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Tips for Sexual Wellbeing
Stop Worrying about Being Normal
By far the most common thing that people who come for sex therapy say is that they 'just want to be normal'. There is an idea out there that everybody else in the world is having 'normal sex' and there is something very wrong with us if we are not. People often feel terribly distressed and ashamed if they don't think they fit into 'normal'.
But let's think about 'normal' for a moment. Back in the 1970s the idea of normal sex might have been once a month, in the missionary position with the lights off. Today if we watch many recent television programmes it might be swinging from the chandeliers with a different partner every week.
So even over the last few decades 'normal' has changed. Certainly the idea of what is normal is different in different countries and even between different groups in our own country: Imagine the kind of sex life a 21 year old heterosexual woman might be having compared to a 40 year old gay man or a married couple in their seventies. As the author Gayle Rubin says, whatever you enjoy sexually, somebody somewhere will think it is disgusting, and whatever completely turns you off, somebody somewhere will find the most exciting thing imaginable. Perhaps we should allow ourselves to have exactly the kind of sex that we want, so long as everybody involved is enjoying what they are doing.
The truth is that there is no 'normal' way to have sex. The only thing that does seem to be very normal is to worry about sex. A very recent study found that 35% of men and 54% of women said that they had problems with sex.
We worry so much about having what we think is normal sex that we often lose track of what it is we enjoy sexually. Then it is no wonder that we might find it difficult to have sex, to find it fulfilling or even to want it at all. Imagine if you really enjoyed pasta and pizzas but forced yourself only to ever eat fish and chips! It can be very useful to think of sex as being a bit like food. People have a whole range of sexual tastes, and we might like to try different things on different occasions.
Challenging the Myths of Sex
As well as the myth that there is one kind of 'normal' sex that everyone should be having, there are plenty of other myths that lots of people believe. Any sex therapist will tell you that they are nonsense. Here are just a few:
- myth – The only true kind of sex involves someone putting their penis in someone else. Anything else isn't really sex
- myth – Having sex on your own isn't really sex
- myth – Sex should always involve an orgasm
- myth – If one person orgasms that has to be the end of sex
- myth – Sex should always start with lots of foreplay
- myth – Foreplay is for kids
- myth – Men need an erection in order to have sex
- myth – Sex is about putting on a good performance, not about enjoying yourself
- myth – Men should take control of sex, they should be the ones who initiate it and determine what is done
- myth – Men are always ready for sex
- myth – Men always want sex
- myth – Women rarely want sex
- myth – Women need to be convinced to have sex
- myth – People shouldn't need any extra lubrication in order to have sex except that produced by their bodies
- myth – Men should be able to last all night
- myth – Women should have sex with their partner otherwise they will lose them
- myth – All kissing and touching should lead to sex
- myth – It is bad to have sex on your own too much
- myth – You should never have sex on your own if you have a partner
- myth – If you fantasize about someone else you're not happy with your partner
- myth – If you have had sex with someone once you have to do it again
- myth – If you have had one kind of sex it isn't okay to say you don't want to do that any more
It can sometimes be useful to know the statistics about sexual matters to help us to be aware of the myths.
For example, a lot of people who have watched pornography think that that is a good representation of what sex is like, but the bodies and sex on pornography are very different in real life.
Both penises and vaginas come in all shapes and sizes but people can be very anxious if their own don't look like the ones in pornography. Actually it is very common for vaginas to be more visible than they are in pornography, often with the inner lips of the vagina being more obvious. Penises on pornography tend to be two or three times the size of the average erect penis which is 5 inches (12.5cm) long. Of course many people will have penises which are smaller or larger than this but are still perfectly normal because they come in all sizes. Heterosexual men who are worried about penis length also often forget that vaginas come in all lengths too. Many women with more narrow, short vaginas can find sex with large penises painful. And, of course, there are lots of things you can do sexually that don't involve putting a penis in a vagina.
