Essay: sex, fantasy and alcohol (part two)

Part two of an essay that will appear permanently in the Essays section of this blog

Theories about codependency, fear of intimacy and sexual anorexia have abounded in the psychological world since the early part of the 20th century. The amount of research into codependency alone is vast, stemming from a well established field of literature around dependent personality disorders. Psychologists define a codependent relationship as a dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another’s maladaptive behaviours e.g. addiction, immaturity or under achievement. As for the character traits that make up a person who consciously or unconsciously seeks codependent relationships, in 2014 Skip Johnson said that there is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and identity. In 2008, Lennard Davis said that the codependent person is fixated on another person for approval, sustenance, and so on.

In the APA’s DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition), Passive Dependency Personality is defined as the excessive need to be taken care of, leading to submissive and clinging behaviour and fear of separation. Darlene Lancer wrote in 2012 that a codependent is someone who cannot function from their innate self and whose thinking and behaviour is instead organised around another person, or even a process, or substance (leading to addiction). Lancer and Charles Whitfield have both referred to codependency as the disease of a lost self.

It is widely accepted that most codependents place a lower priority on their own needs than those of others. Indeed, they can become excessively preoccupied with meeting the needs of others. Scott Metzler PhD said in 2014 that the codependent’s purpose in relationships is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner’s needs. Codependent relationships come with a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person doesn’t have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties thus depend on their other half for fulfilment. There is almost always an unconscious drive to put another person’s life ahead of one’s own, and often this comes from the mistaken notion that self worth comes from other people.

Having recognised codependent patterns in my own past relationships, I fell quite soon into an anorexic pattern of behaviour known as sexual anorexia, once I had given up alcohol. There isn’t nearly as much literature on sexual anorexia as there is on codependency. Psychologists don’t yet seem to have made a link between sexual anorexia, fear of intimacy and codependency, so the former remains a new and relatively unstudied area of research.

Those who have looked into it define sexual anorexia as a pathological loss of appetite for romantic or sexual interaction. In 1998, Douglas Weiss PhD posited it as the result of a fear of intimacy, to the point that the person suffering from it has severe anxiety surrounding sexual activity.

I wouldn’t say that I have diminished appetite for romantic or sexual interaction. But there has always been anxiety around it, from the day of my first encounter with Glen fourteen years ago.

In the late 90’s, Patrick Carnes PhD saw a link between sexual anorexia and sex addiction, and became perhaps one of the most prolific authors on the subject. He states that sexual addicts / anorexics lack the ability to have a relationship of a sexual nature beyond a paid for or anonymous experience. There is no aversion to sex per se, but to intimacy. Carnes’ suggested path to recovery from this disorder, as stated in some of his writing, involves use of the twelve steps.

Others have stated that sexual anorexia may have an element of social phobia attached to it. Anorexics in this sense may be so emotionally fragile that they cannot handle rejection or criticism, thus isolation from all sexual or romantic encounters becomes preferable to the risk involved in pursuing them.

There is a wider field of research around human intimacy and the fear that some of us experience in relation to it. Generally, fear of intimacy is defined as the fear of being emotionally and / or physically close to another individual. In the early 90’s, Carol Descutner and Mark Thelen developed a ‘Fear of Intimacy Scale’ which is used by individuals and therapists to determine the level of fear that one associates with intimacy. They believed that this phobia marked the “inhibited capacity of an individual, because of anxiety, to exchange thought and feelings of personal significance with another individual who is highly valued”.

In their book “Fear of Intimacy”, Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett said rather poetically that it is an existential fear, in that to love and be loved can make life seem precious and therefore death more inevitable. On the whole, people who fear intimacy may fundamentally believe that they don’t deserve love or support from others.

It would seem to make sense to look to childhood for answers concerning where these fears and beliefs come from. In 2000, Drashek, Terrell & Terrell conducted a study with individuals who had been taught not to trust strangers in childhood. They found that these individuals “consistently experienced greater fear of intimacy and more loneliness than did those who were not trained to distrust strangers”.

