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Bridging the monkey and the man: what The White Lotus has to say about desire

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

Sometimes I need to see a little more of the monkey…

Much to the dismay of the penis-haver to whom I’m married, I don’t have a switch that can be thrown to transition me seamlessly from domestic mode to passionate lover mode. I need a bridge between my regular life, where I need to keep up routines and schedules, and our sex life, where I crave spontaneity and freedom from expectations. To put it another way, I need to enter the right headspace before I make the beast with two backs… and that process takes time.

I’ve said it before: PM is more of an instapot, whereas I’m a slow cooker. I need sexy thoughts, erotic imaginings, to start turning up the heat. I need to feel wanted and desired by my partner. And not just during that window of time when they think they might get sex out of the situation. For my readers who are penis-havers in relationships with vulva-owners, this latter part is the important takeaway for you.

Few things have been more of a turn-off for me than when PM used to think that he could initiate sexy times with me in the evening simply by jumping right into sensual, physical contact. We’d get home from working or studying all day (after hardly having spoken the entire day) and he would cozy up to me and rub my back and kiss me, and I guess this was supposed to make me swoon?

Although we had never discussed it, he clearly assumed that this was a good way to seduce me. As if all I needed to want sex was some affection right before we dove into foreplay. *facepalm*

Little did PM know, his routine was actually having the opposite effect on me than he intended. When he hadn’t shown me affection or otherwise made me feel seen and desirable since the last time we had sex together, the whole thing felt disingenuous. I’m sure he thought his moves were going to turn up the heat between us, but in actuality it was like throwing ice water at me. I often felt like he only wanted me — or even noticed me as a sexy, beautiful woman — when sex was on the table.

It wasn’t long before we fell into an anxiety-ridden pattern of poorly conceived seduction met by rejection, with mounting frustration on both sides. His erotic approach only irritated me. And I felt bad saying I didn’t like the attention, because the truth was I did want his attention. The difference was that I wanted it…needed itmore often than right before sex. Put another way, it wasn’t the activities themselves that bothered me, it was the timing.

After a while, PM started to get the impression that I didn’t really want sex anymore, and at times I wondered the same.

But to be honest, I wondered if he really still desired me like he used to. I’d complain to him that he never told me I was beautiful or sexy and that we hardy ever kissed or cuddled anymore. His answer was to include more of that during foreplay, which only made me feel, all the more, like his affection was a just a pre-game performance. *sighs*

Don’t misunderstand me. PM and I had a wonderful relationship otherwise, but I was missing something essential. As a couple, we were missing something essential.

Basically, his sex-oriented attention was killing my libido.

As teenagers and then young adults, I remember how much we enjoyed physical touch. It felt a lot like we were magnets. Like we couldn’t help ourselves. My body was drawn to be in contact with his and his to mine, in whatever way we could get it. It was glorious.

I remember sitting next to one another in church as teens and finding some way to discreetly make contact. Not even holding hands, because that wasn’t allowed during church. Just the bump of a knee, or elbow against elbow, or fingertips reaching out to brush fingertips as we sat there with our hands resting on our thighs. Even simply the sensation of feeling his body heat.

And all I could think about was how much I wanted this man.

Why did getting married seem to kill my libido? I had only just turned 21 when we got hitched. He was 20. Those should be some prime humping years, even if you’re in a monogamous relationship. But things had gotten stale between us within a few years. And this was all before we added kids into the mix, so I can’t blame them either!

Reflecting back after undergoing this sort of sexual reawakening 20+ years later, I don’t think my sex drive had ever really changed, only the circumstances.

Turns out, what I want…what I need…is to get a glimpse of PM’s monkey outside the bedroom. (Heh, heh, heh.)

As great of a euphemism as “the monkey” is (and as my friends could tell you, I do love a good euphemism), that’s not even what I’m getting at here. Let me explain what I mean by the monkey.

In season 1 of The White Lotus, Mark (played by Steve Zahn) tells his son Quinn that inside every man there's the man and the monkey, and that it's the man's job to facedown the monkey. The monkey is driven by impulse and just takes what he wants. The man, on the other hand, uses reason and sees the big picture. He can delay gratification. He can foresee the consequences of allowing the monkey to make the decisions.

