldom present emotionally. In short, sex becomes a treadmill to nowhere. (Note: As with all these issues, this is not a phenomenon unknown to women.)

2) “If I can’t please my partner sexually, then what kind of man am I?…”

While sex can be an expression of the love and longing couples have for one another, it shouldn’t be forgotten that sex and sexuality are also firmly tied to one’s identity. A man’s sense of maleness takes center stage (at least in his mind) during sex—the masculine identity hovers close by, assessing whether or not the man’s “performance” is in line with his deeply internalized masculine ideals.

And when pleasing one’s sexual partner is an extension of a masculine decree, then the goal of satisfying one’s partner/spouse takes on heightened importance. And, paradoxically, this approach often dilutes the sexual experience for all involved, making both partners painfully self-conscious of some sexual goal that robs the couple of the pleasures that are right before them. For a better understanding of how self-consciousness can ruin a sexual experience, check out Sexual Intimacy and Self-Consciousness.

3) “At times it’s easier to just masturbate…”

In these instances there’s the desire for a quick sexual release without having to navigate the complex relationship world of feelings, reactions, counter-reactions and the possibility of rejection. Some men share their desire to masturbate with their partner, others masturbate in secrecy (attempting to dodge anticipated criticisms) and still others masturbate openly in front of the other—with, at times, their partner offering ‘assistance.’

Couples who masturbate do so for other reasons as well: to deal with sexual incompatibilities (the partner who wants more sex may feel like s/he is burdening the other, so the potential solution is to take care of oneself sexually); to compensate for an unsatisfying sex life; as a way to release the emotional and physical tension caused by stress.

Problems arise when masturbation begins to replace sexual intimacy, when perceived relationship barriers (as well as internal emotional barriers) prevent men from reaching out sexually to their spouse/partner. When the ease of masturbation is prioritized over intimacy, a slippery relationship slope is forming.

4) “I love my partner very much, but sexually [at times] I feel constrained by that love…”

Sex can be an expression of love. But it’s also an expression of the deepest parts of oneself—a self that is made up of a tapestry of desires, needs, wants and emotional reactions. Some of these desires may directly contradict one another (hence, the complexity of the mind and human behavior). When the men I work with feel safe enough in therapy to share their deepest longings, a story unfolds where the desire for tender and sensitive love-making exists side-by-side with a desire for carefree, selfish abandon.

But like the young child who must learn to self-monitor, to tame his energies and behavior in order to consider the feelings of others, these men report a lifetime of self-monitoring that they now wish to periodically escape. They care and are responsible, but they yearn for fleeting moments where they can escape all responsibilities. They seek to rejuvenate and to undo their accumulated wariness by discovering and pushing against the edges of the experiences that feel too confining at times.

5) “When I look into her eyes during sex I tense up inside…”

The above quote is a reaction to the intensity and vulnerability that can be part of the sexually intimate experience. The husband behind this quote became anxious whenever his wife asked him to look into her eyes during sex. His subjective experience shifted from one of erotic pleasure to emotional and physical uneasiness. As he explored his reaction further, he began to describe the experience of being visually penetrated without any protection, seen and known in ways that made him feel exposed and instinctively made him want to hide.

It wasn’t that this husband had trust issues with his wife or that he didn’t love her. He did. There were no secrets of betrayal he feared she would discover or feelings of guilt that made him unable to look at her in this way. It simply felt too intense. It seems as though many men won’t admit to this experience. But why?

Men are experts at adopting personae that cover their vulnerabilities from those they care most about, those who have the most power to wound them. When a man’s spouse/partner wants to see the parts of him that he cannot look at or accept himself (in particular, his vulnerabilities and insecurities), he must hide.  It’s rare for men to name this discomfort, but naming it would go a long way in overcoming the fears that stand in the way of both sexual and emotional intimacy. Too often, instead of putting words to this discomfort, men turn away or find ways to get their partner to look in another direction (literally and metaphorically).

The men’s issues listed above are in no way exhaustive, and as stated earlier, there are many exceptions to what is discussed here. As you explore these, try to understand which (if any) apply to you or your partner. This is an important step in starting a dialog about how to build a more intimate and sexually fulfilling marriage/relationship by uncovering any hurdles that might be blocking intimacy.

Hopefully the above will trigger a journey of self-exploration, a greater understanding of your own internal barriers (as well as your partner’s). But don’t keep this self-understanding to yourself: share it with your partner and become agents of change through the power of communication.

Until next time,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured [top] image “Man with folded arms” by ImageryMajestic/