I've been a sex therapist for decades, and I’ve listened to many, many young men and women describe their sexual and dating lives. So as excruciating as the situation around the story about Aziz Ansari's date behavior may be, I'm hoping some good can come of the pain, the sadness, the confusion and the public shaming.
The story and its aftermath highlight the need for more open discussion and self-reflection on the nuts and bolts of today’s sexual scene. We need more mindful dating.
And we need to acknowledge that while dating has always been treacherous, dating in an age when young people grow up on a diet of porn has particular pitfalls.
So call me a dinosaur if you will, but these are the points that a senior sex therapist feels compelled to make upon reading about this episode and the fights that have followed:
• None of us really understands the rules of dating right now
Here is my own experience of a painful encounter long ago:
In the early 1970s, I went to a party and, in today’s parlance, I hooked up with a guy I already knew, who I thought was bright and charming. I really wanted him to be interested in me — not just sexually, but in a long term way. Somehow we began kissing. Long, delicious kissing that went on for ages — good, deep, satisfying kisses. We eventually stopped, said goodbye, and each went home. Back to our own houses. I never heard from him again.
While in the midst of this event, I had a wish for the present and a wish for the future. For the present, my lizard brain just wanted to have the physical pleasure go on and on. But even at the time, the future-oriented part of me knew I wanted these kisses to be the start of something more significant and long-lasting.
I waited and waited for a call from him. One never came. I was very hurt, and so confused. I did not understand how a man could kiss me with such tenderness and for so long without having feelings for me.
This sounds so old fashioned that it might as well be Chaucerian. In today’s world, a young American woman might feel quite stigmatized for saying that she was wanting sex in the context of something significant and long-lasting.
I don’t understand today’s rules of dating and hookups. The thing is, from what I hear in my office, I don’t think any younger people who are dating do either. Clearly, the rules do not include seeing rape as acceptable. But which experiences are acceptable and desired?
I think every woman is going to have to decide this for herself, and she is going to have to decide it anew, ahead of time, with each encounter. The same goes for men.
• Many are ill-suited to current norms
Ben, a 20-something straight man I have seen, is kind and sensitive and shy. He is intimidated by the sexual aggression he is seeing in women nowadays. He complains that women expect intercourse by the first or second date, and the demand for sexual performance and intercourse in the absence of no real interpersonal connection unnerves him. He feels inadequate and like a loser. He wishes he could do what all of his "swordsman” buddies all do.
Ben does not talk about his experiences with his buddies, because he feels ashamed. Trust me, Ben has lots of company. This is a group of men we are not reading about at all. What is happening to them in the dating scene? Those I speak with feel that they are being rejected for not being sexually self-assured.
• Or ill-served by them...
There is no denying that for a straight woman who enjoys sex, it is an utter thrill to be able to attract a man and get him to desire you. Being able to turn him on, to have that sexual power, to be able to see and feel his arousal, is an aphrodisiac. It’s fun. This is true now, and since the days of the sexual revolution, it has always been true.
And when things go well, all is fine. But consider:
Sallie, a student in a local university, came into my office some months back. She was having fun in the hookup scene. She was going out with lots of men she was meeting at bars and parties. She did not know any of them previously. She did not have any particular interest in anything long term with them. She was willingly choosing to have very brief, no-foreplay sex with them. She could not understand why she was not orgasmic from any of these experiences.
So Sallie feels sexually powerful, and her experimentation has not led to any rape-like experiences, but she also feels unfulfilled.
• Growing up on porn can mess young men up
There are men on the dating scene who do feel confident in their own sexuality and performance and also understand the concept of consent. They have a strong sex drive, like being sexual with women, and are not intimidated by women who are full of lust.
This group can read nonverbal and verbal signals, can attend to requests for different kinds of pacing, activities and touches, and can deal with the physical frustration of getting turned on and then having to stop. They might pout, they might gossip. They might call you a tease, but they won’t rape you.
They are not Harvey Weinstein-style predators. But we have to begin to talk about other male denizens of the current dating scene -- ordinary creatures, not rich, not famous, who did not exist 25 years ago: that group of men who have learned about sex from today’s pornography — and only from pornography — in a culture that is otherwise quite sex-negative.
They never talked with parents or educators or mentors about what healthy, erotic, romantic or even mutually kinky and fun sex between a man and woman might look like.
