Every week it seems I encounter some harmful message from the culture at large about sex that my clients have internalized. It is these harmful messages that contribute to their sexual dysfunction or their troubled sexual relationships or their outright sexual avoidance. Lately, I have been focusing on the one about who is responsible for what in a sexual encounter and the gendered politics involved in it. Let’s dive in.
Based on what this client was processing, I recently told a male client in his individual therapy session: “Your erection is not your girlfriend’s responsibility.” He then took a deep breath, paused, and bravely admitted that was painful to hear. (Hooray for honesty!)
Like actor Leslie Jordan often says on his Instagram Live videos, “How y’all doin’, my fellow hunker downers?” Seems like a good time to check in with my readers.
I am four months into doing video sessions, aka telehealth, with my clients. I quickly (and painfully) converted my sex therapy practice back in mid-March when the first cases of COVID-19 were medically confirmed in my community and we knew so little about this virus. I now continue doing teletherapy because we know more about the virus and it appears in-person psychotherapy, and all that it entails, is a higher-risk activity.
“You’re not meeting my sexual needs.”
Have you ever thought this about or said this to someone else? Has anyone ever said this to you?
I have heard, and most likely will continue to hear, clients say this in my office. Either in an individual session about their partner or in a couples session to their partner. In a couples session, it generally becomes a high stress and high stakes moment because so many people interpret this statement to have negative implications within the context of whatever is going on in their sexual relationship. For example, it may be used to: complain about what one partner perceives to be the other partner’s deficiencies; ask (or threaten) to open the relationship; justify the decision to have an affair; or end the relationship all together.
We are finding ourselves in a horrible combination: fears about an unseeable contagion plus the need to socially and physically isolate from others. This is a brutal mixture for many because we often turn to other people to help lessen our anxiety: socializing with friends, going church or temple, time out in the world at restaurants, bar, clubs, shopping, and of course partnered sex. Most of those options are, for now, not possible, with the exception of sex (as long as you live with your sexual partner[s]). So where does that leave you and your libido?
Everyone is having different experiences when it comes to the impact of this moment in time on their libidos. Some, in the face of all this, are reporting that their libidos are increasing while others are reporting a decline or as someone described it to me “it's like it’s dropped off a cliff”.
We have to socially distance right now, but let's not emotionally distance.
With my own county officially in a shelter-in-place order, schools closed until who knows when, kids at home, many non-essential businesses closed down, people working from home/remotely (I myself am now conducting all my sessions with clients via videoconferencing), concerns about our under-resourced health care system, and everyone having the same spoken and unspoken fears of economic instability and insecurity on the micro and macro levels, shit is hard right now. Our collective future is unknown and uncertainty causes all kinds of anxiety and psychological disruption. This virus is calling on all of us to cope in ways some have never coped before. We are having to stretch hard and fast. That is generally not easy to do. How are you coping with it all?
Hi friends, I apologize for not updating this space recently. As of late all my writing has been posted on my Psychology Today blog, Underneath The Sheets. So while I have been writing, I have not posted them here. I will start cross posting. In the meantime, if you wish to see what I have written feel free to go here and look on the right side under "Recent Posts":
You hear the phrase, “sex is natural," and variations of it quite a lot. This is a claim many people and institutions make. This argument is often used to justify certain sexual behavior—and its inverse, that a particular sexual behavior is "not natural,” is often used to condemn other sexual behavior. This is a confusing concept, clearly open to all sorts of interpretations, if my Google search results are any measure of the English-speaking human psyche.
When people say sex is natural or that certain types of sex are natural, I honestly do not understand what they are trying to communicate. What do they mean by “sex”? What do they mean by “natural”? Do they mean it is involuntary, like breathing? That we just inherently know about the birds and the bees? That we know how to have good sex and healthy sexual relationships? All this, you and I know, is not true.
Whenever something changes in my clients’ sex lives that they do not want, do not like, or are not asking for, I often hear a statement like, “I didn’t sign up for this.”
