The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self

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Edited by David Steinberg

A New Consciousness Reader
from Tarcher/Putnam

This book is a wake-up call to the erotic spirit in all of us. Drawing on the insights of counselors and the wisdom of poets, The Erotic Impulse serves up a feast of thoughts, feelings, findings, and fantasies about our erotic nature.

Contributors examine how society denies and dishonors the healing power of Eros, leading to widespread feelings of fear, isolation, and inadequacy. Together they break the reader out of the prison of cultural stereotypes, opening wide the gates to a richer erotic life.

Topics include differences in sexual attitudes between men and women, gays and straights; the role of erotic art and fantasy; pornography and censorship; and sexual spirituality and self-discovery.

The Erotic Impulse offers a liberating vision of human sexual potential for those who seek to expand and deepen this area of life.

David Steinberg has been active in feminist and men's movements for the past sixteen years, leading workshops on men's roles, fathering, and male sexuality. He is the author of Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies and Fatherjournal: Five Years of Awakening to Fatherhood. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Trade Paper Original
288 pages; 6-1/8" x 9-1/4"
ISBN 0-87477-697-X
$15.95 ($22.50 CAN)


If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at There is no cost and your name and email address will remain strictly confidential.


Copyright © David Steinberg

What happens when you follow the erotic muse wherever it may lead, follow with eyes open but with complete trust, lust, love, and wonder? What happens when you open fully to the erotic life force, even when it leads you into territory that is as unpredictable as it is delightful, as unsettling as it is exciting? What if you give the erotic impulse the right of way, defining as perverted whatever blocks its flow? What if you reject the pervasive notion that there is something wrong with you for your erotic feelings and desires -- for being interested in erotic matters at all or for being fascinated by the erotic too much, too strangely, too differently from what other people consider proper? What if you make erotic existence your art, your path, an organizing principle for your life, and refuse to apologize for the consequences? What if -- at certain times, in certain places, with certain partners -- you surrender yourself completely to the erotic waterworld, surrender deliberately, with innocence, wisdom, and open expectancy, and let yourself discover the depth and complexity of what this essential life force is trying to say to you and through you?

We are told that if we surrender to the erotic impulse, if we indulge our erotic desires, if we engage the erotic world in any but the most carefully controlled and perfunctory ways, terrible things will happen to us. We are told, and we come to believe, that welcoming the full strength of erotic existence will make us crazy. We imagine that if we open the erotic Pandora's box we will end up running amok, find ourselves doing bizarre, embarrassing, disgusting things to ourselves and to others. We imagine that relaxing the reins of erotic control is the same as relinquishing all influence over our behavior. We fear that if we listened and responded to our erotic impulses our lives would disintegrate, we would no longer be productive members of society, we would lose our jobs and shatter our primary relationships. We imagine that we would be dismissed by our friends as foolish and childish, or weird and disreputable. We believe that we would become degenerate, morally unworthy, unlovable, and unloved.

We are told repeatedly, and we come to believe (so deeply that we don't even recognize it as a belief system) that if we acknowledge, honor, and embrace the erotic impulses of our sensual selves we will destroy the order in our world and be cast into chaos. This terrifies us quite effectively. We turn against erotic desire itself, against our own erotic impulses and feelings as well as the erotic expressions of others. We set ourselves the task of keeping the erotic down at all cost.

Keeping erotic desire under control, keeping it within the narrow boundaries acceptable to our logocentric, puritanical culture, is a continuous, life-denying endeavor, one that in the end is emotionally deadening and exhausting. We are, after all, setting ourselves at war with one of the most powerful and fundamental aspects of who we are. Eventually, we become angry at the impossible task we have taken on, usually turning that anger toward erotic existence itself for supposedly threatening our stability, our security, our very sanity.

If we were clearer, we would focus our resentment where it belongs: on those forces that try to deprive us of this wonderful aspect of being fully alive, vibrant human beings. But because we so have so internalized the anti-erotic premises that surround us, we come instead to despise the objects of desire that call inspire the erotic feelings we are desperately trying to deny and ignore. The more powerful the repression -- the tighter the lid on the cauldron -- the stronger the denial, fear, confusion, and anger we feel toward anything that threatens to stimulate our repressed erotic natures.

This is the erotic shadow, the price of erotic denial. In its more extreme forms it operates as a dangerous cultural and political force, threatening our most fundamental values of freedom and diversity. Those who most misunderstand and fear the power of the erotic label eros the work of the devil, a satanic force to be resisted, subdued, and transformed. The task of suppressing or eliminating sexually erotic expression in all but a few sanctioned forms becomes, for them, a holy war, a moral crusade.

Despite the vocal preachings of erotically terrified censors and moralists, the erotic world is hardly an invitation to chaos. It is a world as thoroughly ordered, sane, consistent, wholesome, and subject to reflection and understanding as the worlds of science, logic, and reason. To be sure, the erotic realm is neither scientific, nor logical, nor rational. But the rational/scientific paradigm is but one way of ordering the universe. It is only because we have so lost touch with our erotic natures, because we have become so alienated from experiencing ourselves and the world around us in erotic terms, that we feel the need to impose rational order everywhere.

