Conscious Sexual Self

Connection Requires Consciousness

Intimacy Does Not Equal Great Sex

 

It happened again. I was in a second session with a young couple who have been struggling with uncomfortable and dissatisfying sex together. They were confused by what was happening in their shared sexuality, as many couples are, and frustrated because they didn’t know how to fix it themselves. Then they told me that their last couple’s therapist had advised them that if they built enough intimacy and emotional closeness their sexual issues would “take care of themselves”. AHHHH!!! Let me explain why this makes my head explode.

 

First, you should know that many (most?) psychotherapists out there have very limited understanding of the amazing vastness of human sexuality. Also psychotherapists and the field of psychology have been victim and perpetrators of sexual discriminations and basic close-mindedness and puritanical values for years. This is horrible and I am striving to do my part to change this for the field. But the point is, it is not an uncommon stance in psychology to say attachment and intimacy = happy sexual compatibility. As a sex therapist who has helped many people navigate their own complicated sexual desire, I know this is simply not true. As a human being who has had my own journey with love and sex and human closeness, I know this is not true. So why are therapists still saying it?

 

To claim that intimacy automatically leads to sexual compatibility disregards several key aspects of sex – one, it presumes that everyone is generally turned on by anyone they form a close relationship to; an argument that I think can only be made in a blatantly heteronormative mainframe that disregards what we have learned and should understand about sexual orientation and the limits of our desire. We simply cannot force desire where there isn’t one and attempts to shift desire to an “appropriate” partner are often disastrous. Two, this argument conflates all variations of human closeness into romantic sexual partnership, something that may be entertaining on soap operas but is quite limiting in real life. I am close to many people, in many different ways, and I do not have sexual desire for many of them. In fact with many people I develop a closeness that negates any sexual feelings, when someone begins to feel like family or a sibling for example.

 

Third, saying that intimacy and emotional closeness leads to sexual satisfaction ignores the variations of desire and how important they can be to our happiness. Most therapists who encourage couples to ignore clear sexual incompatibilities expect their clients to eventually adhere to a basic vanilla sex life – great for some, but deeply dissatisfying for others. This model privileges loving, eye-gazing, comfortable sex over other forms of sexual expression and connection. Loving and trusting your partner doesn’t mean that you both are going to be into restraints or submission play. Loving and trusting your partner also doesn’t mean you can easily give those things up. And being able to deep conversations and feel intimate doesn’t necessarily mean you do a great job talking about the subtleties and emotional vulnerabilities of sex and what you want. Not to mention that the therapist in question may have their own squeamishness and resistances to talking about sexual details and would just like to lump it all into one vanilla blur.

 

The reason psychotherapists who equate intimacy with sex irritate me so much is that I can see how clients get shamed by this. They feel ashamed that their love is not enough to naturally give them satisfying sex. They feel ashamed because they have desires that their partner can’t fulfill and they are being told that is unimportant in the bigger picture of emotional closeness. They feel ashamed because they are made to doubt their own desires yet again. This is not fair. The bad news is not all people who love each other are going to be great sexual matches. There is still plenty to explore in how to be and stay in relationship within that reality, but you need a support person who will go into those intricacies with you. The good news is your desire for something different than someone else is not something you have to ignore. At least not with me.

 

Myth Busting : Men vs Women Edition

 

Okay everybody, here are some myths it is time to bust …

 

Men like porn, women don’t. Turns out, just not true. First of all, porn or erotic art has been around since humans have been carving on walls and while the artists didn’t sign their names, it seems unlikely that this was just for men. Currently, stats tell us that in 2007 over the course of a month’s monitoring 1 in 3 visitors to the selected porn site was a woman. And plenty of women enjoy porn. A 2006 study from McGill University found that women watching porn reached physical arousal in an average of 12 minutes while for men is took 11 minutes. Visuals work for lots of people and the excitement of watching sex is probably deeply rooted in human desire maps. And the biggest problem many women report having with porn? Feeling bad about their bodies in comparison to the unrealistic expectations created in porn. Talking to men, you might hear about painful body or performance comparisons too. If only we were talking to each other about real life sex…

 

Oxytocin is a women’s hormone – Oxytocin, significantly released during childbirth and breast feeding, has been studied for its effect on women and often is talked about as though it is a women’s hormone exclusively and as though women have some lock on bonding because of it. But men’s bodies receive a surge of oxytocin after orgasm, and yes, it also helps them to feel trusting and bonded. It also can make all of us more relaxed and sleepy (touching on another gender sexual stereotype). Oxytocin can also be triggered through relaxed touch or hand holding, so cuddle up, it’s good for all of us.

