Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Conversion Therapy, Sex, and Women

Crude wrote something in the comments of the last post that I want to address; he said:
But I wonder about a therapy for expanding someone's sexual attraction being more feasible - such that, eliminating some man's attraction to men (or some man's attraction to women for that matter) may not be realistic. But what about a therapy that doesn't affect that, but does make women sexual attractive to that man?
I don't think there's anything wrong with what he says here. I just want to expand on it a little bit. And I want to do so with a story.

I have a friend. She's wonderful. She's brilliant, kind, and incredibly virtuous. I mean it; she considers nothing more important than seeking genuine goodness. She's one of the only people I've ever met, ever, who actively seeks and obtains something like purity. And she can cook! She is one of the (unfortunately many) women who have fallen for me over the years. Because our relationship became somewhat serious, she is one of the very few people who knows that I am gay. I told her because I believed I had to; the relationship was reaching critical mass. It was very difficult telling her. Not only because it was so awkward, but more because she is so great. I felt like I would be letting her down, not giving her something she deserved. I used to think that because she was so great, I could somehow make it work, get past my sexuality, and perhaps, she could fix me in some way. I ended up, I think for the best, abandoning that idea and spared her that unhappiness. And she, with my encouragement, moved on to other men.

Anyway, she is a bit older (this was also one of the reasons I felt so bad coming out to her; I felt like I'd wasted so much of her time, which, even then, was less than my own). Further, while I find her pretty, she is not a go-to sexy woman. While I know a number of people would find her attractive (and do), she's not the type of girl who has hot bikini pictures of Facebook that you link to your friends. Without betraying her confidences (and I doubt I could anonymously on the internet, but just in case), she often has relationships with men where the men ultimately do not want her. That is, they objectively understand how great of a woman she is and how truly wonderful of a mother she'd make (and she would), but they just, after the dating process, ultimately don't have a romantic drive to be with her. And usually because there are other women who are just more sexually attractive. She just, to put it bluntly, doesn't do it for them.

Now, a lot can be said about this; I could talk about how broken modern men are, where they can't properly pursue a woman of such class, where good, virtuous women are ultimately left to be obedient and alone. I could tie this to modern sexual over-stimulation, identifying how modern men are constantly inundated with beautiful, sexy images so much that they have trouble properly appreciating and pursuing everyday women. (This is probably a bigger issue than we really appreciate.) But I don't really want to go into that. For whatever reasons the guys don't end up liking her, what I want to focus on is her and how she feels when the guys end up telling her they're just not attracted to her (despite their best efforts). I want to tie this in to conversion therapy and my opinion on it.

Now, obviously this whole situation, her not getting them going, makes her feel bad. She wants to be married and have children (much more so than she wants to work or have a career or whatever else). And more importantly, she wants to be found attractive or sexy by her boyfriend and ultimately her husband. This is what I want to focus on here. She and I have talked, in some detail, what it would be like for her to marry a man who wasn't really into her. I mentioned her virtuousness and her brilliance not because I just want to paint a positive picture of her. I point it out because she understands what sex and marriage is. That is, mostly from a natural law perspective. She understands that family is the natural end of human sexuality. And she doesn't have any unreasonable standards about love, at least in my opinion. She's not a girl waiting for the perfect love story. She just wants to be wanted.

Anyway, if it isn't obvious, she has indicated that she would not be okay with a man not wanting her sexually, even if he were able to perform the sexual act. The previous sentence, in some ways, is actually a little confusing. But in a lot of ways, it's really not. Even I could perform the sexual act with her, though I wouldn't really be into it. Now, with straight guys, it would be different. But the underlying principle is the same. If they really wanted to be with some other woman, but are merely enjoying the feeling of sex and company, she would not be happy. Anyway, what I'm trying to get at is this: there is something about marriage that, even if it's otherwise moral, requires the woman to feel sexually desired by the man. I've written about this a little bit in the past. Now, there doesn't seem to be any real requirement for him to always be sexually attracted to her more than every other woman. No realistic woman thinks that her husband is more sexually attracted to her at 80 years old than to some 24 year old Spring Break girl. There just needs to be, at some point, his desire for some part of her (and not just what she means as a person). He has to have picked her, in whatever small way. And I think, even if the man is more attracted to other women, so long as there at least is something about her he is sexually drawn to (or that there at least was something), the marriage can go on healthily.

