Walls of Repression - Psychology of Compartmentalizing Sex
By compartmentalizing their sexuality, men often lose control in dangerous ways
President Clinton wags his finger, looks America in the eye, and announces, "I did not have sex with that woman." George Michael wags another part of his anatomy and discovers just how public a park restroom can be. Capt. Rich Merritt commands 90 marines and makes gay porn videos on the side.
These three men and others like them lead tightly controlled, highly disciplined lives. At the same time, they act out sexually in career-threatening, dangerous ways. What's going on here?
Compartmentalization, for one thing. That's the psychological term for placing several different aspects of one's life in separate baskets and believing they can remain apart forever. However, when it comes to sex, some experts believe the issue goes beyond compartments to walls: Some men erect high barriers in a subconscious attempt to isolate parts of their lives. As the president, the entertainer, and the Marine Corps commander show, it seldom works.
According to Isadora Alman, a board-certified sexologist who writes the syndicated newsweekly column Ask Isadora, there are three ways to act on sexual feelings: expression, suppression, or repression. The first method is straightforward; the second may cause a person to think, I'll have that sex or make those films when it's less dangerous; the third--repression--is the reason televangelists sermonize against sin moments before hiring prostitutes. The more driven a man is in his professional life, Alman says, the more likely he is to repress sexual feelings.
Michael Shernoff, a New York City psychotherapist, has as clients powerful men who spend their workdays controlling other people. Their fantasy, he says, is to not be in control. "That's not necessarily pathology," Shernoff points out. "People have a variety of needs that may not be met. And it's not necessarily a homosexual issue either. Isn't one of the glories of sex--for all of us--to lose control, moan and scream, and maybe even wet the bed?"
American men, Shernoff adds, are often afraid of passion and losing control. "Well, a healthy loss of control can be freeing and spiritual," he says. "The problem comes when people lose control in dangerous ways, like having an affair with Monica Lewinsky the same time the Paula Jones case was hanging over Clinton's head." In Merritt's case, discovery of his video career when he was in the Marines would almost certainly have resulted in a court-martial.
Although the president has proved that compartmentalization, building walls, and risky behavior are not necessarily gay issues, they do affect many gay men, says New York City psychotherapist Douglas Nissing. "It's the way many gay men survive," he explains. "As we grow up in unsafe spaces, we learn to cut ourselves off from our personalities. We put certain feelings in one box, others in another. This disintegration leads to sexual behavior that is so cut off from the rest of our lives that the consequences are not a cause for concern or even pause."
"People wall off part of their life because there's stigma or shame attached to it," adds Betty Berzon, a Los Angeles psychotherapist and author of Setting Them Straight: You Can Do Something About Bigotry and Homophobia in Your Life. "And the price is higher for gays. People can admit having affairs and illegitimate kids or drinking problems, but being gay is still a problem for many Americans."
The tendency to wall off parts of one's life appears to be more common among men than women. "Although I don't have a lot of experience working with lesbians around this issue," Nissing says, "my hunch is that women have a greater breadth of expression of their sexuality in general, so hiding-or walling off--one's sexuality has less impact on women than on men."
Also, gay men who are open about their sexuality are less apt to compartmentalize their lives than those who are closeted, experts say. "If you're out, you are more accountable about your life and your sexual activities than if you're in," Nissing says. "If you're in a relationship and everyone knows it, you're less prone to act out."
The closet takes many forms, points out Michael Cohen, a psychotherapist in Hartford, Conn. "If you hide your sexual orientation or your fantasies or emotional needs, then that repression will leak out in other parts of your life," he says. "For some people, it's expressed as anonymous sex in a rest stop or video store; for others, it's unsafe sex when you know better or even depression."
If the problem is "disintegration," then the solution is "integration." Berzon says, "It's important to be integrated in all parts of your life. I see patients who say that being gay isn't a problem, but then I find out they aren't out to their families, so it's clear they still are not fully integrated."
As a therapist, Nissing tries to help people understand their sexuality so they can "reintegrate their idea of what it means to have intimate social, emotional, and sexual relationships with whomever they choose."
For example, he says, "if George Michael walked into my office, I'd try to help him understand why he felt he had to hide his sexuality. I'm not saying that judgmentally--as a famous person, he probably had good reasons--but the goal would be to get him to understand his behavior so he wouldn't have to meet partners in a public rest room."
As for Merritt, Shernoff would want him to understand the motives behind making porn films while being a Marine Corps commander. Perhaps, Shernoff thinks, Merritt was saying, "I've had enough of this double life. I'm ready to get busted and move on."
Merritt is hardly the first powerful, in-control man to take sexual risks. But for all of those who do, experts say, the outcome is inevitable. Compartments and walls must come tumbling down.
Therapists say men who are driven professionally--like President Clinton, entertainer George Michael, and retired Marine captain Rich Merritt--are more likely to compartmentalize their sexual feelings.
by Dan Woog, author of Friends and Family
next: The Opposite Sex