"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Sex’

How Can The US Solve Its Problems When The Corporate Media Has Turned Into The National Enquirer?

In Uncategorized on June 9, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Oldspeak:”I call it “The Real World Effect”. Since the advent of the ‘reality’ show it seems that slowly people have become more concerned about scripted reality than actual reality. Obsession with celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual proclivities and “fabulous lives”. Poor and obese peoples path to redemption through hard work and beneficent rich persons. Anonymous persons rising to fame and fortune via televised dance and singing popularity contests. TV ready marriage minded singles finding “love” via an outlandish and demeaning relationship vetting process when the contestants ply their sexual and whatever other wares to vie for the attention of the desired man/woman.  Meanwhile, in actual reality civil liberties are eroded. Worldwide war is authorized. Access to information is censored and you’re surveiled. Your environment is being destroyed. Your children and food are being contaminated with toxins and poisons. And corporate media has very little if anything to say about these life altering realities. We can expect to continue to witness the downward spiral of the U.S. economically, morally, and socially until reality is focused on and dealt with in a meaningful & substantive way.

By Mark Karlin @ Truthout:

There is no escaping the salacious Anthony Weiner Internet scandal. Since the mainstream corporate media – for the most part – merged politics, news, entertainment, celebrity personalities and sensationalism, it’s been almost impossible to have an informed national discussion on public policy.

One Weiner “confessional” news conference is worth more in advertising revenue than a year of covering our wars that have spanned a decade.

A sizeable percentage of Americans are out of work and without a safety net, Medicare and Social Security are under siege, wars are being fought that receive only sporadic coverage and the disparity in income in America is at its widest point in memory. Yet, these and other pressing issues play a distant second fiddle to a Congressman engaged in sexual titillation over the web and on the phone – however creepy and inappropriate that may be.

The Weiner affair is just the latest example of what Chris Hedges calls “spectacle” coverage superseding the dissemination of news that informs and enlightens.

Weiner – as he noted in his news conference on June 6 – will have to answer to his wife, his constituents and Congress.

The news media that is increasingly evolving into a combination of the National Enquirer, People magazine and “American Idol” has to answer to history, as America descends into a tabloid future in which only the very rich will control the mass media “news” prism.

Slut Shame: Attacking Women For Their Sex Lives

In Uncategorized on April 5, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Oldspeak: “In 2011, it’s still considered perfectly acceptable to attack women based on their supposed sluttiness. Sexual patriarchy and gender based double standards are still perpetuated, and it’s not just men who are perpetuating it, women are as well. Meanwhile men are congratulated and celebrated for their sluttiness and promiscuity.”

By Rachel Kramer Bussell @ AlterNet:

On January 26, Loren Feldman wrote an open letter to media personality Julia Allison’s father, alleging to her expertise at oral sex and her promiscuity. The post, which has since been removed, is a prime example of the ease with which the accusation of being a slut is still hurled at women as a way to shame and degrade them.

Allison has plenty of company. To name a few, sex bloggers Kendra Halliday, aka The Beautiful Kind, who lost her job when a technical glitch outed her real name, and Lena Chen, who found herself paired with the Gawker headline “Worst Overshare Anywhere Ever” after posting a photo of herself after her boyfriend had ejaculated on her face. The Today Show’s Kathie Lee Gifford inspired a Change.org petition after she told Jersey Shore reality star Snooki that she should “value herself more. Don’t give yourself away to just any jerk, okay?” Slut-shaming can happen to anyone well, any woman. Maybe you’ve written about your sex life, or maybe you’ve just been bold enough to express the fact that you don’t want to have kids. Maybe you wore a revealing outfit on a red carpet (see January Jones’ Golden Globes dress) or Tweeted a cleavage photo (Meghan McCain).

Lilit Macus, editor of Crushable.com, wrote an essay for the New York Post about why she didn’t want to have children and was told, basically, that she’s a big ol’ slut too. “In the past, most of the comments directed at me had been about selfishness or not doing my ‘duty’ as a woman by having kids, and I think this is because I grew up in a conservative part of the country where most of my peers married and had kids young,” says Marcus. “But the responses to the Post article claimed I was a loose woman or that my desire not to have kids meant that I was sleeping around.” The assumption that women “owe” our bodies for procreation and that if we use them for pleasure instead (or in addition), we are somehow going against nature is part of the backdrop that encourages this type of thinking.

Author Kerry Cohen is an example of a woman who’s explicitly embraced her sexuality in her memoir Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, only to be told that she “wasn’t slutty enough” to truly call herself a slut, proudly or otherwise. After Marie Claire ran a piece on her calling her a “sex addict” (a term she didn’t use to describe herself), Jezebel asked, “Is ‘Sex Addict’ Memoirist Kerry Cohen Even Actually a Slut?” The lesson Cohen took away is that there are nuances to who’s allowed to use the term. “It’s interesting because slut-shaming has morphed lately and now you can either get shamed for being a slut, or you can get shamed for not being the right kind of slut (meaning, you aren’t proud enough of your slutdom).”

Yet there are those who make the case for slut-shaming, explicitly even. Blogger Susan Walsh is one of them. At hookingupsmart.com, she repeatedly encourages readers to call out sluts, for their own good. She writesapprovingly of the much-discussed recent book Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, and concludes, “Women are better off when the number of promiscuous women is low. If you are not promiscuous, it is very much in your best interest for your female peers to reject random hookups as well. We may not want to pillory sluts, but societies have always had social contracts to benefit the whole group. There is strength in numbers.”

