Conscious Sexual Self

Connection Requires Consciousness

Just Sitting Here Wanting To Have Sex - Or Not

 

Desire can be a mysterious thing. We can’t simply conjure it or focus it exactly where we want it. Such that, many people feel confused and frustrated by their own desire levels or patterns. Now sex researcher and psychologist, Meredith Chivers has added some important research to the picture and a name for something many people never even knew they had – responsive desire.

 

The traditional model of sexual desire told us that we would all naturally walk around thinking about sex and wanting to have it – spontaneous desire. This version of the desire story requires very little external stimulation, it feels internally motivated or bodily motivated (being horny) and inspires a person to initiate or seek out sex, or at least be excited about it. Many of us have experienced this type or desire. This model of desire is “I want to have sex irregardless of my environment or current situation.”

 

Responsive desire, which Chivers research ascribes to women – although what I know about sex at this point, is that it would be silly of us to think that anything will remain in its neat little box of gender or whatever – is desire that is stirred by first getting sexually aroused. This type of desire is dependent on the environment and what is currently going on. This notion of desire really changes perspectives on “normal” desire patterns.  

 

To be clear, this is not another sex expert saying, “Hey, women need more foreplay to enjoy sex.” Hopefully we have already covered that. That enlightened notion is addressing arousal and the fact that women’s bodies have a fairly complex arousal system and it can take more time to get fully cooking, but has always assumed desire to have sex was already present. The conversation around responsive desire is that some women may not feel like having sex at all until they get started and begin to be physically aroused. Desire that follows arousal. That is a new perspective.

 

This does not mean that women should be pressured into having sex they don’t want because they will warm up to it! Actively not wanting sex is different than feeling neutral or ambivalent. It does mean that some women may want to experiment with going ahead with otherwise appealing sex with an appealing partner, even if they are not feeling super turned on by the idea at the moment because the desire may build with the physical arousal. And for people who are wanting to increase their desire for sex, many of them will be best served by increasing their exposure to arousing stimulation, erotica, massages, dancing close, kisses, porn, all kinds of sensual pleasure. Build pleasure and desire may come (not to get too Field of Dreams on you).

 

Responsive Desire is a bit tricky and we certainly have more to learn. It will require that we listen to the subtleties of wanting and openness to sex. But for anyone who has ever leaned back into the pillows to let the sweat dry and thought, “Wow, I didn’t think I was that into it before we started but I am so glad we did that! Why do I keep forgetting that I enjoy sex so much!”, Responsive desire may help you understand yourself a bit better.

 

Talking Dirty

 

Have you tried talking dirty to a partner? Think of your imagination and your voice as fun sex toys that you always have with you, cost nothing, and don’t require a trip, virtual or otherwise, to the sex store. You just need to be brave enough to bring it out. If you are a little nervous to try, here are some tips:

 

Take a breath – You know that squeaky, croaky voice thing that happens when you seem to run out of air while talking – not sexy. Start by taking a slow breath, there is no rush. You will feel calmer and, as a bonus, no pubescent voice cracking. Oh, and laughter is a great way to get yourself breathing.

 

Picture it in your mind – Your words will come more easily and be more juicy if you let yourself form images in your mind. As they used to say in writing class, “no turn on for the writer, no turn on for the reader”, Wait, that wasn’t quite what they said…Well, anyway, use your imagination to turn yourself on and it will be more fun all around.

 

Try different perspectives – Some of you will love telling a sexy tale from a first person perspective, what you want to do to a partner, what you imagine being done to you. But some of you will have more fun talking about imaginary other people, which can go anywhere from what the naughty neighbors are doing next door to what Marie Antoinette got up to. I suggest you try shifting it up and see what stokes your fantasy creation best.

 

Do it in the dark – Phone sex works for people for a lot of reasons, but a major one is removing the pressure of being seen. Just letting yourself be a voice in the dark, lets you both close your eyes and indulge in imagining. No one can see you blush and you can still touch, get in close and whisper so your breath brushes your partner’s ears or neck.

 

Have a safe word – Yes, even for talking sexy it is good to have safe boundaries. Each of our fantasy realms are different with borders that are in scary territory for some people. If you really want to get into talk as turn-on, it can help to establish some turn-offs first. Get a sense of what is off limits (possibilities might be talking about people you actually know, adult/child scenes, violence or humiliation, describing your partner’s body as different than it actually is or…). People’s limits are different when it comes to fantasy, but we still have our limits. 

