sexual relationships are the result of healthy choices, which must be based on
reality. Problems arise when people base their attitudes on falsehoods and distortions.
Therefore, while we will ultimately take a very positive look at human sexuality,
we must begin somewhat negatively: we must investigate and clear away the serious
false assumptions and distortions of sexual reality that have led us into a host
— before we can hope to find their solutions. For convenience we
can catalogue seventeen "misconceptions" for discussion in this book. One of them
stands out among the rest:
Misconception # 1: People, especially men, have
specific, genital, sexual needs
This is the most important misconception about
sex for three reasons:1 it is the fundamental attitude underlying abuse of
sex in society today;2 it has supplanted strengthening a couple's relationship
as the most important reason for having sex; and3 it is the basis for the addictive
approach to sex that is so rampant in our society today, whereby the "need" for
sex is analogous to the alcoholic's "need" for a drink. We will consider the first
two reasons in this chapter and the third in Chapter 11.
that people have specific, genital, sexual needs is based upon the fact that people
like to have sex. People really like to have sex because genital sexual intercourse
is arguable the most intense physical pleasure one can experience. There are,
however, other things besides physical pleasure that we should consider. Imagine
two people at a table on which sits a delicious-looking chocolate-fudge brownie.
Now imagine the same situation, except that the brownie has been replaced by a
stalk of broccoli. Since the first case involves a treat, it is likely to lead
to one person taking advantage of the other. How desirable and convenient it would
be if one person can convince the other that he or she has a need for that brownie,
so as to get more than one's fair share. It would be even better to convince oneself
of this need, in order to avoid any feeling of guilt for making off with the brownie.
Rationalizing "needs" gives people an excuse to take advantage of others. Highly
enjoyable activities like sex, and eating brownies, encourage development of such
rationalizations. This "needs" misconception, in turn, promotes tolerance of abusive
attitudes and sexual practices in our society. It asserts that men, in particular,
need to climax, need to fulfill fantasies, or need to have sex with a certain
frequency, or in a certain position. It's as if men are addicts, in need of a
sexual "fix." According to popular wisdom, "boys will be boys," men cannot control
themselves ("they are animals"), and men must relieve themselves of sexual tension.
A man sees a beautiful woman and thinks "I must have her." It's as if his genitals
will fall off or wither away if they are not put to regular use (an event conspicuously
absent from recorded history).
But the notion that people have specific, genital,
sexual requirements is false for a number of reasons. First, a person can be distracted
from this "need" no matter how stimulated he or she is or how great the perceived
need is. For example, a couple goes to bed early because both are feeling amorous.
They become intimately involved, but just before climaxing the telephone rings.
The man is absorbed in "fulfilling his need" to climax and only halfheartedly
listens for the answering machine. The message, however, catches his attention.
It is the emergency room calling. The man's mother has just been involved in a
serious traffic accident and may not live. She is asking for her son. Given such
circumstances one might well expect the man to be distracted from his once consuming
Other biological needs, such as those for food and sleep, can be deferred
temporarily, but then recur more strongly. Genital sexual impulses, however, do
not follow any such pattern, and can be deferred indefinitely. Frustrations that
arise from unrelieved sexual desires may escalate temporarily, but if relief remains
unobtainable, they eventually dissipate.
No one has ever died from sexual abstinence.
It does not lead to any disease or even any psychiatric disorders. While all people
have natural sexual urges, which may at times be powerful, they are distinct from
life-sustaining needs for food, water and sleep. There is no biological necessity
to climax. Not even nocturnal emissions are evidence for a biological need to
ejaculate. These culminate not only intense sexual dreams, but also intensely
violent or otherwise stressful dreams—dreams which include no sexual imagery at
all. We will discuss (in Chapter 12), the difficulty in distinguishing between
sexual tension and other forms of stress, but from what is known about nocturnal
emissions, it is simplistic to consider them a specific response to sexual needs.1
Even if nocturnal emissions were simply a release of pent up sexual energy, there
is no tragedy in that. They are not pathological, but normal, natural events.
The only real problem with these dreams is psychological distress created by the
erroneous assumption that they are abnormal.
