Striving, Seeking, Finding


A lot of people feel oversexed. Or at least a lot of the people I talk to. Over the course of any long-term treatment, I can expect to hear something like, “I think my sex drive is much higher than most people’s.” I hear this all the time, and it’s usually admitted like a shameful secret. And assuming my patients do not self-select for depravity, I suspect a good portion of the populace feels this way too.

To be clear, I’m not a sex therapist. People come to me to explore issues that usually don’t sound specifically sexual: anxiety, depression, procrastination, lack of motivation, loneliness. But it turns out that many of the people I work with also happen to believe they live in the excessive sexual margins, outside the normal range of sexual desire.

However, a “normal” sexual drive is not a real thing. If you consider how sexuality actually manifests, the concept of a normal sex drive is nonsense. For instance, here’s a thing no one ever said after a pleasurable sexual experience: “That was neither overwhelming nor underwhelming. I was exactly the right amount of turned-on throughout. Good to be normal! ” A more typical post-coital thought sequence: “Wow, that was intense. Did I do anything too-crazy there? Hope not. Also, I’m really sweating a lot.”

Desire is not served by the ounce, and we are not driven in reasonable, titrated quantities. The tap is either on or off, and we have little control over the flow rate. When it’s on, the experience can be overwhelming to the point of making a person feel insane. If ignorance is bliss, then sexuality thrives in that ignorance, where the only meaningful thing in the universe exists in the organ, the movement, the feeling. Civilized society defines itself in opposition to such blind hedonism.

As a result, sexuality can never be fully integrated into a satisfying set of social norms for any great length of time. Humans have been running real-time experiments with sexuality and culture since the dawn of history: polygamy, polygyny, polyandry, free love, serial monogamy, classical monogamy, and countless other permutations. Some polyamorists declare a new path to sexual freedom, but jealousy and exhaustion tend to tear apart the best-laid poly plans. The byzantine regulations that eventually form in any commune or poly group often inhibit its members just as much as, if not more than, the societal norms they are theoretically escaping. In the messy weave of erotic entanglements humans have engaged in throughout history, The Oldest Profession may be sturdiest thread of them all.

Today, just about everyone is walking around at least a little sexually frustrated, and people do all sort of things that indicate society hasn’t quite gotten it right yet: they betray the ones they love, they can’t find someone to love, they blog angrily about their “incel” status, they become pick-up artists, or they perform in the parody of robotic masculinity called hookup culture. The only surefire way to achieve peace between society and sexuality would be to breed sexuality out of us.

We humans tend to assume that once we’ve had sex a bunch of times and have figured out the lay of the land, we basically understand it. This familiarity is misleading because sexuality is a kind of madness that nobody ever masters. It creates families and destroys lives. It drags people away from the ones they love after decades of stability on a promise of expression and liberation. It is the kind of madness that provokes murder, suicide, and war. And it happens all the time.

My patients who feel oversexed are both right and wrong. Right in that if sex goes well, it does feel excessive. But wrong in that excess is the rule, not the exception. In the thrall of Eros, everything about one’s usual identity — nice guy, sweet girl, great dad, responsible employee — falls away. The disparity between the social and sexual personae is stark, and the space between these identities is the bullseye that advertisers and other persuaders are constantly targeting.

We are surrounded by images of sexy bodies in luxurious poses. On sidewalks and billboards, on Instagram and Snapchat, in banner ads, clickbait thumbnails, and Hollywood blockbusters. Sexual suggestion appears wherever images are sold, usually accompanied by a message that we are liberated, that we can be anything we want to be sexually and otherwise. Keeping consumers a little turned on and a little envious does wonders in separating people from their money, but it does little to connect people to their bodies and does nothing to liberate them from social norms.

Images scream at us to enjoy the erotic, but the rules of society relentlessly restrict us. As Freud writes in Civilization and Its Discontents, the tension between civilization and sexual love is permanent and ultimately irreconcilable: “On the one hand, love opposes the interests of culture; on the other, culture menaces love with grievous restrictions.” Sexuality and civilization don’t fit together very well, and they must be constantly recalibrated in relation to one another on a large scale. As a result, our own individual sexualities must also be perpetually reinterpreted and reconsidered, often painfully.

Again, no one understands what the driving forces behind sexuality actually are. We merely have theories, and everyone has their own. The sexual expressions we observe and experience are merely secondhand translations of whatever these mysterious theoretical forces might be. Although we don’t really understand these forces, it is clear that attempts to silence them will provoke mutiny over a long enough timeline. The more destructive flavors of sexuality usually emerge in reaction to longstanding suppression (conscious) or repression (unconscious).

Efforts to deny, deflect, or destroy direct expressions of desire merely generate other indirect, circuitous pathways of expression. However, we travel those routes at our peril. If we manage to consciously devise an ingenious workaround, the guilty secrets we must keep will generate suspicion. Anyone who has ever betrayed a lover’s promise (or has discovered such a betrayal) can confirm Freud’s observation that, “No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”

Alternatively, if we happen upon a more unconscious strategy of expression during states of intoxication or psychological dissociation, we free ourselves of this guilt, but we also deny ourselves the living memory of embodied passion we were driven to satisfy in the first place. These bad options attempt to straddle both expression and denial, and while they can achieve a shaky equilibrium, they are not particularly happy outcomes because they represent a turning away from the truth.

There is a third option, which is the analytic one: to acknowledge what we want, think through it, find open-minded people, and talk to them about it. Putting desire into words is the first step in a lifelong pursuit of truth. No one will ever hit the bedrock truth of their sexuality, but the joy is in the seeking.