In our sex-saturated society, there are now countless resources about this fascinating subject although not all contain accurate information. As a sex therapist, many of the sexual and relationship problems my clients struggle with usually come down to a lack of knowledge and misinformation. So how much do you really know about sex? I have compiled a short quiz based on issues which I commonly see in my practice. Go ahead and test your SI. Answer true or false to each of the following statements. The answers may surprise you.
- Especially with couples over 50 years of age, it is most often the woman who decides unilaterally to stop the sexual relationship and does it non-verbally
Although a low-sex or no-sex relationship is often attributed to the woman not being interested in sex, in reality when couples stop being sexual, it is primarily because the man has lost confidence in predictable erections, intercourse and orgasm. Rather than an anticipated pleasure, sex becomes a source of disappointment and frustration and something to be feared and avoided.
This makes sense given that young males learn about sex as short, intense, easy and automatic. Most men under 30 years need little from their partner to experience desire, arousal and orgasm. According to male mythology, a real man can have sex with any woman at any time. In other words, they learn to be autonomous sexual performers. Unfortunately this model of sexuality puts tremendous pressure on the man, (especially on his penis) and does not serve them well as they age.
A well hidden fact is that by age 40, most men have experienced a problem with achieving or maintaining an erection adequate for intercourse at least once. Male sexual dysfunction usually precedes inhibited sexual desire and sexual infrequency. The male partner typically feels humiliated and embarrassed because he cannot meet the rigid performance demands he grew up with. Not knowing how to deal with such a problem, he retreats into blaming himself, blaming his partner and sexual avoidance. Not wishing to upset him further and not knowing how to respond, his partner feels helpless and may also withdraw in silence. The couple frequently become trapped in the cycle of anticipatory anxiety, intercourse failure, frustration, embarrassment and eventually, avoidance.
- If a man is sexually attracted to his partner, he wouldn’t have problems with getting and maintaining an erection
In most cases, psychogenic erectile dysfunction is not connected to how attracted a man is to his partner. A man’s erection is vulnerable to distraction and anxiety. Setting aside relational issues (such as resentment and anger at his partner which need addressing separately), common psychological causes are anticipatory anxiety, performance anxiety, distraction, self-consciousness and reluctance to make sexual requests.
Most men are used to going to intercourse and orgasm on the first erection. The risk with this approach is if it is experienced as a performance demand. So when an erection fades, they panic. The man is afraid that the sexual opportunity is lost and is afraid of his partner’s reaction which unfortunately is often unhelpful. Many females accuse their male partners of not being attracted to them because of difficulties with erections.
In reality, the process of waxing and waning of an erection can occur several times when a man is engaging in sexual activity. This is particularly pronounced with age when sexual response becomes less predictable. Continued couple involvement, mindfulness, relaxation and erotic stimulation generally ensure that the erection will return.
A crucial technique in sex therapy therefore is to help the man and his partner become comfortable with gaining, losing and re-gaining erections. The key is not to over-react but to accept mediocre or disappointing sexual experiences as part of a normal sex life. Paradoxically, a couple who can shrug off or laugh about unwanted sexual outcomes is in a better position to have a satisfying sex life.
- Women value emotional intimacy and men value sexual intimacy
True (generally speaking)
From the day they are born, human babies learn very different lessons about intimacy depending on whether they are classified as males or females. Traditional socialisation has taught men to value sex and women to value intimacy. Women are socialised to value feelings, emotional attachment, and an intimate relationship and to place less emphasis on sexuality, especially eroticism. Males are socialised to identify masculinity with sexuality and to focus on sexual prowess, especially intercourse frequency and bringing his partner to orgasm. Men are not socialised to value emotional closeness and often feel uncomfortable sharing their deeper thoughts and feelings and expressing vulnerability.
Given such different socialisation and peer influences, it is no wonder men and women have a difficult time understanding and communicating the meaning of intimacy, touching and sexuality. But are these differences real or merely apparent? Contrary to authors of popular psychology, scientific evidence actually suggests that men and women are more similar than different psychologically, emotionally, sexually and intellectually. The much publicised misunderstandings and conflicts between the genders are not inherent but primarily a function of socialisation and media hype.
