Monthly Archives: August 2013

Can We Talk?

(8/19/13)  Ask just about any therapist what it takes to improve someone’s sex life and at some point you’re bound to hear the infamous, “Communication is the key.”  Good advice, yes?  Well, it sounds pretty basic, straightforward and even simple when it’s parroted about so unanimously, but if it’s so good, why do people have such difficulty in discussing sex?

While such wonderful counsel makes perfect sense intellectually, people are funny animals when it comes to matters of meaning.  Emotional filters usually get the upper hand, sorting messages into one of three bins:  If we believe that we’ll get something useful from a conversation, we’re all into it.  If we think that it’ll result in some pain, the barriers snap up.  If neither is the case, then it’s a quick trip to Ambivalenceville.  It’s a natural process—part of being human—but it also impedes communication in ways that few are genuinely conscious of at the time it’s happening.

Yes, communication is the key, but in many cases, it’s also the lock.  Since adults have been generally socialized into specific (and usually predictable) emotional response modes based on values, norms and immediate moods, communicating about subjects that involve some measure of discomfort will usually provoke default resistance.  As this applies to sexual topics in particular, if the nail isn’t hit squarely on the head right out of the gate, the resulting awkwardness can create real obstacles that become more and more difficult to overcome.  Once that ball is rolling, the more one party tries to break through, the deeper the other party will tend to dig in–until the impasse causes an unbreakable lock.

Additionally, talking about sex these days is a lot like dealing with one of those autocorrect apps on your smartphone.  We may think we’re saying one thing, but for some strange reason, it seems to come across as something else.  Unless, of course, you really meant to say that you’re taking a trip to “Dizzy World,” the peril of emotional autocorrect (aka: interpretation) is that it often makes things worse, even when all intentions are good.  A common example of this:  One partner tries to help the other by being more specific about what they’d like in their sex life.  They think they’re being positive and helpful, of course, when they calmly state, “I would like it if you did “X” differently….” but the other partner, applying their emotional filters, hears the message as, “You suck at this and I want something/someone else.”  If this sort of communications zigzag isn’t nipped in the bud, it’s likely to result in insecurity, stubbornness and defensiveness–none of which will support improvement.  The problem is that it’s incredibly difficult to stop dead in the tracks once emotion ramps up, so any additional discussion becomes increasingly heated until it eventually boils over.  If enough of these occur, eventually the incentive for trying diminishes until, well, you know.

Why does it have to be this way?  It’s easy to say that it doesn’t, but that’s a completely intellectual response.  Sure, people could follow the many 4, 6 or 9-step methods out there for better communication but most would agree (probably through significant personal experience) that it’s highly unlikely one is inclined to stop and pull out a checklist in the heat of a competitive moment.  If they were so inclined, the business of sex and relationship counseling wouldn’t be as booming as it is today.  Yes, resolving to practice better methods in advance is a possible option, but the reactive nature of emotion-based communication seems to effectively counter most proactive efforts.  These may be excuses, but they’re perfectly reasonable given the state of our collective socialization in recent times.  The bottom line is that it’s a complex problem with no clear cut, one-size-fits-all solution, but here’s a somewhat radical suggestion:  Embrace the chaos.

Clinically applying an intellectual process to such a highly personal and emotional subject as sex may make some sense in a sterile vacuum, but real life is rarely so neat and tidy.  Accepting, understanding and positively leveraging the chaotic and often illogical nature inherent in interpersonal relationships significantly increases one’s chances of succeeding in them–especially when a high-risk, high-value matter is at hand.  By recognizing and actively addressing the emotional elements as the priority, patterns will emerge from the chaos and become exceptionally useful in building a more stable communications bridge.  Perhaps it’ll be a matter of using specific vocabulary that they’re more comfortable with.  Maybe it’ll be based on making something into a fun bonding experience instead of a challenging critique.  Conceivably, it could even be something as simple as ensuring the “right” emotional mood is set before tackling the matter in question (or smartly holding off if the circumstances aren’t favorable).  The approaches are as endless at the possible scenarios, but the basis is the same:  Work with–and even feature–the specific emotional factors involved rather than against them.

Oh, and make it a point to turn the emotional autocorrect off.

Sex Ed Across America and the Rise of the Celebrity Sexpert

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Photo credit: FallenAngelTV.com

(8/12/13)  Sex education in America has made a lot of progress since the early days of Kelloggs (yes, the Corn Flakes flakes–errrr, folks) and the Boy Scouts touting their views on the alleged catastrophic consequences of masturbation.  We’ve even managed a few steps forward since the Clinton administration’s summary dismissal of U.S. Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, for suggesting that masturbation be included in sex education programs.  But let’s face it: Sex ed is still too divisive as a political hot potato to say that it’s anywhere near where it should be today.

A quick peek at some key indicators might put the current situation in focus.  Less than half of American states require sex ed in their public school curricula and even fewer mandate that, if taught, it be factually and medically accurate(1).  Political and moral arguments aside for a moment, whether you believe that a comprehensive versus abstinence-only approach is best, the fact that over 3/4 of a million young women between 15-19 in the U.S. become pregnant each year–and that over 80% reported their pregnancy was unintentional(2)–should be enough of a wake-up call.  Factor in that young adults account for about half of the almost 20 million new sexually transmitted disease (STD) cases annually(2) and it’s pretty easy to see that any so-called progress hasn’t even closely equated to a viable system yet.

