Category Archives: dysfunction

a stressed monkey

Aaaaaand, two weeks later…

It’s January.

Scratch that. It’s FUCKING JANUARY.

This same thing happened last year. I spend the month of January sitting in a dark hole. It’s not as bad this year because there’s much less snow and also there is the romantic euphemism to bring me news of the outside world (and chocolate and alcohol) without my actually having to go out into it.

Last year I suggested somatic mindfulness as a strategy for coping with seasonal mood stuff. This year I want to return to the idea of the monkey that lives inside each of us and motivates most of our behaviors.

What does the monkey need? What does the monkey want?

Well, sex is about the creation and survival of the next generation. The monkey doesn’t actually NEED anything from sex; as the brilliant Frank Beach once noted, no one ever died for lack of sex. (Insert predictable joke here.) There is no need, only want.

So what do they want?

Of course, boy monkeys and girl monkeys have different sex wants, due to different reproductive roles, so let’s take girl monkeys for now.

The Girl Monkey – let’s call her Alice – Alice the Girl Monkey wants, ultimately, to make babies (from an evolutionary perspective), but (1) she doesn’t want babies with any old genetic partner and (2) she doesn’t want babies at any old time. Fortunately, she’s hardly ever fertile – one day in every 28, roughly – and loses fertility when she’s already pregnant, when she’s breastfeeding regularly, when her body fat gets dangerously low, and when she’s generally very very stressed. The reproductive part of sex is moderately well in hand (from a biological point of view, anyway).

But then there’s the other aspect of sex, all of its social functions. It bonds Alice to her partner, she can use it as currency in exchange for social favors, she can diffuse conflict with it, she can, indeed, reduce her own stress level with it. And just as Alice the Monkey needs physical challenge and a variety of nourishment, she needs to keep her stress hormones balanced.

But at the same time, those stress hormones might keep her sexual interest flatlining.

Looks like we need to understand about stress.

As I’ve mentioned before stress is not just a response, it’s a cycle. Your body responds to a perceived threat with adrenaline and cortisol, which activates motivation to fight, flee, or freeze, and when you do what your body is pushing you to do and thus escape the threat, it rewards you with all the happy chemicals it can throw at you, activating the relaxation response.

The complicated part is when your stressor goes away but your stress is still there! Just because you’ve dealt with a stressor – say, a relationship conflict – doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress. And it is the stress itself, not the presence of the stressor, that disrupts sexual interest. Alice the Human can resolve a conflict rationally. Alice the Monkey needs to run or fight to lie still and shake for a while, to move all the way through the stress response and into the relaxation response.

The ladies among us are likely (like, 90%) to recognize the experience of feeling desirous of sex under circumstances of relationship happiness: when you feel cared for, understood, supported, special, safe… ya know, loved. And you may recognize the experience of NOT wanting sex when you feel stressed, threatened, overwhelmed, exhausted, or under-appreciated; then sexual interest, like a shy ferret, hides behind the sofa and won’t come out until everyone goes away.

I’ve been playing with this simile lately: emotions are like tunnels. You have to move all the way through them or you’re stuck just sitting there in the dark.

Monkey are good at moving through their emotions to get to the calm and peace at the end of them. Humans in the industrialized west are TERRIBLE at it. It’s a skill well worth learning. Okay.

learning to relax into sex

I had a series of conversations recently with someone who was moving in the direction of feeling more relaxed, confident, and plain old DESIROUS around sexual interactions with their partner. Included in that was an email that I feel is particularly important, so I’ll share it with ya’ll, slightly modified.

Your starting point is learning to complete the stress response cycle so that your body can relax, in the knowledge that there are no lions coming to get you. So when you have the thoughts, for example, about your ex, you practice replacing them with thoughts of running or fighting. This is the skill of noticing what tension/stress/anxiety feels like, accepting it (emotion coaching), and giving yourself permission to finish the stress response so that your body can shift into relaxation. AWARENESS and NON-JUDGMENT are the two key skills here, as you allow your body to finish what it has started. (It’s a central skill in listening, right? You would always allow your partner to finish saying what they needed to say – it’s rude to interrupt, we’re all taught from an early age. So listen to your body with as much respect as you would listen to your partner.)

