The past week and a half I have been watching the recent season of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, a fictionalized show that follows the grappling of a community following the suicide of a high school sophomore named Hannah Baker. In my practice Center for Love and Sex, the therapists and I also treat Depression, anxiety and other psychiatric issues that clients present to us. What is clearly disturbing is that according to recent studies by the Center for Disease Control more Americans in every age group, from 10 to 75, are committing suicide. While the precipitating event may be different for a middle-aged person than a teen, the fact that the behavior is on the rise should be a concern for every American.
The Suddeness of Suicide
Most people are shocked that someone can seem ostensibly fine or stable one day and end their life the next. The sheer switch and deliberateness is terrifying. Although both Kate Spade’s best friend, brother and husband all knew she was struggling with and being treated for Depression, they were all shocked that she’d end her life. Anthony Bourdain can be seen rejoicing on the set of his CNN show Parts Unknown in Hong Kong with his director and girlfriend Asia Argento and director of cinematography Christopher Doyle. Did something happen in the past 5 days? Or was suicide an option that both Spade and Bourdain had secretly contemplated over a period of years?
Inside the Mind of a Depressed Client
As a psychotherapist who has treated clients with Depression and anxiety for over 20 years, I am trained to listen to what’s between the lines and to ask more direct questions about a person’s intentions regarding suicide.
Unless you’ve suffered from Major Depression, it can be very hard for most people to comprehend the ways a mind can consider death a way out of a pain that seems so interminable. As Andrew Solomon so eloquently wrote in his New Yorker article: Anatomy of Melancholy
“When you are depressed, the past and the future are absorbed entirely by the present, as in the world of a three-year-old. You can neither remember feeling better nor imagine that you will feel better. Being upset, even profoundly upset, is a temporal experience, whereas depression is atemporal. Depression means that you have no point of view.”
How Can You Help?
What can folks do to help stave off this latest wave of suicides? On a micro level, one can ask those that are closest to you who have already been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness whether they have thought about suicide or hurting themselves. It’s important not to avoid the word suicide. In saying his word out loud you’re letting them know you are strong enough to listen to them, no matter what. Then listen.
Be mindful not to give them the reasons they shouldn’t be unhappy by saying: “But you’re so successful!” or “You have so much to live for” . Let them know you’re there for them and that you want to help them find the psychiatric help they need so the pain can be alleviated. With these last two celebrities’ suicides, it’s clear that fame, fortune and family do not prevent people from suffering. Ask your friend or family member if they’d be willing to share these concerns with more people to widen the network of support you can provide.
On a macro level to fighting suicides, one can advocate for more funding for affordable and/or free mental health care for all people. Support the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a non-profit that fights for legislation to expand psychiatric treatment.
Do outreach to your congressperson and senator to pass stricter gun laws since about half of suicides are done by guns. The national map of suicide shows higher levels of suicide in states with the highest gun ownership r
Lastly, if you yourself have had suicidal ideation or the pain, or have thought about active plans on how you would end your life, I encourage you to seek out help right away. Contact National Support Lifeline https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ via text or call. 1-800-273-8255. Make one call to a trusted person. There is hope and an alternative to the pain.
Modern sex, digital dating, hookups and contemplating past sex with a partner are all topics covered in THE LIST Kirra Cheers’ upcoming immersive photography project in NYC. I am so looking forward to leading a talkback after the May 19th show which poses the question “what would your exes say about you?” after a friend gave her a list he had made of all the sex partners and experiences he had had.
Here’s a preview interview with her. For those of you who don’t know Kirra’s work, she is the photographer behind the viral sensation Tinderella in which she photographed the men with whom she went on dates gleaned from Tinder to explore different aspects of modern digital dating life.
SC: It seems like this piece flowed out of your first show Tinderella, that was a study on digital dating, what was the initial spark that was triggered when you were gifted the List? What were some of the questions about sex you were looking to answer?
KC: I saw the list of names as a puzzle. Each name represents a moment in time they shared together. I wanted to know, if I could piece together the moments, what would the narrative of his life look like? As with Tinderella, I play the role of the unreliable narrator, calling for the audience to reflect on their list and how people might judge them based on their time together. This experience of self reflection is different for everybody based on age, gender and individual experiences. Where one person might question, how many is too many? Another might reflect on how much they have changed as a person or who they may have hurt along the way.
SC: In the work of sex therapy, we help clients get comfortable, get embodied, and help them articulate what it is they’re looking for in a sexual scenario? Did you find that the majority of partners with whom K had sex were open about their needs with him?
KC: As a society, we are used to being fed this lie that men want sex more than women. I think that women are more sexually adventurous than we give them credit for. There was definitely this conversation about wanting sex and expecting so be satisfied but there seemed to be a communication breakdown in exactly how to achieve that goal. This might be because they didn’t feel comfortable expressing their needs or perhaps they were still exploring their sexual desires.
SC: Often I hear from men who are single and dating that they aren’t as concerned about their partner’s sexual pleasure if they’re clear the sex is a hook-up and they’re not interested in getting emotionally close with them. Did you hear a range of reflections on how giving K was in the bedroom? Did it tend to coincide with how long they saw one another?
KC: Reviews on his sexual performance vary greatly. Everything from, the sex was “transactional” to it’s “the craziest sex I’ve ever had”. Hard to believe they were talking about the same person. I think it had more to do with how attractive he perceived them to be and therefore, how much time and effort he was willing to invest.
SC: Given the viral nature of the #CatPerson story in the New Yorker this past December, were there many women who expressed ambivalence during the act that they felt unable to express? Did many partner regret the experience? It sounds like one woman felt that the hookup was not consensual on their part? Did she ever tell him?
KC: I spent some time reflecting on why she opened up to me and chose to share her experience. I think that this was her way of telling him. It’s a hard read and unfortunately an experience that I believe most women will relate to in some way. There seems to be this accepted grey zone where it’s ok to pressure someone into an experience they’re not comfortable with. I used to think it was a matter of education but I’m not so sure anymore. Men understand consent, they just choose to ignore it. I think the problem lies in a power dynamic that has been exploited for far too long.
SC: Were these hookups freeing for some of the women who, like K were looking for sexual expression without commitment? What else did they discover about themselves in the process?
KC: Absolutely – many of the women on ‘The List’ are at a stage in their early adult life where they are exploring what they like and don’t like. It was refreshing to hear about women taking control of their sex life and feeling “empowered” by the experience.
SC: When sex therapists conduct what’s called a sexual history in therapy, we are looking to find out the influences on the way a person regards themselves as a sexual person, the influences of home, culture religion and how they explored their desire if they were allowed to. Did you feel his journey through these encounters/relationships had an intention behind it, questions he wanted answered or was their more emphasis on proving something to himself or others?
KC: I ended the project at no.38 because I felt that he was beginning to have experiences just so they could be documented. In fact, I would go as far to say that he enjoys having an audience and has continued to explore that thrill in his sex life. As a somewhat quiet or shy person in his day to day life, I think he enjoys exploring a different side to himself when it comes to sex.
SC: What most surprised you about the way your own relationship changed with K over the period of the project? Did you discover further vulnerabilities of his as you delved further into the project? Do you feel his choices of partners reflected a wide palette of facets to his personality or were they more similar than you could have guessed?
KC: We definitely became closer friends over the time that I worked on the project. He allowed me full access to his personal life and at no time seemed embarrassed or uncomfortable with the information that was shared. I was very impressed, if the tables were turned I may have had a crisis of identity. He seemed content to accept that this was their experience, even if it differed from his own.
SC: Why do you think K gifted the list to you in the first place?
KC: K enjoys surrounding himself with interesting or eccentric people that can orchestrate different experiences for him. For K, this was the ultimate walk down memory lane. He is now in a committed relationship and I often wonder whether the experience was somewhat of a sexual renaissance, allowing him to grow in a new direction. Perhaps we should all reflect on our list and learn something along the way.
THE LIST runs for a limited engagement Fridays & Saturdays, May 18-26 at 10pm at the Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre (115 MacDougal Street). Tickets can be purchased online for $20 at https://thelistbykirracheers.com/.
While I’m not sure in what order they should be listed, I have spent years helping people say the unsayable, articulate what turns them on, and supporting their journeys in coming to terms with the particular consensual erotic interests they find most compelling. At CLS, we also help those who tell us they have a porn addiction or who find that their porn gazing has become out-of-control. In a recent performance called “Prurience” created and performed by Christopher Green at the Guggenheim’s Works & Process Series, Green created a space in The Wright restaurant that while not a safe therapeutic environment, still encouraged some participants/audience members/performers to communicate what they are erotically drawn to when watching porn or how their porn watching became what they deemed to be an addiction.