Some in this group don’t have much experience with even one ongoing sexual relationship with a flesh-and-blood girlfriend. Others do. Whether or not they had been relationship-oriented in the past, now porn is central to their sexuality. Their brains have been continually bathed in images of male/female “sex” that are frequently violent and almost always obscenely truncated down to penetration. There are no images of kissing and caressing in the porn they are watching.
Here is one such man’s fantasy of having a date with a woman:
So we’d have this date. She’d be fantastic looking. She’d be in a short skirt, a low top. We’d go for a drink, and she’d come back, it would just be sex. First oral sex, She'd tear my clothes off. Then sex, sex, sex, all night long. … And she’d be talking to me all night about how great it feels.
These men have been equating sex to these images for most of their sexual lives. The communication between their brain and hand is perfect, and ever so much more gratifying than tending to someone else’s pesky sexual needs along with their own. They have no playbook for anything emotionally generous or tenderly tactile.
As a woman and as a sex therapist, I feel sorry for these men. I treat them, and I’m extremely fond of them (whatever you believe about me from reading this). These are guys who have been watching movies featuring porn actors whose looks and size they cannot compete with. Watching these videos makes my porn-obsessed young male patients insanely aroused, but it also engenders feelings of insecurity.
If you are a woman and you unwittingly date one of these men, unless you are very assertive and very much in your body and your mind (not inebriated or stoned), you are at high risk for a very bad experience.
• Remember that the "freeze" response is hardwired
In fact, an experience may be so bad that it triggers a hardwired mammalian response.
You probably have heard of fight or flight, but mammals go into an automatic freeze state when they perceive the enemy to be so dangerous that neither fighting nor fleeing will be successful.
Most of us have had an example where we froze. Here is one of mine:
I was lucky that I had supportive and sex-positive parents. When I was just a young teenager, my mom explained to me that it was possible that I could get in a situation where something bad was going on sexually. And in that situation, she said, I should just scream, and I’d scare the person off. One day, I was on a bus, and a grown man sat down next to me, and began to molest me. I tried to scream, as my mom had told me to. And no sound came out of my mouth.
I’m fine. I was not in someone’s private office or apartment, I was on a public bus. This predator eventually got off at his stop. But I never forgot this experience. It was humbling. Don’t be critical of someone who froze in the face of dire danger, even if you don’t approve of choices they made.
Of course we like to think that everyone would have the agency and the presence of mind to be able to advocate for their own best interest in a sexual situation, but that is just not true. Psychologists and trauma experts know that huge proportions of people have grown up in families that are dysfunctional or abusive in ways that prevent them from learning how to be assertive and ask for what they want.
• So maybe all you can really do is think about all this — in advance
Women freeze in situations in which they did not think they were in danger, but it turned out they were.
If you are a woman, it may not be easy, or even possible, to have the unfettered heterosexual sex you want without having a lot of bad experiences. I honestly don’t know. I understand why you might want this, but there is no guarantee.
All you can do is take control of thinking about dating now, before you are in any more bad situations. At the very least, think about your own definition of good sex. Read some books on female sexual arousal and female sexual pleasure, so that you’re informed about what your sexual recipe is. Experiment. Daydream. Watch movies of all kinds. Focus on your fantasy of the sex you want. This is my definition of being sex-positive.
Don’t worry about what the current dating style is, or what is politically correct. See what works for you sexually. Having sex with as much freedom as men have does not mean that men’s sexual recipe will necessarily give you pleasure. Read over the fantasy of my porn-obsessed patient, and see if this matches with your sexual recipe. If it doesn’t, write down your own happy-sex recipe.
Be honest with yourself about the number of times you have dissociated or frozen during your dating experiences. If they are numerous, it might be worth talking them over with a therapist, because I’m worried about you. You aren’t protecting yourself. I want you to.
When dating, don’t just use your body. Use your mind, your imagination. Run a movie in your head: How do you want this encounter to unfold? Before you can make something happen, you have to imagine the steps to reach your goal. What is your goal? Be honest with yourself about what you want to have happen. What are you willing to risk?
I know that the dating rules for what is sex-positive have been rewritten these days, but as my amazing mom would have said (and now is saying from the grave), “Just because everyone around you is jumping off a cliff, you don’t have to do it.”
Have fun. Be safe.
Aline P. Zoldbrod, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and certified sex therapist in Boston and author of three books. You can find her at sexsmart.com.