 

Women have lower desire than men – Not true, not true, not true. Gosh, why is this one still hanging in there? Both men and women have desire patterns that will vary throughout a lifetime, some periods being hotter than others. And there are so many factors that affect sexual desire for everyone, from stress, relationship conflict, hormones (yes, testosterone fluctuates too), children in the house, shame, body image concerns, and on and on. A man’s desire is just as complex as a woman’s. And a woman can be full of desire at any age.

 

Men are the ones who cheatCurrent research, and my experience as a couple’s therapist, are showing that rates of infidelity among women and men are actually pretty similar. Both men and women can struggle with monogamy and can be tempted by new sexual partners. Even with equal opportunity infidelity out there, we still hear more about men’s cheating behavior, in large part because there are still more men in power for the press to report on. Sexual stereotypes weigh heavy here and can damage relationships and trust before they even start.

 

Women need to feel connected to have sex, men need to have sex to feel connected – Human beings are each unique with a life’s worth of experiences, patterns, beliefs, and emotions that go into our emotional needs and sexual needs. What any one of us needs to feel connected is different. What any one of us needs to feel sexual is different too. There are lots of men who talk to me about wishing their partner would give them some focused emotional attention before expecting sex and many women who say they would like to have sex and then bask in the connectedness that creates for them. We are each different.

 

Sexy or Just Painful?

 

I had the amazing opportunity to spend 2 weeks in Rome this year which is a city of history, art, passion, and appetite. Among the many, many things Italy does well are shoes.

 

The best thing about shoe shopping in Italy was something that actually stunned me. They sell primarily sensible shoes. I realized that in America when I look for shoes most stores have about 70% high heels to 30% shoes the average 40 year old could comfortably walk in for a few hours (excluding trainers or athletic shoes, which are their own category). In Rome, the proportions were flipped – 70% walkable, low heel shoes, 30% high perilous heels. And the walkable shoes were stylish, meaning that all women, young to old, had cool shoes and the I-am-comfortable-moving-through-the-world attitude that went with the actually comfortable shoes.

 

Now sure, Rome has cobblestone streets so ladies in the high heels are taking serous risks with their ankles. But it really struck me, how far we in America have gone down this road of foot torture and high heel extremes. Searching for a “sexy shoe” will have one wading through hundreds of 4 inch heels or higher and it can seem like shoe designers consider 2 inch heels not worth the effort to make look hip in any way. Celebrities are regularly seen in 8 inch, even 11 inch heels. Well designed? Maybe. Comfortable? Doubtful. The idea that beauty or sexiness is something you have to be willing to hurt for seems to be gaining more of a hold.

 

I know for me that wincing while I walk or breaking into a cold sweat while trying not to think about my feet just standing still, is not sexy. I, too, am drawn in by the angle of a foot and tensed leg in a high heel. Sexy to look at. Well suited to being off your feet, which can be sexy. But limiting. It is also sexy to dance for hours, to hop on bikes and go somewhere secluded, to walk for hours and eat gelato after dark (did I mention the gelato? Oh man.) Sexy is being free to move. Sexy feels good.

 

Let’s say that again because I don’t think we hear it enough. Sexy feels good. Hmmm, I feel like dancing.

 

Making it Easier to Talk About Sex

 

I have been doing a lot of radio appearances lately to promote The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook, and a question that keeps coming up is – how can we make it easier to talk about sex? Even radio hosts, who talk for a living, share with me that they start to blush and find it hard to get the words out when it comes to sex. I help people have these conversations every day. Here are some ways to set yourself up to have a better experience.

