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.
Andy & Misty are 6 years old. They are playing in Misty’s backyard while her parents make dinner. The game of the moment is to climb on top of the picnic table and jump off. While jumping off you pull your pants down to flash your friend. Both kids think this is hilarious. They also know they are doing something that is not allowed if adults are around and that is part of the fun. They are each fascinated by the fact that their bodies look different under their clothes.
For awhile this is their favorite game. But after a few weeks of it, they will get bored and move on to something else. If they are really comfortable with each other, they may admit their curiosity and take closer looks at each other’s genitals while standing still. Maybe at some point they may play a game with kissing or even touching, but that’s not this game. This game is about jumping, and flashing parts you aren’t supposed to show, and getting a peek at a differently shaped body. It’s not a game about sex; that is an adult framework. It is about exploring and risking and your body being your own. And it is perfectly common and healthy.
Kids find all kinds of creative ways to explore their world and bodies are a part of that world. Many of us will have our own stories of exploration with childhood friends. And for most of us, if there is shame attached to this memory it is because of adult intervention from being caught and scolded. Healthy kids, who have not been abused or traumatized, will engage in explorative play of genitals without fear. They may be embarrassed if caught, because they know it is “naughty”. If they are following natural curiosity, no one will be bullied or pressured into anything and the play will feel mutual. There may be giggling and silly questions. None of this tells us anything about Andy or Misty’s sexual orientation, nor would it if it was Andy & Arthur playing or Misty and Monique. It certainly doesn’t mean that the kids will be overly interested in sex or that they have any trouble with impulse control. What it actually might mean is that they are not afraid of their body and so they let it be a part of their play.
Imagine for a moment that when you grew up you went to worship in a place that had on its walls images of people engaging in sex acts, humans with humans, humans with deities, all depicted as sacred.
Imagine being taught in your temple or church that the gift of sexual pleasure is something to be honored and that learning to pleasure your partner is an important adult responsibility.
Imagine in studying your sacred text you openly discussed the section that uses sexual desire and expression as a metaphor for love between humans and God.
Imagine it being common for spaces of worship to have statues and icons of human bodies with exaggerated genitals and breasts, to be celebrated and honored.
Imagine if your worship included dancing - real sweaty, hip shaking, undulating dancing - and your grandma, your baby cousin, and your priest were all there dancing and sweating next to you.
Now I am not suggesting that it should have been this way for you. Each person’s connection to their religious or spiritual practice is unique. And I am not suggesting that these are cultural models that are better than others, I believe life is too complicated to make sweeping statements like that. But these are models that exist and I think it is valuable to consider different perspectives and how they might impact us and our beliefs about our sexual selves. What it might have been like to have your sexuality interconnected with the sacred? Is this something you can imagine? Is it something you want?
Many of us have experienced a disconnection between the body and its sexuality and the spiritual and sacred. And of course, many of us have been wounded by expressions of faith that exclude or deny realities of sexuality. Many people are trying to find ways to reconnect those elements of life. Some people have had transcendent moments while being sexual that have surprised them, moments of feeling deeply connected to something bigger than themselves. Some have felt awe for the human body and for the depth of desire. Some are yearning for something different, even if it is just in the way we feel and experience our self. In yearning, I think it is helpful to engage with wondering. What if? What if I saw this differently? Can I be curious about how other people see it? So what if you let yourself imagine, not to find an answer but just to open up the questions and possibilities? What might that open up in you?
Same Old Sexual Panic
Remember the hullabaloo about the supposed trend of teenagers throwing parties where the girls line up to give all the boys blow jobs while leaving their mark with their lipstick color? Remember all that? Oh boy, our teens were just out of control. Hopefully somewhere along the way you also heard that this was an overwrought exaggeration manufactured to create a stir. No rainbow parties didn’t happen.
Of course if we had taken a few minutes to really think about this, most semi-informed people would have seriously questioned the whole premise. I mean, even highly hormonal teenage boys are not going to be able to sustain for a series of blowjobs in a row, at least not to the hysterical degrees this was described –“I heard every girl on the cheerleading squad did this!”. And even if we are imagining brief oral encounters, the lipstick leaving a distinctive mark thing is highly suspect. But okay, we didn’t think that hard about it. So the interesting question becomes, why do we want to believe these tales when they come around?
