As I laughed, cried, and cringed at the follies of high school junior Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen, I wondered why I love movies about the angst of teenage years. I enjoy a good story but could there be other reasons?
Spoiler alert: I give away some of the plot developments in The Edge of Seventeen so if you’re interested in the film, read this post after you’ve seen it.
*Struggling to Define Yourself
A teenager like Nadine struggles to define herself. She wonders who she is and whether she’s on the right path in life.
A middle-aged single divorced woman also grapples with identity and the transformation that can go along with a major life change. However, with more life experience under her belt, it may be somewhat easier for her to go through this process compared to a teen’s journey.
Rating: Somewhat similar
*Figuring out Timing and Sex
Nadine stumbles while trying to balance her desires and interest in sex with her need for real connection. Her passion leads to a sticky situation. A middle-aged single divorced woman has similar conflicts though the issue is not whether to lose her virginity but whether she should consider purely sexual relationships or focus on finding her “soul mate.”
Rating: Somewhat similar
*First/Second Date Problems: Nowhere to Go
The car often becomes the go-to make-out venue for a teenager with parents at home. Similarly, single divorced daters who aren’t prepared to indulge in a night of at-home between the sheets passion may find they are in a high school reenactment of lust between the bucket seats. Tip: Always keep breath mints in the car.
Rating: Oddly similar
*The Importance of Girlfriends
Nadine is fairly miserable as a young girl – until she develops a strong friendship with Krista. They become inseparable until Krista starts dating Nadine’s older brother. Nadine can’t accept this development and the friendship suffers. The loss affects Nadine deeply.
For teenage girls and women of all ages, girl/women friends are essential ingredients in the recipe for life happiness.
*Dramatic Mood Swings
The title alone – referencing age 17 – is enough for you to anticipate the main character’s dramatic mood swings, often influenced by hormonal triggers. Single divorced women of a certain age have also been known to experience hormonal shifts and mood swings. It’s part of our fabulous nature.
Rating: Somewhat similar
Nadine, like all teens, struggles with her relationship with her family – in this case, her widowed mother and her more popular older brother. Her difficulties are fueled by her search for independence and identity.
Divorced or widowed middle-aged women may have conflicts with their children as they all navigate life following the death or divorce of a spouse. In the case of the divorcee, she also has to contend with her often-difficult relationship with her ex-spouse.
*Bold, impetuous Behavior
It’s no surprise that Nadine demonstrates bold, impetuous behavior – it’s one of the hallmarks of the teen years. She takes her mother’s car keys and drives off (without a license) and later accidentally sends a sex-themed text message to her crush.
Bold, impetuous behavior by older women is more likely to be of a positive nature, rather than actions that often seem like a cry for help. The mature woman, for example, might boldly ask a man out – or over – but unless she has been drinking – her actions are more likely to have been carefully thought out.
Rating: More dissimilar than similar
Can you think of any other teenage vs. middle age comparisons?
This week’s Modern Love column got me thinking about touch…not that I ever really stop thinking about this important sense. When you’re single and don’t have a steady relationship, it can be a regular topic of consideration.
The subject of touch calls for comfort food and what better choice than a seasonal pumpkin recipe from Ruth Reichl’s book Comfort me with Apples.
You’re thinking, Nadia is talking about sex. Well, yes, and no. Certainly touch and sex are intertwined. Although I guess technically you could have sex with minimal touch, you can most definitely have touch with no sex.
In the ModernLove column, the writer, a single mother, longs for touch – but realizes it is the emotional closeness and intimacy with another that touch can (but doesn’t always) bring that she most desires. She finds that touch – both non-sexual physical touch and non-physical “moments of touch” – are not substitutes for a lover but “real” things in their own right.
When you have a lover, all kinds of sexual and non-sexual touch are available from the menu.
But when you are in between partners, your friends and family, and even strangers can offer physical and emotional moments of non-sexual touch. Hug a friend and/or family member. Shake hands with someone you’re introduced to. Pat an acquaintance on the back for a job well done. Beyond these options, there are ways to supplement the physical non-sexual touch you need. You may keep these up even after a lover magically appears from one of your matches.
Massage by a trained massage therapist can be a great way to not only help with those aches, pains, and muscle spasms but also to fulfill that human need for touch. Shop around for the right therapist who matches your temperament and is sensitive to your direction. Local schools of massage therapy can make this “luxury” affordable. Hire a less expensive recent program graduate who is fully trained and professional just inexperienced in the business aspects. If you have never had a massage, you may feel shy or unsure during the first session but a good therapist will ease your concerns and make any needed accommodations.
Getting your hair done – particularly having your hair washed and head massaged – is a relaxing way to acquire “touch” time. Manicures and pedicures also provide moments of touch.
