I walked into the Starbucks to get my usual Peppermint Mocha. It’s hot and chocolatey with a touch of peppermint – it reminds me of Christmas. Mentally I go to a mind palace (a real thing, called the Method of Ioci). My palace is more of a mix between a postmodern, suburban home, a cabin, and a ski lodge. Lots of natural material, especially wood, encloses comfortable furniture, cosy blankets, and a roaring fire. Huge windows bathe the main living room in natural sunlight, enhanced by its reflection off the fresh snow that blankets the spacious yard and evergreens that line its perimeter.
I love writing there. Sometimes I just go live there because ::points at everything::.
That’s neither here nor there. The drink is not yet ready. Right now my attention is on the barista. She’s adorable. Her hair is braided like Elsa’s, a wintry silver with hints of lavender streaking through it, a wool knit cap (even in this tropical climate) that only makes me think of my mind palace again, and slightly oversized glasses that rest on an adorable nose and draw attention to her piercing blue eyes. She’s slightly freckled under the eyes and across her nose with a gentle, ever-smirking mouth. I can smell her perfume through the coffeehouse aromas.
Waiting behind me in line is a chestnut-haired, mahogany-eyed beauty. Her hair is long, soft, flowing, and wavy. I feel like I’m at the beach as my eyes follow the waves.
Both of them offer me friendly smiles, and the brunette even chats with me a little about the Disney-themed credit card I use. Disney is a way of life down here and most folks are either annual pass holders (like myself) or wish they were. The barista joins in the conversation about what we love about Disney.
I pay and step aside. The Disney conversation continues among the three of us as the brunette orders, my drink arrives, I bid them both a good day, and we part ways. I will likely never see the brunette again. The barista I see regularly. We’re just about at the point where she starts ringing up my drink before I order it.
The honest-to-God truth? They are both sexually attractive to me.
I do not want a romantic relationship with either of them. I loathe casual encounters. There is zero reason to pursue either woman sexually because, even if she were keenly aroused, I am not interested in pursuing anything despite my admitted sexual attraction to them.
As I discussed in a previous article, casual sex is too hollow for me. I long for connection and that does not exist in casual encounters. In fact, the dynamics of sexuality are such that a casual encounter with someone, or sex too early in a relationship, precludes the further development of that connection for me. It ruins everything. Without the connection, the sex has absolutely nothing to do with her – it’s all about satisfying my sexual urge, even if she’s doing precisely the same thing. We are sexual objects, and I loathe that.
A romantic relationship is just as undesirable. I call this, among friends, my theory of exceptionalism.
“Oh, I could see myself having a romantic weekend with her in Hawaii or Paris.”
Yeah, I could see that with a lot of people. The circumstances of that are special and will compensate for the personality of the other person to a great extent, especially as it occurs in a short window. Finding someone with whom I could see myself attending a wedding reception, going on vacation, or sharing Christmas morning is many.
The number of people with whom I want to share a rainy Thursday morning breakfast aggravated about the news I’ve just read and exhausted from a poor night’s sleep is few.
Romantic partners are about as omnipresent as another human being will be in one’s life. That should not be reviewed lightly. This is especially true for an introvert with social anxiety and OCPD. The wrong partner will drain my energy, make me resentful, and ultimately miserable in no time flat. Even people I consider dear friends rarely cross the threshold into my inner circle and we have to strike some balance of time together and apart.
It’s here, at this juncture, that I will share with you that I am married and have been for several years now with no sign of slowing down. The brutal truth (and my wife and I are quite open with one another about this) is that she is not the most attractive woman in the world and I am not the most attractive man in the world. We are not even the most attractive people to one another.
My wife is adorable, sexy, and beautiful. We do not rank one another with other people such that, “You are the 7th most attractive man I know, James.” We simply recognise that appearance is not paramount, and attraction does not cease because of a monogamous relationship. What matters is that I do find my wife beautiful and I am sexually attracted to her. She finds me handsome, for reasons unknown, and finds me sexually attractive.