And be aware of the trap of feeling like you have to “be in control” of your body. Your body is aware of and remembers a lot more things than your mind, and you can only learn from it if you abandon yourself to its wisdom. Geez, does that sound hokey or what? But it’s completely true!

Once your body is able to relax without feeling worried about being relaxed, the second step is practicing being aware of what relaxing feels like. Breathing is central to this, as you’ve probably learned in your experiences with progressive muscle relaxation and other stress management techniques. You may find that relaxing can still trigger anxiety, and that’s fine because you’re practicing META-calm, as well as regular calm; i.e., feeling calm about feeling anxious, feeling calm about feeling stressed, feeling calm about feeling panic, feeling calm about feeling relaxed.

And eventually you move into the body satisfaction realm, which I expect will come pretty naturally when you’ve got the other skills down. Remember that you’re relearning the meta-emotions, how you feel about how you feel. In a meta-coaching framework, we recognize that negative feelings are the normal, healthy response to negative life events, and when we allow ourselves to move all the way through an emotion, we’ll get to the calm that comes at the end of it.

Also, Julia Heiman’s “Becoming Orgasmic” is the book with the series of exercises and writing that helps to untangle to knots more directly related to sexuality.

Increasingly, I find that being a sex educator entails being a worry educator too, helping people learn to turn off their chattering, noisy minds and pay attention to their internal experience. It’s a task sex educators and therapists have been working at for more than 30 years. And the culture just keeps getting noisier and it keeps lying to you about what your body is supposed to do, be, and look like. We’re swimming upstream.

I often say that my job is to teach people to “Be in control of your brain, so that your brain isn’t in control of you.” It’s a challenging skill, made more challenging by the pace of life and our chronic need to fill time with STUFF, noise, flickering images, information from the outside.

What America really needs? To make our sex lives better? Is a culture that values the information you get from your INSIDES as much as information from the outside.

But there’s no profit in that, so. Ya know. Do your best, and welcome the fact that your best won’t be perfect. How’s that for advice?

one sentence summarizes why the pharma industry is hopelessly misguided.

In looking up something unrelated, I stumbled into this 2010 British Journal of Pharmocology article. You don’t have to read it, I’ll tell you why it’s bullshit.

It’s the first sentence in the abstract, that’s why. It reads:

Female sexual arousal consists of a number of physiological responses resulting from increased genital blood.

Aaaaaaaand, that’s why the pharmceutical industry is stupid.

See yesterday’s post for details.

Happy Friday everybody. Have a funny condom commercial:

joy

A few things that will seem disparate until you get to the end:

Thing 1: I have said that the difference between ordinary sex and extraordinary sex is: confidence and joy.

Thing 2: Andrew sent me this story about how The Joy of Sex came to be illustrated. It’s adorable and you should read it – both the story and the actual Joy of Sex, particularly now that it’s been revised and updated.

Thing 3: Bill and Desiree and the Comstock series of non-fiction porn. (H.O.T.)

Bill says, “I think it’s possible for couples to be… to get hung up on the idea that it has to be super all the time, that if it’s not special, it’s not okay. And my experience… life long is that peak experience are just that. Not everything is Mount Everest.”

The complicated point which required all three of these pieces is that extraordinary and “GREAT” are not necessarily the same thing.

See, my point of view is that extraordinary sex is simply non-ordinary, and ordinary sex is the worried, uptight, rule-following sex that most people have most of the time. The sex you imagine when someone says, “What is sex?” You know, two young, thin, middle-class, white heterosexuals in bed, in the dark, in missionary position; she’s worried about her orgasm and he ejaculates too soon. Ordinary. Take that formula and add JOY, and all of a sudden it’s extraordinary. No worry about orgasm or ejaculation. No fretting about erection and lubrication. Just pleasure and delight to be here now with this person you care about.

I mean, do you know how many people struggle to feel joy around their sexualities? Me either, but it’s a LOT.

It is a complicated point for a person who gives sex advice. After all, would you buy a sex book that promised to help you feel joyful about the MEDIOCRE sex you’re having, as well as the excellent sex?