Cuddle parties are another source of non-sexual touch. I only recently heard of these events. At first, I assumed they were some type of group sex venue but they appear to be legitimate workshop/social events run by trained facilitators who ensure a safe experience of giving and receiving non-sexual and fully clothed touch. I can’t personally vouch for cuddle parties. If you’re intrigued, check out cuddleparty.com for more information.
Finally, I’ll share a variation of the cuddle party with you as described by a man I went out with once. Mr. Q was separated and obviously conflicted. He was in an on-again/off-again “cuddle” relationship with a woman. This woman, fearing emotional involvement with a separated man, chose not to have sex with Mr. Q but met him periodically to cuddle – without clothes on. I don’t know exactly what happened during those encounters and the “relationship” may not have been technically platonic. However, it worked for this “couple.”
I like to think that moments of touch are like calories you need to feel humanly full. Enjoy those calories in whatever recipe works for you…massage, hugs, personal or official cuddle parties.
On a family beach vacation last week, I stayed active on the dating sites and apps. I thought, “Why not meet someone for a drink while I’m here. And if we hit it off, a 3 hour distance is not impossible.”
At this point in my dating journey, I’m open to seeing a special someone primarily on weekends.
Let’s talk over a melted goat cheese with avocado toast concoction I created today. See the end of this post for the recipe.
While perusing the dating sites, Mr. J, a tall aquatic specimen on Plenty of Fish, reached out to me. He commented on my profile and my height. We chatted extensively via text over the next 24 hours. Much of the conversation was about music. We had similar musical tastes and Mr. J sent some artist and song suggestions for me to check out on YouTube. Based on his music favorites, he is definitely a romantic.
You’re probably wondering whether our texting led to an in person meeting. I told Mr. J I would be heading home in a couple of days. At first, I thought he would pick up on that and suggest meeting for a drink. I’m now glad he didn’t ask me out. Let’s back up a bit to discuss this in more detail.
Two reasons I’m glad we never met
The first reason has to do with Mr. J’s attraction factor. In his main picture, he looks somewhat attractive. The photo is rather dark but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and thought he might look better in person. I have gone out with guys who were more attractive than their photos (the reverse has been true as well).
Mr. J’s supplementary photos were less flattering but I ignored them, focusing on the main one. Why did I do that? I’m trying not to be too picky – to be open to possibilities. And I also know that some very attractive people are just not photogenic. But a bigger reason has to do with my yearning for a relationship. So, I sometimes flirt online with someone who’s not really my type until I am hit over the head with the fact that the guy is not right for me.
It’s not just men who are visual creatures. And attractiveness (which, fortunately, means something different to everyone or we’d all be fighting over the same fellow) has a lot to do with chemistry. It’s not the only factor in chemistry, but it’s part of the attraction soup.
When I showed Mr. J’s profile to my sister, her reaction was a reality check. I came to my senses. It was unlikely that I would be attracted to Mr. J if we met.
The second reason I’m glad I didn’t meet him is because Mr. J, who had an interest in writing, quickly incorporated sexual themes into his messages. When I said I was interested in his writing, he replied with erotica. It was directed to me, and I’m not saying it didn’t raise my temperature. However, when you haven’t met someone, there’s a fine line between flirting and creepiness. He crossed that line. I faded away.
My family vacation ended without a romantic detour.
To leave you on a hopeful note, there are some interesting new features on some of the dating sites and apps I’d like to explore with you…but I’ll discuss those in another post.
For all of you foodies, here’s Nadia’s Recipe for Melted Goat Cheese and Avocado Toast:
2 slices whole grain bread (regular not monster-sized slices)
1 oz. soft goat cheese. If you don’t yet have a digital scale (hint, hint), use your judgment regarding amount
¼ of a ripe avocado
Fresh lime juice
Toast bread. Spread goat cheese on one slice and microwave until just melted (about 18 seconds)
Mash avocado and add a couple of squeezes of fresh lime juice. Spread avocado on the other slice of bread.
Make a sandwich and enjoy with a side of fresh fruit! I had a peach.
Union Station, June 10: I had just settled into my seat in the quiet car on the train from DC to NY when I saw a young woman in her early 20s board. No luggage. She wore a cream-colored spaghetti-strapped summer dress and a pink shawl. The weather was somewhat chilly that Friday morning and the sky was overcast but the previous night had been warm and summery. I thought, “Here’s a woman whose walk of shame is courtesy of Amtrak’s regional.”
No one paid any attention to her but then people on the quiet car are often typing on their laptops, reading, or sleeping. She got off a short time later in Baltimore. I was curious about her story. First date? Did she intend to be out all night or did the evening unfold in an unexpected way.
Then I wondered about the origins of “walk of shame” and how – and why – the term is only associated with women. Certainly those who walk in “shame” were with men the previous night. Have some grilled halibut nicoise with vegetables while I share some history.