The context of this conversation between father and son is an affair that we learn Mark had in the past, one that almost ended his marriage. In speaking metaphorically about the monkey and the man, Mark is clearly talking here about penis-owners and the male libido.

Mark feels that in cheating on Quinn’s mother he let his monkey, his libido — the side of him that wants sexual gratification any way he can get it without regard for the feelings of others — take control. In short, when he cheated on his wife, he was thinking with his penis…or his “monkey,” if you will. (I can’t help it! It is a good euphemism.)

In healthy social and psychological development, a penis-owner learns to control their physiological responses. Their libido isn’t erased but is tempered with reason and, hopefully, a healthy respect for other human beings, even if those other humans sexually excite them. Even in more sexually arousing circumstances, penis-owners learn to control certain behaviors and to give more of the reins to the rational part of their brains. In the very least, they learn to be discreet and respectful and to avoid things that might make others feel uncomfortable or unsafe. (And I think we can expect this basic courtesy and demand it from our penis-owning sons, can we not?!)

In simple terms, this is how I, a non-penised person who has no medical training whatsoever, understand this process of psychosexual development. According to this rudimentary understanding, if all goes well, the penis-haver learns during adolescence and young adulthood how, going back to the metaphor given by Steve Zahn’s character, to keep the monkey in its cage and let the rational man run the show.

The monkey will always be there. It’s just that properly socialized penis-owners learn to keep him caged most of the time and only let him out on occasion. (Again, this is my over-simplistic understanding of what I am sure is a complex psychological, physiological, and sociological process.)

As a penis-owner who respects vulva-owners and understands socially appropriate behavior, PM’s impulse is to keep the animal tightly reined and to always be the gentleman. So much so that he’s generally uncomfortable setting the monkey free, even when he and I are getting down and dirty. I have discovered that he needs my explicit permission to get primal during sex, to fully let himself go. And while I’m grateful for his respect and for his commitment to my pleasure, when I get to see his unbridled, untamed erotic side and know that I am the catalyst that unleashes this in him…fuck. My insides are tightening and churning just thinking about it. *fans self*

I know he loves and respects me as a person –– we already connect man to man, if you will. What my erotic self needs is to see more of that monkey!

But back to horny, teenage PM and Molly... Whenever we had the opportunity, we’d be touching in one way or another. And this wasn’t foreplay either. And while some of it was certainly arousing, what we were doing wasn’t even explicitly sexual most of the time. The Christian tradition within which we came of age demanded chastity until marriage. (For more about our upbringing, see my early essay, “A bit of context.”) And for the better part of our first year dating (the end of his junior year and my senior year of high school), we remained faithful to this expectation, albeit it begrudgingly. We kept clothes on…mostly…and camped out somewhere between First and Second base.

And while it was physically frustrating that sex wasn’t on the table, there was something so wonderful about this type of sensual touch. Contact that wasn’t a part of foreplay. Attention for the sole purpose of making the other person feel appreciated and loved and desired. I felt cherished, deeply connected to this man on more than just a physical level. But at the same time, it felt like he wanted me so badly that he couldn’t keep his hands off me.

And that feeling of being desired…whew! It made me want him. So. Bad. He made me feel adored and I wanted to do the same for him (and hopefully make his toes curl in the process *eyebrows waggle*). While we kept it pretty PG-13 a lot of the time, it doesn’t mean my loins weren’t burning.

Fast forward ten years later. We’re married, and we don’t really touch and kiss anymore unless we’re going to have sex. Our evening rituals look more like those of roommates who share domestic tasks than of passionate lovers.

It’s natural, I suppose. We had other things on our minds — real life stuff like careers and houses and later, children. Our worlds had become more complicated as adults, partners, parents. As a married couple, PM and I put most of our energy and attention into fulfilling our need for what psychotherapist Esther Perel calls “the domestic,” that need for stability and predictability, for feeling safe and grounded. And I suppose our body language with one another had begun to reflect that. We were no longer the sole focus of each other’s worlds. There were other things pulling at us, distracting us, and so we began to no longer notice a tug of magnetism that once was electric between us.

Reflecting back on our years together, I think PM really didn’t understand how desire and arousal worked for vulva-owners. After all, all he needed was for me to stroke his thigh, or to run a hand under his shirt to tease his stomach, and he and his cock were ready to rumble. He didn’t realize that he and I fundamentally differed when it came to generating desire for sex. In terms of our erotic needs, he really was from Mars and I from Venus.

