Our “Tug-of-War”

As human beings, relationships are very important to us.  We’re social creatures, who thrive on mutual support, interaction and validation.  It’s indeed a rare and atypical person who is an “island”.

This observation certainly applies in the domain of our intimate relationships.  Staying shy of the codependent extreme, there’s truth in Barbara Streisand’s Funny Girl song lyrics observing that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world”.

The engaging and incisive psychotherapist Esther Perel makes a key observation about our human nature:  we are torn beings. (See her riveting TED talk on the secret to desire in a long-term relationship.)   On the one hand, we strive for long-term security and stability in our relationships.  We want to be with someone we can trust and rely on.  On the other hand, we thrive on the adrenaline rush of new and exciting experiences, and we are drawn to the “forbidden fruit” of relationships outside our cozy but confining usual sphere.

This dual draw makes sense, from an evolutionary-biology perspective.  We of course need security and stability in order to prosper.  We need to know that our basic needs can be met, in a predictable way.  At the same time, our urge to explore gives us adaptiveness, such that if something in our environment changes in a survival-threatening way, our inclination to explore alternatives may give us a badly-needed “plan B”.

Our society extols the virtues of unwavering monogamous commitment to our partner.   (Never mind that few of us seem able to meet such a lofty expectation).  However, that same society demonizes and penalizes any straying from this often-unattainable “ideal”.  In doing so, we put in place cultural prohibitions and expectations that effectively deny— or, worse, repress— the experimental and novelty-seeking side of our nature.  Such a stance can only lead to problems, in the form of unmet expectations, social stigma, and personal disappointment and heartbreak.

As Esther Perel points out, it is essential to the health of a relationship that it allow for playfulness and experimentation, in some appropriate form.  Each couple must determine how to introduce the needed novelty into their relationship, in order to keep it fresh, alive and engaging.  Failure to make such an accommodation is likely to lead to a stale and moribund relationship.  Allowing for experimentation takes trust, imagination and a willingness to sometimes step outside one’s “comfort zone”.  Those can be challenging to muster.  However, the payback can be big: a relationship that adapts to the challenges that life invariably presents, and a relationship that constantly offers new things for the partners to share and enjoy.  Thank goodness for our conflicted nature— it’s a good thing!

What’s the Point of Pleasure?

It may seem a little odd to pose a question about what the purpose of pleasure is, what it’s “good for”.  To some, pleasure is one of those things in life that “just is”— it doesn’t have, or need, a purpose.  To others, pleasure is a reward for leading a wholesome life.

Biologically, pleasure orients us to pursue behaviors that are, in fact, in some way rewarding to us— physically, mentally or emotionally.  We’re “hard-wired” to assess certain experiences as pleasurable, and others as painful or aversive.  It’s easy to see the power of evolution (or, for some, the hand of god) behind the development of a sense of pleasure.

From a sexual perspective, pleasure obviously has a key role in incentivizing reproductive behaviors.  Sex is fun!  In many Western societies, procreation is the need that legitimizes sex, which is otherwise seen as dirty, debasing or dangerous.  It’s OK to enjoy the pleasures of sex, especially if you’re a guy (thanks to the strong patriarchal heritage of our society).  But what about sexual pleasure outside procreation?

Enjoying sex for pleasure doesn’t get nearly the same level of respect as does pleasure in the course of conception.  In fact, many Judeo-Christian religions have a deep distrust of sexual pleasure, seeing it as something “beneath” people’s basically pure spiritual nature— something that can steer people off-course, causing harm to individuals and to society.

To sexologists such as myself, such a stance just makes no sense.  Sex and its associated pleasure serve no “higher purpose”; as noted earlier, we’re simply “wired” to enjoy sex.  In recognizing that reality, though, it’s good to also note that sexual and other forms of pleasure can offer many clear-cut benefits.  Beyond the obvious “feel-good” attributes of good sexual experiences, mutually-satisfying and imaginative sexual experiences can reinforce the emotional connection between partners.  It’s hard to see why increased personal satisfaction and strengthened interpersonal relationships should be viewed as something in need of control or repression…

In our society, many forces link arms to actively discourage or repress sexual behaviors and sexual pleasure: churches, schools, government agencies, some businesses (e.g. insurance companies), and even the medical and psychiatric professions,  (For a real eye-opener, read “Sex, Sexual Pleasure, and Reproduction: Health Insurers Don’t Want You to Do Those Nasty Things“, by Hazel Glenn Beh, in the 1998 Volume 13 issue of the Wisconsin Women’a Law Journal.)  It’s interesting to think about why such forces should care about sex.  It seems unlikely that organizations would take the trouble to try to regulate sex, unless there was an agenda being served.

