The trigger for this loose string was a recent request on the HPA list serve for books to help girls make selections of boyfriends and mates that do not cause pain and suffering. I would love to see such a book. My candidate would be Sexual Excitement by Robert Stoller, but this is hardly suitable material for a young woman, focused as it is on the necessarily perverse and dangerous aspects of sexual excitement. This is a generic issue in my therapy practice (I am now in my 35th year). Why do girls and young women like bad boys? What is the theory? This of course goes to Freud’s famously unanswered question, “What do women want?” What is a bad boy? The common clinical presentation is a woman, usually in her 20’s but not always, who has been treated badly, sexually or financially exploited, been the subject of infidelity, or worse. I see lots of attractive, bright women who have loser boyfriends who do not even go to work. Lots of recently divorced women who are confused about what to do next in terms of the opposite sex. Of course the issue applies to boys too, but let’s keep the question focused. So what’s the theory? In my view the answer is not easy to come by. I have explored just about every angle with my female patients. Find a guy who is not like dad? find a guy who needs to be redeemed by the power of the woman’s goodness (a test of her fundamental worth as a person)? Like a bad boy simply for the thrill and danger of rejecting parental constraints? Of course there is evolutionary theory. There is also Harvile Hendrix and his very usable approach to seeking and finding love. There is Ethel Person’s wonderful Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters. Maggie Scarf’s books are quite good (Intimate Partners, for example). We have even gone so far as to read and consider William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, since the patient often presents after a disillusionment and painful fall from innocence. I monitor the professional journals and popular press (the Atlantic, NY Times, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, and Harpers often follow the state of American marriage) for clues.
So my loose tangent off this is Stoller’s Sexual Excitement, the work of Laura Kipnis, and the recent Mating in Captivity. As a therapist who got trained and practiced in the last quarter of the 20th century, I came under the influence of a therapeutic ideology, definitely feminist informed, that the key to a healthy sexual relationship during marriage was based in the relationship. Sexual pleasure and interest were based in the marital friendship, equality in power relations (empowerment of women in the marital relationship), better communication, asking for what you want, and “intimacy.” This typically involved getting men to be better listeners and the couple to develop a strong friendship (this is the basis of Gottman’s approach–the most popular couples therapy ideology around today). Dissatisfied females typically drove the agenda (most divorces are initiated by women). Why do women lose their sexual interest after the birth of their first child? A common cause of marital failure occurs after the onset of parenthood. What do marital partners “stray” when the costs are so draconian? Now these writers come along and say the that friendship and safety is a killer of sexual interest! Who wants to have sex with a friend? Sex becomes a boring routine (why do you suppose that is the most common theme in the magazines next to the check out counter in the grocery store? Who buys these magazines?) They have upended the whole ideology. What I have been doing with my patients is wrong? So what do you tell a girl or young woman knowing the complexity of motivations?