(This, btw, is what I mean by “Enjoy the sex you’re having.”)

What makes it even MORE complicated is that the advice to bring joy to sex, to enjoy your sex no matter what it is, is to advise people to like the other person (or people) involved in their sex life. After all, what’s charming about the original Joy of Sex illustrations is the obvious affection between the two people. What’s charming in Bill and Des’s encounter is the abundant love they share. And what, when you get right down to it, is the difference between love and joy?

Once you really like your partner, the only thing between you and joy is, to put it simply, liking yourself as well.

You don’t have to climb Mt Everest, hell no. Frankly, who would want to? Not me. But when you walk up the local hill, walk it with affection and awareness of this moment. Walk with joy, and it hardly matters where you go.

And because I can’t say it often enough:

Confidence and joy.
It’s not about orgasm
Pay attention to your partner
and
Enjoy the sex you’re having.

That’s really all the sex advice I have to offer.

Oh, and also lube. Especially silicone lube. But that’s really it.

I want to make my partner come.

So here’s a question I get pretty regularly:

I can’t make my partner come from oral sex. They say they’ve never come from oral sex and that they aren’t particularly interested in it. But I really want to make them come from oral sex. What can I do?

And I get it from everyone, regardless of the genital or gender construction of the asker or their partner.

And part of me is like… “YOUR PARTNER SAID NO! NO MEANS NO!! FOR EVERYBODY!!!!”

And part of me is like, “What is this magical power that orgasm has over people?” I mean, what *is* it about orgasm? I concede that it has powerful sway, culturally; these days, your partner’s orgasm is held up as the holy grail of Competent Lovemaking. And I’m the last person to argue that such a feeling is purely socially constructed. Orgasm definitely is a kind of physiological destination, particularly for the male-bodied among us. Beyond a certain point of arousal, when you’re just a few steps away, your body really does push you along toward orgasm, and arriving at orgasm really is a different kind of experience from non-orgasmic sexual pleasure. All of your physiology changes, with tachycardia and waves of entrained muscle contractions that change your breathing patterns. Orgasm, physiologically, is an EVENT, no question.

And after orgasm, you’re likely (though not guaranteed) to experience yet ANOTHER physiological state, the recovery and/or refraction period of relaxation and general sense of wellbeing – yet another kind of pleasure that sex can bring.

So I get that orgasm is A Thing for people, and that it’s a thing we want to give our partners, the way we want to give them pretty flowers and delicious chocolate treats and jewelry and any other thing that we think is a pleasurable thing to have.

But all these lovely things – orgasms as well as flowers, chocolate, jewelry, and the rest of it – are lovely only if your partner is interested in receiving them, and no amount of You Being Interested in Giving It to Them will make them more interested in receiving them.

Let’s use a metaphor: Suppose you LOVE giving flowers. You LOVE it! You love shopping for them, buying them, carrying them to your partner, handing them over, and seeing the look on their face. You love seeing them in the window the next time you come over. And then suppose that your partner is… well… kinda tired of receiving flowers. They know you love seeing the flowers, so they keep them out, even though they’d really rather just chuck them. The pollen is getting to them and they’re considering taking allergy meds so they can tolerate all this flower-giving. And they’ve tried to hint gently about the things you could bring that might be more relevant, meaningful, or tolerable to them, but you’re just so STUCK on giving flowers, that they can’t get the message heard without feeling rude.

It’s like that with orgasm. There are lots of beautiful ways to give pleasure. And orgasm, though a lovely destination, is not always easy to get to, and if it’s difficult to get to, sometimes you’d rather just go someplace that also lovely and not such hard frickin’ work. (Another metaphor: the Cape! A lovely place, but is it worth a 3-hour drive in Labor Day weekend traffic, when you could just stay home and watch Netflix? You see what I’m saying?)

“I want to make my partner come,” is this very sweet and beautiful sentiment, but it’s only really relevant if it’s accompanied by “… and my partner wants me to make them come.” Otherwise it’s just creating a dynamic where they feel obligated.

