I told a psychologist friend about your book when he said he had two clients struggling with masturbation addictions. He replied that he favors "sex positive" thinking. I told him, "you can favor it all you want and nobody wants to go back to the days of shame, but is that black-and-white thinking going to help your clients?"
The psychologist obviously meant that he favors "orgasm positive" thinking. He would prefer a solution for his clients that assures them that orgasm itself isn’t contributing to their distress. Unfortunately, if an approach is not "for" orgasm, it is branded "against" sex. The ancient Chinese Taoists, who recommended therapeutic solo cultivation of sexual energy and hours of non-orgasmic sex in different positions to cure diseases, would find this label mystifying. In our culture, however, favoring sex without heartily touting orgasm can make people uncomfortable. Perhaps this is because we are still in reaction against religious doctrines that equate lust with sin.
Healing the notion of "sex as sin"
Before we look at some pitfalls in the current definition of "sex positive," let’s step into the past and consider the conclusions of two passionate idealists from over 100 years ago, both of whom noticed that lust caused problems. The first, an American named John Humphrey Noyes, stumbled upon the benefits of making love without ejaculation after his wife suffered through 5 births in six years. The second, Russian Count Lev Nikolayevich (Leo) Tolstoy, never did. As the result of his discovery - and despite his background as a theology student - Noyes figured out that the "sinfulness" of sex was manmade - the result of entirely avoidable post-orgasmic bad feelings. Tolstoy went to his grave feeling humiliated by his sinful, lustful behavior…and preaching his guilt-ridden message to others via his work. Wrote Noyes in 1870 in a pamphlet entitled Male Continence :
Ordinary sexual intercourse…is a momentary affair, terminating in exhaustion and disgust. If it begins in the spirit, it soon ends in the flesh; i.e., the amative, which is spiritual, is drowned in the propagative, which is sensual. The exhaustion which follows naturally breeds self-reproach and shame, and this leads to dislike and concealment of the sexual organs, which contract disagreeable associations from the fact that they are the instruments of pernicious excess. This undoubtedly is the philosophy of the origin of shame after the fall. Adam and Eve first sunk the spiritual in the sensual….by pushing prematurely beyond the amative to the propagative, and so became ashamed, and began to look with an evil eye on the instruments of their folly.
On the same principle we may account for the process of "cooling off" which takes place between lovers after marriage and often ends in indifference and disgust. Exhaustion and self-reproach make the eye evil not only toward the instruments of excess, but toward the person who tempts to it.
In contrast with all this, lovers who use their sexual organs simply as the servants of their spiritual natures, abstaining from the propagative act except when procreation is intended, may enjoy the highest bliss of sexual fellowship for any length of time, without satiety or exhaustion; and thus marriage life may become permanently sweeter than courtship or even the honey-moon.
Compare Noyes’ cheerful conclusions with those of Tolstoy in The Kreutzer Sonata (1889):
Love was exhausted with the satisfaction of sensuality. … I did not realize that this cold hostility was our normal state…. These periods of irritation depended very regularly upon the periods of love. Each of the latter was followed by one of the former. A period of intense love was followed by a long period of anger; a period of mild love induced a mild irritation. We did not understand that this love and this hatred were two opposite faces of the same animal feeling [lust].
Ninety-nine families out of every hundred live in the same hell, and … it cannot be otherwise." "But… all, like myself, imagine that it is a misfortune exclusively reserved for themselves alone, which they carefully conceal as shameful, not only to others, but to themselves, like a bad disease.…
Ironically, Tolstoy drew very close to the discovery that would have eased his pain:
The object of Man, as of Humanity, is happiness, and, to attain it, Humanity has a law which it must carry out. This law consists in the union of beings. This union is thwarted by the passions. And that is why, if the passions disappear, the union will be accomplished.
He recognized that sacred union was the key. Unfortunately, he didn’t see a way to avoid lust and still make love, so he condemned himself for his failure to live up to his ideal. (At age 80, he was still having sex with - and otherwise spurning - his wife, according to her diary.)
That morality may exist between people in their worldly relations, they must make complete chastity their object. In tending toward this end, man humiliates himself. When he shall reach the last degree of humiliation, we shall have moral marriage. But if man, as in our society, tends only toward physical love, though he may clothe it with pretexts and the false forms of marriage, he will have only permissible debauchery….
What can we learn from the experience of these men of powerful libidos and lofty ideals? Bad feelings connected with sex are a function not of dogma, but of how we use our sexual desire. Perhaps truly positive sex calls for lovemaking that eradicates the source of "sinfulness" (and all other manifestations of the separation hangover) with careful lovemaking - leaving satisfied wellbeing in its place. Since humanity hasn’t learned this, however, its sex experts attempt to negate the silly notion that sex is sinful with a definition of "sex positive" that equates "positive" with "jollies." Certainly, I once defined my ability to produce orgasms in my partner as healthy lovemaking. It took time to see that my misplaced enthusiasm actually harmed my partner, and, more importantly, that he grew healthier and more comfortable with intimacy when we practiced careful lovemaking without orgasm, channeling our sexual energy through our hearts. Now I see my former (unsuspected) prejudice as rather narrow. Unfortunately, the trendy view that "sex positive" equals "orgasms" may serve neither those hooked on orgasm nor sexual anorexics (those who avoid sex).