Green invited participants into an unusual immersion/theater which was a combination of a 12-step sex addiction meeting, a confessional, a one-way-mirror-interrogation, and a-funhouse-mirror-maze. I was lucky enough to interview Mr. Green during his show’s run in NYC given how it reflects on some of the issues our clients are confronting given their porn use whether as an out-of-control behavior on their own or wanting to incorporate the fantasies they enjoy with a partner or spouse
I wondered if the impetus to create the piece coincided with the changes in UK laws regarding pornography. Green stated: “Funnily enough no, it happened all at the same time. Suddenly when I was writing it, David Cameron became obsessed with it and started legislating and talking about porn all the time.” In 2013 Prime Minister Cameron proposed having all porn blocked by internet providers in the UK, where Green grew up.
The audience is invited by the person we think of as the leader of the Prurience group, an American artsy-man with an effeminate inflection in his speech played by Green, to make a circle with the chairs as usual before the “meeting” begins. He is apologizing for being late and haphazardly setting up the product table in the corner, offering up swag printed with the Prurience logo. Once settled, he begins the group by asking participants to share their first memory of seeing porn for the first time. This question aligns with many of the questions we ask at CLS when conducting a Sexual History as part of a full bio-psychosocial assessment to learn about our clients, their families of origin, their education regarding sex (formal and otherwise) both through self-pleasuring and/or partner sexuality.
In this immersive theater experience, several participants shared the discovery of their father’s Playboy, or a friend’s older brother’s stash of videos, or searching online at sites like Pornhub. In our practice, clients express how they watched their parents hold hands, or kissed a “crush” for the first time in 5th grade at a friend’s house party or happened upon porn online at age 14. The firsts of our lives leave an imprint, and at times it is so strong that it becomes a go-to fantasy that one seeks to recreate again and again whether in one’s imagination, online, or with a partner.
In “Prurience” we are led to believe that the members of this so-called self-help group are struggling with so called porn addiction. While the term sex addiction was not accepted as a formal DSM5 diagnosis, nor has it been accepted by the American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), the terms sex or porn addiction has been popularized enough by people like Patrick Carnes, the unscientific YourBrainonPorn site and the many rehabs that continue to charge thousands of dollars to help people with sexual behavior they may find out of control, sinful, shameful and unfaithful.
At CLS we work with people who struggle with Out of Control Sexual Behavior or hyper-sexual behavior that have put their relationships, family and livelihoods at risk. In a structured, thorough assessment process we discover what other overlapping challenges, potential diagnoses, past trauma and/or relationship dynamics are contributing to the behavior and collaborate with the client on the treatment goals and individualized plans we recommend.
In the Prurience porn addiction meeting one soon hears from people who are revealing ever more detailed descriptions of what they like to watch, what they desire and the level to which these desires haunt their waking and sleeping hours. The comments are sharp, humorous, disturbing, self-flagellating, erotic, disgusted and intriguing.
SC: How important was it for you to create an Uber-reality of a 12-step meeting?
CG: “Yeah, I wanted to unsettle people because one of the effects of porn as we know one of the effects of porn is it’s deeply troubling, or arousing in the fundamental sense of the word. It alerts us and wakes us up…I wanted to try and replicate that in a theatrical setting”.
SC: “Like in a parallel process kind of experience?”
CG: “Yeah, absolutely.”
The term I used in this last question, “parallel process” is a psychotherapeutic term to express the feelings or dynamics that crop up in the relationship between a supervisor and a therapist who is telling the supervisor about a particular client. While relaying the issues, the dynamic may well unconsciously mirror the dynamic that is occurring between the therapist and their client.
In his run on the West End in London, Green told me that some audience members got up at the break and walked out, never to return. They were too disturbed, or embarrassed or uncomfortable to stay through the 2nd part. The topic of porn is still rarely brought up in general therapy but in sex therapy, we try to help clients describe what turns them on so that they can articulate it to their partner(s). If a person is into porn, or erotic novels or other fantasy-type trigger, describing a scene or exchange can help them formulate what it is that fires up their erotic ignition.
Green wondered how I felt at witnessing his role as group leader who didn’t really “hold” the members of the porn addiction recovery group in a safe space by setting clear boundaries on the length of people’s contributions or the intensity of what was shared even when someone seemed to be in a high risk situation. I thought it was an astute question since in fact I was quite aware that the experience was theater and that his playing the role in a passive manner was intentionally done. It certainly unnerved some folks who felt unsure of what was to come. Much like getting on a roller coaster that might make you nauseous, many audience members were rattled by the tea break.
This lack of structure and support that one sees in the group is NOT like a professional therapeutic experience where a therapist lets a client know what comes next in the process, allows the client to ask questions, holds their fears so that they don’t become overwhelmed and may stop someone who becomes hurtful to another. The therapist closely monitors the clients’ experience, and checks in to ensure that the sessions are going at an emotional pace that they can handle.
I asked Green about the fact that the group didn’t seem to have a performer playing a partner who has suddenly discovered their partner/spouse’s compulsive sexual habits and come to the group to express their shocked, hurt and angry reactions. He let me know that in fact in the original version of the piece there had been a female character who had discovered her husband’s porn use and ostensibly came to the meeting as almost one would go to AlAnon to get more education and support but that in the final edits made by the dramaturge, he lost this character which saddens him at times.
In our work with a client wanting help with their compulsive sexual behavior at Center for Love and Sex we at times work with the individual and refer the couple to another therapist for couple/marital counseling. in other cases we’ll work with both the couple and each partner individually if it seems like a better plan. Like any secret kept hidden for years, the ripple effect after the discovery of an out-of-control porn problem has tremendous impact on both the partner with the issue and the relationship. For many of our clients the recovery of Out-Of-Control sexual behavior includes the opportunity to speak about all sorts of issues (including their sex life) which had been swept under the carpet for years.
We help them understand the behavior, treat the underlying or coinciding disorders that might have contributed to the behavior and then help them and their partners begin the long road to rebuilding trust, expressing hurt, articulate anxiety, and describe erotic desires. The split-off part of their self that was continually numbed out through the compulsive behavior can now emerge and be known not only to the individual but to their partner. And the therapist helps them stay grounded through the at times painful, anxiety-ridden process.
I’ll quote Chris Green with his perceptive reflection on therapy and theater to end this blog:
“I think a lot of therapy is sitting with discomfort isn’t it? It’s being able to turn your face towards the thing you normally turn away from. And it’s.. to put that into theater you have to sit with discomfort, you have to encourage people to sit with discomfort. And it’s only through that that we make any breakthroughs in life” .
Since my last post on the #CatPerson story in The New Yorker, we have had numerous sexual stories come out including the babe.net piece in which a woman identified as Grace had with comedian Aziz Ansari which she described as sexual assault, the highly researched story in the WSJ of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Steve Wynn and the NY Times’ Maureen Dowd interview with Uma Thurman
finally opening up in more detail regarding her sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
The Ansari story left the more than 2.5 readers split on what exactly the experience had been; consensual or coercive or assault? Grace wrote that her experience left her feeling violated while others have described the Ansari date as badly-mannered, insensitive badly communicated or plain ‘meh’ sex. The critical nature of the post #metoo movement requires a much more nuanced, articulate languaging of what is desired, what is possibly of interest, what is considered intrusive, coerced, and unwanted by both partners. The directives of consent need to be discussed at the beginning of an evening and then right before the sexual actions begin as well as during. Why? Since many people drink or use some sort of recreational drugs when hooking up, their ability to give consent changes over time, and especially if they are under the influence.
Have people gone too far in conflating bad sex in which people don’t take responsibility for what they do and don’t want with coercive sex and out-and-out assault in which a person is threatened physically and emotionally by the power of the other person? I think in the first wave of a reckoning the rage that had been building for so long can create a reaction that offers only a black and white, guilty/non-guilty verdict that does not reflect grey.
Given the upcoming Valentine’s Day when singles and newly dating couples go out to have fun, create some romance and potentially have some sexual fantasies in their expectations, I hope these further explicit discussion tips help to create a date that is remembered as sexually consensual, safe, sexy and sweet.
Dating Tips Post #CatPerson
Don’t Have Any Sexual Activity if You’re Drunk, Period!
