Demystifying Sex: An Interview with Sex Therapist, Author, and Educator, Ian Kerner, Ph.D.

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“I write about sex because often it feels like the most important thing in the world.” Jeanette Winterston 

When I think about the sex ed classes I had in junior high and high school, the focus was on DANGER: from sexually transmitted diseases to unwanted pregnancy to the dreaded menstrual cycle a young girl feared in advance of puberty. As I grew up and entered adulthood, there was no Part 2 class other than experience. What was missing was a scientifically-based exploration of the pleasures of sex and sexual physiology that wasn’t just focused on reproduction, and a look at the range of sexual experiences.

Now I’m not advocating a no-holds barred discussion of all things sexual in junior high sex education classes, but at some point and in some venue (maybe one’s home), there should be the beginnings of a better discussion about sex. And it shouldn’t begin and end when one is a teen or young adult. It should continue throughout life.

For don’t we all have questions about sex, sexuality, and our sexual relationships at different stages of life?

But people don’t talk about sex for the most part – unless it’s a joke or a complaint: “I’m not getting any,” for example. They learn from sexy books and magazines and watch sexy movies. And some may have an intimate discussion with a friend or relative. Women likely do a better job than men of talking to their good friends and close relatives about sexual response and enjoyment but an explicit discussion is likely not that common.

And talking to your partner about sex is not always easy or productive. So people may not fully realize the intricacies of sexual enjoyment and passion and how they can live a sexual life to the fullest – and help their partner do the same.

All this goes to say that Ian Kerner’s work as a sexologist, sex therapist, writer, and media personality is never done.

As the best-selling author of She Comes First, The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman and Passionista, The Empowered Woman’s Guide to Pleasuring a Man, Ian Kerner, Ph.D. brings women and men not only a toolkit for pleasuring each other but a way of thinking about sex and being.

His books combine scientific research, clinical experience, and interviews with non-patients. His writing style is witty and humorous. He’s also very open about his own past challenges with premature ejaculation and he explains how this issue prompted him to first learn the value of pleasuring a woman orally.

I said in a previous post about my Ten Favorite Things that every man you’re in a relationship with should read She Comes First – after you peruse it of course.

So read on to learn what Kerner says about cliteracy, raunchy lovemaking, spontaneous and responsive desire, and how to talk to your partner about sex. Kerner’s comments have been minimally edited for clarity and brevity.

There’s a lot of material here…. so let’s slowly enjoy our lunch of Chef Ottolenghi’s sagnarelli with broad beans and lemon.

Ian Kerner, Ph.D.
Ian Kerner, Ph.D.

Subverting the Intercourse Discourse

N: What do you think the take home message is from both She Comes First and Passionista?

I: One of the main reasons I wrote She Comes First is because as a sex therapist one of the most common complaints I heard was, ‘I’m not experiencing an orgasm during intercourse, what is wrong with me?’

And I really wanted to share the message to women and men that nothing is wrong with you — intercourse is not the most consistent way of helping a woman to achieve orgasm.

I wanted to subvert what I call the intercourse discourse and to get men especially to have a realistic understanding of female sexuality and to create mutually pleasurable experiences.

So the take home message for She Comes First was that really the clitoris is the powerhouse of the female orgasm in response to persistent stimulation and that intercourse is not really the best way to provide that. It was a book that was promoting the concept of sexual cliteracy as opposed to ill cliteracy.

With Passionista, just as I tried to give men a realistic understanding of female sexuality, I wanted to give women a better understanding of male sexuality based on research and science. Men experience low libido for example; men don’t just switch on and off in terms of their sexuality. I wanted to provide women with a more nuanced view on male sexuality.

With both books, it was important that I’m not just philosophizing but offering tips and techniques and sex scripts that are implementable. I think one of the big problems with literature and sexuality and self-help literature at large is that there is often a big message but there isn’t always a clear way to translate that message into action.

N: Did you find that your target audience read the books when prompted by their partner rather than seeking it out on their own? In other words, did men go out and read She Comes First or did women give it to them?

I: Well She Comes First was an interesting book in that it was a crossover book. It’s been out for more than 10 years and remains the best selling sex book of the last decade. And part of the reason it has been so popular is that not just men buy it but women buy it as well– both for themselves to understand their own sexuality as well as to give to their friends and to give to their partners and in some cases to even give to their children. I’ve heard from at this point scores of men and fathers and mothers who have given the book to their sons when their sons entered early adulthood.

