Sunday, February 28, 2010

Today's Menu: Lack of Sexual Desire or Limited Sexual Choices

Questions about the lack of sexual desire have been around since the days of Sigmund Freud. Freud was interested in trying to figure out why women seemed to have a lack of desire and what buttons needed to be pushed in order for her to become aroused. It is not hard to understand given the context of the Patriarchal society that Freud was immersed in to quickly realize why it was considered “a women’s problem” because everyone knew that men ‘never’ had a problem with desire…hmm, really??? In fact, I think that if there were assertive research conducted today in the realm of low sexual desire that we would most likely learn that it is not tied to any one specific gender but affects the entire population. I think we have been trying for too many years to scientifically explain a way to base it upon some complicated set of biological factors and functioning when maybe all we need is to give it a fresh perspective.
Let’s take a look at the model that pathologizes low sexual desire. Low sexual desire emerges when one looks at human sexuality from an orgasm based foundation. In other words, sex has its roots in reproduction where an erection is a necessary component along with orgasm, which at one point the privilege of achieving such belonged solely to the male partner. Somewhere along the timeline, the female was acknowledged of being capable of having an orgasm but again only after the male had prescribed exactly when and where it was to take place – that is during intercourse, while the penis was in the vagina. Of course, women were made to feel inadequate or abnormal if she could not perform to the male’s unrealistic demands and expectations. Unfortunately, some still believe in this anatomical challenging proposition and believe they must conform or there is something wrong with them that requires a visit to a medical professional and/or sex therapist. Be that as it may, the purpose of this writing is to challenge the old model and put it into a perspective that we all can relate to and understand.
So in English, the old model that we are all supposed to fit into and become aroused in deals with what I call meat and potatoes sex and this I believe is where the real problem lies. In fact, I would argue that there is no such thing as low sexual desire or inhibited sexual desire when viewed in this context. Let me explain what I mean by way of an analogy. In the many ways we refer to sex in our daily dealings, the one that resonates for most people has to do with appetite – i.e. sexual appetite. So, let us compare and contrast sexual appetite with what is known to every human being and that is one’s appetite for food. Very simply put, if we look at how most people satisfy their sexual appetite it reads like we are going to dine in, with leftovers and someone else is responsible for cooking the meal and better like what is being served. How much desire do you think you would have if you had to eat the same reheated leftovers night after night. I think most of us would get pretty darned bored and lose our desire completely, only wanting to eat now and then if we were really hungry.
However, what if we approached our sexual appetite in the same or similar fashion that we satiate our hunger? At the very beginning, most people feel comfortable asking their partner what food they are in the mood for? From there, most people find more pleasure in sharing a meal with a loved one and even more when there is stimulating conversation. Additionally, we all have a basic language for communicating our needs for food. We for the most part easily and openly talk about food, while we are lucky if we can even hint at sex. So why are we able to maintain a lifelong desire for food? – it is easy – because we do not offer only one meal choice and we constantly are trying new flavors, combining tastes, experimenting with new recipes, etc.
Ways to satiate sexual appetite fail in comparison to the way we satisfy our appetite for food. We offer a limited variety sexually but a vast array for hungry appetites. The question we all ask ourselves at one point or another in our lives is – What’s on the menu? And the answers we afford go something like this:
• Fine dining
• Formal, informal
• Dining in or out
• Fast food
• Leftovers
• Take out
• Pizza
• Chinese
• Italian
• Spicy and hot
• Mild and bland
• Breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner
• Late night snack
• Appetizers
• Fried foods
• Baked goods
• Desserts
• Exotic, forbidden fruits
• Culinary delights
• Cold, hot, smooth, crunchy

When contrasted to the sexual menu the list is considerably much shorter for most, possibly only one line item. It seems we have driven sexual desire out of our relationships by limiting our choices sexually. Is it any wonder desire is absent when we continually try to satiate the appetite with only one menu and in many cases one menu item? I don’t know about you but the idea of coming home every night to the same reheated leftover meat and potatoes, all but eliminates any desire I may have felt.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Decoding the Psychology of Your Sexuality