 

No pressure to do – Remember that just because you get hot thinking about it, that doesn’t mean you want to do it. Talk about this with your partner ahead of time so there is no misunderstanding. Fantasy is fantasy; part of the fun is to go out to the edges. Just promise to let them know what you DO want to actually do when that time comes. Maybe promise to tell them in exquisite detail…

 

Sexual Chemistry - Should You Have to Work at it?

 

Most of us have approached our dating lives with an image of sexual chemistry and desire that works like spontaneous combustion. It just suddenly hits without warning or intention and burns hard and fast, without our even trying – and can go out just as quickly. Our adult relationships may be better served by seeing sexual chemistry as a bit more complex and alchemical than that. We may not be able to create sexual chemistry anywhere with anyone, but we can actively engage with elements that build a chemical reaction we are hoping for.

 

Think of it like building a fire. You can sit and wait for lightening to strike and get the fire going. But this is not a great plan. It makes more sense to bring components together that will create fire. The fire will be just as hot, but you do have to put some effort and care into it.

 

You need fuel for the fire to burn strong and steady – Think of this as your body and your health. Are you giving your body what it needs to feel desire? Are you getting sleep, good food, exercise that is energizing not depleting, are you handling your stress? Basically, is your body ready and available to act on sexual chemistry?

 

The fire needs oxygen to stay alive – This relates to giving actual time and space for sexuality. You will not feel desire and chemistry while you are running from one chore to the next. Expecting to feel a lot of sexual chemistry on demand while overbooked and overworked, when you haven’t spoken to your partner in person for 3 days, when your mind is somewhere else, is like expecting lightening to strike – within a 30 minute window that is convenient for you. You need to actively create space, breathing room so to speak, for sex in your life.

 

Tinder will help the fire catch quicker – These are things in your life that you know make you feel more sexual, more connected or drawn to your partner, and sexier in general. Craft reminders of sensual pleasure into your day. Touch your partner as you pass by them, whisper about what you might do later in their ear. Make a point to build these things into your life so that, when the time is right, the spark can quickly catch and turn into a flame.

 

The Spark – Yes, the mysterious element that causes the flame to burst forth. There are many things we do that smother our natural sexual sparks and there are things we can do to encourage them, but who we desire and why remains, in large part, a mystery. There are different kinds of chemistry and there are different kinds of sex and what we want and are drawn to can change over time. One person may cause trembling in your thighs, another may cause you to feel playful and teasing, another warm and giving. Why him? Why her? Enjoy finding out…

 

Turned On To Touch

 

Hands running up and down the slopes of bodies, thighs touching, torsos pressing into each other….Touch is the sense most commonly linked to sexuality. We touch and are touched. For some of us, sexual interactions are the main, or only, time we engage in extended touch with another person.

 

When we talk of touch in sex, we often hear about ways to touch another person. Often the advice centers around finding the “right” places to touch. Maybe there will be some input on whether to touch lightly there or firmly. We also hear about how to receive touch, how to relax and experience the sensation of someone else, hopefully, pleasing you.

 

I am going to invite another aspect of enjoying touch – the ability to track sensation and take pleasure in the act of touching itself. What do I mean by this? We can touch in such a way that touching turns us on. Try it now with yourself; use your hand to touch your opposite arm. Close your eyes and notice what your hand is feeling, heat, softness of skin, crinkly quality of hair. Now slowly move your hand and feel sensation under your fingertips, different than the sensation under your palm. Now you are engaging in the act of touching.

 

It is harder to focus on this when you touch yourself because, as you probably noticed, the sensation in your arm being touched is pretty distracting too. That is not a bad thing! Let’s have pleasure from multiple channels. With a partner though, it can be a fun practice to experiment with touching for your own sensation of pleasure. Rather than focusing on tweaking spot A, then brushing spot B, then vigorously rubbing spot C, in hopes that this will feel good to your partner, try something different and touch according to what feels good underneath your hands. It helps to close your eyes at first so that you can focus on what you feel. Then slowly explore.

 

Engaging in this way you may find that you love parts of your partner’s body that you didn’t appreciate before. You may get aroused by slickness, folds and hills, roughness tingling against tender fingertips, warm hidden spots. Think of your own hands as erotic zones in their own right. They are just as sensitive as nearly anywhere you are going to be touched.