In other words, there has to be a sense of a man, being a creature that is sexually attracted to others and wanting to find sexual release, picking a woman because he is especially drawn to her. There has to be, it seems to me, some level of the woman saying, "This is me, and this is what I am offering," and a man saying, "I choose you" (ideally with social boundaries in place that protect her). This sounds all cave-man-y in some ways, but it's really not. I think there is something about the whole courtship and marriage process, in addition to all the other things, that ideally resembles this. At least for the woman. Truth be told, I'm using "require" and "needs" pretty loosely here. I think a marriage could exist, obviously, without these sorts of things. They have for thousands of years in various ways. This, really, is in many ways more of a practical post. I'm really more concerned with  psychology here, especially of women.

At any rate, this is why, I think, conversion therapy is so important to so many people. If we can't get a man to want the woman, it's not really a marriage to us. And I think this sort of makes sense considering what I just wrote about. This also, I think, has something to do with what Crude meant above. He's saying, "Right, there's definitely no chance you're going to suddenly not be attracted to men, but maybe there's a way to make it so there's something you can see in woman that gets you going, especially since you're not disgusted by women." Now, I think part of this is a concern for the gay man. That is, it doesn't sound great for a man to have to have sex with someone he doesn't want to have sex with. For many people, that sounds kind of awful actually. But I think the concern is also for the woman. I think we recognize that the woman feels good and healthy when she is desired and gives permission to the man to have her. When the man doesn't desire her at all (at least beyond some sort of intellectual reality), it feels a little like "what are we doing here?" It seems, in some ways, perverse and very unnatural.

As I've written elsewhere, I don't know the answer to Crude's inquiry. I don't know if gay men can be helped so that they do find some women, in certain circumstances, attractive. As I've said before, sexual attraction seems so primordial, so ingrained in us, that I doubt it can really be cultivated one way or the other in any meaningful way. It seems a bit like telling a colorblind person to just see red. I'm not sure any amount of psychological help will ever help that person to see red. This is also something I think is bad about conversion therapy. Giving gay men the hope that they will somehow see red when there might not be any chance of it ever happening is just not ideal. In some ways it may be positively wrong. And the more that happiness is tied to marriage in the gay man's mind, etc., the more miserable that man will become. As anyone knows, trying to make yourself like something you just don't like is horribly depressing. The whole project consumes you, and you eventually grow to hate yourself in strange ways you didn't even realize you could. I am of the opinion that true salvation and freedom comes through control over sexuality, not rearrangement or realignment of sexuality. No one is going to free himself by forcing his attraction into something it's not aimed at to begin with. In such a case, he is still a sort of slave. Whatever good that comes will come through such control. And this is the case for anybody.

I don't think my friend is shallow for wanting to be sexually desired by her boyfriend or husband. I think there is something genuine and good about such a thing. Would a woman commit some wrong by accepting a man who really only sees her as just alright? No, certainly not. But would she be happier and more secure in the relationship if he did desire her, in whatever way, above other women (or men!). Without any doubt. The inability of women to get this and men to give this (for a sustained period of time) seems to lie at the root of the battle of the sexes. When it comes to gay men and women especially, it seems like both sides are necessarily unable to get or give what needs to be gotten or given.