While I think the main character Margot, a college student obviously regretted her decision to move ahead with having sex with Robert, the 30-something man she met at a university town bar, the sex was not coerced or forced by Robert. Similar to the real Grace of the babe.net story who thought Ansari would have more sensitivity about what she would want and not want to do given his public comedic routines about his avowed feminist identity, both these women had agreed to go ahead with a sexual scenario perhaps for different reasons.
In my sex therapy practice CLS, we frequently see heterosexual women who have felt like they should have sex with a guy for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with healthy sexuality. Some of these reasons include internal dialogues similar to what Roupenian wrote of Margot’s sudden erotic revulsion to the idea of having sex with Robert: “But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon.”
This is one of the key moments to this story. As a sex therapist one of the things I ask clients is to describe their last encounter slowly and describe not only their actions but their internal emotional and cognitive states as well. If these aren’t aligned then the sex will be experienced as mechanical, empty, ‘meh’ or bad. “Cat Person” is not a story of active coercion on Robert’s part, it’s not a story of an older man putting pressure on a younger woman, but it’s a story of woman incapable of expressing her desires in the moment that a certain sexual activity is signaled.
I think that many women related to this story because they felt they weren’t comfortable saying or didn’t have the education to say yes to some sexual activities and no to others.
In the #Catperson story Robert states: “You’re drunk” after she suggests they leave the bar for somewhere else. Margot is drunk and says: “No, I’m not,” though she knows she is. Where is her personal responsibility here? If one has enough awareness that one is drunk they need to state the fact, and go home by themselves. And where is Robert’s confidence in what he perceives as her state to non only insist on driving her home but actually following through and driving her home to wrest on the side of caution? I am not siding with either of these characters but actually holding both of them responsible for creating a safe, sober and perhaps more sexy encounter.
Check In with A Partner EACH STEP OF THE WAY During a Sexual Encounter
In my last blog I talked about all the ways partners can (sexily) describe what they’re interested in doing, what they’d consider and what are hard limits BEFORE a sexual encounter. What needs to be included in all enounters (whether they’re hookups or between longstanding partners) is a checking in along the way with the full understanding that THINGS CHANGE from moment to moment. Sex is a dynamic, living enactment of desires, fantasies, physical movements, that shift in the process.
In the #Catperson story Margot experiences a major shift in desire when she sees Robert bend down to take off his shoes after removing his shirt and pants.
“Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled.”
These moments happen a lot more often than people admit either to their friends afterwards or to themselves, even when someone isn’t drunk. And it’s okay to change your mind. Let me say this again, it’s okay to change your mind and tell someone: “I think I’m good for now” or “I would rather just cuddle” or “I’m not feeling well now and would like to remain clothed”. In the same way, you can say: “I’m good for now, would rather not drink any more”, without shame, or embarrassment or feeling so uncool or stiff.
But this is how Margot felt about the idea of letting him know her desire had changed:
But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.
Margot (and Roupenian) likened the thought of changing her mind to the embarrassment of returning food at a restaurant and what he would think of her for doing so. This to me is the crux of the story because what so many female readers of this story have described is the pressure they feel in following a man’s directives during a sexual scenario or what they had originally stated (if they did at all) wanting at the beginning of an encounter.
The woman called “Grace” in the babe.net encounter with Aziz Ansari stated:
“He sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him. And I did. I think I just felt really pressured. It was literally the most unexpected thing I thought would happen at that moment because I told him I was uncomfortable.”
One of the crises in our culture is this moment, the moment of asking and the moment of owning your authentic response. If Ansari was signal-blind, ignorant, drunk or plainly assertive in wanting what he wanted, Grace needed to say:
“Look, I’m really into your massaging my shoulders right now and that’s about it. I don’t want to go down on you, I don’t want to have penetrative sex, this is my limit now so please stop asking for more. It’s turning me off.”
What I hope is that my suggested statement above gets into the “sexual gray area between enthusiastic consent and resigned acceptance” as described by Carolyn Framke in the thoughtful Vox piece as the place the babe.net story fits in the conversation we are having in this post #metoo reckoning.
Know How to Say Yes, Thanks or No, Thanks or a Bit More of That
Whether it’s more sexual acts or the next date, be compassionate about your partner’s feelings. Many of my clients who are dating complain of ‘ghosting’ from people with whom they may have had long text threads, several dates or a 4 month-long relationship. Ghosting is the equivalent to not calling ever again, vanishing without a trace, or being stood up in the old days. One of the elements of Sex Esteem® which I teach to my groups is compassion. If you want to be treated with compassion by others, build a practice of compassion in all parts of your life. This means thinking about how the other person will feel, empathize with them without going beyond your limits and let them know if you’re done.
In The #CatPerson story, Margot avoids letting Robert know she is no longer interested. She thinks about ways to text him but perseverates about the perfect way to do it since they’d had sex but either texts excuses for not being in touch or ignores his texts altogether. And what Robert finally texts is what becomes one of the aspects of the story so many readers reacted to because of his inflammatory misogynistic message calling her “whore”.
Robert is a character, one we know about whom we know very little. But in this rageful, rejected pain expressed in this age-old insult for women who don’t give someone what they want, or who take their own sexuality into their own hands, or who reject someone who wants them, the story depicts a man who can be dropped into what many readers deem a bucket of deplorable men. That is the assumption that most men are perpetrators who you can’t trust. If Roupenian allowed the reader to get to know Robert, to figure out how this rejection triggered other old wounds perhaps, and offered him the opportunity to end by staying in the vulnerable state she had his character initially express when he didn’t hear from Margot, it might have offered a more dramatic view of a man than the original story offered. That of the male human who is openly hurt and vulnerable and remains in this expression.
“O.K., Margot, I am sorry to hear that. I hope I did not do anything to upset you. You are a sweet girl and I really enjoyed the time we spent together. Please let me know if you change your mind.”
Robert could have added: “I’m sorry you feel differently than I do.”
So if you have a date on Valentine’s Day or some time soon please try some of these Sex Esteem® steps before, during and afterwards. If you don’t feel you want to see the person again, think about ending with compassion and grace without malice, without humiliation, without sexist insults.
May we teach our children that speaking out without the fear of retribution is our culture’s new north star.”
In the recent viral slew of reactions to Kristen Roupenian’s short story “The Cat Person” in the The New Yorker Magazine, many readers have projected their own unsatisfied, frustrated and angry reactions of past sexual encounters, creating a hashtag #CatPerson and linking it to the #metoo movement on Twitter.
The original “me too’ movement was initially begun 10 years ago by social justice activist Tarana Burke (who attended last night’s Golden Globe awards) as a tribute to girls and women of color who were survivors of sexual abuse. The #metoo movement that went viral this past fall was due in part to the Twitter hashtag and invitation to share that Alyssa Milano posted in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein expose in the NY Times which featured reports by many women in Hollywood dating back years of alleged sexual harassment, coercing, assault and legal non-disclosure agreements made by Weinstein to buy accusers’ silence.
However, I think to conflate “The Cat Person” short story with both Burke’s “me too” movement and Twitter’s #metoo campaign (while they may be connected under the large umbrella of the power imbalance embedded in the patriarchal system) misses many important lessons we can glean about dating and modern digital sexuality illustrated in the fictional story. These lessons include ingredients of erotic mating and issues of consent and entitlement. The Cat Person story has stirred a lot of controversy due to the fact that many Millennials feel like the encounter authentically reflects what it’s like in the dating/hookup culture they experience on a regular basis. Roupenian has expressed that the story stemmed from experiences “accumulated over decades, not drawn from a single bad date.”
I completely believe Roupenian’s and the readers’ experiences due to the fact that for many years as an AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist and founder of Center for Love and Sex, I have seen many women who discuss how they felt like they told themselves they might as well have some sexual activity (give a guy oral sex, agree to vaginal penetration, give a “hand job”) even when they felt more undecided, had mixed feelings or were completely sure they didn’t want to have any sexual touch. Many of these women felt unable to harness the words needs to express these feelings and experiences to the date, hook-up or partner.
In the story, Margot is a college student and meets Robert, a man some years older than she while working at a movie theater concession stand. The story is told from Margot’s perspective and the reader hears much of her internal dialogue throughout the story so that we come to understand Margot more intimately than we do Robert. The beginning of the story gives us the first lesson about dating in the digital age.
Limit How Long You Flirt exclusively through text, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook Before Meeting In Person
“While she was home over break, they texted nearly non-stop, not only jokes but little updates about their days. They started saying good morning and good night, and when she asked him a question and he didn’t respond right away she felt a jab of anxious yearning.”
Margot is admits internally that she has developed a crush on this man with whom she has spent very little in-person time. And while it is true that part of meeting someone new is the fantasies one creates about them is as much part of the erotic excitement than the actual time spent with them, I have found that some people spend too much time communicating digitally rather than in-person. Some of my clients prefer the online flirting, seduction, or revelation of private thoughts because it keeps their mood afloat and helps them avoid potential disappointment in what the ‘real life’ person might actually be like. Given their past painful break-ups or mediocre dates, these clients are seeking treatment to recover, heal and gain some hope in their efforts to create new connections.
Some of our clients suffer from social anxiety and the back and forth texting exchange allows them to be more confident, forthright, or overtly sexual than they would ever feel in person with someone to whom they’re attracted. Koupenian wrote of Margot’s experience in #CatPerson:
“She still didn’t know much about him, because they never talked about anything personal, but when they landed two or three good jokes in a row there was a kind of exhilaration to it, as if they were dancing.”
However, research conducted on young adults has shown that higher rates of texting for people already stressed or anxious only leads to further agitation. What I recommend is to keep a bit of digital flirting in the sexual menu to get both your juices flowing erotically but plan a phone call soon so you can speak hearing one another’s voice. For some people the voice itself increases the romantic pull and for others can be a complete “no go” turn off. This allows a person to use their time wisely in their efforts to find a person with whom they’ll be more compatible. In sessions and on my webshow Sex Esteem®, I always ask clients to figure out their top 3 erotic triggers and if sound is up there in the top 3, then the sound of the person’s voice, laugh, moan will most likely make or break an erotic attraction.
The Pace of Texting May Cause Anxiety & Lack of Good Planning
#CatPerson illustrates the rhythm Margot notices of the initial texts between she and Robert : “Soon she noticed that when she texted him he usually texted her back right away, but if she took more than a few hours to respond his next message would always be short and wouldn’t include a question, so it was up to her to re-initiate the conversation, which she always did.”
Clients commonly complain of the anxiety they feel when their texts aren’t responded to as quickly as they would like. They begin to feel more vulnerable and less in control of the relationship.
While some people might like this experience of dominant seducer and longing chaser (it’s the erotic trigger I refer to as “psychological trigger” BTW), for others it just raises their anxiety to a level that’s turn off and may cause them to agree to something they normally wouldn’t including: sending a sexual photo in an effort to gain control, agreeing to a date that doesn’t especially excite them (a late night booty call as a first “date”), or meeting them in a place that doesn’t provide enough safety back ups.
Set up Expectations for Your First Meeting/Date
Due to her anxiety caused by Robert’s seemingly busy schedule, she quickly accepted his invitation to a movie. The problem here is that she asks to go to a movie theater that isn’t in her neighborhood (guaranteeing they won’t see any of her friends), that she would be going in his car (since she doesn’t own one), and that in fact she has barely spent any one on one in-person time with him.
“On the drive, he was quieter than she’d expected, and he didn’t look at her very much. Before five minutes had gone by, she became wildly uncomfortable, and, as they got on the highway, it occurred to her that he could take her someplace and rape and murder her; she hardly knew anything about him, after all.”
For first meetings I encourage clients to meet in very public restaurants, cafes or bars and to let their date they can only meet for a period of time. For example, meeting for a coffee between 4-5:30 on a weekend due to dinner plans, or a drink after work from 6-7 PM. It allows both people to:
a) find out if there’s chemistry
b) there’s more to talk about then one-liners or quips about some social media meme and c) limits physical intimacy opportunities in case you’re not so into the person erotically
d) leave room for you to finish the first meeting wanting more.
Sexual Consent Begins with First Touch/Kiss
Robert first hugs Margot after she begins crying out of shame after she’s turned away from a bar because she’s underage. “ She let herself be folded against him, and she was flooded with the same feeling she’d had outside the 7-Eleven—that she was a delicate, precious thing he was afraid he might break. He kissed the top of her head, and she laughed and wiped her tears away.”
If we are going to improve the many layers of consent that went missing in #CatPerson, here’s could have happened. Margot could have talked about her expectations of the first date in a more explicit way like:
Thanks for the invitation, I would like to go to the movies (my preference is a comedy) and holding hands in the dark.
I would be up to going out to a bar for a drink afterwards but since I’m underage it would need to be at a place that doesn’t card me.
I would like to perhaps kiss tonight but would like to keep the experience light and would prefer going home alone since it’s our first date.
I don’t have any STIs just so you know.
Robert could have said:
I’m looking forward to taking you out to this movie
I’m getting cleaned up a bit, wearing a nice shirt.
Hope you have time to go out afterwards for drink.
Would love to finally kiss you tonight, been admiring your lips for a while.
If you’re into it we can come back to my place, I don’t have a roommate so have the place all to myself.
I was most recently tested 4 months ago, am negative on all counts and haven’t been with someone since that time.
What happens in the story though is that after the hug, Robert does initiate a kiss and it’s not what Margot expects: “he came for her in a kind of lunging motion and practically poured his tongue down her throat. It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad;” Although perhaps the kiss could have been the red flag for some women that the chemistry might be off, Margot warms up to Robert at this point because she now feels she has regained some of the power in their relationship and perhaps feel a bit sorry for him which arouses her erotically.
Part 2 of this blog will focus on other lessons gleaned from “Cat Story” in this aftermath of #metoo, #timesup, “me too” so that we can begin to help one another reach that #NorthStar (Laura Dern’s quote from last night’s Golden Globes) of dating and respectfully relating with sexually without losing the eroticism.
As a Certified Sex Therapist I’m always encouraging my clients to consider their intimate relationship as an entity in itself that needs feeding, nurturing and growth by both/all partners to continue a vibrant long-term erotic sexuality. I know it’s last minute shopping week for the holiday season and you’re hoping to get everyone in the family that special something they’ll love when they unwrap their gift. I suspect though that the last person you may be thinking of is a) yourself and b) your sexual relationship.
And because erotic triggers can be psychological, visual, auditory (hearing), emotional, gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell) as well as tactile (touch) as described in my Sari Cooper Sex Esteem webshow, I wanted to present a smorgasbord of holiday gift ideas for couples who want to take their sensual life to another level. You could even think of it as a series of stages to take you through the erotic and sexual experience.
Thanks go to The Pleasure Chest, the upscale sex toy shop and online store that carries beautiful items in a sex friendly atmosphere for sending me these wonderful items to review. Here are this year’s line up of holiday gifts to be either slipped under your partner’s pillow or in a private stocking hidden in the bedroom closet.
Gift List for the Happy Couple:
Kinky Truth or Dare: This is a like Pick-Up Sticks for adults with each stick containing either a truth question or a dare invitation. I used to love pick-up-sticks as a kid and love the fact that the container and the sticks are black and red, reminding me of a tango dancer just demanding your focus. This is a great way to transition into a playful, flirtatious mood and perhaps find out some things about your partner that you actually didn’t know. An example of a truth question might be:
“Tell me about a part of your body I should get to know better” or
“Would you rather try a threesome or an orgy? Why?”
If you flip over the stick to the red side, a dare might declare:
“Pretend we’re in the back row of a crowded movie theater. Get me off with no one knowing”
“Take your phone and disappear. Call me for some dirty phone sex.”
While these requests are on the tamer side of what some people might call kinky they do get a couple flirting, revealing and whetting their appetite for sexy scenes outside their usual sexual script. It utilizes the psychological trigger to imagine scenes that play with consensual power and expanding where and how a couple can be sexual*
*Note it may be illegal in some states to be sexual and/or exposing certain body parts in public so do your research and make conscious choices.
If you need to be teased through the tactile and psychological triggers to get into an erotic zone, Pleasure Chest creates an Awaken Your Senses Kit. The container is black, metal cylinder that looks like it holds a candle but inside are items to increase the sensitivity and anticipation of a power exchange game. It contains a black blindfold, 2 red satin wrist/ankle ties, a black and red feather tickler, a pinwheel and a mini massage candle. (A pinwheel creates sharp pricks sensation that might be experienced as painful for some and alerting to others). I love the way the candle wax melts into massage oil that can also be used to give massages or dripped on certain erogenous zones to get things heated up. The kit has enough to set up a warm-up scene in which one partner can take control and play out different types of sensations on the other’s body. I like the packaging that is not blasting its contents and the fact that it might be a convenient take-a-long when you go out of town for a night or a vacation. It would have been nice to include something tasty to suck on for those that like oral stimulation and a small thumb drive with music to set the scene.