Why is each generation so willing to be convinced that the younger generations are having more extreme sex than they did, that sexual morals have turned some terrible corner, that teens need to be protected from themselves? There is simmering moral panic about the new “hook up culture”. And yet, recent studies have found no significant difference in the amount of sex college students have been having for the past 2 ½ decades. That’s since 1984 for those of you feeling math challenged today. A recent look into college kids sex lives, found that of current students 59% reported having sex weekly or more in the past year, compared with 65% in the 1980s and '90s. The groups showed similar patterns in the number of sexual partners in the past year: about 32% reported having more than one partner. Sure there seem to be more liberal ideas and values about sex among younger adults now and less pressure to identify a sex partner as a potential life partner. But if we look all the way back at the Kinsey Studies we see that much of the true sexual revolution has been in choosing to no longer hide sexual behavior that has been common for quite some time. So if sexual behavior is really not all that different than it has been, does that disappoint you?
And maybe that is the crux of it, we want to believe that sexuality is undergoing incredible changes. Maybe the middle-aged among us want to confirm their feelings of alienation from youth culture by thinking that it is ALL different now. Maybe we like to blame any sexual boredom we have now on the belief that “my generation never really got to be sexually free”. Maybe we are all trying to get vicarious fantasy material and want to read about more extreme sexual environments, even if they are made up to outrage us. Certainly the youth don’t want to think about their parents having sex like they are having. And vice versa. But more concerning to me are the underlying fears about sex that I see represented in our ongoing sexual panics about the youth. The fear that sex is an out of control force that only harsh social morals will protect us from. The fear that sex outside the context of married monogamy will lead to chaos. The fear that the existence and availability of sex will victimize us all. The fear that we cannot trust ourselves. Those are the aspects of sex that I hope we are changing, generation by generation.
Blondes, Brunettes, Gingers. Bears, Twinks, Dykes, Femmes. Clean Cut, Thick, Skinny, BBW, MILFs, GILFs, Androgynous. Many of us find ourselves drawn sexually to a particular look in partners. Luckily human tastes vary greatly so truly everyone will have a few admirers. But still, the concept of a type can make people uncomfortable. Is it ok to have a type? What does desire consist of? When does a type become a fetish? What about love, can it overcome a type, should it?
It’s probably pretty uncommon for someone to really not have a type at all. If asked to imagine a fantasy partner most people will have some set of attributes that frequently come to mind. But many of us have also found ourselves attracted to someone that at first glance we might not have thought would draw us in and our desire patterns shifted to include this person, maybe the way they move, or smell, or the way we feel when we are with them. There are so many components to desire; it is rare that it can be defined clearly.
And how we become attracted to the people or characteristics we are attracted to is largely a mystery. There are elements that are innate to us, elements that may be based on early memories, partners who imprinted us with positive or negative feelings, tendencies to be attracted to difference or to the familiar, all kinds of factors. It may be important to ask ourselves about our types to clarify if they are based on stereotypes about character –which may largely turn out to not be true about individuals. If you are drawn to bad boys because you think they will show you a secret soft side or asian women because in your fantasies they are submissive, you are probably in for some frustration and some angry partners. The fantasies themselves are not a problem, so long as you are aware that real people in the real world may not play these fantasies out just the way you imagined it.
And what if you have a distinctive feature that some people are searching out sexually? Does that change the nature of how you think of their bond with you? For example, if you are visibly disabled, there are people who specifically are looking for disabled partners. Does this feel ok to you? How do you assess if someone is fetishing an element of your look or body? Would you feel differently if the person is looking specifically for someone with large breasts? Why or why not? I believe some of our concern about distinctive types that people may be drawn to is based in discrimination against variations to the “normal” sexual model. If a big beautiful woman wonders how anyone can be attracted to her because she believes she is not the right kind of sexy, then she will question partners who openly seek out women with large bodies.
But even if we have come to peace with our own characteristics that people see initially, not many people want to feel that their partner picked them strictly for a physical characteristic, especially for one they have no control over. And some of these attributes we may age out of or may change over the course of our life. So people looking for long-term partnerships may be worried that sexual desire will disappear with changes in the way they look. We want people to be strongly attracted to us sexually, to love our attributes, but we also want to be seen as unique. Some flexibility in our attraction patterns will probably serve us well. Fine tuning our ability to recognize our own signs of physical desire is important too and may allow us to be surprised about who or what turns us on. So many beautiful people out there, keep your eyes and mind open.
