The Centerfold Syndrome

At some point in the childhood of almost every American male, a boy encounters the centerfold. My introduction occurred sometime in junior high, when a savvy older friend handed me a wad of well-worn papers and told me to "take these and have some fun."

I frankly didn't know what they were until hours later, walking home, when I pulled them from my pocket, stopped on the sidewalk, and gaped. It was a confusing moment. I was captivated, but also perplexed. I couldn't stop wondering why in the world this young, pleasant-looking woman was putting her body on display.

Eventually, I stopped caring about that woman, and began to relate primarily to her parts. In so doing, says Texas psychologist Gary R. Brooks, I joined the legions of American males afflicted with "the centerfold syndrome."

Brooks coined that phrase -- and has written a new book by that name -- to describe how heterosexual males become obsessed with women's body parts. He says that while men's interest in sexuality is inborn, the manner in which we act out our sexuality is learned behavior.

"In our society, men generally learn to pair orgasm with visions of naked, air-brushed women," Brooks says. "And we can learn to unpair the two."

Why would a man want to?

Brooks says that men under the influence of the centerfold syndrome become virtual lapdogs in the company of an attractive woman. They're willing to compromise their ntegrity, and their safety, by having sex with women they don't know or like. And they often feel depressed or guilty after these encounters.

Married men with the syndrome, meanwhile, tend to be jealous of men with centerfold-like wives, Brooks says. And they sometimes feel cheated when their own wives gain weight, develop stretch marks, or in some other way diverge from the cultural symbols of beauty.

This was the case about 20 years ago with Brooks himself.

After 15 years of marriage, Brooks, then in his late-30s, began to notice signs of aging in his wife. He found himself obsessing on those signs, becoming angry with his wife, and even pressuring her to change.

Eventually, he realized that this was not his wife's problem, but his own. Like many males growing up in post- war America, Brooks had learned about women's bodies primarily from pornography, James Bond movies and older male acquaintances. His earliest relationships with women, he recalls, often ended when he no longer could accept their physical "flaws".

Now nearing midlife, however, Brooks saw that if he wanted his marriage to last, he'd have to let go of perfection. He stopped masturbating with images of naked strangers, and started fantasizing about sex with someone he cared about. He retrained his mind, and his body, to de-emphasize a woman's individual parts.

Today, his early conditioning still emerges at times.

But he says his definition of beauty has broadened to include "the woman as a whole" -- her tenderness, openness and strength, as well as her body. Meanwhile, he says, sex has never been better.

"When I was worried about perfection, there was a let- down after sex," Brooks says. "There's always a physiological let-down, but this was emotional. I'd feel depressed and alienated. Now, sex is more communicative. There's less haste, less pretending. Afterward, I have a feeling of comfort and connection."

To some men, comfort and connection in sex are not high priorities. To them, "The Centerfold Syndrome" (Jossey-Bass) may read like the rationalizations of a middle- aged man who still, deep-down, wants to sleep with Misses January through December.

In fact, though, by revealing his own sexual insecurities, Brooks gives depth to his intellectually insightful book. And he gives hope to those men who seek genuine sexual fulfillment in a culture that distorts, perverts and attempts to profit from our most intense and sacred desires.

©2008, Neil Chethik

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For 20 years, Neil Chethik has made it his goal to find out what men really think -- about family, relationships, fathering, aging, sex, and more. He is the author of two best-selling books, Fatherloss (Hyperion) and VoiceMale (Simon & Schuster). He’s been a nationally syndicated columnist, a big-hall speaker, and now, the national media’s go-to guy for what men really think about their everyday lives. Contact: Neil Chethik, P.O. Box 8071, Lexington, KY 40533 or 859.361.1659 or E-Mail or

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