Furthermore, sexual desires do
not follow a "use it or lose it" pattern. Such a claim is analogous to saying
that one would lose the ability to enjoy strawberry cheesecake if unable to enjoy
We do find this "needs" misconception in a variety of contexts.
For example, on a television show about prostitution, a concealed camera caught
a man propositioning an undercover policewoman. She told the man that she was
sixteen years old and asked him if he "had a problem with that." He answered "no,"
and the cameras followed them up to a motel room where the film crew descended
on the surprised man and interviewed him. As it turned out, he had two daughters,
one of whom was sixteen years old. This man was such a slave to his sexual "needs"
and fantasies that he could not see this prostitute as someone else's daughter.
When he initially propositioned her, he did not see her as a human being, even
though he had a daughter of the same age. He was willing to use a sixteen-year-old
prostitute to satisfy his compulsion, his fantasy, his "needs." One might wonder,
however, what had happened to his "needs" by the time the T.V. crew had finished
As another example, consider the man who came to my office
on two separate occasions for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.
He had had multiple sexual partners in the past, and we discussed what sort of
approach he might consider in future dating relationships. He said that, after
two infections, he was afraid to become genitally, sexually active again; therefore,
he decided that, until he got married, he would just have to stimulate himself.
Not wanting to be hurt again, or to hurt anyone else, he could see no other option.
But there was an option he had not considered: he did not need any genital, sexual
activity. I explained that since men have no need to climax, it was possible for
him to manage without stimulating himself at all. This fact was news to him, as
it has been to others.
We must distinguish between what people need and what
they desire—"I need" as opposed to "I want." Those denied a desire are frustrated;
those denied a need are impoverished. People really do need friendship, companionship,
and intimacy. Many people die of loneliness: it is not uncommon for the health
of elderly patients suddenly to deteriorate following the loss of a cherished
We have had experience with this phenomenon in our own family. When
my elderly grandfather died at home in his sleep, my father was contacted immediately
and was with my then senile grandmother when she awoke. Realizing that her husband
was gone, my grandmother sat on a couch in my father's arms and died, just a few
hours after learning of the death of her spouse. The despair of losing her lifelong
companion was too much for her to bear. People need companionship.
companionship, we also need balance in relationships. As relationships become
more intimate, socially, emotionally, and spiritually, they naturally become more
intimate physically, whether by touching, hugging, holding hands, etc. A balanced
relationship is one in which these actions reflect the level of intimacy otherwise
enjoyed by the couple; an unbalanced relationship is one in which they do not.
A surprising number of wives complain about husbands who only approach them physically
to initiate genital, sexual activity. These women yearn to hug and to hold hands,
without the pressure of having to culminate every physical interaction.
both human and non-human, have developmental needs, particularly during infancy
and childhood. Psychologist Harry Harlow performed classic experiments on orphaned
monkeys that demonstrated the dramatic positive influence of a cloth "surrogate"
mother over one made of chicken wire. Baby monkeys with experience of the warmth
of the cloth were much more capable of integrating socially with other monkeys
later in life than those whose only consolation came from a "mother" made of chicken
wire. Similarly, institutionalized children commonly suffer from psychiatric disturbances
due to a lack of physical contact early in life.
People need companionship,
a balance in relationships, and physical nurturing during childhood. However,
beyond such general requirements, people do not have specific, genital sexual
needs. Rather, the idea that people have such requirements often leads to one
person taking advantage of another. When one person has a "need" and the other
person has a conflicting "want" or preference, the question is who will win, which
one will be satisfied? Because it seems that a person must satisfy his or her
own perceived "needs" but not another person's "wants," the door opens to abuse.
How could a woman deny her spouse or "significant other" something that he needs?
There is the husband who demands daily sex to fulfill his "need." There is the
boyfriend who "needs" to have sex in a particular manner, such as oral sex, when
his girlfriend "just wants to snuggle." What a difference between these situations
and one in which a couple strives to balance the desires of both individuals.
If it becomes acceptable to use someone to fulfill a "need," then sex has become
more important than the relationship, or as some people incorrectly maintain,
"Bad sex is better than no sex."
How this "needs" misconception, with its profound
implications, became so entrenched in our thinking is something of a mystery.
