It's not about sex. It's about Self
Feb. 7, 2008

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It's not about sex. It's about self.

Dear Friend and Reader:

RECENTLY, I visited the Grandmother Land with Hannah, one of the Book of Blue models I photograph. It was sunny and warm for a winter day, but still chilly. I wasn't expecting her to work nude, but she has a Capricorn Sun and Moon -- she's winter's child, confident and present in the world.

It's not about sex. It's about Self
Hannah from the Book of Blue. Photo by
Eric Francis.
Determined to make good pictures, she peeled off her layers and stripped down to a thin pair of sweats. In the photographs, I blended details of her body into the magnificent winter landscape till the goose bumps took over. Noticing them vividly through my lens, I suggested she get dressed. In those 15 minutes, we got some earthy photos of an earthy girl.
 
Then we wandered around the woods for a bit. I spontaneously started collecting bits of kindling from tree branches, and suggested we make a fire. This we did, and sat in the cold January sunlight for hours next to the flames and slow-rising smoke, eating Five Fruits Lifesavers and talking about everything that came up.
 
This of course included sex. After we had gone far enough into the discussion to appreciate the complexity of our subject, she said some words that fairly well stunned me and would have been cheered at any human potential workshop in the 1970s, long before she was born -- "It's not about sex. It's about self."
 
What she had observed, mainly through observing herself, is that when you follow sexual awareness into yourself, you're taken to the core of self-awareness. The psyche on its deepest layers is so closely intertwined with sexual consciousness as to be one and the same with it. Because it accounts for how we come into the world, which is the only world we know, sex is cosmic. Yet discussion of sex is a kind of ruse for the real discussion, below the surface, and that is about one's sense of identity and existence.
 
This makes sense. Assuming they are not cloning people yet, we all come into existence through sex or at least sex cells. Half of us start as a sperm cell that experiences an orgasm and then takes a big ride on an ejaculation, carried along in an ocean of whatever feelings are present. The sperm cell who became us personally went up to that enormous egg (our other half) and kissed it, surrendering its prior form and identity into a new entity. That is how our existence begins, and that memory is, I would imagine, directly in our DNA, along with the instructions for how to do it again.
 
Sex is what creates us, so it's sensible that eroticism (that is, all the feelings we have about sex) will have the potential to carry our creative impulse into life, and throughout our lives.
 
It also works the other way. When someone is conditioned to either not think or experience sexuality with full awareness (or any awareness), or if they are programmed to respond with guilt and fear, self-awareness becomes blocked. If there is a sexual injury or the perception of one, it can block much of our creative energy, potential and happiness.
 
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Hannah from the Book of Blue. Photo by Eric Francis.
Our relationship to sex and sexuality is our relationship to existence. If we feel good about our erotic experiences, needs and feelings, we tend to feel good about life. If we are bitter, if we don't get what we need, if we feel guilty or ashamed of our sexual feelings and experiences, that is most likely how we're going to feel about life. This can manifest some strange ways, such as violence and manipulation, just like feeling good about sex can manifest as a passionate, creative person who creates their existence consciously every day.
 
Why don't we see the connection? Well, we're conditioned not to, principally by religion. Notice that this thing we call religion takes credit for our existence at the same time it makes sex bad. You also can't be aware of something you cannot feel, have no experience with or don't know exists. For 25 years, Americans have grown up with something called Abstinence-Only sex indoctrination, which in effect denies the existence of their natural sexuality (Europeans who know about this think we're on crack).
 
Our biology does not give up so easily, though. The psyche's hunger for sex (which is the hunger to fully exist), for a while, pushes through this resistance. What we find then is often a lot of programmed people who themselves fall for the deception, and it can become very difficult to get our needs met. Honesty can be met with rejection. Wanting anything unusual can be met with a weird look. Even equating sex with deep vulnerability, such as in a relationship, is frequently avoided. How often do we have the feeling that someone is just not going as deep as they can, not calling themselves present?
 
Imagine, then, all the thought and discussion we have about sex and issues that stem from it -- and substitute the word "self." Imagine the need, the fear, the anxiety, the desire, the deep craving, the judgments we fear and the ones to which we've fallen prey. Imagine everything ever said in a church sermon. Imagine the jealousy and the drama and the secrets. Imagine everyone we've ever fucked or wanted to. Imagine sex education, the birds and the bees, masturbation and all of those orgasms. Imagine all those sexual relationships wherein we tried to find our Self.
 
Replace the concept "sex" with "self" and see how the world looks through that lens. How would it feel if somebody said to you, "Hi, I really want to have Self with you"?
 