 

There is a great likelihood that your partner is going to like this too. Slow sensual touch from someone who is enjoying themselves is a pretty big turn on. This practice is not to replace the other ways of engaging with touch; take time to give purposeful touches and to receive. This opens up a new way to explore and enjoy sexual play and new channels for pleasure.

 

Can I Ruin Myself?

 

Tom is not meeting my eyes as he sits in my office. He quickly blurts out that he has been looking at porn online, pretty often, and is worried that he has changed his desires and that now he will never be satisfied with the sex he and his wife have.

 

Sarah says she is frustrated with sex with her partner and practically whispers, “Could my using a vibrator have made it so I can’t orgasm without it anymore?”

 

Both these people are asking a similar question, “Has something I have done changed my sexual responses permanently?  Am I still normal?” And of course, the really unspoken question, “Is sex dangerous? Can I ruin myself in some way?” The thing is we have been led to believe that sex is dangerous, that there are bad behaviors, that we are all just one misstep from being a damaged sexual being. But the truth is, we, as humans, are a lot more adaptable than that. And now we are finding brain science to back that up.

 

There are two brain concepts that are helpful here. One is the principle of learned disuse. This is not a complicated thing to understand and we are all familiar with it. If you stop trying to do something, you will more quickly lose the ability to do that thing. Pretty simple. This is true for all kinds of behaviors or skills. But what we know from the frankly amazing extents of human recovery, and now from brain scans, if people work at regaining a skill, even if that skill has atrophied and it is now very hard to do, people can rewire their brain to recover that ability. It may not be easy, it may in fact be quite frustrating especially if you have developed an easier way to meet a similar need, but it can be done. Which bring us to the concept of neural plasticity. Science-y sounding words, yes, but again fairly easy to understand. Our brains our fundamentally flexible, they are ready to learn patterns. In the brain’s readiness to learn patterns we train our brain; it is efficient and designed to respond quickly. So if we do a behavior a certain way several times we are programming our brain to that behavior. That pattern will become the default program for us. Neuroscience researcher, Norman Doidge MD, explains this beautifully with a snow analogy. Think if walking through fresh snow, the first pass through you set down a trail of slightly packed snow. When you walk that way again, it will be easiest to step into the track that is already laid down. Each pass makes that track more efficient for you and in fact, it will be difficult to walk to either side of it; your feet will be pulled into the track already laid down. But you can choose to walk outside that track. It will take more effort but you can eventually lay down a new path in the snow. The same is true for our mind and our behaviors.

 

So this is true of our sexual behaviors too. Sarah and Tom may have laid down some patterns for themselves that now are holding them back from experiencing other sexual elements that they want. But they can retrain themselves to have new patterns. It may be frustrating at first. It may involve avoiding the easy path that has been working for them in other ways, doing things differently. But the flexibility is there. So, no you are not ruined. You are a creature of habit in ways that go deeper than we imagined, but also a creature of continuous change and growth. If you are willing to be frustrated for awhile, you can make changes, to your sex life and to other aspects of yourself.

 

Spooky Desire

 

  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.

 

 

Not so Fast - Think Twice About Products for Early Ejaculation

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!

 

Remember the thrill of "second base"?

Ah the forgotten nipple – so important in the early teenage years of sexual exploration but overlooked once penetration comes in to the picture. Don’t let this happen to you. I encourage you to not forget that nipples have serious pleasure potential. Include them in your sexual play.

Nipples may not be the most effusive body part or the most dramatic, but they are often asking for attention. Both men and women’s nipples are sensitive and responsive erogenous zones. Everyone’s nipples are different; actually they are like fingerprints, each unique. So the type of stimulation that feels good will vary a lot. Some people like a gentle touch, some people are excited by fairly rough play with their nipples. Nipples are more sensitive when they are hard, but erect nipples occur for several reasons so they are not necessarily a sign of sexual arousal.

Studies suggest that women’s nipples are more enervated, and therefore more sensitive, than men’s.  A 2011 MRI study found that when women’s nipples were self –stimulated it lit up the area of their brain associated with genital sensation, (Komisaruk, B. R., Wise, N., Frangos, E., Liu, W.-C., Allen, K. and Brody, S), giving scientific background for many women’s reports that they orgasm more easily when their nipples are being touched.  Many women can achieve orgasm from nipple stimulation alone. Women’s nipple sensitivity is also very affected by hormonal fluctuations throughout the month, so they are great teachers for us in the need to vary the way we approach our partner’s bodies and our own. What feels great today may not do it for you tomorrow, best to have some variety in your approach.