I mentioned in a recent post that insisting that making a partner come is a purely generous sentiment – “I want to make them feel good!” – is either delusional or misguided. If you really just wanted to make them feel good, you can do that LOTS of ways that don’t necessarily involve orgasm. If you want to make them feel good, lick them until their toes curl, by all means, OR give them a back massage or do the dishes for them or tell them what makes them the awesome, heart-stopping person they are.

If you want to make them COME, that’s something else. That’s wanting to make them come. That’s your desire. Try not to confuse your desire with theirs.

everybody poops

For the first time in YEARS someone has asked me about poop, in more than just a curious-about-the-fetish way.

So this person who emailed me has a friend who pooped during penetration – not anal penetration, vaginal penetration – and they’re worried it might happen to them. How common is it? How does it happen? How can it be prevented?

Here is what I said:

There aren’t any actual data (that I know of) about how frequently this happens, but I can tell you that in 15 years as a sex educator, you’re the first person I’ve heard from who actually KNOWS someone whom this happened to. It’s pretty rare.

It’s also simple to prevent. Most of the time you have no feces at all in your rectum – it only moves through when you have a bowel movement. But if your diet isn’t great and you have hard little pieces of poop instead of the big soft ones of a person who eats enough fiber, those little pieces can hang out in the rectum until the next bowel movement. So, prevention? Eat plenty of fiber and yet yourself some big soft poop!

But it’s almost never necessary to prevent it. The sphincter muscle at the mouth of the anus is connected to the sphincter muscles of the vagina and urethra. With high levels of arousal, the muscle that connects (the pelvic diphragm) them LIFTS (this is part of the reason you hold your breath near orgasm); at orgasm, they all pulse together, which, under ordinary circumstances, I would say would make it MORE difficult to poop, because the sphincter muscle is closing off really intensely.

But sometimes, rarely, the flux of the muscles of sphincters and the internal muscles, in combination with the mechanics of penetration, may (again, rarely), result in the expulsion of feces.

To sum up: very rare, mechanically difficult to do, and easy to prevent.

All of this is assuming that what your friend experienced was basically just a little bit of poop, just what was left in the rectum. If you’re talking about a full-blown bowel movement, I can only suggest that there might be something more serious happening and she should talk to a doctor.

Bodies are strange, sticky, things, and all the parts are really astonishingly adjacent to each other. I was pleased to read in the questioner’s email that the partner of the person who pooped was TOTALLY CHILL about it, laughing and saying, “I guess I fucked the shit out of you!” Which is awesome and exactly what I would hope for.

(Secretly hoping this will generate a flurry of comments about times when it happened to readers or friends of readers or friends of friends of readers…)

medicating opinion

I have talked on and on and on and, indeed, on about the medicalization of women’s sexual dysfunction.

I have also gone on and on and on about stuff that can actually help women increase their desire, most of which has to do with increasing understanding of how sex works and improving your relationship with your body. Medication isn’t the solution because there is no drug that can improve your relationship, which is the most common cause of “female sexual dysfunction.”

(All those links to other posts? They should be giving the impression that this here is a dead horse; you can’t medicate women’s sexuality because you can’t medicate the context in which sensations are perceived. Period.)

Okay, so The New View linked to this article about the development of The Subjective Sexual Arousal Scale for Men.

This seems to be to be a cynical and devilish (yet irritatingly clever) attempt to turn the arguments against pink viagra against themselves.

See, because low desire in women is not measurable in any objective way, pharmaceutical research has relied on subjective measures of a woman’s experience. When you study erectile dysfunction drugs, you study erections, which are nice and objectifiable and also fairly represent the man’s experience of desire, whereas a woman’s physiology just doesn’t necessarily match her experience of desire. So you measure experience. Technically, this is fair enough – your outcome measure should be something that pretty closely tracks the mechanism you’re trying to influence.

So yes, technically it’s fair enough, and that’s why it’s superficially reasonable to do the same with men. But in practice… how can you MEDICATE a person’s perception of a sexual experience, which boils down to their OPINION about whether or not it was satisfying?

Subjective experience – particularly subjective experience of distress and dysfunction – is shaped so much by culturally crafted expectations about how sex is supposed to work that people may (and often do!) believe they are broken when in fact they are fine.

And now they are applying the same logical-sounding but ultimately useless reasoning and assessment to men.