Part of the answer lies in the subtlety of this falsehood. If it were more obviously
wrong, it is unlikely that society would have so uniformly accepted it. The key
to the success of the "needs" misconception is the often subtle manner in which
it violates the truth: people do have intense sexual desires. Another factor is
that, in the last few decades, increasing affluence has led to greater materialism
and self-centeredness. Consequently, people are now more willing to magnify the
nature of their self-interests.
Lastly, one might expect this misconception
to become more entrenched during the modern era due to the greater confusion over
sexual matters. Bewildered people who are struggling to control carnal passions
will more readily accept ideas that justify their own sexual abuse of others than
those with clearer minds. True sexual freedom is not possible if one is a prisoner
to sexual needs, unable to control sexual urges. Rejection of this "needs" falsehood
removes the chains that shackle us to self-serving behavior patterns. The freedom
of the sexual revolution has been a freedom only to fulfill contrived needs. It
has not freed us to be more loving of each other, but has only freed us from concerning
ourselves with each other's welfare.
It is this lack of concern for each other's
welfare, this willingness to use others for our own selfish ends, that accounts
for most of the misery in the world today. Floods and fires, disease and volcanic
eruptions can account for measurable amounts of physical misery, but it's usually
people who cause the human misery of incalculable proportions that we see all
around. In this book I am concerned with one particular kind of human misery
— that directly attributable to our use and abuse of the sexual
part of our nature—and I am most sincerely concerned about what we can do to alleviate
Throughout this book we shall champion the view that to minimize
this misery and to enjoy the healthiest sex we must base our relationships first
and foremost on love. This view is based on traditional natural law teaching which
comes to us from such formidable philosophers as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas upheld that the first precept of natural law, or most important rule for
human fulfillment, is to do good and avoid evil.5 To do good is to do what is
virtuous or loving. Because love is the basis for doing good, it is the basis
for the most natural, healthy approach to all aspects of life, including sex.
Among today's public there exists considerable confusion about the various
types of love. But in its most genuine form love is a simple notion, familiar
even to small children, and our society is in general agreement on its essence.
Almost everyone can identify the purest form of love. It is compassion, consideration,
kindness, unselfishness, altruism, thoughtfulness, extending oneself. Love is
people going out of their way to give, with no thought for themselves
— being nice, pleasant and courteous with no expectation of reward.
Love is people at a Red Cross center donating their blood for nothing more than
cheap cookies and punch. It is, according to Aristotle, to will the good of another.
A great error in our modern approach to sexuality is to disregard the natural
priority of love. Today, many people accept the valuing of other priorities as
high or higher than love, especially in the search for sexual fulfillment. These
alternative priorities include freedom (of expression, of choice, to "do your
own thing"), pleasure, self-actualization, excitement, convenience, being "hip,"
and improving one's image. All of these priorities are valid, but none should
be valued as much as love because it is love which most readily leads us to fulfillment.
When other priorities conflict with love, as they often do, love must be given
In this book we shall focus on five primary characteristics of
love. These are: respect, responsibility, commitment, discipline (which enables
one to sacrifice for others), and trust. We will use these characteristics to
explore the truth about all manner of issues related to sex.
As we shall see,
the natural supremacy of love is regularly questioned today. This occurs primarily
through acceptance of misconceptions such as the "needs" misconception which distort
the truth and act to support lesser priorities. Because of these distortions,
other priorities are now readily allowed to encroach on the natural supremacy
of love, and this allows for radical changes in the perceived purpose of sexual
interactions. The primary goal of sexuality should be to augment or enrich a relationship.
Sexuality, whether genital or nongenital, should bring people closer together
by adding a positive dimension to a well-rounded, supportive, nurturing relationship.
But, if people have specific, genital sexual needs which must be fulfilled, then
the primary goal or reason for having sex is changed. The goal of sex becomes
to meet those needs, instead of to enrich a relationship. By emphasizing contrived
needs (most commonly the need to climax) the importance of pleasure is exaggerated.
We lose sight of the highest priority and become focused on pleasure-seeking.
The goal becomes to climax (or to achieve multiple climaxes), to fulfill fantasies,
to "score," etc.