  1. Just to clarify one thing.

    The reason I mention what I did was because, whenever I see conversion therapy talked about, it always is presented as 'turning a gay man straight'. But, there's a few things that are going on in a situation like that. At a minimum, there'd have to be an elimination of finding men sexually attractive (or at least a great reduction of this), and a production of finding women sexually attractive. But, in principle, it seems like only one of these things is bare-bones 'essential' for conversion therapy to be credibly said to have worked. If you only get the latter, well hey, mission accomplished. Granted, it's not the perfect ideal, perhaps - but man, I think if it were established that conversion therapy could make gays bisexual, that would be accepted as 'good enough'.

    That doesn't mean I think this is possible or such. I'm just thinking about what the 'goal' is in such therapy, and how I think the goal tends to be missed or misstated by its advocates.

    I agree with you about the key being 'control' rather than 'making you like something you do not'. I'm not pretending to have answers to deep psychological questions here - mostly, I'm speculating. Is sexual interest entirely discrete? Somewhat continuous? Is it akin to food preferences? There are 'acquired tastes' - are there acquired sexual preferences? Could a gay man find himself sexually attracted to a female who dressed and gave off an appearance of a male (within reason of course)? Can an intellectual attraction have a sexual aspect? And so on, and so on.

    That said, I agree that a woman or a man typically definitely wants their spouse to find them, certainly in some ways, sexually attractive or desirable. Probably moreso nowadays, since that's treated as such a central aspect of romance, in ways I think are above and beyond the past.

    1. Oh please don't take the post the wrong way. I don't think you thought or said anything wrong in the original comment. I just wanted to expand on it a little bit. It's something I've wondered myself for a long time. And I still don't know the answer.

      There are some days with some women where I think, "Yeah, definitely, this is easy." But then as time goes by, I think, "Could it be like this 'for as long as we both shall live'?" Then I think, "Is that Required, me having a certain feeling for the rest of my life?" I mean, I know I can't guarantee a feeling for the rest of my life. No one can. But with straight guys, there's at least in principle some way for them to have that feeling that I never seem to have. And, as I'm trying to get across, for Most women, it's just absolutely necessary that that feeling exist.

      It's this difficult balance: how much of a relationship is devotion and hard work and how much is a Desire to even have that devotion. When you frame it Just as devotion and hard work, it feels a little like a Job. While in some ways it Is this, in other ways it's not like this at all. We aren't just creatures of perfunctory duty. At the same time, we have to always keep an eye out on what marriage actually is, the natural end of human sexuality. And as you noted, I don't know how much of this is just a modern bias. Plenty of people were married in the past without all this overanalysis and obsession with emotional completeness. Marriage stabilized and gave meaning to the people in society, even if, deep down, they may have been interested in someone else more than their spouses.

      I can answer this question, though. At least for me. Women who appear manly are Less attractive to me. That's definitely not the answer to the problem! Again, I just don't know. I do think sexual attraction is Somewhat flexible, at least around the edges. I don't think we are born predestined to have certain obscure fetishes for example. The fact that no one seems to know deters me in its own way. And I really have spend years of my life trying to figure out sexuality, and oftentimes I feel like no one really knows anything of substance. This is kind of why I like the oldschool psychoanalysts. At least they were trying Something that wasn't Just bad reductionist scientism. It felt like they were willing to at least humor answers beyond "Because you brains sends of X chemicals when you see a naked woman."

      Can I ask, Crude if you are married? I'm curious if you have any experience with what I'm identifying here? Was this sort of attraction necessary in your marriage, assuming you have one? I talk to married couples all the time, but never once this is on the table.

    2. Oh please don't take the post the wrong way. I don't think you thought or said anything wrong in the original comment. I just wanted to expand on it a little bit. It's something I've wondered myself for a long time. And I still don't know the answer.

      No, no. I didn't think that. (And if you thought I was wrong, so what? I'll just consider it and either agree or disagree.) I just wanted to clarify.

      Marriage stabilized and gave meaning to the people in society, even if, deep down, they may have been interested in someone else more than their spouses.

