Porn Addiction in Utah

“What is it with men and porn in Utah?” A friend from out of state asked me that question in a recent online exchange. “I grew up Mormon but not in Utah, and porn is a big deal here, but it seems to be even bigger there. Like is porn addiction a thing? And is it the same as sex addiction? And is it really as big a deal there as they say? And does it have anything to do with women and depression there and how they have the highest rate of anti-depressant usage?”

I responded with a “Whoa, hang on! That’s a lot of questions!” And then we went on to talk for two hours about Utah and its complexities. I’ll summarize a lot of these thoughts here. Keep in mind, reader, that while I am a mental health expert, I fully admit this is not a topic I’ve done personal research on. The thoughts presented here come from my own perspectives, as an ex-Mormon gay father and therapist who has some years of experience behind him. I fully admit my own bias, but there is a lot of truth to my words for many as well.

First of all, since it’s inception, Utah has treated women as a commodity. Mormon men, from the leaders on down, competed for women as an acquisition. There are love stories, sure, but there are also stories of conquest, of older wives being forgotten and set aside as younger wives were obtained. Young virgin girls were hot market items, married off to men two or four or six decades their senior. Men’s names were to be blessed in their righteousness as they fathered children and established lineages on Earth that would follow them into Heaven. And while times have changed, well, a lot of these cultural trends remain the same.

Mormon marriage now is ideally young returned missionary and young out-of-high school girl, both virgins, who marry quickly. She’s promised happiness and motherhood in exchange for her modesty, virtue, and dedication to her husband. She is destined to be a queen and priestess, reigning forever at the side of her husband. It’s church first, then husband and kids, then herself last. Except by age 25, there are 3 or 4 kids and they are screaming and her husband is gone a lot and she doesn’t know what to do. And there is depression. And then one day she finds out that her husband has been secretly watching porn in the basement, and what does that mean. It feels like slaps to the face, an abject betrayal. This isn’t how here life was supposed to go! Why would he do this to her! Isn’t she lovely enough, sexy enough, good enough, isn’t she enough for him? Why would God let this happen? And so she keeps her pain quiet and focuses on the kids and pops anti-depressants and hopes things will work out.

And for him? The Priesthood holder? The one who is burning the candle at both ends, with a full-time job, and debt, and church callings, and the kids, and the wife, the one who is always needed and is expected to be pure and righteous? He is meant to be a king and priest in Heaven, to have his own kingdom, his own planet one day. It’s church first, then wife and kids, then work, then him last. But he can barely seem to keep his energy and morale up for the things happening around him in his busy household. It’s all too much. And porn, well, it’s an easy escape. It’s indulgent. It’s secret. It’s not hurting anybody. It’s contained to a laptop screen. He can look up what he wants, pleasure himself. And if that gets boring, he can always jump online, into chatrooms, maybe exchange some photos or jump on a webcam, so long as he doesn’t show his face. It’s private and exciting. He gets attention from women (or at least men pretending to be women) that aren’t his wife. And so it becomes a habit. He stays up late multiple times per week. 15 minutes easily turns into 2 or 3 hours. He’s not addicted, he tells himself, he just enjoys it, so long as no one finds out, and he can keep the reality of it all in a different box, one that isn’t connected to his faithfulness or his Priesthood at all.

Except then he gets caught. He stammers lies about how often he does it, how much there has been, how far he has gone. He lies, and then makes excuses, and then blames others. There is shame and penitence. He has been told hundreds of times from his Priesthood leaders about the evils of pornography, about how it burns images permanently into your brain. Just one second, one image, that is all it takes and you are forever unclean. And now his wife is furious, and there is even less sex. He’s sent to the bishop. He vows to never do it again. She’s crying constantly, feeling lied to, betrayed. She was faithful and it isn’t supposed to be like this. It’s wrong, and he’s bad, and he’s unworthy. And if he relapses and gets caught again, well, he needs to go to therapy, to sex addiction recovery, where he can sort out what is wrong with him and make himself a better son of God, a more worthy Priesthood holder.

There are pornography and sex addiction recovery clinics all over Utah. They specialize in helping men move past the desires of the flesh and be better. Pornography is evil, vile, wrong. In fact, just a few years ago, the Mormon governor declared pornography a health epidemic. On a governmental level. (Seriously.) And so the man either gets better, or he finds more discreet ways of meeting this dark need. Or maybe he starts cheating. Utah does have a thriving prostitution industry, after all.

(And if you feel like this characterization is unfair or dramatic, take a moment to assess the people you know in Utah, even your own friends and families. Chances are, this describes more than a few of those men, women, or couples, if not now, than a few years back. This represents nearly every Mormon family I know, honestly).

So is there such thing as porn addiction? Absolutely. Food can be addictive. As can bad relationships, or gambling, or work. When you engage in something in one area of your life that is hurting the other areas; when you spend hours and hours on it; when you are keeping major secrets and justifying bad behavior; when you are telling lies and making excuses; all of these things contribute to addiction. But it is very important to understand that porn is not an addiction for everyone. In fact, studies show that porn is mostly addictive in heavily religious cultures and communities, ones that treat sex with shame, one with rigorous standards of what it means to be worthy.

Utah is well-known for having a poor sex education system in place. Safe sex isn’t discussed so much as abstinence. Sex is equated with shame, revulsion, and sin. Every human teenager has a sexual development taking place, it comes along with the hormones and the genitals. They experience attractions and desires. Those who have pre-marital sex are considered dirty, or damaged goods. And what extends with that is a culture of secret keeping. Let’s not talk about sex, let’s keep our sins secret, and let’s ignore the sexual things happening all around us. Looks bury our desires, never talk about them, never masturbate, never learn, and instead save ourselves for marriage. And then let’s marry our young sons and daughters and see what happens.

