Tag Archives: couples

Embrace Sexual Liberty This July After the Fireworks

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.  couple in loveThe 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.couple marryied by Catholic priestWhen 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. Billions couple enact a BDSM sex sceneWhen 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. lesbian couple expressing sexual passion  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.

 

 

Painful Sex: Best Therapy Practices for Women and Couples

Women who experience painful penetrative sex due to Provoked Vestibulodynia (PVD), Vulvodynia  and other forms of Pelvic Pain may have suffered in silence for years. They may have thought that the pain was due to being new to intercourse and that it would subside. Or perhaps they may have mentioned it to a gynecologist, only to be told that there was no evidence of any diagnosis, or that they had a bacterial infection and prescribed a medication that didn’t help. For some women who had painful sex that was intolerable, they may have avoided going to a gynecologist for their entire adult life.

Women we see at Center for Love and Sex who are in heterosexual relationships where penetrative sex is an expected part of the sexual repertoire over time develop tremendous shame, anxiety and fear of any sexual encounter if they feel it will lead to intercourse. Their partners may gradually avoid initiating sex due to the obvious reason of not wanting to cause their partner/spouse pain but in addition, of wanting to avoid being turned down which they experience as outright rejection, lack of desirability and at times shame.

As a consequence to the painful sex, some male partners/husbands may develop their own sexual disorder like erectile dysfunction or premature/uncontrolled ejaculation due to the anxiety that develops around their penetration hurting their partner. Couples like this tend to self refer to a CLS therapists when sexual avoidance has gone on for some time and couple is in crisis or fear of losing their sex life altogether. The physical ailment causes intra-personal and interpersonal challenges that have to be addressed in therapy. Many times these women can treat and heal their pain when working with a pelvic pain physical therapist.

When I mention pelvic floor physical therapists to friends and even other therapists, they have never heard that this specialty even exists.  As a systemic sex therapist, I frequently see women and couples who present with painful sex and collaborate with pelvic floor PTs to coordinate treatment in a holistic manner. I have had general therapists refer some of these cases to me after seeing clients for many months or years assuming the pain was a somatic outcome of early trauma.

It is critical for all therapists to understand the structure of the pelvis and causes of pain so that they know how to support, advocate and refer their client to the right doctors and pelvic floor PTs so that they can move ahead quickly with a treatment protocol that addresses their particular issue. It is also important for pelvic floor PTs to understand the consequences the pain has had on the client’s primary relationships, her Sex Esteem®, and shame level around discussing the specifics of her condition so that they can collaborate with the therapist. I will often assign homework assignments that will echo or support the exercises being assigned by the pelvic floor physical therapist.

Amy Stein Co Presenter

In my upcoming webinar for therapists, sex therapists and physical therapists titled The Collaborative Clinical Care Model Between Therapists and Pelvic Floor Physical Therapists Involving Sexual Pain, I’ll be collaborating with Amy Stein, DPT Founder and Director of Beyond Basics, a specialty PT practice in NYC and the author of Heal Pelvic Pain, a self-help book for people dealing with painful sex, urination and other physical activities involving the pelvis. I invite you to spread the word about the webinar which will be live and take place on Monday February 6th from 12:30-2:30 PM EST and is geared for professionals.

For those of you reading this who suffer from any sort of pain during sexual activity, I invite you to contact my practice, Center for Love and Sex via email sari@saricooper.com or coordinator@saricooper.com to discuss your situation and set up an appointment for an in person session or a coaching session if you’re outside of the NYC region.

Feel Too Awkward to Tell Your Tinder Dating Story? You Could Use some Sex Esteem®

It’s wedding season, and I felt fortunate to attend a wedding of a man and woman who had met on Tinder. Each person that got up to make a speech at the rehearsal dinner and at the wedding mentioned this detail in their toast to the bride and groom. It made me feel surprised and yet rejoiced that this particular couple felt no embarrassment nor any discomfort that they had met up (a few years back now) on what was then known as more of a hook-up app. They did not feel repentant, naughty or shady about their initial desire to meet someone for some playful fun.

However as a sex therapist, I treat single people who are dating, newish couples and long-term committed couples, and several clients have discussed their feeling awkward when their friends or family ask how they met their new significant other. Does it seem better at that very minute to conjure up a romantic or at the very least a quirky, serendipitous story rather than admitting that you matched with a click or a swipe?
Not only have over 15% of US adults used online dating sites or dating apps, but the numbers of users and success stories increases each year for all ages.