This issue is tied to our deepest notions about what it means to be a woman, and whether our sexual choices are ours to make freely or not. The through line from Feldman to Walsh is that women who are sexual, or are perceived to be sexual, are somehow going against what’s “right” or “natural.” It’s also clearly not just men who are doing the shaming. As Andrea Grimes confesses in “I Was a ‘Pro-Life Republican… Until I Fell in Love,” her public bashing of other women wasn’t really about abortion, but lording her virginity over her peers. She writes, “I absolutely loved slut-shaming. Because I was saving myself for marriage–well, oral sex doesn’t really count anyway, does it?–-I knew that I would always be right and virtuous and I would never be a murderer like those sluts. The issue couldn’t possibly be up for real debate, to my mind: either you were a baby-killer slut, or you behaved like a proper Christian woman and only let him get to third base.” Clearly, who is a slut is in the mind of the beholder (see Emily White’s excellent Fast Girls for exploration of high school slut-shaming in action) and, more importantly, their decision to use the word is almost always in a way aimed to be insulting, demeaning and denigrating to the woman’s personhood. “Slut” is meant as a way to put women back in their place (with legs firmly closed), and make them ashamed of their perceived promiscuity, as well as make others join in on this shaming.

However the women “slut” is being hurled at feel about it, the fact that it is still, in 2011, the go-to insult for women, is problematic. We need to work to neutralize the term so that it doesn’t wield the impact that it once did. Writers have been reclaiming the word, from the classic polyamory primer The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, to groupie memoirist Roxana Shirazi, author of 2010’s The Last Living Slut: Born in Iran, Bred Backstage. Yet those who continue to use the word mean it as anything but a proud proclamation.

Some activists fighting back against one of the most insidious forms of institutional slut-shaming are the organizers ofSlutWalk Toronto, to be held April 3. The event was organized after a representative of the Toronto police department stated that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” This equation of perceived slutdom with an incitement to violence, the ultimate “she was asking for it” argument, is the logical end point for those who think women’s bodies are under some sort of communal control. Their walk also includes a poster campaign, one of which tells us to “Reclaim the Word Slut” and at the top says something I think speaks to the issue more succinctly than anything else: “Slut isn’t a look. It’s an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it’s never an invitation to violence.”

Editor’s note:This post has been altered since publication to protect the privacy of a previously mentioned individual.

Rachel Kramer Bussel (http://www.rachelkramerbussel.com) is a New York-based author, editor, blogger and reading series host. She has edited over 38 anthologies, including Gotta Have It, Best Bondage Erotica 2011, Fast Girls and Orgasmic, is senior editor at Penthouse Variations and a columnist for SexIs Magazine, and offers up daily food porn at Cupcakes Take the Cake (http://cupcakestakethecake.blogspot.com).


Why Do Women Have Casual Sex?

In Uncategorized on March 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Oldspeak:“A researcher upends traditional thinking and argues that both genders are looking for the same thing: Pleasure. Duh. An interesting counter to the that traditional axiom that “Women give sex to get loveMen give love to get sex”.

By Tracy Clark-Flory @ Salon:

Forget what you think you know about the sexes when it comes to hooking up: A new study claims that women are just as likely as men to accept an offer of casual sex. That is, so long as they are sexually propositioned by Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, respectively.

OK, so that isn’t terribly shocking — but a study published in this month’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology raises some interesting questions about what it is that motivates no-strings sex. The University of Michigan’s Terri Conley set out to replicate a classic 1989 social psychology study that found men were likely to accept an offer of casual sex, but women never did. For ethical and legal reasons — pshh! — she wasn’t able to reproduce the social experiment exactly. Instead of having students proposition unwitting subjects around campus, Conley presented fully informed participants with a hypothetical situation and asked how they would expect themselves to respond. So, a grain of salt would be wise.

Based on a survey of which famous people students found most attractive and unattractive, researchers asked straight male participants to either consider a fling with Angelina Jolie or Roseanne. Hetero women were asked to either mull the possibility of a hookup with Johnny Depp or Donald Trump. The result: Women and men were equally likely to accept the proposal of the “attractive” famous person as they were to reject the “unattractive” celebrity. Conley writes that this is particularly interesting given the evo-psych view that women choose mates based on their good genes and capabilities as providers. “It is indeed difficult to imagine a better person to take care of a woman and her children than someone with the enormous resources of Donald Trump, yet women rejected him soundly,” writes Conley. “This challenges the assumption that women are driven to choose mates with great resources.”

What exactly is at play here is up for debate, though. “Perhaps the perceived gains in status afforded to individuals who have a sexual encounter with an attractive famous individual are so great that they offset any gender differences by reducing the stigma associated with casual sex for women,” Conley considers. But she ultimately settles on a more controversial hypothesis, suggesting that the disparity between men’s and women’s likelihood of actually getting pleasure out of a sexual encounter might be responsible for gender differences in willingness to engage in casual sex. In other words: Women are more discriminating about whom they sleep with in large part because they are much less likely to be sexually satisfied by the experience. There are countless other variables that I can’t even begin to consider here — but this study is at least fascinating as a conversation-starter and a kickoff for future research. I recently chatted with Conley about her findings, “pleasure theory” and the competing sexual pressures women face.

If you could summarize the importance of your findings in one sentence, what would it be?

