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- Can Choking During Sex Cause Brain Damage?
Dying is not the only danger of choking What happens when the brain lacks oxygen? To stay conscious and alive, our brain needs a continuous supply of oxygen and glucose from the blood. Neurons are the most finicky cells of the body. If they don’t get their oxygen, they throw a tantrum and die. Tantrum is quite an appropriate metaphor, because a neuron that is starving for oxygen begins firing a lot of action potentials and releasing its neurotransmitters. The main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain is the amino acid glutamate, which is also an abundant metabolite. When a neuron dies, all of its glutamate is released into its surrounding medium, activating glutamate receptors in its nearby neurons. Too much activation of glutamate receptors kills those neurons, too, setting off a chain reaction that produces a wave of cell death spreading through the brain. This glutamate release is what produces brain damage during a stroke. A stroke happens when a capillary inside the brain is blocked by a blood clot. Neurons that were supplied with oxygen by that capillary die, releasing glutamate and starting this wave of death. So, why doesn’t it end up killing the whole brain? Because there are cells in the brain, the glia, that are in charge of preventing damage by absorbing glutamate and other neurotoxic substances. Still, considerable harm can be done before these cells manage to bring the situation under control. Once neurons die, the body cannot replace them. The carotid arteries detect blood pressure Oxygenated blood is supplied to the brain through the carotid arteries, situated on the sides of the neck, towards the front. Just above the thyroid cartilage, or Adam’s apple, the carotid arteries split into the external carotid, which supplies blood to the face, and the internal carotid, which supplies blood to the brain. This bifurcation of the carotid artery is very important because it forms the carotid sinus, a swelling of the internal carotid artery. The carotid sinus is one of the two places in the circulatory system where there are baroreceptors. The other place is the aortic arch, situated in the aorta artery just above the heart. Baroreceptors are sensory neurons is charge of detecting blood pressure. They send this information to the brain so it can adjust the beating of the heart and the dilation of the capillaries. The carotid sinus sends blood pressure information to the brain through the glossopharyngeal nerve, while the aortic arch sends it through the vagus nerve. Both nerves end in the same place: the nucleus of the solitary tract or solitary nucleus, in the medulla oblongata. The solitary nucleus modulates the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems through the hypothalamus. Among other things, this modulates the heartbeat and the dilation of the capillaries, forming a feedback loop that controls blood pressure. Problems with the blood choke In a previous article, I explained that an air choke is blocking the entrance of air into the lungs, while a blood choke is blocking the carotid arteries and the jugular veins to interrupt the blood supply of the brain. The information above is crucial to understand the problems with the blood choke. In an air choke, a person can survive for several minutes without breathing. The air that remains in the lungs and the oxygen stored in the blood's hemoglobin and the muscles’ myoglobin can supply the organs, including the brain, for some time. Free-divers can hold their breath and remain conscious for several minutes, even while swimming vigorously in cold water (Scott et al., 2021). Interrupting the oxygen supply to the brain is an entirely different matter. Unconsciousness takes place in 10 to 20 seconds, irreversible neurological damage before one minute, and death soon afterwards. Therefore, a blood choke has to be timed precisely to avoid brain damage and death. But even if a blood choke is done for a time short enough for survival, there are other problems involved. It compresses or blocks the carotid arteries, which supply blood to the brain, and the jugular veins, which are the exit route of blood from the brain. This decreases blood flow (cerebral ischemia) and therefore the supply of glucose and oxygen (cerebral hypoxia). This represents a big problem for the brain, as shown by the damage caused by stroke. Except that, with a blood choke, we are altering the blood supply to the entire brain and not just a small part of it. Some neurons may be more sensitive to hypoxia than others, resulting in localized trauma that is hard to detect. Reperfusion injury Another problem is reperfusion injury, the harm produced when blood suddenly enters a tissue that has been deprived of it. Reperfusion increases the production of reactive oxygen molecules from the sudden increase in oxygen, as well as cytokines and chemokines, which are pro-inflammatory molecules produced by immune cells and microglia (Kalogeris et al., 2012). All this is extremely damaging to nervous tissue. The vasovagal response Yet another problem arises from the fact that the carotid sinus contains the baroreceptors that control blood pressure in the entire body. A blood choke changes the pressure detected by these baroreceptors. Pressure on the neck above the trachea would be exerted directly on the carotid sinuses, stimulating the baroreceptors. Pressure lower on the neck would decrease the blood reaching the carotid sinus, making it detect a lower blood pressure. The error signal thus produced in the carotid sinus would affect the beating of the heart, usually decreasing it. A highly controversial issue among pathologists is whether this could stop the heart altogether. This could explain why some deaths by strangulation occurred even though the choke did not last long enough to produce brain damage. The vasovagal response or reflex syncope “is a brief loss of consciousness due to a neurologically induced drop in blood pressure. Before the person passes out there may be sweating, a decreased ability to see, or ringing in the ears. […] Carotid sinus syncope is due to pressure on the carotid sinus in the neck. The underlying mechanism involves the nervous system slowing the heart rate and dilating blood vessels resulting in low blood pressure and therefore not enough blood flow to the brain.” Wikipedia. Other problems with the blood choke Messing with the blood pressure sensing by the baroreceptors in the carotid sinuses also affects the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, explaining why choking can produce reactions like nausea and vomiting. The whole body is thrown out of balance. There may be other complications of carotid occlusion, like cholesterol plaques being released from inside the carotids to cause strokes in the brain. Carotid occlusion is much more dangerous than other forms of asphyxiation. The key fact is that when you hold your breath, or when somebody blocks your breathing, there is a big reservoir of oxygen that your body can use to stay alive. However, your brain cannot store oxygen. When you block the carotids, your brain starts to run out of oxygen right away. Is there a risk of cumulative brain damage? Even if it does not cause death, repeated choking to the point of unconsciousness may have cumulative effects, leading to brain damage. Neuronal death may happen without any symptoms because the brain is very good at compensating for loss of function. You don’t know what is going on in your brain when you drive it close to unconsciousness, just because it’s so much fun! Your neurons could be dying while you party. This is what happened with traumatic brain injury (TBI), which is now called a “silent epidemic” (Alkhaibary et al., 2021). Sports like boxing and football cause repeated concussions that have an additive effect. When TBI finally manifests itself, it is too late to do anything about it. TBI is different from one person to another because different brain regions are affected. It produces sensory hypersensitivity, chronic pain, motor problems, memory loss and cognitive decline. While TBI and brain anoxia may seem different, they both involve neuronal death, so they may produce similar symptoms. Recreational choking may lead to another silent epidemic that would remain unknown for many years because the symptoms take a long time to appear and their cause may not be apparent at first. But, is there any evidence of this? Or is it just speculation and fearmongering? In the next article of this series, I will present evidence that repetitive choking leads to cognitive deficits and psychological problems. References Alkhaibary A, Alshalawi A, Althaqafi RMM, Alghuraybi AA, Basalamah A, Shammaa AM, Altalhy AA, Abdelrahman TM (2021) Traumatic Brain Injury: A Perspective on the Silent Epidemic. Cureus 13:e15318. Kalogeris T, Baines CP, Krenz M, Korthuis RJ (2012) Cell biology of ischemia/reperfusion injury. Int Rev Cell Mol Biol 298:229-317. Scott T, van Waart H, Vrijdag XCE, Mullins D, Mesley P, Mitchell SJ (2021) Arterial blood gas measurements during deep open-water breath-hold dives. J Appl Physiol (1985) 130:1490-1495. Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol.
- Breath Play: The Air Choke and the Blood Choke
The two main practices to induce asphyxia for pleasure Choking, as it is used during sex or in BDSM, aims to deprive the brain of oxygen to induce mental changes that are pleasurable, either by themselves or because they intensify sexual sensations. This can be done in two ways: by interrupting the air flow into the lungs (“air choke”) or by interrupting the blood supply to the brain (“blood choke”). This terminology comes from martial arts. There is some debate in the BDSM community about which one is better. The air choke Still, most of the choking during sex is done by squeezing the throat with one hand (Herbenick et al., 2022). It is hard to say if this is an air choke or a blood choke. If pressure is applied to the front of the neck, this can close the trachea, producing an air choke. However, applying pressure to the trachea is unpleasant and dangerous, because it can damage the vocal cords, impairing speech. It can also damage the thyroid gland or the trachea itself, which can have serious health effects. The trachea is a very delicate structure made of cartilage, a tissue similar to bone that also makes our joints. This makes the trachea semi-rigid, so applying pressure on it can deform it permanently. Therefore, this form of choking can produce long-term damage affecting breathing, talking and swallowing. A crushed trachea is life-threatening. You can kill somebody this way. Another straightforward way to produce an air choke is to block the nose and the mouth with the hand. A person can easily get out of this choke by struggling, which can be both a problem - involuntary struggling can stop the choke - and an advantage - a built-in safety feature. Deep throating - inserting the penis into the mouth deep enough to block air passage into the larynx - can be a form of choking. However, the gagging reflex would be induced much sooner than air deprivation is felt. Besides, a panicking bottom can bite the cock that is gagging him or her. Using a pillow or a mask to block breathing is dangerous because the top cannot see the face of the bottom, and therefore cannot judge the level of asphyxiation. This could be prevented by using a transparent bag, but removing it takes too long. Still too dangerous. Some people use a sharp object to quickly puncture the bag, but this risks cutting the face of the person being choked. The blood choke (carotid occlusion) The blood choke consists of stopping the blood supply to the brain by blocking the carotid arteries. They run superficially on both sides of the neck and can be blocked by applying a small amount of pressure on the right spots. On purpose or by accident, this is probably what it is done in some of the one-hand chokes that are more prevalent, according to the surveys. A common chokehold in martial arts consists in wrapping the neck of the adversary with one arm from behind, in a position resembling the number 4. This compresses the carotid arteries and jugular veins, but not the trachea, cutting the blood flow to the brain and thus inducing unconsciousness in 10-20 seconds. However, using this chokehold during sex of BDSM play has the problem that the person applying the choke cannot see the face of the person being choked, and therefore cannot regulate the pressure and the timing to avoid going too far. Unlike in martial arts and self-defense, most people that use choking during sex do not want to induce unconsciousness. Neither should they, since loss of consciousness by anoxia often leads to brain damage. Hence, the most common way to induce a blood choke during sex is to apply pressure to the sides of the neck with one hand, while looking into the face of the person being choked to evaluate their response. Which one is safer? Some people in the BDSM community argue that the blood choke is safer than the air choke for the following reasons: It affects only the brain and not the rest of the body. The blood flow can be manipulated quickly and subtly by changing the pressure of the hand. Changes in consciousness can be induced and restore quickly. It avoids damaging the trachea and other delicate structures in the neck. It does not increase the CO2 levels of the blood and hence blood acidity, like the air choke does. However, the blood choke has dangers that are not obvious at first sight. But understanding these dangers requires some complicated explanations about the functioning of the brain and cardiovascular physiology, which I will give in the next articles. For now, let me just say that the blood choke is, in fact, more dangerous than the air choke. Previous articles in this series https://www.hermessolenzol.com/en/post/how-common-is-sexual-choking https://www.hermessolenzol.com/en/post/why-do-people-enjoy-being-choked https://www.hermessolenzol.com/en/post/how-deathly-is-choking
- How deathly is choking during sex?
Choking is the main cause of death in BDSM, but less common than it is thought Deaths by autoerotic asphyxiation Choking appears in the popular imagination as a deathly activity, largely because of the many celebrities that have died of autoerotic asphyxiation. However, it is important to distinguish between breath play practiced in solitary and that practiced in couples. In the former, loss of consciousness or control over the body can lead to dead because the person cannot escape the asphyxia, while in the latter the person doing the choking has some control over the process. But even the number of deaths produced by autoerotic (i.e. solitary) asphyxiation has been exaggerated. It is often mentioned that it causes “500 to 1000 deaths per year in the United States and Canada” (Sauvageau, 2012), but that number is an estimation based on unpublished data. An epidemiological study based on 38 autoerotic deaths in Alberta, Canada, gave a lower number: 0.56 deaths per million inhabitants per year (Sauvageau, 2012). Multiplying this number by the population of the United States, 333 million, gives us an estimate of 186 deaths per year caused by autoerotic asphyxiation. The number of autoerotic deaths per million inhabitants per year is similar in other developed countries: 0.3 in Australia, 0.14 in Sweden and 0.5 in Germany. Choking deaths in BDSM Another paper (Schori et al., 2022) inquired specifically about deaths involved in BDSM play. Doing a literature search, they identified 17 deaths produced by BDSM activities. Of those, all were caused by asphyxia except one case, in which death was caused by hemorrhage due to inserting an inflatable balloon and other objects in the vagina. One death by asphyxia was caused by blocking the mouth and the nose with tape and fingers. The remaining 15 deaths were by strangulation, 5 with the hand or the forearm and 10 with ligatures (rope, belt, collar or chain). One of the cases of strangulation was a shibari scene in which two women were hanged with the same rope suspended from the ceiling (Roma et al., 2013). When one of them lost consciousness, her weight hanged the other. The first ended up death and the second, in a coma. The rate of death was similar across genders: 9 men and 8 women. In 9 of the cases, both partners were experienced in BDSM. In 2 cases, the top was a professional dominatrix. In 3 cases, the participants had discussed breath play techniques and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Therefore, experience and education were not enough to prevent the deaths. Conclusions The conclusions are a mixed bag. On the one hand, fatalities caused by BDSM are rare: 15 occurred in the United States from 1986 to 2020, and 3 in Germany from 1993 to 2017. On the other hand, breath play caused a disproportionate number of the deaths in BDSM. It is fair to say that, by far, choking is the most deathly BDSM activity. But dying is only the worst thing that can happen during breath play. There may be other health consequences, including brain damage. These are much harder to assess. I will discuss that in future articles. References Roma P, Pazzelli F, Pompili M, Girardi P, Ferracuti S (2013) Shibari: double hanging during consensual sexual asphyxia. Arch Sex Behav 42:895-900. Sauvageau A (2012) Autoerotic deaths: a 25-year retrospective epidemiological study. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 33:143-146. Schori A, Jackowski C, Schön CA (2022) How safe is BDSM? A literature review on fatal outcome in BDSM play. International Journal of Legal Medicine 136:287-295. Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol.
