“Sex was a taboo subject when I was growing up, just like death and dying, come to think of it. And since I never even came close to conforming to the ideal body image, I always had a hard time of it. I was teased mercilessly as a kid for being fat. Boy, kids can be really cruel.”
My friend Raymond is 50 years old. He is a social worker employed by a home health care agency. He is thinking about applying for a position in the agency’s hospice program, but he’s not quite sure he’s ready for the responsibility. “I need to better understand my own feelings about death and dying before I can hope to assist anyone else.” He hopes I can help him do this. “If I’m going to do this work, I want to do it well.”
Raymond’s mother died of ovarian cancer when he was seven years old, but he never really processed the loss. Now a dear friend of long standing, Joann, is also dying of cancer. Joann’s imminent death has opened the floodgates of his unresolved grief associated with his mother’s death. “I’m both drawn to Joann and repulsed by her all at the same time. And she knows it. It’s so crazy. You should see me. I’m confused and disoriented, which is not at all like me.”
Raymond reveals that a recent visit to his doctor disclosed that he is at high risk for heart disease. Raymond is considerably overweight. “I guess I’ve pretty much let myself go to seed. I’ve always been a big guy, big-boned, as my mother would say, but now I’m just Fat with a capital ‘F’”. The heart disease news, while shocking, didn’t come as much of a surprise.
Three years ago Raymond went through a very acrimonious divorce. “My life shattered before my eyes.” His three children, two girls and a boy, live with his ex-wife in another state. He gets to see the kids only on holidays and for a month during the summer. “After the divorce, I just didn’t care if I lived or died. I ballooned. I put on over a hundred pounds in a matter of months. Hey, wait a minute. Maybe that’s why I’m considering this hospice move, and why I’m so ambivalent about Joann. Maybe I need to recover a sense of meaning for my life.”
“You want to talk about that, Raymond? Sounds to me like you’re avoiding something and it’s not just about mortality. Is it sex and intimacy?”
“I’ve never been comfortable talking about sex, particularly my own sexuality. To be honest, I’ve replaced sex with food in my life. I’m not proud of this, but turning to food was a lot easier than trying to figure out the whole sex thing.
My divorce devastated me. I never had much confidence that I was a good lover, and when my wife left me, I figured it was because I was lousy in bed.
Intimacy, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. I’m real good at that. In fact, I believe that more intimacy is possible over a dinner table than in the bedroom. I mean, just think about it. Intimacy is about a meeting of souls. Sex is about bumping parts. Maybe that’s why I excel in the kitchen. I’m a much better chef than a lover.
Sex was a taboo subject when I was growing up, just like death and dying, come to think of it. And since I never even came close to conforming to the ideal body image, I always had a hard time of it. I was teased mercilessly as a kid for being fat. Boy, kids can be really cruel.
When I was older, I guess I still let that haunt me, because I never had any confidence about my role as a husband and lover either. I know there wasn’t any expertise involved in getting my wife pregnant. In fact, I wonder how many of us would be here today if conceiving a child involved any kind of skill at all.”
“It’s true what you say, Raymond, our culture is plagued with mixed messages about sexuality and intimacy. We can easily become obsessed with the image of the perfect body, with youth and beauty. All of this can get in the way of finding a comfortable place for us to express ourselves as intimate and sexual beings.
Can I ask you a question? How important is sexuality in your life? Some people haven’t any interest in sex, and that’s just fine for them. But I sense that you’re not like that. Am I correct, or are you content with the status quo?”
Raymond thought for a moment then responded; “I know I’ve built up this wall of fat to keep people out. And I can see that this crazy defense mechanism of mine will most likely kill me if I don’t get a handle on it. Listen, I don’t aspire to being the world’s greatest lover, but it would be nice to stop running for cover every time the subject comes up.”
“Thank you for being so honest about that, Ray.
I believe it’s never too late to relearn new and healthy ways to deal with our sexuality. This re-education process begins with dispelling the myths and misconceptions that our culture passes off as sex information.
I suggest that you begin by doing some reading around the topic of male sexuality. I think you will find it both informative and supportive. There are a number of good books available, and I’d be happy to suggest some titles, if you like.
Once you’re more comfortable with the basics, you could then move on to being with a partner. Earlier you said that you feel that more intimacy is possible over a dinner table than in the bedroom. An interesting thought and very insightful too. And that leads me to a suggestion! Why not bring some of the intimacy of the dining room into the bedroom? This way you would be combining something you know how to do really well with something you’re just learning. You could invite a partner to join you for dinner in bed. Eating could be part of your sex play. Plan a menu of finger food, and other things you could feed one another. Make it playful. Sex, like eating, shouldn’t be work. And maybe when you get real good at eating in the bedroom, you could try having sex in the dining room.
When you’ve finished your sex play, take a long walk together. The exercise will do you good and you’ll have a perfect opportunity to do some talking about sex. I suspect that sex, sexuality, and sensuality continue to confuse you because you know very little about any or all of these things. Talking with others about their experiences broadens out our own life experience.
Thing is, I don’t think couples talk nearly enough about sex with one another. Learning to communicate is key to having a happy and healthy sex life. Talking about sex is especially important for couples that have been together for a long time. It keeps them from getting stale and prevents them from presuming each knows all there is to know about their partner.
Why not get interested in life again, Ray? Have a little fun. Sexuality isn’t a mystery. It’s a wonderful miracle.