Average reading time 6-7 minutes.
What makes the same amount of sexual desire be felt as a healthy fulfilling sex life or a toxic addiction?
This paradox was unveiled as I worked with another one about consent: how is it that we can feel sexual desire for someone, even after that person has rejected us?
Sex is an interaction, and an intimate one at that! Why would I want to do something so intimate with someone who does not really want to reciprocate? Why would I entrust my most precious body part to someone who doesn’t care for me? Why would I want to spend my intimacy with someone who is not enjoying it? Why would I think it may be satisfying?
But… reality is, sometimes we do! Sometimes, we desire sex with someone, regardless of their feelings, just because the person is so sexy!
But why? This paradox has had me racking my brain, until I have come to separate three concepts: aspiration, desire, and intent. Distinguishing desire from intent is not very difficult. Examples will make it clearer:
If I come across a beautiful, lovely-smelling cake, but I am allergic to some of its ingredients, I may have the desire to eat from it, but I do not want to do it. However, this cake may make me hungry, and it awoke in me a yearning for something tasty and sweet… We may notice that, if I have just had an excellent dinner, I will not feel those as cravings, only pleasant memories. And if I am intoxicated from having eaten too much earlier, the same smell of cake will make me feel sick.
So smelling the cake is just remembering me how I feel inside – either the desire for cake, or the sensation of being pleasantly full, or the sickness. This shows how the desire is inside of me, not caused by the smell of the cake.
But it goes deeper: once we analyse that situation, we see that desire itself is not immanent. My desire (for cake) is the product of my aspiration (for food); formalized as an experience that may fulfil it (eating cake), stirred by an external evocation of said experience (the smell of that cake). Formally, there are three stages: aspiration, desire, and intent.
- Aspirations are things I feel deep inside. They are basic building blocks of what will make a situation pleasant or unpleasant for me: pleasure, connexion, acceptance, security, laughter… They are based on my anatomy, my hormones, my memories, my likings… Those are too “raw” to be really understood by the conscious brain. They need to be “refined” into a situation that “can” happen.
- Desires are the current expression of my aspirations. It is a construction made from the building blocks of my aspirations and needs – a “story in my mind”, of a situation in which my aspirations are satisfied. It is also something I feel inside – but it is much closer to consciousness, and influenced by external events. I may not be aware of this “desire” (this scenario of satisfaction) at a given time, but an external stimulus (the smell of a cake, the sight of a beautiful woman) may bring it back to my consciousness, and feed the fire. However, if the desire arises, it means something was there to begin with. [It may help to think that it is not the cake, or the woman, that feeds the fire; but the sensation of smelling the cake or seeing the woman. This may sound like a semantic technicality, but it is useful for claiming your own free will when those situations arise.]
- Intent is the actual willingness to do this specific action on this moment with that person. It is the moment when I compare the desire with the actual situation, before I decide what is the best course of action.
This distinction may help, in defining what you really want.
If I do not understand those distinctions, I may “believe my desire”, which may have harmful consequences. In the former case, if I am hungry, and I smell the cake (to which I am allergic), if I “believe my desire” at face value (instead of understanding the aspirations that it shows), I would eat said cake, and become sick. Ironically, we do understand that we should not follow our desires in such a case – but only insofar as we can explain, rationally, the reason why the desire is misbegotten. And we feel that resisting the desire is an act of willpower – which makes it exhausting.
When we realize the desire is an expression of our deeper aspirations, we may be able to fulfil those aspirations and avoid falling into the trap of unreasonable desires, and avoid frustration.
So here is an example of what may happen when we feel desire towards someone:
I am a human being. As such, I have an aspiration for pleasure, and an aspiration for connexion.
I like having sex. I have, inside of me, a desire for that activity. I know, subconsciously, that sex satiates my aspirations for pleasant sensations, and connexion (other activities may satiate those, though maybe not both at the same time).
I see a beautiful woman. My desire for sex arises. Seeing her beauty reminds me of my desire for this activity. I have the memory of feeling good after having had sex with such a person (because of the pleasure and connexion it usually brings).