Here’s the rub: Kids having kids or proliferating STDs are only symptoms, not the problem.  Whether by using children as perpetual pawns in never-ending political, religious and social chess games or simply through a basic failure in leadership, the responsibility for not adequately addressing the obvious need for effective sex education lies solidly among adults.  Are we (collectively and generally) really that unwilling to come together on this for the benefit of our youngins?  Or are we just unable to for various reasons, whether legitimate or rationalized?

Let’s be optimistic and presume good intentions for a moment regardless of individual politics, et cetera.  Given the severe stigmas and historical hang-ups associated with such a basic and natural element of the human experience, it’s not unreasonable to think that many adults genuinely don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to the intricacies of sexuality.  This would explain a serious vacuum that’s exponentially amplified when it comes to competently teaching all of the ins and outs to a younger generation or being fully capable of participating in a process for devising a cohesive system to address it all.  The good news, however, is that this is America–and whenever a serious vacuum exists, you can bet your buns that capitalism will find and fill it.  Hence, the rise of what we will hereafter call, “The celebrity sexpert.”

The notion of a sexuality expert with widespread appeal isn’t necessarily new, but its acceptance has taken quite a while to pick up steam and grow.  To put it in perspective, the Jackie Robinson of celebrity sexperts was Dr. Ruth Westheimer.  While the infancy of uninhibited and straightforward sex education for adults was marked by mostly sterile and clinical approaches, “Doctor Ruth” became a bona fide rock star by racing upstream against all currents and relating to people on their own terms.  Her pint-sized stature and ethnic, motherly demeanor (“Don’t be afrrrrrraid of ze PEE-nissss!”) probably afforded her more than a few free-passes when it came to potential opposition (after all, who in their right mind is going to beat up on a little old lady, right?), but it was her solid expertise and sincere compassion that solidified her as a significant resource in adult sex education.  She was a tough act to follow–and for a while, few did.  Replicating her unique appeal was almost impossible, but her success did open the door for a new generation of shtick-savvy subject matter experts.  It also illuminated a significant need along with the opportunity to turn the tide favorably.

At this stage, most blend in rather than lead from the point, but the number of modern celebrity sexperts is now growing steadily and a broad, solid foundation is emerging when it comes to quality adult sex education.  It’s a key trend that needs to be encouraged, embraced, supported and nurtured.  A positive surge in developing better understanding and tearing down outdated and ridiculous stigmas will increasingly influence adult attitudes until the tipping point is reached–finally benefiting our younger generations and those to come.

Rather than feed out what’s likely to be an incomplete list of current or rising celebrity sexperts, we’d like to hear from you.  Who do you think is the rising star in adult sex ed and what do you think makes them a leader in the field?  Let us know!

References:  (1)  (2)

Yes, Virginia, Healthy Sex Does Make for a Healthy Life

(8/5/13)  We are saddened to note the passing of an American icon: Pioneering sex therapist, Virginia Johnson, who died last week at the age of 88.  Along with her husband, William Masters, she was a maverick in creating the science of sex therapy; an achievement that’s particularly noteworthy because it began during a time when even the mere mention of “sex” was considered an inexcusable social faux-pas and subject to extreme censorship.

Starting in the mid-1950s when few sex-positive resources existed, the team of Masters and Johnson embarked on a mission to bring sexual health into the light.  Against the odds and in the face of tremendous scrutiny, they not only succeeded in breaking through the social stigmas of the time, but also in creating effective strategies and treatments for a wide range of sexual dysfunctions.  Their groundbreaking work inspired the countless subsequent studies and therapies that seem so ubiquitous today.  They were also among the first to scientifically conclude that having a healthy sex life has a direct impact on improving health overall.

It’s hard to say precisely where their initial clinical connection regarding overall health was asserted, but their 1964 book, Human Sexual Response made one of the first publicly compelling cases and set the foundation for many later projects that have confirmed and built on their findings.  The book was instrumental in laying out how a healthy sex life could physiologically influence a wide range of quality of life aspects including everything from living longer to reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.  In particular, Virginia Johnson’s observations were credited towards the finding that sex can relieve headaches through stress reduction, pain-inhibiting hormone production and improved circulation.  That may seem like a simple and natural conclusion to draw nowadays, but at the time, there was actually very little empirical evidence available to back up the claim.  Masters and Johnson had to develop it all from scratch–and they had to do it while often contradicting the prevailing (albeit goofy) notions and misinformation of the age.

Yes, we’re saddened by her passing, but happy to praise her life, her work and her long term commitment to improving the lives of countless people.  Please join us in celebrating a true hero:  Virginia Johnson.  Rest in peace.

(Incidentally, the next time you get, “Not tonight dear, I have a headache,” you can now confidently smile and playfully reply, “Well, according to Virginia Johnson,  sex cures headaches, soooo….”  It may not immediately improve your partner’s mood, but it’s sure to earn you a few snuggle points and perhaps make them think twice before offering that excuse next time.)