Captain’s Log: Notes on Intimacy, Sexual Health, and Us

Captain’s Log: Notes on Intimacy, Sexual Health, and Us

By: C. Warwick, LVNAs a nurse in the mental health field, I’m occasionally asked to facilitate groups for my patients, and the topic of intimacy is always a hot one. It’s also an intimidating one for the facilitator, or at least it is for me. Why is that? I’m certainly not bothered by the group members’ participation, even when they jump the tracks with lurid details and veer off into more treacherous terrain. After ten years of working in the field, there’s not a whole heck of a lot they can say to surprise me, though I must admit that they still do on occasion. What is it, then? Questions about my own personal experiences are easy enough to redirect and answer in general terms. I have no worries there. No, my intimidation by discussions around intimacy have little or nothing to do with the members of the group, and everything to do with me. When I first started leading groups, I was petrified of stepping on someone’s toes or, what is infinitely worse, placing my foot squarely into my own mouth. The world was sure to stop on its axis if I fouled up and offended someone while talking about such a, well, intimate subject. Fortunately for me {{more}} , I learned from some truly gifted people – doctors, therapists, other nurses, and even some of my own patients. One of the things they taught me was to lead with an open-ended question, and then facilitate the ride from there. They also taught me that the groups are about the members, not the facilitators. That’s true regardless of the topic in question, whether it’s baseball or substance abuse or sexual health. Once all of that set in – which took a long time – I could breathe a sigh of relief and ride along with my patients in their quest for healing and higher understanding of themselves. I even managed to have semi-comfortable conversations about sexual health and intimacy. The fact still remains, though, that intimacy is a difficult subject to slap down on the table. Why is that?On the topics of sexual health and intimacy, there is usually no shortage of volunteers when the question is posed, “What is sexual health? What is intimacy?” If you’re answering those questions to yourself at the kitchen table or at your office desk, then stop. They’re trick questions. I don’t ask them to be tricky, but I do ask them to illustrate a point, and it’s usually pretty easy to do. Overwhelmingly, when people are asked to consider those questions, their minds jump right into bed. Just the same, my group members typically respond with concepts like mutual trust, similar sexual interests, respecting boundaries, accepting flaws and assets, the absence of sexually transmitted infections and diseases, etc. They’re absolutely correct in their responses, too! All of those things are essential building blocks that help make up sexual health, but it just so happens that those blocks are at the top of the pyramid. They’re not the whole structure. James Montgomery, MD, a psychiatrist who has been nationally recognized for his work in the field of sexual health had this much to say, “Sexual health and sex ultimately begin before the bedroom ever comes into question. Sociality, sensuality, and spirituality work together to make up a healthy sex life. These are things we work on as individuals and, eventually, as couples.” Do we really work on those things before we meet our partners, though? Is it surprising to learn that the room falls to silence for a moment when asked, “How does one achieve healthy sexuality and intimacy?” I don’t think I’m placing my foot too firmly in my mouth by making the bold assertion that intimacy dysfunction is widespread in our culture. We’re reminded of it almost every day. Bill Clinton: Monica Lewinski and the Oval Office. It was the scandal that defined my formative years. JFK: Marilyn Monroe love affair. Both my parents can tell me about it in vivid detail to this day. Kobe Bryant: accused of rape and sexual misconduct. Tiger Woods: stigmatized as a sex addict. Even our beloved Bill Cosby didn’t make it out of the limelight unscathed, having recently weathered accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct. The stories are numerous and seemingly never ending. We are absolutely flooded with this stuff, and I’m left wondering how many people actually consider its implications. That is to say, we’ve become so adept at judging what healthy sexuality isn’t, but it’s very seldom that you hear anyone in the limelight talking about what it actually is. The truth of the matter is that, for one reason or another, it has become a lot more exciting to talk about intimacy dysfunction than it is to talk about healthy intimacy. Healthy intimacy, in short, is the partner that actively listens when you talk about your day at the office. They remind you about your upcoming dentist appointment. They