But she is not interested in me. Then, if I am aware of my aspirations, I know that what I truly aspire to will not be possible with her. My desire for sex comes from my aspiration for pleasure and connexion. The solution is elsewhere.
If I were to impose sex upon her right now, it would neither feed my aspiration for pleasure (she would not participate, so she would not be giving me pleasant sensations), nor my aspiration for connexion (she would not empathize with me, to say the least!). So following the “explicit” desire (sex with her) would be misleading. The satisfaction of my aspirations would NOT be possible.
On the other hand, her image has stimulated this desire in me. I may use my current state of arisen desire to go soothe my desire for sexuality (alone, or with a partner who will share pleasure and connexion). Or, I can choose to not follow the constructed image of my desire (sex), but go feed my aspiration for pleasure (e.g. eating cake), or my aspiration for connexion (e.g. seeing friends)… or, sometimes, I may choose to contemplate my current frustration about those wishes and seek healing for them. Or I may just enjoy the desire, the stimulation that this mental image makes inside of me… So I have a lot of possible intents to deal with the actual aspirations that created this desire.
The more informed I am about my aspirations (and the fact that my desire is constructed from them), the better my options will be.
If I have deep abandonment issues, this situation may be very painful for me. The arising of my desire (fuelled by the sight of her beauty), and her rejection, may make my inner loneliness and suffering come to the surface. My aspirations for pleasure and connexion make me ache – because I have an inner wound, and they are a painful yearning.
In some cases, confounding my desires with the aspirations that cause them, may provoke me into matching my intent with my desires. Then, I may try forcing her to have sex with me. In that case, the activity will “technically” match my desire – but it will not satisfy my aspirations. More importantly, neither will it heal my inner trauma – it will, however, create a trauma for her. Everybody loses. Further, if I obtain her compliance through manipulation or emotional blackmail, she will resent me, and her feelings will show in her behaviours with me, which in turn will make my feeling of abandonment even worse, and my craving for true connexion will be more painful. In the end, enacting the object of my apparent desire will make me unsatisfied, and make my inner suffering that much worse.
Being aware of the aspirations underlying our desires is key to a fulfilling life.
Every time I try and satisfy my desire, and the result does not fill my aspirations, it creates some deeper frustration in the “building blocks” of my subconscious mind… and a paradox: I tried and get satisfaction, and did not get it. I was not aware of the true aspirations, so my desire was satisfied but unsatisfying… so it seems to my mind that those sources were unable to get it right, maybe another attempt?
Feeling frustrated while filling my desires will create resentment (either towards the external objects of my desires, or towards myself). It also creates a feeling of powerlessness, and drives me to neurosis, depression… and the need to try again in order to get satisfaction – but those attempts may fail just as well, driving to a feeling of addiction.
I think this difference is a good way to explain many feelings of addiction: trying to satisfy our desires in such a way that it does not sustain the aspirations (or needs) that gave rise to them. Anytime one tries to satisfy one’s desires in a way that does not fulfil the underlying aspiration, there is a risk of a downward spiral.
- The frustrating “satisfaction” creates the urge to start over, usually through stronger stimuli.
- The “lows” get lower, because the basic aspiration is still unfulfilled, and the brain plunges into despair of getting what it yearns for.
- The realization of the desire gives a temporary and superficial satisfaction which disappears immediately. This creates the urge to try again.
- The unmet aspiration becomes more and more painful, creating deeper frustration and hopelessness.
I tend to believe that this is the reason for the feeling of “sex addiction” (or porn addiction): if one practices forms of sexuality with no feeling of reciprocity, realizing the desire does not generally allow the satisfaction of the deeper aspirations it expresses. Which creates a feeling of emptiness conductive of addiction.
It is so, that non-reciprocal sex is far from being as physically pleasant as true interaction (including for the one person that chose it). Nor, obviously, is it a source of connexion – on the contrary, it creates a feeling of loneliness and disconnexion. Therefore, it is unsatisfying for the actual aspirations behind sexual desire. And that leads to a downward spiral.
This is why the imperative for true (enthusiastic) consent is not the enemy of your satisfaction – on the contrary; it helps you with not trying to follow your desires without meeting your deeper aspirations, which would lead to painful internal issues.