We all need to realize that healthy, consensual sex and pleasure are our birthright, and that it’s not OK for others to obstruct or undermine our rights.  Beyond the use of overt suppression, through legal or other means, emotions such as guilt and shame can also be used as tools to channel our behavior in directions deemed “acceptable” by others.  Awareness of these forces and their agenda is the first step toward our continued right to exercise our freedoms. Let’s embrace responsible pleasure, not fear or reject it!

 

An undervalued trait: courage

Over the last several months, my life has been made “interesting” by a number of people whose personal agenda conflicts with mine.  While I’m not stranger to that sort of conflict, the “anything goes” approach taken by these folks has given me something new to contemplate.

Conflict is an inevitable part of being human.  If it’s managed with mutual respect, it can actually make the world a better place, by pushing boundaries and questioning assumptions.  My recent ruminations have been about what to do when things get disrespectful and ugly.

My personal conclusion has been that it’s important to not let personal attacks undermine one’s sense of justice, rightness and fair-play.  We all steer by our own compass, and people can and do often disagree as to how to proceed in a given situation.  What I have concluded is really important, though, is to stay on the “high road” (as we conceive of that).  To let others drive us off that path under duress is to compromise who we are.

It takes courage to stay the course.  It’s tempting to give in, to do whatever it takes to make the pain and distraction go away.  I’ve seen many around me succumb to that temptation— but while the temptation is understandable, I see a high price-tag associated with surrender: compromising one’s integrity.

Of course, there’s a difference between being staunch, and being blind or pig-headed.  We live in a world of gray, not convenient black-and-white.  Growth and improvement depend on our receptiveness to, and recognition of, relevant new ideas and new ways of being.  The challenge, of course, is to discern when something new and important has come to light, potentially calling on us to adapt.  Short of such circumstances, though, conviction and steadfastness are crucially important.

All of these thoughts may seem a little out of place in a sexologist’s blog, but that’s not the case.  Sex is a topic that often incites strong reactions in people, especially in those who have received strong “programming” as to what’s right or wrong, sexually.  That’s true of many in our society, reflecting the strong (and sometimes very inappropriate) influence of many of our religious and governmental organizations.  As a sexologist, I’m often the “lightning-rod” that draws out such people’s reactions.  Without the courage to stand by the facts and to remain open-minded and receptive to others’ reality, I can’t do my job.  While I’m not into pain— no, not even of that kind!— I’m willing to tolerate it as the “price of admission” to working with something as central to people’s nature as is our sexuality.  My recent experiences have underscored the importance of my remaining courageous.  I wouldn’t have it any other way!

 

How to connect…

In June, I completed the oral defense of my doctoral dissertation on “A Conceptual Model for the Physical, Mental and Emotional Factors that Define the Human Male and Female Sexual Response Cycles”.  That’s quite a mouthful— but, in essence, it’s about the similarities and the differences in how men and women experience sex.

I chose that dissertation topic because I can’t think of a better way to describe the things that enable us humans to richly experience our sexuality, nor can I think of a better way to spotlight the things that can go out of whack with our sexuality.  There is a pattern to sex, though with lots of room for personal variation.  That’s one of the big reasons that sex can appear so mysterious:  what works well between one couple at a particular time may not work well between other people, or even for the same people at a different time.

At this point, I have easily over a thousand hours of training in sexological and coaching matters, delivered by preeminent sexologists and coaches.  I’m in a position to provide my clients with much-needed sexual education, and to debunk the widespread misunderstanding and misrepresentation of how sex and intimacy work.  Doing this is my passion; I can think of few things as personally satisfying as helping someone discover and then embrace their true sexuality.   I consider such opportunities a true privilege.

Knowing how valuable and needed this knowledge is, I’m a little puzzled and bemused at how challenging it has been to build my client-base.  Sure, sex is a challenging topic to discuss, and intimacy is perhaps even more so.  Our culture is pretty sex-negative, and sex is a taboo topic.  Still, I’m sure that many women intuitively understand and gravitate to my “loving softly” approach to lovemaking and intimacy.  Fewer men might resonate with this approach, at least till they think about it a little. What I’ve found is that almost all of the members of my “Loving Softly” online Meet-up group are, in fact, guys.  I need to re-think my perspective!