The process is cyclical: The more we assert the hegemony of reason, the more we dissociate from and fear the erotic. The more erotically lost and afraid we become, the more ferociously we turn to reason for meaning and stability.

It is one of the premises of this book that there is a non-rational, yet profound and primary system of order that is inherent to the world of eros and erotic desire. Only when we move beyond the surprise of seeing how differently the erotic world is organized from the worlds of physics, biology, business, or production, only when we stop oversimplifying the erotic by trying to make it fit the premises of the rational mind -- only then can we begin to understand, trust, respect, and honor the erotic universe on its own terms. When we see that embracing our erotic feelings involves moving from one form of order to another, rather than throwing ourselves into chaotic fits of self-destruction, then we can begin to appreciate eroticism and sexuality as truly wonderful, expansive, powerful, creative, imaginative expressions of the best of who we are.

We live in a culture that idolizes control. We are taught, almost from birth, how to control ourselves, the material world, and the people around us. Men are taught the importance of being in control of both their inner emotions and the world around them. Women are given more room than men for emotional expression and for losing control, but the woman who loses control of her erotic desires is subject to a vilification unique to her gender. Women who allow themselves the same range of sexual and erotic expression taken for granted by men will be seen, metaphorically, as witches, whores, and sex-demons, and will, again metaphorically, be burned at the stake.

The converse of our cultural infatuation with control is that we are woefully ignorant about the emotional and spiritual significance of losing control -- of surrender, abandon, turning oneself over to the power of the unknown and unknowable. Because loss of control is seen only in negative terms, we do not learn how to lose control skillfully, deliberately, or artfully, as a means of personal growth and self-discovery. We do not develop discipline, consciousness, or grace with regard to loosening our habitual restraints. We do not learn how to create circumstances in which personal surrender can be safe and enlightening, or how to distinguish these from contexts which make surrender reckless and dangerous. When we do go out of control, we often do so blindly or rebelliously. If we get hurt in these times of blind release, it only reinforces the moralism that condemns personal surrender in the first place.

In our obsessively rational culture, erotic feeling, erotic desire, and sexual arousal are inherently heretical -- fundamental challenges to the dominant orthodoxy. The experience of surrendering to desire, which could be welcomed as the sweetest of meltings, becomes intrinsically suspect. Ecstasy, indeed any feeling of uncontrolled and intense wonder and amazement, is condemned as dark and dangerous. Loss of ego boundaries, dissolution of the discrete, discernible self -- a core component of deep sexual experience -- is perceived not as an emotional, spiritual, or even religious opportunity, but as something to be feared and resisted.

These attitudes are applied to all forms of erotic experience, but they come into particular significance when we look at the experience of orgasm. Orgasm requires precisely the ability to let oneself go out of control, to let go of the need to limit and direct, to lose one's mind, both figuratively and literally. In orgasm, we relinquish for a moment the reins of control and order, trusting that we can enter this transient state of abandoned dissolution because orderly existence will recollect itself, spontaneously and without need of our conscious intervention, once the wave of release passes.

People obsessed with control often have difficulty being fully orgasmic, and this is not just an issue for women. A half-century ago, Wilhelm Reich discovered that almost as many men as women among his patients were non-orgasmic, once he separated male ejaculation from the deeper experience of full-body orgasm.

The same issues of order and control that make the erotic world frightening to some people are, for others, the basis of erotic intensity, excitement, and fascination. What some fear as chaotic, others welcome as an opportunity to move beyond the restrictions of our overcivilized society, to explore facets of ourselves that are more unruly, highly energized, spontaneous, and closer to the primal forces of nature.

We have taken on the technological mission of overcoming and subduing nature. As a result, our lives are safer in many ways; we are less subject to the ravages of weather and disease; we are surrounded by creature comforts beyond the imagination of anyone a mere century ago. But we also tend to be profoundly bored with the routines of our lives, the predictability of our existence, the blandness of our emotions. We wonder where the fire has gone, the engagement, the passion, the intensity -- if, indeed, we ever had any fire at all..

Somewhere in us there remains an erotic yearning for wildness, an intrigue with unpredictability, an infatuation with excitement, spontaneity, and uncertainty. If we are afraid to include these energies in our actual lives, we may well sublimate these erotic desires into worlds of fantasy -- film, pornography, or romance novels. We may find ourselves powerfully drawn to romantic flings or extra-marital affairs -- erotic firestorms that most often break down under the heavy collective burdens of guilt, inflation, and rebellious anger.

The desire to breach conventional limits of order and civility are apparent in the contemporary widespread appeal of the image of the wild man and, increasingly, the image of the wild woman as well. The innocent, pristine image of the ideal woman, once the very mainstay of socially-defined femininity, seems to be losing its appeal for both men and women, replaced by a more unapologetically powerful, unpredictable, and openly sexual woman figure who is attractive not only as a sexual partner, but as a dynamic, energetic life partner as well. The increasing popularity of fierce sexual play, and of sadomasochism, body piercing, and tattooing -- subcultures that are already becoming part of the cultural mainstream --- also speak to a rising urge to reconnect with the wild, primitive, animal, passionately energetic aspects of our natures. It is as if we are looking for ways to bring some of our lost erotic wildness back from exile.