And what happens? Depression and addictions to pornography. Men and women grow up into adults while never allowing their sexual sides, which are just as prominent as their spiritual sides, to develop. Those sides stay stuck in adolescence. They seek expression. They cry out for release. And it’s even rougher on gay men and women, who have the added burden of growing up of being ashamed for WHO they are attracted to, leaving more psychological and emotional needs unmet.

I could likely prepare an entire two-hour conference on this, but I’ll wrap it up here. After a robust discussion, my friend asked me how I help people through all of this.

As a man, I struggled with pornography and masturbation during my Mormon years, when I was both married and single. Both resulted in major depression and anxiety problems for me, as well as physical issues. I had nausea, major stress, and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea issues after indulging in pornography or masturbation, and those conditions extended to when I would even notice an attractive man on the street. “I experienced an attraction! Oh no! I’m evil, God hates me, what have I done!” as my stomach churned. Now I live as an out, proud gay man. I’m sexually active, and I occasionally view porn. Masturbation is a pleasurable activity on occasion as well. And I experience zero shame in relation to any of it. I accept my sexual identity as very much a part of my overall person. I’m not a sinner or an addict. I’m just a healthy human 40-year old man.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of clients come to me with goals of reducing masturbation or to work on their pornography addictions. I take these concerns seriously. I listen. I reflect. I’m kind and calm andpatient. But I have to help the clients recognize that the shame they feel around sex is the primary cause of their emotional struggles. I have to help them learn to accept and love themselves, all parts of themselves, and then make decisions from there. I have to help them measure out their motivations. If their goal remains to watch pornography less, or to masturbate less, listen to the difference between these motivations.

“My goal is to masturbate less because when I do it, I am dirty and wrong. I’m breaking my covenants and making God disappointed in me. I’m sinning and permanently damaging myself. It’s going to take me years to earn back the trust of my wife, and I’m no longer worthy to go to the temple. Help me!”

Or: “My goal is to masturbate less because I want to live up to my covenants. I accept and embrace myself as a human person who has sexual desires. I was created that way and I’m not ashamed of that. Sexual desire is normal and natural, but I want to be a stalwart husband and father, and to live the teachings of my religion, so I want to make some changes to that behavior.”

Those are very different places to begin from. As for me? I don’t see anything wrong with a bit of porn, masturbation, or sexual activity, so long as it is from within the ethics and guidelines of the person’s overall life plan. Those things don’t fit in certain relationships or religions. Consent and ethics and all of that applies here, of course. And that’s where an individual has to measure out his or her own value system, because hurting the people you love isn’t the desired result here. Addictions or dependencies in any form, to food or alcohol or porn, are damaging and need to be worked on. But being a porn addict doesn’t make you a sex addict. Take accountability of yourself and be ethical and make your life decisions around that. Because shame is going to ruin you otherwise.

Embrace all of the parts of you, and learn how to be healthy. The rest will fall into place.

(And for those of you not in Utah, well, I love it here, really. It’s super charming. But oh my stars is it strange. And one way to emphasize that: there is a whole genre of porn under the category of ‘Mormon’. Both gay and straight. Seriously. It’s like a thriving industry. Fascinating, I tell you.)

 

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To the One Who Was Cheated On…

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In my therapy office lately, I’ve worked with a lot of clients, both gay men and straight women, who have recently been cheated on by their partners. What follows is my words for them, gathered here in one place.

First off, although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.

You are not a fool for not noticing. Maybe the signs were there and you didn’t see them, or maybe you just felt safe and content. Maybe he acted like everything was normal, or maybe you could feel him pulling farther away. Or maybe you noticed the signs but you didn’t know what they meant. How could you? But whatever it was, whether it was a one time thing or something ongoing, whether it was online or while you were away, you aren’t a fool for not noticing. You found out when you did, and we can only live in this present moment now and figure out what comes next.

Only you can decide what to do now. You can demand therapy, ask to go through his phone, rage and scream, sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to sleep in the guest room for a while, ask him to leave, or close off for a period of time. He made this choice, not you, and now you have to decide what to do and how to proceed. And that first night, when you found out and you simply lost it, well, that was justified. It was pure pain. Forgive yourself for that. You went there at first, but don’t stay there.

Given the chance, he may realize everything that he stands to lose. He was caught, and that may make him face up to what he has, and what he was willing to gamble with. Maybe he can show up now, maybe he can make all those changes you were hoping he would make. Maybe he will be all in, the way you have been for so long. Maybe he will be the man you always needed him to be. Maybe the sex will get better. Maybe he will make you feel attractive and loved again. Maybe he will hold your hand more, or cuddle you more often. Maybe you will feel safe again.

But maybe you won’t want that. Safe might feel threatening. The last time you felt safe, well, that was when he lied. And that is the biggest betrayal of all. You offered him your vulnerable self, your everything, you pledged your life to him, and these acts, these lies, they feel like a betrayal of the worst kind because he was so close to you. He isn’t your father, or your ex, he is the man you gave yourself to, and that hurts. And then you find yourself wondering if it was this way all along. Was he always cheating, always lying? Was the rest of what you had an absolute farce? Is he manipulative? Was it just this once, or was it many times? If he lied to you this time, did he lie all the others? What does this mean about him, about the man you fell in love with? And what does this mean about you? And if he is showing up now, why wasn’t he before? And is this sustainable, can he last, will the changes be permanent or only for a few weeks?

But maybe he won’t show up, too. Maybe he can’t change. Maybe he’ll yell at you, tell you it is your fault, tell you that if you had been more somehow he never would have cheated in the first place. Maybe he’ll shame your extra five pounds, your late nights at work, or your expectations. Maybe he’ll say it was you all along. And maybe that makes your decision easier.

But maybe he’s right a little bit. Maybe you could have shared how you were feeling more, and let him have more nights off with his friends, and listened a bit more often. You aren’t to blame, but maybe you have some things to work on too.