There is a lot available to you at your local sex toy store nowadays. Lots of items that will enhance your self pleasuring time and lots that can be added to play with partners. People imagine that these fun little items will increase physical pleasure, up the naughtiness factor, add a fun fantasy component. But what they don’t often think is that these toys can increase the intimacy factor, but they can do that too.
People who take the risk to add some accessories to their sex play build intimacy with each other because of the newness. Couple’s who take a trip to Pure Pleasure together are suddenly talking about sex more explicitly. They are negotiating, “no way that is way too intimidating!...but this looks fun”. When they bring an item home, they know this is new so they don’t have to be experts about it. Now they may have sexual interaction that includes giggling and needing to stop and re-adjust positions and maybe someone saying, “This isn’t really working for me”. The fact that toys can open up that dialogue is great. The fact that they can be beginner’s again is great.
So I see part of the gift of sex toys to be the gift of awkwardness. I think getting comfortable with awkwardness is great, since learning something new is often awkward. Couples who try to avoid feeling uncomfortable at all costs, often end up feeling bored instead. Intimacy builds from experiences of sharing a moment, however flawed or blissful or vulnerable, not from performing without a hitch. So maybe sex toys aren’t your thing. Can you invite a sense of trying something new to your sex play? Can you embrace a little awkwardness as a sign that things are fresh and growing? What will you use as inspiration?
Preparing Kids for Sex Requires a Different Kind of Conversation
I remember so clearly a moment from my Health class in High School – topic Sex. Our teacher, a 60 year old women with orthopedic shoes, lectured us saying, “Next time you are in the back seat of a car with someone you should pull out a flashlight and check their genitals for diseases”. Um…yeah. Not the most helpful sex advice I have gotten in my life. But I sure do remember it! Most of our sex education for kids focuses on the dangers of sex. Sure, we do want to prepare kids to be safe, to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and increasingly from criminal consequences for certain types of sexual expression. But focusing on the negative aspects of sex misses the reality of sex by a lot.
A sad side effect of the well meaning but limited way we generally talk to kids about sex is that it desensitizes kids to the anxiety-provoking aspects of sex. Does that statement surprise you? Here is what I mean by that. When we only talk to kids about the ways that sex is scary or dangerous, when they start to engage in sexual activity, if they feel scared or anxious it is no longer a red flag – that is how they have been taught sexual behavior will feel. When all we have heard about sex is related to the things that can go wrong, our mind creates a link between feeling anxious and worried and sexual behavior. I wonder how many of you out there had early sexual experiences that were uncomfortable, with high levels of nervousness and doubt, that looking back you think, “Man that could have been easier”? Personally, I want kids to learn that if sex feels scary or you are really anxious that is a sign to slow down and reassess. I want them to relate sex to pleasure, not fear and shame.
And that it what we need to be talking to kids about when we talk to them about sex – pleasure. But that scares people. There is a misguided belief that if we suggest to kids that sex is actually fun they will want to have it. I am sure as you see this in print you can also see how ridiculous this is. Kids will want to have sex. What they need to hear from us adults is how to know if they are ready, if the person they are with is a good choice as a sexual partner, if the sex they are considering is within their own values and integrity. And they need to hear from us that if sex hurts, you can stop. If you are too overwhelmed to be able to communicate with your partner, you can stop. If you are scared, you can stop. So what I really wish parents were saying to their kids : “ When it is time for you to start being sexual with someone, I wish for you to feel…”.
The next part is up to each family or adult and their own perspective. But I might suggest some things like, “…like you are good friends with the person you are with, that they respect you, that you have talked about sex and know what to expect from each other, that you are comfortable and confidant, that you have a safe and private place to be, that you focus on pleasure and expressing affection to each other, that you are excited and curious, that you know how to be safe and get the resources and answers you need, that you are ready”. Imagine what a sexual conversation like that might change.
One of those sex myths out there that are holding people back from having better sex is a simple one – the belief that lube is for old people. I get a lot of people, of the younger variety, who look at me blankly when I mention using lube as part of their sex play. I can almost hear their thought process, “Isn’t that for post menopausal women’s sex?” No, adding lube to your sexual tool kit can benefit a lot of people.
Lube is for anyone who wants to have a lot of sex at one time or sex that lasts long time. It is for people who want to have quickies. It is for people who want to have sex when they are feeling a bit stressed and their body may be slower to respond. It is for people who want to use toys as part of their sex play or include parts of their body that don’t self lubricate. Lube is for people who chose to use condoms or other barrier methods for safe sex. Lube is for anyone who wants to have genital sex while using antihistamines, blood pressure medications, or many other varieties of medications people commonly take that impact natural lubrication. Lube is for people who want to add some new flavor to their oral sex. Lube is for people who want to play in wet environments like showers, hot tubs, heavy rain storms. Lube is for anyone who likes the sensation of slippery.
