When Bad Things Happen to Good People, the world seems more fragile
When Robert Bowers, the gunman who ran into The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Saturday he murdered 11 innocent people and wounded 6 more. The event also tore into the fabric of the American community’s sense of safety, respect and collective faith in the country.
Each time there’s been a traumatic event in the US whether it’s a terrorist threat (the bomb packages allegedly sent by Cesar Soyac last week), the Las Vegas shooting one year ago at the Harvest Music Festival and the riot allegedly incited by white supremacists RAM members in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, clients come in to sessions and are palpably frightened. They are seeking a place to express their feelings of rage, fear and vulnerability (many of the bomb packages were mailed to locations all around Manhattan). The rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue described receiving letters of condolence and support from people all over the world. The media shows communities spontaneously gathering to hold candlelight vigils in cities around the USA. What does a therapist who specializes in sex therapy advise after a traumatic event that shakes a nation like this? How does this even connect with one’s sex life?
Vulnerability and Sex
One of the main challenges for clients in my group practice Center for Love and Sex, is the longing they have for more meaningful sex. This can come in the form of wanting more frequent sex with their partner or spouse. It can also present as the desire to express a long-held fantasy to a partner in order to feel more whole in their sexual expression. It also can be described as the wish to lower one’s anxiety so as to feel more present and freer in partnered sex. For many of these presenting problems, anxiety is a large contributor to the challenge. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American, anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million US adults aged 18 and older.
One might not be surprised that folks who already suffer from anxiety will feel a spike in their anxiety levels when a mass shooting or terrorist attack occurs. According to a Gallup Poll taken soon after the Las Vegas mass shooting 39% of Americans are either very worried or somewhat worried that they or someone they love will become a victim of a mass shooter. These levels were similar to a poll taken right after the San Bernadino mass shooting. So how do people with anxiety seek out comfort? What is interesting to me is that while most of my female clients (whatever their sexual orientation) feel comfortable in seeking out comfort verbally from their partner or friends, most of my male clients are reluctant to ask their partner/spouse directly. However, they may ask indirectly by initiating some type of physical touch, whether a cuddle, a hug or some sort of more direct sexual signal. Why might that be?
Men and Comfort, an oxymoron?
Most men are acculturated to repress their fear outwardly. They’re taught that to be “real” men they need to be tough and indifferent because that is the way you win and get ahead. Never show your hand when it comes to cards, in business and at times in romantic relationships. Thus there’s a small menu of emotions that are socially sanctioned in American life (although there’s some variance depending on your cultural background). Some of these common emotional expressions include: anger, rage, disdain, belittling others (either in humor or with aggression), frustration, disgust and physical extensions of these emotions.
American men (this includes those that identify as gay, bisexual and queer) are taught that they have to be the ones that their partners can lean on. But in the years I have worked with men from diverse ethnic, cultural, religious and orientations, I have witnessed there’s one place they can experience a wider menu of emotions. This is in the sexual and erotic realm. Through a sexual scenario a more vulnerable side (even if most men aren’t even conscious of it) emerges, and sex isn’t just something he is performing or doing. It becomes the place he goes to be held, rocked, whispered to allowing him to feel accepted, loved and yes comforted.
Meaning of Sex and Death Anxiety
When I work with men I help them become more aware of their own fears and how they might learn how to express their worries and concerns to their partners in other ways beside being withdrawn, belligerent, complaining or in some cases angry when their partners turn them down for sex. I help them uncover what sexual activity with their partner means to them in the larger significance of their lives. For some it is a return to connection that is beyond having to prove themselves, for others it’s a space they can be gentle givers of pleasure, for others it’s where they’re given free reign to lead which quiets their fear of lack of control in the outside world. And for others it’s a haven from death.
Death Anxiety and The Lack of Living Fully
Irving Yalom, the famous existential therapist and writer has written about his theory of death anxiety can keep people from truly living deeply, including shutting off their sexual desires. He wrote: ““…the more unlived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.” But when faced with death either through a terminal illness or at the top of the World Trade Center, a man urgently calls their partner and/or family to tell them in an emotionally authentic voice how much they love them, finally freed of society’s chains of decorum.
Ask for Comfort without Shame
When a massively violent event occurs like the Tree of Life Shooting last weekend, it tears into our day to day lives and threatens our own sense of safety. It is the human condition to want to reach out, to hold a partner close and to give and get comfort through touch. It’s our primal urge when we’re born and it’s a haven against our own fears regarding our own eventual deaths. I always let clients know that inside all of us are the children we used to be; playful, eager to learn, and longing to be comforted when we’re frightened. This need is not something to be ashamed of. The increase in mass shootings are fear-inducing for all Americans and for all humans. If you have a partner, let your guard down, tell them of your fears and invite them to comfort you and offer yours to them. If you don’t have a partner, reach out to friends, your community, attend one of the hundreds of interfaith vigils that are still occurring across the country and offer to give and receive a hug. The only way through this is to confront pure hate with pure love and authentic comfort.