It depends on what you want from sex.
If you mostly want an orgasm, lousy sex might do the trick. If you mostly want to have someone agreeing to have sex with you whether they really want to or not, lousy sex may be your best bet. If you mostly just want to see someone naked, or briefly feel a tit or some balls in your hand, lousy sex may be good enough.
But most men and women want other stuff from sex. Maybe you do, too.
For example, you may want to see your partner smile with pleasure. You may want to feel close to someone, or a sense of acceptance, or specialness, or the experience of collaboration. You may want to feel the gentleness in your partner's touch, or in your own. You may want to feel relaxed and carefree, and know that your partner feels that way, too. You may want a chance to explore the universe and express yourself.
These things are generally missing from lousy sex. Actually, the fact that they're missing is what can make sex lousy.
Why do people acquiesce to sex they don't want, or don't think they'll enjoy? For various people, it's the belief that:
- if I don't do it, my partner will yell at me, sulk, mistreat the kids, embarrass me in front of others, or even hit me.
- if I don't do it, I'll feel guilty
- if I don't do it, my partner will stray, or even leave me.
This is not an ideal state of mind from which to begin sex. But many people seem surprised that when this is how sex starts, neither person is likely to find satisfaction.
When someone is relatively uninterested in sex, or they know that the sex currently available isn't enjoyable to either partner, it's interesting how rarely they wonder why their partner pursues that lousy sex so enthusiastically. Typically, the narrative is "my partner is over-sexed, I'm not, so he pursues me even when I'm not interested, and then he's dissatisfied with the sex that I generously have despite my own lack of interest."
Hardly anyone ever asks, "if my partner knows he or she is going to be sexually unsatisfied at the end, why does he or she want it so much?"
It's really no mystery why people DON'T have sex they don't expect to enjoy. It's the same reason I don't eat broccoli and you don't listen to country music—we don't expect to enjoy the experience.
So why do people pursue sex they don't expect to enjoy? And why do they accept it when, grudgingly or not, it's offered? It's essential to get people talking about this honestly.
One reason is that they don't want to be in one of those couples that never has sex. And it's often true—a couple doesn't have sex four days in a row, then five, and before you know it, it's been seven months. At that point, initiating sex is an enormous challenge; enjoying it is even harder.
Other reasons people pursue or accept sex they assume will be lousy is because they can't stand their sense of separation. Or they don't want to pretend that everything is OK. Or because they yearn for touching. Or because they want to experience sexual feelings in their body, even though the feelings will soon be overtaken by frustration or sadness. Or because they clumsily imagine that THIS time their partner will be open to being pleased, despite years of evidence to the contrary.
Many low-desire people assume their partners are chasing exquisite friction and porn-worthy acrobatics. So when their partner finally says simply "It's not the orgasm I want, it's you," or "yeah, getting licked is nice, but you reaching out to hold my hand is better," the reaction frequently ranges from disbelief to confusion, sorrow and finally acceptance.
And that's why it's so important to challenge couples' traditional ways. That weekly pity handjob? On the surface it may look like a sympathetic partner giving a deprived partner a gift, which is accepted gratefully. In reality, however, it may be building resentment in both partners, while reinforcing the idea that sex is troublesome, divisive, and for other lucky people. The hand-jobber feels valued for her hand, not for who she is. The hand-jobbee feels he has to trade his dignity just to get some touching, and he always notes how uninteresting his penis is to his partner.
With such couples, I encourage a moratorium on pity sex. And I encourage them to find an activity or two they can enjoy together unambiguously—playing Scrabble, walking the dog at night, reading Alice in Wonderland aloud to each other. Eventually we look for erotic activities they can share without inhibition or second-guessing—admiring each others' hair, rubbing each others' legs, spooning consciously for 60 seconds.
And I push them to keep talking about what they really want. When people are honest—with themselves and with each other—they almost invariably discover there's an overlap between what they each feel, and what they each want. Not about superficial things like a favorite position or lingerie color. No, I mean the serious stuff, like "I'm afraid to get too close," or "I'm afraid s/he won't like the real me," or "I dislike my body so much I can't imagine someone else valuing it." And "I want to feel special," "I want to feel safe," and "I want to laugh together."
Sex therapy is rarely about just penises and vulvas. It's mostly about people.
Two words: sex education.
Yes dads, today is your day. And one of your gifts is that you're in a unique position to help your kids grow strong and healthy.
They need you to talk about what sex means to you, whether that involves pleasure or values or intimacy or self-expression. They need to know what was confusing or troubling for you about sex when you were their age. A story about how you coped back then may get both of you laughing together—if it doesn't get you crying together.
They need to know that masturbation is OK. They're going to do it whether you like it or not; your reassurance can help them do it without guilt or shame, which is a huge advantage in life.
They need to know that there are different kinds of sex. I don't mean oral vs. anal vs. the Pirate Game. I mean sex for closeness, sex for pleasure, sex for giving a gift, sex for expressing yourself, sex for coping with a difficult day or week. And also sex for manipulating, sex for avoiding a serious relationship talk, sex because you feel that's all you have to offer the world. When your kid's old enough, different peers will want to have sex for various reasons. So will your kid. He or she needs to know how to tell which reasons are operating at any given time.
Your kid needs to know that contraception is an integral part of penis-vagina intercourse. This includes kids who identify as gay; the rate of unintended pregnancy among gay teens is way too high. Like using a helmet when biking (which no one did when I was young), learning the connection early helps kids take it for granted.
Kids need to know about consent—that having sex with someone who's ambivalent or drunk or wanting revenge on an ex-boyfriend is a big mistake, possibly a huge mistake. They need to know that real consent looks like enthusiasm; bland acquiescence, or a drunken, shrugged "whatever" is not consent. Coercion? That's when you do something with someone's body that they don't want you to do. There's no possible reason that ever makes it OK.