So lube is pretty sexy stuff. And now there are so many types, flavored, organic, kinds that heat up, kinds designed for use with toys or for anal sex… It’s a good thing to have in your night stand. So go to your local sex friendly store and see what is available to you. Soon you may write your own ode to lube.
I remember, back in the day, when Martha Stewart was really reaching the peak of popularity. I started hearing people saying, “Damn that Martha Stewart, now we are expected to –fill in the domestic artistry of your choice-“. I was confused by this, since I was pretty happy that Ms Stewart had opened the options up and I liked being invited to be creative. But that is the key, right? How quickly we can turn an invitation into an expectation. And, in so doing, ruin most of the fun and make something into a burden.
So speaking of ruining our fun, how was your Valentine’s Day? Did you somehow find yourself turning what could be a perfectly fine night for a date into something fraught with emotional baggage? If you did, you are not alone. Romance struck down again by the great expectations of needing to live up to every possibility presented out there in the world. And I think it is getting worse for us, now not only do we compare ourselves to magazine articles and romantic movies and Hallmark cards, but now we get to compare ourselves to “normal people”, our friends and family on social media everyday. And the expectations grow.
And we can get to the point where we are not enjoying because we are wondering how this experience we are having holds up to other people’s experiences. We do this with date nights, we do this with sex. Until for some of us, a perfectly satisfying sexual experience becomes turned into something like this, “Oh that was nice...But was it exciting enough? Are we too boring, should we be having more oral sex? I never wear lingerie, is that bad? I didn’t fantasize about anything, is that OK? That only took 20 minutes, should there be more? What are we doing wrong?”
The benefit of living in a world with readily available information is that – if you want new ideas, they are there for you. There is a vast source of creative, diverse and sometimes helpful options at all times. Your life is yours to shape. The problems come when we forget that it is our life to shape and not a to-do list of how to live the best life/have the best relationship/keep sex hot. The relentless call to self improvement can grab us and pull us away from the life we have now, a life that probably has some pretty sweet moments – even if they don’t warrant a single LIKE. We are never absented from deciding what we want for ourselves so enjoy what is fun/romantic/sexually satisfying/inspiring/etc for you. Enjoy it fully and don’t turn the all the invitations out there into expectations.
So here is a Valentine’s Day Re-Do Challenge for you – Consider that no one else will ever know what you chose to do together. Take a day that is yours alone, a secret day with no witnesses or input from others, and decide how you want to spend it. What makes you feel close to each other? What is fun for you? Then enjoy it deeply with no distractions.
A tattooed sex therapist from one of the most liberal towns in California meets a group of African priests and nuns…does this sound like a set up for a SNL skit? Actually tomorrow I travel to Kenya to do just that. I am meeting a dedicated group of nuns and priests who have been training for 8 months to provide psycho-spiritual counseling to fellow clergy throughout Africa. And we are going to talk about sex.
Sex is more than the behaviors someone enjoys. It is easy to disregard that in our focus on who does what, with whom, and how often. Researching celibacy, as I prepare to work with this group of people committed to celibate life, has taken me back to the roots of sexuality in a sense. It has reminded me that our primary sexual relationship is the one we have with ourselves, full of desires and sensations, longing to connect, fears, physical hungers, questions. Even without actively engaging sexually, we all have full and complex internal sex lives. And we have since we were born.
So can celibacy and sex therapy go together? I believe they can, and should. Sex therapy can allow someone to be more aware of their sexual energy as it moves and changes. It can reduce shame about being a sexual being so that a person has more energy to focus on utilizing sexual energy in a positive way in line with their perspective. It can deepen the conversation with our body and open new possibilities for responding to excitement or discomfort. It can reduce denial and therefore empower future actions. It can allow us to incorporate sexuality into the bigger picture of who a person is and wants to be.
I’ll admit I hadn’t given much thought to celibacy as an aspect of sexuality. I am very happy I have been invited to do so now and look forward to learning more from my students in Kenya. I honor that ultimately a healthy sex life is one in which each person feels they can make choices that are right for them, defined by their own integrity. The richness of any of those life choices comes from being aware and awake to oneself, day by day. There is always so much to learn.