So I think She Comes First’s success is because it was a crossover book — to be able to fluidly move between different types of consumers. Certainly I’ve also heard from women who say, ‘I’ve read your book or I have your book or I heard about your book, how do I get my guy to read it? He thinks he knows everything, he already thinks he’s an expert.’ Those situations present more of a problem.

N: How would you advise that woman to encourage her partner to read it?

I: In some cases, I say get both She Comes First and Passionista and make it sort of a neutral present in pleasuring each other. Sometimes I say you can package it with another book or a sex toy or make it part of a desire to just have a fun, sexy experience with your partner.

Sexual Concerns in the Boomer Years

N: What do you find is the biggest sexual concern for women in the boomer years –from the age of early 50s on up?

I: I hear about a number of concerns from women age 50 and up when it comes to sex. First of all, I want to say in some cases I talk to women and men in their 50s and 60s and they’re having the best sex they’ve ever had.

Finally the kids are out of the house, they have more time, they have more disposable income and they have more chance to connect. Many boomers are enjoying the best sex of their lives.

That said, I also hear a number of complaints. From women, sometimes it can be about a loss of libido or a loss of interest in sex. It can be about self-esteem during sex.

In some cases, women in their 50s aren’t always partnered. Either they’re divorced or they’ve lost their partners and they’re concerned about how to reinvent their sex life and to start over again with their sex life. And of course there are postmenopausal issues related to hormonal changes — vaginal atrophy and drying of tissue and difficulties lubricating. So that would be a handful of the issues that I hear from boomer women. But again, many who I hear from are really enjoying the best sex of their lives — whether they are single or in a relationship.

N: What are the concerns that men have in that age group?

I: Certainly in the 50 plus age group you have a lot of men who are starting to experience erectile impairment for the first time in their lives and that can be extremely unsettling for a lot of men. Their libido isn’t what it used to be so they’re experiencing low desire.

A lot of men in their 50s are going through bigger life transitions and may be depressed or anxious so that’s also affecting how they relate to their partners and how they feel about themselves and ultimately their sexuality. Sometimes the issues are related to back pain and having sex.

But again, on an up note, I often hear from men in their 50s who are single or partnered and are really enjoying their sex lives and they’re taking care of themselves and leading the sorts of healthy lifestyles that lend themselves to healthy sex.

The Value of a Healthy Lifestyle

N: Do you think that’s one of the most important things that people can do – leading a healthy lifestyle – for sexuality?

I: Absolutely. And a healthy lifestyle includes obviously what you eat and managing your weight. It’s also about exercise and staying fit and staying elastic and stretching. It also has to do with how you manage stress and anxiety and depression.

It also has to do with how you relate to your partner in being able to keep things interesting, fresh, positive, and optimistic. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that promotes healthy sex really covers a spectrum of different dimensions.

Sex, Myths, and Types of Desire

N: What do you think is the most common misconception about sex from both a male and female perspective?

I: I think first of all that male and female sexuality shares certain similarities but also certain differences. Male desire tends to be considered spontaneous and men can generate desire almost out of nowhere. So when we talk about male desire, we often talk about spontaneous desire. When we talk about female desire, we often talk about responsive desire.

Women don’t respond as clearly to a single sexual cue. They respond to multiple sexual cues. Many women are less apt to have an interest in sex spontaneously but more apt to be interested in sex once it’s initiated and they’re responding. So that creates confusion because a lot of men wonder, ‘Well why am I always initiating? Why am I always the only one who always has to step up to bat and potentially strike out? Why doesn’t she initiate? Why isn’t she more like me? Or does it mean she’s not interested in sex?’

And then a lot of women wonder as well, ‘What’s wrong with me? Am I broken? Why am I not experiencing spontaneous desire like I see in the movies or maybe like I experienced in the first days of infatuation?’

And so a lot of women under the spontaneous desire paradigm feel like they’re either defective or broken. And that’s why we have drugs right now that are getting approved to potentially treat female desire.

I’m not really personally a fan of medicalizing sexuality and medicalizing desire but you know the dominant model for how we think about sexuality and desire is really around spontaneous desire. Again it’s like the movies – both men and women should want to tear off each other’s clothes. But when you look at the reality and, again, female desire tends to be more responsive then spontaneous, I think we need to develop a better understanding of the differences in how men and women experience sexuality.

The other misconception I think is that sex is something that should just happen and that sex tends to be largely a physical act. But when you really think about sexual arousal, it’s as much if not more mental than it is physical. Sure you can touch your genitals or touch someone’s genitals and after a long enough period of time something’s going to happen and hopefully it’s going to feel good. But we are also able to get sexually excited through thinking and reading and seeing and smelling and tasting and all of the senses. And so I think too often couples just rely on sort of a physical script to get them through a sexual experience. And I think they don’t really integrate enough of a mental experience into the act.