Or, translated: "I really want to be myself with you, and have you be yourself with me."
 
 
Locked-In Syndrome

THE OTHER NIGHT at Upstate Films, I saw a film called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It's the true story of a man named Jean-Dominique Bauby, once a prominent writer and editor in Paris. At the age of 42, at the peak of his success as editor in chief of Elle, he suffered a massive brainstem stroke, losing all mobility and sensation except for his hearing and use of his left eye.
 
He could think; he could see; he could hear. His memory and imagination were intact. But he could not move or express himself -- except for one eye. This is called "locked-in syndrome." It is consciousness locked into a body that cannot respond; it is the ultimate mind-body split.
 
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Photo by Danielle Voirin.
think that sexually, we are a society of people suffering from a variant of locked-in syndrome. We may have our erotic imaginations, we may have our memories and we may have our desires. But we have untold thousands of reasons not to act on or even speak about our experiences. To some extent, nearly everyone in the current version of Western culture is erotically paralyzed.
 
We can have liberal values, but are often trapped in groups of people who don't share them or don't reveal it if they do. We can have progressive ideas about relationships, but are only able to find people who have traditional values, or with those who seek some freedom but who don't speak up.
 
We might be locked inside of fear, of insecurity, or the cocoon of lies that we have told in the past -- or more probably, the lies that we were told. We might be trapped inside fat, or the feeling of being ugly or undesirable.
 
We might have ideas, images and feelings, but lack the words and concepts to express them: trapped in a kind of seemingly imposed silence. This silence can come with the feeling that we will be struck down if we dare to open up and speak.
 
We might be trapped inside a sense of vulnerability so acute it feels like walking around a city naked. For many, this would translate to naked in the winter.
 
Some are trapped inside a sense of injury from a sexual assault, incest experience, or growing up around shifty boundaries as a kid.
 
We might be trapped inside a wall that was put up when we were told that masturbation is wrong.
 
Or trapped in the inability to ask for what we want.
 
Trapped inside of any version of the mind/body split -- "caught in one's head."
 
Trapped inside of embarrassment, unable to speak or even feel because of the shame associated with doing so.
 
Trapped inside of being gay when everyone thinks you're straight or straight when everyone thinks you're gay. Trapped inside of being bisexual when the people around you…just don't get it.
 
Trapped in a monogamous relationship when we're really polyamorous.
 
Trapped inside the need to be in love, and otherwise being unable to express sexuality.
 
Trapped inside an image we must maintain, of wanting to seem pure and upright. Trapped inside of pride; a closely related theme.
 
Trapped inside religious conditioning, even if we don't think we have it.
 
Trapped inside of tradition or family expectations.
 
Trapped inside of not knowing what we want. Trapped inside of a lot of people telling us what we are supposed to want, even though they have no clue.
 
Trapped inside of not trusting people. Trapped inside of not trusting ourselves.
 
Trapped inside the feeling that we don't exist.
 
Trapped inside a parent telling us we're ugly, even once.
 
Trapped inside of having been raped or molested, and having had that wound fester.
 
Trapped inside a myth of what monogamy is supposed to be, even if we know it's not that thing.
 
Trapped inside not being able to find a lover, or a sex partner. Trapped inside of seeking the perfect person, and not letting anyone else in.
 
Trapped inside of feeling "dirty" and terrified of being found out.
 
And on, and on.
 
I think that in many ways, though we are walking around, many of us here are in considerably worse shape than Bauby. He at least was fully conscious of being alive. He was able to write a book communicating by blinking his one eye. Most of us are far less articulate about our erotic and emotional needs than this.
 
I would ask: where are we going to learn? Where is the place that the conversation is welcome? If it's not about sex, where is the place that you can really be your Self?
   
 
Held Hostage by Jealousy

It's not about sex. It's about Self
Moss on the Grandmother Land. Photo by Eric Francis.
ON THE GRANDMOTHER land that day, Hannah mentioned that her boyfriend would be jealous if he found out that I was photographing her topless. Then she added, "I don't know if I agree with that."
 
Her objection was phrased tentatively and non-threateningly, but her voice was firm and carried a hint of pain. She knew that somebody was trying to take over her life in a way that they were not entitled, and that was only covering up their own insecurities.
 
"Well, it's your body, right?"
 
She agreed with this, but described some of the control issues involved. We weren't having sex -- she reserves that for him. We were just taking pictures. But in his mind, only he should photograph her -- nobody else. Nobody should even see her, just him. It occurred to her that under these rules, she would be laying herself on the altar of sacrifice to cover for his insecurities.