Your kids need to know how you feel about pornography. However, no one wants their first adult-child conversation about sex to be about porn. So if you haven't begun to talk about sexuality, start this week. And remember, "Porn is crap and if I catch you watching it I'll kill you" doesn't qualify as a helpful conversation. All it does is provide the instruction "When you have questions about porn, don't ask me."
When it comes to sex, don't wait until they ask. Did you wait until they asked you to teach them about brushing their teeth or using a seat belt? Of course not. Dad, you have many responsibilities, and one of them is raising the subject of sex with your kids over and over. "The Sex Talk" does not exist. It's The Ongoing Sexuality Conversation. Because what your kids need to hear (and to ask) about sex changes as they grow and change.
Traditionally, dads protects us. The question is, what does protection actually look like—withholding information, and implying that facts are dangerous, or telling us the truth and equipping us to face life?
There is no part of your kids' lives where you are needed more than in teaching them about sexuality. And the most important lesson you can teach is that people can talk about sex the way we talk about other things—without euphemisms, baby talk, or embarrassment.
That opportunity is your gift. Enjoy it many times, starting today.
A few of our civil rights in America were reaffirmed last week. Ironically, the context, as is often the case when our basic rights are trampled, was sexuality.
* Forced ultrasound and required physician speech found unconstitutional
Like 12 other states, North Carolina forces women undergoing a legal medical procedure (abortion) to undergo an invasive procedure (uterine ultrasound) they may not want, and to listen to their doctor recite a script that the doctor may not want to recite and the woman may not want to hear.
In upholding a successful challenge to the law, a federal court concluded that the "state cannot commandeer the doctor-patient relationship to compel a physician to express its preference to the patient."
Furthermore, "transforming the physician into the mouthpiece of the state undermines the trust that is necessary for facilitating healthy doctor-patient relationships and, through them, successful treatment outcomes." Authored by conservative judges, the court's decision is an elegant description of the brutal way government treats patients just because it doesn't like their medical choices.
The Religious Right and other groups have consistently tried to regulate abortion differently than other legal medical procedures. The goal has always been to restrict people's rights to this extremely safe medical intervention, simply because some people don't want others to have it. When a group can mobilize our system of government so that one point of view gets more government-sponsored attention than others, we lose a little more of our democracy.
You may have read that presidential hopeful Scott Walker thinks that ultrasounds are "cool." If he were a more sophisticated man, he might read this ruling and understand that "cool" is not a high enough standard to warrant government intrusion into people's basic rights to medical care.
* Minnesota unlimited commitment of sex offenders found unconstitutional
In most countries around the world, governments exercise profound power over their citizens capriciously, destroying lives deliberately or carelessly.
Americans are justifiably proud of the many limits on our government's power to do just that. Most Americans don't realize, however, the limits on those limits—that is, the ways our government can legally target individuals and destroy them.
One way is through the radical laws regulating those convicted of sex offenses. It sounds like a punchline, but it's true—in most states you can be punished more severely for molesting a child than for murdering one.
And that's even true for non-molestation offenses that are considered sex crimes—possession of child pornography, voyeurism and exhibitionism, sexting, minors dating minors, certain kinds of sex work, and various activities relating to adult pornography. You can lose your children if you engage in prostitution in order to feed them. Or if you play SM games with your partner, even if the kids are blissfully unaware.
In this country, a convicted sex offender has to undergo successful "treatment" in order to be let out of prison after completing his or her sentence—a requirement imposed on no other convicted criminals. To prove the "treatment" is working, the convict must sooner or later admit his/her guilt. Punishments including denial of parole await those who refuse to "admit" their guilt.
Which makes the following fact all the more shocking: after a convicted sex offender has served his or her full sentence (often a decade or more), the state has the right to keep that person in jail permanently—based on some official's hunch, feeling, instinct, or the phase of the goddamned moon.
Yes, even though sex offenders rarely reoffend sexually when they leave jail, the state can keep them locked up indefinitely if it guesses that they are at risk of reoffending.
In Minnesota, not one single person civilly committed after completing their sex offender prison sentence was ultimately released. The state's involuntary detention program was challenged for equaling life imprisonment without trial. A federal court agreed. And so Minnesota will have to change the program. It can't give anyone back their lives, of course. And the court certainly didn't say a state couldn't lock people up indefinitely—only that Minnesota, like other states, has to seem to do it less capriciously and more rationally.
That will be marginally better. But only marginally, because no therapist in the world can accurately predict who will NOT re-offend. Remember, most sex offenders don't sexually re-offend. But because wardens and politicians don't want the public to blame them on the rare occasion that a re-offense occurs, officials pretend that they can predict accurately—justifying the state's ability to lock people up indefinitely.
Or else politicians in the prison industry's pocket pretend that locking up people for life without a trial is the way to protect the public.
And many Americans agree. As long as the person being locked up isn't them.
Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that it won't be you. You think you're safe because you haven't molested anyone? Tell that to the people behind bars who didn't molest anyone, either.
So two different federal courts—in Minnesota and in North Carolina, a thousand miles apart—have reminded two different state legislatures that our civil rights include rights relating to sexuality. There's the right to get an abortion without coercion. And the right for even half a chance to get out of jail after completing a prison sentence for a sex crime.
Of course, these two battles in America's ongoing war on sex aren't finished. The GOP's obsession with preventing abortion in the most demeaning, most economically discriminatory fashion possible. And those obsessed with sex crimes, like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, will keep spewing phony, scary propaganda that drives citizens, juries, and legislators alike.
But every once in a while, our increasingly conservative court system notices how states and the feds break the law trying to control our sexuality. Sometimes conservatives actually conserve. They deserve our thanks.