Anticipated pleasure motivates both women and men to have casual sex and women would accept more casual sex offers from men if they believed that they would get good sex out of the encounter.

That brings up the “pleasure theory,” which looms large in your research. What is it exactly?

The idea behind pleasure theory — a theory developed by Paul Abramson and Steven Pinkerton — is that pleasure itself is evolutionarily selected. If people are pleasuring each other in many different ways, enough procreative sex will occur to propagate the species.

If women are motivated by pleasure theory, why is faking orgasms so common? Any hypothesis as to what larger purpose “faking it” serves in casual encounters?

Sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong has shown that women do not feel entitled to sexual pleasure in casual heterosexual encounters. They seem to be more focused on providing the male partner with pleasure. If faking is common in casual sex encounters, it is likely because women are trying to do what they believe their male partner will like the best.

What’s the motivator there?

Women are typically socialized to be more concerned about others’ need than their own. They are also perceived negatively if they take the lead in sex.

Isn’t the motivation to give men pleasure at odds with the general “pleasure theory,” though?

Yes, I believe it is; women have competing pressures — they want sexual pleasure but other social forces prevent them from asking for it.

Do we know whether women’s perception of which men will bring them more pleasure actually bears out? In other words, using the example from the study: Is Johnny Depp necessarily a better lover than Donald Trump just because he’s more attractive?

Women orgasm only about 35 percent as often as men do in casual sex encounters — again, according to research by sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong. Therefore, women’s estimations of the ability or willingness of the male partner to provide them with sexual pleasure seem to be accurate.

What does your research tell us about women and how they calculate the risk of a particular sexual encounter?

Pleasure is the motivating force for both women and men in sexual encounter. Risk — for example, STI risk or risk of violence — does not appear to affect whether they accept or reject a casual sex offer.

What weaknesses did your research reveal about the popular evolutionary view of how we choose whom we sleep with?

Sexual strategies theory proposes that women are motivated to accept sex because of the status of the potential sexual partner. I tested this possibility in several studies and it was never borne out. Moreover perceptions of status did not affect perceptions of the males’ sexual capabilities, either. SST variables do not effectively explain gender differences in casual sex.

Freedom from Sexual Self-Denial: Why Not Have Sex With People Who Aren’t Your Partner?

In Uncategorized on July 2, 2010 at 9:22 am

Oldspeak:”The usual assumption is that polyamorous people are selfish, immature, incapable of commitment, and their primary relationship is therefore doomed to failure, while monogamy is celebrated. But what’s so gutsy about living a life full of self-denial and insecurity, where the person you love most is also the person you most need to limit?”

From Gabrielle Robin @ Alter Net:

When my boyfriend, Jason, confessed to having sex with another woman, I cried. I cried almost nonstop for a full weekend, actually, in spite of the fact that I was the one who encouraged him to do it.

For the first two years of our relationship, I constantly teased Jason with dares that he fool around with any girl who hit on him. I maintained that I didn’t feel comfortable demanding monogamy, and that if he wanted to have sex with someone else, all I asked was that he be honest with me about it.

But Jason repeatedly said he was naturally monogamous. He didn’t like one-night stands—he was picky and prone to germophobia—and he didn’t want to have an ongoing sexual relationship with anyone else while we were together. He was a serial monogamist; he’d never had a “friend with benefits.” If he was having sex with someone, it was because they were dating.

Yet after years of being together, we hit a sexual wall. We’d tried meeting other couples and had two threesomes, but our efforts only yielded frustration and disappointment. I missed my days of effortlessly falling into bed with a new man and letting our chemistry lead the way. And I missed having dirty details to share with Jason about my past exploits (which he always enjoyed hearing). Together we decided that I would seek out another man, and though Jason would not necessarily look for another partner, he had license to seize the opportunity should it arise. That opportunity arose during a trip to New York, when a waitress gave him her phone number.

Although open relationships are not as shocking a concept today as they were 50 years ago, they’re still regarded with overwhelming skepticism and even disdain. The usual assumption is that polyamorous people are selfish, immature, incapable of commitment, and their primary relationship is therefore doomed to failure. When a letter writer askedPsychology Today columnist Hara Estroff Marano whether an open marriage might work for the writer and his/her partner—explaining that each had affairs in the past but still “remain committed to each other”— Marano (who is not actually a psychologist), replied “no.” She went on to accuse the letter writer of being in search of “Peter Pan escape(s),” closing with the snide line that staying in a monogamous marriage “takes guts; it’s much easier to look outside for excitement than to find the source within.”

But what’s so gutsy about living a life full of self-denial and insecurity, where the person you love most is also the person you most need to limit?

Janet W. Hardy, co-author of The Ethical Slut, is quick to point out that being “open” is not necessarily the path of least resistance, and that moving away from monogamy takes courage: “The difference between polyamorous people and monogamous people isn’t that poly people never feel jealous — we do. The real difference is what we do with our feelings of jealousy. […] By blaming the [unhappy] feelings on their partners, [most monogamous people] are able to make problems someone else’s fault. That way, they don’t have to feel responsible for figuring out what’s causing the feelings, or for finding a solution.” Those who have elected to allow their partner extra-relationship sex don’t “have that luxury. You don’t get to distract yourself from your feelings of loss, sorrow, insecurity or whatever by diverting them into anger toward him [or her.]”