He’s only just realized in the last two years what I need in order to fire me up. What I’d been asking him for over the course of all those years together:

I need to feel seen. I need to feel desired. And it needs to happen outside the context of sex.

It took us two decades to get here, but now that PM’s finally, finally, seen the light, it has changed things so radically between us that here I sit, reflecting on our sex life and writing about it after over 25 years together.

Turns out ours isn’t a unique story. I have found in conversing with my vulva-owning friends about this issue, that this is a common frustration they feel about their penis-owning partners. In fact, this has been the one of the biggest complaints that I’ve heard.

If we vulva-owners don’t feel seen, admired, wanted by our penis-having partners in our lives together, outside the bedroom, the attempts made by our partners to seduce us into sex via sudden displays of affection will, more often than not, just piss us the fuck off.

When that’s the only time we get to see any of your devotion to us — when you’re looking to get something from us — those caresses start to look mighty self-serving. I don’t want to be hugged and kissed by PM only when he’s hoping to score. It feels downright icky.

So what it comes down to is the fact that I need more than just an occasional glimpse of PM’s monkey-libido.

I don’t know that many penis-owners understand the intrinsic connection that exists for vulva-havers between desire and arousal, between our mental state at any given time and our libido. If they did, perhaps it wouldn’t be so common a frustration expressed by their vulva-having partners. Or even if they recognize this relationship, many of them don’t seem to know what to do about it.

Because, to be sure, it’s not just the penis-haver with the monkey inside. I’ve got a monkey, too, though not a “monkey” monkey. Just a plain old, run of the mill, monkey-libido. 🙈

I will admit that it does seem to be easier for me as a vulva-owner to generally ignore my monkey’s existence. I mean, I was definitely horny AF as an older adolescent and young adult, driven to some questionable decisions. But as a mature woman *grimaces* and especially now that I’m a mother, truth be told, I can pretty much lock that monkey in the basement and forget it exists…if I want to.

But I digress...

The fact is, my monkey might always be there in the background, but opening the cage to let it out is a lot more complicated for me than for PM. It’s just the way I’m built.

And so it takes time. And attention. And forethought.

The White Lotus season 1 explores this issue by looking at its major characters and their relationships through the lens of the monkey and the man.

Some time after Mark's conversation with Quinn about the monkey, there’s this weird scene where Mark’s wife Nicole (played by Connie Briton) is reading in bed, and Mark comes in the bedroom in only his underwear, acting like a gorilla. He jumps up on the bed, beats his chest, and grunts at his wife. She just looks at him like he’s lost his goddamn mind and goes back to her book. Looking rejected and dejected, he lies down on his side of the bed to go to sleep.

It was certainly a bizarre scene, but I think the writers want us to see Mark, in his hope to interest his wife in sex, unleashing his metaphorical monkey. In the couples’ other interactions, they appear to have a congenial relationship, a comfortable partnership. But we don’t see affection. We don’t see flirting or teasing. We don’t see anything that would otherwise suggest there’s lust or desire present in their relationship. And yet somehow Mark’s primal display of desire, apropos nothing, is supposed to excite Nicole.

To be sure, a man acting like a literal ape isn’t exactly the biggest turn on (unless you’re into that sort of thing). But the main point I think The White Lotus writers are making is that this couple can’t seem to connect with one another erotically anymore, and probably haven’t for a long time, presumably pre-dating his affair. Nicole ignores her monkey by hyper-focusing on her career and her children. Mark locked his monkey up tight following his affair, so now he hyper-focuses on his health.

Frankly, I feel for both of the characters here. I think the writers have represented well a rather universal struggle in long-term relationships, especially with married couples who are parenting together. Mark’s affair that nearly cost him his marriage is almost incidental to the larger relational issue captured here. Theirs is a story of a married couple who don’t really see one another anymore.

Ironically, despite the havoc that an unchecked monkey can cause — like the breech of trust between Mark and Nicole that almost destroyed their family — it's exactly the monkey that we sometimes need. That passionate part of ourselves that gets swept away in the moment and revels in risk, mystery, danger, and transgression…the part that delights in the form and shape of our partner. My monkey getting peeks at PM’s monkey. *winks*

PM and I have been together a long time, and it’s all too easy to forget about our monkey-side. We’ve both been responsible, home-owning, child-rearing adults together for quite a while, and it’s natural for a married couple raising a family together to become increasingly entrenched in routines and attempts to maintain order in the midst of chaos and life’s uncertainties. The domestic sphere calls for predictability and stability when you have family. Why would we want monkeys running around causing mayhem?

