Goodbye to all that

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I was lying in bed at my apartment in Seoul one night, alone and thinking about a woman I know. Twelve months earlier, the thought of her would have sent me into arousal. But not now. I simply lay there, unstirred. My fondness for her was unchanged. Her beauty was unchanged. But something else had changed profoundly. Diabetes had caught up with me.

Diabetics have trouble with peripheral nerves and with circulation in the extremities. Together, those systems permit, or don't permit, a man's sexual response. Over the previous few months, my fifth extremity had shut down. It no longer responded. Suddenly, I was inactive at an age when many men were fathering children. I had lost the ability to achieve erection. And with the ability, the desire departed as well.

They say that just before dying, one perceives a "life review." Something comparable happened to me: As my capacity for response died, I reviewed my sexual history. The recollections were not happy ones. Over the years, erotic drives had brought me close to calamity, or at least serious difficulty, on an annual basis. Now I understood why Sophocles said in his old age, "At last I am free from an insane and cruel master!"

"Insane" comes close to describing some of my romantic associations over the years. Did I really contemplate marriage to a mental health worker as deranged as any of her charges? What attracted me to a hulking giantess? Why did I have that intense relationship with a self-styled psychic whom I once found seated on the living room floor of my apartment, her hand raised to detect ethereal vibrations? My experiences with that last lover?who once told me that my kitchen appeared to be haunted by an entity resembling a spectral mime?would fill a book.

Events reached their worst at a cabin in rural New England, some 20 years ago. My companion of the moment got drunk, piled into bed with me and insisted I perform a peculiarly invasive act, one the state's dated Blue Laws could never have anticipated. I complied as best I could. About all I can say in my defense is that the deed occurred in private, between consenting adults and did not actually involve shedding blood. After disengaging, I stood in the bathroom, shaken, wiping myself off and reflecting on what had just happened. No merry quotes from Rabelais came to mind. Instead, my thoughts were nearer those of the king in Richard II:

O...that I could forget what I have been,

Or not remember what I must be now!

Such scenes replayed themselves, one after another, in my brain as I lay there in my darkened apartment in Seoul. Though I did not exactly celebrate with Sophocles, the loss of my libido was no cause for lamentation, either. I sighed with relief.

I later discreetly mentioned the condition to a few friends and associates. You might think other men would commiserate with a man whose capacity for sexual response has vanished. Or you might be surprised. One of my acquaintances, for instance, a very wise man who lives on a spectacular piece of real estate in the Rockies west of Denver, replied, "Good for you! You're free from a tremendous source of trouble!"

Not everyone has congratulated me on losing that burning in my loins, but neither has any man actually said, "That's awful!" or even, "Sorry." Why not? I suspect that many men would like to share my newfound status as a eunuch.

"Eunuch" is the proper word. Though still anatomically intact, I find myself in much the same situation as the eunuchs of Korea's ancient court?outside the sexual circus, glancing in. From this perspective, how does our hypersexual society look? One sees a world as bizarre and alien as a Rod Serling fantasy, or Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Rather than gremlins on aircraft wings, however, or ghastly trees with human faces, one perceives? Well, won't you come with me for a walk through Seoul, as viewed through a eunuch's eyes?

My home is near Taehangno (University Street), a boulevard known for its bustling nightlife. Here sexuality is anything but subliminal. Midway between my apartment and the subway is a convenience store where I buy the morning paper. Just outside the store is a sign advertising a club whose initials have been altered to read, in English, "SEX." Posters on adjacent walls advertise a production of The Vagina Monologues. The posters show a young woman baring her teeth in a grimace. Dentata, indeed. On a building nearby, someone has placed large mannequins fashioned in the style of traditional Korean "gokdu" figurines. One depicts a man riding astride a huge serpent.

Every time I walk to the subway station, I pass young women trying to walk in shoes that might better be described as crippling afflictions. Just outside the station, a CD store displays a poster of a half-clad pop singer. One of the few things she wears is an enigmatic expression.