It is fascinating to me when clients express the expectation that the aspect of their sex life that is changing would stay the same forever. There is this romantic idea of “growing old together” that many couples say they want and look forward to. I have heard something about “rocking chairs on the porch.” Sounds sweet. But nowhere in that idealistic notion are the realities of life. Things change in life and sometimes not for the better. Your health changes. Your body changes. Your stressors change. Relationships change us. Having kids changes us. Aging changes us. Loss changes us.
How we think and talk about all things sex matters. What we call something has an impact and influences how we think and feel about it. This is what I frequently tell my clients: there is the sexual issue and then there is the story we tell ourselves about the sexual issue—and it is often the story we tell ourselves that is causing the most pain. So what if we worked on creating a different story?
Like fish swimming in water, we are swimming in sexual shame to the point where most of the time we are utterly oblivious to it. No one is immune from sexual shame, not even medical and mental health professionals, and it can even happen within or by institutions. Sometimes a person’s sexual shame is so ingrained and feels so much a part of their deepest self that they simply cannot imagine themselves without their shame. Sexual shame is so ubiquitous that when someone or something does not evoke sexual shame and is actually “sex positive”, it can be a shock to the system and cause reactivity like discomfort, anxiety or fear, judgment, anger, threats, and sometimes even violence. All of us have seen this before. It's a difficult topic for many. So let’s pause, take a breath, and look at shame more closely.
I am excited to announce that I am now an expert contributor on Psychology's Today's website. My blog, Underneath The Sheets, is now live. You see see my posts on that link. I will split my time writing for them and here. I hope you will check it out!
When you study human sexuality, you inevitably study human morality systems. How and why humans value what they value. And I think this is part of the reason why studying human sexuality is so threatening to some: if we examine something like sexuality (that is so laden with values and has been for centuries) then there is the possibility of separating out each piece of that puzzle, re-evaluating each piece, maybe hearing new information, deciding what to do with that new information (i.e. allow it to affect our value or not), then there’s the possibility of those new conclusions not being in alignment with our current life, and the cognitive dissonance that comes with that situation. Eeek, a scary prospect indeed.
I usually write about sex and relationships, but on this sunny spring day I’m going to veer off that a little bit and write about technology with a little bit of sex thrown in.
I cannot seem to find a person who doesn’t have a smartphone anymore. Now I realize I live in northern California, one of the more affluent places on the planet and a mere 100ish miles from Silicon Valley and 50ish miles from San Francisco. Technology is what my region is known for (and on a micro level wine and weed too, but that’s another conversation for another time). People say that technology, and specifically smartphones, have radically changed our lives and our norms. True. Fifteen years ago would you have imagined you might willingly pay to sleep in a stranger’s home while you are on vacation or pay to get a ride in a stranger’s car?
I’m sitting in my office today and there’s a funeral happening in the church next door. (This happens regularly.) The church and my office building share a parking lot so the attendees’ cars have filled it up (the deceased person was clearly popular), the people are dressed up and wearing dark colors, there’s a couple of limousines, and of course there’s a hearse parked out front. Always stark imagery.
In case you didn’t know, my office is located in a building that used to be a Catholic school. After the school shut down, it sat empty for years. Then it was renovated I think about 30(?) years ago and converted into professional offices. It’s a majority of therapists in the building now. The church still owns the building (and I like to joke that I make my rent check out to “God” - because hey, don’t we all?) and it even still has a cross on the top it.
I say this often in my office. In fact, I said it just the other day to a client. I really believe people know this on some level. They understand that porn is meant for entertainment purposes, the majority of it with the male gaze in mind, and that like the rest of Hollywood it has all kinds of movie-making secrets and techniques to trick the viewer into believing what they are watching is really, authentically happening between the actors.
Yet in the absence of comprehensive sex education in our country, coupled with the inherent curiosity everyone seems to have about sex, I think it’s inevitable that some people look to porn to answer the questions they have about sex. Examples of those questions and curiosities can be: