Valentine’s Day And Lousy Sex

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I’ve been a sex therapist for 28 years. That’s 30,000 sessions discussing desire, orgasm, and everything in between.

New patients and new friends alike often smile and say “I’ll bet you’ve heard just about everything when it comes to sex.” And the honest answer is, well, yes.

But after 28 years, you want to know what still amazes me?

It isn’t the number of men and women who are frustrated, living in relationships that offer little or not sex. And it’s not the number of men and women who have little or no interest in sex, and who struggle through it once in a while because of guilt or pressure.

No, the thing that still amazes me is how so many of those frustrated people who only get half-hearted, quick sex once in a while—want more of it.

It’s like that old joke about two friends complaining about the crummy diner down the street: “The food’s lousy,” says one. “Yeah, and the portions are so small!” grumbles the other.

When people are stuck with sex they don’t enjoy, why do they want more of it? With these couples I ask the question pretty directly, and the first response is usually surprise: ‘if I’m sexually frustrated, why wouldn’t I want more sex?’ As one deprived, unhappy woman told me. “What am I supposed to do instead—nothing?”

The other common response is “it’s not thrilling, but mediocre sex is better than nothing.”

When I ask the person who doesn’t like or want sex much why he or she keeps doing it (even if only once every month or two), the response is usually “because I feel worse if I don’t than if I do.” This covers a range of situations, from ‘I feel guilty if I don’t’ to ‘he nags me until I do,’ to ‘she doesn’t pressure me directly, but if she doesn’t get sex periodically, she’s miserable to live with.’

In trying to help such couples, one of my goals is to break the association between sex and physical or emotional pain. Realistically, that may mean eliminating sex for a while, or at least certain activities, most typically intercourse.

While some low-desire partners find this a great relief, many of them resist. They don’t know how they’ll deal with their own guilt, or with their partner’s pressure (real or perceived). A few high-desire partners are surprised by their own sense of relief, but most just get more cranky, not less.

Putting aside situations in which refusing sex can lead to domestic violence, I just don’t understand how anyone could imagine that forcing themselves to have sex that’s unwanted, boring, lonely, or painful is going to contribute to a positive sexual connection. Similarly, I don’t understand how anyone who isn’t terribly damaged could find comfort in sex they know their partner doesn’t want and can’t enjoy.

What I do understand is that people in these couples feel so powerless and discouraged that they often resort to behavior that makes no sense except in the very short term.

But pressuring your mate for more sex that no one enjoys makes it harder to ever create sex that either will enjoy. And so when these couples come to me, my job is to get them to have less sex, not more.

There will always be people who want bigger portions of food they don’t like. As a sex therapist, I have to challenge this idea every week. My goal is to support my patients’ inner gourmet, not their inner fast-food junkie.

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