We have just celebrated another July 4th which marks this country’s liberty from the restraints of despotism. When the fireworks went off we honored the declaration of independence that promised Americans “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” How do these rights influence your sexual life? Many in Washington seem to be challenging the meaning of these ideals in as far as sexual liberty goes, including the right for a woman to choose whether she has an abortion, the right for a transgender student to use a bathroom that aligns with their identity, and the question of whether a business owner’s claims of religious freedom override the discrimination wrought when they refuse to sell their products based on the customers’ sexual orientation.
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.