The subway ride is a study in sexual imagery. Posters show young women contorted into various poses. A dominatrix stands over a supine man. A bare-chested youth with shaggy hair and a come-hither expression advertises something or other. In one gigantic ad?for what, I'm not sure?two androgynous young men with perfect hair and perfect teeth appear very close to a kiss.

After getting off the subway at Jonggak, which is roughly Seoul's equivalent of Times Square, I wander across the street to a building with a big internet room in the basement. Here, I can check email. The inbox is often flooded with pornographic spam or ads ("SEXUALLY FRUSTRATED?") for products that promise to make a man into a walking sex machine.

I used to work in this building. My job was editing publications to promote Korea as a tourist destination; much of my work involved festivals. Promotional material for one festival went everywhere. Its emblem was a jolly, unmistakably phallic mushroom. That grinning mushroom is about the only cheerful memory I have of matters sexual.

More typical of my sexual recollections is the thought of a young man in San Francisco whose neighbors had to listen to his screams as he was dying of AIDS, evidently in the dementia phase. He had no one for comfort at the end. His mother denounced him in unprintable language, and his lover, another AIDS patient, had passed away a few months before.

Consider also an American illustrator whose brilliant use of color I admired. He died, I learned, of auto-asphyxiation in pursuit of an enhanced orgasm. The leather contraption around his neck reportedly failed to release him at the critical moment, and he perished. Can a man be called a martyr when he dies for an erection? Not everyone would say yes.

Then there was a Western businessman I knew in Seoul. His satyriasis destroyed his marriage to a beautiful and charming Korean woman. His infidelity was extravagant, and he made no particular effort to hide it. When his wife confronted him with the evidence, he flew to the United States with their young daughter and used the child to attempt extortion. Arrested soon afterward for child neglect, he said it all had been just a joke. The authorities were not amused. He went to jail. In a conversation with me later, his ex imagined his sex life in prison. "He's still young!" she said with a vengeful grin.

If a drug had side effects like these, we probably would deem it a menace and have it banned.

Ever grimmer memories pass in review. One involved a friend?a handsome man with a splendid voice and great potential as a writer and artist?who squandered those assets on devotion to sex and alcohol. He found a partner who had the same preoccupations, plus an inclination to violence. This paramour tried to strangle him one night in a drunken fury. It has been years since that unhappy fellow contacted me. When last heard from, he said he was contemplating chemical castration. He asked if anyone could advise him on how to have it done.

Perhaps the saddest case of all was that of a classmate from college. An M.D., he settled in a small Virginia town with his neurologist wife. One morning in 2001, he shot her to death in the kitchen of their home. Then he sent final emails to friends (possibly as his wife lay dead in the kitchen) and proceeded to hang himself from a tree. The motive? Sexual jealousy, I was told.

"I understand his wife was getting emails from another man," one of his friends informed me by letter.

Compared to stories like these, a eunuch's life is an idyll.

Korean literature expresses the pain of sexual desire eloquently in the 16th-century poem "Bedroom Chagrin" by Cheong Cheol. Part of the poem might be rendered freely into English as follows:

If only I could free myself from longing...

Why must the rain come down so heavily?...

My lamp alight, I play upon the lute

And sing a song of love to quench my pain,

While in the background I can hear the rain.

In similar fashion, so-called sexual humor now impresses me as little more than an effort to mask anguish. Shakespeare's sex jokes, such as those in Othello, merely accentuate the horrors of "romance" in his plays. For that matter, much of Shakespeare may be read as a cautionary tale about sexuality run wild. He has the ruined Timon warn, for instance, against "melt[ing] down thy youth in different beds of lust."

Meanwhile, Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd to his love"?"Come live with me and be my love"?sounds, to a modern-day eunuch at least, like a used-car dealer's spiel without the laughs. Take away erotic appreciation, and much of Western literature suddenly seems grotesque, if not downright scary.