He cheated. He cheated and it hurts, on a deep level. But you have to remember that the cheating doesn’t negate everything that came before. All those other moments are real. The hot air balloon ride, the candlelight dinner, the sex in the shower, the ‘I love yous’ as the sun set, the way he looks at you over coffee, the time he swept you up in his arms and said you were his everything. Those moments, those experiences, those memories, are real. They are authentic and powerful. And you have to weigh them against the betrayal.

You can leave. You can walk away, and hurt, and take your things with you, and start again, and everyone would understand. You’ll heal. You’ll hurt, and grieve, and then you’ll move on. The ocean is full of fish, as they say.

But maybe you’ll stay. And if you’ve chosen to stay, well, that’s hard too, because everything feels just like it did before, all of the wonderful and all of the problems, but now you feel like a crazy person. You want to pepper him with questions about the night it happened, who was it, how was it, how often, what specifically, and what not, and was he thinking of you during or after, and was the other person better than you, and did he think about what he stood to lose? You want to call him names. You want to go cheat on him back, so he can know how it feels.  You want to check his phone, put a tracker on it, and follow him to work or the doctor or the gym to see if he’s telling the truth. You wonder if he’ll do it again when he leaves early or comes home late, and every time he leaves to run errands, or every time you are late or gone for a day, you wonder if he is going to do it again, and if so, will you catch him, and do you even want to or would you rather not know, and if he does it again will you be able to give him yet another chance. And you hate it, because you don’t want to be that person who is constantly suspicious and on high alert. The questions and wonderings exhaust you, and they make you sad, and they make him sad, and you know he feels bad and you don’t want to keep making me feel bad, but goddamn it, you were hurt.

You were hurt.

And so, whatever comes next, face it with grace. Be kind. Be consistent. Share your feelings in safe places. Keep your boundaries. Take it one week, one day, one hour at a time. You miss him, you need him, you want him, you want to want him and need you, and you want him to hold you, and you’re wary of being hurt again, and you’re not sure what comes next, and all of those things are okay. Create space for them. You are human, you are organic, and you are not in a hurry.

And although you already know this, you are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are desirable, and worth it, and enough. And an act of betrayal by someone you love and trust does not change that.

Sexual Predators

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“Am I a sexual predator? Are there people out there who think I’ve sexually harassed them?” and “Have I felt sexually harassed by others? Who, when, and why?”

I found myself wondering those questions over breakfast this morning, after a late night conversation with the boyfriend about these very topics. Lately, the news has been inundated with stories of sexual harassments and sexual assaults by celebrities and people in power. Social media has been full of outrage at Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and dozens more, all of them men who used power and manipulation to harm women (or in some cases men), or who excused their predatory behavior with “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing.”

But that leads me to think back to my own life and experiences, asking two questions internally. Are there times when I have felt sexually harassed, and are there times when others have felt sexually harassed by me?

Are there times when I have used “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing” as an excuse, and are there times when I’ve used those same excuses to explain away my feelings at the hands of others?

This is actually a really painful space to think upon. As a gay man, I’ve had plenty of evenings in gay clubs with loud music and drinks, where I’ve danced with a partner, and that can easily turn into kissing and groping. I’ve been approached by guys in a similar manner. And there is constantly either verbal or non-verbal consent or refusal happening. If someone grabs me in a club and I liked it, I might grab them back, feel flattered, or express mutual interest. If someone grabs me in a club and I didn’t like it, I might move away, give them eye contact to indicate I’m not interested., or feel disgusted or furious. Even more complex, if I flirt and someone doesn’t flirt back, I might feel angry, confused, or rejected, and they might feel things when I don’t flirt back. These basic encounters have sometimes left me feeling like a predator or like a victim, they just feel like part of the process.

But I can also recall times when guys have aggressively grabbed me in clubs. Strangers who have groped me while I walked by, or who have tried sticking their hands down my pants or unzipping my pants, times when guys from behind me have reached up between my legs from behind and grabbed hard. Those times have made me angry, downright furious, and I’ve forcefully removed hands and pushed guys away, giving very direct ‘NO’s with my voice or my eyes. Consent was much more apparent here. (And I’m never that aggressive in my own flirting).

That same feeling of discomfort has existed within me during more subtle encounters, however. I’ve felt anxious and angry at men who give too much eye contact or who aggressively follow me or pursue me at a party or a park. I’ve grown outraged with people who text too much or too aggressively, or who send unsolicited naked photos, or who brag publicly or privately with friends about sexual experiences they have had with me. These encounters have left me feeling unsettled and unsafe at times.

However, examples from both of the previous paragraphs have also been completely okay at times as well. I’ve had guys aggressively grab me and I felt flattered, men have pursued me or sent naked photos and I’ve liked it, guys have bragged about me and I felt happy about it.

It seems to come down to timing, trust levels, readiness, and level of attraction. And it’s difficult to know what will happen or how I will feel.

Self-inventory then ensues, and I begin to wonder about the times I’ve grabbed guys or have flirted too much or have followed a guy with my eyes in a coffee shop or I’ve complimented too easily. There are very likely people who have felt like I’m being predatory and who have felt unsafe, upset, or harassed by me. And that makes me feel worried and terrible.

Isolated encounters almost confuse me more. I think back to a time when I went on a weekend trip with a group of friends. We were in the Hot Springs together, and one of the guys got very handsy under the water, with his partner standing nearby. At the time, I found it enticing, and it went on for a while. It was only later that it bothered me. I never said no and I enjoyed the encounter, yet now when I look back I felt uncomfortable and maybe even a little harassed.

I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve appreciated it, and I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve been annoyed, sometimes avoiding them or even blocking them on social media because of it. I’ve had massage therapists get a little bit sexual and sometimes I’ve liked it and sometimes I’ve given a firm no and stayed furious about it. I’ve had clients flirt with me, and sometimes I’ve gotten angry and declared clear boundaries, and other times I’ve kind of enjoyed it and perhaps even subtly flirted back.