Also honest – she’s not the “best person” I know. She has a temper and can irritate quickly. We can be joking around one moment and then even a thought of something that happened earlier at work with shift her attitude to one of dead seriousness. I wrote just yesterday about my OCPD and the sense of morality that accompanies that. She has no problem engaging in behaviours that are unfathomable to my sense of right. (Remember the U-turn example? She might weigh everything and decide the illegal U-turn is warranted because the effort to do it “correctly” is well beyond anything served by the prohibition in that scenario).
Don’t judge her – as that guy with OCPD, I watch most people do things of this nature all the time. Keep left, pass right. Use turn indicators. At Disney, you move all the way down the aisle before sitting – you don’t stop in the middle. Stay behind the yellow line. Don’t cut in line. And on and on.
My wife is not a bad person. She’s a wonderful person. She’s a case manager who has worked with mental health, substance abuse, and homeless populations. She is dedicated to that work and genuinely loves it. I even watched her save a veteran’s life one day because she went well above and beyond. The facility in Delaware called to thank her because, had she not done that, he surely would have died the night before. That’s my wife.
More to the point, we complement one another. She makes me want to be a better person, not by belittling or berating me for not being good enough, but by supporting me. I feel comfortable in where I am and so find the energy to progress further. I know she has my back. She knows I have hers. A regular joke of hers is that I cannot improve as a person “because you’re already better than I am and that wouldn’t be fair”.
So let me be clear before proceeding, I cannot have a better partner in this world than my wife – she is perfect for me.
Everything I said earlier about not wanting to pursue a romantic relationship exists outside that truth. My marriage is not an excuse to forsake another person. Most of the time, 99.9% of the time, my desire to avoid a romantic relationship is my awareness that however attracted I feel to that person it cannot sustain a long-term relationship. The complementary nature of our personalities is not there.
And to be clear, my wife does not “complete me”. I am a complete person. She complements me. She has strengths that offset my weaknesses and vice versa. We both have qualities that are mutually enhanced by the other person. Without my wife I would still be a complete person – she manages to amplify that.
So now we’re back in Starbucks talking with that barista. Temptation looms.
No, it doesn’t. These are completely different avenues. The barista is beautiful and I enjoy her appearance. The perfume is pleasantly aromatic. I enjoy all of this with the same earnestness and tranquillity as my Peppermint mocha, watching the snowfall from my cosy fireside. Why does it have to be anything more than this when this is so pleasant?
She is friendly, at least partially, because it’s customer service. Her appearance is not for my benefit. This is not enticement to some sexual escapade, so why do so many people (men) treat it with such entitlement? Why is the reaction of so many men to a woman he finds sexually attractive, “Let me see if I can close the deal on this”?
This is not to suggest I am so pious that fantasy eludes me. Yes, I absolutely find myself sexually attracted to women and find myself subsequently imagining a sexual scenario.
Two things happen.
First, have you ever picked up a film to watch and in the time it took you to walk from the shelf where the movie was to the television played the movie in your head? You recap key scenes from previous times you’ve watched the film, and by the time you are ready to put it in the player you’ve lost interest because you feel as though you have just seen it?
As I referenced earlier, sex without a connection to the person is hollow. Sexually it satisfies a superficial need, but it leaves a greater emotional and psychological wound (I will come back to this).
I have had sex many times before. I have had incredible sex. The impulsive fantasy that races through my mind underwhelms me. My mind inevitably skips through the during to the after, and I am already contemplating that hollow feeling. The fantasy dies as quickly as it appeared – and as time has progressed, it suppresses that thinking altogether.
Yes, sex is pretty great, but have you ever just been with someone you liked so much you could barely stand it? That is the feeling that thrills me. I have been so excited in the presence of someone else that I just want to squeeze them in my arms. The warmth of their presence and personality is so intense that I want to hold them tight until the fire of that connection consumes us. That is real ecstasy to me, that is the utter bliss of a human connection. Feeling seen and heard by someone you value that intensely as a fellow human being.