Out of the research in this area has come a proposed personality disorder known as ‘Intimacy Anxiety Disorder’. Individuals who suffer from this experience intense anxiety or fear in intimate and sexual interactions, causing considerable distress and impaired ability to function in at least some parts of daily life. Examples of sexual interaction are kissing, touching, and sexual intercourse. Behind the intense anxiety there appears to be a list of fears:

  • fear of perceived incompetence
  • fear of making mistakes
  • fear of being judged on sexual performance
  • fear of causing harm
  • or, fear of being harmed during sexual interaction

When I stopped drinking in 2007, it shone an intense light on how all of these fears and beliefs played out in my life, but sobriety couldn’t make it better. For a while, I did everything I could to prove Patrick Carnes’ theory of a link between sexual anorexia and sex addiction right, as I threw myself into the online dating scene like never before. I began to use all the gay dating websites with renewed enthusiasm, and I even ventured into some of London’s sex clubs and saunas for the first time. I was terrified before each trip, not of being ignored and rejected but of being noticed. Male attention was threatening in a way it had never been when I was drinking. I realised that I had no clue about what to do sexually, and it was clear that most of the men I met in these places wouldn’t have the patience to wait for me to learn. But I couldn’t stop going; I needed the attention as much as I feared it. And I needed to learn how to do it, once and for all.

In the summer of ’08 I was approached on the world’s then biggest gay dating site, Gaydar, by Martin from Brighton. He picked me up in his car from Victoria station and we drove down. In the front of the car we could hardly keep our hands off each other. It’s a wonder we didn’t cause an accident. When we got to his place an hour later our night of passion could begin. I remember it vividly because it was the first time I could recall actually enjoying myself in bed with a man. For the first time, things seemed to be making sense; the appropriate actions seemed to be coming naturally. I had unprotected sex three times that night. It didn’t matter – what was important was that I had finally cracked the mystery of sex. The next morning I asked Martin about keeping in touch and he replied vaguely. I didn’t get much of an answer as he drove me back to the station. I’d never see or hear from him again. It didn’t make sense to me for weeks. He had enjoyed the night at least as much as I had, or so I thought. I was furious with him, and with myself for screwing things up so badly. I only wanted to know what I had done wrong, but he would not reply to any of my messages.

Not long after that I met Gareth on the same website. Unlike Martin, Gareth appeared to want to take things a bit slower, with dinner and coffee coming before other stuff. We ate Chinese food in Chinatown and chatted amiably for several hours. For me, it was love at first sight. To this day I don’t know what it was for him. We met again a few days later and went back to his place. Like with Martin, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, and again, I agreed to unprotected sex. A strange kind of pleasure came from it: I had learned to enjoy the pain and discomfort because of the man who was causing it. What my old friends from University had told me about this was finally starting to make sense.

I wanted so desperately for things to be different with Gareth. I wanted him to be my Mr Big – well, who wouldn’t? From the start I felt as if I was fighting against the inevitability of more heartache. We met several times a week in the beginning. I’d always have to go to his house – getting him to do any more dinner or coffee dates was now out of the question. There’d be little conversation in the car. Once we were in bed, I could get that connection with him again. The sex was always gorgeous. Out of bed it was like we didn’t know each other.

After a few months I started sending him messages online to try and get him to open up a bit, because I didn’t have the guts to do it when we were together. His replies were always vague and non-committal. Eventually I began to get the impression that he didn’t like me very much. So I’d swear off him, attempt to date other men who might be more deserving of my affection, but after a while I’d always go back to him. I couldn’t get enough of him. The more he distanced himself from me the more I wanted him.

This carried on for about two years. At the time I was happy to call it my longest ever relationship; now I can see little about it that matches the definition of a relationship. The last time I saw him, he wanted to meet at one of the gay saunas in London because his house was being done up and everything was in a bit of a mess. I might have hoped he’d see it as an opportunity to do something romantic in London – go for a meal like in the old times, or go to the cinema, but I was to have no such luck. I had long since stopped visiting saunas by then: there was something not right about them. In recovery from alcoholism it didn’t feel very spiritual spending my time in such places. I agreed to go with Gareth nevertheless, because I still was willing to catch any crumbs he might throw at me.

He paid our entry fee and then said “goodbye for now” at the door, telling me he’d catch up with me later as he wanted to see who else was around. I ought to have known then that it was pointless being there, but I made my way to a jacuzzi, hoping against hope he wouldn’t take long. I waited for an hour as a parade of naked men entered and left the jacuzzi around me. I must have been invisible: none of them looked at me or showed any interest. I wasn’t 21 any more: clearly the old charms were no longer so prominent.