So touch them with a feather, your lips, your tongue, fingers or the tines of a comb. Touch your partners when you are together, touch you own nipples when you masturbate. Just don’t ignore them!

 

Your Mission = Explore Yourself

 

Set aside some time by yourself to reacquaint yourself with your body. This should take at least a half hour, maybe an hour. Take time to transition from your day, light a candle or take a shower, put on some slow music, take off your clothes and meet your self in bed. Lay back and relax in to the bed – you are going to take some time. Take some deep breaths and allow yourself to shift your focus to physical sensations. Feel the air in the room on your skin, your breath moving your chest and stomach, feel your body pressing into the bed underneath you. Now use your hands to touch yourself. Rather than going straight for your genitals or trying to feel something specific, start at the top of your forehead – yes, your forehead. Use your hands to explore the skin and terrain of your face. Focus on what you feel in your hands for awhile. Then focus on what you feel in your face. Go slowly. Move down to your neck and shoulders. Just slowly open to the sensations in your hands as they touch your body. Take your time. Then move down to your chest…side of your body…stomach. Keep returning your focus to what your skin and the dips and hills of your body feel under your hands. Let yourself experience your body from a new perspective, the perspective of your hands. This is not about how you look, keep your eyes closed so you can stay focused on sensation. Keep moving down your body, explore your hips….pelvis…. notice how your skin feels over your bones. Be curious about what parts of you are warm and what parts are cool. Keep exploring with your hands. Touch your genitals. Again keep the focus on what your hands feel, textures, heat, movement. Don’t stop exploring there, keep moving down your body…your thighs…knees… shins…. feet. Pay attention to each part of your body.

What was it like to approach your body in this way? How might it change your image of yourself if you focused more what your body is like to touch, rather than to look at? What words came to mind about your body when you explored it this way? Can you imagine bringing this kind of focused attention to masturbation or sex with a partner? Do you want to do this again? Great, your body is yours to explore again and again. Enjoy.

 

The Eroticism of Smells

 

 

“I will be arriving in Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash” – reportedly written by Napoleon to his lover, Josephine.

Scientists are beginning to believe that humans have sensory receptors in our noses, long recognized in other mammals, that allow us to get information about other people from odors we can’t consciously smell. This ability may affect our sexual choices through the detection of pheromones and other smells associated with health, virility, and more. Fascinating stuff!

We know that scent plays a strong role in influencing our brain. We are born with a strong survival mechanism that causes us to automatically be repelled by unpleasant odors. But our olfactory system sends all kinds of messages to our brain, connecting in large part to the limbic system – primitive structures in our brain that regulate arousal, pleasure and reward, and also long-term memory. If you have ever wondered how you can recognize the smell of your first crush’s laundry detergent on someone years later; this is why  - the part of our brain that processes smells is combined with our long term memory storage.

Here’s another interesting aspect of scent’s influence on us, neuroscientists tell us that the sensory experiences of smell skip the thinking and reasoning part of the brain and go straight to the amygdala, which governs our physical responses to excitement and fear. So being exposed to a smell (or for some, just the recalled memory of a smell) can cause a physical response. So it’s true, you can become aroused just by smelling a smell related to a past sexual experience.

 Studies focusing on pheromones in human and our sense of smell have found that women near ovulation are drawn to men’s scents who are genetically more compatible with them. Studies by researcher Karl Grammer have found that women find different men’s smells more or less appealing depending on the phase of their menstrual cycle and that men’s testosterone levels increased just by smelling women’s odors during ovulation. Again, remember these are odors that our conscious mind finds nearly undetectable!  

For many people, the smell of their partner during sex and on their skin later is a wonderful part of sexual excitement. Maybe for you this is a turn on, maybe not, but it seems clear that your nose is influencing your sexual arousal in ways we are only beginning to understand. Let yourself be interested in what smells appeal to you and which do not. Take notice of smell during your next sexual experience and see if there are any ways  you would like smell to be added to your sexual ambiance.

 

References from Rodgers, Joanne Ellison (2001) Sex : A natural history. Henry Holt and Co, LLC : New York, New York.