It isn’t easy to be good at everything. But, as a psychotherapist, I often meet men who try, who try all the time, to be the best. Exhausting. And hardly surprising that, after all this effort, all these achievements, all this success, the one thing that is not going well for them is their sex lives. Young, ambitious, driven: their aim is to be exceptional; it is what their parents expected of them, it is what they now expect of themselves; it is how they understand love. Be special, be gifted and you won’t be punished. Be special, be better than the rest, and you will be loved, more than your father, more than your mother, more than anyone else.
And in the bedroom, such men are just as self punishing, watching their performance, constantly conscious of their partner’s judgment and of their peer group’s imagined judgement. It as if they are never off duty. These are men, not yet middle aged, who now suffer from a lack of sexual desire. They are in the midst of carving out successful careers, on the cusp of that time when it would be natural to have a family; they are physically fit and healthy, not unattractive; they have always been certain of their sexual orientation, but find themselves no longer interested in sex, especially not with their partners. They seek help because their relationships are suffering, or, they are despairing of ever being able to maintain one.
The medical term for this is Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder and it is more commonly associated with women than with men. According to the DSM, it is only a “disorder”, if it is causing distress; the implication being that women might not get too stressed about it but men would. In fact, a low libido probably effects around 28 per cent of men in relationships. And there is no doubt that it is often very distressing indeed.
Sexual drive is conflated, conventionally, with masculinity. So, it is particularly difficult for men to acknowledge that their libido is flagging. Without biological impairment or medication to blame, the sort of man who has been brought up to be the best but who is now feeling less than that in the bedroom, will naturally wonder – what is happening to me? Is it my partner’s fault for no longer being as attractive to me? But he will find, when he examines himself further, that it is not just his partner he does not desire. Sex has become a chore, a mean, grubby task which he is loath to undertake, with anyone.
He is not able to allow himself to feel desire because that would mean removing the performer’s mask. And that mask has become an essential defence mechanism.
There is almost no area of life which demonstrates more convincingly the power of the unconscious. Sexual desire, and performance, are inextricably linked to the pathogenic beliefs and internal working models formed during the time when our primary attachments are developing. Many of the men I am describing share certain characteristics: they are either an only child or an only son. They come from small, socially isolated, tightly knit families in which affection is rarely demonstrated, certainly not by their emotionally unavailable fathers. Their mothers are often needy, depressed; perhaps, fragile and fearful of their husbands. The small boy is brought up believing that his mother needs protecting, that he can hurt her easily just by virtue of being male. On the other hand, he is different to his mother, he is “other” (male). He is like his father. How can this boy, so sensitive to his mother’s moods and feelings, prove that he is masculine, a worthy rival for his father’s affections, but also capable of eliciting the respect of that Alpha male? The boy becomes a high achieving man, whose partner (and he has not had many) is chosen to reflect his sense of place and purpose. There may be love for his partner, there may have been love, but above all, the man who has lost desire for his partner, needs her/him, needs her love and her affection, just as he needed his mother’s. And that vulnerability terrifies him.
He feels guilt: guilt about his lack of desire and the hurt that that is causing, as well as shame because he is a man, and men like sex, don’t they? But he also feels guilty because when he feels desire, he will be a man again, and then his masculinity will be perceived as aggressive, damaging. To enjoy sex, and feel desire, there has to be an element of utter self absorption, a moment when all self consciousness is lost. And it is at this moment that the mask is flung aside. When things are at their best in a relationship, there is a fusion of love and desire which make us helpless but to abandon ourselves to pleasure. Being in a healthy, loving relationship requires some resilience on the part of both individuals to those moments of pure pleasure enjoyed by the “other.” To put it another way, each partner can bear being “objectified,” just for a moment.
In undoing the mask and tolerating the uncomfortable process of discovering unconscious fears and yearnings, it may be possible to recover the capacity to feel sexual desire once more without losing masculinity.