Spontaneous versus Responsive Desire

N: I’d like to go back to spontaneous desire because I was reading Emily Nagoski’s book and she seemed to be saying that in fact some women do feel spontaneous desire. Do you think it’s just a smaller percentage?

I: Yes, it’s a smaller percentage. There are plenty of men who also experience responsive desire as opposed to spontaneous desire. I think it’s a big generalization but it’s just that. It’s a generalization. But at a high level; it’s one that holds up. I think generally men tend to experience spontaneous desire and women tend to experience responsive desire. Do you agree or disagree with that?

N: Yes I think it works both ways. I do. I found that very interesting because I had never heard of that concept.

I: Also, I work a lot with gay couples – both men and women.

In gay male couples there’s quite a bit of promiscuity; there’s quite a bit of high libido; there’s a lot of shared sexuality; there’s a lot of non-monogamy. And I think that’s often what you get as a result of two men experiencing spontaneous desire. There’s going to be a lot of sex and a lot of interest in sex. With gay female couples it’s often the opposite – not always but a lot of the time. And I think that’s the result of two people experiencing responsive desire.

Taking the Lead

N: You mentioned something about the man saying, ‘Well why isn’t she initiating?’ Do you feel that men would prefer equal initiation or do some men feel threatened and they find that inhibits them? From your practice, what do you see?

I: From my practice, I find that many men are frustrated because they would like their partners to initiate more. They feel like the burden of initiating sex often is upon them. Now that is not to say I don’t encounter a lot of men who are experiencing low male desire, but for those men who have a healthy level of desire, a lot of them feel like it would be nice to be the one who’s being courted or pursued or it would be nice to have her initiate or for her to take the dominant role.

I rarely encounter men who would be threatened by that…I mean it may be a generational thing as well – that more traditionally gendered role of guys pursue and women get courted. But today you have so many egalitarian couples who are sharing responsibilities and sharing their lives in interesting ways that I think a lot of men would like a more egalitarian approach to sex and initiation.

N: I’m not sure if in your practice, you see many single people but let’s say someone is in a new relationship, do you find that if a woman is more assertive sexually, it would be less desirable to her partner than if she was in a long term relationship? Or don’t you see it as being a factor?

I: It doesn’t really come up and I work with a lot of single people. In general most of them are interested in getting partnered and in developing a secure, safe attachment with a person that includes a strong intimate, erotic component but I don’t really hear too often that one way or the other who’s initiating – it doesn’t really come up.

What do People Know about Sex?

N: How would you describe the degree of education that men have about women’s sexual anatomy and physiology? Do you think they’re in general not well informed?

I: Certainly a lot of men get a lot of their ideas from both their friends and what they hear or learn from porn. I think in both those cases – with friends and porn — there can be some good information and some good truths. You can learn something by talking to a friend and you can learn something by watching porn. But there are also a lot of untruths as well and sometimes a lot of pressure or a lot of expectations.

The other way a man can learn about sex is from a partner but a lot of people get very tongue tied when it comes to talking about sex. Or they feel shy or that it’s inappropriate or that you shouldn’t have to talk about sex. You know there are still a lot of women who would opt to fake orgasm rather than communicate to their partner about what they want.

So a lot of men are growing up in an age of porn and with partners who aren’t always communicative and they don’t know how to communicate. So I would say a lot of men are misinformed about female sexuality.

N: And what about women? Do you think they are more informed?

I: No, I would say that women are sort of equally ill informed. Women also get a lot of their ideas about sex from friends. One friend may really value penis size. Another friend may not. Women also get a lot of their ideas about sex from porn or from Hollywood movies. And I think what you want to be doing is getting your sexual information and feedback hopefully from a loving, trusting connected partner. That’s the best way to get your information – is through having sex and being able to talk about it in a loving, constructive, erotic, interesting, and sexy way.

It would also be great if we had better sex education in this country and if talk shows talked about sex in a deeper, more interesting way. You said that you read Emily Nagoski’s book. She’s a good friend and a colleague of mine. You’re not likely to get too much about the differences between spontaneous and responsive desire in a two- minute talk show segment. So there isn’t always access to the cutting edge, accurate information.

How to Talk to your Partner about Sex

N: I’d like to go back to what you mentioned before about being able to talk to your partner. How would you help a couple who had a hard time talking to each other about sex or how would you help an individual who wanted some way to be comfortable in a conversation about sex? What can people do?