      Well, 'interested' is touchy. I do suspect that one of the modern twists of relationships nowadays is that idea that 'if the spark wears off, if the relationship is no longer supremely passionate, if someone else seems more exciting, well... time to break this off. Marriage or no marriage.' I think people nowadays interpret marriage as a promise to passionately love each other for the rest of their lives, and if that fails, well... it's over. The idea that it's a promise they should meet even when the spark wears off, or even when there are problems, is almost alien to many. Or so I get the impression.

      I can answer this question, though. At least for me. Women who appear manly are Less attractive to me.

      I wasn't thinking of women who appear manly per se - that conjures the image of Schwarzenegger in a dress. I'm thinking more 'tomboy'. But, that was just me thinking out loud either way.

      And I really have spend years of my life trying to figure out sexuality, and oftentimes I feel like no one really knows anything of substance.

      I'm sympathetic to that. I think people do know some things of substance, but 'scientifically'? I question that.

      Can I ask, Crude if you are married?

      I am not, so I can't give you any special insight here beyond third party observation. I've had girlfriends, but that's only going to get anyone so far.

  2. This post reminded me of Marriage and mortal sin.

    note: for various reasons have shied away from commenting, but just wanted to say what a great and inspiring blog you have here. Learning a lot.

    1. And by the way, let me add, as a sort of tangential comment, that I think there is an asymmetry between men and women as regards sexual desire. Simplifying thing for the sake of rhetorical effectiveness, men desire, women desire to be desired. Theologically, men are saved if they love, while women are saved if they are loved. Or as St. Paul puts it: Ephesians 5:33.

    2. Thank you for the comment and the encouragement; it means a lot. And it's a great quote you linked. If anyone knows where that quote is more developed by Thomas or by other authors, please let me know. I notice a couple writers mentioned in the comments there.

  3. I'm a bit cautious of men speaking about the experiences of women, but it does seem like women "desire to be desired", as Rodrigues put it. I don't think it's accurate to say that desire and desire for desire are the core of marriage, though. If that was the case, then every marriage would end 1-2 years into its lifespan. Crude said it better than I could:

    'if the spark wears off, if the relationship is no longer supremely passionate, if someone else seems more exciting, well... time to break this off. Marriage or no marriage.'

    This is a modern condition, but it has not been the case throughout most of history, either for men or women. I hate to cite Selmys again (I can't get enough of her blog!), but I think she's pretty accurate in this passage:

    In the case of the homosexual community, the blessing which chastity is supposed to confer on people is the blessing of disinterested friendship. A lot of people make the mistake of believing that such friendship is somehow a degraded or lesser form of love, a consolation prize that is thrown to the gays in place of a more fulfilling, erotic love. This is not true. Genuine friendship is more fulfilling, not less fulfilling, than erotic love. Eros, desire, is naturally demanding and hungry, a point which Socrates makes in the Symposium. Even within marriage it is a very long and difficult process to transform this love into truly generous self-giving, and it is only possible because children are born to pull the couple out of themselves and out of the cycle of need and fulfilment that naturally characterizes eros. Friendship is much more generous, and much more able to fully see and appreciate the other because the vision of the beloved is not obscured by one's own desires.

    Now, I dislike the term "disinterested" in general, because it implies Englightenment rationalism, but I think she makes a solid point. I'd go further and say that what she calls "friendship" is a perfected eros, rather than something separate from eros. Everything that occurs is a matter of eros, because everything has a final cause, which is desire. But, obviously, there can be higher or lower expressions of desire. I think she's correct that the goal of a marriage relationship is self-giving "friendship" (or perfected eros), and this seems to fit with history much better than the theory that marriage is desire and desire for desire on loop forever. Neither women nor men can desire in this way for very long, even though it is often the start of marriage.

    1. I don't disagree with any of this, I don't think. What I'm trying to explore is If a homosexual Could or Should participate in a marital union (that is, with a member of the opposite sex). That is, you note that erotic feelings go away after 1-2 years (which is no doubt why divorce Is so common at that time) and that a true marriage "perfects" the eros by becoming something like a "friendship," which homosexuals are perfectly capable of having. So, with that established, can a homosexual person just skip that (what seems to be less-important) 1-2 years, become married, and move on to that perfected friendship? And if not, why not?

