In preparation for this post, I asked you what you, my readers, are struggling with regarding sex, and passed those struggles along to Aimee Heffernan.
Aimee, who is a licensed couples therapist and sex therapist who lives and works in Washington, was kind enough to answer a number of your questions last year (Part One and Part Two).
In preparation for our interview, I sent her a list of your concerns to review. Right away we noticed some themes and will be talking about those themes instead of answering question by question.
First up- desire discrepancy. Here are a few of your struggles on that topic:
“I feel like he always initiates and I WANT to, but really when it comes to it, I’m tired, cranky, pms, or just not feeling attractive etc. etc. I want to initiate without the ‘perfect’ scenario and get past the thoughts that I have to be always in the right mind set to do this.”
“I’m the wife and currently undergoing treatment for a medical condition but the medicine makes me have low libido. I’m willing -touch is my love language – but my husband’s discouraged because I’m not climaxing, which makes it hard for him because he feels like he’s not doing his job and is a failure. I don’t see it that way. I’m not sure how to encourage him to keep trying.”
“My biggest struggle is that I just don’t care about [sex]. I’m not sure if that’s just being a tired mom, or if it’s because of a medication I take, but I have ZERO sex drive anymore. I make it a point to make sure we have sex once a week for his sake, and I don’t mind it because I know that he likes it, but I feel like I could go without sex for the rest of my life and I wouldn’t even notice.”
Here’s what Aimee has to say:
“The first thing I’m noticing is that most of these deal with a ‘desire discrepancy.’ I can tell you right now that that is one of the major things I deal with doing sex therapy with couples.
In ANY relationship you enter, there will always be a low-desire and a high-desire partner. In the field of sex therapy, there are people who don’t love that description, “low-desire vs. high-desire,” because it makes it sound like your desire is a thing that either you’ve got it or you don’t.
One of the most profound things to learn about yourself is what YOUR desires are. Not just how strong they are in comparison to someone else (your spouse). But knowing your own … sexual palate. What works for you and what you truly look forward to achieving because of sex.
On the desire spectrum, another way to think about it besides “high” and “low” is “spontaneous desire” and “responsive desire.” That concept comes from one of my favorite people in the field, Emily Nagoski, a sex educator and therapist.
“Spontaneous desire” comes on suddenly, out of the blue, but “responsive” desire only comes on when a person is in a sexual situation already. Mainstream culture really only depicts “spontaneous” desire as real desire. But responsive desire is normal and healthy and way more common in women (as depicted by this graph on Emily’s blog).
What this means is knowing what’s true for you. That is incredibly important. That’s part of owning your own sexuality – recognizing what kind of desire you feel and what affects that desire. And that takes work to figure that out. But when you are able to work on YOU, you are better able to show up for sex and, ultimately, be more satisfied.
Confronting your own sexuality is crucial!
(PS For more ideas on how to deal with desire discrepancy, you guys, my readers, answered the question, “How do you agree on how often to have sex?” here)
That leads me to the other major topic, one that I am constantly talking about as a sex therapist, and it’s something I saw in your readers’ questions which is women not being able to, or just not having an orgasm.
[Here were some of those questions:
“I’ve never had an orgasm and I don’t know if that’s normal, as we haven’t been married that long but still…It always feels like he gets way more out of sex than I do, and that’s frustrating.”
“I have a hard time reaching orgasm but he doesn’t even know it.”]
There’s a lot to talk about here. Because for some people, this is a medical situation (this post may be helpful there.)
But the first question I have is, “How can we talk about sexuality, with the ‘prize’ not being orgasm?”
The idea of “good sex” resulting in this kind of climax … it’s very normative. Certainly not all people, not all couples achieve that and pretending otherwise only puts more pressure on the act of sex.
And of course it’s important! But there are a lot of other aspects to consider too: How are you sensual with each other? How do you treat and act toward one another in this intimate, vulnerable situation? That closeness, that skin on skin interaction – it feels nice. And for different reasons, for a time, not climaxing might be a part of your sexual story.
Let’s just take away the stigma that there is something wrong with you if you are not able to reach orgasm easily. That is perfectly normal. We need to figure out how we enjoy sensuality without it.
There are a lot of scenarios that might interfere with orgasms. When someone is taking SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), a medication used to treat depression, you are less likely to have orgasms. You may find you can’t quite make it. And so many men experience erectile dysfunction. So the question is: “Is sex only enjoyable because you orgasm?”
I would encourage you to expand your definition of “successful” sex and shift the goal off of climaxing every time.
There are ALWAYS challenges to sexuality. That’s why it’s so crucial to talk about it, and even redefine your sexuality with your partner.
Think about scenarios where someone in a relationship experiences disability. Disability changes sexuality for people. But it’s still a part of those relationships. It’s still on the table, even if it looks different.
That’s why I think we should be, on a regular basis renegotiating, re-establishing our sexuality. That’s what the expectation should be going into marriage – not “this is what our sex life will look like,” but “this is how we are going to approach the changes that will happen in our sex life.”
We talked above about figuring out your own desires. Well, this means we also need to be talking about our expectations and those desires with our partners. Marriage is a “in sickness and in health” agreement and we need to figure out what sex is going to look like in BOTH of those situations.
In this post, Aimee shared a lot of great ideas and ways of thinking about sex and desire. In Part II, she’ll share more concrete suggestions on how to have these (sometimes challenging) conversations, figuring out our own desires, and how to communicate them to our spouse.
PS If you would like to hire Aimee, we highly recommend her. This is her website.