This is part of why an open relationship can be such a challenge. In an article that came out earlier this year about one couple’s history of their open marriage, wife Cate specifically said “it seemed worth it to me to push my psychological limits, to just work through it. I wanted to get to a better self […] There were a million — not a million, but many — painful challenges. Enormous, terrifying. But if you have relationships that have real emotional depth to them, which is what we aspire to, then it is never safe. You’re terrified about losing the person. It’s high risk.”

Is that the thought process of someone who’s cowardly, careless or motivated only by hedonism?

I found out about such powerful psychological effects firsthand. My logical side was appalled by my crying—I was going to have other partners, too!—but my ego was screaming for comfort. My own experiences in the past had proven to me that I could have orgasms with men I wasn’t interested in dating; I could have good sexual chemistry with men who were not conventionally attractive; and I could even have a positive sexual encounter with someone without craving a repeat. I knew Jason had practiced safer sex and I knew that he loved me. There was no threat to my safety and no betrayal of trust. So why was I suffering so much? Probably because Jason’s news forced me to confront the way I perceived myself (impervious, rational, independent) versus the reality of how I actually am (insecure, emotional).

Janet Hardy puts this suffering in a positive light, by calling it “a gift, although it doesn’t feel like one. It means that you get to make yourself stronger by figuring out what it was that triggered your jealousy, and working to solve it.” And that’s what I started to do. As I searched for a word to describe my internal experience, only one came up: humiliated. This was not a sensation I’d dealt with much. It was hardly a word in my vocabulary. But Jason’s affair had unleashed a slew of overwhelming insecurities—that I’m not sexy enough or pretty enough or satisfying enough—that left me vulnerable and exposed.

Therapist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, recognizes the volatility of such personal fears by encouraging the couples she sees to “find out where sexual exclusiveness begins or ends. When do you feel that boundaries have been stretched too thin and therefore the relationship is being threatened?” In my situation, it was less that I felt my relationship with Jason was threatened and more that I felt my own confidence, or rather my relationship with myself, was threatened. What I doubted was not his love of me but my own desirability and my worthiness to be loved. Personal issues that powerful wouldn’t disappear simply by requiring complete monogamy.

Furthermore, as Perel sees it, the distinction between monogamy and non-monogamy is erroneous. For her, “sexual exclusivity” and “fidelity” are more useful terms. “Fidelity is a relational constancy,” she explains. “A foundational respect, a pact, that may or may not include [sexual] exclusivity. Gay people have forever negotiated a monogamous relationship with a primary emotional commitment to one partner, with a deep sense of loyalty and devotion, that wasn’t necessarily sexually exclusive.”

Recent studies back her up. Although some estimates as to how many adults maintain open relationships are shockingly low (WebMD features two guesses that range from 4-9 percent to “less than 1 percent”) a study conducted by San Francisco State Universityfound that 50 percent of gay couples were having sex outside the relationship with their partners’ consent. This circumstance seemed to have no effect on the couples’ happiness within their relationships when compared to the satisfaction of non-open gay couples.

Sadly, therapists as open-minded as Perel are hard to come by. David J. Ley, clinical psychologist and author of the amusingly titled Insatiable Wives, recently called out other therapists for being judgmental and hypocritical in their routine dismissal of alternative relationships. According to Ley, most counselors don’t receive enough instruction in human sexuality, and they fall back on cultural and personal biases in the absence of training. Just weeks ago in the Chicago Tribune, much-loved Dr. Ruth answered a female advice seeker who said she trusted her husband deeply and wanted to bring a third party into their relationship with: “Don’t put [your marriage] at risk by having sex outside the marriage, in any form.”

Jenny Block, author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life In An Open Marriage, doesn’t understand why an open relationship would seem more risky than a closed one when 50 percent of marriages already end in divorce. “Relationships are hard no matter what the set-up. Sometimes I think open ones have a better shot because they are (or at least the good ones are) steeped in honesty.” She is also a strong believer that no one should define themselves by their relationships. “Relationships don’t complete me. They complement me and I hope my partners feel they can say the same. Relationships should be about flexibility, not rigidity. They should be about love, not ownership.”

The dominant school of thought among journalists, therapists and the general public is that romantic relationships require a renunciation of desire in order to succeed, or at least a severe restriction of desire. “Self-sacrifice” comes up often, but rarely the question of why you want someone you’re in love with to make such sacrifices, or the possibility of long-term resentment and unhappiness if you yourself sacrifice too much. Desire, even when unconsummated, makes many of us feel vibrant and alive, more awake to the world around us.

Along with this assumption regarding self-control or self-discipline is the strange refusal to admit that most romantic relationships are not life-long or even decade-long; that marriages fall apart and true loves grow distant; that people staying in a marriage is not synonymous with being happy. As Sandra Tsing Loh so controversially pointed out, there comes a point where someone may choose not to “work on” falling back in love—but some of those people separate and others stay together. The assumption when an open couple breaks up is that their poly lifestyle destroyed an otherwise tenable relationship. I find myself wondering if open couples are not simply more honest about what they want and need, and unwilling to stay in a relationship that isn’t functioning. Of course, amid all this speculation is the proverbial elephant in the room whenever polyamory is discussed: the fact that so many “monogamous” individuals have extra-relationship sex anyway.