- Why do people enjoy being choked?
Is it just to please a partner, for pleasure, or something else? Many people finds been choked pleasurable In their survey of undergraduate and graduate students, the group of Herbenick (Herbenick et al., 2022b) found that 41.1% of the people who had been choked reported that choking was very pleasurable, 33.8% responded that it was somewhat pleasurable and 14.2% said that it was a little pleasurable. Only 3.1% said that choking was not pleasurable at all and didn’t want to repeat the experience, while 5.9% said it was not pleasurable but they would do it if their partners liked it. Please note that saying that a sexual act is done to please a partner does not make it non-consensual. It is not just that women accept being choked to please their partner; some men choke women only because they are asked to do it. More women than men found choking pleasurable, with 50.0% of undergraduate women and 26.8% of undergraduate men saying that it was very pleasurable. The number of graduate students that found it very pleasurable was 36.1% for women and 16.3% for men. Hence, a large majority of the students found breath play pleasurable. This can explain the growing popularity of choking, despite its reputation for being dangerous. However, this paper did not inquire into what made choking pleasurable. Consent Regarding consent, people who had been choked said that choking was consensual 92.1% of the time (Herbenick et al., 2022b). This number did not change much across genders or from undergraduates to graduate students. Among those who had been choked, choking was found to be consensual in all of their sexual encounters by 76.5% of women, 85.6% of men and 63.6% of non-binary people. In a more general survey about sex amongst college students (Herbenick et al., 2021), 21% of the students who had been choked said that they had never been asked for consent before being choked. An additional 32% of them said that they were asked for consent only sometimes. A qualitative survey (Herbenick et al., 2022a) found that the initial choking experience of many women occurred without discussing it beforehand or giving explicit consent. Often, consent was assumed or was sought while it happened. The authors remarked that consent to choking often fell in a gray area. For example, when verbal consent was given during sex or after sex. Sometimes consent was non-verbal, usually during sex. Other times, consent was assumed based on prior conversations, because they has done it before, the person’s interest in choking, or because it was assumed to be part of regular sex. Keep in mind that this happened among college students and not in the BDSM community, which has a strong consent culture. The students also considered choking to be safer than other forms of kinky sexy, an attitude that has been encouraged by the media (Herbenick et al., 2023). My survey in Fetlife I did my own inquiry into this by posting an article in Fetlife titled What Do You Like About Being Choked? It said: I heard some people say that being choked puts them in an altered state of consciousness that is different from sub space or from the effect of any drug. Is it true? In your experience, does choking make orgasms more intense? Or do you like choking for the psychological feeling that it brings you? Like, for example, surrender? Or perhaps you like the feeling of losing consciousness? Or is it a feeling of euphoria? Or is it something else? I think Fetlife was a good choice because I wanted to query specifically people who are into BDSM, and not those who practice choking as part of sex. However, the answers need to be interpreted in that context. I got 12 responses, 10 from women, 2 from non-binary persons and none from men. Four responders defined themselves as submissive, one as a slave, three as a masochist, one as a little, and the other three as exploring or curious. The following reasons were given to enjoy choking: Surrender (9 responders): loss of control, feeling helpless and vulnerable, feeling the power of the dominant, giving power to the dominant. Fear (5 responders), including feeling challenged and overcoming panic. Trust (4 responders): feeling that they could trust their safety to the choker. Euphoria (4 responders), including feeling high, lightheaded and physical pleasure. Orgasm and sensations are more intense (4 responders). Feeling safe, centered, calm (3 responders) despite the risk. Unconsciousness (3 responders). Edging to orgasm (2 responders). The most common responses align with the feelings usually sought in other BDSM activities: surrender to the power of the dominant, and the interplay between fear and feeling safe by trusting the top. But choking was also a source of pleasure. It produced euphoria and a high consisting of lightheadedness and physical pleasure. It also intensified physical sensations, including orgasm. Last, three people reported a paradoxical feeling of safety and calm, despite the obvious risk of the activity. My findings are consistent with one of the papers by the group of Debbie Herbenick (Herbenick et al., 2022a), a qualitative survey about the reasons why women like to be choked. In it, no participants reported actually losing consciousness. But many mentioned being excited about surrendering, empowering their partner, enhanced sexual arousal and longer orgasms. Fear and danger made the sex more exciting and pleasurable. Are the effects of choking similar to those of nitrous oxide? I was surprised not to find any mention to drug-like altered states of consciousness, which I heard about in some comments to my articles in Fetlife. When I asked if the feeling of being choked resembled the effect of any drug, one person responded that it did not feel like the effect of cannabis or psychedelics, but it could be similar to that of nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas and whippets. Whippets are obtained as canisters to make whipped cream (Srichawla, 2022). They produce a severe deficiency in vitamin B12 (Maheshwari and Athiraman, 2022) and serious neurological effects. They are consumed because they produce euphoria, analgesia and a brief high. The mechanism of action of nitrous oxide is still unclear. It acts on many neurotransmitter receptors, blocking excitatory NMDA receptors and nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and potentiating inhibitory GABA and glycine receptors. Perhaps the brain hypoxia produced by choking has similar effects. Indeed, inhaling nitrous oxide as whippets produces hypoxia. References Herbenick D, Guerra-Reyes L, Patterson C, Rosenstock Gonzalez YR, Wagner C, Zounlome N (2022a) "It Was Scary, But Then It Was Kind of Exciting": Young Women's Experiences with Choking During Sex. Arch Sex Behav 51:1103-1123. Herbenick D, Patterson C, Khan S, Voorheis E, Sullivan A, Wright P, Keene S (2023) "Don't Just Randomly Grab Someone's Neck during Intercourse!" An Analysis of Internet Articles about Choking/Strangulation during Sex. J Sex Marital Ther 49:41-55. Herbenick D, Patterson C, Beckmeyer J, Gonzalez YRR, Luetke M, Guerra-Reyes L, Eastman-Mueller H, Valdivia DS, Rosenberg M (2021) Diverse Sexual Behaviors in Undergraduate Students: Findings From a Campus Probability Survey. The journal of sexual medicine 18:1024-1041. Herbenick D, Fu TC, Eastman-Mueller H, Thomas S, Svetina Valdivia D, Rosenberg M, Guerra-Reyes L, Wright PJ, Kawata K, Feiner JR (2022b) Frequency, Method, Intensity, and Health Sequelae of Sexual Choking Among U.S. Undergraduate and Graduate Students. Arch Sex Behav. Maheshwari M, Athiraman H (2022) Whippets Causing Vitamin B12 Deficiency. Cureus 14:e23148. Srichawla BS (2022) Nitrous Oxide/Whippits-Induced Thoracic Spinal Cord Myelopathy and Cognitive Decline With Normal Serum Vitamin B₁₂. Cureus 14:e24581. Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol.
- How Common Is Sexual Choking?
Several surveys found that nearly a majority of college students use choking during sex Sexual choking is not exclusive of BDSM, and has become prevalent among the young. In a survey of 4,989 US college students, 58% of women had been choked during sex at least once (Herbenick et al., 2021). Another survey of undergraduate students (Herbenick et al., 2022a) found that 37% of the women and 7% of the men had been choked more than five times. Strangulation is also increasingly a feature of sexual assault. It is also used non-consensually during sex that was consensual up to that point. However, I will limit this discussion to consensual choking. Yet another survey of undergraduate and graduate students (Herbenick et al., 2022b) studied closely sexual choking in terms of prevalence, characteristics and physical responses. The survey was given to 13,449 students, of which 4,254 completed it. Men were 49.6% of the responders, women 48.1% and transgender/non-binary 2.2%. Age differences The survey found that 30% to 40% of the responders have practiced choking during sex. By comparing the responses of the older graduate students with the younger undergraduates, it found that choking is more prevalent among the young. The percentage of people doing the choking was 37.1% among the undergraduates and 27.6% among the graduate. The percentage of those being choked was 42.1% of the undergraduates and 32.1% of the graduates. Therefore, choking is more frequent in the younger generations, a sign that is increasing over time. Choking was less prevalent among people over 40 (Herbenick et al., 2023). Gender differences There were also substantial gender differences. Men did more choking (47.4% undergraduates, 37.7% graduates) than women (26.7% undergraduates, 16.2% graduates). Conversely, men were choked (25.4% undergraduates, 23.5% graduates) less frequently than women (57.6% undergraduates, 41.3% graduates). In transgender/non-binary people, choking (45.0%) and being choked (51.5%) were even more prevalent. In summary, men prefer to do the choking while women prefer to be choked. A majority of the women and transgender people in this sample have experienced choking. References Herbenick D, Fu TC, Patterson C (2023) Sexual Repertoire, Duration of Partnered Sex, Sexual Pleasure, and Orgasm: Findings from a US Nationally Representative Survey of Adults. J Sex Marital Ther 49:369-390. Herbenick D, Guerra-Reyes L, Patterson C, Rosenstock Gonzalez YR, Wagner C, Zounlome N (2022a) "It Was Scary, But Then It Was Kind of Exciting": Young Women's Experiences with Choking During Sex. Arch Sex Behav 51:1103-1123. Herbenick D, Patterson C, Beckmeyer J, Gonzalez YRR, Luetke M, Guerra-Reyes L, Eastman-Mueller H, Valdivia DS, Rosenberg M (2021) Diverse Sexual Behaviors in Undergraduate Students: Findings From a Campus Probability Survey. The journal of sexual medicine 18:1024-1041. Herbenick D, Fu TC, Eastman-Mueller H, Thomas S, Svetina Valdivia D, Rosenberg M, Guerra-Reyes L, Wright PJ, Kawata K, Feiner JR (2022b) Frequency, Method, Intensity, and Health Sequelae of Sexual Choking Among U.S. Undergraduate and Graduate Students. Arch Sex Behav. Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol.