 

Acknowledge That This May Be Awkward – Much of our embarrassment about sex comes from an adolescent, and unrealistic, feeling that everyone else seems to have this sex thing all together and if you are not playing it completely cool, you are failing. Give yourself and your partner permission to be awkward, to stutter, to not know the answers. Maybe you even have to stop and take a break for a bit. Don’t feel that you have to play a part, be genuine, even genuinely embarrassed, it takes the pressure off.

 

Don’t Try to Have a Challenging Conversation Right After Having Sex – Rolling over and relaxing or critiquing what just happened – um, go with relaxing. Even if the experience wasn’t what you hoped, keep in mind that post- sex people tend to be a bit vulnerable, making it a great time to share loving words, less great for problem-solving.  Make time to have a conversation when you can feel close, awake, and can really focus on listening to each other.

 

Start With the Positive – Figure out what has been working for you, what do you like about sex? Asking for something you feel good about sets a tone of excitement and potential. As you start to share about something that isn’t working as well or that you would like to change, continue thinking about what you do want. What do you want more of? What would you like instead? Often people just say, “I don’t like it when you…” leaving their partner feeling like the lists of things they can do just shrunk. Certainly say if something is a clear No to you. But keep sharing your YESs too, they are equally important.

 

Make Contact – Touching your partner is soothing and studies have found that couples report less stress during conversations when they are holding hands. If it feels okay to do so, reach out and touch their leg or arm. Have the conversation cuddled up or while rubbing each other’s feet. Remind yourselves that you are connected by physical contact. This can also help with connection when eye contact feels too intense.

 

Don’t Expect to Figure it All Out at Once – Often sexual conversations open up questions, new invitations that have to be considered, edges that may take some time to approach. Pressuring yourself or a partner to come up with clear answers right away will only led to one level of growth. Embrace, “I am not sure, I need to think about that for awhile”. Then take the time to get to be curious about yourself. And then keep talking.

 

GroundHog's Day in the Bedroom?

 

 

Be honest, are you feeling like each sexual experience is a repeat of the last? Do you know exactly where your partner will touch you next and for how long? If you feel like you can sleepwalk your way through sex, you are missing out on a lot. Just because you and your partner are familiar with each other doesn’t mean each experience needs to be the same as the last. But, like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, you may have to let go of some old habits and really get invested in what is happening.

 

What’s it going to take the break the pattern? Are you ready to wake up to a brand new day with new sexual potential? I hate to break it to you, but it is going to take some discomfort. Or as I warn my therapy clients, things are going to get awkward. Why should it be awkward? Isn’t that a bad thing?! you ask. Actually, no it is not a bad thing.

 

Trying new things often feels a bit uncomfortable. The reason we fall into habits is because that routine becomes the easiest thing to do; we don’t even have to think about it. It can be efficient and even effective to half sleepwalk our way through some tasks. But sex is not like that. Like pizza, a mediocre serving of sex can still be pretty good, it true. But if that is what you are having all the time, boredom will set in.

 

What risks will you take to break the pattern? I don’t know. But I am sure they will make you feel more alive. Like Phil in Groundhog’s Day, everything you try will not necessarily bring you closer to what you want. But it will make your day more interesting. And like Phil, you will need to try harder, to show up more genuinely, to get curious about the people you are with, and maybe to plan ahead. Get excited again. Wonder what might happen if you did this. It’s possible. It’s just also vulnerable. But you can do it. Wake up, it’s a new day.

 

 

 

Rita: This day was perfect. You couldn't have planned a day like this.

 

 

 

Phil: Well, you can. It just takes an awful lot of work.

 

 

Creating What We Expect

 

I recently heard about a great study. Researcher psychologist Bob Rosenthal took a group of average rats and put signs on their cages saying that some of the rats were very smart and some of the rats were dumb. He then assigned people to work with the rats, getting the rats to run a timed maze. So… some of the people believed that they had special smart rats and some believed that their rats were dumb. The effects were intense – the rats assigned to people who believed them to be smart ran the maze nearly twice as fast as the rats who had been labeled dumb.

 

Rosenthal’s speculation is that the people assigned to the rats touched them differently, more gently if they were proud of their smart little rat, and that affected the rats’ performance. So, if subtleties of our touch can affect rats this drastically – a species with little incentive to care what we think about them -imagine what it might do for our human partners.