Both men and women are capable of emotional intimacy which refers to the sharing of personal strengths, vulnerabilities, fears, negative experiences and a range of emotions from anger and disappointment to joy and excitement. Two people establish closeness through emotional intimacy as both care, and feel cared for, experience empathic communication, and enjoy a sense of “we-ness”. It is the glue that forges and nurtures a secure bond. Equally, both men and women are capable of experiencing sexual intimacy. Sexual intimacy is more than functional sex. People can feel sexually responsive and functional with no intimacy. The essence of sexual intimacy is openness and comfort to share your body especially through sensual, playful and erotic touch.
Emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy play different but complementary roles. The role of emotional intimacy is to nurture your bond while the role of sexual intimacy is to energise the bond. Given that most men are conditioned from an early age to be autonomous performers which is the mode in which they also learn to be sexual, their challenge is to be open to, and value intimate, interactive sexuality, that is, working as part of a team with their intimate partner. For women, the challenge is to value eroticism, enjoying pleasure for pleasure sake which calls for openness to creative expression and novelty thereby bringing vitality to sex.
- A good sex life contributes 15% to relational satisfaction
When sex is pleasurable and functional, it is a positive, integral part of the relationship and but not a dominant factor, contributing 15% -20% to relational vitality and satisfaction. However when sexuality is dysfunctional, dissatisfying or non-existent, it assumes an extremely powerful role, draining the relationship of 50%-70% of its intimacy and vitality. it robs the couple of special feelings and intimate attachment.
This makes sense when you consider that the main functions of couple sexuality are to create shared pleasure, deepen and reinforce intimacy and act as a tension reducer to cope with the stresses of life. Sexuality energises and makes the bond special. If sexual dysfunction and inhibited sexual desire degenerates into a no-sex relationship, it becomes a source of tension, threatening stability and putting tremendous pressure on the bond especially if affection also ceases.
In short, dissatisfying or non-existent sex has a more powerful negative role in a relationship than good sex has a positive role.
- It is the responsibility of the partner who has the sexual problem to fix it
It is common for couples to reduce the complexities and problems in their sex life to one partner’s sexual dysfunction or lack of sexual interest. That partner is then made to feel solely responsible for “fixing” the issue and may react to this (understandably) with defensiveness and resistance to seeking treatment. Typically, the partners find themselves caught up in a negative cycle of blame, defensiveness and guilt with one or both rejecting approaching the lack of sexual intimacy as a couple problem. The ensuing frustration, anger and power struggle is clearly not conducive to repairing and rebuilding trust and intimacy.
No matter how the issue started, each person’s attitudes, feelings and behaviours exacerbate or at least maintain the pattern. Blaming and guilt-inducing put-downs are alienating and reduce motivation to address the problem/s.
Like every other issue or concern in your relationship, your sex life is best dealt with by thinking, talking and acting as an intimate team. This couple approach facilitates emotional problem solving - a way to discuss feelings, make requests and commit to change.
Taking such a couple approach does not mean abdicating personal responsibility. A satisfying relationship generally involves a balance between individual autonomy and sharing your lives as an intimate couple. Focus on making personal changes in your attitudes, behaviours, and feelings. It is neither your responsibility nor your role to change your partner. You can only influence your partner by communicating your thoughts, sharing feelings, and making requests. An intimate relationship operates most effectively through a positive influence process in which the partners are respectful and trusting toward each other and individual differences are discussed and accommodated.
So, how did you go? I hope you increased your SI by reading this post and learnt something which will contribute to improving your sex life. With social media hype perpetuating the myth of perfect sexual performance, it’s very easy these days to get caught up in unrealistic expectations and to beat yourself up or blame your partner if your sex life is less than perfect. In reality many of us struggle with a sense of inadequacy founded on low self-worth and unlovability and sex is often the context in which these insecurities manifest and are fed. As these issues are tricky for individuals and couples to navigate on their own, professional help is often needed to facilitate and support the change process.
Material for this blog post was taken from:
- McCarthy, B. and McCarthy, E. Rekindling Desire. (Routledge, 2014).