My advisory council told me to stop sharing so much. My transparency gives people permission to speak about me with false confidence. I try to oblige, continue to work quietly, hope more men step up and say what’s necessary. But the boys are still suffering, silently, and causing loud pain. They hold it in until it explodes or implodes. It feels selfish not sharing what I learn. The conversations about and among men often lean towards superficial. So here I come, NOT to save the day, but trying to save myself. Reflecting and revising. Learning outloud. Journaling on a website. Maybe a guy will stumble upon this one day and feel less alone. See himself better. Those guys might be my own sons, twenty years from now wondering who I was. It’s a poor substitute for a trust fund, perhaps. I wish my father shared more insights. He left us with an abundance though- knowledge, networks, resources. I inherited property from my father. My sons will at least have a blueprint.
I’m glad we’re talking about sex more. Much of the conversation lacks sophistication, however. The complexities of men are lost in the ire and need for safety. I am in full support of a movement to protect the community from sexual deviants and abusers. I feel deep sorrow and sincerely apologize to anyone that has every experienced any type of harm by me. I will continue to work diligently to repair aspects of myself that could potentially make anyone feel uncomfortable by my words or touch. Also. I think the larger national conversation about sex is ready for more nuance.
I attended a live recording of Iyanla Vanzant show about black male promiscuity. I had never heard anyone articulate my experience with such precision. I remember feeling immediately less alone. The insight was clear, understanding is dope, but I still didn’t have a plan out. And honestly didn’t see a need for one then, upfront honesty was enough then. Here’s the exchange:
Jeff Johnson: First, when I watched I saw myself in you. I had a child outside of a marriage. I wasn’t there for that child the way I could have been in the beginning because I was dealing with shame, I was dealing with anger, I was lying to myself. And then I thought about the brothers, some of them may be here, addicted to intimacy..
Iyanla Vanzant: (interrupts) is it intimacy or is it sex?
Jeff: No no no hear me, hear me…the intimacy it don’t matter who it’s with, its just the intimacy.
Iyanla: But that’s not intimacy I’m sorry, as a woman..
Jeff: But im not talking about as a woman, you invited me here to talk about it as a man..
Iyanla: I accept that
Jeff: Men find themselves in a place where they can indiscriminately disconnect the intimate moment from the person that the moment is with. So we say stuff that we don’t tomorrow that we meant in the moment.
Iyanla: you mean it in the moment though?
Iyanla: Praise the lord! I didn’t’ wanna think that I was totally ripped off. At least the moment was true.
Jeff: What I saw from Jay, what I think I see from some of these brothers here, what I know from brothers in in my own circle, a lot of these brother are not bad, they’re damaged. And we—
Iyanla: Wait a minute, who can own the damage? [20 or so men in the visible audience raise their hand] Thank you for that.
Jeff: And we lie about the fact that we even create spaces of accountability. I was the national youth director of the NAACP, traveling all over the country, engaging and empowering young people all over the place, and my personal life was a mess. And so I was having sex with women I was supposed to be working with and leading with. But I was so ego maniacal, that I'm thinking they coming to me ‘cause I'm so great, when I denied myself the ability to actually rise to my greatest level of leadership, because the sisters that God sent me to work with me, I’m sleeping with.
Because of the kinds of conversations I curate I know the man secrets very well. One of the deepest is how much sex we willingly have that we don’t want. We hide it so well some women won’t believe me. Most women still think ejaculation = orgasm. I took a celibacy vow the last quarter of this year, with some encouragement from my brother, after I told him I don’t even like sex, don’t even feel anything sometimes. The announcement was met with some resistance. “Fine, then I won’t stay the night” - but that’s the part I actually like. Plus I was forcing myself outside this summer to not submit to depression and was afraid to be seen without a woman’s endorsement by my side. I wondered how much sex I’d exchanged for comfort, protection and sleepovers throughout my life.
The word intimate is a misleading substitute for the word sex. And sure it is absolutely sometimes about power. I spent years in deep investigation exploring whether it was that for me. So if not pleasure or power, then what else? Is it really difficult to conceive of men being emotionally subdued, affection deficient, desperately seeking connection. A basic human desire distorted a thousand different ways. We want to call it a trauma now because we’ve grown more comfortable with a broken groveling man, but it may just be routine. Men crave intimacy because we’re humans.?