 

What messages are you sending to your partner as you touch them in bed? What expectations can be transmitted through your skin? What patterns have you come to expect, so much so that your body unconsciously reacts in anticipation of them?  

 

As a sex therapist I work with people as they make changes to the way they interact sexually, changing patterns and expectations. Often we have to address the subtle, even unconscious, ways we are reacting to one another. While it is freeing to imagine that anything can happen, that we don’t know what to expect, with longer term partners we rarely have that mindset. And so we co-create a dance, feeling each other’s lead through our bodies and responding, feeling and responding, expecting and responding.  People who do partner-dancing know that if the person following begins to anticipate the lead’s move too early, it will throw off the rhythm. Moving together means responding in the moment, not forecasting the moments ahead.

 

So how can you drop expectation and truly see what you and your partner can co-create sexually? Approach touch and sexual play from a blank slate perspective. Imagine that you can ask for anything. Try not to brace for a YES or a NO. Expect fun and connection and pleasure and see what happens.

 

And, we know from our maze-running rat friends, that touch which broadcasts loving support, excitement, pride in your partner (what a smart rat, you are!) may bring out the best in them. Touch mindfully.

 

I will have an ecstatic year

 

Some many resolutions, so few that enhance our sexuality. Let’s change that this year, shall we? Here are a few ideas…

 

I resolve:

 

To welcome my own desires, sexual thoughts and fantasies

 

To treat each sexual experience as a something new with unknown potential

 

To get deeply curious about myself

 

To say yes with more enthusiasm

 

To say no with more confidence

 

To have sexual pleasure, because I deserve it and am worthy of it (even on “fat days”)

 

To get more comfortable talking about sex and what I want

 

To try something new without feeling like I have to “get it right” the first time

 

To find a way to channel my sexual energy into _________

 

To schedule time for sexual pleasure because it is a priority for me

 

To speak up when I hear someone say something sexually derogatory, discriminatory or damaging

 

To release old stories or fears that no longer serve me

 

To learn something new about my partner

 

To bring more ____(love, risk, reverence, play, sassiness)___to my sexual play

 

Did any of these inspire you? Create your own that feels right for you. Just don’t forget to include your sexual self in that list of resolutions. Happy, healthy sexuality is a part of a vibrant life. Give it the attention it deserves.

 

Of course a great way to bring new life and energy to your sexuality – Work The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook! Buy it on Amazon and start exploring in 2015. And for Santa Cruz locals, you can join Melissa Fritchle at Pure Pleasure on Jan 7th for the workshop, Your Sexual Resolutions for 2015.

 

What Emotions Are OK in Sex?

 

Some of the couples I work with have been having sex that is more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional connection. There is a lot of strategizing, observing, fantasizing, worrying, critiquing, hoping. But there is not a lot of expressing. So sometimes, I invite them to experiment with sexual play that is consciously about showing their partner how they feel in the moment. They focus on using touch and body movements to communicate what they are feeling, not so their partner gets it necessarily, but so that they feel more connected to their own experience. Approaching sex from this new perspective opens up a lot of potential and can allow a broader range of sexual moods and therefore, ways of interacting. Things get less boring and more dynamic.

 

Most of us can easily imagine sex expressing love, lust, joy, curiosity, contentment. Combining sex with the sacred may lead us to imagine sex that expresses reverence or peace. These positive states are often the emotions that couples start with when they begin to explore sex as a vehicle for expressing emotion. But you may have also enjoyed thoughts about sex that stemmed from pride, power, vulnerability, need, fear, even anger. Are those ok for you to express with your partner? Why or why not? And how about more subtle emotional states, like doubt, loneliness, apathy, regret, irritation? Can you imagine touching sexually in a way that expressed and contained sadness?

 

Does imagining some of these emotions being included in sex make you uncomfortable? Thinking and talking about what emotions are welcome in sex for you can be a great practice. It introduces questions about our motivations to have sex, how we want our partners to feel about us when they engage with us sexually, and what emotions are comfortable for us, or not, in general. It also explicitly opens up new room to explore sexually, to be emotional selves, to have moods and variations, to let the energy of feelings blend with the energy of sensations to create something possible new and unique each time you come together.