As always, when curious, consult Google. Ms. Google identified an informative article in Business Insider that describes the origins of the term. In medieval France, adulterers were punished by roping the couple together naked and forcing them to walk through town. According to the medieval expert who wrote the article, sometimes villagers beat them with clubs. Trumpeters led the way to make certain the townspeople saw them. If the man escaped either before or after his arrest, he avoided the public humiliation but the woman was still paraded, without clothes, through town. The woman did not have this escape clause option.
I have never done a walk of shame but then I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of. And yet, that was the term that came to mind when I saw the “girl” on the train (with apologies to Paula Hawkins).
It’s hard to change long-held language associations even when attitudes have changed. Unfortunately some people are still stuck in the dark ages. As President Obama said last Tuesday, ““We need to change the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality but gives men a pat on the back for theirs.”
If turnabout is fair play, I think I will punish or at least slap the wrists of a few men for their shameful (for various reasons) dating profiles. These men should be doing that walk. You know I like to leave you with a bit of humor.
Didn’t I know this guy in middle school?
The next one is subtler. Note the two sentences after he mentions the Poconos.
Lists can be helpful but it’s important to know when to stop:
Here’s looking at you kid – right through that window.
Until next week, happy dating or not dating – and without shame!
In honor of the 1-year birthday of this blog (February 14), I’m going to indulge in a brief interlude of narcissism. Today’s theme: what I learned in the last year about dating, sex, and life in your 60s – and blogging.
My goal, as always, is to impart useful knowledge, make you laugh, or just be that wing woman sitting at the whine bar with you while we wonder why the hell we can’t find the one.
I’m going to write this blog post in real dating time. In other words, I’m writing this post while texting two guys simultaneously – a guy from Tinder and a Bumble match.
Given my track record lately, one will turn out to be a Russian spy who has traveled forward in time from the cold war era and the other one will actually be a married trans woman. But hope springs eternal…so I text on.
Join me in an anti-Valentine’s Day treat of creamy Gorgonzola and portobello mushroom risotto created by a wonderfully named chef called Nadia G (of Bitchin’ Kitchen fame). Just substitute vegetable broth for the chicken stock and you will eat like Nadia A.
And now I present my top 14 lessons learned in the last year about dating, sex, life in your 60s, and blogging:
*Maximizing opportunities keeps hope alive. I’m on multiple dating sites and apps. Later this month, I will try speed dating a second time (via a new speed dating meet-up) and attend a Match happy hour with live in the flesh as opposed to virtual men.
*Keep trying something new. This is related to the maximizing opportunities point above. The single life is not only about dating but also about finding ways to make new friends and to enrich your life through education, culture, or sport. I signed up for a Spanish class, multiple new meet-up groups, and went to museums, art galleries, poetry readings, and story telling events.
*Keep trying something old in a new way. Because I have CRS (Can’t Remember Shit), I have no idea what I meant when I jotted this down in my first draft of this post…. but it sounds good so I’m keeping it. Please tell me what you think I meant.
*It’s good to get out of your comfort zone. Take this in any way you want. Going to a bar happy hour by myself was a leap for this shy blogger.
*Say yes to as much as you can. Even if you’re tired. Even if you’re cranky. Go, do, enjoy.
*If a man starts to make you feel bad about yourself in any way, run to the nearest exit. Consider the source and do not believe anything he says about you.
*Similarly, if a man doesn’t make you feel good about yourself, look elsewhere.
*Get used to the roller coaster of dating. One day you’ll be messaging or talking to 3 guys – all seemingly good possibilities and by the end of the next day, one has disappeared, one is revealed as a scammer, and the other one is starting to creep you out.
*Smile to yourself when you’re out with a couple (married or otherwise) that drives each other crazy or engages in petty fighting. At this moment, say, TGIS (Thank God I’m Single.)
*If a man’s total focus is on sex – either before or after you meet – drop him even if you want sex.
*Put on your big girl panties and tell your man what you need and what you want.
*Keep a journal or write a blog to help you figure out your life. Writing an anonymous blog helped motivate me to try new things – for the good of the blog.
*Be as physically active as you can to relieve stress and to feel better about yourself.
*Be a woman who roars. Revel in your strength and independence. It feels good to add oil and transmission fluid to your car, tighten that loose toilet seat, manage a home renovation project, and book an overseas trip.
What have you learned in the last year? Let me know. If you liked this post or any past ones, sign up to get regular email delivery of this blog. To maximize your pleasure, sign up for my Twitter feed and like my Facebook page. You’ll get frequent daily updates of news and features about dating, relationships, sex, the single life, and life in your 60s.
Although I don’t advocate CIA-style interrogation of a date, sometimes the right question or two or three can illuminate a potential partner’s suitability.
