What do you want to ask?
The day after Thanksgiving, usually devoted to holiday shopping, has been recreated by StoryCorps as the National Day of Listening. They invite us to sit down with a family member or friend and get them to tell you a story about their life, or several stories. I agree with their premise that listening is the most meaningful gift you can give someone. And I know from the incredible expansion and gratitude I feel from listening to my clients’ stories, that this is a gift for yourself as well.
So rather than feeling frazzled, let yourself slow down enough to connect with someone in your life. Maybe you want to hear more from a parent or grandparent. Maybe you want to hear more from your partner. Surely there are questions you wonder about. Take the time to ask them, while you can. The website for National Day of Listening recommends some starting questions, and I will recommend some of my own – Conscious Sexual Self style. How about asking an elder, “how did you learn about sex? What did people tell you that turned out to not be true?” or “what has it meant to you to be a man/woman? What did people tell you it was supposed to mean?” Or ask a parent, “what has been the most surprising thing about sex or romantic relationships?” Or ask your partner, “tell me about your first crush.” You can start the listening with any question. Just take the risk to ask and quiet yourself, be present, and be curious about the person in front of you. Something we should do more than one day a year.
Imagine this scene…The lights are low. You have just taken a shower and your skin is tingling from the hot water. You smell good. You put on some music and minimal clothing. You are in the mood. You go to find your partner. You walk, no you sexy thing, you strut into the room. Your partner doesn’t look up. They sit slack, eyes glued, face illuminated by the screen. You say, “hey” (very smooth by the way). Their response is barely comprehensible as they are typing and speaking at the same time. You consider throwing something at their head, no, the screen. You are no longer in the mood.
Sound familiar? Maybe a little bit? Possibly you have played both roles in this scenario. Honestly the biggest sexual problem I see couple’s having these days is that they have so many distractions that they let sexual opportunities pass by unnoticed. Let’s just admit it, it is very unappealing to initiate any attempts at seduction when you are competing with the numbing allure of a screen. I am not talking about porn here, which actually might be easier to interrupt with a real life sexual invitation. I am talking about TV shows, video games, Facebook, work emails, Awkward Family Photos and, oh damn you, Pinterest. All great distractions. But we need to be careful that they are not distracting us right out of having an actual vibrant physical relationship.
It is time to be honest with ourselves that sitting in front of screen entertainment is not us “being available”. Making time for sex requires freeing your attention. It means being aware of your body, your partner, the shifts in energy between you. The best thing you can do for your sex life? Plan to unplug from any distraction besides your partner. Do this regularly and often. Be vigilant about looking up from other things and taking in the person sitting next to you. Remind yourself that sex can be relaxing, rejuvenating, and entertaining too. After all, sexting doesn’t let you feel their breath on your earlobe or see their eyes widen. I promise you Facebook will be there tomorrow. Then you can post with a smile on your face and your partner on your mind.
Studies looking at teenagers use of condoms suggest that 70 % of sexually active teen boys say they use a condom “occasionally”. The problem is occasionally doesn’t work. If you are effectively aware of a female partner’s fertility cycle, occasionally using a condom may provide some protection against pregnancy, but is still risky. But for use against STDs occasionally just won’t cut it. Age us up a little bit and those same people who have been “occasionally” exposed to STDs are still not using condoms very often. According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, only 18 % of single women aged 20 – 40 are regularly using condoms.
There are over 24 sexually transmitted diseases that we can be exposed to and many of them are asymptomactic – but still can be spread from partner to partner. And we are spreading them. In the US, one on five people has Herpes. Nearly 50% of sexually active people will contract HPV in their lifetime.
STDs are so common, they are a fact of our sexual lives. It is time we stopped thinking of them as a moral issue or as something only certain people get. The most common excuse I hear for not having safer sex is that the partner seemed safe & responsible. Of course they did – because normal, healthy people have STDs, many of whom have no symptoms and have not actually been tested for any STDs because they didn’t think they needed to be. We need to accept this reality and still do what we can to reduce our chances of being infected. Getting STD screenings can be a part of the new relationship milestones for those choosing monogamy or to be fluid bonded, but for people with new sexual partners using a condom is still the best protection you have. In Victorian England they used to believe that only the “dirty poor” got certain illness, until they found that bacteria causing it was in water and impacted everyone. We don’t assume only certain sloppy people get colds. STDs are easily transmitted, it is time we see that everyone can get them - even that perfect new partner you have your eye on.
If I am a slice of pizza, of course, I must be a sexy slice of pizza...
It’s that time of year again. The time for women to be presented with costume choices that range from nearly naked to just strategically exposed. Ugh, the tyranny of “sexy” once again. Today I saw his/hers versions of Freddy Kruger costumes in a catalog. OK, Freddy is scary and a little bit gross, correct? If you want to be Freddy you are going for the serial killer, monstrous vibe. The guys costume was pretty straight from the movie – red and black striped sweater, black pants, boots, hat, and the knife fingers. Great. All items a woman can wear, right? But no, the women’s costume had a ripped sweater (to display cleavage), mini skirt, fishnets, and high heel boots (no doubt, great for chasing children down in dream land). If a woman likes Freddy, why would she have to portray him differently than a man? Why on Halloween do we drop all practical considerations about the way we can dress? Why do our clothing choices actually become more limited rather than more free when we are in costume? Even if we say she needs to portray a female version of a serial killer, is the best we can come up with that she would wear a miniskirt and heels? Really? Pardon my costumer sensibilities but why can‘t a woman dress like she would actually like to kick some ass (maybe even without flashing her panties)? Or at least, survive a horror movie encounter.
Sexy costumes are fun. Be a sexy something or other if that is what you want to embody this year. I can think of a lot of things and roles that are genuinely sexy. But make it your own – don’t give in the simplified belief that sexy is about breasts and thighs. See if you can be more creative than that; what feels sexy to you? And, we have to say that when every costume a woman can buy is a sexy-fied version of anything, something is wrong. Halloween should be a time when all options are available to you – that is the gift of a costume, you can be anything you want to be. You can choose to be macho, ugly, badass, monstrous, powerful, magical, otherworldly, alien, creepy, funny, unreal, haunting, commanding, wicked, angelic, maniacal, possessed, exotic, inappropriate, historic, cartoonish, dainty, or something else. Just don’t buy into the idea that you can only translate that through the vehicle of first being sexy. Don’t limit yourself or your fantasy because what is being sold to you is not very creative.
cue sound of storm outside....
I love this time of year. I like to be scared, in that mostly safe kind of way. I cannot stop smiling as I make my way through haunted houses and plot for months on how to creep the trick-or-treaters out. But that is me. Creepy horror movies are not for everyone. I have friends who do not find glimpsing my life-size rubber zombie baby behind a door funny at all.
But maybe this season’s spookiness is actually doing us a favor. Studies have found that our libidos apparently do enjoy a little scare. A study done in the 1970s by Arthur Aron & Don Dutton found that mild risky situations make men feel more attracted to a female stranger. Online games or scary movies that have mild stress involved give us boosts of both adrenaline and endorphins. The enthusiasm and focus of adrenaline and the pleasure–taking relaxation of endorphins seem like a good mix for sex drive, right? And in fact, this chemical release can boost sex drive and increase arousal and put many of us in the mood. We, humans, have a history of blending the thrills of scary stories and the thrills of sex- from the original tragedies in Greece featuring gouging out eyeballs and other punishments, to the private boxes at the turn of the century horror theater the Grand Guignol, to the monster movies of the drive-ins.
Then we must consider the simple benefits of huddling together on the couch, clutching each other in scary moments, the close contact of hiding your face in someone’s chest. Oh, and in the category of random facts --- apparently 83% of Americans rated rainy nights the best time to have sex (Trojan’s Degrees of Pleasure Study (2010) so enjoy the creepy sound of the storm outside. Why not let the excitement of the season stoke your arousal.
There are two new products on the market to treat early ejaculation in men, and sadly, I think they reflect the limitations in the way we view sex. Both products are spray numbing agents designed to reduce sensitivity in the penis. In truth men have been trying numbing agents of various sorts in hopes of lasting longer for years, so the real invention now is that the spray apparently doesn’t transfer to the partner. I have no doubt that by reducing pleasure they allow a man to last longer, but I have to ask – is that an acceptable trade?
First as a sex therapist, I think it is sad to settle for a solution which requires one person to enjoy sex less so the other can enjoy sex more. And, in most cases, it is not necessary. Many times early ejaculation happens because the man is unaware of his level of arousal, so he is tipped over the edge into orgasm before he wanted to be. Often times he is distracted by thinking about his performance, worrying about when he will come, or wondering if his partner is close. Actually learning to become MORE aware of his sensation and messages from his body can help him to pace his arousal, change the level of intensity for himself, and possibly feel more in control as well. Becoming numb will not help to build a relationship to his arousal, it will just help him last longer, as long as he is numb.
The other sad aspect of this is how it encourages us to limit our sexual scripts. One approach to dealing with early ejaculation is to expand your sexual play to include a variety of things that feel good and give pleasure, using hands, mouths, skin, toys, etc, so that penetrative intercourse is only one possible aspect of a sexual experience. That way orgasm for either partner can happen at any time and both know that there are still many ways to be satisfied. Penetration may still be the preference, but we might question the impulse to numb someone’s genitals if we didn’t see intercourse as the only “right way” to have sex.
And speaking of numbing genitals – can we for a moment imagine the outrage if a company was marketing a product to numb women’s vaginas so they could have sex longer? Think that would be considered an acceptable solution? No, women would be angry about being treated like objects and insulted that their sexual pleasure was considered irrelevant to the sex act. Maybe we could give men the same respect and see their ability to have intense, fully sensate sexual pleasure as important. Let's shoot for the stars - everyone's pleasure is important!
Guilt and shame are two different beasts. Both inspire us to feel pretty crappy. Both serve to shape our behavior. But, important difference, guilt inspires us to do better, while shame leaves us feeling hopeless.
Those of us who spend time studying and delineating different emotional states – oh, the fun conversations about qualities of shame! – have noted that guilt and shame work on us differently. Guilt is created from a belief that you have done something wrong or bad. It is behavior driven. Shame hits us deeper; it is a belief that we, our self, is bad or wrong. It is personal. Again, both feel awful. Both make us want to crawl away and hide. But guilt, because it is about DOing something that felt wrong, motivates us to change our behavior. We can do something to avoid future guilt. Shame on the other hand, since it feels like something true about us, is about BEing. There is little we can do about a flaw we feel is deep within us. Shame is the internal voice that says, “if people really knew who you are, they would not like you”. Shame gives us little to bargain with. In this way, it is not very motivating. Shame makes us believe there is a problem within us that cannot be fixed, so our response to shame is often an internal giving up – depression, or a desperate avoidance – rage.
I believe that guilt is useful. It serves as a marker for our own integrity and values. It can guide us. Shame however, I think is an illusion about ourselves. It is a voice from old wounds that we couldn’t fight against, because we were too young to argue or too vulnerable. Shame tells you a lie – that you are ultimately bad and the best you can do is hide it from others. Shame blinds us and separates us from who we really are and who we want to be.
I remember in junior high being taught to respond to people with “I don’t like what you did” rather than “I don’t like you. Now, in junior high I was pretty certain that, in fact, I didn’t like certain people. This is still true as a more evolved adult. But the lesson is a good one for a lot of reasons. Shame will not make us better. Shaming is giving up on each other. Being clear about behavior that doesn’t work for you, that is something people can work with.
Why am I writing about this in Conscious Sexual Self? Because sexuality is an area where shame has been used a lot. And we have internalized it. Every time you think “I am bad for desiring that or “I am not OK for the way my body responds”, you cut yourself off from something important. And shame makes us feel like we don’t have choices, like our sexuality can never feel good and in integrity. But it can. You may feel guilty sometimes about something you did sexually. Ok, use that as guidance. But spare yourself the shame, if you can. The sexual part of you is good, natural, and deserving of a place in your life. We can learn to lessen shame, if we let ourselves.
YourTango.com asked me to write an article addressed to women who were having affairs with married men. This was considered controversial since usually the “mistress” and her motivations or feelings are left in the dark background in the cultural unpacking of infidelity. We talk a lot about affairs, why they happen, what motivates someone to cheat, whether to repair your marriage or not, etc. But we don’t talk about the “other woman” or man and their experience. The fear is, if I write in a compassionate way about the complicated emotions in affairs, I will be seen as promoting infidelity. I think it is time we all got more nuanced than this.
The article has been picked up by Huffington Post and what has been interesting is the commentary and attention it has gotten. I am not surprised by the amount of responses that are full of hatred and condemnation of the mistress, presenting her as someone out on the fringes of society, someone we don’t need to consider or try to understand. The basic thread being: only a terrible person would do that. It reminds me of people’s approach to premarital sex in the 1950’s, “those bad people” doing that are different from us, not worth discussing at any depth. Well, that approach didn’t stop pre-marital sex and shaming hasn’t stopped infidelity. Based on the stats we can safely assume that each of us knows someone (probably several someones) who has played one role, or more, in the infidelity triangle. These are not bad others out there, these are people like the rest of us. I understand that it feels safer to pretend we can isolate “mistresses” or “cheaters” in some moral ghetto. I understand that is feels comforting to profess bravado and threats of violence if this happened to you. I understand that it feels emotionally less complicated to believe that love is something we can own and that can be “stolen”. But the reality for many, many people is that affairs are complicated, emotionally confusing, and deeply personal. It doesn’t serve us to demonize and shut down the conversation. And everyone, deserves a place to explore their motivations and choices. In fact, this open conversation may be the thing that eventually helps us to reduce the pain that infidelity causes.
If you are interested in reading the article you can find it here.
It is not uncommon for couples to come in to therapy with me and act ashamed when they report that they sleep in separate beds. Usually this is due to snoring or restless sleep, but it is presented as though it is a sign of lack of passion or intimacy. I encourage people to not discount the need for sleep as a paramount need. An exhausted body will not put focus on sexual desire. An exhausted partner will not make the best communication choices. An exhausted self will find everything in life just a little more annoying and overwhelming. You know how you feel when you are not rested. It is not pretty.
A recent study from Toronto on couple’s sleep patterns found that a surprising 30-40% of couples sleep apart. They also found that couples who sleep in the same bed missed the deeper sleep stages. Couples I have talked to who sleep apart say that the most difficult thing about it is the perceived stigma and embarrassment about it. So we have the opposite situation from the 1950s when we only saw couples presented as sleeping chastely in separate beds (remember Ricky and Lucy?). Now we only see couples cuddled lovingly around each other as they drift off to sleep. Knowing that 30-40% of couples are drifting off to peaceful sleep with a bed to themselves may help ease the sense that this is a sign of a bad relationship.
In fact, the idea that where we sleep and where we have sex have to be the same is limiting to our relationships. Also the fantasy that just by proximity of bodies in bed we roll in to each other and have more sex can make us lazy about actually planning time for sex. If you feel the need for separate space for sleeping, just be conscious of also making space for sexuality. You can have fun inviting each other into your beds, and/or eliminate beds from your sex life altogether and find new private places to come together for pleasure. If you are less tired maybe you will find an hour opens up at night for being sexual together. Make long sensual kisses a good night routine and appreciate the times you do take to lay close to one another. Just don’t let other’s ideas of what a good relationship looks like diminish the things you do to make your relationship work. A good night’s sleep may be your key to a happy, sexy love life.
We are so conditioned to strive for sexiness in our culture, we rarely doubt its value. Being sexy is a good thing, no need to ask ourselves why. But I am inviting you to take a moment and ask yourself what being "sexy" means to you and what value you place on it. Use this just to explore your own mind or to question social expectations, just take the time to be curious.
Respond to these prompts:
Being "sexy" means a person is...
Being "not sexy" means a person is..
I believe a sexy person has these characteristics...
I imagine a sexy person's life is...
I am sexy when I...