I’m all for expanding our understanding of men’s sexuality as a subjective experience, absolutely! But the idea of targeting subjective experience for medical intervention is the OPPOSITE of what we should be doing!

If we allow subjective experience to be medicalized, then the pharmaceutical with have a deep financial interest in making sure we all believe we are broken and that a medication will fix us, when in reality neither of those things is true.

So. That would be bad. In the quest for healthy, functional sexuality, asking how a person FEELS about their sexual experience is absolutely crucial to understanding their experience. But we can’t make feeling dissatisfied a diagnosis, or someone somewhere will make a giant profit making sure you always feel bad, so that you can pay them to make you feel better.

…but thinking makes it so

One edge of the touchscreen on my smartphone is non-responsive. The phone is about a year and a half old.

These things happen, I suppose.*

(*This is BULLSHIT! A year and a half and it just stops WORKING? Fuck that!)

Which made me think about sex and aging.

Bodies change over time, folks. In some ways they get unambiguously better and in some ways they kind of deteriorate and in some ways they change in ways that are good or not-so-good, depending on how we think about them. (Hamlet said something similar, I believe, only in iambic pentameter.)

Some things everyone can expect, to varying degrees, as they age:

A decrease in the concordance between physiology and experience. What you feel may not match what you body does; erections, lubrication, and orgasm will probably become less reliable and a bit more effortful. This is due largely to hormonal changes.

A change in the color of your desire. Globally, people tend to report lower frequency of desire for sex (or possibly for orgasm), but that doesn’t take into account variability in sexual life arc – some people experience a liberation from sexual expectations as they age – nor changes in what you want when you want sex.

Sundry changes to your body. In women, fat moves north from the hips and thighs to the abdomen; gravity has its wicked way with your breasts; the skin of your face, chest, and neck in particular lose elasticity, and tissue of the vagina becomes fragile as estrogen levels change. In men, muscles shrink; hair moves south from your head to your ears and back; erections fly at half mast; your post-ejaculatory refractory period lengthens.

Now. What do you do about these things. Do you:

Accept the changes as the inevitable, progressive failure of the organism? (“These things happen,” as above.)

Rage against the dying of the light? Do everything you can to keep your sex as “the same” as you can? (“This is BULLSHIT!” as above.)

I’m inclined to say neither.

Either option seems to assume that younger sex – younger desire, younger arousal, younger orgasm – is somehow the standard, normal sex against which all other sex should be measured.

The attitude I recommend is curiosity. Bodies are these life-long science experiments that we can observe with affectionate but detached curiosity. “Oh, that’s new!” is all you need to think when things change.

I know we’ve been trained by mainstream culture to view the changes that time commits as degradations, and christ knows we’ve been trained to worry that our sexuality is somehow broken; I know that we’ve all been taught that there’s a kind of sexual pinnacle that we achieve and then pass, never to regain.

But will you believe me if I tell you that that’s all just a lie?

We like it when it’s easy. We like it when things meet our expectations. But that doesn’t mean that it’s SUPPOSED to be easy or that our expectations are anything other than socially constructed, unreflective myths we’ve swallowed and integrated, undigested, into our psychologies.

It’s not supposed to be easy all the time – easy isn’t a measure of anything in particular. And isn’t supposed to meet our expectations – the things that violate our expectations, that surprise us, are often the most fun, as long as we can view the surprise with affectionate curiosity.

desire for sex, not necessarily orgasm

I’ve had a surprising theme in my conversations with various people lately: not wanting orgasm.

Mostly these have been folks – both people with penises and people with vaginas – who desire sex with some frequency, but desire orgasm with LESSER frequency. They say,

“I just really love making my partner come.”

Or

“I just really love penetration.”

Or

“Orgasm is hard work for me, but sex by itself is really pleasurable!”

Or

“If I come, it’s over. I want it to last.”

To these people, let me say: Yes, you are normal. Orgasm varies from person to person and there are plenty of excellent sources of pleasure from sex that don’t involve orgasm. In many ways, your sexual desire might be MORE functional and healthy than the mainstream orgasm-focused sex we’re all supposed to be having, according to Cosmo.

