Changing with Other Women's Help
Extramarital sexual relationships were also important self-making interactions for many participants. Although affairs are certainly a practice through which men could enact machismo, participants more commonly lived out difference from this stereotype, or change away from it, in extramarital sex lives. Most commonly, self-described “older” men enacted difference from “younger” selves by ceasing or reducing infidelity. However, men who had never seen themselves as macho sometimes reported that affairs enabled them to embody masculinity differently than they could with their wives. For instance, a 51-year-old explained that he initiated an affair after surgery to remove an arterial clot left him “traumatized,” anxious, and unsure if his life had meaning. He did not feel able to discuss these issues with his wife and said that he began to see another woman who provided both physical distraction and emotional support that “removed the anxiety.” This participant described the affair as an interaction that enabled him to work through an existential crisis to understand himself and the world in “new” ways.
Men in contentious or cold marriages sometimes described partner-specific erectile difficulty, in which negative emotions hampered their erectile function with their wives. Although these men reported enjoying extramarital sex, they talked more passionately and frequently about affairs as interactions in which they could be the men they felt unable to be in their marriages. A minority of these men even sought medical ED treatment to enable affairs that they hoped would have this effect. Because of the impersonality of IMSS appointments, doctor–patient collaboration to help men change this seemed to occur more frequently in private practice interactions, as illustrated in the case below.
With his family doctor's help, 57-year-old printer Ernesto hoped to have an affair that would enable him to be the man that his loveless marriage did not. Ernesto suffered from work-related joint pain, type 2 diabetes, and erectile difficulty. Dr. Peralta, a warm and opinionated woman in her fifties who had been Ernesto's family doctor for two decades, was treating him for these ailments as well as the life problems that both believed his illness and unhappy marriage had caused. I interviewed Ernesto and Dr. Peralta separately and together in Dr. Peralta's office, and observed their medical consultation; both were quite talkative and said they were eager to tell their stories. Alone, Ernesto told me that he felt comfortable with la doctora and grateful for her help with his sexual and life difficulties. Dr. Peralta told me that providing such help was an important part of her job, especially in this case in which she had watched a “good man” be stifled by a bad marriage. She expressed pride over past successes in improving patients’ relationships and sex lives, for example by teaching older couples to enjoy companionate sexuality. Close collaboration to help Ernesto be a different kind of man was thus important to both doctor and patient; Dr. Peralta saw being a doctor who could create positive and socially progressive change in patients’ lives as a key part of her identity, while Ernesto felt that their interactions presented new possibilities for who he could be “as a man.”
As I observed Ernesto's checkup, it was clear that doctor and patient approached revising Ernesto's manly selfhood as a joint project. While Dr. Peralta performed physical tests and asked questions about Ernesto's diabetes symptoms and bodily pains, their conversation frequently shifted to his life problems and what they might be able to change. Together, they told me they had decided that good diabetes control and ED drugs would be necessary to improve Ernesto's erections. Both also identified his contentious marriage as a key cause of his sexual difficulties and unhappiness. Dr. Peralta said she had encouraged him to begin an extramarital affair in which he could express who he wanted to “be,” sexually and emotionally.
When we spoke alone, Ernesto explained that his marriage had not been what he had hoped, and had kept him from being the man, and having the relationship, that he desired. He had not married for love, but because marrying seemed logical; his wife wanted to leave her father's house, and at age 27 he felt old enough to marry. He craved love and had expected it to develop over time, but it never did. Although the couple desired children, their births increased, rather than bridged, the emotional distance in their marriage. Ernesto said he focused on work and parenting, and felt that 30 years had somehow passed quickly. These years were marked by increasing marital conflict. He said, “There were always arguments. She doesn't like my way of thinking; I say black, she says white. We like different music, different TV shows. We had fights about that, about how to raise the children.” In Ernesto's narrative, the masculine self he had desired was not the man his marriage had led him to become, and this caused him pain.
Ernesto saw marital coldness and conflict as embodied in the sexual difficulties—erectile problems and rapid ejaculation—that he had experienced for 15 years and that worsened as he became increasingly unhappy. He was especially frustrated that his wife was uninterested in having the sex that he had hoped would spark love and closeness, enabling him to be the companionate partner that he wanted to be. He said, “In marital relations, she doesn't open up, it makes me mad. I was faithful for 15 years, but when I got close to her, with manly needs, she rejected me.” Ernesto said he eventually resorted to extramarital sex to “feel better” about himself as a man, which he characterized as necessary for staying in his loveless marriage, explaining, “I'm not faithful, because I'm not in love. I've had my little adventures that help me [stick out the marriage].”
At one point, he found an extramarital partner with whom he said he could be the man he wanted to be. He told me, “She was very loving, she made me feel like a king. I felt important as a man.” Ernesto explained that this difference was embodied in their sexual relationship, which differed physically and emotionally from any sex he had had before: “The relations were long—3 to 4 hours! 30 minutes with the others. She was caring, took time, was very artistic, she made me feel good. She was the only woman who ever gave me oral sex.” During this 18-month relationship, he remembered feeling like a different person, “a king” who experienced the passion and adoration that he desired, but could never achieve, in his marriage. However, this relationship ended when his partner converted to Protestantism and decided to reconcile with her estranged husband. He said, sadly, that he had returned to the life he had before, again unable to be the man he wanted to be.
Ernesto explained that recent marital events had led him to actively seek a new extramarital relationship that would change this state of affairs. He and his wife had decided to divorce a year before our interview. She subsequently asked him to reconcile, and he agreed based on her promise to be more sexually receptive. He said she began permitting more sex but never appeared to enjoy it, which troubled him to the point that he could not perform. He said, “Now, she lets me get closer more. She lets me, but now I don't have erections.” He sought advice from Dr. Peralta, who said that his diabetes might be part of the problem and accordingly prescribed an ED drug, but believed that sadness about his wife's behavior was largely to blame. Having long known the couple, Dr. Peralta said that she decided that a personal intervention into their relationship was necessary. In our private interview, she reported meeting with Ernesto's wife to attempt to change her attitude toward her husband, calling for more love and encouraging her to have a less instrumental view of their marriage. She said:
She's very difficult, his wife. And we speak very frankly—I talk to her like an acquaintance, a friend. I'm sometimes defending Ernesto, but I'm also trying to help her. He feels like, “I'm just the ATM, but I don't feel desired.” It's hurt his self-esteem. He wants to be valued, not just the provider of money.
However, although Ernesto and Dr. Peralta acknowledged Ernesto's wife's efforts to be more sexually and emotionally open, both asserted that years of coldness followed by submission without desire had hampered Ernesto's physical ability to achieve erection with her. Ernesto explained that, “I don't get erections from looking at her,” because, “she's not interested in having sex. She says, ‘it's my obligation, I'm married to you.’ I hardly have erections.” Although Ernesto said he felt duty-bound to stay with his wife, he had decided to look elsewhere for the mutually satisfying sex he saw as so important to being a good man.
Dr. Peralta told me that she was never hopeful that Ernesto's wife, whom she seemed to distain, would change. In our interview, Dr. Peralta said she had sought to create a companionate marriage in her own life, in which both partners were employed professionals who balanced focus on family with attention to their sexual and emotional closeness as a couple. Ernesto's wife was living out a different model of marriage, which Dr. Peralta associated with “traditional” Mexican gender roles that she discussed as outmoded and harmful. When discussing her work with other couples, she told me that although she treated many men with erectile dysfunction, she also sought to reeducate women with “cultural dysfunction,” who had been taught that they should not enjoy sex. Encouraging Ernesto to seek an affair may thus have been a way for her to support community-level changes in gender roles and expectations that she saw as socially necessary.
With Dr. Peralta's encouragement, Ernesto planned to use ED drugs for extramarital sex in which he could embody his desired manly selfhood; Ernesto described this as “looking for another woman to wake me up.” Dr. Peralta believed that such a relationship was necessary for Ernesto to regain full erectile function, arguing that because sex is interactive, “the pills don't work if you don't find a response from the woman.” Ernesto also expected that a relationship with a sexually and emotionally open partner, who would be kind about his sexual difficulties, would assuage his erectile difficulty. Ernesto hoped to not only have the sex, but to feel the emotions that were lacking in his marriage but to him defined successful masculinity. For this reason, he stressed that sex with a prostitute would not do, stating, “I'm also not interested in prostitutes because I want to be with someone who wants me for me, not for money. To raise my self-esteem.” In this way, he sought to recapture the self he felt he had been in both his long-ago affair and his vision of himself.