Here's an excerpt from an exchange of emails with a delightful man — a mature medical student.
Did you know there is a condition where people have to have a limb amputated in order to have an orgasm? We discussed this in med school. Psychiatrists could not find anything else wrong with them. The topic set up an ethical debate: whether these people ("apotemnophiles"1) are crazy, or should have their wishes fulfilled?
I maintained they were not crazy, and it is their body, their life. Who are we to dictate to someone - who has not harmed and is not harming others and has no other apparent aberration - what they should do with their body? No one cares if a person has his penis cut off in a sex change operation. How much of a difference is that? I said that doctors shouldn't dictate to patients; people have a right to their personal freedom.
Is the issue here really personal freedom? Unlike the candidate for a sex-change operation, the would-be amputee is suffering from a sexual fetish. Whether extreme or mild, a sexual fetish/ritual is based upon the pursuit of a buzz in the reward circuit of the brain. It equates with a huge surge of dopamine, not unlike a snort of cocaine. With the recent advent of ever-kinkier and readily accessible porn, it appears that more people than ever are battling some kind of similar compulsion…whether or not the medical community has (yet) graced it with an arcane label.
If someone's reward circuit is dictating unhealthy behavior to him that he would not choose if he were centered and neurochemically balanced, then exactly how free is he (or she)? As I told my new friend:
These would-be amputees, by calming their reward circuitry with meditation or sacred sex, would change what they "want" completely. Yet you guys are debating whether or not to cut off their limbs because of an unexamined conviction that sexual thrills are so sacred that no one should ever point out to another that he has a destructive addiction, or how he might go about escaping it.
Free to Be…an Addict
In recent generations many of us have sought to free our sexuality from religious hypocrisy (an excellent idea) and assure each other that guilt is not serving us (also very sound). Yet this broadmindedness is now deceiving us about the true nature of our sexual obsessions, and preventing us from offering/seeking genuine comfort for such intrusive preoccupations. The titillating sexual ritual has become a sacred cow - regarded as harmless, or glorified as an exercise of personal freedom.
If a street vendor were handing out free crack, would we say that those who partook - and predictably become addicted - were simply exercising their freedom? Certainly, everyone on this planet has the freedom to destroy himself by addiction (or any other means) if he so chooses. I do not suggest that we could succeed as our brother’s keeper, even if we were so inclined.
I do, however, feel that all of us should be better educated about our primitive brains, their fixed agendas, how they manipulate us to do their bidding, and what is actually required to chart our own course. The freedom to follow the blind (and often distorted) impulses of a part of the brain that evolved because of its ability to pass on genes efficiently is not true freedom. Humanity hasn't yet understood that this fundamental neurochemical program is always behind a sexual fetish, in part because fetishes are as many and varied as color chips in a paint store.
If you were compelled to paint continuously for all of your sexually-active years, and all you could choose was the color, would you consider yourself free? Maybe. Yet if you realized that you could put down your paintbrush and do all kinds of things that were far more fulfilling if you just stopped painting all the time, you might redefine freedom entirely.
Few of us realize that sexual fetishes, even mild ones, are compulsions. This is because the rush of dopamine that accompanies them makes us temporarily feel like lusty superheroes on a vital mission. When we're in pursuit of our sacred fetish, our life has purpose - and an orgasm is just around the corner to "reward" us (and reinforce the association between stimulus and addictive "high").
Most of us comprehend substance abuse. Yet we still have trouble acknowledging behavioral addictions — in part because they are dictated by the very same subconscious mechanism on which we rely constantly to make perfectly beneficial decisions. For example, we rely on the reward circuit to tell us when to quench our thirst, when it's time to eat, which of two courses of action is likely to be best for our career, and so forth. It’s natural that we unthinkingly rely on this same center of the brain to dictate our sexual lives, too.
The difference is that, at a neurochemical level, the mind-altering pursuit of orgasm is more like a drug high than is the urge for a drink of water. (See The Road to Excess.) Approaching orgasm, dopamine goes so high that it drops down below baseline afterward. Low dopamine makes us very uneasy,2 as if we're going to be stuck in a dark hole for the rest of our days, and very anxious to raise it again as soon as possible.
Sadly, most of us have bought into the high/low orgasm cycle as an inevitable fact of life — and will even invest in sexual enhancement drugs and pornography to exacerbate it. It needn't be a fact of life. Yet it is often difficult to imagine the benefits of escaping it until we're out of the cycle. Can you remember the stardust of your earliest romances, before you concluded that the whole point of sex was orgasm? If so, you are not yet completely enslaved.
Can't I have both?
Understandably my new friend still thinks he can have both mind-altering sex and lasting love:
Wearing garters and heels, or erotic spanking, isn’t the essential sexual nexus. When worn by my lover, it’s another way to admire her. I love her essence. I love her naked. I love her dressed up. What's wrong with accessory spice? I understand that you don't choose to do it, but surely you wouldn’t lay your self-based view on others, right?
Perhaps the question, "what's wrong with sexual enhancements and fetishes?" isn't the right question. There is nothing morally "wrong" with such activities, although pursuing sexual impulses can lead people into an altered state where they do things that are morally wrong — things they certainly would not do if they weren't on sexual autopilot (child sexual abuse, exposing themselves to startle others, rape, and so on). Fetishes do easily escalate because shocking, novel images/behaviors naturally cause a surge (and subsequent drop) in our reward circuit’s dopamine levels.
The underlying question is "can't I have both a deep heart connection AND use my lover to raise my dopamine into the red zone because I love that mind-boggling high feeling?" Alas, we can't have both...not for long. The lows of the addictive orgasm cycle, which we attempt to mix in with our "love" life, will — when projected onto a lover - shift our perception of our partner, or her perception of us, for the worse. Before long, we will conclude that we are with the wrong partner, and move on to a better whip-wielder, to exercise our sacred right to jack up our dopamine levels - never suspecting that we have been manipulated by our own mating neurochemistry...again.
While demanding our "freedom" to stay hooked, we gradually choke off the possibility of lasting, life-enhancing intimacy. Sadly, it is very difficult to see the truth of this while we are prisoners of the orgasm cycle. (This cycle can last about two weeks, as explained elsewhere.) When in the low dopamine phase of the cycle, it will seem right to demand that our lover raise our dopamine by whichever stimulus occurs to our fevered brain. At this point, our desire for union is not based on love or caring; it is based on a burning desire to self-medicate (raise our low dopamine levels).
Whatever the mechanism, lovers experimenting with non-orgasmic sex have noticed that this phenomenon does not occur. In short, maybe we can't have both hot sex and lasting harmony. Our genes dictate otherwise, via our design. Evolution has shaped us to become hooked on sex rather easily, but to become increasingly uneasy about ongoing intimacy that is founded on hot sex, rather than daily, comforting affection. If we who are hooked on the fetish high just do what comes naturally in the bedroom, the grass soon looks greener elsewhere (or we need more and more intense stimulation with our current partner).
What's the alternative?
Only after people have experienced the alternative of inner balance will they truly be free to choose between the contentment possible through balance and and the high/low cycle of pursuing their cherished ritual.
I have now gone nearly a month without orgasm, and feel great. The urges to orgasm and look at pornography are now much easier to deal with and happen much less frequently. Doing regular exchanges of affection with my girlfriend greatly helped in this regard.
In fact, shortly before starting the Exchanges,3 our relationship "difficulties" had reached a point where we had almost decided to split up. Fortunately, we decided that we would give it a bit more time and do the Exchanges before making a decision. Even though we are only on the 5th Exchange, it feels like our relationship has done a total U-Turn. It feels like we are back in the "honeymoon" phase again, and have both remarked at how much happier we both feel.
Does this sound like a man who has given up his freedom? Or rediscovered it? As my husband and I mastered this approach, he remarked more than once, "I feel like who I really am…for the first time in decades." When the transition period has passed, sex is no longer based on hunger, or using someone to self-medicate. It's based on the mutual magnetism of two fully-charged batteries.
Emphasizing close companionship and mutual nurturing over hot sex also reduces cravings.4 Willpower gradually increases across the board. This is because the reward circuit not only governs sexual desire; it also governs all cravings. As we balance it - by not indulging in behavior that pushes our dopamine so high that it drops low afterward (as with hot sex, high-calorie junk food, alcohol, drugs, etc.) - we discover the true freedom of not having to feed any addictions. Indeed, once our sexual ritual is no longer associated with the intense payoff , it becomes easier and easier to ignore.
Just because raising dopamine with a favorite sexual ritual feels good doesn't mean we are free. Finding a needle and sticking it in her arm FEELS good to a heroin addict. She is not free. She WAS free when she first took the actions that threw her into an addictive cycle...and orgasm itself could have contributed to the lows that drove her to seek the heroin.5
In short, freedom begins in the reward circuit - far earlier than the "spankings" begin. Rather than helping each other decide which limb to amputate, why don't we support each other in overcoming the reflexes coming from this primitive circuitry in the brain?
- 1. Apotemnophilia: a paraphilia of the stigmatic/eligibilic type in which sexuerotic arousal and facilitation or attainment of orgasm and dependent upon oneself being an amputee [from the Greek, apo, from + temnien, to cut = - philia]. An apotemnophile becomes fixated on carrying out a self-contrived amputation, or obtaining one in a hospital. You may read an article about a man who died of gangrene after a surgeon obliged his wishes.
- 2. A healthy young man whose dopamine was artificially (chemically) lowered experienced extreme symptoms, including obsessive-compulsive symptoms, thought disorders, anxiety and depressive symptoms, and fatigue. After 28 hours, he felt ashamed, frightened, anxious, and depressed. He was afraid that the situation would continue. Such feelings would easily be projected onto a partner, creating emotional separation in an intimate relationship. Study Shows Acute Dopamine Depletion Can Create Psychological Distress
- 3. This transition is easiest with a loving partner and a careful program of non-hot-foreplay affectionate exchanges...like exchanging foot massages and kissing and giggling together. If you don't want to invent your own, a three-week program is available in Cupid's Poisoned Arrow. Meditation, time in nature, exercise, service to others, and spiritual practice also ease withdrawal.
- 4. This is apparently due to the effects of oxytocin.
- 5. This statement is based on research showing that virgin hamsters will use less amphetamines than those that have had sex.