As orgasm is addictive (thanks to the reward center of the brain), it is easy to confuse "hooked on orgasm" with "sex positive." This confusion often results in unwary pleasure seekers ending up not only hooked on orgasm, but also emotionally isolated and susceptible to other addictions. Yet what is a therapist to do? Suppose masturbation addiction is isolating a client, or leaving the client depressed, hyperactive or otherwise suffering from the extremes of the dopamine roller coaster. Our current thinking obliges the therapist to make no constructive suggestions for managing sexuality to achieve balance because his client is defined as "sex positive," and therefore "healthy." If, however, the therapist were to consider his client’s plight in view of the possibility that careful management of sexual desire can heal, he might suggest that the client experiment with solo cultivation techniques to play with moving his sexual energy upward rather than outward. Or perhaps that he learn about the neurochemistry of the reward center to better understand how masturbation has gained such a foothold in his life. Such knowledge can make it easier to cut back, particularly once the client also realizes that oxytocin-producing activities can ease his sexual frustration while he is moving toward greater inner balance. As an aside, men often tell me that when they cut back on masturbation, they attract potential lovers into their lives within weeks. However, I do not believe that most single folks can give up masturbation entirely, unless they are receiving lots of loving attention and hugs from others or pouring themselves into selfless service. Cutting back, though, seems to be an option for some. Greater understanding of brain physiology offers the added benefit of eroding the concept that sex is sinful. As a Catholic friend once confided after he made love without orgasm, "I don’t feel guilty when I make love this way." Like John Humphrey Noyes, he quickly realized that the "guilt" he formerly felt after sex was not God’s disfavor, but simply a neurochemical jolt that left him uneasy. Making love without orgasm was like a visit to the Garden of Eden by contrast. God clearly wasn’t out to get him for making love! Unhooking masturbation from guilt through understanding the neurochemistry of reward center highs and lows has the added benefit of making masturbation less addictive. Risky behaviors raise dopamine higher (which makes it drop lower afterward). If you have heard that you’re going to hell for masturbating, it is deliciously risky and quite addictive. But if you understand you’re just dealing with a brain chemical buzz and a perfectly natural hangover the thrill is not as addictive.
Our current definition of "sex positive" as "pro-orgasm" can blind us to healthier options, and the trend seems to be in this unfortunate direction. Patrick Carnes recently popularized the term "sexual anorexic" for anyone who consistently avoids sex. It is an easy leap to apply this label to anyone who avoids orgasm, thereby pathologizing a way of managing sexual energy that has offered benefits for thousands of years to those who happened upon it. I once worked with a man in his late forties who was still a virgin. We had long talks about the material in Peace Between the Sheets. The concepts comforted him because they confirmed that there was a reason casual sex was so unfulfilling. Even from the sidelines he had long recognized most intimate relationships ended in heartache. He clearly wanted a connection with more depth. Also, he had observed that he felt empty and "off" for days after ejaculating, even after a wet dream. Having a way to talk about his life choices that didn't make him wrong - yet also pointed out the benefits of intimacy and a way to align it with his past observations - was very healing for him. It gave him permission to make love without ejaculation and without feeling like a misfit. He connected with his first lover within a year or so. It didn't turn into a marriage. He refused to "impose" the Peace ideas on his girlfriend...or even ask her to read the book. They ended up "just friends," after she decided his earning capacity was inadequate (post-orgasmic scarcity feelings projected onto him?).
People who want orgasms should pursue them - preferably after some education about how dopamine in the reward center sets up addictive highs and lows, which can alienate lovers as they project the resulting discomfort outward. But those who don't, who want to cut back, or who have some intuitive understanding of the principles of sacred sex, should not be encouraged to conform to the norms defined by today’s "sexperts." By putting all the healthy options on the table, therapists can help people to make their choices freely, with full information and without the stigma bestowed by the "I'll decide what's sex positive" specialists. Gentle cultivation of sexual energy offers a solution that makes no one wrong. Of course lovers may still have painful issues from the past, and emotional healing techniques can be most helpful. In fact, in our experience such issues gradually bubble up for healing with this practice of mutual giving as lovers feel increasingly safe. This approach may be an ideal adjunct to emotional healing techniques. In any case, a comforting sense of safety is supported by the absence of recurring feelings of deprivation, neediness, depression, extreme vulnerability and so forth - which often follow the orgasms therapists currently insist are the essential element of a healthy sex life. For better results, perhaps we should stop striving to be "sex positive" and instead reach for "positive sex," that is, sex that heals by creating feelings of wellbeing and dissolving emotional separation. This lodestar would make it far easier to choose behaviors that actually benefit us and our relationships.