For those that are into jewelry and having a great vibrator, the gift that is modern, seductive, and handy when out on the town is the Vesper Necklace by Crave. For women who want their empowered sexuality combined with a beautiful necklace, the Vesper is an elegant gift. It comes in 3 finishes; silver, gold and rose gold and has a single small button that offers 4 types of vibrations and is quiet yet powerful. It’s long, sleek cylinder shape looks like something you’d find in an expensive designer shop or a modern museum gift store. It can be used with water based and oil based lubes (but not with silicone lubes) and can easily be washed gently with soap and water. It charges through a USB cable and can be used for both solo and partner play. This is a piece of jewelry that will make you feel full of Sex Esteem® on a date, a night out dancing with your girlfriends or brunch with your bestie. By wearing it you’re reinforcing your own pleasure, power and priorities in taking your desires into your own hands (and around your neck).
Lastly, the latest vibrator created for hands-free stimulation during intercourse or for solo play or for long-distance play (I know you’re thinking what is she talking about? Don’t worry I’ll explain), the We-Vibe Sync is a beautifully shaped U-shaped vibrator that can be used during penetrative sex with a partner. It has one smaller arm for insertion into the vagina to stimulate your G-spot while the second arm has a flat rounded pad at the end that hooks up and rests on the clitoris and vulva area to give you double bang for the buck. Speaking of dollars, this baby will set you back about $199. 95 but may just be the best investment you make in your couple sex life.
In this latest model, the wearable vibrator has a stronger hinge that is able to be used by all types of body to attain a tight fit so that when you switch positions with penetration it doesn’t come popping or slipping out (a huge improvement on the older versions of this toy). It retains the position you set and different pulses can be chosen by pressing one button on top or by using the remote offering you more convenience and fluidity in the movement. The motor is powerful but quiet offering a variety of rumbly kinds of sensation that emanates out from the point at which it sits on your clitoris.
The other super feature is that it connects through an app called We-Connect which allows you to choose music, specific pulses or to have your partner who is out of town on a business trip choose these so you can have hot Facetime sex while physically in two different locations. I see many couples who are separated due to jobs being in different cities, work travel requirements or family emergencies. This app and toy allows for intimacy to continue and keep the ‘glue’ of your sex life to continue in a seriously fun sexy way.
It is rechargeable through a USB cable and the stand has a lovely egg shaped cover that can be left on a night stand and look like an air freshener. Finally, esthetically the design of the vibrator is made of a sleek smooth silicone either in purple and turquoise packaged in a beautiful box with a ribbon on top making it look like a classy candle.
This should be a fun-loving and sex holiday in addition to being one that also celebrates family. Ensure you leave some time for some erotic delight and play this holiday season.
Mandy Len Catron recently published her book: How to fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays, which explored the ingredients of closer intimacy. The book is based on her popular NY Times piece “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This”, where she reenacted the famous social experiment by psychologist Arthur Aron, “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings”, In the original psychological study, pairs of strangers spent 45 mins asking a series of 36 increasingly deep and personal questions in a lab setting. The purpose was to see if a sense of intimacy could be established in a relatively short amount of time. When Mandy Len Catron completed the questionnaire, she ended up forming a romantic relationship with a casual acquaintance.
Why did the 36 questions work so well for Catron personally and for many of the original study’s participants? I commented on this article when it first appeared on CBS This Morning but would like to expand on my observations here. The questionnaire starts off with seemingly innocuous inquiries, for example asking people to describe a perfect day scenario. Soon enough, the tone shifts to asking more serious questions such as best and worst life memories and views about death and mortality. Toward the end of the experiment, people are asked to share what they honestly feel about their partner and what they would like their partner to know if they wish to become close with them. After all the questions are answered, both participants then stare in each other’s eyes for about four minutes in silence. With each question, each participant is slowly becoming more vulnerable, exposing parts of themselves about which they feel embarrassed or anxious. These are aspects of oneself rarely shared with an acquaintance, let alone a complete stranger. As researcher Brene Brown has expressed: “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think”. And for those moments when one is finally truly seen, the desire to merge with them sexually may be activated as a further way to retain this emotional union.
In Catron’s original article she admits she was in a bar and drinking bar while undertaking this experiment. As an aside, many shy or introverted folks commonly use alcohol or recreational drugs as a social lubricant.
Unfortunately it may lead folks to a sense of false intimacy and potentially a consensual sexual experience that both people regret the next day. While I am not writing about non-consensual assault or rape here, I am clarifying that even with consensual sex under slight influence, the element of intimacy can be shrouded or missing.
Why This Works:
There are also some biological reasons as to why the study works in bringing people feeling closer. For example, research has shown that when people speak with direct eye gaze the listener is more likely to trust the speaker compared to a speaker looking elsewhere.
The ancient practice of Tantra includes eye-gazing as a method to encourage more relaxation and connection. Many partners find their breathing becomes aligned when gazing at one another’s eyes. In fact, our first instincts as babies is to look into our caretaker’s (parent’s) face for comfort and this is our way of calming our system and finding confidence in our world.
In a recent study out of the Kinsey Institute, researchers found that “over 50% of respondents ages 18-24 indicated that their most recent sexual partner was a casual or dating partner.” but they also found that “for all other age groups, the majority of study participants indicated that their most recent sexual partner was a relationship partner”. Even more fascinating, “men whose most recent sexual encounter was with a relationship partner reported greater arousal, greater pleasure, fewer problems with erectile function, orgasm, and less pain during the event than men whose last sexual encounter was with a non-relationship partner” . In another study, the researchers stated: “Men and women both were likely to report sexual satisfaction if they also reported frequent kissing and cuddling, sexual caressing by the partner, higher sexual functioning, and if they had sex more frequently.”
And for middle-aged men who reported having had more casual sex partners in their lifetime, they also reported less sexual satisfaction leading one to consider how deeper connections if combined with what I have coined as Sex Esteem® can lead to better discussions on what one desires, how one wants to grow in their sexual connection, and perhaps an emotional comfort that increases frequency.
This data illustrates that for many people, romance combined with sexual intimacy is an important recipe for sexual and relationship satisfaction for men and women (most of this research was based on heterosexual relationships). Does this mean that fulfilling sex cannot or should not occur outside a romantic relationship? Does it tell us that casual dating, sex with outside partners in a non-monogamous lifestyle or friends with benefits will not fulfill a person sexually? My answer is that it reports that for most straight folks, intimacy enhances their sexual pleasure AND that perhaps for some people sex without emotional intimacy is also pleasurable.
The clients we see at Center for Love and Sex range from monogamous couples who are so intimate it restrains their courage to request their desires, or couples who are locked in power struggles, bitter arguing or cold avoidance due to unresolved conflict so their sex life has been put on a shelf. We see people who are working on maintaining trust and intimacy in their primary relationship while openly exploring more sexually oriented partnerships outside the relationship.
Although American media frequently sets up a premise of casual sex as a titillating option in many movies, however the conceit quickly falls apart as the main characters “fall in love” by the end of the story. One can see examples of these situations in films like: Friends with Benefits,No Strings Attached or About Last Night. There is too often a one-size-fits-all script in terms of love and romance in Hollywood in which casual sex is shown to be too frail, less acceptable or not a true goal by the heroine or hero as the case may be. As a sex therapist I help clients discover what level of intimacy they’re looking for whether they’re single, married, or in a long-term relationship (whether it’s monogamous or contracted as non-monogamous). Some people rush into casual sexual agreements so quickly that they don’t spend time anticipating what feelings might get stirred up, or how to set up boundaries so that each partner doesn’t have ulterior or unconscious desires for a more romantic relationship. We use the therapy or coaching sessions to help people make realistic decisions given the type of person they are and what they’re looking for at this time in their lives.
Catron mentions another reason to her experiment’s success, which is the experience of love as an action as opposed to something that merely happens to someone externally . According to her, both she and her partner came to the experiment open and willing to take the steps to meeting someone new and falling in love. In addition, the study itself asked a series of questions that many long-term couples do not routinely ask one another, such as the last time a person cried alone or with another person. These types of questions may be considered too vulnerable even for couples who have been together for years. So I recommend learning to take the leap to connect deeply with vulnerability to someone through practicing vulnerability on a regular basis. Whether they’re your long-term partner, your spouse or someone you’ve recently began to see., the feeling of freedom and connection could be equally important to your emotional bond and increased sexual pleasure.
