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The Greatest Misconception
Dr. RICHARD WETZEL, M.D.
Healthy sexual relationships are the result of healthy choices, which must be based on reality. Problems arise when people base their attitudes on falsehoods and distortions. Therefore, while we will ultimately take a very positive look at human sexuality, we must begin somewhat negatively: we must investigate and clear away the serious false assumptions and distortions of sexual reality that have led us into a host of problems — before we can hope to find their solutions. For convenience we can catalogue seventeen "misconceptions" for discussion in this book. One of them stands out among the rest:
Misconception # 1: People, especially men, have specific, genital, sexual needs
This is the most important misconception about sex for three reasons:1 it is the fundamental attitude underlying abuse of sex in society today;2 it has supplanted strengthening a couple's relationship as the most important reason for having sex; and3 it is the basis for the addictive approach to sex that is so rampant in our society today, whereby the "need" for sex is analogous to the alcoholic's "need" for a drink. We will consider the first two reasons in this chapter and the third in Chapter 11.
The misconception that people have specific, genital, sexual needs is based upon the fact that people like to have sex. People really like to have sex because genital sexual intercourse is arguable the most intense physical pleasure one can experience. There are, however, other things besides physical pleasure that we should consider. Imagine two people at a table on which sits a delicious-looking chocolate-fudge brownie. Now imagine the same situation, except that the brownie has been replaced by a stalk of broccoli. Since the first case involves a treat, it is likely to lead to one person taking advantage of the other. How desirable and convenient it would be if one person can convince the other that he or she has a need for that brownie, so as to get more than one's fair share. It would be even better to convince oneself of this need, in order to avoid any feeling of guilt for making off with the brownie.
Rationalizing "needs" gives people an excuse to take advantage of others. Highly enjoyable activities like sex, and eating brownies, encourage development of such rationalizations. This "needs" misconception, in turn, promotes tolerance of abusive attitudes and sexual practices in our society. It asserts that men, in particular, need to climax, need to fulfill fantasies, or need to have sex with a certain frequency, or in a certain position. It's as if men are addicts, in need of a sexual "fix." According to popular wisdom, "boys will be boys," men cannot control themselves ("they are animals"), and men must relieve themselves of sexual tension. A man sees a beautiful woman and thinks "I must have her." It's as if his genitals will fall off or wither away if they are not put to regular use (an event conspicuously absent from recorded history).
But the notion that people have specific, genital, sexual requirements is false for a number of reasons. First, a person can be distracted from this "need" no matter how stimulated he or she is or how great the perceived need is. For example, a couple goes to bed early because both are feeling amorous. They become intimately involved, but just before climaxing the telephone rings. The man is absorbed in "fulfilling his need" to climax and only halfheartedly listens for the answering machine. The message, however, catches his attention. It is the emergency room calling. The man's mother has just been involved in a serious traffic accident and may not live. She is asking for her son. Given such circumstances one might well expect the man to be distracted from his once consuming need.
Other biological needs, such as those for food and sleep, can be deferred temporarily, but then recur more strongly. Genital sexual impulses, however, do not follow any such pattern, and can be deferred indefinitely. Frustrations that arise from unrelieved sexual desires may escalate temporarily, but if relief remains unobtainable, they eventually dissipate.
No one has ever died from sexual abstinence. It does not lead to any disease or even any psychiatric disorders. While all people have natural sexual urges, which may at times be powerful, they are distinct from life-sustaining needs for food, water and sleep. There is no biological necessity to climax. Not even nocturnal emissions are evidence for a biological need to ejaculate. These culminate not only intense sexual dreams, but also intensely violent or otherwise stressful dreams—dreams which include no sexual imagery at all. We will discuss (in Chapter 12), the difficulty in distinguishing between sexual tension and other forms of stress, but from what is known about nocturnal emissions, it is simplistic to consider them a specific response to sexual needs.1 Even if nocturnal emissions were simply a release of pent up sexual energy, there is no tragedy in that. They are not pathological, but normal, natural events. The only real problem with these dreams is psychological distress created by the erroneous assumption that they are abnormal.