Which brings me to two and the point to which I said I’d return – the wound. I think of myself as a modestly handsome man. I have good, masculine features but am otherwise unassuming – I’m not the sort of man that women see and immediately feel overcome. Occasionally I get a “he’s cute”. All of that belies an aesthetic dissatisfaction I feel towards myself.
Sure, from a distance you think I’m cute. You can’t tell what my hair is going in the back (or at all because I’m using my cap to conceal it). I hate my teeth, and, as a result, my smile. I know where my skin imperfections are. “James, you have such great complexion” – you don’t know. There’s all sorts of dryness going on here. It’s a wonder I have skin that rate at which I seem to exfoliate naturally.
Now, let’s turn this around. Sure, she’s imperfect. She is probably thinking many of the same things – I know my wife does. “Look at the dryness under my eyes”. No one can see that, hunny. It might be dry, but you are literally the only person on Earth aware of it. Maybe she hates her figure, her hair….whatever.
I see none of that. Everything is gorgeous. The hair, the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the chin – delicate and yet strong. Like the character of most women I know, the features look as though they will bend without breaking. I often compare women’s features to a river, soft and fluid – yet they are still strong enough to cut through mountains. One should never confuse the delicateness with weakness.
I have an artistic fascination with feminine hands. Likewise the arms, collarbone, and neck. Again to the river, it reminds me of the sort of polished rock one might find on a riverbed. Strong and curving, almost angular at times but always smooth lines. Whatever light is available – sun, moon, or artificial – attaches itself nicely, like a blanket of fresh snow. Perhaps that is why I find self control so easy – the effect is calming rather than enticing. I can feel my heart rate slow and I feel warmth as though I’m fireside.
If she speaks I often find a musicality to it. Men’s voices are deep and percussive; women’s are light and melodic, more like I’m processing classical music than speech.
Like her appearance, if she touches me I feel a mix of tenderness and strength, like a warm river current. It’s not the electric spark of romance in the heart that one hears about in pop songs – this isn’t love. It’s just a sensory reaction to touch and a personal, emotional response to that reaction.
The same is true of her scent. Most women’s scents, whether it be soaps, perfumes, or otherwise, have a comforting, pleasant effect. Florals, fruits, and other natural, sweet smells that stimulate peaceful memories like that of my Mind Palace.
Why would I ever impose my person sexually on that experience? It’s a corruption of everything I just described for selfish, cursory gain. Any fantasy is replaced with memory, the itch scratched, and the door to any further relationship development shut by a degree of physical intimacy that far exceeds any other sort of intimacy. How can I improve our emotional or cognitive intimacy when we already feel so familiar?
As I said, I loathe casual encounters. It’s a drug addiction. It provides ephemeral remedy and an incredible high with rapidly diminishing returns. One continues to lose the ability to make meaningful connection while the high becomes harder to satisfy until all that is left is pain. That’s not personal experience – that is what I see in the world around me.
I appreciate the physical beauty of women around me and I acknowledge my level of attraction to it – there it stops.
The next phase is a casual examination of deeper things like character and personality. “Is this someone about whom I’d like to know more?” Usually I have some degree of interest there. If we have no prior involvement then I don’t know you from a hole in the ground, so how can I make any determination without knowing more?
“She is interesting. Is this just a nice interaction or is this someone you’d like as a friend?”
“She is pretty great. I want to be friends with her. Is she someone you could befriend casually or is this an ‘inner circle’ candidate?” That takes time to determine because it requires shared experience and interaction to evaluate – it’s as much about how much she seems to value my friendship as I hers.
All of this occurs without the pressure of sexual attraction. Yes, I find women physically attractive and, yes, I find women sexually attractive – but these things do not govern my interactions with women. Feminism, #HeForShe, and #MeToo are not about denying these attractions and impulses in men. All of them are perfectly natural. How you react in accordance with these things is what matters. The harassment and assault that follow in all too many cases is what we seek to stop. The attitudes, behaviours, and expressions that are not assault or harassment but contribute to the normalisation of sexual objectification are what we seek to stop.