In this July blog I wanted to focus on the theme of liberty as it relates to a couple’s sexual relationship because as an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Director of Center for Love and Sex, the majority of our clients come to us seeking help in identifying and/or expressing their unique erotic “pursuit of happiness”. According to Merriam Webster’s definition, liberty is alternatively described as
the quality or state of being free:
a : the power to do as one pleases
b : freedom from physical restraint
c : freedom from arbitrary or despotic control
d : the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges
e : the power of choice
When a couple first meets and they seem to click or hit it off they may feel hopeful that they finally found the ‘one’ with whom they can be totally authentic; free of restraints, or arbitrary control, and fantasizing about how they will enjoy one another to the fullest including in their sexual connection. Perhaps after that first date where they make out or the morning after they lay next to one another in the nude, the endless imagined erotic freedoms seem to pop like Independence Day firecrackers during passionate daydreams. The last definition of liberty, namely “the power of choice” is where I find many couples get stuck. What do I mean by this? Once the first couple of years have passed, many couples find that the original sexual fireworks have mellowed to the flickering of candles with an occasional pop of a sparkler or firecracker. At this point, many couples tell us that they have become so close to their partner they feel like they have literally become ‘family’, experiencing the other more like a sibling or best friend. What happened to that erotic thrill they felt when their partner was less known? Why has their erotic connection lost its sizzle?
Once partners become joined, very frequently they may unconsciously regard the other under the same category as a member of their family of origin. What can become triggered are the many restraints one felt growing up in their particular family including restrictions dictated by: religion, community, and their particular culture. Those rules, boundaries and traditions may cause them to erect walls inside their minds leaving them powerless to choose who they want to be in their sex life.
A client at CLS who was engaged to be married was working hard with her sex therapist to recover from the Genito-Pelvic Pain Penetrative Disorder so that she could honestly tell her priest that she would be ready to “perform her wifely duties” once they wed. This priest had not asked about what she looked forward to in her sex life, nor did he ask her fiancé if he was ready to give pleasure to his fiancée once they were wed. The Roman Catholic ideal of wife and husband having intercourse was focused more on procreation than bonding, pleasure and intimacy for both partners.When I use the phrase “who they want to be in their sex lives”, I mean what fantasy they want to enact, what sexual acts they may want to try with their partner(s), and/or what kind of erotic power exchange they may have dreamt of playing in the bedroom. Do they want to be consensually taken, ravaged, or overtaken by their lover? Are they hoping to play out a scene from a movie that turns them on? Do they want to dress in particular clothing that heightens their arousal?
Couples can become what David Schnarch in his respected book Passionate Marriage describes as “emotionally fused” when they fall for one another and the idea of a person making the choice to express a desire that might differ from a partner/spouse’s can lead to their partner expressing ridicule, disdain, disgust or abandonment because it is alien, kinky or frightening. The partner who is hearing the request or fantasy may not even have to say a word but the roll of the eye, or raising of an eye brow may be all it takes to indicate surprise scorn. Like a firecracker going off the partner quickly shuts down further requests of new or different sexual interests for fear of losing their partner, not to mention wanting to avoid feeling put down, rejected or just plain weird.
Recently when I asked a married het couple (I’ll call them Chloe and John to protect their identities) who were having trouble infusing their sex life with more passion and excitement, if they had seen, read or heard something recently that turned them on and kept it to themselves. The wife tentatively began telling me how she and her husband loved to watch Showtime’s series Billions together. When the scene of the lawyer Chuck Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti) is being tied up by his wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) she quietly said that she noticed some tingling in her genitals. Her husband looked at her in surprise in the session as if seeing a new woman emerging. I asked her what happened next with this awareness and she said: I was turned on by the sensation and the scene but didn’t think I could share this with John, he would think it was weird.
So what happened in your body after you edited yourself, I asked. She looked down and said, the sensation went away and we continued to watch the show. I reflected that she had chosen to let the feeling go because she didn’t feel permitted to include what she considered transgressive turn-ons with John. Then I checked in with him and wondered what was going on in his body and mind when he heard this sitting next to her and he said: I was getting a bit turned on hearing her describe the scene, and felt surprised that she didn’t share it with me since I never knew she was into that. In fact, I was turned on watching the scene myself at the time but chose to keep it to myself to protect Chloe from my dirty mind. Each of these partners has remained behind their wall of excitement and passion for fear of how their partner might judge them negatively.
I helped them to anchor their physical experiences so that they don’t run off into analytic explanations and remain true in the session that is free of judgment and shame, so that they stay present with their authentic selves in the presence of their partner who is equally as vulnerable. In various ways with clients, I ask them these questions:
What aspects of ourselves do we choose to keep hidden or private from our partner?
What could shift in an erotic partnership if we choose to become more vulnerable, playful and curious with ourselves and one another?
These are the questions that have been continually asked by artists, scientists and creative thinkers for generations. My colleague Esther Perel asks in her latest Podcast, Where Should We Begin?, how can you want what you already have? The teacher and writer Alton Wasson offers participants of his Contemplative Dance workshops the metaphor of moving and witnessing the mover as an experience akin to a “chest of drawers”. Similar to partnered sex in which one partner is engaged in and witnessing/experiencing a partner, the choice to open a drawer to experience an aspect of ourselves and our partners happens only when there is “freedom from arbitrary or despotic control” (Declaration of Independence), meaning free of limits set by an external power. In this case it could mean external societal values, misunderstandings/myths of meaning when it comes to one’s fantasies, or limits placed on gender roles.
Myths or misunderstandings about sex, fantasy and erotic desire begins with a child’s learning from their family, religion and schooling about sexuality. Unfortunately, due to limited subjects being allowed in schools due to Abstinence Only education in the US, and heteronormative focus of sex education, people grow up with the kind of limited information that inhibits them around speaking of their sexual desires with a partner. They may have learned about STIs (formerly known as STDs), or protection like condoms, oral contraceptives and the IUD (why oh why are doctors not telling folks about the female condom, stay tuned for an upcoming blog on this topic!). Many people also believe that their partners should be able to read their mind and automatically know what turns them on. I can say from my clinical experience that it is almost impossible for people to be mind readers and know exactly what turns their partners on sexually without active and open communication.
According to relationship therapy research conducted over many years by John Gottman, open and continual communications are the building blocks of a satisfying relationship). There is often a misperception that too much communication and frankness about sexuality in a relationship may lead to the end of relationship; however, couples who are emotionally and verbally expressive (whether strongly or even in moderation) tend to have long and satisfying relationships. In other words, it is important that partners in a relationship be comfortable expressing themselves in constructive forms of communication. Since partners don’t get this training early on, nor is it modeled for them, they are lost in the woods and revert to silence and emotional shutdown on this critical aspect of their lives. After the early novelty wears off, a couple need more nuanced language to describe what they desire. Couples come to us months and sometimes years into a relationship that has been reduced to a tapering spark.
My mission in creating CLS and the Sex Esteem® model is to provide people the education, the confidence and the curiosity to become more aware of their erotic triggers, their sexual fantasies, and explore the play space of their sexuality with their consciously chosen partners. My background in modern dance and improvisation taught me from a very young age that exploration is fun, that there are no wrong movements (as long as all around you are safe and consensually there) and that you can create
from nothing an experience that is new, unique and fortifying when you are fully free.
Being able to constructively communicate sexual desires to a partner/spouse is not only freeing and gratifying for oneself and one’s partner(s), but the freeing nature of co-creating an experience serves as a bridge to a more intimate, authentic relationship. The rocket needs to be ignited again and again by each person to produce a sustaining spark of passion. And as the Declaration of Independence states “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Be mindful of your erotic liberty and honor your intentional choices this July to enhance your sex life.
Given that it’s June and peak wedding season begins this month, I invited my associate Lauren to contribute a blog about the erectile issues that might cause havoc as a straight or gay couple ready themselves to walk down the aisle.
With the peak of wedding season approaching for the spring and summer, heterosexual and homosexual couples that are getting ready to tie the knot may begin reflecting more on their relationship and their issues within it. Some feel like it’s crunch time and instead of avoiding these concerns, couples might want to finally tackle them before taking on married life. Sexual issues such as erectile dysfunction (ED), which is the difficulty to attain or maintain an erection or remain firm enough for penetration can frequently be put off by a couple and/or a groom because it is a vulnerable and sensitive subject for most partners to address. This procrastination can also lead to avoidance of intimacy in general, which is not a beneficial way to begin a marriage.