It’s important to be creative when designing questions for your love interest. One option is to use The 36 Questions, but those are geared to establishing intimacy. Today I’m interested in questions designed to find out if you and Mr. XO are compatible and whether he will make you happy.
My inspiration comes in part from a recent article in Fortune magazine that reported on challenging job interview questions. The out-of-the- box questions collected by the Five O’ Clock Club run the gamut from “How much should you charge to wash all of the windows in Seattle?” to “Describe the color yellow to somebody who’s blind.”
Some basic advice: don’t ask more than 1 or 2 of these questions per date and try to weave them into the conversation so you don’t arouse suspicion. And don’t ask them while strapping your date down and dripping a cup of water onto his face.
Questions to Ask Your Love Interest:
What did you have for dinner last night?
The correct answer: Baby kale salad with roasted apples and pomegranate seeds, bouillabaisse, home baked French bread, chocolate orange soufflé for dessert.
Relationship/compatibility subtext: You need a man who can hold his own in the kitchen – even if you’re an accomplished home chef. Not only will this make cooking together a viable fun activity or competition for you both (think Throwdown with Bobby Flay), he can comfort you with a home cooked meal when you are down.
If you had enough money to outsource one household chore, what would you pick?
The correct answer: Whatever chore you hate the most.
Relationship/compatibility subtext: The correct answer will show you whether he has listened to your complaints about your most detested household duty. It is important to find a partner who really listens and takes action to help you.
You go to the pound to pick out a puppy. The person in charge tells you they have a new pilot program. You may take home a new puppy every week for life or adopt one puppy,
The correct answer: Adopt one puppy.
Relationship/compatibility subtext: You want a one-woman man.
You are on your way to work and running late to an important meeting. You encounter an adorable little puppy (O.K., I love puppies) who is obviously lost, confused, thirsty, and hungry. You know your significant other is making a presentation at work today, what do you do?
The correct answer: “I would take this puppy to work with me even if I was fired.”
Relationship/compatibility subtext: Depending on your age and life situation, Mr. XO’s answer provides clues as to whether he can sustain an egalitarian relationship. How would he juggle caring for your and his aging parents when you are both working? How might he handle parenting duties in a two-career household? What would Mr. XO do if you had a sick child, the babysitter had the plague, you were completing a crucial project at work and he had an important deadline to meet? Can this man step up to the plate and sacrifice his career if needed in support of your own?
You are stranded on an island with one other person who happens to be a woman. Thanks to a small island lake there is plenty of water but food is scarce. One afternoon, you are foraging for food by yourself when you unexpectedly encounter a plantain tree with one lone plantain on it. Do you eat it before you return or bring it back to camp to share?
The correct answer: Bring it back to share and offer the first bites to the woman.
Relationship/compatibility subtext: Mr. XO’s answer provides a clue to his generosity in the bedroom and whether he subscribes to the crucial philosophy of She Comes First.
Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a spouse or girlfriend. How was it resolved?
The correct answer: Apologize – regardless of the conflict or who is actually at fault.
Relationship/compatibility subtext: The simple act of apology demonstrates skills in conflict resolution and the reality-based truism that the woman is always right.
Why should I date you?
The correct answer: I have all the qualities you’re seeking according to your OkCupid profile and I think you are brilliant, beautiful, interesting, and everything I am looking for in a woman.
Relationship/compatibility subtext: Use your gut to determine his sincerity. Is the correct answer accompanied by gazing into your eyes? Is he a good kisser? Are you comfortable with Mr. XO and at the same time, do you have butterflies before you see him? The answer to this question must be weighed in the context of his entire package. No. Pun. Intended.
If you woke up and had 1,000 emails from matches on a dating site and could only answer 100, how would you choose which ones to respond to?
The correct answer: “Even though I could only answer 100, I would answer 5 and see what happens. If I find a good match, I don’t need to keep exploring and searching.”
Relationship/compatibility subtext: See above re: finding a one-woman man
What are 3 positive things an ex would say about you?
The correct answer: “She would say I was fun to be with, a great listener, and I was a terrific supporter of her and of women’s rights.”
Relationship/compatibility subtext: This is a perfect opportunity for your love interest to reimagine history. Most likely he will think back to a kinder, gentler time in a previous relationship and use his best spin technology to present himself in a good light. Use your woman’s intuition to determine if there’s even a shred of truth in his list of three.
You are on a road trip in unfamiliar territory and appear to be lost. The GPS is not working. What do you do?
The correct answer: Stop and ask for directions.
Relationship/compatibility subtext: Is Mr. XO a team player? Will he work with you to solve the problems of life or will he drive alone aimlessly while he runs out of gas and you run out of patience?
Can you add to my list of questions? Let me know! Until next week, happy dating or not dating.
“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.
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.
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 SheComes 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?
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.
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.