I once sat next to a friend during a movie, among a group of friends. During the film, I moved subtly closer until our legs were touching, then I moved my hand a bit closer to hopefully touch his. He responded by getting up and moving away, sitting on the floor, and later he’d told me that made him very uncomfortable. That had been hard to hear, but I respected that, and we are still good friends. I was happy he spoke up, and I was willing to listen.

Consent can be a bit confusing, honestly. And rather than saving my outrage for men in government and Hollywood who I have never met, who have preyed upon others, I’m taking the opportunity to do a bit of self-inventory. There are times when flirtations are just fun. And there are times when flirtations have caused me to feel unsafe and harassed. And there are times when flirtations have caused others to feel like I am harassing them.

I’m not sure what to take from all of these thoughts except to realize that asking is always better than assuming, that consent should be a part of every conversation and flirtation, and that I never like feeling unsafe, and that I don’t ever want anyone feeling unsafe around me.

Harassment and predatory behavior can show up in any space, through unwelcome compliments, eye contact, energy, or gestures. It can show up at work, in friend circles, and in bars. But it’s going to require us all taking stock of our encounters, apologizing when we need to apologize (without making excuses), communicating consent much more quickly, and setting clear boundaries when we need to. We are all sexual beings in our own rights, who experience attractions to others. But someone feeling like they have been marginalized or victimized, including myself, is never acceptable.

We live in a predatory community, and the way men treat men and especially how they treat women should never be focused on excuse-making and feeling rejected, but instead on conversations and consent. But it is very complex when we apply it ourselves. We all need to be using our voices and our ears much more. No one wants to be harassed, and no one wants to feel like they’ve harassed others.

Sends Nudes: thoughts on gay sex and vulnerability

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Welcome to 2017, where, for many, sending pictures of genitalia is more comfortable than exchanging a first name.

I may never get accustomed to this, logging into a dating or chat app and having someone send me a photo of their erect penis, yet say they are discreet or shy when I ask for a photo of their face. A few months ago, during one chat, I got a dirty photo from someone I’ve never met, unsolicited, and when I said I prefer to chat a bit before going there he responded with, “Look, bro, if I wanted a chat, I’d call my mom. I’m looking to bone, not be your friend.”

In the gay male community, there have always been strong elements of sexual expression, and sexual oppression. In the generations prior to mine, men weren’t allowed to be sexual with other men without serious consequences, from being arrested to disowned to fired to attacked to shamed. For most of human history, there has been an element of danger to gay sex–it had to be private, it had to be discreet, it had to be secret.

In Brokeback Mountain, the first time Ennis and Jack have sex, they can’t look at each other and there is no intimacy. Ennis shoves Jack’s face forward and gives in to urges. After that, they develop an intimacy when they are alone, an affection and love toward each other through looks and handholds and private jokes. But in public, there can be none, no errant glances, no physical contact. If someone suspected their love, there would be public shaming, humiliation, lost jobs, and lost families.

And this became the culture of the gay male community, by and large, over the years. The wider public sent the message that gay men do not belong, that they should not be seen, and that they should be taught a lesson if they are seen.

“What they do in their own homes, I don’t care, as long as I don’t have to see it” and “I didn’t plan on hitting him but he looked at me funny and I would have been made fun of if I hadn’t fought back” and “Can’t we just round them up and put them on an island some place where we don’t have to look at them” and “If we let gay people teach in our schools, our kids will get AIDS and turn into fags” became normal messages on television and from church pulpits and around the family dinner table.

And so gay men learned to hide, and to have two lives. In one life, they had jobs as teachers and doctors, dancers and hair dressers, social workers and CEOs, police officers and judges; and they had families with mothers and fathers and often wives and children; and they had lives, on their local bowling leagues or PTA committees.

And in their other life, the gay men noticed handsome men around them and hoped to catch their eye. They learned of public spaces to meet other gay men, in public parks or on the third floor or the local library behind the biography section or in the alley behind a particular club, or in the local gay club or bath house, although those were a bit scarier. And they learned to relate to other gay men on a purely physical level, focusing solely on sex and body image, shaming those that were not their idea of physically perfect or those who wanted some sort of emotional connection. They learned to mask feelings with alcohol and drugs, often to enhance the pleasure of the sex, and then they stepped back into their daily lives.

These social and psychic trends seem pretty rampant in the gay male community among men who, primarily, grew up divided within themselves, longing for acceptance, community, understanding, validation, and love, and who instead divided themselves up into spaces where vulnerability is frightening and sex is simple.

All that said, there is nothing wrong with sex in any of its forms, so long as the person engaging in sex is educated, honest, and ethical with themselves and others. Engaging in random illicit sex with a stranger, a threesome with a few friends, or even a bathhouse orgy, those are viable options for gay men, but they won’t serve as healthy alternatives for loneliness, depression, self-shame, family problems, or religious discord. The person who chooses to be sexually active should do so from a place of self-acceptance and confidence, and the ability to realize that the person or people they are engaging in sexual activities with are also human beings who have stories and families and needs.

I viscerally remember the radio commercial from my youth where the deep voice stated, “Remember, sex lasts a moment. Being a father lasts your whole life.” And there is absolute truth there. The man who chooses to engage in sex should be able to recognize the risks of pregnancy, the potential for STDs, and the ability to realize that the human heart is a part of sex, both for him and for the other person involved. (And yes I realize that gay sex does not result in pregnancies, but the other truths hold valid).