Furthermore, sexual desires do not follow a "use it or lose it" pattern. Such a claim is analogous to saying that one would lose the ability to enjoy strawberry cheesecake if unable to enjoy it regularly.
We do find this "needs" misconception in a variety of contexts. For example, on a television show about prostitution, a concealed camera caught a man propositioning an undercover policewoman. She told the man that she was sixteen years old and asked him if he "had a problem with that." He answered "no," and the cameras followed them up to a motel room where the film crew descended on the surprised man and interviewed him. As it turned out, he had two daughters, one of whom was sixteen years old. This man was such a slave to his sexual "needs" and fantasies that he could not see this prostitute as someone else's daughter. When he initially propositioned her, he did not see her as a human being, even though he had a daughter of the same age. He was willing to use a sixteen-year-old prostitute to satisfy his compulsion, his fantasy, his "needs." One might wonder, however, what had happened to his "needs" by the time the T.V. crew had finished interviewing him.
As another example, consider the man who came to my office on two separate occasions for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. He had had multiple sexual partners in the past, and we discussed what sort of approach he might consider in future dating relationships. He said that, after two infections, he was afraid to become genitally, sexually active again; therefore, he decided that, until he got married, he would just have to stimulate himself. Not wanting to be hurt again, or to hurt anyone else, he could see no other option. But there was an option he had not considered: he did not need any genital, sexual activity. I explained that since men have no need to climax, it was possible for him to manage without stimulating himself at all. This fact was news to him, as it has been to others.
We must distinguish between what people need and what they desire—"I need" as opposed to "I want." Those denied a desire are frustrated; those denied a need are impoverished. People really do need friendship, companionship, and intimacy. Many people die of loneliness: it is not uncommon for the health of elderly patients suddenly to deteriorate following the loss of a cherished spouse.
We have had experience with this phenomenon in our own family. When my elderly grandfather died at home in his sleep, my father was contacted immediately and was with my then senile grandmother when she awoke. Realizing that her husband was gone, my grandmother sat on a couch in my father's arms and died, just a few hours after learning of the death of her spouse. The despair of losing her lifelong companion was too much for her to bear. People need companionship.
Along with companionship, we also need balance in relationships. As relationships become more intimate, socially, emotionally, and spiritually, they naturally become more intimate physically, whether by touching, hugging, holding hands, etc. A balanced relationship is one in which these actions reflect the level of intimacy otherwise enjoyed by the couple; an unbalanced relationship is one in which they do not. A surprising number of wives complain about husbands who only approach them physically to initiate genital, sexual activity. These women yearn to hug and to hold hands, without the pressure of having to culminate every physical interaction.
Animals, both human and non-human, have developmental needs, particularly during infancy and childhood. Psychologist Harry Harlow performed classic experiments on orphaned monkeys that demonstrated the dramatic positive influence of a cloth "surrogate" mother over one made of chicken wire. Baby monkeys with experience of the warmth of the cloth were much more capable of integrating socially with other monkeys later in life than those whose only consolation came from a "mother" made of chicken wire. Similarly, institutionalized children commonly suffer from psychiatric disturbances due to a lack of physical contact early in life.
People need companionship, a balance in relationships, and physical nurturing during childhood. However, beyond such general requirements, people do not have specific, genital sexual needs. Rather, the idea that people have such requirements often leads to one person taking advantage of another. When one person has a "need" and the other person has a conflicting "want" or preference, the question is who will win, which one will be satisfied? Because it seems that a person must satisfy his or her own perceived "needs" but not another person's "wants," the door opens to abuse. How could a woman deny her spouse or "significant other" something that he needs? There is the husband who demands daily sex to fulfill his "need." There is the boyfriend who "needs" to have sex in a particular manner, such as oral sex, when his girlfriend "just wants to snuggle." What a difference between these situations and one in which a couple strives to balance the desires of both individuals. If it becomes acceptable to use someone to fulfill a "need," then sex has become more important than the relationship, or as some people incorrectly maintain, "Bad sex is better than no sex."
How this "needs" misconception, with its profound implications, became so entrenched in our thinking is something of a mystery. Part of the answer lies in the subtlety of this falsehood. If it were more obviously wrong, it is unlikely that society would have so uniformly accepted it. The key to the success of the "needs" misconception is the often subtle manner in which it violates the truth: people do have intense sexual desires. Another factor is that, in the last few decades, increasing affluence has led to greater materialism and self-centeredness. Consequently, people are now more willing to magnify the nature of their self-interests.
Lastly, one might expect this misconception to become more entrenched during the modern era due to the greater confusion over sexual matters. Bewildered people who are struggling to control carnal passions will more readily accept ideas that justify their own sexual abuse of others than those with clearer minds. True sexual freedom is not possible if one is a prisoner to sexual needs, unable to control sexual urges. Rejection of this "needs" falsehood removes the chains that shackle us to self-serving behavior patterns. The freedom of the sexual revolution has been a freedom only to fulfill contrived needs. It has not freed us to be more loving of each other, but has only freed us from concerning ourselves with each other's welfare.
It is this lack of concern for each other's welfare, this willingness to use others for our own selfish ends, that accounts for most of the misery in the world today. Floods and fires, disease and volcanic eruptions can account for measurable amounts of physical misery, but it's usually people who cause the human misery of incalculable proportions that we see all around. In this book I am concerned with one particular kind of human misery — that directly attributable to our use and abuse of the sexual part of our nature—and I am most sincerely concerned about what we can do to alleviate that misery.
Throughout this book we shall champion the view that to minimize this misery and to enjoy the healthiest sex we must base our relationships first and foremost on love. This view is based on traditional natural law teaching which comes to us from such formidable philosophers as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas upheld that the first precept of natural law, or most important rule for human fulfillment, is to do good and avoid evil.5 To do good is to do what is virtuous or loving. Because love is the basis for doing good, it is the basis for the most natural, healthy approach to all aspects of life, including sex.
Among today's public there exists considerable confusion about the various types of love. But in its most genuine form love is a simple notion, familiar even to small children, and our society is in general agreement on its essence. Almost everyone can identify the purest form of love. It is compassion, consideration, kindness, unselfishness, altruism, thoughtfulness, extending oneself. Love is people going out of their way to give, with no thought for themselves — being nice, pleasant and courteous with no expectation of reward. Love is people at a Red Cross center donating their blood for nothing more than cheap cookies and punch. It is, according to Aristotle, to will the good of another.
A great error in our modern approach to sexuality is to disregard the natural priority of love. Today, many people accept the valuing of other priorities as high or higher than love, especially in the search for sexual fulfillment. These alternative priorities include freedom (of expression, of choice, to "do your own thing"), pleasure, self-actualization, excitement, convenience, being "hip," and improving one's image. All of these priorities are valid, but none should be valued as much as love because it is love which most readily leads us to fulfillment. When other priorities conflict with love, as they often do, love must be given preeminence.
In this book we shall focus on five primary characteristics of love. These are: respect, responsibility, commitment, discipline (which enables one to sacrifice for others), and trust. We will use these characteristics to explore the truth about all manner of issues related to sex.
As we shall see, the natural supremacy of love is regularly questioned today. This occurs primarily through acceptance of misconceptions such as the "needs" misconception which distort the truth and act to support lesser priorities. Because of these distortions, other priorities are now readily allowed to encroach on the natural supremacy of love, and this allows for radical changes in the perceived purpose of sexual interactions. The primary goal of sexuality should be to augment or enrich a relationship. Sexuality, whether genital or nongenital, should bring people closer together by adding a positive dimension to a well-rounded, supportive, nurturing relationship. But, if people have specific, genital sexual needs which must be fulfilled, then the primary goal or reason for having sex is changed. The goal of sex becomes to meet those needs, instead of to enrich a relationship. By emphasizing contrived needs (most commonly the need to climax) the importance of pleasure is exaggerated. We lose sight of the highest priority and become focused on pleasure-seeking. The goal becomes to climax (or to achieve multiple climaxes), to fulfill fantasies, to "score," etc.
