THE AGE-OLD RHYTHMS OF EROS
A Review of THE EROTIC MIND: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Sexual Passion and Fulfillment
by Jack Morin, Ph.D.
New York: HarperCollins
Review Copyright © 1995 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
For centuries, for millenia, perhaps for as long as human beings have been sufficiently self-conscious to be curious about what makes us tick, we have wondered why one person makes us hot while another, even if s/he is more luscious by everybody's standards including our own, leaves us cool; we have wondered why the same person who makes us hot one day leaves us cool another; and we have wondered how to gain access to and control over our sexual passions: how to be hot when we want to, and even how to stay cool when eros threatens our security, our stability, or our serenity, or when our arousal is otherwise inconvenient.
The poets have sought to explain our bewilderment, and though they've sometimes been eloquent about its state, in the end they've given us fresh questions and left us on our own to search for answers. The priests have offered solutions too, from "go forth and multiply" to "just say No," but finally they've had no answers either, and so, as spokesmen for a Higher Power, have had to pretend there are no questions. Legislators have tried to quash our investigations with the smoke and mirrors of electable rhetoric, pornographers have tried to distract us from them with easy titillation, and for more than a century scientists of various stamps have studied sex with their own pants on, some concluding it was wrong and bad, others that it was right and good, still others that it was just inevitable. Sex researchers have counted and described what sort of person engaged in what sort of activity with or without what sort of other person, place, or thing, as well as how much, how often, and just plain how, while autobiographers and biographers of the rich and famous have given us the same information about just one person, or sometimes about a select cartel.
In all this forest of human sexual bafflement it is eminently refreshing to find as useful and elegantly unpretentious a tree as Jack Morin's latest book, The Erotic Mind. As a Bay Area psychotherapist for the past two decades, Morin has listened to hundreds of people talk about their sexuality. But he has not listened as a statistician with an abacus, or as a lab-coated scientist watching erectile tissue perform under a microscope, nor as a physician seeking to "cure" people's sexual idiosyncracies, nor as a miracle worker making the lame to walk and the blind to see. Instead, he has listened as a counselor seeking to help ordinary individuals to live their lives as richly and satisfactorily as possible.
In order to accomplish these ends Morin has really thought about sex, and along the way dreamed up a questionnaire he calls the Sexual Excitement Survey. The SES provides a key insight into what Morin thought about when he thought about sex: it is designed to elicit information about the ways his respondents experience in their erotic lives those moments of luminosity, fulfillment, compassion, and insight that psychologist Abraham Maslow dubbed "peak experiences." (He includes a modified version of the SES as an Appendix to his book for readers to use as a self-awareness tool, as a way to disclose his data-gathering methodology, and as a way for readers to participate anonymously in his ongoing study if they wish to do so.) When Morin considered the data his surveys provided in light of his experience as a therapist, he discovered some principles about the ways we may all create and instensify passion, and it is these principles he aims to share in The Erotic Mind.
Morin subscribes to neither of what he sees as the two prevailing beliefs about human sexuality: he does not think the erotic urge is the darkly bestial lair of sick and twisted impulses, nor does he regard it as a shining beacon of innocent pleasure, impeded or bent by life's varied traumas. Instead he finds eros to be a complex, frequently contradictory thread in the complex, often contradictory tapestry of human life, where "anything that inhibits arousal including anxiety or guilt can, under different circumstances, amplify it." In his book, divided like ancient Gaul into three parts, Morin first examines what excites the erotic mind, paying special attention to peak erotic experiences. Next, he considers the relationship between erotic pleasure and emotional conflicts past and present, starting with those from our childhoods. Finally, he explores some of the ways people might enhance their erotic and emotional lives with the information in his book.
Clearly, The Erotic Mind is intended to be a self-help book; but it is neither the cloying sort of guide to happiness that promises to teach you how to live in a sexual rose garden with the fantasy of your dreams, nor is it the stodgy kind of manual that leads you step by grueling step toward some cheerless erotic enlightenment. Morin's humanistic view begins with the belief that by studying your own peak erotic experiences you can teach yourself something about yourself at your erotic best, and that understanding the ramifications of these experiences can help enhance your emotional as well as your erotic satisfaction. Moreover, he believes this benefit can accrue whether your own most rapturous encounters have been in the arms of your deeply beloved partner of umpty-ump years, in a back alley with some deliciously sleazy one-night stand, or at home alone with just your fantasies.
Remember how hot that quick fling was with your sister's cute friend while you were visiting the family over Christmas? Its unusual piquancy may have been as much a consequence of your fear that you'd get caught as it was of your attraction to the person. Likewise, if you and your partner fuck best after fighting you are not nearly so rare as an ethical politician. As many people have noted that emotions are simply forms of energy, and that neither the names we give them nor our responses to them are immutable, so Morin explains how the so-called "negative" emotions can contribute to erotic arousal quite as well as the so-called "positive" ones.
In expounding his thesis Morin uses examples from the Sexual Excitement Surveys that 351 of his clients whom he calls The Group filled out anonymously. This approach, using fragments of case-histories as they are appropriate, enables Morin to illustrate his points about sexual concerns with a wide assortment of other people's experiences, so that the reader can see herself reflected in their stories and does not have to rely wholly on the author's infinite wisdom. It also teaches the reader by example how to identify and use her own peak erotic experiences, whether those experiences involve the warmth, closeness, and affection most people assume can lead to states of high arousal, or the anger, guilt, and anxiety Morin demonstrates can also contribute to erotic ecstasy.
