Posts Tagged ‘sex’

When I was 11 years old I attended a summer camp program sponsored by Yale University for young boys on welfare. The first day at Yale Camp, Vic Webber ordered all of us to line up in single file on the boat dock that stretched far out into Lake Quassapaug. He then asked us to raise our hand if we didn’t know how to swim. Only five kids raised their hands. I wasn’t one of them. The non-swimmers were escorted off the dock and handed funky orange flotation vests to wear in the roped-off shallow end of the lake. The remaining “swimmers” were then led out to the end of the dock. “You’ll each dive in and swim across to the floating deck,” Vic instructed. “You’ll touch the deck and then swim back. Once a swimmer returns, then I want the next boy in line to dive in and swim out. Any questions?” There should have been, but there weren’t.

I tentatively took my place at the end of the line. I kept silent and watched closely as the first boy dived into the water. “All he’s really doing is moving his arms like a windmill and waving his feet up and down,” I thought. I continued my shark-like vigil as boy after boy stood at the edge of the dock, dived in and then essentially did the same thing. “Piece of cake,” I thought, denying the tightness in my belly and the constriction in my throat.

Courageous or Numb?

Finally, it was my turn. The first thing I remember was the shock and surprise at how cold the water was. But it only distracted me for a moment. Quickly I started my legs waving and my arms windmilling. And I just kept it up, over and over again, holding my breath the whole time. Finally, when I could hold my breath no longer, I raised my head up out of the water and was pleasantly surprised to see Dave Woods, the other camp counselor’s face staring down at me from atop the floating deck. I’d made it all the way across the lake without taking a single breath. When I saw Dave’s face, I stopped kicking and windmilling. And then … blup! Down under the water I went! I was so intent on copying the swimmers’ movements that carried them out to the floating deck, I’d failed to pay attention to what those boys did once they got there. Not only couldn’t I swim, but I didn’t have a clue about how to tread water. Fortunately, Dave reached down and pulled me up onto the floating deck. “You don’t really know how to swim, do you?” Dave asked. “How could you tell?” Dave smiled and said, ”Well, that must have taken a lot of courage. You’re quite a brave little guy.” I can still recall that incident and those remarks more than half a century later.

Running the Risk of Learning

Risking trying things I don’t really know how to do has always held a strange fascination for me. I seem to be naturally curious. From learning how to drive a motorcycle and a ski boat, to flying a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza; or how to build a house or write a novel; or how to write curriculum and teach a class or offer a Webinar. I’m often fearful, but frequently willing. And that seems key: to acknowledge the fear, but to try things anyway. And then find ways to return my emotional reality to a sense of settled calm and peacefulness after the inevitable false starts and stunning failures.

Rubberizing the Big Hammer

Dr. Kristin Neff

Another piece that allows risk-taking for me involves what University of Texas at Austin psychologist, Kristen Neff describes as self-compassion. I rarely bring out the Big Ball Peen Hammer and use it on myself. I’ve learned to relate to myself kindly when I’m trying to learn new things, especially when I don’t learn them as fast or as well as Left Brain thinks I should. Intimately familiar with Left Brain’s suppressive, judgmental neural nature makes me rarely able to take it seriously for very long. I think being able to effortlessly implement self-compassion is one of the most valuable gifts we can offer our children, not to mention you know who. Buddha thought it was important enough to say this: “You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.” Especially when trying to learn new things.

Oh, and what does all this have to do with the blog title? Beats me. Those words in the title are simply the top five search terms that most often brought people to my blog last year. Go figure.

But to find out more about self-compassion, funky monkeys, false starts and failures, not to mention something scary, sad and surprising, click HERE.

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When I was eighteen, I invited an “older woman” on a water-skiing weekend up to Lake Mead outside Las Vegas. Dusty was a 22 year old single mother, the first woman I’d ever spent a whole night with, and she had a healthy shamelessness about sex. I, on the other hand, had nothing but … High Anxiety. Well, it didn’t take Dusty too long to figure out that I was a virgin. Our sexual exploits would be best summarized for her by the Rolling Stones song, I Can’t Get No ….

So that was my reason for having sex: it was time. And, I was very lucky. Dusty was patient and kind and willing to hang out with me until I got the hang of this thing supposedly on the minds of men every seven seconds. Working in mental health for a number of years, and hearing stories of how emotionally and physically devastating the First Time can be, was when I realized just how very lucky I actually was. A First Time that is forced or painful or results in abandonment or humiliation often produces Robert Sapolsky’s Four Neuroannihilators. First Time Trauma can take a lifetime to repair. Some people suffer permanent damage and never do fully heal from painful initial sexual experiences. And some people never even realize the extent of the damage they’ve suffered. Having little other than Hollywood fiction to compare it to, they don’t know what’s actually possible in terms of love and sex.

First Time, Best Time

So, a bad first sexual experience holds great potential for conditioning the brain in less than optimal ways. But what might an optimal experience look like in general? Since our kids are most likely going to be having sex whether we like it or not, what guidance might be good for them to get? I think by looking at the positive side of Sapolsky’s neuroannihilators, we are offered  some very useful guidelines, derived from his years of observing … monkeys.

First, when engaging in sex both people need to be able to control their own involvement. They need to be able to say “Yes” or “No” without penalty, and both need to be able to change a “Yes” to a “No,” and vice versa, without fear of abandonment or ridicule (remember, we’re imagining optimal here).

Ideally, there next needs to be some predictability with the relationship and some continuity with the people involved. Years ago I recall a book in which Rudolf Steiner, the originator of Anthroposophy, postulated that anyone we have sex with remains a spiritual part of our energetic field for an extended period of time. In the best of all possible worlds, we might want to exchange such energies with people who answer the Big Brain Question “Yes” for us. To simply end up as a notch on someone’s bedpost is probably less than optimal for brain development. I’m guessing it’s not an accident that many spiritual traditions advocate for either celibacy until marriage, or having sex only within a committed relationship. There are neural consequences involved for the brain (not to mention, the heart). Unfortunately, such traditions rarely creatively address the urges and unfolding needs of the developing body.

After predictability, Sapolsky would probably argue for whatever forms of healthy social support might be available. Thankfully, these days there is certainly a lot more support available than when I was a kid. A number of my own students, in fact, have become effective professional sex educators and counselors to teens, counseling them on topics ranging from birth control to disease prevention to sex and spirituality to Second Generation Virginity.

Sex Stress Test

One important thing it’s useful to remember: sex is stressful. Even consensual sex. But according to Jonah Lehrer, my second most favorite neuroscientist, consensual sex stress is good stress. The glucocorticoids that normally diminish the growth of new brain cells, actually appears to increase them when released during consensual sex. If this is indeed the case, then sex itself would qualify as an effective stress management technique – the fourth and final requirement on Sapolsky’s list of neural enhancers.

So, there we have some food for thought. Lest I forget, here is the research cited in my title, the 237 Reasons for Having Sex. I find the presentation both silly and fascinating. The normal adult brain has networked 100 billion neurons making an average of 10,000 connections each (you do the math), and many of those connections process energy and information outside conscious awareness. Such complexity and unconsciousness suggests we may be simplifying things just a wee bit when we try to boil down having sex to only 237 reasons.  Finally, if you want to discover some surprising ways we all unconsciously affect sexuality in children, click HERE.

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