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.