To their partners let me say: Yes, your partner is normal. It’s not only possible to want sex without orgasm, it’s perfectly healthy. And at the same time, your greater (or more concordant) desire for orgasm is also perfectly healthy. You’re just different.

It’s not a man/woman thing, it’s not a male/female thing. People just vary. It’s one of those things.

Now, orgasm is a limited resource over which power conflicts can emerge. If Partner A has an orgasm, they often want Partner B to have one too. It seems fair. Orgasm takes effort and trust and intimacy and often skill, and if Partner A experiences Partner B as “withholding” orgasm, Partner A may begin to feel like there’s an imbalance. They may feel controlled. They may begin to feel a bit bitter.

Is it possible your partner is deliberately withholding orgasm in order to have control? Sure. If that is what’s happening, then there are OTHER issues in your relationship than just the orgasms, and my suggestion would be to focus on those.

But if not… what is the helpful way of giving the advice, “Let it go”?

Insight can go a long way – i.e., recognizing that you feel controlled by your partner when they aren’t remotely trying to make you feel that way, so now you get to decide what to do with that information. But often people get stuck here and I genuinely don’t know what to tell people past this point.

I bet if I ask nicely, some commenters will have suggestions?

Commenters? Pretty please?

something to worry about

I have a great deal of sympathy, most of the time, for the anxiety and fear that people often carry around in the same psychological pocket with their sexuality.

And yet.

There are occasions when I wonder if people aren’t simply LOOKING for something to be worried about. They’re globally worried and they need to put their worry somewhere, they’re searching for somewhere it will fit, and sexuality makes a nice, easy target because the culture facilitates questions about “Am I normal?” and “Am I healthy?” and “Am I enough?”

Nearly always, the answers to these questions is, “Yup.”

And almost never is that answer enough to put down a person’s anxiety. Which, because I’m a sex educator, I find frustrating. There’s only so many times I can say, “Nope, that’s normal. Yes you’re actually fine. I know you still feel worried, but there’s nothing to worry about, so you can put the worry down now anytime you choose,” before I roll my eyes and give up, trying not to give in to contempt for someone so determined not to be happy in their body.

I have tried the tactic of saying, “I’ve told that this thing you’re worried about isn’t actually anything to worry about, that you’re healthy and normal, and I can see that you’re still worried anyway. So what is there that I could say or do to help you not worry anymore?”

Answer: “I guess I just need to: stop comparing myself to others/accept the way I am/try what you’ve suggested and see if it works/talk to my partner about it.”

All of these things the person “just needs to do” are things they could easily have done before they came to me – apart from whatever I suggested of course, though that’s usually something along the lines of “have sex and don’t worry or judge or question, just enjoy,” which is something all of us can do without being told, if only we think to do it.

No, when the problem isn’t the sex but the worry, no amount of sexual health education will really get to the heart of the matters.

Which is how I, a sex educator, began working to find ways to teach people to understand and cope with their anxiety.

It’s inadequate because really CHANGING your relationship with worry and anxiety takes a great deal of practice and discipline. But I can at least send them in the right direction. Here is a brief overview, for those of you looking for the right direction.

When people worry, they often have all this noise in their head – usually verbal noise – all these thoughts and questions and ideas about what is going wrong or is about to go wrong or might go wrong or went wrong in the past. What I want you you to know is that all these thoughts, all that noise, it’s an illusion cooked up by your cortex to make meaning out of the stress, fear, and panic generated by your reptilian brain.

And because it’s just a story cooked up by your cortex, you don’t have to pay attention to it. It’s just noise. And your job is gently and lovingly to quieten the noise, hush it like a crying infant. Not squash or clamp down or otherwise FORCE it to be quiet, any more than you would FORCE an infant to stop crying. You soothe and hush and love and cuddle, understand and coo and adore, until eventually those noise is quiet?

Why does this work? Well that’s another post, but it has to do with attachment. Just trust me and try it.

The main thing is: the verbal, ideas-based worry, all the things you can SAY, are unimportant. What’s important is the speed and the panic and the embodied experience. And that can not be soothed with information or reason, it can only be soothed with love.

So if you want to stop worry about your sexuality… love yourself.

Clearly this is more easily said than done.