Bringing eroticism more centrally into our lives, however is as tumultuous and difficult a process as any other form of personal, social, or political revolution. Overturning deeply-entrenched patterns of thought and behavior involves more than simply seeing the light and moving forward in a blissful state of enlightened liberation. The partisans of the French Revolution learned this as they watched their noble principles disintegrate into the Reign of Terror. Russian Marxists saw their vision of the "society of the new man" deteriorate into Stalinism. Gandhi watched heartbroken as his principles of nonviolence were washed away in the bloody rivers of religious nationalism.

Forces that have been confined under intense pressure for generations cannot be released suddenly without explosive consequences. Our erotic desires and feelings have been pushed and shoved, condemned and distorted for decades, indeed for hundreds of years. All our lives we have been suffering from the conflict between our erotic natures and the pervasive systems of morality, judgment, and condemnation which strive to keep all erotic feeling under control. Inevitably, we have become deeply invested in the very systems of control we may also want to overturn. There is much we have internalized that we need to question and restructure.

For example, we generally think of erotic and sexual matters automatically and almost exclusively in terms of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” Most of us will judge our erotic or sexual urges in moralistic terms before we even take the time to fully experience what it is we feel or want. Most of us are inclined, automatically and unconsciously, to find objectionable any but the most narrow band of erotic and sexual desires and thoughts. If we find ourselves attracted to or aroused by an image, person, or circumstance that surprises us, we usually challenge not our system of judgment, but the feeling itself. "I shouldn't be turned on by that," we say guiltily. "I shouldn't want to behave in that way. There must be something wrong with me."

Similarly, if another person's sexual feelings or practices are substantially different from our own, most of us think there must be something terribly wrong with them -- as if we should all have more or less the same feelings and desires. Most of us still feel that there is some objective way to determine what is normal and abnormal, and when it comes to erotic or sexual matters, most of us see the range of normal as extremely narrow, the range of abnormal everything else.

Thus, wanting or thinking about sex often defines a person as abnormal We call such a person oversexed, obsessive, or now, all too commonly, sexually addicted. (A person who spends his time running marathons, painting, or playing classical music, on the other hand, is simply called passionate.) Enjoying oral sex is dubious to some, practicing anal sex is disgusting to many. Homosexuality and bisexuality are watched nervously by many, thought positively vile by more than a few. Sadomasochism, regardless how consensual, is still almost universally seen by outsiders as downright perverted. Even a person with uncommon desires or fantasies, though he or she may have no intention whatsoever of acting on them, keep such desires secret, and often battle with internal demons of self-doubt, confusion, and shame.

When we ask ourselves, "Is it right to feel this way?" before we even ask, "What is this feeling?" we become unable to know with any clarity who we are, erotically speaking. Yet developing erotic self-awareness, acknowledging the reality and complexity of our true erotic yearnings, feelings, desires, and impulses, is where we must begin if we want to substitute a sense of erotic order for our habitual fear of supposed erotic chaos. When we can see, feel, and understand what it is that we really want erotically (as opposed to what we think we want, or fear we might want), the world of erotic engagement can be transformed from a frightening territory of exaggerated demons to an exciting realm of personal exploration and fulfillment.

While the erotic is not essentially a world of devils or demons, we do have real erotic conflict within us. We have long-simmering resentments, emotional wounds, memories of painful humiliations, confusions, fears of inadequacy and rejection -- all of which we must deal with when we enter the world of eros. As we open to our erotic natures, we will find that we are often divided against ourselves -- our feelings versus our judgments, our desires versus our fears, culturally designated icons versus our individual imaginations -- no matter how diligently we try to keep ourselves clear. It takes time to develop clear vision when we have been blinded and misdirected for so long. It takes time to develop the confidence to believe in our erotic individuality when that individuality so often conflicts with who we have been taught we are supposed to be. As we expand erotically, we may well have experiences of allowing ourselves new forms of erotic exploration only to be tortured by guilt and shame afterwards. We may pursue some form of erotic expression that we have always fantasized, only to discover that what was delightful in fantasy is unappealing or even unpleasant in practice.

Given all the uncertainties and ambiguities, the best compass through the turbulent sea of erotic emergence is the simple ability to recognize honestly and acknowledge openly who we are and what we truly want erotically -- situation by situation, moment by moment. What we experience during these new openings and expansions is almost certain to surprise us. This is why erotic self-awareness requires the ability to suspend judgment, preconception, and even logical definition, long enough to experience the intensity and the nuance of what is going on.

Trade Paper Original
288 pages; 6-1/8" x 9-1/4"
ISBN 0-87477-697-X
$15.95 ($22.50 CAN)


If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at There is no cost and your name and email address will remain strictly confidential.

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