I: Talking about sex doesn’t have to be heavy handed. It doesn’t have to be clinical. It doesn’t have to be a bummer. It doesn’t have to be aggressive, offensive, non-constructive, which is often what it turns out to be. I think talking about sex, first of all, can be sexy.

I have an exercise that I use with my patients. A woman comes in and looks sad because her partner doesn’t spend enough time on foreplay or her partner’s oral sex technique is lacking or he doesn’t give the way he likes to receive per se. And there’s a lot of anger and resentment. And so one way of dealing with it is to go and bring it up and argue back or have an angry conversation.

But I often say, ‘Well, what is the solution first of all? What do you want?’   ‘Well I want more connection. I want more kissing. I want more foreplay. I want more oral sex. I want more frequency’ – whatever it is. And I say, ‘Well, how could you express that to your partner in the form of a fantasy? Or as a sexy desire?’

And now you’ve moved from a place of negativity where you’re focused on what you’re not getting to a place of positivity where you’re reframing what you’d like to be getting in a really positive sexy way. So now you can go to your partner and say, ‘hey, you know I’m having these sexy thoughts and these sexy fantasies about you and let me tell you what’s going on in my head.’ And that’s a much more friendly and inviting and sexy way that’s more likely to lead to the sex that you’d actually like to be having.

N: And then maybe the partner would also do the same thing in conversation?

I: Absolutely.

Are People Happy with their Sex Life?

N: Do you think most people are happy with their sex life? I guess you’re seeing a different population and it’s hard to tell.

I: Well, I generally see people who are unhappy but I certainly hear from plenty of people who have read my books and have said they’ve been helped them to improve their sex or continue to expand their sexual horizons.

You know it’s interesting — I’m part of a website called goodinbed.com and we did a survey not too long back on the topic of boredom. I think close to 70% of people – couples – were bored in their relationships. And more than just sexual boredom — but sexual boredom was definitely high among the types of boredom that people were experiencing.

So that was a little disheartening – about 70 percent were bored in their relationship — but well over that percentage of people said they were very open to a sexy suggestion from their partner to try something new and different. So while I found the overall levels of boredom disheartening I found the interest and the potential for changing that boredom into something sexy and adventurous was optimistic. So going from boredom to interested could be as simple as making a sexy suggestion to your partner.

When a Couple is not Getting Any

N: What are some of the reasons leading to a lack of sex in a relationship? When you hear from people who say, ‘We’re not having sex any more,’ what are some of the common triggers of that?

I: I think certainly it can be a number of life factors from having kids to working to being busy to feeling overwhelmed to being stressed out to being depressed to feeling not so great in your body. I think all of those are factors especially in this digital age where you’re always connected and there’s always some kind of stimulation that’s a click away…whether it’s a text, an email, a blog entry, something to read.

You know there are more demands on our time but I find what a lot of people are actually saying is, ‘I want to want sex, I just sort of don’t really want it. In theory, I like sex. In theory, I like my partner. In theory, I’m interested in all these things. I don’t know…It’s just not happening.’

We were talking about spontaneous desire and responsive desire before and especially for women, there’s a stage before desire. That stage some people call willingness. Some people talk about an arousal that can lead to desire but desire doesn’t come out of nowhere. So if you’re not doing anything to create a context for desire, you’re not going to experience it.

I think the main thing is that couples are not really putting themselves through the motions. Sometimes you have to put your body through the motion and trust that your mind will follow. And I think a lot of couples just aren’t putting themselves through the motions and so desire isn’t really manifesting. And that’s when a month goes by and you haven’t had sex and now, statistically, you’re in a sex rut.

Raunchy Lovemaking

N: What is your philosophy of sex?

I: My philosophy of sex I would say is raunchy lovemaking. And by that I mean it’s very important I think to have a partner you care about and to whom you’re attached.

I’m not saying that casual sex isn’t a whole lot of fun. And for some couples non-monogamy can be great. But I think in general we are sort of wired to pursue a secure attachment with a partner who we love and who we’re attracted to. And I think it’s important to find that secure, safe attachment.

But that attachment on its own is not enough to generate a high quality sex life. You need more than attachment. You need the ability to fantasize, the ability to be raunchy, to be naughty, to be filthy, whatever it is you want to be. You need to have that base of attachment but then really be able to layer a level of risk on top of it with your partner.  

N: I appreciate you taking the time.

I: My pleasure. Thank you for thinking of me.

Resources:

Until next week, happy dating or not dating!

XXXOOO

Nadia