What I have found in my clinical work providing sex therapy at Center for Love and Sex is that ED is a common presenting problem for younger men as well as older men. Research has shown that 26 percent of men 40 years of age and younger are effected by ED, with half of them having severe ED. Given that men are getting married at older ages, the fact that a quarter of these men (and their partners) may be secretly suffering from ED is a concern and one that we see frequently as couples are in the throes of planning their weddings. Men are also well known avoiders of getting an annual physical. As part of the CLS model we ask our patients to get a physical, as medical conditions can be a factor in the persistence of ED. The following medical conditions have been associated with ED: high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, side effects from medication, and treatment of prostate cancer.
The young men I see coming in struggling with ED usually discuss performance anxiety, low self-esteem, relationship problems, anxiety, depression, stress, guilt, fear of intimacy, difficulty transitioning between porn and masturbation to partnered sexual experiences, as well as excessive alcohol intake. Other contributing factors may include questioning their sexuality, having had a negative sexual experience, childhood trauma or worry over the lack of control they feel with their climax. It has been shown that ED and PE (premature or rapid ejaculation) often are presented together and that “ED is increasingly being recognized as the single greatest risk factor for PE”
Many young men who come in for help at Center for Love and Sex report that when they first begin talking about the problem, they feel vulnerable and at times worried about what their partner thinks of them, they feel a lower self-esteem. However once I let them know these are common feelings that most men have when confronted with ED and that I will guide them slowly on how to address the issue, they begin to open up about the consequences this issue has had on their relationship. Having sessions with both partners is critical to allow for the partner w/o ED to express their own concern, ask for guidance from the therapist and offer support to their fiance.
Helping a client track their thought patterns during the sexual scenario with their partner can be extremely helpful. Here are some thoughts that frequently occur before or during a sexual experience: “I’m not a man if I cannot get an erection,” “I am disappointing my partner because I cannot give them pleasure,” “this is all my fault that our sex life isn’t good,” or “my partner must want someone else because I cannot get an erection.” It is also common in gay relationships for the partner who identifies as the top to have more pressure to obtain and maintain an erection more than the partner who identifies as the bottom. The anticipatory anxiety (the anxiety leading up to an event) can be just as stressful as the anxiety a man experiences during a sexual experience because it is setting oneself up for failure before anything even happens.
American society in general contributes to many of these negative thinking habits. For most straight teenagers and more recently gay young adults the dream of your wedding night, honeymoon, and marriage is presented like a Hollywood movie, complete with endless love making, excitement and passion. There is a lot of pressure on getting every detail down for the ceremony, ensuring your relatives get along, making sure the first dance goes off without a hitch that thinking about the penis responding properly can be overwhelming. Given that many young men are now growing up with porn available at any time, comparing oneself to the exaggerated bodies and pharmaceutically assisted behavior of porn actors can only offer more heartache since one can never live up to one’s own and one’s partner’s expectations. In films and porn men are presented as totally in control, exuding confidence and pleasuring their partner, at times for extended periods of time.
When you come into Center for Love and Sex, ED will be initially be addressed with both members of the couple if this is possible. This is important because sometimes there is unresolved anger or conflict, and difficulty in communication that could also being playing a role in sustaining the problem. It is also important to realize what effect each person has on what is going on in the couple’s system. ED can be the symptom that hides or exacerbates other behaviors, such as the non-symptomatic partner rushing to orgasm very quickly before their partner’s erection is lost. Therefore, not only does this put pressure on the man with ED, it also puts pressure on the partner to rush through their pleasure.
Lastly, ED could also be masking a lack of sexual desire that one of the partner’s may have, so the man expressing the erectile issues may be in fact reacting to insecurities he feels around his partner’s lack of sexual desire towards him. In order to address these issues, we would discuss and evaluate the feelings each person has around ED, how they feel about their sex life as a whole, and help each partner understand the relationship between their anxiety and the symptom of ED. It is easy to forget that the partner usually also exhibits anxiety during sexual experiences wondering if things will work out this time or thinking about how the partner with ED is feeling. So the couple must become more mindful of the pleasure of the sexual feelings, instead of putting themselves in a negative thinking pattern which diverts their focus away from the sexual arousal. In addition to that, it is important that when given home exercises to practice between sessions, they do it together in a non-judgmental, relaxed atmosphere where the couple learn to be better intimate partners and use the home exercises to increase pleasure and decrease anxiety as a team. So CLS and I invite you to a place of better understanding, more intimacy, and better communication that can help you not only on your honeymoon but for years to come.
As Director of Center for Love and Sex, I am frequently helping Millennial’s with their dating and romantic relationships. I was excited to interview Lisa Wade, author of the most recent book titled: American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus to discuss hookups and how this college culture affects millennials’ in their post-graduation romantic and sexual relationships.
I wanted to hear more about her research regarding the state of hookups on campus and she was curious to hear about the issues that millennials are grappling with once they get out into the working world and begin to date. What does dating look like, is it similar to generations before them, how are they approaching emotional relationships? Do they continue the pattern of hooking up? How do apps and dating sites affect their dating habits and are they able to integrate emotional, psychological desires with their sexual and/or erotic needs?
The interview begins with my questions for Lisa and her responses and then concludes with her questions and my answers.
Sari Cooper interviews Lisa Wade
Given that hookups have been criticized in the larger American culture and media for some time now, I thought I would begin our conversation on a constructive thread. What have you found are positive emotional. psychological and physical outcomes/by products reported by young adults engaging in hookups during their college years?
Most students arrive on campus eager to experiment with casual sexual contact, even if just a little. They see sexual activity as a natural part of being human, are increasingly tolerant of a wide range of sexual orientations, and largely reject the idea that it’s okay to judge sexually active women more harshly than men. Thanks to the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation, the stigma of sexual activity has largely lifted.
In that environment, many young people enjoy “first times” — first kisses, first blow jobs, first one night stands — and honing new sexual skills. Many find it exciting to be participating in a part of life that is new to them (puberty was just a few years ago and 50% are virgins when they arrive on campus). It’s pleasurable to indulge one’s desires, to do new things, and to improve, no less with sex than with anything else in life.
Hookups offer these things to young people and, for a nontrivial minority of students, hookups are everything they want. For up to a quarter of students, hookups are incredibly gratifying. Research shows that students who claim to thrive in hookup culture really do: the more they hookup, the higher their self-esteem and sense of well-being.
What intersectionalities did you find in your research regarding status in terms of desirability with racial, gender and LGBTQ culture? When research is done is it mostly skewed towards white, cisgender heterosexual sexual behaviors?
Students of color, women, and non-heterosexual students report more dissatisfaction with hookup culture and hooking up less than their counterparts, as do students who grew up poor or working-class. Non-heterosexual students often find that hookup culture is indifferent or hostile to their sexualities, so some avoid the hyper-heterosexualized spaces of hookup culture. LGBTQ students, especially if they are men, are much more likely to seek hookups off-campus.
Students of color simultaneously face a white supremacist standard of attractiveness and the possibility of being eroticized as “exotic.” This tends to play out differently for different kinds of students. Black men and Asian women are often fetishized, while black women and Asian men are often actively avoided. On average, then, white students hookup more than nonwhite students.
The other thing that I have found interesting in my work with clients is the vague aspect of the term hookup. How did your research subjects define hookups? And what behaviors were more frequently engaged in during hookups on campus?
Students generally agree that any sexually charged activity can count as a hookup, so long as there is no expectation of future sexual or romantic interaction. In practice, 40% of hookups include intercourse, 12% include only what we might call foreplay (nudity and some touching of genitals), 13% proceed to oral sex but don’t include intercourse, and 35% don’t go any farther than kissing and groping.
What were the most common emotions young people stated they experienced during and after a hookup?
Two psychologists -– Elizabeth Paul and Kristen Hayes -– asked students what emotions they thought their peers felt when they were in the midst of a typical hookup. Their respondents listed emotions as wide-ranging as excitement, embarrassment, regret, fear, anxiety, confusion, and pride, but the most common answer—mentioned by two-thirds of their sample—was lust. The next most common answer, though, wasn’t any of the other emotions listed, it was “nothing,” the absence of emotion. So, students tend to believe that their peers are feeling turned on, but not much else.