- Dopamine: Why Heroin Is Addictive but Porn Is Not
Different patterns of dopamine release in the reward pathway mediate motivation and addiction The dopamine myths There is much confusion these days about what dopamine does in the brain. The logic goes like this: Drugs produce addiction by releasing dopamine in the brain. Pleasurable activities release dopamine in the same brain region. Therefore, pleasurable activities must also produce addiction. Yes, the logic is not entirely sound. The devil, as always, is in the details. After all, dopamine is constantly being released inside the brain. When you block dopamine release in mice, they lack motivation for doing anything and die of thirst and starvation (Wise and Jordan, 2021). Some people even take it a step further (Lembke, 2021). They reason that too much pleasure must deplete the brain of dopamine, leading to an unhealthy state of lack of motivation. Therefore, we must try to conserve dopamine by avoiding too much pleasure. Especially masturbating or watching porn. These ideas are everywhere nowadays. They are key to the NoFab anti-masturbation movement. Its ideas have been absorbed by the manosphere, which seeks to make men more manly, powerful and less dependent on sex. But they are also supported by radical feminists, who have been campaigning against porn since the 70s. And, of course, religious conservatives are always happy to find arguments against porn, masturbation, sex and anything pleasurable. Here are a few examples of these dopamine beliefs: Porn and masturbation are addictive. Video games are addictive. Social media, and smartphones in general, are addictive. You can become addicted to loving a person. Too much pleasure depletes the brain of dopamine, leading to a state of pain, lack of motivation and weak willpower. Dopamine fasting - avoiding the addictive drug or behavior for 30 days - can be used to stop an addiction. Are behaviors addictive? These beliefs are defended in the book Dopamine Nation, by Anna Lembke, M.D (see critical reviews here). It makes three main claims: That behaviors like masturbation, watching porn, reading romance novels, gaming, social media, and using your cell phone, are as addictive as drugs like cocaine and heroin; That pleasure and pain need to be maintained in balance - if you experience too much pleasure, you will pay with pain; That drugs and behaviors like those listed above require a 30-day dopamine fast to get out of addiction. These beliefs about dopamine are also featured in some episodes of the podcast of Andrew Huberman, particularly the one of August 16, 2021, where he interviews Dr. Lembke, and the one of March 27, 2023, “Leverage Dopamine to Overcome Procrastination & Optimize Effort.” I generally like the Huberman Podcast. It provides good information about neuroscience and good life advice. However, sometimes (as in the case of dopamine) it lacks enough scientific rigor and critical thinking. The book The Compass of Pleasure, by Dr. David Linden, also defends the idea that we can become addicted to sex and love. However, it does so as an afterthought. Its main goal is to explain the involvement of the dopamine reward pathway in pleasure. It is worrisome that these prestigious neuroscientists defend the idea that behaviors can be addictive. This article focuses on examining this issue by diving into the details of dopamine release in the reward pathway of the brain. To keep it short, I will leave other claims related to dopamine for another occasion. This is a contentious issue with important social and political ramifications. If left unchallenged, this trend of demonizing sex and pleasure as addictive can start a new era of puritanism and repression. Hence, it is important to treat it with the necessary scientific rigor. Besides having a 40-year research career on the neuroscience of pain and opioids, I have researched this issue extensively to find peer-reviewed articles to support what I say. The reward pathway In 1953, James Olds and Peter Milner were postdoctoral fellows at McGill University in Montreal. By being a bit clumsy, they made a discovery of great consequence (Olds and Milner, 1954; Olds, 1958; Linden, 2012). They worked in the lab of neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, famous for hypothesizing the mechanisms of memory by saying “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Olds and Milner were investigating the reticular system, an area in the midbrain that control sleeping and waking. But the electrodes they implanted in one particular rat were a bit off and landed in the septum instead of the reticular formation. When the rat recovered from surgery, they placed it in a large rectangular box. Every time that the rat was in a particular corner, Olds stimulated its brain by passing current through the electrode. The rat soon learned to return to that corner. Apparently, it liked its brain being stimulated in the septum. In this, it behaved differently than rats that had electrodes placed in the reticular system. Olds and Milner soon learned just how much rats enjoyed having their brains stimulated in the septum. They used a set-up called a Skinner box, in which rats could press a lever to deliver the electrical stimulus to their brain. When implanted with electrodes in this brain region, the rats would press the lever several thousand times per hour. Given the choice between water or food, on the one hand, or pressing the lever, on the other hand, the rats always chose to press the lever. Male rats would rather press the lever than mate with female rats in heat. Female rats abandoned their pups to go and press the lever. It was tempting to call this neuronal path the pleasure pathway. They called it the reward pathway, instead, or by the more technical name of mesolimbic pathway. By systematically placing electrodes in different parts of the brain of rats, scientists mapped this reward pathway. It runs in the middle of the bottom of the brain, back to front, from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens. It also sends dopamine-containing axons to the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, the thalamus and the hypothalamus. The VTA, together with the substantia nigra, contains many of the dopamine neurons of the brain. VTA neurons also send dopamine-releasing (dopaminergic) axons to the prefrontal cortex (volition), the anterior cingulate cortex (decision-making and planning), the amygdala (involved in fear and anxiety) and the hypothalamus (control of body functions). This is important, because dopamine maintains the function of these areas of the brain over long periods of time. For example, effects of dopamine on the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex are essential for flow (Kotler et al., 2022), a mental state of effortless effort, focused attention and creativity. What does it feel like to have your reward pathway stimulated? Inevitably, electrodes were placed in the reward pathway of humans to see what they felt when it was stimulated. Just like the rats, when humans were given the opportunity to stimulate the own reward pathway by pressing a lever, they did so non-stop. But what did they feel? In his book The Compass of Pleasure, neuroscientist David Linden says that they experienced euphoria, a state of well-being and excitation, but he doesn’t give any references to support this. Is the reward pathway really a pleasure pathway? Let’s start with orgasm. Indeed, the VTA and the nucleus accumbens are activated during orgasm (Wise et al., 2017). However, several other brain regions are also activated during orgasm: the insula, operculum, anterior cingulate cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, right angular gyrus, paracentral lobule, cerebellum, hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus and dorsal raphe. In particular, the insula and its nearby operculum mediate the emotions associated with body sensations, so they may be key for the pleasure produced by the orgasm. The anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex may mediate the desire to continue sexual stimulation. The hypothalamus mediates the release of oxytocin that produces bonding during sex. What about other kinds of pleasure? The linking reaction to sweets is mediated by a “hedonic hotspot” in the shell of the nucleus accumbens (Mitchell et al., 2018). The pleasure produced by music is associated with dopamine release in the striatum, which includes the nucleus accumbens (Salimpoor et al., 2011). This study used positron emission tomography (PET) to get images of the brain as dopamine displaces [11C]raclopride from dopamine receptors. Dopamine release occurred when arousal by music reached its peak, as reported by the subjects and measured by the activation of their autonomic system. Viewing pictures of a person who you love decreases pain by activating the nucleus accumbens, the amygdala and the frontal cortex (Younger et al., 2010). Some dopaminergic neurons in the reward pathway respond to aversive stimuli: things that we dislike, like pain and distress. The activation of some neurons in the nucleus accumbens with dopamine receptors was correlated with the emotional quality of pain (Scott et al., 2006). The front (rostral) part of the shell of the nucleus accumbens reacts to things that we like, while its back (caudal) part reacts to aversive stimuli (Hurley et al., 2017). A review paper (Salamone and Correa, 2012) objected to the name of reward pathway. They said that it is really a motivation pathway because it mediates sustained effort to achieve a goal. Another review (Paredes and Agmo, 2004) argued that dopamine is not important for sexual motivation or sexual reward. Even though this issue remains controversial, I would say that there is strong evidence that the reward pathway is involved in both pleasure and pain. However, scientists use the more precise terms reward for pleasure and aversion for pain. Dopamine receptors There are five receptors for dopamine, D1 through D5 (Seeman and Van Tol, 1994). They are the proteins in the membrane of neurons to which dopamine binds to deliver its signal. The five receptors are divided into two groups: D1-like receptors include D1 and D5 receptors, while D2-like receptors are D2, D3 and D4. The dopamine receptors most important in the reward pathway are D1 and D2 (Wise and Robble, 2020). About half of the neurons of the nucleus accumbens have D1 receptors, which have low affinity for dopamine. This means that their full activation requires high concentrations of dopamine. The other half of these neurons have D2 receptors, which have high affinity for dopamine. This means that relatively low concentrations of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens are able to activate most of the D2 receptors. Dopamine release The key to distinguish the effect of addictive drugs on dopamine from the effect of behaviors like masturbating, watching porn or playing video games resides on somewhat obscure concepts: tonic and phasic release of dopamine. Dopamine, like other neurotransmitters, is released when action potentials in the axon of the dopamine neuron reach a presynaptic terminal. This is a swelling separated by a small gap from the postsynaptic terminal containing the dopamine receptors. In the presynaptic terminal, dopamine is loaded into synaptic vesicles. When an action potential reaches the presynaptic terminals, some of these vesicles fuse with the membrane, releasing dopamine that then crosses the synapse and binds to the dopamine receptors in the postsynaptic terminals. Dopamine does not hang around the synapse for long. There are proteins called dopamine transporters (or reuptake systems) that take dopamine out of the synaptic space and put it back into the presynaptic terminal. Then dopamine gets quickly loaded back into the synaptic vesicles. Tonic dopamine release Neurons fire action potentials in different patterns. Tonic firing is the simplest pattern. It consists of single action potentials separated by time intervals of 150 to 500 milliseconds (ms). A ms is a thousandth of a second, so 500 ms is half a second. Tonic firing releases small amounts of dopamine that binds to D2 receptors, which present not only in the synapse, but all over the postsynaptic neuron. Tonic release of dopamine is not triggered by sensory stimuli from the environment, but controlled by stress and hormones related to feeding, like leptin, insulin and ghrelin (Wise and Robble, 2020). Tonic dopamine release controls the motivational state of the individual, its willingness to exert an effort to achieve a goal. A sustained rate of tonic release keeps basal dopamine levels high, so that D2 receptors are activated. This leads to a state of contentment and satisfaction. When tonic firing is low, dopamine falls below the levels at which it activates the D2 receptors. This creates a state of uneasy that drives the individual to seek something to relieve it. Based on previous learning, the person gets motivated to find a reward (food, sex, a work goal) that would increase tonic dopamine release again. For example, feeding hormones may cause a drop in tonic dopamine release, motivating the individual to seek food. Phasic dopamine release Burst firing of action potentials is more complex. It consists of several groups (bursts) of action potentials at high frequency - up to 100 Hz, which means one action potential every 10 ms. Burst firing changes synapses by the process of synaptic plasticity, which is how the brain stores memories. Synaptic plasticity is composed of two opposing mechanisms: long-term potentiation (LTP), which increases the efficacy of neurotransmission, and long-term depression (LTD), which decreases it. Burst firing of dopaminergic neurons induces phasic dopamine release. Phasic means intermittent: a lot of dopamine is released very quickly during each burst of action potentials. This increases dopamine concentrations at the synapse so much that the D1 receptors get fully activated. Together with the burst of action potentials, they induce LTP in these synapses, recording the memory of the rewarding stimulus. Some of these synapses are in the prefrontal cortex or the anterior cingulate cortex, where they drive future decisions. Some of this dopamine spills out of the synapse and activates D2 receptors. If the D2 receptors are in the bodies of the neurons, this dampens craving. But when the D2 receptors are in nearby synapses, the lower concentrations of spillover dopamine induce LTD in them. These synapses are less efficacious in the future. This sets a signal/noise contrast between the synapses activated by a rewarding stimulus and those unrelated to it, increasing learning. Phasic dopamine release is driven by sensory stimuli related to rewards (pleasure) or aversion (pain). They are delivered to the VTA-accumbens pathway from brain regions that assign a positive or negative emotional value to sensory signals. For example, the amygdala may assign fear to a perception, or the insula may assign pleasure to another one. How dopamine mediates addiction to cocaine and amphetamines This may seem very technical, but the difference between tonic and phasic dopamine is essential to explain why drugs are addictive and behaviors like watching porn or masturbating are not. Let’s start with cocaine. It acts by blocking the reuptake of dopamine: the proteins that transport dopamine back into the synaptic terminals to end its effect. When neurons cannot capture back dopamine, its spillover to D2 receptors outside the synapse during phasic dopamine release increases considerably. Even tonic dopamine release causes higher levels of dopamine around the neurons. Cocaine increases 3 to 5 folds basal level of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (Wise and Robble, 2020). But equally important is that these high levels of dopamine are present for long periods of time, for as long as we feel the effect of cocaine. Exposed to too much dopamine for long periods of time, the D2 receptors are downregulated: taken out of the membrane and degraded. So now there are less D2 receptors to signal satisfaction, leading to a state of craving. At the same time, the pleasure produced