But "scary" does not apply to my new life as a postsexual. "Liberated" is better. The old fire between my legs is gone. In its absence, life is secure and pleasant.

"Don't you miss the satisfaction of orgasm?" some have asked.

Not really. Other rewards have taken its place.

One is a new relaxation in dealing with women. Now I can hug a woman without getting aroused. It is amazing how much more stable and rewarding a man's relationships with women can be without the distraction of a tumescent organ.

At the same time, appeals to sexuality have ceased to sway my judgment greatly?a beautiful woman no longer makes me burn. About the most she can do is cause my insides a brief flutter. She is a lovely sight to be sure, like sunset over the Yellow Sea or the blue tile rooftops of Seoul under snow. But feminine beauty now lacks the power it once had over me. My work does not suffer as a result.

Find men who will talk candidly about their struggle with sexual desire, and you may be impressed to discover how many men really do not want intercourse at all. On the contrary, they fear it. From fiction, a barely disguised reflection of such fear is the death struggle between man and octopus in Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea.

Hugo's description of the man about to be consumed by a ravenous, multi-limbed creature of muscle and mucus sums up much of bedroom activity neatly from the male viewpoint. (For a female perspective, see Germaine Greer's famous simile about getting attacked by an enormous snail.) Fear of that devouring monster, or rather what it represents, is never far from masculine consciousness.

Take the example of a friend of mine, a virile young man from Canada who once taught in Asia. Tormented by a porn addiction, he feared it would destroy him. At last, to remove temptation from pornographic websites, he disabled his computer's internet connection at home and ripped out some wires to make sure it could not be restored. This act was a high-tech equivalent of castration. Though drastic, it worked.

Men in such straits may pray?literally pray?to have their sex drive removed. That was my request. I would undergo such torture from lust at times that I remember asking God, "Please, take it away!"

And that was what happened. Diabetes, the leading cause of such sexual dysfunction in men, delivered me from the jaws of the devouring monster.

Would I go back? No. This sea change in my sexual life more than compensates for the bother of monitoring blood sugar and injecting insulin daily, and even for nerve and circulatory damage. Better to live with diabetes and dysfunction than with a raging libido.

Better still is the discovery that I didn't really want sex in the first place. I wanted to be hugged and held, not brought to climax. A sincere, warm embrace from a woman is worth more than 10,000 orgasms. That lesson, lost on me while I still burned for sex, became clear only when my libidinal drive disappeared.

None of this is meant to make light of sexual dysfunction or dismiss it as trivial. It is of course a devastating experience for many men, especially when they have been conditioned by a hypersexual culture to think that "manhood" is merely the ability to impregnate a woman. Yet sex is only a minor part of manhood and masculinity. Though inactive sexually, I am still considered masculine. My loss of libido has not prevented me from holding a good job, eating and dressing well, maintaining a cordial and comfortable social life. I am, in fact, far more comfortable now than before, when a woman's presence turned up my thermostat.

An added benefit is that I am no longer subject to the sexmongers?the corporate entities that use eroticism to manipulate our behavior and spending. To estimate how profoundly they influence your life, make a list of goods and services you buy that have some erotic connection, from clothing and magazines to dinners and drinks. Add up the prices. Pretty soon, you are looking at enough money to buy a cozy home.

If you are a man, there is a reasonably high likelihood that diabetes, heart trouble or some other condition will do to you what it did to me. If that happens, you may spend thousands of dollars on medication, surgery or whatever else you imagine will "correct" the problem.

Or, you may realize that problems are in the eye of the beholder. Why not view this one from a different perspective? You could do worse than take the path of least resistance and just accept the loss. As the urge subsides, you may discover that you have lost nothing of lasting value. Life is not confined to the bedroom. It offers rewards other than orgasms.

If you already have lost the ability, be glad. The dangling sword, so to speak, can no longer threaten your security and peace of mind. Take my word for it. Every time a new monument is built, a new skyscraper is thrust into the sky, I am happy to live in a world where such a tower, to paraphrase Freud, is just a tower.

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