 

Modern Moralizing?

 

 I had another client this month coming to see me ashamed and frightened because someone told them they were a “sex addict”. I am happy to support these clients, who often tell me about sexual behaviors that have become overwhelming or out of control. I believe that healthy sexuality should feel full of choice, not compulsion. We work together to re-create a sense of their sexuality that is safe and satisfying, and unique to them.

 

What bothers me is the way the label “sex addict” is being used. First of all, sex addiction is not an accepted psychological diagnosis. It was considered and rejected for the most recent DSM (Diagnostic Manual). So it is a label being used in a non-scientific context, often by people not trained to assess for psychological or sexual issues anyway.

 

What I have seen is “sex addict” being used as a new form of moralizing. In the past someone might have felt the righteousness of being able to openly accuse someone of being immoral or perverse in general conversation. Nowadays openly making that type of judgment is not as acceptable, but we can call someone an addict. Because we can claim that is not a moral judgment, it is a condition. But defining what is healthy or unhealthy sexual behavior condition is often a judgment call, especially when done by a non-professional.

 

The current popularity of ascribing all kinds of diagnoses to one another is probably troublesome to most therapists out there, at least those that take assessment seriously. I wish people would simply say, “I am worried about the sexual behaviors you are describing to me. Maybe you could talk to a sex therapist.” This feels honest and cleaner that using a label to scare or shame someone into seeking help.

 

I want to be clear - there are many people who suffer greatly from damaging sexual patterns and a loss of control over their behavior and choices. And I want those people to be encouraged to seek help. Because there is help for this. I just want us to be careful and responsible about the way we talk about other people’s sexual behaviors. Let’s not turn “sex addict” into the new scarlet letter, applied whenever we feel affronted or offended by someone else’s sexual history. Sexual compulsivity is complex and contains all the subtleties of the human heart and mind. Let’s respect that.

 

Are you a health professional who wants to know more and support people in healing sexuality that has become harmful? Attend Melissa’s training in January 2015.https://www.eventbrite.com/e/building-sexual-integrity-a-sex-positive-approach-to-treating-compulsive-sexual-behaviors-6ce-hours-tickets-14098371609

 

You as a Sexual Partner

 

Excerpted from The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook:

 

I want you to fuck me. I want you to inspire me. I want you to tease me. I want you to notice me. I want you to love me. I want you to be with me even if you shouldn’t. I want you to punish me. I want you to be a reflection of me. I want you to initiate me. I want you to plunder me. I want you to slowly unwrap me. I want you to let me. I want you to deny yourself for me. I want you to scare me. I want you to nourish me. I want you to treat me like a child. I want you to dissolve into me. I want you to impregnate me. I want you to reduce me to instinct. I want you to cry out for me. I want you to dream of me. I want you to taste every part of me. I want you to be naughty with me. I want you to do something you have never done before with me. I want you…

 

The depth of what we want from our sexual relationships is wondrous. We open ourselves to our own hungers in relation to other people, other people who could give us something we are, in their presence, discovering that we want. Oh, and that wanting is intense. Sometimes we hardly know how to contain it. Partners become muses for us. And what we get back from our sexual interactions is often more and different from we initially thought we wanted.

 

Our relationships incite growth in us. It is true they open new worlds to us and require us to get creative in very good ways. Keeping a relationship alive and growing is a practice that asks us to stay dedicated and keep working at it. Periods of inertia often are leading us to periods of significant transformation. Relationships help us discover our limits and sometimes to stretch them. They break our hearts and heal us, sometimes, vexingly, at the same time. The person you are now was developed in part in relationships with other people, and I invite you to be fascinated by this.

 

As distracting as your partners may be, it is worthwhile to stay interested in who you are while you are with them. In the hustle to find or keep a partner, have you asked yourself what kind of partner you are? It is disturbingly easy to give responsibility away to a partner. But you are shaping your relationships as much as anyone else. And you are shaping yourself. What kind of sexual moments are you inviting? What levels of satisfaction are you willing to reach for? How much intimacy do you want?

 

Do you want more? Buy The Conscious Sexual Self Workbookavailable now on Amazon.