When it comes to open relationships, Esther Perel is pragmatic: “It’s not for everybody. But neither is closed. Neither is the traditional model.” She adds that, contrary to being irresponsible and greedy, “people who try out [an open] model are often people who are very respectful of the other person’s sexual exploration. Or there are couples that are hoping that by creating a different kind of boundary they have a higher chance to survive and to preserve themselves. It’s [a decision] made for the purpose of the couple lasting.”

Jason and I are still together. We’re still learning about our boundaries, each other, and ourselves. We’re not actively pursuing other partners, but we also haven’t ruled out the possibility that we may in the future. I hope and suspect that if our relationship comes to an end, it will be the result of sincere self-reflection and honest assessment, not a blowup over sexual attraction to another person or a perceived sexual betrayal. Jason’s affair in New York taught me that our relationship is durable, that I can be strong even while hurt, and that if two people are honest with one another, most situations become less scary. As Jenny Block says, “Ultimately, it’s not about the sex. It’s about honesty, trust, love and respect. If you have those, you have no cause for concern.”

Do Men Love Differently Than Women?

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Oldspeak:“It’s becoming more and more apparent that most of our behavior is evolutionarily and biologically driven, in spite of all our modern culture and technology. Fascinating!”

From Stephen Stosney @ Psychotherapy Networker:

Most of the couples I work with are referred by clinicians who find the man to be “too resistant” for therapy to continue. Typically, when the guys come in, they’re either defensively resentful, angry, or just emotionally shut down. Often they start right off by proclaiming that they’re frustrated as hell with therapy. As we talk, it becomes clear that, initially, they practiced the communication techniques they were taught and took to heart the insights they learned about relationships and family of origin. Yet, for reasons they can’t explain, they couldn’t bring themselves to make the long-term effort to use their new skills or apply their consulting-room insights on a routine basis at home. Of course, this failure to follow through makes their wives even more disappointed in them: “It was one thing when I thought he couldn’t do it; now I know he just won’t!” noted one angry spouse.

But beyond the frustration and resentment of the men I see is their utter bewilderment. Despite their time in therapy, they still don’t have a clue about what their wives and therapists want from them. Partly this has to do with having different expectations from their partners—men just don’t buy relationship-improvement books or read women’s magazines or watch Oprah. They find words like, connection, attunement, and validation mystifying, used less to enlighten than to point out their deficiencies.

Most of my male clients feel that their previous therapy experience was about forcing them to fit a template of what the Therapy World believes love and relationships should look like. While the therapeutic language of “intimacy” is supposedly gender-neutral, most men see it as reflecting values and ideals that appeal disproportionately to women. Nevertheless, when men don’t buy into our relationship template, we often wind up labeling them as resistant, manipulative, narcissistic, or, maybe worst of all, “patriarchal.” The message these “failed” clients get is that the way they express their love just isn’t good enough.

The reason men can talk about feelings and relationship patterns in consultation rooms, but are unlikely to keep doing it at home is simple: emotional talk tends to produce more physiological arousal in men—they experience it more stressfully. Unlike women, they don’t get the oxytocin reward that makes them feel calm, secure, and confident when talking about emotions and the complexities of relationships; testosterone, which men produce more of during stress, seems to reduce the effect of oxytocin, while estrogen enhances it. It takes more work with less reward for men to shift into and maintain the active-listening and self-revealing emotional talk they learn in therapy, so they’re unlikely to do it on a routine basis.

Some readers may be squirming right now at the very suggestion that there may be gender differences in the way people love. So let me emphasize that gender differences can never account for all of the nuances and complexities of individual behavior or render irrelevant the impact of personality variables, such as introversion, sociability, and neuroticism. It’s important to remember that research findings are always about group averages and thus provide room for lots of individual exceptions.

My colleague Pat Love and I begin our presentations standing side-by-side while making the empirically valid statement that men are generally taller than women. (Pat is 5 ft. 11 in. or so, while I’m just over 5 ft. 6 in.) If you randomly select 25 men and women, the average height of the men will likely exceed the average height of the women, yet probably there’ll be tall women and short men in the sample as well. There most assuredly are men who love to talk about feelings and women who hate it. For some couples, no doubt, emotional conversation is like a good, mutually enjoyable backrub—both parties love it equally. However, those couples are unlikely to seek therapy.

Broadly speaking, the men who do come into therapy want to feel understood and appreciated as much as their wives, but therapy typically involves asking partners to go beyond generalized expressions of appreciation to acknowledge that each partner’s point of view is reasonable or understandable in certain circumstances. The focus of most of today’s couples therapies is “validation”—conveying an understanding that you experience your partner’s mental and emotional states and that you value their experience. But the fact is that men often don’t want their thoughts and deeper feelings experienced or valued by their partners, even if their therapists think they should want these things. Unless we develop a better understanding of the real, intrinsic rewards men can experience as a result of being in therapy, they’ll just go through the motions or pursue their hidden agendas, like “Learning what I have to say to get laid.”

For men to engage in the hard work of change, the rewards have to be automatic and visceral, independent of the artificial environment of the therapist’s office and vague therapeutic concepts. They have to feel compelling reasons to change and, most important, to incorporate new behavior into their daily routine. I believe that the primary motivation keeping men invested in loving relationships is different from what keeps women invested, that it has a strong biological underpinning present in all social animals, and that it’s been culturally reinforced throughout the development of the human species.

The glue that keeps men (and males in social animal groups) bonded is the instinct to protect. If you listen long enough to men talking about what it means to love, you’ll notice that loving is inextricably linked, for many men, to some form of protection. If men can’t feel successful at protecting, they can’t fully love.

