How Men & Women Cooperate to Undermine Sex

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As a sex therapist, I hear a lot about how sex doesn’t work, how complicated it is, and how often it simply isn’t worth the trouble. Of course, I’m sympathetic.

But my job is to notice exactly how people create the sex that frustrates them. It doesn’t take much: disliking your body; not trusting your partner; feeling guilty about what you want or don’t want; anxiety about, well, anything.

Those are the issues I help individuals identify and resolve. After that, people often enjoy sex much more.

Frequently, though, sexual difficulties are maintained by two partners together.

Now theoretically, when one person expresses a common, disruptive sexual perspective, the other one COULD gently say “Oh? Let’s talk about it.” Two people COULD discuss what they’re self-conscious or insecure about, and be reassured. Or two people COULD decide on practical solutions to our bodies’ various kinds of unwanted moisture and aromas.

That simple approach would enhance both the pleasure and closeness of whatever sex people choose to have.


But too often, that isn’t what happens. One person has an unfortunate idea (say, “I need to hide one of my body parts during sex,” or “I have to defend what my body doesn’t do during sex”). And the other one goes along with it—typically by their silence, or worse, their agreement: “Yes, of course you want to hide that big hairy butt;” “Yes, you do have a problem that you usually don’t climax from ‘real sex.’”

And while I see this in couples of all genders and orientations, I especially see it in heterosexual couples, in which each person is having sex with someone whose body seems fundamentally unfamiliar. Yes, men and women cooperate way too often in validating each other’s bad ideas about sex and bodies—their own and each others’.

Here are a few common things people say that undermines their sexual experience:

* I take too long to get excited or to climax.
* We can’t have sex during your period.
* When you’re with me, you shouldn’t need a vibrator.
* I don’t smell or taste good down there, so don’t lick me.
* If I have to teach you what I like or how to do it, that spoils it.
* If you don’t orgasm inside me, I guess you don’t enjoy me that much.

The best response to every one of these is “Let’s talk about it.” Each of these is an IDEA, which should be gently challenged, negotiated, discussed. Ideas like these narrow our sexual expression, create distance between partners, limit our satisfaction, and make people anxious.

Ideas like these—and the resulting truncated eroticism—are what give sex a bad name. They perpetuate the sense that sex is an opportunity to fail, a minefield to navigate, rather than a luxurious buffet where things are easy.

Of course, cooperation during sex is great—when it’s around positive things. But cooperating around narratives of powerlessness, ugliness, and avoidance is not helpful.

Note that this is NOT the same as one person saying “I don’t like being touched like that,” and the other person saying, “C’mon, just do it anyway.” No, this is about IDEAS that shape experiences, not the experiences themselves.

Now join me with your Sex Therapist cap on, and let’s challenge a few of the above:

* I worry I take too long to get excited or climax.
Too long for what? No adult complains that it takes “too long” to eat ice cream. Sexplay and sex only take “too long” if one or both people are bored.

* We can’t have sex during your period.
Of course, nobody needs to have sex while they or their partner menstruate. But there are many kinds of sex that don’t require putting something into a vagina. And if people want to have intercourse during someone’s period, bath towels–the bigger, the better–really work. Some people even have a special towel they take out once a month, and then wash after a week–ready for next month.

* When you’re with me, you shouldn’t need a vibrator.
“Need” is an odd idea here. She doesn’t use a vibrator AT you, she uses it WITH you. And anything that makes sex more enjoyable—lube, clean sheets, sox on cold feet, shaved legs or face—is to be encouraged, not taken as a personal attack.

* I don’t smell or taste good down there, so don’t lick me.
The warning is polite, but I’d say whether you’re lickable is up to the licker, not the lickee. What you fear as too funky may be just what your partner likes. And if you relax and enjoy it, that will be another thing your partner likes about it.

* If I have to teach you what I like or how to do it, that spoils it.
No one says that about food—“If I have to tell you how I like my chicken cooked, it spoils the dinner for me.” Just as there’s no reason someone should instinctively know how spicy you like your food, there’s no reason someone should know how you like to be touched or kissed. Love has nothing to do with it. Teach! Show! Tell!

* If you don’t orgasm inside me, I guess you don’t enjoy me that much.
People think it’s “normal” to ejaculate inside a vagina. It turns out that that’s more complicated than you might think, and gets harder as men get older. Challenges include joint pain, muscle pain or back pain (thrusting does take a strong back!); medication side effects; lube that dries up after a few minutes; over-stimulation; over-concern with her enjoyment; and anxiety.
* * *
To make sex more enjoyable, talk about your concerns, and listen when your partner reassures you. If necessary, ask for reassurance. Just don’t struggle in silence, or put unnecessary limits in place.

As I’ve often said, sex is more than an activity—it’s an idea.
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