      That's really what I'm trying to get at in these posts, I think. I absolutely agree that the modern world has turned marriage into Just that starting feeling solidified in some ceremony. But I'm questioning whether you can just skip over that feeling and move on to the "real" stuff. Would we really even call it a marriage? I mean, obviously most people (including homosexuals) think that you Cannot skip over it, that it is somehow integral to the thing. After all, Selmys is not advocating that homosexuals seek heterosexual marriage. And she's also not advocating that heterosexuals avoid the "less" fulfilling marriage. Maybe you are advocating that homosexuals should marry people of the opposite sex, but it doesn't seem like she is.

      I'm just trying to get at whether that feeling is vital to the marriage both philosophically and pragmatically. If it's Not, then it seems like advocating mixed-orientation marriages might have some merit. It's just, for the reasons I've mentioned elsewhere, something I have trouble really getting behind.

    2. You're right that Selmys isn't advocating that necessarily. She says that it worked for her, but that it's a case-by-case thing. I personally have no idea how it would turn out. On one hand, I think that every healthy marriage becomes (and sometimes starts as) a self-giving friendship. On the other, it's tough to say whether or not this would be possible in a lot of cases without an initially wild eros. I think you're right to ask the question, but I don't have any concrete answers.

  4. Sex is both unitive and procreative, and our bodies are strongly tied to our minds. So if we do a physically unitive act without MENTALLY wanting to unite with this other person, I can see how this could twist the act and make it sad.

  5. I think you are right about “control over sexuality” being the truly helpful thing. My own experience bears this out. As a teenager, my attractions were all homosexual. I had no attraction to women at all. It felt to me like I was “born that way.” But I also had a hell of a habit of impurity, which I fell into right when puberty struck, before I knew what I was doing.

    When I would go to confession and confess this mortally sinful habit, with, as required, the additional information that it was homosexually directed and therefore even more grave, the priests (who were all what you would probably call “traditional”) told me only that I needed to become pure. The homosexual angle didn’t seem to surprise them. It also didn’t seem to concern them that much. The real problem was that I was not pure. They told me, with infinite patience, to pick myself up and keep trying, keep praying, keep trusting. God would help. Our Lady would help.

    For years I existed in a horrible cycle: confess, hold out for a couple days (or three or — with great effort — four), fall, live in the state of mortal sin for a week and a half, go to confession . . . etc. But somehow I always knew that it wouldn’t be forever. I prayed at every mass for purity. I didn’t pray very often for a change to my orientation, since I instinctively understood that a change without a prior habit of impurity wouldn’t help me much. But when I thought of it, I prayed for that as well. And I did pray for a family someday. Maybe because I came from a good family, but a family — wife, kids, family life in general — always seemed desirable, even though I had no actual interest in girls.

    When I was entering college, I still had this impure habit (though I could go a little longer between falls). But then, quite suddenly, I didn’t. I think several things contributed to this. I had finally realized that you can’t give an inch: you must be pure in thought to be pure in deed. Here, the Church’s teaching that even a thought (fully consented to) is a mortal sin helped me. That was an easier sin to avoid than the ones it led to. All I had to do was oppose impure thoughts, try to avoid them instead of exploring them when they occurred to me, and so not give full consent. And there was a trick to that, too. As St. Thomas warned, you don’t try to directly fight impure thoughts any more than you would directly face a rabid dog. You run. Say a quick prayer, and run. I got better at that.

    Most of all, though, I think there was grace. I had been praying to Our Lady for purity for years, and I think my family began to pray in earnest for me at this point, especially my dad, who noticed that I wasn’t going to communion (though he never asked, and still doesn’t know, why). Anyway, when it happened — when I became pure — it happened very quickly and surprisingly easily, as if I had been given a big shove. It felt like something beyond my own efforts.