Our focus should be on relationships, not sex. One way of
conceptualizing relationships is to liken them to a solar system. A solar system
is made up of planets each of which may represent an important aspect of the relationship.
One planet might represent the physical (or sexual or sensual) aspect, another
might represent the social aspect, another the spiritual aspect, and yet another
the intellectual aspect. In each unique relationship the planets or various general
components differ in size or prominence. For relationships to maintain stability
and harmony, the various forces created by the planets must remain balanced. Genital
sexual activity can be thought of as one moon circling the planet Physical. Other
moons around this planet would include nongenital sexual interactions such as
hugging, shaking hands, and kissing.
The function of each component, including
sexuality, is to enhance the greater relationship
— the solar system. The role of sexuality must be considered within
the context of a relationship, rather than instead of one. This is the truly holistic
approach to sexuality, or what has been called a cerebro-centric (versus a genito-centric)
approach, and herein lies the wonderful potential of sexuality to affirm a sense
The common approach to sex in today's America gives genital sexual
activity inordinate attention. In the media, on bumper stickers, in magazines
and books, in health clubs and in birthday cards there is general preoccupation
with sex. We are told to "Do it" (i.e., to have intercourse) in countless ways.
"Secretaries do it from 9-5," "Nurses do it with patience," and "Teachers do it
with class." Popular, self-help books carry such titles as The One Hour Orgasm.
To paraphrase abstinence educator Coleen Mast, the goal has become to go as far
as you can, or get as much as you can, with whomever you can, for as long as you
can, and in as many different positions as you can.
In addition to an increasing
variety of ways to pleasure and climax, we also face growing acceptance of the
idea that just about any method will suffice. For example, one study found that
27 percent of inner city youths attending an adolescent clinic had experienced
anal intercourse.9 We are encouraged to pursue a variety of partners and techniques
so that we never become bored with our sex lives, and (for goodness sake) stop
"doing it." Popular literature offers innumerable recommendations as to how to
spice up "lackluster sex lives."
In summary, we must rethink our attitudes
about the essential purpose of sexual interactions. We must ask whether genital,
sexual activity is a part of a relationship or an end in itself. Since the populace
has come to accept the "needs" misconception, the primary reason for sex has changed
and become isolated. For this to have occurred, individuals had to be willing
to compromise on love, for only by maintaining the priority of love is the fallacious
nature of the "needs" misconception revealed.
Good sex does not require experiencing
climax, the ultimate climax, multiple climaxes, or fulfilling one's or one's partner's
wildest sexual fantasy. Any of these may be part of good sex, but the primary
objective of sexual experiences — genital or nongenital
— is to enrich and validate a balanced, healthy relationship. Truly
good sex is only possible within such a context. The difference between these
two approaches may appear subtle, but the consequences of failing to distinguish
between them are often profound. To focus on pleasure instead of on love is like
directing all one's attention to dessert, while ignoring a meal's main course;
and it is equally unhealthy.
M.D., Richard. "The Greatest Misconception." In Sexual Wisdom (Proctor Publications,
Wisdom is available from Proctor Publications (800) 343-3034, P.O. Box
2498, Ann Arbor, MI 48106. Sexual Wisdom is produced by and copyrighted
to Sex Education For Advanced Beginners, a non-profit California corporation (#33-0584794)
dedicated to teaching the truth about sexuality. Dr. Wetzel receives no financial
compensation from the sale of this book. All proceeds from sales go toward promotion
of Sexual Wisdom and related endeavors. Book Price: $12.95 US / $17.95
Richard Wetzel, M.D.
is a family physician in private practice for over ten years and is an internationally
recognized expert on sexuality. He is a graduate of Albany Medical College in
New York and is a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians; the American
Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists; the Sex Information
and Education Council of the United States; and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
He teaches a wide variety of audiences including parents, physicians, young adults,
and adolescents. He is a regularly featured guest on television and radio and
is an advisory board member of Mary's Shelter, a shelter for pregnant teenagers.
Audio and video tapes of Dr. Wetzel are available though St. Joseph's Radio
at (714) 744-0336, Fax: (714) 744-1998, P.O. Box 2983, Orange, CA 92859
© 1998 Richard Wetzel Sexual