(Extract from unpublished chapters of my book “The Archetype Diet”.)
Women used to feel shame around wanting sex, now they have shame around not wanting it.
The sexual revolution gave us the freedom to have sex whenever we want, with whomever we want, and without obligation. We thought, without actually thinking, that our desire would be there, unwavering and ready to be tapped into. And if it wasn’t, well then, there’s something wrong you, your hormones or your relationship. No woman wants to feel sexually uninspired or dormant. And no man (or woman!) wants to be sexually rejected or feel like their partner is saying yes to check it off their to-do-list. Many women frantically seek out therapists to figure out the truth about their relationships. Many more, just accept that inert desire is part of a long term relationship and carry the shame of limpy desire. Others turn up in practices like mine to see if their hormones are off or if there’s something they can eat or a pill they can take to increase their desire. But what if part of the solution is not in our psyche or hormones but in redefining how we look at female desire?
Just as our understanding of nutritional science has expanded significantly over the past twenty years, so too has our understanding of female sexual response. When women come to my clinic confessing that their libido is lackluster, the first question I ask is, “Is your desire low or arousal, or both?” This naturally leads to the question of, “What’s the difference?”. Desire is the “want” while arousal is the body’s physical (and emotional) response to stimuli. If it’s arousal, which includes vaginal contractions and lubrication, then it could be her sex hormones, a side-effect of medication or she’s not exposing herself to enough titillating stimuli. If it’s desire, it leads to a much more extensive conversation starting with ape sex.
In 2009, sex researcher Meredith Chivers, came to fame with her “bonobo porn” studies in which women became physically aroused to a startlingly array of pornographic material, from heterosexual, women-on-women, solo masturbation and bonobo apes mating. The women didn’t have a desire for ape sex but they were aroused. This goes against the current thinking, which is that women and men’s sexual response moves progressively and sequentially through desire, arousal and orgasm. And if that doesn’t happen, then there’s some dysfunction.
Since 1966, when Masters and Johnson developed their liner model on sexuality, we’ve been programmed to believe that we’re seized by spontaneous sparks of sexual desire and then we get aroused and then we can orgasm. This model of sexuality is so deeply embedded in our culture that we’ve put desire at the very center of the definition of sexuality and inevitably made women feel guilty for not having on-tap desire. But, according to sex educator and researcher Beverly Whipple, PhD, RN, FAAN, professor emerita at Rutgers University, women can move from sexual arousal to orgasm and satisfaction without experiencing sexual desire, or they can experience desire, arousal, and satisfaction but not orgasm.
Recognizing these flaws in the liner model prompted Rosemary Basson, a clinical professor in sexual medicine at the University of British Columbia, to develop a new model of female sexual response that proceeds in a more complex and circuitous manner than the male-driven desire-arousal-orgasm approach. It also incorporated the importance of emotional intimacy, sexual stimuli, and relationship satisfaction.
According to Basson, most women in long-term relationships do not frequently think of sex or experience spontaneous hunger for sexual activity like that did in the throes of a new sexual relationship or after a long separation from their partner. Instead, Basson suggests that a desire for intimacy and emotional closeness may predispose a woman to participate in sexual activity. Once she is aroused, sexual desire emerges and motivates her to continue the activity. Under this model, women’s sexual pleasure isn’t at the whim of her desire. Instead, she can activate pleasure by engaging in stimuli that trigger sexual arousal.
So even if you haven’t felt the desire to initiate sex with your lover in years, it doesn’t really matter. You can access that desire by getting aroused with erotic literature, direct stimulation, massage, music, conversation, tantric breath or taking your partner to watch apes mate! Desire as the starting ingredient gets demoted, and pleasure, which includes orgasm and/or emotional closeness, becomes the real marker for healthy sexual well-being.
To increase pleasure, you need to be present with it. And that means being mindful. It’s not engaging in the distracted, self-conscious dialogue which says “I wonder if my partner think I look fat”, “I wonder if my partner is bored”, “Am I taking too long to orgasm?”, or “I hope my partner likes the way I’m touching them?”. When this mind banter takes over, which Masters and Johnson call spectatoring, the intense self-focus inhibits you from immersing in the sensory aspects of a sexual experience, and pleasure plummets.
To have mind-blowing sex, you have to engage in mindful sex. To have sensational sex, you have to engage the senses. Ironically, the quickest way to engage the senses is to slow down. Slowing down can make even the most mundane aspects of daily life an erotic turn-on. Making a cup of coffee can be a sensual process, so too can getting out of bed. Rather than being startled by the alarm, hitting the snoozing button, then realizing you’re late and hurriedly making your exit from bed, you can set your alarm to some soft music, allowing yourself to wake up more gracefully, then feeling into every part of your body, starting at your feet and moving to the top of your crown. You might feel little tingles as you focus on various parts of your body. This is your energy (not the ATP kind but the Chi), which is always present but we’re mostly unaware of it. Then slowly and sensually stretch your body and greet the day with some moans. Elegantly move out of bed.
This sensate wake-up practice takes less time than the alarm-snooze repeat mode, but it instantly connects your physical body to your mind, and you’re more primed for pleasure…even in the banal. Slowing down doesn’t mean more time. Instead, it’s redirecting the scattered and chaotic thoughts to more coherent and present thoughts. When your mind actively focuses on a sensation (or image), it activates the temporal lobes in the brain, and reduces the static that is constantly bombarding the frontal lobe. This is why mindfulness practices consistently show improvement in women with sexual dysfunction, depression and anxiety, not only in the literature but also in clinical practice. Kundalini kriyas which incorporate mindfulness and breath techniques are what I use in my clinic to help heighten a women’s awareness. Sat Kriya is one I use to help heighten arousal. I suggest women start by adding 3 mins to their morning routine.
Sex therapy requires sex homework. And just like food, if you skimp on the quality, you’ll have a poor sex life. Be conscious of what sexually nourishes you and what distracts you. If erotic literature turns you on, then feast on it. There’s no point knowing what you like but not participating in it. This is the same as knowing what to eat but not doing it. And set the environment. Add some provocative photography books such as Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Ellen Von Unwerth, stock your library (or i-Pad) with steamy fiction such as Delta of Venus by Anais Nin, Baise-Moi by Virginie Descents and The Story of O by Pauline Rage, fill the house with sensual music, burn some incense with deep musky scents, take a shower with rose body oil, slip into a silk kimono, dance and smile at your lover…there’s nothing sexier than a smile.
Here’s what Anais Nin, French-born novelist and eroticist, has this to say about sex:
The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion…Sex does not thrive on monotony….Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine…
The Diary Of Anais Nin, Volume 3; 1939-1944;Photo Credit: Kit Agar