    Also quickly, a curious thing happened to me. When I had been pure even in thought for a short time (a couple months at most), I had a strange period of about two weeks where I was almost entirely without sexual desire. Oh, I knew that the old desires were there for reawakening if I wanted to, but I’d have had to want to. They weren’t afflicting me. I wasn’t tempted.

    And then I started noticing things about women. I noticed the way they walked, the grace with which they moved, their different and pleasing and elegant shape. These things weren’t sexual at first, just a growing admiration for their beauty (like the beauty of a sunset or a waterfall), and their otherness. And a time went on, this awakened into sexual interest, but (thank God!) I was better able to manage my thoughts. I had a problem or two in the years after that, but pretty mild compared to where I had been — some conditional confessions but probably no consented mortal sins. Purity still took effort, but the effort was no longer impossible. It was routine.

  6. Now I am married to a woman so jaw-droppingly attractive that, in shallow terms, she’s a "ten," a woman I would have thought was out of my league physically. We have a cute little baby who takes after her. And I have no sexual interest in men. In fact, when I hear about gays in the news I often have an instant of revulsion — “How could they feel that way?” — until I remember, “Oh yeah." But though I remember that I HAD those feelings, I can no longer really remember what it felt like.

    In the years since, I have heard over and over from people on both sides of the question that changing isn’t possible, and I’ve wondered what happened. Was it a miracle? In a way, I’m sure I was: a miracle of grace. I couldn’t have become pure without grace, and I really do think that I got a boost from my dad’s prayers. But I don’t think the grace was, per se, to change my orientation. It was to help me to become pure. Once I was pure, without the engine of constant, reaffirming lust, my sexual desires regained their natural directedness.

    My theory is that when I hit puberty I directed my desires in the wrong way from the very start, and those desires were fed and kept alive by my impurity. Without the impure habit, and with no direct effort to change my orientation, I found myself attracted to women.

    If this is true, then yes, control over sexuality, i.e. the habit of purity, is essential. This is why people who try to trade one impurity for another — gay porn for straight porn, for instance — fail, as will any reparative therapy that doesn’t focus on purity above all. I have read about some people, though, who become pure but don’t seem to lose their attraction to people of their own sex. I’m not sure what to make of this, except to note that I was lucky enough never to engage in a sexual act with another person until my wife, and I had no real access to porn (no internet), so perhaps I had less memories and baggage?

    At any rate, I’ve found your own thoughts very interesting. Speaking as a married man, I think you are dead on about women wanting to be desired. They are also always fundamentally insecure about their husband’s love (in the same way that men are insecure about their jobs, often feeling inadequate and worried that they will be “found out”), and need reassurance very often. “Desire” for a woman is also more encompassing than simply physical desire. Women often misinterpret a man’s purely sexual desire for admiration for her as a person: they have a hard time unlinking the two (while men have a hard time linking them!), which is why you often find a woman staying with a man that other men know is an abusive jerk.

    But I think that this holistic desire that women naturally believe in actually is what good marriages quickly come to have. And I think it persists longer than you might expect. Before I was married I could never imagine sex with an older person, and I always thought marriages must evolve into some other form of love because desire will be long gone quite quickly. But (and granted, I’ve only been married a year, so I haven’t actually experienced this yet) when I think of my wife as an older woman, I find the idea of sexual love still appealing. Because she’ll still be HER. Imagining her older and less physically attractive doesn’t seem to rule out physical love. There will be a change, of course. The “in-love,” heart-skipping, breath-catching feeling goes away quite quickly. But the overall desire for her doesn’t. It persists, as a desire for HER. Hard to explain, but can you see what I’m trying to say? I think married men who are directing themselves well naturally desire their wives in the holistic way that their wives expect. Physical love is still a part of it, even if it’s not the main impetus as it is when you are “in love.”

    Just my thoughts, for what they are worth.