by cocaine sends a signal through D1 receptors that creates an association of cocaine with reward. This, together with the state of craving induced by the downregulation of the D2 receptors, is what drives the compulsive seeking of the drug that constitutes addiction. Amphetamine and methamphetamine acts in a similar way as cocaine, except that they not just inhibit the dopamine transporter, they reverse it! They also release dopamine from the synaptic vesicles. This results in increases in extrasynaptic dopamine even larger than those produced by cocaine. Notice that the increases in dopamine produced by cocaine and amphetamines are not mediated by changes in either tonic or phasic dopamine release. They are not related to behavioral rewards or aversions. It is an unnatural interference that completely messes up the reward pathway. How dopamine mediates addiction to opioids Opioids like heroin, morphine, fentanyl and oxycodone (the infamous OxyContin that caused the opioid epidemic in the USA) act by a different mechanism. Neurons that release the neurotransmitter GABA are the main brake system in the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces action potential firing in other neurons. There are GABA-releasing (GABAergic) neurons that make synapses with the dopamine neurons of the reward pathway, providing a negative feedback. When there is too much release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, GABAergic neurons that go to the VTA get activated, decreasing their firing and thus dopamine release. These GABAergic neurons contain mu-opioid receptors, which are the site of action for the opioid drugs that I listed above. When these opioid receptors are activated, GABA release is decreased. This relieves dopamine release from its inhibition, increasing it - a phenomenon called disinhibition. That is how opioids increase dopamine release in the reward pathway (Johnson and North, 1992; Saigusa et al., 2017, 2021). As in the case of cocaine and amphetamines, the resulting increases in dopamine are sustained and lead to the downregulation of D2 receptors, setting a state of craving. In addition, the abnormal activation of the mu-opioid receptors by the opioid drugs seems to induce long-term changes in the GABAergic neurons that reduce their ability to keep dopamine release in check. This may explain why opioids are even more addictive than cocaine. Curiously, endorphins - the peptides that naturally activate opioid receptors - do not produce addiction (Stoeber et al., 2018). The reason for this is complicated. Endorphins are quickly degraded by enzymes called peptidases (Song and Marvizon, 2003), and this limits the amount of time that they have to activate the opioid receptors. Another reason is that opioid receptors send different signals to the inside of the cell depending on whether they are activated by endorphins or by drugs. The intracellular signals sent by endorphins end the action of the mu-opioid receptors by internalizing them to the inside of the cell, while morphine and other drugs do not produce mu-opioid receptor internalization (Keith et al., 1996; Stoeber et al., 2018). This is important because it means that natural stimuli that release endorphins - like sex and exercise - do not produce addiction, even though endorphins activate mu-opioid receptors just like morphine and heroin. Cannabis Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are two amongst over a hundred psychoactive compounds found in marihuana. They act on CB1, CB2 and GPR55 receptors (Lauckner et al., 2008; Pertwee, 2008). The natural ligands of CB1 and CB2 receptors are the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-arachinodylglycerol (2-AG). They are called retrograde neurotransmitters because they signal the opposite way than regular neurotransmitters: they are synthesized in the postsynaptic terminals and diffuse to the presynaptic terminal, where they inhibit neurotransmitter release. Like opioids, cannabinoids inhibit GABA release onto dopamine neurons in the reward pathway, increasing dopamine release by disinhibition (Szabo et al., 2002). However, cannabis is much less addictive than opioids and does not produce withdrawal (Wise and Robble, 2020). Several things may explain this. CB1 receptors also inhibit glutamate release onto the dopamine neurons, which increases dopamine release. So, in this case, cannabinoids inhibit dopamine release, moderating their effect on the GABAergic neurons. Cannabinoids increase phasic dopamine release (Wise and Robble, 2020), rather than its tonic release. They also interact with endorphins to increase “liking” instead of “wanting” (Mitchell et al., 2018). CBD, acting on CB2 receptors, decreases addiction to cocaine (Galaj et al., 2020). Other addictive drugs Other addictive drugs have their own mechanisms (Wise and Robble, 2020). Alcohol is addictive when taken regularly in large amounts. Unlike other drugs, its effects on the brain are not mediated by a particular neurotransmitter receptor, but by its interaction with many receptors. These include glycine receptors, serotonin 5-HT3 receptors and nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Alcohol produces only small increases in basal dopamine levels, but seems to increase phasic dopamine release. Still, alcoholics show a downregulation of D2 dopamine receptors similar to that produced by cocaine, amphetamines and opioids. Nicotine - the psychoactive substance of tobacco - is an agonist of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, some of which are in dopaminergic neurons of the VTA. Nicotine increases dopamine release from these neurons. In the long term, it downregulates D2 dopamine receptors. Benzodiazepines (Valium) and barbiturates (pentobarbital) act by modulating GABA-A receptors, increasing the inhibitory effects of GABA. They seem to disinhibit dopamine release, like the opioids. Why natural stimuli induce dopamine release, but not addiction Let’s now examine how some behaviors considered addictive impact the VTA-nucleus accumbens dopamine pathway. These things include (Potenza, 2006, 2014): food: eating sweets and other tasty foods (Lindgren et al., 2018); sex: masturbating, watching porn, reading romance and erotica, fetishism, kink; playing: video games, gambling; social interactions: social media, anxious attachment, obsessive love (Burkett and Young, 2012); shopping and shop-lifting; self-harm, like cutting; exercise: any sport done in excess; work: workaholics. These are all natural activities. Although video games and social media depend on the invention of the computer and the internet, playing, gossip and social interactions have always been human activities. The same can be said about sex. People have masturbated, had sex, and watch others have sex since the dawn of humanity. Living today is much less dangerous and scary that in ancient times. It’s only that sensory stimulation has been increased by tastier foods, more appealing sexual images, more exciting games, etc. Strong sensory stimuli engage the reward pathway. However, they still do that by inducing phasic dopamine release. This is completely different from the prolonged elevations of basal dopamine levels produced by psychostimulants like cocaine and amphetamines. Neither does it mess with GABAergic inhibition of dopamine release, like opioids do. Natural stimuli also fine-tune tonic dopamine release to drive our motivations as we cycle through desire and satisfaction. Therefore, the stimuli provided by modern technology are not qualitatively different, in terms of dopamine release, from the old rewards with which we evolved. There is no reason to think that these activities would produce the enormous craving and withdrawal syndromes that addictive drugs produce. Still, it is true that some people develop strong compulsions to gamble, eat in excess or watch porn. However, this is better explained as an excessive tuning of the dopamine system towards one specific reward - gambling, tasty foods, exciting sex, etc. - and not an abnormal hijacking of the reward pathway, as drugs of addiction do. Is sex addictive? Unfortunately, science was often used in the past to justify puritanism and sexual repression. Even today, excessive sexual desire is considered a disease, termed Don Juanism and satyriasis in men and nymphomania in women. And let’s not forget that, for the longest time, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Some contemporary papers (Blum et al., 2015) continue this tradition by assuming that departures from culturally approved sexual norms are “maladaptive” and need to be cured. Thus, Bloom et al. define sexual addiction as “any compulsive sexual behavior that interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on the family, friends, loved ones, and one's work environment.” However, the severe stress may be due to family, friends and co-workers refusing to accept unconventional forms of sexuality, as it still happens with homosexuality. The problem, then, is not with the sexual behavior in itself, but with the bigoted attitudes of society. Indeed, in their review of the literature, Bloom et al. found no evidence that hypersexuality produces any withdrawal symptoms when the sexual activity is stopped. They state that “the prevalence rates of sexual addiction-related disorders range from 3% to 6%”, but these include “excessive masturbation, cybersex, pornography use, aberrant sexual behavior with consenting adults, telephone sex, strip club visitation, and other addictive behaviors.” However, these are behaviors accepted as normal by most people in Western societies. Calling these behaviors addictive is based more on their puritanical assumptions than on scientific evidence. Other scientists align better with modern sex-positive views by showing that hypersexual behavior is just one extreme of the normal range of sexual desire (Steele et al., 2013; Prause et al., 2017). Indeed, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DMS-5) rejected the concept of sexual addiction (Potenza, 2014). Addiction or compulsions? Whether some behaviors are addictive continues to be hotly debated in the scientific community (Potenza, 2006, 2014). An emerging view is that compulsive behaviors like excessive eating, gambling, gaming and watching porn are not addictions but reflect an underlying deficit in the reward pathway that causes these individuals to be always craving something. This underlying disorder in the reward pathway may be genetic, produced by a disease, or derived from trauma. Only by addressing its true cause can these persons be freed of their basic craving. Then, curing them of one “addiction” only serves to switch their compulsion to another behavior. For example, when “sex addicts” do not have access to sex, they start smoking or eating in excess. Trying to cure these people of one compulsive behavior has the danger of switching them to consuming addictive drugs, a situation much worse than the original problem. Closing thoughts There is much more to the brain than the VTA-nucleus accumbens reward pathway. Like any other system in the brain, it doesn’t work in isolation. Its function is deeply connected to sensory systems that weigh the importance of incoming information, and to cortical systems that plan actions. Trying to view human behavior through the narrow window of addiction is incredibly short-sighted. Yes, there are many things in the modern world that strive to capture our attention, but they don’t have the hold on our will that drugs have over addicts. Of course, obsessively seeking pleasure can be a problem. But so is shackling ourselves to the repression of sex and other pleasures of life. Too much self-discipline, guilt and shame can cause much suffering by propelling us on an ego-driven chase of success, money and fame. Puritanism has been in the collective minds of Americans since the start of this nation. It gave birth to the Prohibition and to the War on Drugs, misguided attempts to address alcoholism and drug addiction through criminalization. One reason why books like Dopamine Nation are so successful is because the narrative of sin and redemption — which underlies the cycles of abuse and sobriety of many addicts — is so deeply imbedded in the American psyche. In fact, calling porn and video games addictive undermines the importance that we should give to the tragic problem of drug addiction. The current opioid epidemic in the United States was started in 1996 by Purdue Pharma, ran the Sackler family, with its aggressive marketing of OxyContin to American doctors. It was not caused by people chasing pleasure. Its toll is over 300,000 deaths. Nobody has died from watching too much porn or playing video-games. Saying that porn, masturbation, gaming and cell phones are problems similar to drug addiction is simply ridiculous. It is a slap in the face of the millions of people who have lost loved ones to real addictions. I hope that in this article I have shown that the neuronal mechanisms that underlie drug addiction are quite different from those that motive us to do anything else in our lives. Including enjoying pleasures like games, porn, sex and love. References Blum K, Badgaiyan RD, Gold MS (2015) Hypersexuality Addiction and Withdrawal: Phenomenology, Neurogenetics and Epigenetics. Cureus 7:e348. Burkett JP, Young LJ (2012) The behavioral, anatomical and pharmacological parallels between social attachment, love and addiction. Psychopharmacology (Berl) 224:1-26. Galaj E, Bi GH, Yang HJ, Xi ZX (2020) Cannabidiol attenuates the rewarding effects of cocaine in rats by CB2, 5-HT(1A) and TRPV1 receptor mechanisms. Neuropharmacology 167:107740. Hurley SW, West EA, Carelli RM (2017) Opposing Roles of Rapid Dopamine Signaling Across the Rostral-Caudal Axis of the Nucleus Accumbens Shell in Drug-Induced Negative Affect. Biological psychiatry 82:839-846. 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- Leaving Catholicism During the Franco Dictatorship in Spain - My Spiritual Journey, Part 2