Of course, in practice students are experiencing all kinds of emotions — positive and negative, strong and weak, wanted and unwanted — but when they do they often feel bad about it. Believing that their peers are much better at having “emotionless sex,” they feel like they are failing at hookup culture.
What percentage of your study opted out of hookups entirely? Did you have numbers on whether these young people remained celibate, and/or chose to be in longer-term relationships that involved emotions?
A third of students opt out, reporting zero hookups at graduation, but many of these students don’t end up in relationships instead. On college campuses today, most relationships form out of a series of hookups. Students hook up together once, then twice and then three times, and eventually they start breaking the rules of hookup culture (they begin to like each other and say so). At that point, students will often go on dates and consider beginning an emotionally committed relationship. For students who aren’t willing to hook up, this can’t happen, so relationships can be elusive.
Lastly, what percentage of those that participated in hook-ups reported being in the following states:
had had some alcohol,
had had no/minimal alcohol
Most students are at least a little bit drunk when they hook up because inebriation is a primary way that they signal to one another that what they are doing is meaningless. Being drunk is a sign that they are being careless, both about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. Sober sex, in contrast, is heavily weighted with meaning. As one of my students explained: “[If you are sober] it means you both are particularly attracted to each other and it’s not really a one-time thing. When drunk, you can kind of just do it because it’s fun and then be able to laugh about it and have it not be awkward or not mean anything. Many of my sexually active students, then, had actually never had sex sober.
Lisa Wade interviews Sari Cooper
Many parents are worried that their children no longer value emotional closeness, committed relationships, or building a family life. Should they be worried that they’ll children will choose never to marry or have children?
This is a many-layered question. I actually think once young adults are out in the working world for a few years, some of these millennials are yearning for a close intimate relationship because they see how much they need the comfort and consistency of an ongoing partner. In my practice Center for Love and Sex, we see people in their mid to late twenties and early thirties who are either seeking a meaningful, emotionally close relationship or those that are already in a committed relationship but need help. But the meaning of commitment to this age group may look similar or different to their parents. In other words, some couples are committed to one another as primary bond partners but choose to have a non-monogamous agreement, or decide not to marry or decide to marry but live in different cities while building their careers.
I think parents need to ask themselves what value they place on their children having children, is it a desire to be a grandparent and have that experience, or is it that they think it’s the religiously, or traditionally correct thing to do? I have found couples who have discussed their desire to have children before getting married while also working with couples who are figuring out what neighborhood to live in together without discussing
a) what moving in together means in terms of their commitment to the relationship, or one another or
b) seriously whether each person is aligned with the other around having children in their future.
Lastly, I think many of the college-educated millennials I see in my practice are so focused on their careers that having children may be put on the back burner. These are the couples I see later on in their life when they have trouble with fertility and going through infertility treatments, or have children one right after the other and are struck by the huge toll raising small children while keeping up with both of their demanding jobs has on their romantic and sexual connection.
What kind of sexual culture are young people out of college encountering? Is the hookup script still powerful? Is the dating script? Is monogamy still the assumed frame for emotional commitment? Or have polyamory and open relationships gone mainstream?
For those millennials who have gone to college, the first few years on their own may still include hook-ups or casual dating as they are spending more time on establishing themselves professionally and/or living on a modest salary with their parents or roommates. However, the dating is pretty commitment-free and at times frustrating for those looking for a relationship since much of the app-driven “dating” is texting with someone for weeks on end before actually meeting. Some reasons might be that the texting over weeks provides a person with the banter or insight as to whether they actually want to devote time to an actual date (the equivalent of talking to someone at a bar or party for a while before asking or getting asked for a phone number). However, either while this chat-texting is going on the person may “ghost” you, that is, they may just stop texting back. While this no-show experience would happen in the pre-cell phone days, the “ghosting” may also occur after people have dated a few times, perhaps hooked up or even had intercourse together. The person being ghosted becomes more and more skeptical of what real attachment can really be gained from their next “match”.
I find that people don’t begin dating seriously till their later twenties. Monogamy is still the assumed frame of emotional commitment once the couple has had “the exclusion talk”. However the millennial cohort seems more open to talk about having alternative arrangements monogamy-wise. Navigating this agreement is a presenting issue with which couples come in to CLS to get help negotiating since they recognize it can bring up jealousy and are not sure how to establish boundaries that will work for both partners. While I don’t think it has gone mainstream, I do think that traditional agreements are being questioned.
Students say that the skills and strategies for negotiating hookup culture are essentially the opposite of the skills and strategies they need for negotiating committed relationships. After graduation, when students seek out more meaningful relationships, do you find that they struggle with emotional openness, closeness, and risk-taking?
I find the skills needed to develop relationships in the early stages are a bit different than the ones later on so I’ll answer these questions separately. I think because so much time in college is spent either opting out of the hook-up culture or participating in it usually under the influence of alcohol, emotional vulnerability with someone to whom you are also erotically attracted hardly ever occurs. However college students usually develop close platonic friendships.
Some of these friendships can even develop into love relationships later on. However, they may never have been erotically attached to these partners. So some of these young adults may know how to be good partners, considerate roommates, and love one another but there is very little sexual fizz in that occurs. These couples come in as they’re about to become engaged, get married or decide to have a baby. They are what I call companionate couples and they are open about most everything except their sexual desires and so they are not having much if any sexual contact at all.
Since they haven’t had a lot of practice negotiating compromise over long periods of time, if someone does meet someone with whom they have sexual chemistry, they don’t know how to manage day-to-day conflicts like:
Can you shower before you come on to me?
Do you expect me to walk the dog every day you’re off on this bachelorette trip?
Why are you not saving more money?
If they haven’t developed constructive communication skills, these conflicts can head south quickly and then they may look at their partner and wonder where did my erotic attraction for them go? They may get scared and end the relationship before understanding that to get back into their erotic groove requires patience, openness to listen and practice empathy to come to a connection again. Hookups don’t help in the sustaining enough patience to feel like you’re going to come through it to the other side and find your partner attractive again.
If they do, is this something to be overly concerned about? Do they learn these skills effectively despite their experience (or lack of experience) in hookup culture? Or are they inhibited from doing so in a way that they wouldn’t have been had they not adapted to this new college context?
I would say that they’re just starting later and need more practice at the integration of emotional intimacy and sexual connection since they have begun later. For a portion of these millennials, their life online has become more primary to their face-to-face relationships or dates. Whether it’s swiping right or left as a self-esteem sport to see how many matches one gets, or masturbating to porn which doesn’t require expertise, courage to make mistakes or consideration of a partner’s needs/feelings, some young adults prefer to remain on their own as a protective expression against vulnerability, performance anxiety or rejection.
Do students in committed relationships struggle specifically with sexual intimacy? Some of my students worried that the imperative to make sex “meaningless” would later interfere with their ability to experience it as “meaningful.” Acts of tenderness — like cuddling, prolonged eye contact, and gentle kisses — are off script in hookup culture; many of my students had never experienced those things, despite being sexually active. Is it challenging for them to learn how to incorporate tenderness into their sexualities?
This is a good question. I should preface the answer that sexual intimacy is like beauty, it’s in the eye and body of each individual. I think that acts of tenderness can be challenging for some, especially if you’ve spent years compartmentalizing your emotions from your sexual practices. After the novelty of a relationship dies down, a couple really does need to dig deeper to find out what kinds of sexual activity they like and how they become able to enter the erotic zone. One can’t rely only on intrinsic horniness because for many reasons (stress at work, lack of sleep, hormone changes) this may not be as regularly available. So learning to practice intimacy (which is unique to each person) and relaxation as an entryway into erotic connection are skills that people can learn. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable at first (remember the first time you French-kissed?), but with practice incorporating emotional intimacy (which may or may not include some of the acts you described) into sexual connection can gradually feel more syntonic.
What is some of the most important advice that young people need to hear? If you could get a message to each and every young person transitioning out of college, what would it be?
I would say to the millennials to educate yourself about your erotic triggers to increase your Sex Esteem®. This education can be gleaned from this blog and the following sites: my webshow Sex Esteem® with Sari Cooper, Columbia University’s site Go Ask Alice and the vast list of sites on Dartmouth University’s site, Gay Men’s Good Sex Guide, and the following books: Guide to Getting it On, Sex For One, She Comes First, The New Male Sexuality, Come as You Are, and SexSmart.