So go, have sex. Have fun. Have adventures. But know yourselves first, and know your motivations. Look at your trends. Can you only have sex when drunk? Are you only seeking to dominate someone else? Can you look your partner in the eye and have a conversation? Are you seeking to escape the stress and expectations of an unhealthy marriage, religious obligations, or the family you’ve built around you? Do you reject anyone who isn’t your ideal of human perfection, your exact type? Do you realize and acknowledge that there is another person there with a story, with needs, with struggles and situations different but just the same as yours? Do you understand the history of where you’ve come, and do you have an eye on where you are going? Do you think that having someone in your bed will take away your pain and loneliness and make you like yourself?

I guess the take away I hope others to get in reading this is just to know yourself, to question your motivations a little bit, to explore your concepts of vulnerability, and to be able to realize there is another person on the other end of that exchange. The world is about more than naked pictures and quick sex, it’s about safety and kindness and attraction and love. But that has to be toward yourself first.

 

 

 

love/hate Las Vegas

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A friend asked me this morning what it is that I like about Las Vegas. I gave it some thought and realized quickly that I don’t actually like Las Vegas all that much.

Las Vegas is dirty, it’s grimy, it’s hot. Everyone is in a hurry to have their needs fulfilled. Here is some cash, now feed me, entertain me, dance for me, liquor me up. I want it all and I want it now. Las Vegas is cash and booze and sweat and flashing neon lights and sex and sultry street corners.

Las Vegas is a middle-aged woman, weather beaten and exhausted, standing in an assigned section of casino, wearing a pink fluffy feathered headdress and a corset and a sequined tight dress that exposes her shoulders and legs and cleavage, with bright pink lipstick, holding a tray of drinks as she pretends to smile at each tourist rushing by her but she really just wants her next cigarette break and to get back to the couch that she sleeps on in her small apartment but she still has six hours of work ahead.

Las Vegas is the six college guys who flew from the east coast for a weekend away, all sharing one hotel room, and all with different goals for the weekend: pool lounging, sheer drunkenness, getting smashed at a strip club, picking one slot machine and not leaving it until the bank account is empty or the jackpot is won, finding one girl on vacation and spending the entire time with her, and betting big at a poker table. And they will all find it, with ample amounts of food, before they trudge back to their plans on Monday morning, exhausted for the long flight home.

Las Vegas is the sixty year old couple from Tallahassee who think $3.50 is too much for a shrimp cocktail, and where is the best buffet, and can they fit in five shows in three days and still get in time to shop at that mall over there.

Las Vegas is the mother of four, setting her kids loose on the casino amusement park while she slumps in the corner with a margarita that is taller than her toddler.

Las Vegas is me, in a 26th floor hotel room at Circus, Circus, standing in the window at 5 am and looking out at a city that comes at me in layers. Brown rolling mountains on the desert horizon, a sun rising slowing in pink and orange. Massive shiny hotels looming in patchwork sections of the landscape, massive juggernaut structures full of thousands of people, all pursuing their vices. Long roadways with hundreds of cars zooming in every direction, every one of them impatient. Sporadic green trees withering in the already 90 degree heat. Helicopters hovering in the sky. Small homes and local businesses, all brown and red and tan, where the tired masses head from work to home or home to work, all exhausted. And the connecting pieces between them, every inch neon and concrete, electricity and stone. It’s heavy and hot and fast and exhausted and shiny.

Las Vegas is… vice. It’s sin. It’s all of the baseness of humanity stripped down to its core. People come here for the heat and the sin and the neon and the concrete. And while those are the very things that repel me, I suppose that is the very thing that I love about Vegas. The baseless humanity of it all. The opportunity to go away, sin and get dirty, and then get back to regular life.

It’s gross/beautiful. It’s filthy/pure. It’s love/hate.

the Deep End

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I hurt someone recently.

It wasn’t intentional. I just wasn’t ready for something that he was ready for. Relationships are complicated, and, given my work as a therapist, I am sometimes a bit too therapeutic for my own good.

I take things in careful measure, careful balance. When things feel out of balance, for me they feel unsafe. I spend a lot of time helping my clients get their lives in balance, so for me to be out of balance, well, not only does it feel unsafe, it feels hypocritical, like a person teaching others how not to smoke while he has a bad drinking habit, or a preacher espousing family values from the pulpit while cheating on his wife on the side.

I’ve referenced this in my writing before, but I have come up with a rubric for helping clients measure satisfaction in their primary romantic relationships. I will have clients take a close look at their satisfaction levels in relationships in six different categories. I’ll have them take a look at the present, not the past or future, not how things could be or how they used to be, but how they are right now (a key component to living for today, something I strive to do). I’ll have them rank each category with an A+ down to an F-, a standard grading scale. An A+ indicates that things are perfect for today, they couldn’t possibly get any better. An F- means things are so bad they couldn’t possibly get any worse. A C indicates an average grade, something securely in the middle.

Here are the six categories, with a brief description after each:

COMMUNICATION: feeling heard and validated, able to talk about difficult issues, able to resolve conflicts successfully without extreme measures (silent treatments, yelling, violence, storming out)

BEST FRIENDS: enjoy each other’s company, lots of mutual interests, ability to spend time together laughing and having fun and dating on a regular basis

INTIMACY: high levels of attraction on both sides, sexual compatibility and diversity and interest, emotional attraction and safety

CO-PARENTING (if applicable): mutual goals and good communication regarding raising, rearing, and discipline of children

FINANCES: adequate money to cover needs, compatibility in spending and budgeting

and, last, FUTURE PLANNING: moving in the same direction in life, compatible plans for big life plans (schooling, job, location, home-buying, family planning, retirement, etc)

While the individual applications for couples are unique to each situation, there are common trends for many couples. Joe and Sally have incredible sex and love spending time together, but money is causing so much stress that they can’t stop fighting. Mark and John have good sexual chemistry and really love each other, but their careers are taking them in different directions. Jan and Susan are best friends who feel secure together, but they are having sex less and less and are growing distant. Amy and Adam have good attraction and communication, but he really doesn’t want children and now they fight a lot.