How I left Catholicism while attending an elite school ran by Opus Dei Moving to Madrid My childhood in the Spanish town of Santiago the Compostela ended when I was 15, when my parents, my seven siblings and I moved to Madrid. That heralded a momentous change in my life. It was not just that I was in the middle of puberty. The intellectual changes that had been brewing inside of me came to a head. We had a nice apartment in Santiago, in professor housing in the middle of the campus, surrounded by gardens and sport facilities. But our new home in Madrid was downright luxurious: a huge flat facing the Park of Berlin, in a modern part of the city. It had so many bedrooms that I got to have a room of my own. My Opus Dei High School My father had been telling my brothers and me that we would go to the Instituto Ramiro Maeztu, a public school walking distance from our new home. However, when we arrived in Madrid, we found that plans had been changed without our knowledge. We were enrolled in the school of El Prado, ran by the private organization Fomento de Centros de Enseñanza, controlled by the Opus Dei. It was a boys-only school. My sisters would go to Montealto, a girls-only school run by the same organization. As I described in the Part 1 of this series, Opus Dei is a conservative Catholic organization that controlled politics and wealth in Spain during the last part of the Franco dictatorship. My siblings and I had been groomed by this organization since childhood. However, the school we attended in Santiago de Compostela, although also private and boys-only, was not run by Opus Dei. Now, we would have Opus Dei in our family, at school and in our social circle. We were invited to join Club Jara, a boys' club similar to the Club Senra that I frequented in Santiago. El Prado school was in Mirasierra, a wealthy colony in the outskirts of the north of Madrid. It was far from home and not easily accessible. Most students got there by school bus. However, one of the perks of my father’s new government position was an official car, complete with uniformed chauffeur, flag and government license plates. Everybody would recognize it when we stepped out. I was embarrassed. However, I soon find out that we were not the only ones being driven to school in an official car. Some of my classmates also were the sons of government officials, military and entrepreneurs. I was in an elite school. The academic year had already started at the school. We were late because of the move. I joined in the middle of class. I had grown a beard during the summer, so my new classmates thought that I was a new teacher sitting the class. When they found out that I was the new kid in town, they were fascinated. I feared that I was not going to be able to catch up with the curriculum of such an elite school. I was used to being the first of my class in Santiago. Now, I found the mathematics class incomprehensible. The Literature teacher was an aggressive priest prone to telling vaguely sexual anecdotes. Physics was challenging. And I found religion class to be the most upsetting. It consisted of going over the dogmas of Catholicism, which made me feel the whole oppressive weight of that religion. However, I soon found out that my classmates felt pretty much the same weight. Nobody understood the math teacher. He was just awful. Suddenly, he changed from algebra to calculus and I found myself in familiar territory. I had a great math teacher in Santiago, and I loved calculus. Soon, I was explaining it to my peers, which made me quite popular. I also got into the habit of picking arguments with the philosophy teacher. My classmates loved these confrontations and cheered me along. I had the good taste of conceding the point before things got ugly, and that earned me the favor of the teacher as well. The first round of exams came. I got good grades. I was on! Growing doubts My discussions with the philosophy teacher were not as frivolous as they seemed, however. They reflected a deep philosophical struggle inside of me. I had always been a good boy: obedient, a good student, always eager to please my demanding father. Being religious was part and parcel of that. That’s why I went to all those retreats of the Opus Dei my father sent me to. I prayed, went to mass and confessed regularly. I didn’t chase girls or masturbate. In fact, I lived in deep sexual repression despite an emergent libido. I had a penchant for mysticism. I loved sitting silently in prayer, gathering my thoughts while I talked to God. I did half an hour of prayer every evening. But I wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t feel any devotion to the Virgin or the saints, and was not even impressed by Jesus. I saw no reason why I couldn’t talk directly to the Big Boss. The problem was that my insatiable curiosity had propelled me to learn a lot about science. It provided a coherent, enormously appealing view of the world that increasingly collided with the dogmas of Catholicism. But it was not just that. I had started reading about yoga, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, and they seemed more attractive as religions than Christianity. I reasoned that being a Christian was a mere accident of my birth. That random occurrence could not determine the truth of a religion. If I had been born in India, I would have been a Hindu. If I had been born in Egypt, I would be a Muslim. And so on. So, the rational thing to do was to examine all religions and then decide which one made more sense. If any. I had tried that the previous summer, while I was at an Opus Dei retreat in Vigo, a port city of Galicia not far from where my parents had a beach house. I decided that I was going to stop being a Christian, to see what it felt like. I even told a priest in confession. He was horrified, but could not provide any satisfactory response to my problem of being a Christian by accident of birth. Or any other of my objections. Another disturbing thing that happened during that summer retreat was that the participants we were invited, as a group, to discuss a philosophical or political subject. However, there was an important caveat: it couldn’t be anything about which the Church had a doctrine. I successively proposed discussing communism, socialism, anarchism, Eastern religions, feminism, only to always came against the same answer. These were things condemned by the Church, so they could not be discussed. I was furious. I had the feeling that Catholicism was a huge intellectual jail in which I could not learn what I wanted and grow intellectually. However, the prospect of staying outside the Church was too scary, so I went back to being a Catholic. If I wandered outside of religion, how was I going to maintain my self-discipline? Wouldn’t I end up becoming a pervert, a communist, a drug addict, like so many youngsters of my generation? I meet a real-life saint During the Holy Week of 1972, I was invited to travel to Rome with the Opus Dei, see the Pope and meet the Father, Monseñor Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of the Opus Dei. After his death, he was canonized by the Church. So I was about to meet a real saint. I was not impressed by him. He made us wait a long time. Then he told us a silly story about a rich man that gave a lot of his wealth to charity, and a poor man that only had one spoon but was so attached to it that he growled at anybody that looked at it. The moral of the story was that what matters is not how much money you have, but how attached you are to it. It made sense, sort of. But I think Jesus says the opposite in the Gospel. Something about camels and the eye of a needle. Whatever. Escrivá de Balaguer would die three years later, on June 26, 1975. Five months before the death of dictator Franco. But I loved being in Rome. I had been born there, and I lived in that magical city until I was 5. I could still remember some of the places of my childhood. I could speak Italian. Too bad they didn’t let me wander on my own. October 1972: the agony of making a decision Attending those religion classes in the school of El Prado, I couldn’t keep my eyes closed anymore. Cognitive dissonance became too strong. The dogmas of Catholicism rained on my head like blows of a hammer. I could clearly see how they conflicted with my scientific view of the world. Humans were the product of evolution. The mind was just the brain at work. Miracles seemed doubtful, and besides, all religions had them. Looking deeper, religion started to seem like a mental trap. Its arguments were circular. From inside Christianity, it was hard to object to the beliefs, mostly because believing was considered a good thing, and unbelief was a sin. But if you dared to place your point of view outside of religion, it all fell apart. It made no more sense than believing in the ancient Greek gods, or in reincarnation, or that Krishna was the avatar of Vishnu, or that Muhammed was the prophet of Allah. By the time October rolled around, I was in deep distress. I had to decide. I could renounce my heretical views based on science and Eastern mysticism and fully embrace Christianity. Or I could leave Christianity and follow my own spiritual path. The decision seems obvious when I look back at it. But I was 15, barely a child. I had nobody to help me. My parents were in the Opus Dei. My teachers were in the Opus Dei. The whole damned country was a Catholic dictatorship where expressing the wrong opinion (and I had lots of those) could land you in jail. Every evening before dinner, I locked myself in my room for my daily prayer, and cried, torn by my inner struggle. Then I dried my tears and pretended that nothing was happening. I did ask a couple of priests for advice. But our conversations turned confrontational. I even wrote to don Aurelio. His answer came too late. He said that he had always feared that the extremism of Opus Dei was going to turn me away from Christ. But, for me, Opus Dei represented the true face of Catholicism. I couldn’t live like that, so I gave myself a deadline: by the end of October, I would decide. A few things started to come clear. I wasn’t going to stop being a Christian to give free rein to my last and go chasing girls. In fact, I would not abandon any part of my self-discipline. I would continue my daily prayer, studying hard and restraining from masturbation. My reasons for leaving Christianity were purely intellectual. Halloween was unknown in Spain at the time. On that suspicious date, I stopped being a Christian for good. Out of the mental jail The feeling was one of complete freedom. An enormous weight was lifted off me. I felt like I could finally breathe. I could read what I wanted, think what I wanted. Choose my beliefs along the way; discard them when they no longer made sense. There was no feeling of urgency anymore. I was young. I had my whole life in front of me. I could take my time to choose my ideas and my values. Non-believer in the closet However, there was still a lot of fear. How would I tell my parents? Would I dare tell my teachers in that Opus Dei school? Now that I could speak more freely to my classmates, I realized that they were divided into two camps: those who agreed with Opus Dei, and those who opposed it. I had been so careful in hiding my inner conflict that nobody knew on whose side I was on. That made me realize that my new ideas entailed some obligations. I had to help those who thought like me. My discussions with my philosophy teacher took a new edge. And so did my questions to my other teachers. I would carefully choose an idea and put it out there as a question. But it was bait; if you followed it to its conclusion, you would find yourself questioning a dogma. My classmates were not stupid. They soon realized what I was up to. My popularity increased. I found myself in a role that I didn’t know existed: the cool intellectual kid who got the highest grades and thus could not be harassed by the teachers. And so did Opus Dei. And probably my parents. However, much to my surprise, nobody dared to confront me openly. They seemed as afraid of me as I was afraid of them. I was like they knew that my change of heart was so honest, so deeply rooted in well-thought ideas, that confronting it could end up challenging their own convictions. But I was flattering myself. What really happened is that the whole country of Spain was undergoing the same change as me, as the national-catholic dictatorship of Franco slowly fell apart. My guardian angel One strategy of Opus Dei is to place one of their members near you to keep tabs on you and inform his superiors in the organization. That person would become your best friend so that you would confide in them your most intimate thoughts Ironically enough, the name of my guardian angel was Ángel, a common name in Spain. Ángel was my classmate. He got good grades, but regularly seek my help with math and physics. Although he never said, he was a numerary member of Opus Dei. I know now that Opus Dei starts recruiting members when they are 14. In fact, they had tried to recruit me at that age, while I was at that retreat in Vigo. But I was in the midst of my first “crisis of faith”, so it didn’t work out. Ángel and I were both members of Club Jara. That winter, I had fallen in love with skiing, a sport that could be practiced in the Sierra of Guadarrama, barely an hour's drive north of Madrid. Club Jara fleeted a bus every weekend to the sierra, which was my main reasons not to cut ties with that Opus Dei club. I even kept attending their Friday night's prayers, just because I enjoyed singing the Pange Lingua in Latin. If my parents insisted, I went to Sunday mass with them. And they saw me locking myself in my room every evening for prayer, which, in my head, I had started calling meditation. Yeah, I know: I was devious. But it worked quite well. It kept everybody trying to second-guess me. And I really enjoyed the skiing. It was May when Ángel invited me to go on a long bike ride with him. On one of our rest, he started pestering about praying the rosary. Or maybe going to another of those Opus Dei retreats. I could hold it no more. I told I was no longer Catholic, or even Christian. I didn’t expect him to get as surprised as he did. I thought he had already figured it out. He told me I was going to Hell and blah, blah, blah. I just shook my head and laughed. He realized it was hopeless trying to convince me. We just got on our bikes and rode back to Madrid. I knew he would tell Opus Dei, who would tell my parents. I didn’t care. I had left behind my fears. That was the final step of leaving the mental jail in which I had spent my childhood. Preparing for college That was my last year of High School, so I only attended El Prado for one year. The following year was a bridge year in which we were supposed to prepare for college. I was sent to an academy also run by Opus Dei. Despite of that, it was mixed gender. For the first time in my life, I had girls as classmates. I had become good friends with Carlos, a former classmate of El Prado who joined me at the academy. Carlos told me that he had been a member of Opus Dei but had left the organization, becoming a non-believer, like me. We bonded by our common interests in science, ideas and mountaineering. I was reading ferociously: Hindu philosophers like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda, Teilhard de Chardin, Zen, Alan Watts, Erich Fromm, Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov (the science-fiction and the popular science)… Well, it may have taken me a few more years to work through all these authors. But that should give you an idea of where my mind was heading. Unlike what is common in the USA, students in Spain didn’t get to choose their university. I was assigned to go to the Complutense University of Madrid. But I wanted to get out from the influence of Opus Dei, so I thought that the newer university, called Autonoma, would be better. Besides, it had a great program in biochemistry, which was what I wanted to major on. With some help from my father, I managed to switch. Ángel and I meet again Strangely enough, Ángel emailed a few years ago. It wasn’t hard to find me on the internet, I guess. Why did he contact me? To check if he could bring me back to Catholicism? Was he still trying to be my guardian angel? I told him straight that I was more atheistic than ever. I had cycled through several religions and Christianity was the one I liked the least. He said that it didn’t matter. He was just thinking about me and wanted to see how I was. He was a successful film producer. Sometimes, he even came to LA. Yes, he was still a member of Opus Dei. Imagine that! Being celibate since we were both teenagers. To have none of the wonderful sexual experiences I had. To never have fallen in love. To never had seen your child grow up. “Was it worth it?” I wanted to ask. But I never did. I already knew the answer. We met for lunch a couple times I was in Madrid. He had changed a lot. So, I guess, had I. We didn’t talk about religion - much as I wanted to. But I feared that I couldn’t do that without the conversation turning confrontational. My father’s last years had taught me that it was cruel to challenge somebody’s beliefs. Especially that late in life. The last time we saw each other, he took me to his home and his office. He lived in a house that he shared with several other members of Opus Dei. The main room on the first floor was a beautiful chapel. There was a common kitchen and living room. His bedroom was tiny. It was nice to have a look at modern-day Opus Dei. I guess that’s what he wanted me to do. I ended up telling him my pen name, Hermes Solenzol. I told him to go ahead and read my first novel, warning him that in contained a description of my falling out of faith, a strong criticism of Catholicism, and plenty of sex scenes. He went ahead and read it, anyway. I asked him if he thought that my portrayal of Opus Dei was fair. He said that it mostly was, except for one little detail: my protagonist, Cecilia, would not have confessed to the priest face-to-face, but using a confessionary. In his first emails, Ángel sent me PDF files of the letters I send him from college. I was surprised by the Om signs and all the Hindu mysticism. I was going through the phase that I will describe in the next article of this series. This part of my life is fictionalized in the first part of my novel Games of Love and Kink.
- Growing Up in Spain Under Franco and the Opus Dei - My Spiritual Journey, Part 1
Sometimes privilege and oppression combine in strange ways My father dragged me kicking and screaming to the Opus Dei When I was seven years old, my father dragged me kicking and screaming, up seven flights of stairs, to a children’s club run by the Opus Dei. It was as if my current progressive persona had possessed my younger self and resisted going there. In reality, what happened was that I had overheard my parents say that Opus Die would turn me into a good boy, and I was having none of that. My temper tantrum stopped the moment they opened the door and I came face to face with Elías, a popular guy in my class who had become my best friend. I was short of friends, having moved to the town of Santiago de Compostela in the Celtic country of Galicia (northwestern Spain) just a couple of years before. So I stopped crying, played it cool and checked the place out. That was the only time I saw Elías in that Opus Dei club, the Club Senra. I guess his parents were not as conservative as mine. The Opus Dei My father knew perfectly well what Opus Dei was: a Catholic conservative organization that had become a political powerhouse inside the fascist regime of General Francisco Franco. My uncle José Luís, my father’s youngest brother, was a numerary member of Opus Dei, living in the organization headquarters in Rome. Numerary members have to live in full chastity (meaning that they are not allowed to marry or have sex), poverty (they give their earnings to the organization) and obedience (they follow the instructions of the organization conveyed through their spiritual director). However, they do this as a contract with the Opus Dei and not as vows, as monks do. My father was a super-numerary member of Opus Dei, a category created for married people. They live in chastity “inside their marriage”, pay tithes to the organization, and obey their spiritual director (with more leeway than numerary members do). Oh, and they had to offer in sacrifice their eldest son. Which, in this case, would be me. I am only half-joking. What really happens is that they are asked to put their children in clubs like the Senra, where they are carefully groomed and indoctrinated. Then, when they turn 14, they would be asked to join Opus Dei. My younger siblings would not escape that fate. My two brothers would soon join me at the Club Senra. My sister would follow a different path, since men and women are kept strictly separated in the Opus Dei. She eventually became a numerary member, but she did not last long inside the organization. . My father’s career Being a member of the Opus Dei worked very well for my father. He was a Professor of Roman Law at the University of Santiago. Around the time he took me to Club Senra, in 1964, he became the Dean of the Law School. In 1968, the student demonstrations that started with the May 68 troubles in Paris and elsewhere in Europe were rocking Santiago de Compostela, a small town full of college students. Its main lifeline, other than its famous cathedral, was the university. A group of students had locked themselves inside the President’s Office at the University and refused to come out unless their demands were met. Franco decided that the current Rector (President) of the university was too soft. A strongman needed to be put in his place. That strongman was my Dad. Recently, my Dad told me that his way to deal with that problem was not to send in the police, as Franco expected him to do, but to offer the students a place to meet in the Burgo de las Naciones, a set of barracks that had been built to lodge the pilgrims during that Holy Year. I was eleven. Being the son of the president of the university put me in squarely in the high class in that provincial town. Before moving to Santiago, we had lived quite humbly, first in Rome and then in La Laguna, a college town on the island of Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands off Africa. But now we lived rent-free in a luxurious apartment on campus, surrounded by gardens and a short walk from the pine and oak forests outside of town. The Club Senra Ironically, being part of Club Senra was one of my biggest privileges. Ostensibly, the club was created so that children could to participate in hobbies and activities, which included making model airplanes, photography, mountaineering, chemistry, drawing and electronics. Classes were imparted by college students and even one of my school teachers. I really enjoyed making the airplanes and go out to fly them. Eventually, I participated in all these activities. As I grew older, I was invited to go there every day after school to study and do my homework. These daily study sessions were interrupted by a half-hour of meditation, which consisted of reading “points” of Camino (The Way) with long silent pauses between point and point. Camino is a book written by Monseñor Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei and now a saint. It consists of 999 “points”, or short paragraphs. The most controversial (points 387-400) encourage members to practice “saintly intransigence” (an exhortation to dogmatism), “saintly coercion” (“using force […] to save the Life of those who idiotically persist in committing suicide of the soul”) and “saintly shamelessness” (to be able to boldly declare that one is a religious Catholic). This gives you an idea of the militant nature of the organization. In fact, Camino seems oddly similar to Mao’s Little Red Book, with its 427 points. Once a week, I was called to a session of counseling with my spiritual director. This person was a member of Opus Dei, but not a priest. Confession with a priest was a separate activity. While confession has to be kept strictly in secret, the spiritual director was free to communicate what I told him to the Opus Dei hierarchy. But the study room was great! I loved the discipline and the strictly enforced silence. I was surrounded by college students to whom I could ask for help on any subject. Math, chemistry, physics… no matter what, I always had an expert at hand. My grades, which had already been quite good, skyrocketed. School and trouble in the streets I had only one rival for first-of-the-class (yes, we were ranked by grades): my friend Elías. He was the cool guy: smart, wise, athletic and just rebellious enough. I was the nerdy epitome of the privilege of the ruling class. Everybody was rooting for Elías. I didn’t care. I just didn’t get it. Something was going on all around me that I could not fathom. My classmates talked in code about political things that escaped my comprehension. Sometimes they did so in Galician, the local language, similar to Portuguese. College students were fighting the police on the streets. Red flags appeared on trees overnight and were quickly taken down. Likewise, graffiti with obscure political slogans were quickly painted over. And my Dad was on the phone every night, shouting orders about how to keep the students under control. Some of my classmates despised me, others suck up to me, but they all feared me because of my father. Even my teachers did. My classmates were regularly spanked and disciplined, but nobody dared to touch me. I lived in a fantasy world, reading science-fiction nonstop and falling in love with science. At 13, they started calling me the scientist at school. I improvised a chemistry lab in the attic where I made stink bombs and some real explosives. I was knowledgeable enough and foolish enough to be a real danger. Fortunately, nothing happened. Groomed by Opus Dei But the real danger, unbeknown to me, was the Opus Dei. As I approached 14, my spiritual director started to slowly tighten the screws on me. I was warned to watch what books I read. That set offs all kinds of alarms. I loved my reading, which had expanded from novels (Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, E. R. Burroughs, Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov) to non-fiction about science and some esoteric stuff. I was also invited to participate in religious retreats. I was never told how much they cost; my father paid for them behind my back. I went to one in Portugal, a summer one in a school in Vigo (a port city in Galicia), and to a trip to Rome to meet Monseñor Escrivá de Balaguer, The Father. The retreats involved long hours of prayer, but also hiking, swimming and other activities. Silent prayer agreed with my introverted nature, and I started to do it daily on my own accord. I was also drawn to mysticism. However, I could never connect with the Catholic’s love for the Virgin and the saints. I found liturgy incomprehensible and unattractive. The Rosary bored me to tears. Then again, I was Catholic through and through: born in Rome, my father promptly had me baptized at Saint Peter in the Vatican. And now I was living in Santiago de Compostela, the legendary burial place of Apostle Saint James (San Jaime, San Diego, Jacobo, San Yago and Santiago all turn up to be the same guy) and the second most important Catholic pilgrimage destination in the world, after Rome. Don Aurelio, my non-Opus Dei confessor Four things prepared my exit from the tutelage of Opus Dei. The first was don Aurelio, a priest who gave religion classes at my school. I once overheard Elías say that he gave confession and advice to students at his apartment, even sharing with them a glass of mass wine. I thought that it sounded really cool, so I gave it a try. I really liked don Aurelio, so I decided to make him my regular confessor. At Opus Dei, they had advised me to have a regular confessor, but they were not pleased when I told them that I had chosen don Aurelio. However, since he was a Catholic priest, they could not really object. Secretly, my decision was based on wanting to have an advisor who was not connected to my father and Opus Dei. I was starting puberty and, not surprisingly, had a lot of trouble with sex. I was in an all-boys school, so I had little contact with girls. My sister and her friends seem to live in a separate reality. Sex scared the hell out of me, not just because I lived in a deeply repressive society, but also because I had sadomasochistic fantasies that I found deeply disturbing. Talking about them to the Opus Dei crowd, whose religious practices included self-flagellation and the use of the cilice, was a no-go. Don Aurelio didn’t know much about sadomasochism, but he explained lots of other things about sex, and told me not to worry. He was a progressive priest who celebrated mass accompanied by percussion and electric guitars. He encouraged me to start dating girls - he even introduced me to one! He also pointed out a few things to watch out for in Opus Dei, like the way they used jobs and other perks to manipulate people. The Morning of the Magicians The second thing that pulled me away was reading the book The Morning of the Magicians, translated to Spanish as El retorno de los brujos. Again, it was my friend Elías who recommended it. It was the first non-fiction book I read. It awakened my interest in aliens, ancient astronauts, alchemy, magic and all kinds of esoteric stuff that later would fall under the label of New Age. But what really captured my imagination was the possibility of having mystical experiences that could unlock hidden knowledge about the Universe. That lead to my interest in Yoga and Buddhism, creating an outlet for my mysticism that competed with Catholicism. Apostolate backfires The third thing that drove me away from Christianity was triggered by the Opus Dei itself. As I progressed in my religious practice, they started encouraging me to do apostolate, that is, to try to convert to their conservative branch of Christianity some of my classmates. But it couldn’t be just anybody. The strategy of Opus Dei is to target only successful people, people who are smart, wealthy, well-connected and good-looking. Preferably, all four. So they sent me after some of my most smart and sophisticated classmates. That totally backfired. When I told my classmate Ramón that I wanted to talk to him about important stuff, he was thrilled. I didn’t realize that he was well read in philosophy and politics, matters in which I had gaping holes. But I had read enough to become deeply interested in what he had to say. We spent an evening walking round and round the garden of La Herradura (The Horseshoe) in the damp Galician weather, deeply immersed in conversation. The seeds that he planted in my mind were slow to sprout. But, eventually, they did. My cool new neighbors The fourth thing that influenced me was that we moved to a new apartment, also on campus, and we got new neighbors. Gabriel was one year older than me and José, one year younger, but the two brothers merged well with my two younger brothers and I. We were into science, chess, aquariums and roaming in the forests. They introduced me to music, playing The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel when we were together. Their father was a chemistry professor at the university and Gabriel was as fascinated by science as I was. He would eventually come to some Opus Dei retreats with me, and he was supposedly a target of my apostolate, but the influence went mostly the other way around. Moving to Madrid Then something happened that would mark the end of my careless childhood years in Santiago. My father got promoted. Ostensibly, he got a position as Director-General in the Ministry of Education, but that was just in preparation for a larger goal. He was to become the founding president of a new university that would encompass the whole territory of Spain: a university by mail modeled after the British Open University. Today, the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia (UNED), founded by my father, is the largest university in Spain. I had to say goodbye to my new friends Gabriel and José, my on-and-off advisor Elías, and the wise guidance of don Aurelio. I faced new challenges in the big city of Madrid. Unbeknown to me, I would also have to confront the growing cognitive dissonance between the conservative teachings of Opus Dei and my new ideas about science and mysticism.
