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PEAK EROTIC EXPERIENCES
Unforgettable turn-ons are windows into your erotic mind.
0ne of the most effective and enjoy-able ways to unlock the mysteries of the eros is to reminisce about your most compelling turn-ons. During these moments of high arousal the crucial elements-your partner, the setting, perhaps a tantalizing twist of luck-all mesh like instruments of an orchestra, producing a crescendo of passion. Look closely at a peak turn-on and you'll undoubtedly sense that something close to the core of your being has been touched. And because everything is accentuated during such moments, they reveal an enormous amount about how your eroticism works.
As a young psychology student in the 1960s I was influenced by Abraham Maslow, who called for a "psychology of health" to counterbalance the overemphasis on problems that he believed was distorting our view of human beings. He broke new ground by studying people he called "self-actualizers "those who are comfortable with themselves, relatively free of neurotic conflicts from the past, and available to tackle the challenges of living with creativity and zest. Self-actualizers are still largely ignored by psychologists, even though they have much to teach us about emotional well-being.
Maslow was equally intrigued by a wide variety of peak experiences
such as being enraptured by a beautiful piece of music or a painting, a special communion with nature, or the joy of bodily expression in dance or athletics, to name just a few.' During these moments of ecstasy we are fully presentin the moment, unselfconsciously expressing our truest selves with ease and grace, grateful to be alive. Even though peak experiences aren't "productive" in the usual sense, participants invariably describe them as profoundly positive and sometimes even life-changing.
According to Maslow, self-actualizers have peak experiences more frequently than the rest of us, but nearly everyone has them occasionally. Among his most provocative observations was that during and following peak experiences we temporarily take on many of the characteristics of self-actualizers. In other words, peaks offer us glimpses of our most authentic, healthiest selves and thus can serve us as guides to growth. Maslow saw peak experiences as crucial sources of "clean and uncontaminated data" about who we are and might become .2
When I began my formal studies of eroticism as a practicing psychotherapist I approached the challenge with Maslow's insights in mind. I was convinced that if I devoted as much attention to peak sexual experiences as I did to problems, I could eventually discern truths about eroticism that would otherwise elude me. My first discovery was rather discouraging: even in the nonjudgmental atmosphere of therapy people rarely bring up their peak turn-ons spontaneously. And when I started asking I quickly learned that most clients required a high comfort level and a significant amount of courage before they were willing to disclose details about this extremely intimate material.
I began encouraging clients who were grappling with sexual problems to explore their peak turn-ons, hoping the potential benefits of doing so would be obvious to them. In most cases I was wrong. The majority had trouble grasping the value of discussing their peak experiences; they just wanted to fix their problems. A prevalent comment was, "Sure I've had good sex in the past but what can that do for me now?" Out of necessity I became adept at gently challenging clients to set aside their preoccupation with problems for a while so they might learn more about their eroticism.
I quickly saw that those who accepted my challenge typicallymade more rapid and long-lasting progress than those whoinsisted on focusing exclusively on their troubles. Someimprovments came about when they used their peak turn-ons to helpclarify their conditions for satisfying sex-an extremely impor-tant ingredient for successful sex therapy.
Fred: Centerfold syndrome?
Fred consulted me because his sexual desire for Janette, his wife of six years, had been declining for more than a year. Although he assumed she must have noticed the reduction in both the frequency of sex and his enthusiasm, Fred had no idea how to discuss his predicament with Janette without hurting her. Besides, he felt ashamed of himself and was convinced she couldn't possibly understand what he was going through.
"I think I have the centerfold syndrome," he announced about halfway through our first meeting. He explained that as a young adolescent he had masturbated to photos in his dad's Playboy magazines. More than twenty years later, the majority of hisfantasies were still populated by young women with picture-perfect bodies. "My wife still looks great," he added, "but she's no centerfold. I know it sounds horrible to say but I can't help noticing her body changing. I love her too much to tell her the truth. "
Clients, especially introspective ones like Fred, often enter therapy with theories about the origins of their problems. Fred was the first, however, to have invented and named a new diagnosis! Yet many other menand more than a few women too had hinted that constant images of sexual perfection in the mass media sometimes reduced the allure of their actual partners. Obviously, Fred had named a very real problem.
However, as Fred talked about his sex history and hisrelationship with Janette, I sensed that his declining desire had less to do with flawless centerfolds than he believed. To help him find out for himself I suggested that he think about his peak turn-ons. After overcoming his initial hesitation he told me about a series of memorable encounters with a young waitress and aspiring model with whom he had an affair when he was in the military. His obvious pleasure in telling these stories soon turned to discouragement because they seemed to confirm his theory. I suggested that before jumping to conclusions he consider other factors that also might have turned him on besides her gorgeous body.