I have an intimacy dependency. I used to think I was unique for a man, on the extreme end of the spectrum of intimacy desire. Until I payed closer attention to how much saliva was involved in the blunt prep ritual before it’s passed around the cypher into everyone’s mouth. There’s an awful lot of hugging in sports. Even fist fighting is more intimate than walking away. Intimacy just looks different in each man. For me it’s pretty obvious. My favorite album this year was by a rapper named Royce 5’9 “The Book of Ryan”, it’s even more personal than 4:44. I loathe small talk. Anything superficial bores me. Formality feels like distance to me- I hate galas, suits, forks. Full sentences. Please don’t call me Dr unless you’re white. I like to skip steps in relationships. Touch is like a secret handshake we share. I ask about family trauma on a first date. I’m like this everywhere I go- I’ve been to a strip club like ‘do you like this, what do you really wanna be doing?’ I flirt just to be nice, because I think it's polite. I make ridiculous jokes as icebreakers. I say and write things you’re not supposed to. No pretense, let’s get right to it. I’ve made fast friends. Been in quick intense relationships, I want to meet your mom by date 3. Some appreciate the bold honesty, others turned off. The older I got the less I cared if people thought I was strange. Enough people got me- oh that’s just how he is, don’t pay him no mind, he’s harmless, just playing a caricature of what he think people think. Too many people loved and accepted me for who and how I was, it made me that much more oblivious to the discomfort some experienced. On the other hand, my intensity tends to be extreme in both directions, some people know me in the exact opposite way that I naturally am. If I’m uncomfortable I’m very standoffish, reserved, quiet. Often perceived as shy or arrogant. There’s a switch. Either goofy and close or stern and distant. It hurts more to know people were uncomfortable sometimes because they were the ones I felt close enough to let my guard down. I’m learning to find more balance.
I picked the profession where people tell me their secrets all day. My favorite part of going to a new woman’s home is looking through her refrigerator and bookshelf. I’m fascinated with how people live. When I people watch at events I wonder what they’re afraid of. You think social media would satisfy our craving for intimacy. People sharing live videos of their day. But it just feeds the voyeur in us. It’s a cheap substitute for intimacy. Everybody else can see it. It’s why we want you to send us a pic of your face even though there are 100 on your IG. Men want to feel special. Connection is proximity, real intimacy is about meaning. If we don’t find better ways to cultivate intimate experiences for young boys they will continue to grow into men that think a photo of their penis is valid way to initiate connection.
Men’s intimacy growth is stunted. The shame and punishment trend makes it worse. I’m grateful that my private life becoming a public conversation has helped me understand more about the dynamics and consequences of my intimacy craving. It encourages me to develop more complex and considerate intimacy language. It don’t mean I can’t still experience the intimacy I desire, it just means I can’t continue engage in the same manner and still be able to do the work I was created for. It has meant more discernment in me expressing aspects of myself with the contexts of safe relationships that understand and value the unabridged versions of me. It’s not loss but a gain. Danny Doc Paltas said it best in a facebook post: “Would it be helpful if boundaries were seen not as restrictions set up to keep anyone out or barriers preventing connections, but rather as parameters and protocols necessary to understand if you actually want to know and love people, in the precise ways that we want to be known and loved?”
Iyanla Vanzant tuned into Jeff Johnson saying men were damaged. That’s too easy. Too close to broken. What’s more difficult is that all of us have damage. None of us made it this far unscathed. Black people inherit it. The first step towards a culture that fosters more meaningful intimacy for men requires compassion. We gotta stop being so mean to each other. Look our kids in the eyes and say hello instead of crossing the street or telling them to pull their pants up. Ask them if they need anything. Men need to ask more follow up questions of each other – are you sure you okay? No seriously. I really want to know. Well then let me tell you about something I’m struggling with.. Here’s my number if you change your mind. Men need to establish more spaces where talking is expected, not when we need help, but just because. We must teach emotional vocabulary sooner. We must encourage and model genuine platonic relationships. Older men need to share mistakes more often. None of it will be easy. It will demand lots of extremely soft work. It will take time. And it will be beautiful.