- The Hunt for Personal Power
How to take control of your life What is personal power? Personal power is to have the psychological fortitude to live a meaningful and happy life. It means being full of energy, motivated, ethical, honest, reliable, self-sufficient, efficacious, joyful, resistant to trauma, resilient and generous. Personal power does not mean acquiring power at the expense of others. It is not being manipulative, selfish and exploitative. There is a psychological energy that we can acquire by living the right way. When we have that energy, that power, we are able to transmit it naturally to others. When we have plenty of it, being generous becomes natural because our power overflows and spills to others. Throughout my life, I have been studying different spiritual traditions to learn how to live the right way. They include Yoga, Siloism, Zen and the Way of the Warrior. But I have always used critical thinking and scientific knowledge to steer me away from the false gurus and to carefully choose among the things that I was taught. What I learned is that there are no superpowers, no magical shortcuts to happiness, no sudden enlightenment. There is only plowing along our ordinary lives, slowly improving ourselves through hard work, honesty and commitment. Only through effort you can reach a state in which living well feels natural. And then the world will throw a new challenge at you in the form of an accident, a disease or other kinds of misfortune. You have to be prepared and weather the storm as well as you can. Ultimately, you are going to lose. We will all die one day. You have to learn to make peace with that. Practice self-compassion Hunting for personal power may sound like a selfish and arrogant thing to do. However, it is not selfish because only by having energy we can give it to others. Only by finding meaning we can illumine the life of others. Only by being happy ourselves we can make others happy. It is not arrogant because personal power needs to be built on an honest assessment of our capabilities and shortcomings. Compassion is the ability to feel the suffering of others, which motivates us to do something to stop that suffering. Self-compassion is the ability to be aware of our own suffering, which motivates us to find ways to be happier. Instead, we try to blunt our own pain. To deny it by distracting ourselves with myriads of things that take our awareness away from the pain. But we fool ourselves when we are not able to stare at our own suffering in the face, believing that we can quench it by craving things that we do not need. Self-compassion is different from self-pity, which consists of blaming our suffering on things out of our control. It leads to resignation and hope: the belief that only changes in the external world can rescue us from our suffering. This is utterly disempowering. Neuroscience has shown that suffering produced by things that we cannot control induces learned helplessness, which forms the basis of psychological trauma (Maier and Seligman, 2016). Therefore, we need to wrestle as much control from our environment as we can, and become aware of that control. To cultivate self-compassion, we need to be aware of the mechanisms behind our suffering. Which means knowing ourselves. Know yourself through meditation and mindfulness Good ways of knowing ourselves are meditation and mindfulness. For me, meditation is not searching for an altered state of consciousness, nirvana, illumination, or an esoteric revelation about the nature of consciousness. Is simply sitting silently while I look at how my mind works. Perceptions, thoughts and emotions emerge out of my unconscious into awareness and disappear back into unconsciousness. Any barrier between the unconscious and the conscious is an illusion. Although this flow of the mind is myself, there are subtle ways in which the flow can direct itself, in which the part of the flow that is my cognitive executive function can gently steer the flow in the direction that makes more rational sense. Likewise, mindfulness is paying attention to the flow of the mind as we move in the world. Without judging, we become aware of how sensations, memories and thoughts enter and leave consciousness. Meditation and mindfulness serve to create meta-attention. It is a mental habit that consists of being aware of what we are paying attention to. By softening the mind, it gently extends the reach of consciousness into the unconscious. We will need that ability to control our emotions and rescue ourselves out of destructive loops of thought, ruminating and catastrophizing. However, there is a place in our life for mind wandering and daydreaming. Especially when it is suffused with meta-attention. Sometimes, we just need to let our mind be what it is; to put forth what it wants. Otherwise, our will becomes our jail. We clip our wings by destroying our imagination. We need to release our horses. Only then we can be creative. Cultivate flow Lately I have been reading about flow, and I am coming to realize that it is even better than meditation to promote mental health and inner power. Flow is a mental state defined in the 1970s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best”. He gave flow the following characteristics: Focused attention on a task. Merging of action and awareness. Decreased self-awareness. Altered perception of time, which either speeds up or slows down. Feeling of complete control. Positive emotions like joy, pleasure, euphoria, meaning and purpose. Others have defined flow as effortless effort. Flow is typically found when doing skill-intensive sports like rock-climbing, skiing or martial arts; or in arts like playing music, dancing, painting or writing. However, flow is not just letting go, or using muscle memory to perform an action with little effort. It is only achieved after arduous training in a particular sport, art or skill. In every particular session, there is usually an initial period of struggle until the performer is able to enter flow. An excellent review of the neurophysiology of flow (Kotler et al., 2022) explores the difference between flow and trauma produced by a risky, scary event. They conclude that flow is induced by engaging with the challenging event in a pro-active way, which recruits the fight response of stress brain circuits. Conversely, emotional trauma set is when we try to avoid the challenging event. This initiates the freeze response to stress. While repeated emotional trauma caused by stress in the absence of control leads to learned helplessness, repeated flow induces a resilience to trauma that Kotler et al. called learned empowerment. Reading this, I concluded that by systematically cultivating the state of flow in my mind, I could create the habit of entering it. This would lead to learned empowerment, which is the same as personal power. Plug power drains Another way to increase personal power is to avoid losing it. This can be done by identifying things in our life that drain us of power and leave us feeling depleted. The obvious things are those that negatively impact our health: smoking, alcohol, abusing drugs, unhealthy eating, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, lack of sex, lack of love, social isolation. Less obvious are mental habits that deplete our mental energy. Mind wandering is often cited but, as a said above, this is not unhealthy by itself. With a sufficient background of meta-attention to collect its fruits of imagination and creativity, it is actually necessary for a healthy mind. What is unhealthy are mindless activities in which we let emotions take control of our mind and our behavior. For example, I noticed how often I engage in mindless talk, unaware of the effect of my words. Worse still is rumination: when our mind obsesses about something that happened in our life, typically a negative social interaction. We cannot let it go, constantly rehearsing what we said, what we should have said, and some improbable action that we are going to take in the future. Rumination is caused by a loss of control in the past, in a futile attempt to regain that control in our imagination. It is driven primarily by anger, but also by fear, jealousy and shame. There is also catastrophizing: imagining something terrible that is going to happen to us. Uncontrolled fear makes our imagination run wild, feeding the fear with scenes of horrible events in an endless loop. Underneath all this, there is the belief that we have lost control over our environment and our life. This belief is the consequence of learned helplessness. Rumination and catastrophizing quickly become mental habits. However, it is possible to steer away from them by using meta-attention to become aware of what is happening, label it, and provide positive images and high level cognitive input. That way, we will be able to break those mental habits. Avoid negative emotions It has become fashionable these days to say that negative emotions are just fine; that we should that let them be. That is bullshit. It’s the result of a poor understanding of the mind by a psychology built on poor evidence and ideology. As I pointed above, hard evidence from neuroscience shows the negative consequences of letting negative states like learned helplessness and rumination take possession of our mind. Ancient philosophical traditions like Stoicism and Buddhism also advise us to avoid negative emotions. It’s impossible to live an ethical life without harnessing negative emotions. If you let anger loose, you will inevitably hurt others. Anger has a way to blind you, warping your worldview and leading you to irrational actions. The same can be said of jealousy, the unrecognized cause of violence against women (Puente and Cohen, 2003; Pichon et al., 2020). As for fear, it will often prevent you from doing the right thing. Of course, all emotions have evolved for a reason. Unfortunately, humans evolved in an environment in which we lived in tribes of hunter-gatherers, which is very different from modern society. As a result, many of our emotional responses are non-adaptive. The main emotions to watch are anger and fear. Shame and guilt are social emotions that can become quite harmful (Lester, 1997; Lee et al., 2001). Sadness, envy and jealousy can also be problematic. Anger, fear and shame are worse when they become chronic, a constant background of our mental state. Chronic anger is felt as constant annoyance, frustration and irascibility that may quickly escalate to full-blown rage, like in road-rage and marital fights. However, when coupled with a sense of powerlessness, it may simmer for years, slowly destroying our body and our mind. One of the signs that this is happening is rumination. Chronic fear is anxiety, an ill-defined feeling that something is wrong, that something terrible is about to happen. It may manifest as catastrophizing. Chronic shame becomes low self-esteem, an immobilizing feeling of paralysis, especially in social interactions. It evokes social anxiety and drives rumination and catastrophizing. The best way to fight negative emotions is to nip them in the bud. Meta-attention can alert us of the emotion growing out of its seed. For example, anger often begins as frustration and annoyance. We should counter them by invoking patience and focus on the task at hand. A habit of entering flow can help a lot, because flow is accompanied by positive emotions like joy and curiosity, and incompatible with negative emotions like anger and fear. If anger has become established in your mind, the best thing to do is to prevent it from taking control of your behavior. For me, reading is a calming activity that will take me out of anger. Other people may want to take a walk, practice a sport, listen to music or watch a movie. It is important to use mindfulness to watch what anger is doing to your mind. Face your fears Fear is a difficult emotion to handle. Sometimes, fear appears because of a real danger. However, there are two possible responses to fear. One is to take action to prevent the danger form causing us harm, taking as much control of the situation as we can. If we manage to feel in control, this would lead to learned empowerment. The second set of responses to danger involves loss of control. We may become immobilized in a freezing response. Or we may act out of control in panic. In both cases, the feeling of loss of control leads to learned helplessness (Maier and Seligman, 2016; Kotler et al., 2022). This creates a trauma scar that lives on as chronic anxiety. In my experience, it is good to train our responses to fear by regularly exposing ourselves to scary situations in ways that minimizes real danger and lets us take control. For example, I practice rock-climbing, a sport in which freezing and panic responses are pretty obvious. Other sports in which to face fear include skiing, surfing and martial arts. For those less adventurous, roller-coasters and horror movies may get them in touch with their fears. However, it is hard to feel in control in those situations. Another thing that helps is to voice out our fears with our friends or in therapy. Emphasize ways in which you can gain control over them. Take responsibility for your actions As you see, taking control of what is happening in your life is a common theme here. Of course, there are many things that escape our control. It would be foolish to pretend that we have superpowers and are able to impose our will on the world. The key here is not the actual control that we have, but feeling in control. This means taking whatever action we can take. Being pro-active instead of passive. An important teaching from spiritual traditions is that we need to detach ourselves from the results of our actions. We do the best we can, and accept the fact that we are not always going to win. Excessive desire for a particular outcome produces an unhealthy craving. It also takes our focus away from performing our task as best as we can. Thus, in a state of flow we are completely focused on what we are doing while forgetting ourselves. In flow, attention is on what we are doing in the present, and the goal is only factored in as one more parameter to direct the action. Rushing to the end of what we are doing takes us out of flow. Taking responsibility for our actions, then, is a mixture of two things: to avoid craving a particular result, and to accept the final outcome with equanimity. This means not beating ourselves up if we failed, but also not taking too much pride if we succeed. Taking responsibility for our actions is not blaming and shaming ourselves. Of course, if we did something unethical, we need to take the appropriate measures for it not to happen again. Do not see yourself as a victim Another aspect of taking responsibility for our actions is not to look for excuses for what we did in external circumstances. Of course, there are numerous factors out of our control that impact the outcome of our actions. It would be foolish not to recognize that. However, “finding excuses” means to take the focus away from the control that we have to dwell in things out of our power. This is a drain of energy because, by definition, we cannot change things that are out of our control. Focusing on whatever control we have is much more effective. Today, we live in a culture of victimism, especially in progressive circles. This is how I think this happened… Postmodern ideology sees the world as a power struggle between the oppressed (Blacks, women, homosexuals, transgender, workers, poor countries, etc.) and the oppressors (Whites, men, heterosexuals, cisgender, capitalists, Western countries, etc.). Politics, then, is the fight to empower the oppressed and eliminate the oppressors. Therefore, if you can identify yourself with one of the oppressed groups, you feel that you belong in the group of the “good people” and can benefit from the privileges given to them. Otherwise, you are an oppressor and targeted as the enemy. Then, everybody tries to show that they, too, are a victim. Lately, even conservatives are adopting this strategy. And so men and incels are the victims of feminism. Whites are the victims of affirmative action, cancel culture and wokeism. And so forth. Leaving aside political ideologies, my point is that seeing yourself as a victim is psychologically unhealthy. It is the opposite of taking responsibility for your actions. Being a victim puts the focus on your disempowerment, blaming the world for your situation. It may be true that you belong to an oppressed group, but victimism is not helping anybody. If you want privileges because you are a victim, how is that not selfish? How about centering your political fight in helping others? That would emphasize the measure of control that you have. That will be empowering. Don’t let anybody blame or shame you We also live in a culture in which blaming and shaming are used as blunt political weapons. To some extent, this is legitimate. If somebody behaves in an unethical way by exploiting and oppressing others, that person deserves to be blamed and shamed. What is not ethical is to blame and shame people because they belong to a certain group that has been labeled as the oppressors. Because they are White, or Jewish, or men, or live in a rich country. This negates individual agency and freedom. People are responsible for what they do, not for who they are. Blaming and shaming are so widespread that they have become a reflex. Total strangers will come up to you and blame you and shame for things that have nothing to do with your doings. Especially online. You should treat these people as toxic. Put as much distance between you and them as you can. Block them online. Do not have them as friends. Steer clear of them as co-workers. They are out to steal your personal power. However, if a close friend or somebody who knows you well, offers you advice and criticizes your actions, listen to them. Remember, knowledge is power, and self-knowledge doubly so. And you cannot see yourself well from the inside. Taking responsibility for your action and equanimity should be your guide in this case. Follow a path with a heart In the big picture, you need to live a meaningful life. Each one of us should find what that means for themselves. It probably involves a combination of having experiences that make you happy, achieving personal growth, and contributing to the betterment of society and the world. A path with a heart is one that makes you feel happy and fulfilled as you follow it. Every step along the path increases your personal power. Just being in the path should be enough because all paths lead to nowhere. We all travel from birth to death. If your life is empty and miserable. If you find no meaning and no purpose, your path doesn’t have a heart. You need to find a better one. Personal power propels you along the path with a heart that is your life. References Kotler S, Mannino M, Kelso S, Huskey R (2022) First few seconds for flow: A comprehensive proposal of the neurobiology and neurodynamics of state onset. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 143:104956. Lee DA, Scragg P, Turner S (2001) The role of shame and guilt in traumatic events: a clinical model of shame-based and guilt-based PTSD. Br J Med Psychol 74:451-466. Lester D (1997) The role of shame in suicide. Suicide Life Threat Behav 27:352-361. Maier SF, Seligman ME (2016) Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychol Rev 123:349-367. Pichon M, Treves-Kagan S, Stern E, Kyegombe N, Stöckl H, Buller AM (2020) A Mixed-Methods Systematic Review: Infidelity, Romantic Jealousy and Intimate Partner Violence against Women. International journal of environmental research and public health 17. Puente S, Cohen D (2003) Jealousy and the meaning (or nonmeaning) of violence. Personality & social psychology bulletin 29:449-460.