Protection and Connection

The main role of males in social groups throughout the animal world is to protect the group from outside threats. For the most part, males participate in packs and herds only if the group has predators or strong competition for food. Herds and packs without predators or competitors, like elephants and hippos, are matriarchal, with males either absent or playing peripheral or merely sperm-donor roles.

Male physiology is well-evolved for group protection, with greater muscle mass, more efficient blood flow to the muscles and organs, bigger fangs and claws, quicker reflexes, longer strides, more electrical activity in the central nervous system (to stimulate organs and muscle groups), and a thicker amygdala—the organ that activates the flight or fight response. That’s right, the first emergency response in male social animals is flight, with the option to fight coming into play only when flight isn’t possible. The principal protective role of males in social groups is to lead the pack to safety. (The primacy of flight over fight may be why the initial response of most men to conflict with their wives is to withdraw or shut down.) Significantly, males who are deficient in protecting—the ones poorer at escaping or, if necessary, fighting—have little access to the females of the species.

In species in which the females are the primary hunters, like African lions, males protect the pride from competition for food from other lions and hyenas. This sets them apart from lions in other parts of the world because they’re socially integrated with the pride. Some zoologists believe that this is because the smaller females, while excellent hunters, couldn’t protect their kills from hyena packs.

When most animal packs are under attack and can’t flee, the males form a defensive perimeter, while the females for the most part gather the young and hide them within an inner circle of protection. This scenario plays out in a great many human households, when the woman, who generally has keener hearing, detects a middle-of-the-night sound somewhere in the house. The man typically goes down to investigate, perhaps carrying a baseball bat, while she checks on the children.

Even when male animals are dominant in packs and herds, the glue of the social structure is maintained by females, who attend to one another in ways that are analogous to “validation”— sniffing, licking, and grooming other female members of the pride. This behavior calms and gratifies all the females involved, much the same way that a good emotional talk with girlfriends seems to calm and gratify women. If one of the females is missing from the pack, the others seem to worry. When she returns, the other females greet her with sniffing, licking, and grooming. The males remain connected to the group by virtue of proximity to the females, but don’t interact with them much. In contrast, it appears that frequent interaction among the females—along with fear of isolation—keeps them connected.

Anthropologists agree that humans were communal from our earliest time on earth, moving into pair-bonding relatively late in our history. There’s no reason to suspect that early human social structures were greatly different from those of other primates, where the larger, stronger males protected the tribe and the more social females “validated” each other. Both specialized activities—protection and validation—increased survival rates by enhancing group cohesion and cooperation.

Through much of history, the idea that men and women should consistently engage in intimate conversation and validate each other’s emotional worlds would have been laughable. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it, previous generations widely assumed that men and women had different natures and couldn’t truly understand each other. The idea of intergender emotional talk independent of the need to protect didn’t emerge until the dissolution of the extended family, which began in the middle of the 20th century. Previous to that, the nuclear family—an intimate couple and children living as an isolated unit—was a rarity. Other family members were in the same house, next door, or across the street. Women got their emotional validation from other women, although they certainly wanted admiration from their men and vice versa. Today, research shows that the healthiest, happiest women have a strong network of girlfriends. In earlier times, men tended to associate mostly with other men—a cultural construct that’s still prevalent in many parts of the world, frequently reinforced by religious beliefs.

Male Protection and Self-Value

The survival importance of the instinct to protect makes it a potent factor in men’s self-value. Men with families automatically suffer low self-value when they fail to protect loved ones, no matter how successful they might be in other areas of life. Just imagine the emotional fate of a world-class CEO who distractedly lets go of his child’s hand, and sees the child run over in traffic. In contrast, a man’s self-value will likely remain intact, even if he fails at work, as long as he feels he can protect his loved ones. As a boy, I remember the manager of our Little League baseball team, a man in his mid-forties, who was beloved by his two sons and idolized by the rest of the kids, even though our parents considered him a flunkie for working as a grocery store bagger. Getting fired from a job is more tolerable for men who are more invested in the protection of their families than in their egos. They tend to search immediately for another job as a means of putting food on the table, while those who view failure at work primarily as an ego assault may face weeks of self-reproach and depression before they get up the energy to job-hunt. Under stress at work, women tend to want closer family connections, while men under stress are likely to withdraw if not isolate from their families to keep from feeling overwhelmed by their failure to protect. Men who abandon their families don’t respond to them as individuals with needs as much as symbols of their failure to protect.

Failure to protect drains meaning and purpose from the lives of family men. As a result, they often turn to some form of adrenaline arousal for motivation or stimulation—chronic resentment, anger, drugs, affairs, or compulsive behavior. When those prove insufficient, they succumb to a dispirited numbness or depression. I’ve never seen a depressed, resentful, angry, abusive, addicted, unfaithful, or compulsive man who didn’t see himself as a failure at protecting his family.

Violence and Failure to Protect

Male social mammals who succumb to fear and fail to protect the pack are either killed or driven away by its dominant males. Those who survive banishment often become rogue predators on the pack, raping females and killing juveniles who stray too far from the group. Among humans, violent criminals usually lack what sociologists term a stake in the community: marriage, paternal investment in children, a job, and positive neighborhood connections. Serial killers and terrorists almost never have intimate relationships or a close connection to their children. Historically, invading armies wanted soldiers before they married or had children; when they did have spouse and children, they were kept isolated from them. By contrast, defensive armies conscripted married men because they’d be willing to die to protect their families from invading hordes.