With the simplicity of Buddha's Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, Morin proposes that however complex its contents may appear to be, any person's erotic life is built on one or more of four identifiable "cornerstones," supported by some or all of a half-dozen "emotional aphrodisiacs" and one "core erotic theme." Once you have identified these features of your life, he says, you are well on the way to learning his seven steps for sexual healing and growth, and to identifying the signposts to erotic health.
The Four Cornerstones of Eroticism came to Morin during a non-erotic peak experience in distinctively California style:
I was soaking up the sun on a beautiful beach, feeling unusually content and carefree. The rhythm of the waves had put me in a trance. It may sound strange, but I was contemplating the elegant simplicity of the erotic equation:
Attraction + Obstacles = Excitement.
Only a sexologist would think about such things on the beach....
Under the spell of the sun questions danced through my mind as if to tease me. Where do excitement-boosting obstacles come from? When barriers help turn us on, do they occur randomly, or are recurring themes and patterns involved? When my clients tell me about their peak sexual experiences, why do their stories seem so similar even though the specific details vary tremendously?
Only a sexologist indeed. As Morin watched the clouds he realized that he already knew the answers to his questions, and so, "still in a trance," he scribbled on a piece of paper,
Longing and anticipation
Searching for power
Years later, after he had developed the SES and administered it to many people, he found that "unmistakable signs of at least one of the four cornerstones appears in more than three-quarters of The Group's memorable encounters and fantasies." Subsequently Morin came to believe that these four cornerstones are
woven into the fabric of human existence.... and because each ... brings with it obstacles to be overcome, they are ripe for inclusion in our erotic patterns. I am not saying that the four cornerstones are required for enjoyable sex. But they add zest so effectively to memorable encounters and fantasies that without them, eroticism as we know it could not exist.
Until he writes about the seven steps that point toward sexual healing and growth, Morin's chapter on the four cornerstones is the longest in his book. Its relative length reflects the importance he attaches to these features of erotic life. But while he feels the cornerstones are the "building blocks" of eroticism, "emotions are the energizers. Feelings make sex matter."
In the range of emotions The Group associates with peak experiences, half exuberance, satisfaction, and closeness will come as small surprise to anyone; the other half anxiety, guilt, and anger may make many people squirm. Yet,
In the realm of the erotic, all your emotions are part of a larger whole in which the concepts of "positive" and "negative" are often meaningless.... feelings are fluid rather than static. All emotions ... can be transformed from one into another. Even anger, usually considered the very antithesis of caring and tenderness, can be metamorphosed by your erotic mind into appreciation and love....
As Morin sees it the most common transformations are
Anxiety à Security
Weakness à Strength
Guilt à Freedom
Anger à Appreciation
In any case, he says, "Trust your erotic mind ... and even your least loving feelings may pull you circuitously toward pleasure and connection."
As most of us look back on the experiences, situations, and fantasies that have given us our greatest erotic thrills, we will easily identify a recurring theme or two, such as feeling swept away by romance, the submission of one person to an erotically powerful other, or the defilement of innocence. Whatever recurs for you is your Core Erotic Theme (CET): it recurs and recurs in your sexual scripts what you're doing and with whom even when the contents of the scripts change with time and circumstance. Morin warns that "not all CETs bring joyous results," but advises nonetheless that they "speak the primal language of the erotic mind. Learn this language, and you will know the sources of [your] passion."
Knowing the Four Cornerstones of Eroticism, the six emotional aphrodisiacs, and your own Core Erotic Theme can give you a sense of the materials you have to work with as you embark on a journey of sexual healing and growth. As Morin sees it, that journey takes place in seven steps that are neither erotic in themselves nor restricted to sexual healing. In one form or another a similar progression is basic to many approaches to psychotherapy and spiritual development:
1. Clarify your goals and motivations
2. Cultivate self-affirmation
3. Navigate the gray zone
4. Acknowledge and mourn your losses
5. Come to your senses
6. Risk the unfamiliar
7. Integrate your discoveries.
These steps are to be undertaken in any order that calls out to a person devoted to sexual healing and growth. While there is no simple way to assess the extent to which someone may rise to the challenges of such a process, as Morin notes, practice should allow him to identify the signposts to his own sexual well-being.
Morin's signposts are based on everything that has come before, but they are not listed for easy reference, as are the other tools he offers in his book. Instead they are integrated as part of the text in his penultimate chapter because they require a different kind of discussion from the earlier, simpler steps. You can't just toss off, for example, "The erotically healthy person develops a clear set of ethical values that possess intrinsic personal meaning and applies them in the sexual arena."
The signposts cannot be separated from a person's values; you recognize rather than follow them for they do not lead anywhere, but only acknowledge that you have arrived not at a place, but in the nature of your own personal sexual satisfaction. "When you know what you want and are lucky enough to find it, you feel not only uplifted and enlivened, but also satiated not a bad feeling at all. Yet it's just a manner of time until new desires begin to stir. You're dancing to the age-old rhythms of eros."
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