So how does one go about understanding the psychology of their sexuality? As a therapist, based on my education, training and experience I have typically looked to a client’s biological parents to inform me about their relational patterns. Like it or not, Moms and Dads have a tremendous and life-long influence and impact on how we relate to one another. So what and how have our parents contributed to our sexuality? Well for most and appropriately so, not many of us even suspected our parents of ever having sex. Our parents kept it private and secret, which is where many of us are with sex as well. If your parents were uncomfortable discussing sex, then maybe you are too When you think back to when you were an adolescent, what kind of sex messages do you remember receiving – were they positive, negative or neutral? Again this would reflect your parent’s attitude toward sex, which you now may have adopted. Again reflecting on your parent’s relationship, what do you remember about how affection was shown – comfortable (or not), forthcoming, withheld, unconditional, forced, absent, unwanted?
Another issue that would significantly impact our psychology would be how nudity and body issues were handled. In some homes nudity was encouraged and embraced in healthy appropriate ways where there were no restrictions placed on the child to ‘hide her/himself’ from others, while I think most were encouraged and in extreme cases forbidden to allow oneself to be exposed for the gaze of others. How do you remember your parents dealing with their own nudity and body issues? Did your parents keep behind closed doors while dressing? At what age were you no longer allowed to accompany them while s/he changed? When you think about that message alone, it can certainly help form our attitudes that eventually morph into beliefs that we hold onto and enforce into our current way of being with self and others. The BSPI© ( asked the question whether one preferred the lights on or off during sexual activity. The results were that 75% of all the men sampled and 37% of the women preferred the lights on. So if we look into the psychology of men along side women, the findings suggest reinforcement of a Western cultural norm that men prefer to be visual. How much of that is the way in which we condition boys/men to be? Does that mean we condition our daughters differently? It would certainly appear so, but there are other implications that surround this question and one such is around body image. Some people that I have discussed the results of their survey with have indicated that a strong reason for answering ‘lights off’ deals with body image issues and particularly when they involve another person and the fear of being judged. Again, I think culture plays a tremendous role in our reinforcing what the “acceptable body image” should be. If you look at the focal points of many advertisements, you will be hard pressed to find anything that is not young, fit, and thin as though they are the only people engaging in sexual activity. Even though one would think that body image is a visual thing, it really comes down to how one is conditioned cognitively to be able to accept or reject oneself.
This leads into gender issues, how we treat boys/girls and the expectations we have for them. As a sex therapist, I have yet to encounter a male who has not masturbated…while that appears to be the norm for boys, the same does not hold true for girls. The BSPI asked how one responds to their own sexual arousal through masturbation or through activity with a sexual partner, the results – 3 out of 5 men prefer to go it alone while the women were almost even choosing between the two options. I find this result particularly interesting given the nature of my work. I have seen many men “coerced” into therapy by their wives who “caught them” masturbating to pornographic images. In some relationships, it is expected that the partner will give up a life long pattern of masturbating and fantasizing to devote any and all sexual energy to the other. Personally, I have a huge problem with this, especially given the way in which sexuality has been discussed, promoted, and supported. There appears to be some serious mixed messaging going on in that we do not object to using sex to sell/promote just about everything until it crosses the thresholds of our relationships. It is totally unrealistic to think that someone who has self-pleasured a good portion of his/her life is going to stop once they are in a committed relationship, it is like expecting someone to never eat alone because they now have a partner to share meals with but yet these unrealistic demands persist. This is one reason why it is so important to have an open dialogue around our sexuality at the start of any new committed relationship and continue it throughout.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