Relationships are complicated. It can be so easy to fall into a space where one compromises parts of self in order to make something work. And I see it happen over and over again in human experiences, where we quiet parts of ourselves in an effort to be happy even while we deny ourselves happiness. Ultimately, this proves to be one of the greatest errors that humans make. We make excuses for ourselves, compromise ourselves, and then spend years wondering what happened.

Simply put, we all deserve happiness. We all deserve the right to have high grades in all six of the categories. Sex shouldn’t be sacrificed for financial security, laughter shouldn’t be compromised for good communication, a desire for children shouldn’t be set aside for emotional safety.

We all need love and fulfillment in not just some of the areas, but in all of them. We all need to love and be loved in ways that are ultimate for us.

This person that I hurt, he was in the deep end of the pool, treading water to the point of exhaustion, hoping that I would jump in and join him. Yet I stood on the steps of the pool, getting my toes wet and warm, then my ankles, then my knees. The water felt tenuous, confusing, out of balance. When I asked for patience and time, he hoped that I would be able to just dive in.

And there is nothing wrong with a leap of faith, a compromise, a grand move toward happiness. And there is nothing wrong with slow and careful measures, a strong sense of self and taking time. Ultimately both of us deserve happiness and love and fulfillment in not one, but all categories. All of us deserve these things. To feel desirable, to be cherished, to have laughter and light and love.

The best relationships, in my therapeutic and personal opinion, come from two separate individuals who are both on firm solid balanced ground, with brilliant foundations, who then choose to join those foundations together. Relationships can never be used to fill a void in self, to stave off loneliness, or to give a sense of security, not when there wasn’t a strong foundation to begin with.

And so these final words are for anyone reading this, for anyone I care about, for the man I hurt, and for myself:

I hope you can love yourself, can measure out the places that need love and attention and time and balance, that you can find happiness and security and love inwardly and then outwardly. Life must be lived day by day, in the present, with peace and strength, and it must begin within before we can ever find it without.

To every one who has ever broken a heart or who has had their heart broken, may you be able to take the plunge into the deep end of the pool. But dive in for yourself before you begin to look for others there. Once you are used to the water, then you may find someone who is there to swim at your side.

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Condolences

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Ten conversations you have after your best friend dies

One. 

Chad, I’m so sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you. He meant a lot to me.

Yeah, hey, you’re a therapist, right?

Yup.

I’ve been meaning to ask you. I was dating a guy and he said he loves me but he hasn’t been texting back lately. What should I do about that?

Two.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

He died in a car accident, right?

Yeah, it was really sudden.

Oh man, I had a friend die in a car accident once. He fell asleep at the wheel. I got pulled out of work to be told. It was the worst. 

Yeah, I know how that feels.

I mean, he was the best. It’s been like 12 years and I still miss him all the time. Wish I could say it gets better. Anyway, gotta run, good luck. 

Three.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

It’s been, what, three days now?

 Yeah, it happened Sunday.

Huh, well, you should be over it by now. I’ll see you at the gym some time. Looking good! We should grab a coffee some time!

Four.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

What happened? Tell me everything. I mean, I never met him, but I saw your blog and the news article and everyone is talking about it. What happened? Does his family know? Is his fiancee healing? How are his kids taking it? Was anyone else involved? Who found them? What did the medical report say? Where is–

Whoa, that’s a lot of questions.

I’m just really sad about this!

Did you want to grab some popcorn, or…

Five.

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

Are you doing okay? I mean, really. I know you two were really close. 

I’m doing okay, yeah. It’s been tough, but I’m going through the grieving process.

Here, sit down. Talk to me. Tell me how you are.

Ugh, it’s hard to talk about. It just came as such a shock. I mean, I was working and I found out through a text message. It was–

Oh hang on, my phone. I got a text. (pause) Oh god, my roommate’s hilarious, look at this. 

Six. 

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you.

Look, if you get sad, just go to the gym. It’ll fix everything. You just gotta punch it out. Or porn and sex work too. Seriously, it sounds dumb, but those are the best things when you’re grieving. 

Uh, thanks for the advice.

Seven. 

Chad, I’m sorry to hear about your friend!

Thank you. He was my favorite person.

Can I give you a hug?

Absolutely.

Look, I’m here. If you need to talk or vent or cry or just have someone around, I’m here. 

Thank you. Seriously, thank you.

Can I bring you some soup later?

Oh my god, that would be amazing. You’re so sweet!

I know what it is like to lose someone. I’m here for you, I mean it. Your job is taking care of other people, make sure you are taking care of you, too. 

 

**In all sincerity, thank you to everyone for the support on a difficult week. I’m amazingly blessed with loving and incredible people from every area of my life.

the Bisexual Ballet

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It started with two women kissing.

One, her long flowing hair pulled back into a ponytail that fell all the way to her hips, pulled the other, her hair short and even, in by an arm, their legs flowing beautifully out to the side, and they gently kissed.

Soon, a young man joined them, in a tight white shirt and jacket over jeans. He danced with one woman, then the other, then both.

The dancers took turns in various trysts, drawing into their partners, then pushing away. He would want one, then the other, then both, then neither. He was needed by one, then the other, then both, then neither.

At various points, the dancers stood to the side, pulling out their cell phones and ignoring the others, while the other dancers sought to reclaim their attention. One dancer, frustrated, pulled the phone out of the hand of the other, then checked it, leading the other to snatch it away in frustration.

A full orchestra backed the dancers, harps and horns, strings and pianos and drums, but they somehow faded into the background behind this powerful portrayal of human need.

I was moved by the performance, caught up in the idea of this new generation realizing that one person can’t always meet your needs, nor can two people. Ultimately, each person must respond to their own needs, then join others to find fulfillment, energy, attraction, love, desire. What we need yesterday isn’t what we need now, and what we need now isn’t what we will need a few hours from now.