After an hour I got up and left. I got changed and walked out into the night a free man. I sent Gareth one last text message, telling him never to bother me again. As if he would: he would undoubtedly be glad to see the back of me. I descended into another heartache that has never quite healed. It might as well have been Andy, 2001 all over again.

Since then there have been a handful of moderately more healthy relationships in my life. I stopped using the seedier websites in order to focus on the more serious ones, where I might have a chance of meeting someone more ‘genuine’. That word, ‘genuine’, has to be the most overused word in gay dating profiles. Wherever you go on the internet it’s there like a badge of honour, meant to show the profile owner’s honest and reliable qualities. Except it’s used by so many of us now its associated meaning is so thinly spread, and there are so many examples of men who use it that turn out to be anything but genuine, it doesn’t really mean anything any more. Still, in the new decade, I hoped to start having experiences that were a little more meaningful and a little less depressing. I had high hopes for a few years, and I managed to actually date a few guys for a few months at a time. My emotions began to settle down, and I was able to leave each relationship amicably when it became clear that the spark wasn’t quite there, or the time wasn’t quite right. I haven’t fallen head over heels in love with anyone since Gareth, nor have I exposed myself to unwanted risk by deliberately forgetting to ask about condoms since then.

All the while, a part of me has wondered if I am missing something in my life without the infatuations and dramas. The men I’ve dated in the last few years have all been very nice, and I don’t regret dating any of them, but I’d be dishonest if I didn’t mention that I decided to end things with them in most cases because of restlessness. Sure, the first few dates are always exciting when I can feel my pulse racing and my brow dampening with sweat, but after a few weeks the same pattern tends to emerge. I get to thinking: “he’s no Gareth,” or “he’s no Andy” and that’s it, the relationship may as well be doomed from there on in.

Since ending things with the last guy in 2014 I haven’t dated anyone. I’ve been technically celibate, save for the occasional thrill when using porn. It’s like I don’t have the energy for sex and relationships any more. Aside from the initial excitement, there is also the exhausting process of getting to know someone, making regular time for them in my schedule, only to work out after a few weeks or months that they weren’t the right guy for me anyway. I know I’m not the only gay man who has gotten used to life on his own: I meet many others in AA meetings who feel the same way. I’ve become accustomed to my own company; and I’d far rather lead a life of prosaic celibacy than go back to the constant merry-go-round of men that I saw in my drinking days. Whether this is what I really want, or if it’s just something I’m resigned to for convenience’s sake, isn’t a question I can answer today. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the vast majority of gay men like to drink, and this will often present a barrier in the initial stages of dating. Not that I’m entirely sure where to meet men any more. I don’t enjoy spending time in clubs and bars any more, and I find websites and apps a waste of time, so the potential for finding dates is significantly reduced these days. When I first stopped drinking I guess I thought being sober would make all of this much easier, but it hasn’t. It’s made it harder.

I don’t think of love as something I’ll miraculously find one day in the future any more. In the past, during every heartache I’d console myself with the Hollywood-inspired idea that one day a special man would come along and make it all all right. I don’t do that now. I’ve come to realise that my needs and wants are probably too specific for the majority of potential dates out there. I’m not just talking about tastes in music and literature: I mean what I want and need in the bedroom. I know I need someone for whom sex isn’t the be all and end all in life, someone who would just be happy to hold me. They’d probably also need to be someone who makes my heart race: and that is something which these days is very rare. Especially in anyone who would actually be available to me.

I can still go out in the street and get on the tube and be instantly attracted to several men who look archetypically heterosexual. That’s never stopped. I like to think I have more awareness of it now than I did when I was a teenager, and that it doesn’t drag me down in the way it used to. Without any form of sexual excitement in my life, I guess a bit of fantasy now and then isn’t going to do much harm.

With every passing day I believe less and less that I will one day figure relationships out. I can read up on all the theories till the cows come home, it still doesn’t completely demystify everything. Sometimes it seems that for every answer I get there’s another question. Maybe this is just alcoholism. Maybe there will always just be a part of me that gets love wrong because I can’t stop over-attaching or detaching. Today, I think there are more urgent things to think about anyway.

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