The increase in family violence since the 1960s parallels the diminishment of fatherhood in America. Fatherless homes have grown 400 percent by some estimates, greatly increasing the risk to women and children. A woman and her children are much more likely to be abused by a boyfriend who isn’t the father of the children and to suffer serious violence and death at the hands of a rejected father, compared to a woman and children who live with the children’s father. Men marginalized as protectors of their families are likelier to struggle for power and control over their wives or girlfriends. They compensate for loss of the capacity to protect with dominance and/or violence.

My early experience with court-ordered domestic-violence offenders taught me that when fathers are more involved in the lives of their children, they’re less likely to hurt women. Before developing our intervention for domestic violence, we studied a group of young men (with a mean age of 22), all of whom had at least two children from previous relationships and who were court-ordered for abuse of their current partners. (At that time, there was only one agency in the area offering batterer intervention, and it had a long waiting list.) As is too often the case with young violent men, none of our guys had a relationship with his children.

We gave them a course called Compassionate Parenting, which raised their awareness of the emotional worlds of their children, particularly their need for fathers who care about them and are willing to look out for them. These young men got more involved in the lives of their kids and, without any direct intervention for domestic violence, reduced recidivism of partner abuse to about 28 percent. The normal recidivism rate for unmarried men of this age group was more than 60 percent, after domestic-violence intervention.

Fur and Bone

In modern culture, male protection is defined almost entirely in financial terms. Protector is practically synonymous with provider, and a man’s worth is measured by how much fur and bone he can bring home to the cave. But the world has changed profoundly. Now few women have a choice between work and full-time motherhood, and more often than not, men aren’t the chief source of financial support in their families. The psychological toll on men conditioned by nature and society to equate being the provider and protector with personal value can be devastating. The predominant cultural message continues to cast men as the dollar signs of families, only now it upholds a standard of breadwinning that fewer men than ever can achieve.

The harm of making the dollar the measure of the man is twofold. First, it undervalues the emotional support that men can—and many do—give their families. In fact, our therapeutic message to men can appear to be paradoxical because we ask them to give more emotional support to their partners at the same time that the culture undervalues it. Second, overvaluing financial support creates a sense of entitlement in many successful providers. They think all they have to do is make more money to earn the “services”—emotional, sexual, homemaking—of their wives. The fact that wives and therapists expect more from them than being a successful breadwinner seems inherently unfair.

Male Protection in Therapy

As a practical matter, it’s useful in therapy to educate couples about the role of protectiveness in the male psyche as a way of normalizing the difficulties they have in forming a more perfect union. Couples typically find it particularly interesting that males remain connected to social animal groups by proximity to the females, even though they don’t interact much, while the females enhance group cohesion by frequently interacting with one another. If the couple has had a boy and girl toddler, they can see this difference in social orientation for themselves early on. Assuming that the children are both securely attached, the boy will tend to play in proximity to the caregiver, always checking to see that he or she is there, but seeking far fewer direct interactions—talking, asking questions, making eye contact, touching, hugging—than the girl. As long as he knows his caregiver is present, his primary interaction is with the environment.

Similarly, a man can feel close to his wife if he’s in one room—on the computer, in front of the TV, or going about his routine—and she’s in another. He’ll likely protest, sulk, or sink into loneliness if she goes out, which she may well do since he isn’t talking to her anyway. To her, and to uninformed therapists, it seems that he wants her home so he can ignore her. But he isn’t ignoring her; her presence gives stability to his routine.

This little example of why proximity to his wife is crucial to him works wonders in opening a man’s eyes to that fact that his wife gives meaning and purpose to his life. In fact, we tend to think about meaning or purpose only when we’re losing it, which is why men tend to fall in love with their wives as they’re walking out the door, with their bags packed. Evidence for the drastic loss of meaning and purpose that men suffer when they lose their wives is seen in the effects of divorce and widowerhood on men: poorer job performance, impaired problem-solving, lowered creativity, high distractibility, “heavy foot” on the gas while driving, anxiety, worry, depression, resentment, anger, aggression, alcoholism, poor nutrition, isolation, shortened lifespan, and suicide. The divorced or widowed man isn’t merely lonely—he’s alone with the crushing shame of his failure to protect his family.

I’m able to use education about the effects of divorce on men clinically, because most guys know someone at work who’s lost his family and become a shadow of his former self. As a quick way of accessing men’s fundamental sense of the meaning and purpose of their lives, I ask each man to write down what he thinks is the most important thing about him as a person. “How do you want those you love to remember you,” I ask. “Near the end of your life, what will you most regret not doing enough of?”

Because meaning and purpose are elusive psychological concepts—a way of describing why we do something rather than what we do—men will rarely hit the mark at first. They say they want to be remembered as a “good provider,” “hard worker,” “loyal man,” choosing mostly protective terms. I then ask them to imagine that they have grown children and how they’d most like their children to feel about them when they’re gone. “Dad was a good provider, hard worker, loyal, etc. I’m not sure he cared about us, but he was a good provider, worked, and was loyal” or “Dad was human; he made mistakes. But I always knew that he cared about us and wanted what was best for us.” On a deep level, all the men I’ve worked with have wanted to be remembered with some version of the second statement—as both protective and compassionate. Helping men learn to express care and compassion directly to the people they love is the key to bridging the divide between their protective instinct and their reluctance to show their emotions.