The dancers pulled a set piece around, revealing an intricate office space, where they continued to vie for each other’s attentions in the workplace. Another flipped around to represent the home of one of the dancer’s, as the man and the woman arrived and departed, together and apart.

As the dancers leaped and pirouetted, gave and took, flowed and formed, I thought of all the couples I know, and the constant negotiation to get their needs met through all of the chaos and distraction of day to day life. Technology, errant glances from strangers, work, emotional baggage, personal pain.

The short-haired girl pulled tightly into the man, breathing him in deeply, clutching on to him in utter fulfillment, and then moments later pushed him away, frustrated that it could not be sustained. She danced on her own for a moment, then latched on to the dancer with the ponytail, then pushed her away too.

Back and forth and in and out and up and down and around and over. I need you, I want you, leave me alone, no one understands me, you are the only one who understands me, she understands me too, it’s so wonderful, it’s too much, it feels good, it hurts, i love you, i hate you, i don’t understand you, you have never made more sense to me, hold me, let me go, why didn’t you come after me, you should know what i need even when i don’t say it, i told you what i need, how am i supposed to know what you need, why can’t you need me more, why doesn’t she miss me, i miss her, i need space, i want i need i desire i love i hurt i feel i breathe i ache i am at peace i’m so happy i may never be happy.

I looked around at the audience in the symphony hall, dressed for the symphony and ballet. The numbers before this had been beautiful also, but this one was a limit pusher, two women kissing on stage in front of a primarily Mormon crowd in a primarily Mormon place. A couple in front of me clutched their hands in their laps and gave each other a few errant glances of disapproval, as if to say we should not be seeing this; when the number ended, they refused to clap.

An older woman in a daring gown, sequinned and black and purple, seemed hauntingly fulfilled by the number, and I wondered if she was thinking back to lost loves and unfulfilled desires.

Soon the number ended, in a crescendo, with all three dancers laying on the floor in each other’s arms, him and her and her, but they were already moving again as the light’s dimmed. They had found satisfaction, and were all ready to begin searching for it again.

I stood for this one, my hands powerfully clapping at this flawless performance. I clapped for the dancers and the orchestra, but mostly I applauded the choreography.

I applauded this brassy, bold, bisexual ballet.

 

 

Mr. Scrumptious

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“Well, aren’t you just Mister Scrumptious?”

The older man had followed me into the dry sauna, where I had taken a seat on the upper bench, arranging my towel to cover myself comfortably. My skin broke out in a blissfully hot sweat right away in the scorching heat. I took a swig from my water bottle.

“You really are very scrumptious.”

I hadn’t even had time to acknowledge the first statement before he spoke again. This time I looked over, and nodded, muttering a thank you. He was likely in his late 60s, thin white hair brushed over his scalp. Wearing only a towel, the man was barely 5 feet 5 inches, his skin a bit sallow and spotted. He had on a pair of thick glasses that were fogged up, and I realized there was no way he could see me nod, so I said thank you a bit louder, then settled back against the wall, closing my eyes.

I breathed the hot air into my lungs, then held it there for a moment, clearing my head of the world outside. I was facing some big decisions in my life soon and it felt wonderful just to shut my brain off.

“Do you mind if I touch you a bit, Mister Scrumptious?”

I tilted my head slightly, curious and confused at this particular combination of words I had never expected to be spoken aloud. I kept my eyes closed. “Um, no thank you. But thank you for the offer.”

“What, you don’t like to be touched?” His voice was a mix of determination and frustration.

“Everyone likes to be touched sometimes. But I don’t want to be touched right now.” I felt my stomach contort with a laugh.

“Well, then, what are you looking for?” Now he sounded annoyed.

“I’m not looking for anything. Just relaxation. I’m here with some friends.”

The man paused, quiet for a moment, and he lowered his voice to an almost whisper. “Well, your friends aren’t here now, but I am, Mister Scrumptious.”

This time I laughed out loud. He was certainly persistent. “I think my friends are out in the hot tub. Thank you again, but I’m just here to relax.”

“Oh come on, who comes to a bath house just to relax. Everyone here is looking for something.” His voice took on a whiny pout now.

I sat up and faced the man, who still had his fogged glasses on. He had his arms folded and one leg crossed over the other. What was I doing here, I wondered. I was here in Denver on a road trip with a few friends from Salt Lake City, all of us formerly Mormon, all of us fathers through our previous marriages to women. Despite being in our 30s and 40s, we were still learning about gay culture, being gay, and how the gay community interacts. We had been sitting in our hotel room. Someone had mentioned a bathhouse and we had all curiously agreed that going to one would be a learning experience. After all, there are thousands of bath houses across the world, in every major city.

It was a Sunday afternoon when we found the facility, tucked into a back residential neighborhood, a single sign discreetly placed revealing its location. We had parked our car in the parking lot, which was tucked away from view, and entered the main room, a dark small space with a front desk attendant tucked behind a security glass window. The man had explained that only members could enter the bath house, and that we could purchase an annual membership for 25 dollars, plus a mandatory locker rental fee each time we used the facility. We paid for memberships, rented a locker, and were given a single key to an assigned locker along with a plain white towel.

We had entered the locker room, all of us curious about the new experience, stripped down, and put on our towels. I wandered through the building, exploring. The main floor had vending machines for snacks, coffee, and water. Down a long hallway, there were individual rooms that could be rented (higher priced than the lockers), each small with an individual bed and television (used for pornography). A few of the rooms had the doors slightly ajar and I could see men inside, their doors left open on purpose as they clearly hoped for some company. A small swimming pool and two hot tubs were available, one indoors and one out on a patio over a small grassy yard, as well as three separate saunas, dry and wet. A room sat off to one side with benches, and pornography played on a large screen.

