I’ve been a licensed marriage & family therapist and sex therapist since 1980. Since then I’ve been asked a jillion questions about sex—and in all that time the questions haven’t changed.
These are the questions of both men and women, old and young, of all orientations and levels of experience. Whether someone is kinky, vanilla, or in-between, here are the most common questions people ask about sex.
Am I normal?
This can be about absolutely anything: one breast is more sensitive than the other; I fantasize about my older brother; I orgasm better with oral sex than with intercourse; I pretend I’m sucking a penis when I’m sucking a clitoris; my wife and I occasionally like to meet in a bar and pretend we’re strangers; I get more excited if my bilingual boyfriend talks to me in Spanish; I like sex during my wife’s period…Am I normal?
The answer to every “am I normal” question is:
* You’re definitely not the only one;
* I don’t know if you’re “normal”—it’s not a category I use much—but you’re definitely not “abnormal;”
* It’s absolutely normal to worry about this. Now relax and decide you’re OK.
How do I ask for X?
I suppose there are a few people who hesitate to say “please pass the salt” at dinner because they don’t want to seem odd or hurt anyone’s feelings. And I suppose when some people are courting and trying to impress a new beau, they might hesitate to say “oh, I don’t really like Japanese films” or “I’m not much of a rap music fan.”
But most people don’t have problems like this around non-sexual issues. And to that vast majority of people, I say: asking for a different kind of touch or declining a sexual position or activity is done the same way you say “please” or “no thank you” about anything else. You do it simply, unmistakably, and in a friendly way. And if your sex partner doesn’t like that, it’s time for a serious conversation about how to structure the sexual relationship—or how to leave it.
How do I tell my partner X?
For comparisons with everyday life, see above. To summarize: do it simply, unmistakably, graciously, and with little or no apology. Have a cold sore on your lip that makes kissing a turnoff? Dislike him calling you “Mami” during oral sex? Wish she would stop showing her passion by scraping your back with her fingernails? Want him to stop wearing torn or stained briefs?
Just say so, in a friendly way.
What does it mean if I want/like/fantasize/dislike X?
It almost certainly means nothing.
You don’t hear many people ask “what does it mean if I prefer strawberries to blueberries? Or “what does it mean if I prefer the Beatles to the Rolling Stones?” We all know the answer to those questions—it doesn’t mean anything.
It may be a fun psychoanalytic game for some people to think they can de-code what position, or porn, or toy, they or their partner (or their ex-) likes or dislikes. But for too many people, the results of this astrology-like adventure are shame and withdrawal.
People like and dislike what they do. Some of those preferences are temporary, while others are permanent. Some have to do with things you might not have considered—back pain can influence choice of sexual position. Fear of being gassy can inhibit a number of sexual activities. An old myth (“women hate it when you…”) might have driven someone toward or away from a preference that limits pleasure.
But, for you junior Dr. Freuds out there, you never know what a preference or fantasy “means.” You’re way better off learning more about what your partner(s) actually wants or enjoys.
What do men want sexually?
What do women want sexually?
It doesn’t matter—unless you’re planning to have sex with all men or all women. If, however, you want to know what your partner wants, or you suspect you’re not giving your partners what they crave, don’t ask your partner(s) what “men” or “women” like—ask them what THEY like.
Then either believe them or ask a different question.
What if I don’t like what my partner likes?
What generally brings two people together is their preferences—say, for bird-watching, or binge-watching, or stock-market watching.
But as soon as people start to get to know each other, they discover their differences. Some are charming, some are stimulating, some are frustrating, and some are deal-breakers. But every pair of people—even twins!—has differences.
And so you and your partner will have differences in what you like before, during, and after sex. And like every pair of people, you and your mate have to learn how to talk about this, and then have to learn how to manage it. If you can’t, you’ll blame your differences—but the real culprit will be your inability to manage the differences.
You can give each other’s preferences a chance, and sometimes you’ll expand your horizons. But just as often you’ll be reminded of why you don’t like something. In which case, you need to talk about it. In a straightforward, friendly way.
How does my partner’s body work?
Sorry if this sounds familiar, but…ask him or her. What makes them climax? Is that face they sometimes make during sex good or bad? How hard do they want their nipples squeezed? What do you want me to do about your foreskin?
Ask, ask, ask. No apology, embarrassment, or hesitation necessary.
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These are the same questions people have been asking me since 1980, and of course men and women were asking these questions before then. The answer to almost every one of these sex questions—and to almost every question about sex—is the same: ask.
Has anything changed about sexuality in America since I was licensed in 1980? A few things: It’s easier to buy a vibrator; easier to find porn (and porn is more diverse); easier to meet strangers with whom to have sex (although most people over 30 aren’t lining up to do so). And there are two new “diseases” with which you can get diagnosed (if you’re foolish enough to believe they exist): sex addiction and porn addiction.
It’s now more acceptable to date across race (although older women and younger men still don’t). There are some medicines to help with sexual function—hormone replacement therapy, Viagra—although there are also more medicines with sexual side effects. And neither HRT nor Viagra makes sex wonderful if people can’t talk to each other about sex.
So why haven’t the most common questions changed? Because the human body hasn’t changed, the human heart hasn’t changed, and our culture’s enforced ignorance, prejudices, and sex-negative inhibitions haven’t changed. Kids are still discouraged from masturbating. Adults across the West are freaking out about pornography. People of all ages still think that 65-year-olds having sex is creepy. And doctors and therapists still get almost no training in healthy sexuality.
Chronic pain still interferes with sexual desire and satisfaction, as does alcohol, especially in young people. It was true when Shakespeare wrote about it, and it’s still true. The number one complaint people bring to sex therapists is still desire discrepancy, and it’s still the thing we find hardest to treat successfully.
The biggest change in American sexuality in the last thirty years is that whereas you used to have to ask your sister or cousin or best friend for inaccurate sex information, now you can ask the entire universe—the internet. You can get “information” about every sexual question you can imagine. Just don’t assume that the “information” will be accurate, or that the advice will be sane.
If you’d like to help change the most common questions about sex, educate your children that sexuality is complex, potentially wonderful, and theirs to administer their whole lives. Give them the words, the facts, and the attitude they need. Then they won’t have to wonder how to ask for what they want, how to say no to what they don’t want, and how to learn more about what they and their partner(s) want.
Meanwhile, the answers to most of your sex questions are right in front of you: just ask.
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If you liked this piece, I bet you’ll also like my article at www.MartyKlein.com/a-couple-quits-therapy-what-is-normal-desire