I’m a stay-at-home dad to twin 4-year-old girls who are already smarter than me, and my wife is a brilliant doctor who kicks ass and saves lives every day. I grew up with big sisters and a mom whose authority was unbreachable. I celebrate every inroad that women make into business, technology, science, politics, comedy, you name it, and I get angry about “slut-shaming” or “stereotype threat” or whatever is the affront du jour. And yet, in the caveman recesses of my imagination, I objectify women in ways that make Hooters look like a breakout session at a NOW conference.
In Louis C.K.’s comedy special, Live at the Beacon Theater, the stand-up, who in his own way has been making feminism funny for years, talks about being “sick of the constant perverted sexual thoughts” that intrude on his day-to-day life. Women who claim that they have equally hardcore erotic thoughts, he says, are just “tourists in sexual perversion” whereas men are “prisoners.” “You’re Jane Fonda sitting on the tank,” he says to the hypothetical woman who boasts of being as dirty-minded as men. “I’m John McCain in the hut … it’s a nightmare … I can’t lift my arms.” He then illustrates how his condition plays out when he can’t even ask a librarian about a book on Lincoln without aggressive pornographic daydreams turning him into a slavering idiot. “I just want to have a day [without the perverted thoughts],” he laments, “I just want to be a person, in clothes, walking in a store.”
When I first saw this routine, I was as relieved as I was entertained. Somebody else out there had the same “affliction” as I did! It may not be as pronounced as it was in my teens and 20s, but it’s still there, as if a never-ending porn movie has been playing in my subconscious for the last 30 years, and any lull in cognitive demands, or interaction with a woman who is perfect for a cameo in it—the woman walking her dog past my house, the neighbor’s nanny, the Valkyrie on the elliptical trainer at the gym—rotates the film to the main screen. In 3-D.
I assume that my “condition” is perfectly normal, because many friends I’ve consulted have admitted that they, too, might have graphic daydreams about a woman they saw for five seconds at a traffic light. And indeed, the academic research on the subject corroborates my informal polling. But I couldn’t get over the cognitive dissonance of the whole situation. How could enlightened, feminist guys like myself put up with these unbidden fantasies that violate our dedication to gender equity and basic human decency? There must be like-minded men who have overcome these impulses. I decided that I would seek out their stories, and use them to help me cleanse my filthy mind.
I first asked Joanna Schroeder, senior editor and writer at The Good Men Project, for some advice. She directed me to a recent piece on Everyday Feminism, which suggested that avoiding the visual stimulus could decrease the perverted thoughts. “I can choose to avert my eyes,” wrote James Utt. I can choose to briefly look and move on. I can choose to show the woman the respect she deserves by holding her eye contact while we talk.” We are not, he claims, slaves to our subconscious. Yes! I thought. I can feel the shackles falling away!
I asked the often controversial feminist writer, Hugo Schwyzer, who teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, if he knew of any research that had been done on how to avoid being “plagued by intrusive sexual thoughts.” His suggestion? ”The "affirm and redirect" strategy.
“Sure, you want to lift this woman up onto the counter and put your hungry mouth on hers while she wraps her legs around you, but in fact, you're just going to order your latté, smile politely and let it all be.
Lust is the background music that occasionally gets turned up. Learning to let it come and go without being ashamed—and without making it anyone else's problem—is part of growing up.”
OK, so I had two potential tools: 1) Try not to ogle; and 2) Don’t freak out if I catch myself ogling or fantasizing.
I decided to kick it up a notch and see what kind of wisdom I could glean from the sexual addiction community. I called the toll-free number for Sexual Addicts Anonymous, and had a chat with what seemed to be the nicest guy in the world. He explained to me, gently, that their program was designed to deal with dangerous and destructive behaviors, and that lessening the annoyance of “normal” fantasies was not in their purview. “But,” I protested, “based on the addiction self-assessment phone survey, it seems like a spectrum, really. I mean, every man I know would have to answer ‘yes’ to some of those questions. Who hasn’t kept secrets about their sexual fantasies? Whose fantasies haven’t conflicted with their morals or spiritual journey? Whose sexual preoccupation hasn’t caused them some kind of problem?”