Honestly, it only seems to get harder for both of us to summon the monkey — that untamed, erotic part of ourselves — the longer we’ve been together. To let our wild side out of its cage more often.

And while people master their monkeys for a variety of reasons ­­–– as we should –– at the same time, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. And I think this is the lesson that season 1 of the The White Lotus brings us.

A loving, passionate marriage will always seek to bridge the monkey and the man. They must coexist in counterpoint to one another. When I or my partner allows one side of ourselves to crowd out the other, our relationship will suffer.

I understand that it can sound like a contradiction when I say that I want to feel respected and seen as a whole person by PM but also want to feel like I make PM mad with need and lust. Like he can’t keep his hands off me. Like I am his wet dream come to life. But that’s the paradox of those two human needs that reside in us side by side. The erotic and the domestic. The monkey and the man.

In season 1 of the White Lotus, in the course of dealing with a damaged marriage, health concerns, career aspirations, and with raising their kids together, Mark and Nicole’s monkeys — their passionate erotic sides — don’t connect anymore. Neither one of them is seeing their partner’s whole self, the self that encompasses both the monkey and the man.

According to the story arc of season 1, it takes Nicole getting a glimpse of Mark’s monkey — in this case, in the form of his attempt to stop a burglar in their hotel room — in order for her to truly see him again. And getting a glimpse of another side of him ­–– the side that is irrational and wild and unpredictable ­–– she wants him.

In the earlier scene where Mark approaches Nicole in bed while channeling an ape, I got the impression that in this moment he’s trying to make this giant leap from the domestic partnership that their marriage had become to something more, something erotic. But Mark’s missing that intermediate step we vulva-owners need. He’s neglecting the kind of connection with Nicole outside the bedroom that would make her want him in that way.

She needs to see his monkey-side, that part that’s primal and unpredictable and focused on her. In the past, his monkey served only himself, taking what it wanted without concern for others. Now she sees his monkey-side channeled toward her needs.

And the direction that we see their marriage take in the last episode — not just their having sex, but also their playful flirting and chatting together — suggests that his monkey has successfully connected once again with hers. They’ve found a way to hold onto both the man and the monkey that resides in the both of them.

As I said earlier, it’s not all or nothing. These are contradictory aspects of the human self, and I feel most passionate for PM when we’re able to hold these two parts in tension, acknowledging and honoring them equally.

I’m a domestic partner and wife. A mother and caregiver. A friend and confidant and respecter of my partner’s privacy and boundaries. But I’m also an exotic creature with wild fantasies and imaginings. A greedy, possessive thing that wants all her lover’s attention and pleasure. (And PM has equally disparate parts.) Our sex life is never better than when PM make efforts every day to acknowledge that monkey-side of me by allowing me a glimpse of his.

To put it another way, PM’s “gentleman monkey,” if you will –– the monkey that hasn’t been faced down by the man but that is tempered by him –– needs to take the time to play with my monkey before she will want to come out and really play.

PM just told me that he likes to call this “poking the lady monkey.” *laughs out loud and shakes head*

PM informs me that his gentleman monkey wears a bowtie, but this GIF is the best I could find.

Esther Perel explains it this way: foreplay should begin immediately after your last orgasm. What she means is that a passionate sex life requires consistent attention. If we haven’t taken the time to slowly build and feed our erotic flames, we can’t expect there to be an inferno between the sheets. If PM wants me to desire him, he needs to start by nurturing an erotic atmosphere where I feel wanted and desired.

I want to know that PM still sees me as an erotic being. I want to believe that physical contact with me still electrifies him, still makes his dick twitch. *waggles eyebrow* I want to feel like he’s restraining himself when we’re together. I don’t want to feel like he’s just a fuck buddy, someone who comes out of the woodwork when he’s feeling an itch that needs scratching.

In short, I want to get a peek at his monkey.

I hope this post was worth the wait. Let me know if you like it, and if you have any thoughts or observations to share on this topic, please leave a comment!

Until next time, stay kinky 😉

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