Pornography often shows women having orgasms from having a penis in their vagina. Whilst some women can reach an orgasm this way it is far more common for women to need some stimulation on their clitoris: touching it with their hands, or their partner's hands, oral sex, pressing their thighs together, or having their partner's body rubbing against it.
Pornography also suggests that sex lasts for hours. Again, sex can last from anything from a matter of seconds to days depending on what you are doing and how you define 'sex'! A lot of men are concerned with how long it takes them to get an orgasm, often worrying that it is too quick. Again this can vary immensely, but the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey found that the average length of time for an American man was 2-7 minutes.
Although his research was back in the 1950s and things have probably changed since then, Alfred Kinsey’s research was useful for showing us how common things are that we might have been told were uncommon. He found that two thirds of women, and almost all men, had sex on their own, and that between 10 and 40 per cent of people had had sex with somebody of the same gender as themselves.
Thinking About What Is Going On In the Rest of Your Life
The myth of being ever-ready for sex assumes that sex is unrelated to what is going on in the rest of our lives; that we should be keen for sex whether we are happy or sad, stressed or calm, tired or awake.
In reality, for most people, sex is a very good barometer for how everything else is going. Instead of feeling bad that there is a sexual difficulty (a change in desire, excitement or fulfillment) we could look at the sexual barometer as a useful device for warning us that something might not be quite right and might need looking at. Sex therapy can be a useful place to start figuring out what that might be.
For example, sexual difficulties can be a sign of certain medical conditions. Often when people are feeling sad or unsatisfied with life or struggling emotionally, the first thing that goes is their sexual feelings. Similarly when relationships are going through a rocky time sex often suffers. If someone is anxious about their sexual performance it may be that they have similar anxieties about whether they are performing well in other areas of their life. When people suffer losses, such as bereavement, or go through major life changes, their level and type of desire may also change or become lost.
This is why many sex therapists won't consider a sexual problem in isolation but want to know about the rest of you, your relationships and life.
Taking Sex Off the Menu
Whatever your sexual issue, strangely a sex therapist is quite likely to recommend that you start by not having sex!
Because of all the myths around sex and the desire to be 'normal' many of us completely lose track of what we actually enjoy. We may well be trying to have kinds of sex which don't bring us much pleasure at all. Often the best thing that we can do is to completely stop what we are doing for a few weeks or months and then build up again gradually, allowing ourselves to try different things. The most common exercise therapists use for this is called sensate focus.
Figuring Out What You Enjoy
When you have taken sex off the menu it is a good idea to spend some time thinking about what you do enjoy, first of all alone, and then with a partner if you have one.
You might want to try some of the following suggestions:
- Think about your first sexual feelings when you were younger: What were they about? What kinds of things did you like doing or imagining? How do you feel about them now?
- What sexual thoughts, if any, come to you in idle moments? You might want to write them down somewhere private.
- Do you like erotic images or erotic stories? If so you can look at some of these that are available in books, magazines or online and think about which ones you find exciting. The author, Nancy Friday, has collected together people's fantasies in books. A lot of people find it useful to read through these to see the range of different things that people find exciting and to see if any of them excite them.
- Take some time alone by yourself, get yourself relaxed, perhaps by having a warm bath. Let yourself explore your own body with your hands, discovering what kinds of touching you enjoy and don't enjoy.
- Alone or with a partner write down every sexual activity you can possibly think off. Include anything however silly or unappealing it sounds. Then you can go through separately looking at each one and writing 'yes' 'no' or 'maybe' to the question of whether you would like to try doing that activity. You don't have to share that list with anybody else unless you feel comfortable doing so, but it gives you a good idea about your sexual menu. Remember though that this may well change over time as you try things.
Building Up the Sexual Menu: Sensate Focus
The exercise that sex therapists often use to help couples figure out what they enjoy together is called "sensate focus". The point of sensate focus is not performance but sensation.
It is a chance to try out all different kinds of physical sensations to see which ones we enjoy and which we don't. It is important to give kind, honest feedback to your partner about what you enjoy and what you don't enjoy.