kiss your hand for no reason. They dedicate themselves not only to you, but to the concept of “us.” Healthy intimacy is arguably the most fulfilling experience in the entire spectrum of human emotion, but it doesn’t make for good TV. It’s safe to say we all want it; we just have a hard time being entertained by it. Did we go wrong somewhere?Remember, if you will, that time of year in school when the teachers would separate the young men and women for an afternoon. What happened next, in my experience, was a ton of snickering followed by a lot of cringing. As a young man, I thought to myself and sometimes remarked to my peers, “No way! I’m never going to let that happen to me!” If the image is unclear, I’m referring to the myriad of graphic images depicting sexually transmitted infections and diseases often shown in sex education programs. I have to admit, the tactic was effective. If fact, it was so effective that I didn’t even feel safe talking about sex for days to follow. I remember it so vividly, but there’s something conspicuous I don’t remember. The possible physical impact of my decisions was made quite clear, but I can’t recall ever having been taught the emotional impact of what would later become our love lives. Of course, it’s fair to argue that such teaching shouldn’t be handed down in schools. The jury is out on that decision, and I am by no means the judge. What I am getting at, though, is that there are those who don’t receive those lessons – not at home, not in school – only through life’s deck of cards, and life has plenty of jokers. Enter advertising. Enter Hollywood. In one of his most brilliant performances on the big screen, Matt Damon plays a boy genius from South Boston stuck in the mire of his own unraveling. The movie is Good Will Hunting. Will, having been passed from foster home to foster home during childhood, was for years the victim of abject child abuse. The fact that his adult character spends a lot of time swilling beer at the local pub and getting into fistfights for no apparent reason comes as no shock in light of this. Then he meets Skylar, a British academic attending Harvard as an undergraduate destined to one day study medicine at Stanford. Without outlining the entire plot, suffice it to say that, with Will’s upbringing, his coping skills aren’t quite on par with Skylar’s. Having never been taught about healthy intimacy, Will is terrified when Skylar engages him in it, so much so that he shuts her out of his life entirely. So far, this is pretty logical. The movie never actually falls apart in its logic. Will addresses his intimacy issues with a counselor masterfully portrayed by the late Robin Williams. Briefly. Then the credits roll while Will Hunting drives a rickety, old car to California to rekindle his lost love with Skylar, and everything is neatly wrapped like Christmas morning. The message, in my opinion, is where the movie misleads the impressionable mind. The concept of “The One” is introduced. Skylar, the one person who loved Will so much that he was able to overcome his demons. Who wouldn’t want that? Accidentally stumbling into the one person in life that, despite all of our misgivings, brings about the hero in us is a sweet, sweet deal. Is it realistic, though? The TV would have us think so, and so would the commercials. It’s easy to see in our day and age that we are constantly targeted with advertisements. From the billboards we pass on the way to work to the ads on our radios while we drive there, products and services are endlessly pitched at us. Advertising is an art from that the American market has perfected, too. Sexual health comprises an entire segment of the market, and sex really moves the product to the masses. They’re so good at selling sex to us that they’ve taken the term “sexual health” and dissected it so it can be sold in more than one market. Male enhancement pills promise more romance and better performance, and they sell for fifty bucks per bottle. Gym memberships give wonderful lip service to a healthier lifestyle and a new you, but the fit body in tight clothing is just an added bonus that comes along after you sign the contract. There’s still something missing in the ads, though. It’s similar to the old days of sex education but presented from the opposite side of the spectrum. Does healthy intimacy fall flat in selling products, too? Famed poet, Charles Bukowski, wrote, “Nobody ever finds the one. The city dumps fill. The junkyards fill. The madhouses fill. The hospitals fill. The graveyards fill. Nothing else fills.” It’s a bleak outlook on the concept of intimacy, and it speaks poignantly to the spirit of this article. Answers about healthy intimacy do not lie herein, only more questions. My only question for the reader on the subject is, are you fulfilled, or have you had your fill? They’re all open-ended questions. Maybe now we can talk about it. C. Warwick, LVN