A long stairway went down to the lower level, a basement where long darkened hallways twisted and turned in a maze-like pattern that was intentionally disorienting, leaning toward men being able to meet anonymously for sex. Various rooms were set up with bunks, benches, slings, and holes in walls. A few men stood in their towels in darkened corners, hoping to meet someone.

Outside in the hot tub, I had ruminated with my friends about the history of gay men. Millions of men who grew up in secret, telling no one about their attraction to other men. Connections to other men, including through sex, had to be carefully protected, discreet and anonymous, to protect families and careers. For decades, men had only met other men in public parks designated as gay meet-up spaces, at bars, or at bathhouses. Now, post-2010, being out as a gay man was much easier. Meeting other gay men through phone apps, dating sites, or public events was commonplace. Yet clearly there was still an appeal, a fascination for bath houses, the potential for anonymous sex away from prying eyes.

“Men do like their sex,” I had said. “In fact, if women enjoyed bath houses, straight men would be in these places all the time. Straight men use coercion and violence in the name of sexual gratification, yet places like this inspire such discomfort to others, hidden in plain site.”

We had had a long discussion about our former lives and where we were now.

And then I had walked to the sauna. I looked back at the older man with the fogged glasses, there waiting for me to show interest in him. I certainly wasn’t looking for random sex with an older man in a sauna, much as that might frustrate him.

“Honestly, sir, I really just here to relax.”

He got the flirtatious tone back in his voice, not missing a beat. “Well, I can help with that.”

My word. “Sir, really, you’re very nice but I’m not interested in that right now. We can have a conversation if you like, but I’m not looking for a hook-up.”

The man got up, tightened his towel around his waist, and headed toward the sauna exit. “Well, all right, Mister Scrumptious. But if you change your mind, I’ll be downstairs. You’ll know where to find me.”

I thought of the man in the basement maze below and laughed to myself again as I leaned my head against the wall, thinking of humans and their history, and my place in all of it.

 

Tantric

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“No! You’ll make me laugh!”

Cole gave me a look of impatience. “It’s a room full of strangers! It would be awkward to do it with anyone else.”

I sighed and looked around the room at the people there. Several dozen people stood, gazing around the room for a potential partner. Most of them were couples all ready, and mostly heterosexual ones at that. This was actually a very cool crowd of people, sort of an older group of hippies. Older women with flame-red hair and fur-lined boots, horn-rim glasses and purple scarves, tassels on coats and sequins on gloves.

I’m always looking for new adventures in town, and my best friend Cole is generally willing to accompany me. Amateur comedy nights, independent film screenings, live musicians. And tonight, a mutual friend was hosting an education event called the 7 Secrets of Spiritual Sex. And I thought, why not?

In preparation for the evening, I looked up a bit about Tantric sex, something I’ve heard of many times but never looked into. The word Tantric itself is beautiful, Sanskrit word meaning ‘woven together.’ The concept is rather simple, the idea of using methods of connecting to a partner, unifying and sharing on a deeper level.

We had just listened to a surprisingly entertaining evening, spent discussing deeper emotional connections, full body orgasms, and the prolonging of pleasure for both men and women, topics that had been addressed in a mature, fun, and professional way. The crowd had been all smiles and insight, mature learners on a topic that would have made me blush five years ago. (It took me until my  mid-30s to realize that sex is actually quite fun).

And now, at the close of the evening, we had been asked to find a partner to face and maintain eye contact with for several minutes, forming a spiritual connection and bond while hands were held. I know Cole, and how easily he makes me laugh, and I knew this was a terrible idea.

“Cole, it would seriously be easier with a stranger.”

“No, please, come on. You’re the only person I know here.”

I sighed and nodded my consent. I looked over to see a cute older couple join hands and face each other. Another woman, who had revealed she was a “famous porn star” (“Hi, I’m a famous porn star,” she had said. “I want out of the industry because there is no emotional connection anymore.”) partnered with a woman next to her. An older couple of gay men joined hands nearby. I felt safe in this room, all these different kinds of people just accepting of one another.

The evening had started with some sort of tuning fork cleansing, vibrations moved around the body. A woman had been seated within three circles of individuals joining hands, then we had all directed “blue energy” toward her struggling thyroid. A woman had prayed in Hawaiian and the energy in the room had been intense. (It had strangely reminded me of my experiences in the Mormon temple, the ritual and joined energy of strangers). We had even practiced an intense body breathing exercise that left my heart pounding like I had just run a mile, just before a sustained meditation.

Now we were instructed to hold our hands out in front of us, left palm facing up and right palm facing down, and then to touch palms with our partner. We were told to focus our attention to the left eye of the person in front of us (easier to make eye contact with one eye than both, especially for a sustained period). And then the music had begun.

Flutes and trills and bells in the song, mixed with my eyeballs locked on Cole’s, had me fighting off laughter even before the woman began to sing. The song, Divine Lover by Leraine Horstmanshoff, is absolutely lovely, but my adolescent 12 year old brain kicked in, the one that used to laugh in fourth grade whenever the teacher would say ‘do it’ or the ‘plug it in, plug it in’ commercials would come on.

The woman sings the phrase Divine Lover over and over and my face contorts up, cheekbones rising, nostrils flaring, lips pursing, as I fight off laughter. She sings of nectar and breezes and trees and a guttural laugh escapes my throat. And when I start laughing, Cole starts laughing, and the energy feeds and every time I try to stop laughing he starts, and every time he tries to stop, I start. The song goes on and on and we have six full minutes of silent giggles, all nose breath and furrowed foreheads, and when it finally, blissfully ends, I’m exhausted.

I look around the room and see all the couples hugging, tears streaming down faces, muttering about how special that was, how wonderful the energy felt, and I elbow Cole. “I told you! I told you that was a bad idea!”

We shake a few hands, offer a few hugs, and step out into the cold January air. A friend texts me: How was the symposium?

I think briefly and laugh as I respond.

Tantric.