I look forward to serving more clients in the near future, both individuals and couples, as well as through my group seminars.  I expect to deliver a lot of value, and I know I’ll learn a lot in the process.  To build engagement, I’m also adding a user forum to this website, so that we can identify and discuss the things that matter most to my site visitors.  I sincerely invite you to participate.  By all means take advantage of what I have to offer you!

What Do You Mean, “Sexology”???

You may have heard the term “sexology” or “sexologist”, and wondered what these mean— and whether they’re legit!  Well, they are indeed.  Sexology is the scientific study of human sexuality, in all of its breadth and complexity.  It is an interdisciplinary field that taps knowledge gleaned through medicine, the life sciences, social sciences such as sociology and anthropology, psychology, and numerous other disciplines.

Why would anyone put all that thought and effort into a subject that’s so hush-hush and “unspeakable” in social circles?  Well, for starters, because sex is fundamental to our existence as human beings; it is, in effect, our “life-energy”.  It’s good to seek understanding of any force that exerts that kind of influence in our life.

In any society, sex, procreation and pleasure are topics that are the focus of much attention.  Because these are centrally important themes, governments, churches and other organizations seek to control and channel these forces by establishing “mores” that reflect the moral views of that society.  In our Western Judeo-Christian dominated societies, sexuality is viewed with suspicion, and as a powerful and inherently negative force that must be kept in check by reason.  Sex is undeniably powerful— but it certainly need not be presumed to be negative, and thus in need of repression.  Letting fear guide our attitudes toward sexuality can lead us to “throw the baby out with the bath-water”, damping the joy and good that healthy sexuality can bring into our life.

Sexologists see sex as a natural facet of humanity that must be accepted as such.  Sexologists avoid making moral judgments about sex; like any other human activity, sex can be a source of either good or bad, depending on how it is exercised and experienced.  By helping people understand that their sexuality is an inherent part of who they are, and in helping them to understand how sex affects their body, mind and emotions, sexologists give people a powerful tool for responsibly managing their life.  Personal knowledge is personal power— and we’re all better off, if we have what it takes to make informed personal choices!

Professional sexologists can help their clients in several different ways:

  • Sex therapists are typically psychologists or psychiatrists who also have sexological training.  Such therapists work with their clients to diagnose sexual dysfunctions, and they do so by pursuing a deep understanding of the client’s past, as the basis for prescribing corrective actions or behavior changes.  Sex therapists are licensed professionals.
  • Social workers who have sexological training can focus on delivering sexual education, or on helping a client address sexual dysfunction, or both.  Social workers come from diverse disciplines, and utilize differing approaches; however, they share the common goal of seeking to improve the quality of life for individuals, couples and larger groups.  Social workers are licensed professionals.
  • Sex coaches come from diverse backgrounds, but they share a deep knowledge of sexology with the use of coaching techniques as their method of engagement with a client.  Sex coaches address not only sexual dysfunction, but also a client’s desire for enhancement of their sex life and intimate relationships.  Sex coaching is an emerging profession, and the training of such coaches can vary widely.  Reputable sex coaches have certification from an established and properly accredited training institution.

These three kinds of sexological workers engage with their clients in rather different ways:

  • Therapists work as experts who assess a client and offer prescriptions; they observe and diagnose the client’s possible issues from “outside”, gathering information from the client but not engaging with the client as a peer.
  • Social workers also work as expert assessors of and consultants to a client.  Like therapists, social workers do not link with the client in a peer-to-peer relationship; they observe the client and his/her interactions from “outside”, and then recommend behavior and attitude changes that can enhance the  client’s life.
  • In contrast with these first two categories of sexological workers, sex coaches rely on establishing a peer-to-peer connection with a client, in order to act as an expert advisor and an objective “mirror” for the client.  In a sex coaching relationship, the coach provides tools and powerful guiding questions, but it is the client who sets the course of the coaching work, and who also does the work necessary for advancement.  A sex coach is not in any sense “above” or “apart from” the client.

Now that you know what sexologists are, think about how they might fit into your own life.  Would you like a more sensual, sexually fulfilling and intimate life?  Would you like to better understand yourself, so that you can make better personal decisions for yourself?  Would you benefit from having a caring and knowledgeable partner to help you make responsible relationship decisions that can enhance your pleasure and satisfaction in life, without inappropriate guilt or shame?  If so, consider reaching out to a qualified sexologist for help.  You might find that to be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made!