History: Even a Sexual One Has a Way of Repeating Itself…

I remember back to a sunny Saturday May morning in 2007 when I was listening to a member of the graduating class of the Liberal Arts University I attended deliver her commencement address. This wonderful young lady gave such a moving and memorable speech. The part that stood out for me most was the following line: “We learn so much about history but we never seem to learn from it!” These insightful & prophetic words would visit me time and time again, especially now as I sift through the data of the survey I developed to get people talking about their sexuality []. Much has been said and written about sex and yet we do not seem to learn from it. I had the recent pleasure or reading Bernie Zilbergeld’s – The New Male Sexuality – which was written in 1992. Much about what he wrote remains true to this day regarding how males learn and take up their sexuality. Again much was written about male’s sexuality but nothing appears to be learned from it. For me, this answers the perennial question as to why things don’t change even though we know what’s involved and what’s needed. What I see lacking many times is the motivation to change. I apologize ahead of time for using a mechanistic analogy but many times I can explain to an individual or couple how the sex “engine” operates but that does not change how it functions. In other words, just knowing you have a 6-cylinder engine does not change it into a V-8. So the real question we need to continually ask ourselves is how we can learn from what we know about sex?
The BSPI [] tells us that women and men do take up their sexuality differently. Men appear to be more restrictive in their sexual expression while women appear to be more diverse. The cultural messages for both men and women differ and that would help answer the difference. As I think about it from a male perspective, I am reminded that many men were introduced into their sexuality around three common themes: secrecy, privacy and impersonal. For many of us, our first exposure to the sexual in life was through printed images be they paper or videotape, that is through magazines or movies. There was usually no dialogue going on with anyone when we were first exposed. No one sat me down and said, “ok, here is what is going on and what you are most likely to experience physically and emotionally and sexually.” It was a private moment and we typically did not know the person we were fantasizing about. Even if our masturbatory trail was discovered, i.e. wet dreams, dried semen on sheets, towels, etc. nothing was usually said, thus, enforcing a code of secrecy and privacy. Now let us add on top of this scenario, years of conditioning - self-pleasuring to the point of orgasm without an emotional or intimate connection to anyone and what do you think we get? Now try and couple this notion with an individual who has been “conditioned” to think that sex is special and should be reserved for that one special person whom you plan on establishing a long term relationship with and the result is – no surprise - sexual dysfunction or an inability to connect. However, for many there is a surprise and once again I want to remind you that we need to go back to my original point that we have learned much “about” but little “from” and in my mind – no wonder!
How do we connect two people with such dissimilar backgrounds and foundational sexual messages? I assure you, the expectations are real and sometimes seem almost surreal. Think about how males are conditioned to expect and associate sexual pleasure from impersonal connections with images of individuals they do not know. We now know that exposing very young males to pornographic images as a means of educating them around their sexuality has life-long and sometimes devastating consequences.
I see it every week in my clinical practice. A wife discovers – through the history function of the family computer – her husband surfing the Internet looking at pornographic images and he is reprimanded into therapy because he has betrayed the trust in their marital relationship. When asked if he would be there [in therapy] if he had not been caught – the answer is always “no”. Typically, the only thing he sees “wrong” is that he got caught and that she is emotionally upset, but he does not equate the status of the relationship as having had an affair. Often for him it was no different than what he has been conditioned to do when he feels “sexual” and that is go into private and impersonal mode. Does it mean that he is dissatisfied with his sexual relationship with his partner? Sometimes yes and more often “no”. Unfortunately, it takes events of these magnitudes to start the often, continued awkward dialogues around sexuality and to go even further around what arouses us to the point of distraction. Does it not seem obvious that we could save ourselves a whole lot of grief and aggravation if we would just start educating everyone earlier with clear and consistent messages about human sexuality?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hardwired or Conditioned?

I recently learned something about myself that was kind of an ‘aha’ moment. As a boy, I was raised/conditioned to keep my emotions in check, or in other words hidden from view. Basically, as males we are taught to avoid being emotionally vulnerable in any relationship. We receive continual reinforcement to keep tears away, private or deny them completely, probably by age 10. We are taught to ‘hang tough’, ‘take it on the chin’, ‘rub dirt on it’, etc. Vulnerability is not an option for most males or so we are lead to believe. As a result, we typically build elaborate cognitive labyrinths to keep any emotions from seeping through. This means we are implicitly lead to enter into relationships armed with this way of being – i.e. not feeling with our partners. Many men I have worked with in therapy for erectile dysfunction have stated such when
reporting past successes when they really did not “feel” anything for their partner, or in other words were emotionally disconnected.
The problem emerges for some men when they truly do start to “feel” or become emotionally connected and/or vulnerable when getting intimately close to their current partner. Anxiety levels spike as one feels emotionally vulnerable in ways that he typically cannot explain and had previously alienated himself from feeling. As anxiety rises to the north – arousal and along with it erection usually heads for the deep south. Let me point out that my professional opinion about erectile dysfunction is that it is usually mislabeled. If you have received a thorough examination from a competent urologist and you are able to masturbate without issue then guess what – the erection is working as it should or should not…where the problem becomes evident is when another person enters the picture – that is when the relationship with the ‘other’ becomes dysfunctional and not the penis.
The question remains is how do we educate/condition our males to permit a healthy exposure to becoming more accepting of vulnerability – emotional or otherwise? Fathers have to teach their sons [what some if not most men do not even have a clue as to how] and
we need to learn as a society to value emotions in all their wonderful variations and not limit them to a handful. Just like the push in recent years has been to accept diversity, we need to do the same for the acceptance and embracement of emotional diversity.