Our focus should be on relationships, not sex. One way of conceptualizing relationships is to liken them to a solar system. A solar system is made up of planets each of which may represent an important aspect of the relationship. One planet might represent the physical (or sexual or sensual) aspect, another might represent the social aspect, another the spiritual aspect, and yet another the intellectual aspect. In each unique relationship the planets or various general components differ in size or prominence. For relationships to maintain stability and harmony, the various forces created by the planets must remain balanced. Genital sexual activity can be thought of as one moon circling the planet Physical. Other moons around this planet would include nongenital sexual interactions such as hugging, shaking hands, and kissing.
The function of each component, including sexuality, is to enhance the greater relationship — the solar system. The role of sexuality must be considered within the context of a relationship, rather than instead of one. This is the truly holistic approach to sexuality, or what has been called a cerebro-centric (versus a genito-centric) approach, and herein lies the wonderful potential of sexuality to affirm a sense of intimacy.
The common approach to sex in today's America gives genital sexual activity inordinate attention. In the media, on bumper stickers, in magazines and books, in health clubs and in birthday cards there is general preoccupation with sex. We are told to "Do it" (i.e., to have intercourse) in countless ways. "Secretaries do it from 9-5," "Nurses do it with patience," and "Teachers do it with class." Popular, self-help books carry such titles as The One Hour Orgasm. To paraphrase abstinence educator Coleen Mast, the goal has become to go as far as you can, or get as much as you can, with whomever you can, for as long as you can, and in as many different positions as you can.
In addition to an increasing variety of ways to pleasure and climax, we also face growing acceptance of the idea that just about any method will suffice. For example, one study found that 27 percent of inner city youths attending an adolescent clinic had experienced anal intercourse.9 We are encouraged to pursue a variety of partners and techniques so that we never become bored with our sex lives, and (for goodness sake) stop "doing it." Popular literature offers innumerable recommendations as to how to spice up "lackluster sex lives."
In summary, we must rethink our attitudes about the essential purpose of sexual interactions. We must ask whether genital, sexual activity is a part of a relationship or an end in itself. Since the populace has come to accept the "needs" misconception, the primary reason for sex has changed and become isolated. For this to have occurred, individuals had to be willing to compromise on love, for only by maintaining the priority of love is the fallacious nature of the "needs" misconception revealed.
Good sex does not require experiencing climax, the ultimate climax, multiple climaxes, or fulfilling one's or one's partner's wildest sexual fantasy. Any of these may be part of good sex, but the primary objective of sexual experiences — genital or nongenital — is to enrich and validate a balanced, healthy relationship. Truly good sex is only possible within such a context. The difference between these two approaches may appear subtle, but the consequences of failing to distinguish between them are often profound. To focus on pleasure instead of on love is like directing all one's attention to dessert, while ignoring a meal's main course; and it is equally unhealthy.
Wetzel, M.D., Richard. "The Greatest Misconception." In Sexual Wisdom (Proctor Publications, 1998).
Sexual Wisdom is available from Proctor Publications (800) 343-3034, P.O. Box 2498, Ann Arbor, MI 48106. Sexual Wisdom is produced by and copyrighted to Sex Education For Advanced Beginners, a non-profit California corporation (#33-0584794) dedicated to teaching the truth about sexuality. Dr. Wetzel receives no financial compensation from the sale of this book. All proceeds from sales go toward promotion of Sexual Wisdom and related endeavors. Book Price: $12.95 US / $17.95 CAN
Richard Wetzel, M.D. is a family physician in private practice for over ten years and is an internationally recognized expert on sexuality. He is a graduate of Albany Medical College in New York and is a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians; the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists; the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States; and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. He teaches a wide variety of audiences including parents, physicians, young adults, and adolescents. He is a regularly featured guest on television and radio and is an advisory board member of Mary's Shelter, a shelter for pregnant teenagers.
Audio and video tapes of Dr. Wetzel are available though St. Joseph's Radio at (714) 744-0336, Fax: (714) 744-1998, P.O. Box 2983, Orange, CA 92859
Copyright © 1998 Richard Wetzel