Part of what inspired this piece was conversations with peers about the implications of interactions between certain people. I refrain from telling Twitter followers, who I do consider friends from our exchanges, that I find their new profile pictures attractive. It feels inappropriate to offer an unsolicited opinion about the appearance of those women because the relationship is still distant enough that one might not believe the platonic nature of the comment.
Unsolicited comments from men, including those of a sexual nature, are coming to many of these peers. No one would deny the sentiment – it’s not a question of how honest a man is being about finding a woman attractive online. What is suspect is the motive behind sharing that unsolicited opinion.
“I’m just paying you a compliment. Take it easy.” Perhaps, or perhaps that is the fallback for, “I expected you to be excited that I expressed my attraction to you and that might lead to something”.
Sometimes, such as with, “You should smile more”, it’s not even a compliment. “You should smile more” is materially different from “You have a lovely smile”. The latter is a compliment about the attractiveness of the other person; the former is a request that the other person change their mood/appearance for your benefit.
If she is pretty when she smiles, be a reason she smiles.
If she looks pretty today, consider, just for a moment, that it might not be for you.
But I digress. It works both ways – one of my friends reached out to me to say, “I appreciate the hell out of you” but quickly followed with, “I’m not hitting on you. Just to be clear”. I expect that’s a reflection on experience with the “A woman is being nice to me, she must be interested!” preemptive defence or, alternately, concern that I might be scared away by such a comment.
What a tragedy. This is someone whose opinion I value and who values mine. We cooperate and commiserate about issues regularly, and she could not express her appreciation without qualification. I completely understand it, but it saddens me this is where we are.
It creates barriers to developing meaningful, platonic relationships – which should be able to exist even if a physical attraction is present. It’s quite possible. Many of my female friends knew me during the seven years I was single prior to meeting my wife. I find them very attractive. Several of them have admitted that they find me attractive – that is all beside the platonic nature of our relationship and the value of that connection meant never wanting to jeopardise it because we were aroused and comfortable enough with each other one day. In fact, some of them would confide in me their sexual frustration, not to test my responsiveness to it, but as one would with any friend. Something was bothering them and we had a trusting, judgement free relationship. It’s quite wonderful.
Another reason this comes up is that I have an admitted bias. I mentioned the strictness of my inner circle of associates – they have to contend with quite a bit. Introversion, social anxiety, and, above all, my OCPD adherence to a strict set of standards. I can be friends with a range of individuals, but the more inclined a person is to violate my set of standards the more time and space I need.
Do you know who is fantastic about that? Celebrities. People that we feel we know through their work and public appearances but exist at enough distance that we do not; notwithstanding a lack of reciprocity that is necessary to a relationship. Fandom derives from an appreciation of one’s talent or a feeling of that connection to the person.
For me this often takes the form of musicians, especially those who write their own music. Actors move from one role to another and are, by their very nature, concealing themselves behind a performance as a character. Musicians and other artists more directly representing their mind and soul.
Musicians like Lindsey Stirling, Hayley Westenra, Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Lorde, Sarah McLachlan, and Alanis Morissette have a special place in my life. Not only am I impressed by their musical ability and overall talent, the messages of their projects and their conduct in general speaks to me. They promote the sort of kindness, compassion, and tolerance that is dear to my heart. Some provide catharsis (as sweet as Sara is, for example, she also has a funny, edgier side like “Sweet As Whole” that is more aggressive than I prefer to be, yet it provides a respite in relieving my frustrations).
Some are actors, like Saoirse Ronan, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, and Keira Knightley.
Some are historical – Jane Austen, Audrey Hepburn, and Louisa May Alcott feel like dear friends.
