Generosity gone wrong

I recently had a client (who I’ll call River here) tell me that the only way she could feel confident or “sexy” in bed was by knowing she looked hot enough to turn on her partner.

Lately she reported feeling “too gross and ugly to have sex,” hence this discussion.

River told me it’s been like this ever since she could remember, that she would view herself through the eyes of the guy she was sleeping with, imagining what he was seeing and feeling about her, and then feeling either sexy or ugly based on this image.

To her surprise, this mental habit in bed is super common, and even has a name: “spectatoring.” It’s when a person focuses on themselves from a third party perspective instead of from their own first-person perspective. It can also be considered self-objectification, where a person views herself as a sexual object for the pleasure of others rather than a fully autonomous sexual subject.

While self-objectification and spectatoring sometimes have their foundation in trauma (thinking of yourself in the third person can be an extension of feeling dissociated and disembodied) it can also be a totally natural result of internalizing the cultural concept that women are both caretakers, and sexual objects here to titillate and please men.

That’s what River seemed to be experiencing. She felt gross because her partner hadn’t seemed as interested in sex lately, and she had been relying on his sexual pursuit of her to feel confident.

On the one hand, the desire to give her partner pleasure and turn him on is lovely. On the other hand, when it’s accompanied by a hyper-focused attention on what he thinks, feels, wants, and needs, it becomes impossible for her to tune into her own thoughts, feelings, needs, or pleasure.

Plus, the feeling that her worth is based on his arousal and validation puts a lot of pressure on him to get rock-hard erections to “prove” how hot he finds her in order for her to feel safe and confident, which is stressful for everyone. (And stress often leads to softer erections and a lower sex drive!)

This phenomenon of women placing our attention on the thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs of other people is something conditioned into us from a very young age.

The studies done on this is fascinating, as men are (statistically) found to be “agentic,” meaning oriented toward themselves and their own interests, and women are found to be “communal,” meaning oriented toward others and the interest of a group or relationship dynamic.

Interestingly, there’s no evidence that suggests this difference is in any way structural or inborn, and actually a lot of evidence suggests it’s the result of gendered conditioning from birth onward, including the way a baby’s hormones are wired to respond to different types of touch, engagement, and care, which is shown to be very different for boy babies than it is for girl babies. (For example, boy babies are touched more roughly and less often than girl babies, because parents unconsciously enact gender biases.)

It’s not exactly breaking news that women find it more difficult to take up as much space as men do. Especially in heterosexual partnerships, women still often take the man’s last name, spend their free time on housework and childcare instead of hobbies, and give up their careers when babies come.

Being oriented toward others can be a wonderful and useful quality, but it also has some drawback– especially when it comes to sex and body image.

Thinking about others can often mean thinking about what other people want, expect, think, and feel about you, leading to a loss of ability to know what you want, think, and feel… and leaving you constantly searching for validation and approval from others to prove your worth.

Have you ever grown your hair long because someone you loved mentioned they liked it that way? Or worn a certain kind of clothing because your partner mentioned they liked it?

Have you worried about the shape or size of your body because your partner mentioned being attracted to someone of a different shape or size, or because their ex had a different shape or size?

There is a distortion of generosity, kindness, and communal awareness at play here, a feeling that self-abnegation is the greatest gift we can offer, because our job as women is to adopt and become whatever people want us to be. Taken to the extreme, this means that being an empty vessel, a completely blank slate for him/them to write on is the best way for us to be.

Is it any wonder so many women struggle to speak up about their thoughts and feelings, assert themselves, advocate for their needs, and take the time and space for their own desires? And likewise, is it any wonder they worry so much about how they look?

Luckily, if any of this resonates, the simple practice I gave River might work for you too. It’s simple, but not easy.

Focus your attention entirely on what you think, feel, like, want, and need.

This can be deceptively tricky if you haven’t practiced, but it’s a powerful weapon against insecurity and self-consciousness. The next time you’re freaking out about what someone else did, said, thinks, feels, wants, or expects, try reframing it to make it about you.

  • What do I think/feel?

  • What do I want/need?

  • What actions can I/do I want to take?

When I asked River what she wanted, she said “a boyfriend who shows me he’s excited to see me and talk to me regularly.”

I could feel her suddenly relax into this clarity– that’s often what happens when we re-center ourselves and our own feelings and desires. River wants a boyfriend who treats her a certain way, and maybe this dude isn’t that person. But no amount of “looking hot enough” is going to get him to give her what she’s looking for, nor will focusing on what he thinks/feels/likes.

The only way to get what we want is self-inquiry and self-advocacy. Generosity and kindness are beautiful, but you won’t get what you’re looking for by trying to be what someone else wants.

Not to mention trying to focus on what other people think and feel tends to cause anxiety and a feeling of being out of control, while focusing on what we think and feel tends to cause peace and a sense of agency.

Next time you’re driving yourself to distraction trying to guess what someone else thinks, feels, or wants from you, slow down and ask yourself:

What do I think?
What do I feel?
What do I want?

Be the center of your own story.

<3
Jessi

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