Girl texting on the phone in a restaurantSince 2013, the number of 18 to 24 year olds on these sites has almost tripled, while it has doubled for Americans between 55 and 64 . So, if meeting online is so common these days, why can it sometimes be uncomfortable for some people to admit how they met?

The media in our culture still encourages fairy tale romances, seen in so many romcoms or series in which a young man sweeps a young woman off her feet, or a woman just has to look at another woman at a party and they fall in love (or lust as the case may be) instantly. In a show like Transparent, or Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce , two characters make eye contact from across the room and know they have to have each other . But we know that this isn’t the only way people meet. Perhaps swiping right or clicking ‘like’ is’ the new fairytale romance that we are just waiting to see in movies and television. When over one third of singles have used a website or app to meet others, it is time to rethink our idea of romantic introductions

Despite online dating’s popularity, there is some stigma around it. A recent study found that 23% of adults agree that “people who use online dating sites are desperate” . Although this percentage has decreased since 2005, ideas like this are discouraging for those who already fear the judgement from others as they reveal their true story of how they met.Male and female legs during a date As a therapist who often sees single clients who are dating, I often hear people express embarrassment when they start seeing someone and their parents or friends start asking more questions about where they met. The exception to this pattern are gay couples who are more comfortable with meeting men on apps like Grindr for a hookup which may or may not lead to a relationship.

When I inquire further, I discover they think people will think the relationship is not a “real” one and that it doesn’t have much hope for a long-term union because it started online. There is also the belief that others will judge them for shopping for hookups and trying to dress it up as a “date” when they’re speaking of it. People often believe that they should be embarrassed about having some relationships which are more about a sexual connection than an emotional/romantic union. These thoughts and feelings reflect more on American society, and religious/cultural beliefs than it does about human sexuality and the interest people have to have casual sex without a monogamous contract. If the understanding is clear and transparent, and both parties are sober and consensual and hopefully have discussed safer sex precautions, it is their prerogative on how they meet and connect with a partner.

Online dating app conceptHowever, when a couple meet on an app and then have the relationship develop into a long-term committed relationship, I encourage them to accept the relationship’s origin with pride and encourage them to explore more deeply the reasons behind their reluctance to share including internalized shame, anxiety of being shunned or criticized and the worry their relationship will not be respected.

I let them know that over 54 million people are utilizing sites like Match.com, EHarmony, and apps like Hinge and Bumble, and that many other like them are sharing their modern day love stories. In so doing they are changing the way the public may see the ‘hookup’ apps such as Tinder and like my friends who married earlier this summer,  beginning to embrace the potential beauty and power of online dating.

A recent heterosexual couple who came in to address their flagging sex life told me: “Her parents would die if they knew she found me on Tinder” and “ My parents won’t take our engagement seriously if they knew how we met and they’re helping to pay for the wedding”. If you are nervous to answer when someone asks you how you met, I am empathic since you are part of a generation of innovators who still have to explain Instagram and Snapchat to your parents. My advice to you is to use your Sex Esteem®, which is the combination of Couple in love kissing laughing having funCuriosity+Confidence+Clarity+Communication+Creativity.  I explored the idea of their shame in sharing their story is partly the same shame that was contributing to the less frequent sex in their relationship.

In addition to therapy, my practice provides Sex Esteem® classes and coaching which empowers people to tell others about the origins of their relationship without fear or shame. (There are some cultures in which the knowledge pre-marital and/or gay sex could have grave consequences so I help clients make well-thought out decisions when it comes to sharing this information). They also empower people to articulate the sex they desire from their partner in clear, calm way that allows for a partner to hear without defensiveness or hurt.

BLD022897 If you tell a listener in a confident and authentic manner what allowed the two of you to become more serious after initially being attracted to their physical appearance it is not different than your relative seeing a person they were attracted to at a disco or at a friend’s party. Relating it to situations of their generation that may have seemed illicit or less “serious” by their parents allows them to identify with the erotic and emotional feelings that are centuries old. Rather than focusing on the fact that you met online, tell a story about the moment you knew this connection had legs to become a committed relationship.

Man on smart phone - young business man in airportThe focus does not have to be about your online profile or how many people you swiped through to find her (unless you want it to be!). Instead, talk about the first time you laughed together, the reason why you were embarrassingly late to dinner, or how you hit it off when you both ordered the salad without the olives.

I invite you to become empowered. You met online because you took the initiative to find someone right for you who has similar interests, passions, and hobbies. You knew what you wanted in someone, and you went out and found the right person. Who says you have to wait for destiny? You found them. Own and celebrate your Sex Esteem®!