As a psychotherapist who specializes in emotions, and as a woman with my own personal history of serial monogamy, I have come to realize that some men channel their need for love, intimacy, soothing, care, and comfort into sexual desire.
Here are some examples:
Dylan wants sex when he feels sad because he likes the comfort the physical holding provides. Dylan, like most people, wants to be held when he is sad. In fact, the need to be held when we feel sad is biologically programmed into our brains.
Jonathan wants sex when he’s lonely. He believes it is weak to let someone know that he feels lonely and wants company. Alternatively, he thinks it is acceptable to find and ask for sex, which satisfies his need for human connection.
Marty craves sex when he is anxious. He shared how sex reliably calms him and helps him feel better. The days he has sex he feels more confident.
Sexual excitement is a core emotion. And, as we know from research on emotions, each core emotion has a “program” that has evolved over thousands of years for survival purposes. This “program” causes specific physical sensations and impulses to arise inside us at the moment when a particular emotion is triggered.
Sexual excitement is often physically felt as sensations in the groin area with an impulse to seek orgasmic release. Sadness, anxiety, loneliness, anger, and fear are other emotions that can combine with sexual excitement. The mashup of the tender emotions with sexual excitement is the brilliant way the mind can make sure core human needs are met in consciously covert yet culturally acceptable ways.
Mental health is improved by being in touch with the full range of our core emotions. Therefore, it is in our best interest to know which core emotions are present and driving our desire for sex. Is it pure sexual excitement? Is it a need for comfort? Is it a need for connection?
Knowing the culture of masculinity we live in, it should not come as a surprise that some men feel they have to sublimate tender and “needy” feelings into sexual desire. In the documentary “The Mask We Live In,” filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to their authentic selves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. If more men and boys could own the full range of their emotions, not just anger and sexual excitement, we would see trends in depression and anxiety decrease.
When we block our core emotions (i.e. sadness, fear, anger, joy) and needs for intimacy (love, companionship, sharing of feelings, closeness), men and women develop symptoms including anxiety, shame, and depression. Symptoms go away when we become reacquainted with our core emotions. This first step to wellness comes from understanding that it is normal for both men and women to experience sadness, fear, love, anger, and longing for connection (both through sexual connection and through talking about our thoughts and feelings with each other). Needs for affection and love are as “masculine” as needs for strength, power, and ambition. Emotions are not for the weak, they are for the human.
Although things are slowly changing, the two main emotions that are most acceptable for men to display are still sexual excitement and anger. The more tender emotions including fear, sadness, love, need, and longing are still considered by some “unmanly” to express. So it is not surprising that the tender emotions, which have to be expressed in some way, get bound to sexuality. In fact, channeling needs for comfort and soothing into sex is actually a clever compromise. After all, during sex men can unabashedly get held, stroked, kissed, hugged, and loved-up all under the acceptable guise of a very manly act — that of sexual prowess. But we can do better by helping to change the culture of masculinity so it is in sync with our biology.
Five Things Men and Women Can Do for Men
1. Educate and normalize the scientific fact that we all have the same universal core emotions: sadness, fear, anger, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement.
2. Inform the men in your life that the need to connect with others and share one’s true feelings and thoughts is normal for all humans, and not specific to sex and gender.
3. Invite the men in your life to share their feelings and thoughts (especially the ones they are ashamed about) while also stressing the point that you will not judge them as weak or feminine for sharing vulnerabilities.
4. Know that humans are complex creatures. We all have weak and strong parts. It’s important to hold all aspects of us simultaneously. That’s the way people feel whole and complete.
5. Recommend to everyone you know the movie “The Mask I Live In,” which is now available on Netflix.