- Lies About Prostitution - 8) Once a Prostitute, Always a Prostitute
How the myth of sexual purity leads to the stigmatization of sex workers Prostitution is a job, not a permanent blemish One of the worst parts of the prostitute stereotype is that, once a woman crosses that line, being a prostitute becomes a part of her identity. It is impossible to erase. Prostitution is not something you do. It’s who you are. She is not eligible to marry a decent man. In fact, decent people would avoid any social contact with her. She is a perpetual outcast, even after she stops practicing prostitution. For many women, the sex work they did in their youth is a skeleton in the closet, to be hidden even from their closest friends, spouse and children. Prostitution and the myth of sexual purity The adage “once a prostitute, always a prostitute” means that, by doing sex work, a woman has soiled herself with a stain that would remain the rest of her life. It would seem that sex work is an unforgiveable crime, as serious as murder or treason. But the issue is slightly different. It’s that sex is considered something sacred, some kind of essence that attaches itself to the very soul of a person. Especially for women. Christian culture has turned sexual purity into the highest virtue of women. The Virgin Mary is worshipped almost as a goddess, taking the place of the female deities of the old pagan religions. Unlike these goddesses, the virgin archetype erases women’s sexuality, replacing it with an exclusive dedication to motherhood. That’s why opposing contraception and abortion is such a fundamental issue for Christians. They put women’s sexuality above the sacrifices they are supposed to make to become mothers. Virginity is a magical quality that is lost once and for all, completely changing the social status of a woman. It gives women who preserve it a special aura of sanctity. Prostitutes are the anti-virgins. Not only they have lost their sexual purity by giving away their virginity; they lose again and again, becoming ever more soiled with every man with whom they have sex. Nowadays, we know that sexual purity is mystical nonsense. Women can have many sexual partners without being considered soiled. In fact, more and more, being sexually experienced is considered as a desirable in both men and women. Casual sex as a perversion of love One version of the sexual purity idea is that sex is only valid when done as an expression of love. Then, prostitution represents a perversion of sex because it’s done for money and not for love. But, again, casual sex in the absence of love or a relationship is very common these days, and increasingly accepted. Then, condemning casual sex only in the case of prostitution becomes a hypocritical double standard. Prostitutes see their job as temporary Prostitutes see their job as something they do to make money during a particular phase of their lives. It’s not a permanent occupation, and much less a part of who they are. For example, the book Legal Tender - True Tales of a Brothel Madam, by Laraine Russo Harper, says: “There were lots of ladies who worked in the brothel just for a specific amount of time. They had goals of how much they wanted to earn or needed to earn, and once they reached their goal, they got out of the business. One lady in particular who had such a goal was Mackenzie. She was twenty-two when she came to the brothel. She had long blond hair, green eyes, and a perfect body. She wanted to make as much money as she could in five years. Then it was her plan to retire. And that’s exactly what Makenzie did.” “During her five-year tenure, she owned a $3 million home in one state, a $2 million condo in another, and a $1 million loft in yet another state. She retired five years later with more money than she would ever need and no one would ever know what she had been doing to earn her living. At twenty-seven Mackenzie retired.” Legal Tender - True Tales of a Brothel Madam, Laraine Russo Harper Of course, not all prostitutes make as much money as the ones in the expensive Nevada brothels described in Legal Tender. The range of income of sex workers is probably as wide as that of writers. Still, escorts and other high-level prostitutes make enough money during their youth to get savings for the rest of their life, pay for college, or launch a small business. Instead of being exploited and outcast, like they are portrayed in the media, young women find in prostitution a way out of poverty and low social status. If prostitution were legalized and afforded some minimal protection, it could become empowering for many young women. Perhaps for some men, too. The sad image of the old, destitute prostitute that we see in some movies doesn’t reflect reality. The ‘Lies About Prostitution’ series This article is part of a series about that the lies that conservatives and radical feminists tell about sex work and prostitution. Previous articles in these series are: Lie 1: Prostitution is Human Trafficking Lie 2: Prostitution Degrades Women Lie 3: Sex Workers Hate Their Job and Their Clients Lie 4: Johns Are Misogynistic and Violent Lie 5: Prostitutes Want to be Rescued Lie 6: Pimps Exploit Prostitutes Lie 7: Prostitutes Are Drug Addicts
- Lies About Prostitution - 7) Prostitutes Are Drug Addicts
How the drug addict cliché is used to deny the agency of sex workers The stigma of addiction The stereotype of the addict is one of the most dehumanizing in modern culture. In it, drug addicts are depicted as mindless zombies who would do whatever is necessary to get their next fix. Whenever some activity needs to be condemned, the best way to do so is to depict it as addictive. This is because addiction deprives us of one of the things we value the most: our free will. Addictive drugs take possession of our minds and force us to do their bidding. Having lost their free will to drugs, addicts can be deprived of their liberty by forcing them into rehabilitation programs or prison. Therefore, stereotyping prostitutes as drug addicts becomes a good excused to persecute them and jail them. Are prostitutes drug addicts? The strong cravings elicited by addictive drugs can lead to desperate actions. If the addict is a woman, trading sex for money can be one of the easiest ways to get the next fix. However, the fact that some drug addicts resort to prostitution doesn’t mean that most prostitutes are addicts. For one thing, drug addicts are high risk for sexually transmitted diseases, and dangerous in some other ways, so customers stay clear of them. Prostitution is a risky activity, not just for the sex worker, but also for the client. Vetting is performed in both directions. The real reasons women engage in prostitution Women engage in sex work for a multitude of reasons. Supporting an addiction is rarely one of them. Some of the most common reasons include: paying for college, getting out of the parent’s home, escaping an abusive relationship, supporting their children, getting into a fancier lifestyle, sexual exploration. For example, modern escorts are often highly educated women who enjoy wearing elegant clothes, eating at posh restaurants, staying in expensive hotels, and doing fancy traveling. They can get all that while working, on top of pocketing good amounts of money. Besides, their clients can be interesting, educated and powerful men. Escorting is quickly erasing the image of the prostitute as low life. Other prostitutes prefer the independence of working from home and the safety of having a limited clientele of regular customers. The ‘Lies About Prostitution’ series This article is part of a series about that the lies that conservatives and radical feminists tell about sex work and prostitution. Previous articles in these series are: Lie 1: Prostitution is Human Trafficking Lie 2: Prostitution Degrades Women Lie 3: Sex Workers Hate Their Job and Their Clients Lie 4: Johns Are Misogynistic and Violent Lie 5: Prostitutes Want to be Rescued Lie 6: Pimps Exploit Prostitutes
- The Octopus Fisherman
My early encounters with sea creatures, sexual abuse and death [TW: Child sexual abuse] I woke up early. Thin sunbeams filtered through the cracks in the blinds, announcing a beautiful summer day. I slid down from my top bunk bed and, not wanting to wake up my brothers, I grabbed my swimsuit, a T-shirt and my beach slippers and put them on quietly. I was thirteen. The sun was still low over the pine trees above the house. The bay was calm, an incipient breeze changing its color from silver to deep blue. It was going to be a hot day. Nobody was up yet, so I decided to go for a walk. I wandered through fields of cabbage and corn until I came to the rocks by the water's edge. Not far offshore, in his wooden boat brightly painted white, brown and blue, was the octopus fisherman. Octopus is a delicacy in Galicia, the national dish. It is served on a thick wood plate, seasoned with olive oil, coarse salt and spicy paprika. I loved to eat it, but I was also fascinated by the animal itself. I had just learned to catch it. With my mask, snorkel and fins, I would swim over the sandy bottom looking for odd objects: a rubber boot, a pot, a tire. Then I would dive and check inside for octopus. More often than not, I would find one. Then I would wrestle it to the shore, kill it and proudly present it to my mother to cook. The old fisherman used entirely different techniques to catch octopus. He would never get in the water. Like most Galician fishermen, he didn’t even know how to swim. He carried long poles with a hook at the end. When he spotted an octopus on the bottom, he would quickly get one on his poles, hook the octopus and haul it into his boat. Sometimes the octopus would get into a crack in the rocks and stubbornly hold to it with all the considerable strength of its tentacles and suction cups. Then a fight would ensue, the fisherman pulling with his pole this way and that and the octopus holding on for dear life. * * * One day I witnessed one of these struggles while lying lazily on a towel on the beach. The fisherman fought for over half an hour and still couldn’t get the octopus. I grabbed my mask, snorkel and fins and got in the water, wanting to take a closer look at the struggle. There was a large rock on the bottom. The hook of the fisherman’s long pole was digging under it. There must be an octopus under there, I thought. I asked him if he needed help, but he just muttered something incomprehensible in Galician. But the octopus was giving no sign of giving up. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I took a deep breath and dove toward the rock. Bracing with my knees on the bottom, it wasn’t hard to overturn the rock. The octopus came out and took off swimming at full speed, opening and closing its tentacles looking like a little ghost. I went back to the surface for air. “Look what I have done!” I thought, “I have lost this poor fisherman his catch.” Desperately, I swam on the surface following the octopus, which was heading for deep water. I dove again. If the octopus was as smart as some people think it is, it would have just keep on swimming and I would have never been able to catch it. Instead, it opened its tentacles on the bottom and waited for me. I grabbed it and head back to the surface. It was a big one. It wrapped its tentacles around my arm all the way to my neck, pulling hard to slide between my fingers. I knew it just wanted to get away, but I started to get scared. Then I looked up and saw the fisherman in his boat. He grabbed the octopus and peeled it off me. “I’m glad I could get you that octopus,” I told him after I climbed into his boat. “That’s your octopus now,” he said. “Take it home to your mom.” * * * I used to ride with the octopus fisherman in his boat, watching him peek into the water to find an octopus where I could see just rocks. Another way he had to catch his prey was to drag a line to which he had attached a small rock with a crab and hooks on top. The octopus would try to get the crab and get hooked. He taught me the names of all the beaches in the bay and a lot of things about the sea. At the end of the morning, he would pull his boat to the beach and the beachgoers would gather around and bid for his catch. So when that morning he rowed his boat backwards to the rocks to let me in, I didn’t think twice. I climbed on board and sat on the prow as he rowed back out on the bay. I tried to start a conversation about fishing, but he didn’t seem in the mood for it. Then something really weird happened. He pulled in the oars and came to where I was. He started touching me over my skimpy swimsuit. I couldn’t believe what was happening. “What are you doing?” I said. “Whoa, you have a big one!” he said. That was completely ridiculous. I haven’t reached puberty yet. I had the penis of a child. It didn’t even care if it was big or small. “Do you want to touch mine?” I couldn’t imagine anything more repulsive than to touch that old man’s cock. “No! Stop! Leave me alone!” “Do you want to go to shore?” he said in Galician. Go to shore and do what? Go to a hiding place so he could continue touching me? As it was, anybody looking out from the beach could see us. But there was nobody there. “Stop! Stop, or I’ll jump in the water!” He took a step back, as if to consider what I had said. Then he started again. I quickly took off my T-shirt and my slippers and dove headfirst into the sea. The water was cold. I come to the surface and looked at him. He could row his boat much faster than I could swim. Would he fish me out of the water as if I were an octopus? But he just stood there, looking at me with apparent indifference. I swam in a perfect crawl straight to the beach. I wanted to slip quietly back into my room and change, but my mother saw me walking in, barefoot and wet. “You have been swimming already?” “Yeah, the water is nice,” I muttered, and went upstairs. * * * What was that old man thinking? How could he dare? He was just a poor man. My father was a local authority. If I told, I could get him into a lot of trouble. He would probably wind up in jail. But I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing that free spirit in jail. For me, he symbolized the freedom and the wildness of the sea. Even what he had done to me represented that careless freedom. Those were still the dark years of the Franco dictatorship. I didn’t know anything about sex, nobody had told me. Obscure desires had started to awaken inside me. I didn’t understand any of that. It scared me. The priests told us a few things, but they were always unclear, shrouded in secrecy and sin. Perhaps the old fisherman could explain it to me, the same way that he had explained the way of the octopus. But not if he was going to touch me like that again. It slowly dawned on me that I could never ride in the old fisherman’s boat again. * * * Later on that day, I saw the fisherman pulling his boat on the beach. He had a system to pull his heavy wooden boat out over the tide line. He lay the oars on the sand and put a round log across them. Then he rolled the boat over the oars, using the round log as a wheel. He repeated the process several times until the boat was on the white dry sand, out of the reach of the high tide. Some beachgoers often helped him, but he was perfectly capable of doing it on his own. While the bid over the catch started, I surreptitiously grabbed my slippers and T-shirt from the boat and walked away. * * * He must have done other boys. One day I was walking on a cove that could only be reached by hiking through thorny gorse and blackberry bushes. There I saw him walking out of a shack with a teenage boy. I pretended that I didn’t see them. The locals never said much about him. He had no wife, no children, no family that I knew of. He seemed content and self-sufficient. He looked as old as the world, with his short white hair and his wrinkly face, but there was no way to know how old he really was. Perhaps he didn’t know himself. I saw him once dancing at a local fiesta, alone. He jumped and pranced with a vitality and abandon that I envied. * * * I was already attending college when I heard that the octopus fisherman was dying. Stomach cancer, they said. I made discreet inquiries and found the way to his place. It was an old stone house surrounded by an unkempt garden, but there were peach trees and fig trees and plum trees, the fruit still green in the early days of summer. I knocked on the door, called, then walked in. The inside of the house was just a large single room, with a high ceiling, a wooden floor and walls of naked granite blocks. There was a large bed in the middle. The old fisherman was laying on it, his belly swollen. Other than that, he looked as he always did. I sat on a chair by him and asked him how he was. He knew he was dying. I asked him if he was afraid of death. He said he was afraid of the pain. I asked him if he believed in an afterlife, in God. I had abandoned Christianity a few years back, when I was fifteen, and now I was exploring yoga and Eastern mysticism. But he didn’t seem to care about religious belief, he just wanted the pain to be over. I didn’t mention the incident on the boat. I still didn’t have the words to talk about sex, much less sexual abuse. A few days later, my father told me that the octopus fisherman had died. He asked me if I wanted to go to his funeral. I said no. I had already said my goodbyes to the old man.