Some are, honestly, fictional. I imagine a world where Hermione, Belle, Alice, Jo March, and Elizabeth Bennett were real and friends of mine.
Which brings us to the pinnacle – the person who started my mind about trying to articulate all of this. I speak highly of her on the regular, working to share and amplify her voice as best I can. I have even been open about the degree to which I venerate, appreciate, and, indeed, adore her, all of which has the regular effect of implying a crush.
The person about whom I speak is Emma Watson, and in an empathetic sense I understand the response. She’s young and quite lovely. Physically she is one of the most beautiful women I know (in the sense of awareness, she is not known to me personally).
To reduce Ms. Watson to the object of a lecherous, lustful interest is not only wrong, it’s a disservice to society.
As with virtually everyone, my first exposure to Ms. Watson was as Hermione Granger. I began to read the novels much later than, well, the entire world because I’m suspicious of sudden pop culture phenomenons, and by the time I got around to starting it the writing felt below my level. What I did not realise until I watched the films was that the story grows with the reader – being charmed by the performance of virtually everyone in the film (yes, obviously Ms. Watson, but let’s not omit Radcliffe, Grint, Fiennes, Oldman, Smith, Rickman, Felton, Wright, Davis, Coltrane….).
When I finally dove into the story, I fell in love with Hermione. She reminded me of, among others, Belle – my favourite character as a child. You see where this is going. The bookish, curious nerd who was almost an outcast, save for her charm and compassion that made others want to be around her (unless you live in that town of jerks from Beauty and the Beast who hate literacy).
Before they announced Ms. Watson as Belle, I saw Perks of Being a Wallflower, Colonia, Regression, and her bit in This is the End (I hated the rape joke but loved seeing her play against type). I think she’s a fantastic actress. Don’t @ me. Or do – I’ll die on that hill.
What really mattered to me though was the activism. She stood up for feminism and helped launch #HeForShe. She acknowledged that she was not always intersectional about her efforts, and in recognising that strove to be so moving forward. She has her place in the fashion world but specifically works towards sustainable and ethically-sourced clothing and materials. She promotes reading through Our Shared Shelf. She’s environmentally conscious and politically engaged.
She does all of that with grace, kindness, compassion, and intelligence.
“James, a lot of people do amazing work around the world. You stopped on the pretty actress.”
Yes, I did. I also “discovered” Jagged Little Pill in 2016. Not everything crosses my radar, and the things that do cross it impact me in different ways. Ms. Watson crossed my radar for her efforts – her connections to these characters (which now includes one of the March sisters) and how she presents herself deepened my sense of personal connection. Moreover, the way she conducts herself, while a public persona that may hide flaws, meets those strict standards of behaviour my OCPD sets – not only meets, but excels. I observe her with envy as she represents what I aspire to be.
Ms. Watson is the best mate I will never have. I feel compelled towards greater character and inspired by her example.
Attempting to express that to others gets warped into notions of a celebrity crush.
“What would you do if you met her?” First, have a panic attack because I’m already social anxious and now I’m in the presence of someone I hold in such high regard. Once that passes, are you asking if I’d flirt or try to impress her? No, because it’s not a romantic thing.
That obstruction confuses and frustrates me. Not the accusation or implication of this particular case, mind you, because that’s a hypothetical, but the broader implication that this sort of interest between a man and a woman must be sexual and not platonic. We have enough obstacles to building relationships without letting gender expectations, especially the most abhorrent ones like “women are here are objects of sexual desire” get in the way.
I have personal preferences for who I like and who I feel comfortable around to various degrees – those conditions generally favour women. I don’t hate men. My preferences generally favour Democrats over Republicans, atheists over the religious, Phillies fans over Mets fan – none of these are hard rules in my life. It’s weird to me that others expect a justification, and whereas some people do not care about that expectation I have a need to please people and it bothers me when someone seems to suspect ulterior motives.
That’s especially true when the motives in question regard high praise for someone held dear.
Image Credit: https://www.deviantart.com/apolar