We mused over this for a while, and then she said: "People aren't monogamous, they're jealous."
 
I understood exactly what she meant, but asked her to explain in her own words. Here is the idea: Monogamy for most people is less about fidelity and more about not wanting to make one's partner jealous. Or, it's about being good, whether out of guilt, or so they don't do anything that makes you jealous.
 
"So if your partner wouldn't get jealous, you would do anything you wanted?" I asked.
 
"My jealousy keeps me monogamous. Seriously, what other reason would there be?" She admitted she didn't want him to do anything that would make her jealous, either. I call this kind of deadlock gunpoint monogamy: if you move, I'll shoot. If I move, you'll shoot. We both better be good. Note, I don't believe this has anything to do with love.
 
I wonder how many people she speaks for. Maybe not everyone all the time, but certainly for most people most of the time.
 
This explains cheating: someone does something behind their partner's back to "save them" from their own jealousy. Or they don't reveal what happened in order to save themselves from being confronted by that jealousy, and thus addressing the insecurity and attachment behind it. Or, we would "rather not know" and look the other way when we have a feeling our partner is involved in extracurricular activity.
 
Many people -- again, not everyone -- feel entitled to share their sex with someone, but not obliged to bear the brunt of their partner's possessive rage and potential revenge that would likely follow. So most people keep quiet, well versed in what usually happens when they tell the truth.
 
As misguided as jealousy of this type may seem, and as unethical as it may be to cheat (which really means to lie), there's a grain of truth inside the deception: and perhaps a more important issue lurks in there. If we're not another person's property, what are we then? Alternately, if we're not free, then what does that mean?
 
We know inside that we're all responsible for our own jealousy. Yet typically we either make it everyone else's fault ("he made me jealous"), or take on the burden of shielding others from what might stir up their rage (and this is often a convenient, deceptive excuse). Projection takes many forms. I've noticed that the people who pour on the jealousy tend to be the most likely to cheat.
 
We know that being alive grants us the right to make choices; we know that "it's my body and I can do what I want" and that "I am free to care about who I care about," and that nobody has a right to dictate our emotions. We know that most erotic desire is biological. It's difficult to miss how sexy people are, and that feeling comes from deep down.
 
But we tend to walk around inside a contradiction of desire that we can't honestly express, and of feelings we can't honestly share, because we fear we'll be out on the street.
 
Relationships in our society and in many others are trumped up as the pearl of great price, the most valuable thing in the universe -- and to many, it makes sense to avoid the one thing that could threaten this, at any cost. The result is we can gradually come to live lives of total deception. As a result, the emotional subject matter that we need to open up about in our relationships goes unaddressed. We avoid jealousy and thus avoid what it has to offer us as a growth tool; as a cosmic mirror. We avoid truth, and erotic energy dies.

Much of that unaddressed emotional material involves insecurity and lack of self-esteem. A relationship can cover that up for a while, and jealousy can quickly expose the emotional void we lived with all along. If someone wants someone else, we must be unworthy. For most people, jealousy is so painful and so entirely debilitating that it makes sense to avoid it, just like you would not intentionally put your hand on a hot stove.
 
The idea that one's lover could be with someone else is often viewed as the ultimate betrayal, and the worst form of abandonment. The supposed solution is to avoid the feeling and anything that can lead to it at all costs, though without recognizing what that cost really is. Taken unconsciously, the cost of jealousy is loss of the right to exist, or the denial of your partner's right to exist. Usually, both happen together.
 
Few recognize that jealousy, taken as a conscious experience, is a teacher. But sometimes the pain gets so intense that people finally get curious about what's causing it. An enduring article on Planet Waves called Jealousy and the Abyss by William Pennell Rock consistently gets 600 unique visits every month, most of them directly from search engines. The article proposes that jealousy is an existential crisis. In other words, jealous episodes threaten the ground that a relationship stands on; and because most of us view a relationship as existence itself, threatens our own sense of existence in the world.
  
Jealousy, the author reasons, is a cover-up for the fear of non-existence, or death. If we can sort out all the things that mock for jealousy (envy, attachment, guilt, fear and anxiety) we can learn something about our relationship to existence. "The core is an existential problem; it has to do with illusion and the essentially fearful nature of the ego," he writes. "In possessiveness, ego defends itself against nothingness. When we come to know and accept the nothingness at the core, jealousy and the pain of obsessive attachment cease."
 
Continued Monday with The Role of Guilt, and Too Hot: Another Theory of Jealousy.

Yours & truly,
Eric Francis