How People Make Sex Too Complicated—and Harder to Enjoy

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Every week, people tell me exactly how they make sex way too complicated, and therefore difficult or impossible to enjoy.

They don’t realize they’re saying that, of course. I wish I could just say “Stop making sex more complicated than necessary!” But I’m afraid effective therapy isn’t quite that simple.

Here are some examples of how people undermine their own sexual satisfaction.

“We have sex before I’m ready”

In this scenario “sex” almost invariably means “intercourse.”

When a woman in couples therapy says this, she generally expects me to turn to her male partner and say “You selfish bastard! Stop doing that!”

Eventually, I do get around to asking the guy if he realizes she has “sex” when she doesn’t want to. If he does, I ask why he proceeds anyway; if he doesn’t, I ask why he isn’t paying closer attention.

But first I ask the woman: why are you having intercourse (or doing anything sexual) when you’re not ready? Here are some typical answers:
~ “His erections are unreliable, so we have to use it when we have one;”
~ “He doesn’t listen anyway, so we might as well get started;”
~ “I take a really long time to get aroused, so I can’t expect him to wait that long;”
~ “We don’t really talk about sex that much.”

Reasons like these reveal a sense of disempowerment that can undermine sex in a wide range of ways. It’s the real reason people “can’t” do what they want, say what they want, or find out what they want. It’s the reason behind the reasons that some people can’t use a vibrator, can’t have oral sex, can’t have sex during their or their partner’s period, can’t have sex with the lights on, can’t ask for more of what they want or less of what they don’t want.

And it explains why I sometimes tell patients in a gentle, friendly way, “Please don’t blame sex for how you think about sex.”

“Looking at porn is a form of infidelity”

Most men respond to this by saying “No it isn’t.” Then the couple quarrels about whether it’s infidelity, rather than talking about what she’s uncomfortable about, and why he likes to look at porn.

“I don’t want you looking at porn” is a solution to a problem. Until couples agree on the problem, it’s pointless to debate a solution. And “it’s infidelity” is a way of justifying the solution, NOT talking about the problem.

There are plenty of reasons a woman might be unhappy with her partner’s porn use. They generally involve distress about her sex life, AND her theory that porn is a cause of that distress. For example,

~ “You always say I should look or act more like a porn star;”
~ “You never look at me or talk to me during sex;”
~ “You’ve lost interest in having sex with me;”
~ “Lately you’re pushing me to watch porn even though I don’t want to.”

If this is what someone is unhappy about, she should just say so. These are legitimate complaints, and I would expect her partner to pay attention to her upset. The behavior she dislikes may result from his porn-watching, or it may have nothing to do with it.

The first step isn’t to debate a solution, but for him to acknowledge her feelings; they can then discuss whether he wants to change his behavior, and various ways to do that. The ultimate goal should NOT be to get him to stop watching porn, but for them to agree on ways to live whereby they both get what they want. I hope that would include an enjoyable sex life, emotional closeness, and good communication.

Anyone who says these are impossible if a man looks at porn is naïve; so is anyone who says these are easy as soon as he stops looking at porn.

“Now that we’re married you shouldn’t masturbate”

Some people explain this by saying “If you want sex, just come to me.” Others say “When you enjoy sex without me it’s like infidelity,” or “That makes me feel left out.”

There’s a profound conversation to be had about autonomy within relationship, and to what extent a person in a couple actually owns their own eroticism. Simply establishing a rule about what someone “shouldn’t” do invites conflict, not cooperation. And that conflict is what will undermine a couple’s sexual relationship, not one partner’s masturbation.

“I feel inadequate if I can’t make her climax from regular sex”

“Regular sex,” of course, is penis-vagina intercourse. It’s astounding when someone who understands how to program an Apple Watch can’t understand the simple fact that for most women, the primary sex organ is the clitoris, not the vagina.

Simple geometry makes it clear that an object (penis, finger, toy, zucchini) going in and out of a woman’s vagina will generally miss her clitoris. It may feel good, but for most women it won’t generate an orgasm.

The massive cultural (and clinical) ignorance of this simple fact leads to both men and women feeling sexually damaged or inept. A couple might as well feel bad that rubbing her clitoris against his testicles typically doesn’t lead to his climax. Sure, that’s nutty—but so is expecting a woman to orgasm from intercourse or other insertion/thrusting activity.

I don’t say “if she can’t climax from intercourse don’t blame her, blame her anatomy.” Rather, I say “If she knows how to climax, celebrate that. It’s a wonderful emotional skill combined with a wonderful biological capacity. How nice that she’s sharing that with you—and that you can be an enthusiastic part of it.”

“If he really thought I was hot he would get it up all the time”

Just like healthy eyes can only see when there’s sufficient light, healthy penises get erect only under certain circumstances.

Penises aren’t designed to get or stay erect when their owner drinks too much alcohol, or is afraid of failing (again), or fears God’s (or mother’s) disapproval, or is taking any of a long list of drugs (including cocaine, chemotherapy, and opioids).

Adult penises need more to get erect than their owner watching an attractive woman undress. They need him to be sober, to feel more or less emotionally comfortable, and, for most men, to feel some sort of connection to the woman (or man). Many men need privacy. Some men want to hear the words “I love you.” Some men want to be teased, or to feel special.

There are lots of reasons a man might have erection difficulties with a woman he really, truly desires. And one is that sex with a woman he desires is intimidating.

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