NOTE: This post was originally published on The Good Men Project on November 13, 2016 under the title, “Middle Age Lust and the Liberal Confessional.” As that title implies, the article acknowledges the existence of sex.
Three decades after we ran the gauntlet of junior high together, my oldest friends are scattered across the globe, but we managed to arrange a rare reunion this summer, in which we regressed into adolescent camaraderie for ten days. When we’re not together in meatspace, we keep in touch using a conversation-sorting app that lets us ramble on about numerous topics at once—conversations which we’ve been having for 30 years, on and off.
It’s a good system for us, because our interests overlap but don’t always match. So 6 out of 8 friends might subscribe to the #sportsball thread, whereas the sports-indifferent 2 can dominate the #politics room, where another 2 or 3 might drop in now and then.
But there are a few threads to which we all subscribe. In one, called #manfeels, we seek out a vocabulary for our stunted emotions. In another, #liberal-confessional, we grapple with our shortcomings as supposedly progressive members of society. On both of these threads, the subject of women comes up a lot.
Instead of “women,” I should have said “partners,” or “objects of affection,” because one of my circle is gay. (That’s one liberal demerit to me, right there.) He’s married (it’s been legal in Canada for over 10 years, Yanks), and so am I and three other members of the gang. One friend is divorced; another never married, but has a child; and the last is perpetually single, though not by choice. So we bring about as wide a range of perspectives to the table as you’re going to get with any klatch of middle-aged cis white men.
When the #manfeels channel started up, one of the first issues raised involved middle-aged lust. I posted first, asking how everyone’s libidos were holding up as we all approached 40. Some friends reported a leveling off; others (including married men) said they were hornier than ever, a state that frequently clashed with their wives’ appetites. Friends who take heavy medication (antidepressants or antipsychotics) reported a flattening of sexual desire—but even they found themselves constantly yearning for more intimacy, even if it didn’t involve sex.
Once this last perspective was on the table, we realized that, as a group, we really didn’t know how to disentangle sex from intimacy. Nobody knew what it would look or feel like, to find a relationship that provides contact and closeness with no expectation of intercourse down the line. The only example we came up with was parenthood—mostly the early, tender years before they’re teenagers and want nothing to do with you—but that’s scant comfort to the bachelors among us.
We’re not the first guys to discover this, nor is a group of eight a rigorous scientific sample. But it’s stuck in my mind lately, especially as I’ve been traveling. I’ve started to observe how other cultures cope differently with the male intimacy gap—from the “petit bises” or cheek kisses exchanged by male and female friends alike in France to the full body hugs on offer in some Mediterranean countries. Canadians sometimes hug, but it’s rare to see guy-friends embrace; usually a shoulder slap or a sideways half-hug is the closest we get.
Meanwhile, another challenge reared its head over on #liberal-confessional. One friend had recently been hired as an internet technician at a local college, and his daily exposure to women half his age had suddenly shot up by 1,000%. Was it acceptable, he wondered, to be a dirty old man in thought, if not in deed? Or would he have to arrange for chemical castration, just to keep himself feeling like a decent man?
Most of us confessed to feeling some degree of desire towards younger women, and though we blamed different causes, we applied similar remedies. Some blamed cultural ideologies that glorified and sexualized youth, while others blamed our simian hind-brains for having youthful sexual characteristics on the brain.
Personally, I think both nature and nurture are factors; and while I believe, as liberals, we’re obliged to call out bad cultural habits when we see them, I also suspect we’ll never completely shake off our creepy collective fixation on breasts, hips, and smooth, symmetrical faces. I’m a humanist, I know we can do better, but I allow for the fact that our inner cavemen will always be with us, and they need outlets. Suppressing them will only cause them to erupt in ways we can’t control.
What outlets did my friends and I prefer? The most common answer was porn—a solution which carries its own degree of liberal guilt, but which seems less harmful overall than harassing co-eds in the workplace. A few guys found they could displace their inappropriate desires back onto their more age-appropriate spouses, though most of us were squirrelly about communicating this to our partners. And that carries a guilty burden, too, as if you’re cheating on your wife with your wife.
One friend claimed he could banish salacious thoughts through force of will alone: he looks (but doesn’t ogle), he acknowledges his lust, and then he lets it go. How zen. But even if we could all cultivate this freedom from attachment, it doesn’t address the basic concern: that as men, there’s something wrong with us for even looking in the first place.
I believe the #manfeels issue—lack of non-sexual intimacy—affects the #liberal-confessional issue. When men are raised to think of all intimacy as at least potentially sexual, and then starved of intimacy in general, we end up seeing sex everywhere, even when we know we’re not supposed to. Even a friendly smile from a teenage barista or a sympathetic hug from a younger co-worker get blown way out of proportion. Even if, intellectually, we know they aren’t actual come-ons, our emotional needs are stoked in ways we can’t immediately separate from sexual desire.
When we had our reunion this summer, we put most of this heady talk aside in favour of nostalgia and old private jokes. But every couple of nights, usually after a few beers, shit would get real between us. We began to put our stunted emotional vocabularies to use in describing how much it meant for us all, to remain so close and so supportive after all these years. We may have even shed a few tears. But there was no hugging, no clasping of hands, no contact. On the mornings after, I’d find finger-sized bruises on my upper arms, from hugging myself too tightly. They were my own “petit bises”; self-inflicted micro-aggressions on the winding road to intimacy.