To Love Big, Think Small

Most of my work with couples centers on helping men come up with ways to approach expressions of emotional support and compassion as a form of protection. We start with enhancing a man’s daily awareness of how his desire to protect his family gives meaning and purpose to his life. He signs an agreement in therapy to remind himself every day that the primary reason he does most of what he does is to protect his family.

My experience in working with men has taught me not to be misled by the interest they might show in therapeutic topics during sessions. They’re often curious about patterns of behavior and communication, as well as family-of-origin issues. They’re also capable of impressive catharsis during sessions. Typically, however, their curiosity and catharsis won’t translate into sustainable behavior change, as 20-plus years of doing regular follow-ups with couples indicate. For all its repetitive tedium, behavior rehearsal is more effective with men in the long run than insight and catharsis.

That’s probably because men are creatures of habit, who generally don’t like surprises or departures from routine. They tend to be less tolerant of interruptions in their relatively rigid daily regimens—eating the same thing for breakfast every day, brushing their teeth at the same time and in the same direction, putting their keys in the same place at the same interval after they arrive home. Because routine is paramount for most men, behavior change based on insight and catharsis eventually sinks beneath the grind of daily habits. But if their routine incorporates small behaviors that enhance their relationships (by increasing their sense of protectiveness), change is likelier to endure.

Early in therapy, I ask men to come up with some brief, symbolic rituals that will build an awareness of the meaning and purpose of their role as protector into their daily routine. A few of my favorites include lighting a morning candle, posting “I love you” notes, putting a flower petal on his wife’s breakfast plate, sending affectionate text messages, and writing one line of their favorite song every day. To increase the chances of compliance, the rule for the small rituals is that they’re spread throughout the day and take less than two minutes total to enact. The goal is to build a mentality of caring over time.

Although men in treatment almost invariably buy into compassion as a deeper form of protection, there’s one aspect of this important bonding emotion that’s hard for both men and women to grasp: true compassion is giving what the other person needs, not necessarily what you want to give. The kind of protection men want to give often comes off more like control than the help and support their partners desire. It’s easy for any of us to confuse control with support when we feel protective of loved ones. If you doubt that, just ask your children. What seems controlling to them, you feel you do out of concern and protectiveness. I use several techniques with couples to convert control into support.

First I explain that control is: implying that she isn’t smart or creative enough to decide things on her own, or that her perspectives and opinions aren’t valid, relevant, or important. It’s telling her what to do and then criticizing or withdrawing affection if she doesn’t do it. By contrast, protective support is: respecting her competence, intelligence, creativity, and resourcefulness. It’s giving her encouragement to find the best course of action and then standing by her if what she decides to do doesn’t work. The therapeutic practice I use is role-playing advocacy—he’s her lawyer presenting her case (i.e., perspective) in a disagreement. This forces him to focus on the strengths of her position, rather than trying to undermine it. We practice this until the ability to see both perspectives simultaneously becomes automatic to him. The nice thing about this exercise is its built-in reciprocity effect; women tend to begin see both perspectives simultaneously, too, when their husbands start doing it.

A major challenge to lasting change in marriage lies in the fact that couples’ day-to-day interactions operate largely on automatic pilot. Emotional response is triggered predominantly by unconscious cues, such as body language, tone of voice, and level of mental distractedness. Negativity in any of these inadvertently sets off the automatic defense system that’s developed between the parties. Once triggered, the unaware couple can easily spiral into dysfunctional patterns of relating. They tend to get lost in the details of whatever they’re blaming on each other, with no realization of what’s actually happened to them—namely, an inadvertent triggering of the automatic defense system.

To offset the escalating effects of the automatic defense system, I try to get men to use their negative emotions as cues to protect. If he feels guilty, ashamed, resentful, or angry, she’s most likely feeling anxious or afraid, even if those vulnerable emotions are hidden beneath harsh resentment or anger. I ask the guy to remember times when he first felt negative emotions in any given interaction with his wife. He recalls the feeling and briefly “physicalizes” it, noting what it feels like in his neck, jaw, chest, shoulders, back, arms, and hands. He associates these physical sensations with a moment’s mindfulness of the things he most values about himself as a person, which is to be protective and compassionate to his family. He then shifts focus to the anxiety or fear underlying his wife’s resentment/ anger. He makes some gesture of reassurance—a demonstration of protectiveness to ease her anxiety—usually making eye contact, touching her hand, rubbing her shoulder, or just asking if he can help. The gesture has to convey that he cares about how she feels and that he very much wishes her well. This level of compassion has to be established before they address the content of their dispute. Once emotional reactivity is regulated by compassion, any dispute becomes easier to resolve. We practice the exercise in treatment until it seems automatic to the couple.

This is sounding much more mundane and plodding than it is in execution. It’s actually exhilarating to help a man use his protective instinct to strengthen his vulnerability. It’s exciting to watch him move from perceiving his wife’s requests (and complaints) as indictments of his ability to protect to experiencing them as cues to activate his desire to protect. He can then see, hear, and support—that is, protect—the most important adult in his life. When he’s able to do that, she feels validated. They both feel “connected,” for want of a better term, even though they’re in different emotional states and doing different things for different rewards. Rather than forcing themselves to act like the same instruments playing the same notes in a duet, couples who begin to interact in this way become like two different instruments playing different notes to create something together that neither can do individually—relational harmony.