As a Sex Therapist and Marriage Counselor, I go through the holiday seasons of twenty or twenty-five patients every year. And whether they're celebrating Christmas, Chanukah, or some other winter festival, everyone's frantic about the presents they're giving or getting. This year is no exception.
A few of my patients do bring me holiday gifts—generally something to eat or drink. Of course, I don't give my patients any gifts, but if I could, here's what I'd love to give each of them. I've made up the names, but the sentiment for each of them is real.
If you can use one of these gifts, I hope you accept it.
To Pat: The courage to leave a relationship that doesn't work. Remember—there's a difference between giving up and knowing when you've had enough.
To Ramesh: The eyesight to see yourself as attractive. Beauty may or may not be skin deep, but sense of humor, intelligence, and empathy are deep and gorgeous.
To Seema: Congratulations on giving up drinking. And the nerve to have sex sober. And the courage to say "wait, I need to talk about this for a second" if you do.
To Alix: The words to communicate what you want—and don't want—in bed. And the realization that nothing is too small to discuss.
To Chang: the skill to keep your agreements—and to say "No I don't want to" and "No I won't be able to" when you're asked to make an agreement you aren't likely to keep. And the skill to deal with a disappointed partner, if that's the result.
To Sid: The comfort that comes when you use reliable contraception during intercourse. And the pride that comes from taking adult steps to manage your life.
To Chris: The willingness to undress in front of someone at age 80. Not just a random person, of course, but an erotic partner. Because he or she isn't expecting you'll have the body of a 60-year-old, right?
To Binh: The integrity to challenge your current couples therapist, who doesn't seem to address the issues that matter to you. Remember, it doesn't matter if she's a good therapist or not; what matters is if you get value from the therapy. Any good therapist would be glad to talk to you if you're dissatisfied; if they get defensive or blaming, you need a new therapist.
To Max: The ability to have sex when there's dishes and laundry to be done. Undone chores don't actually demand our attention—many of us just choose to focus on them when we have better options. Don't worry, they'll be there when you return from sex.
To Maria: The wisdom to understand that infidelity is a choice. It's not something that happens to you, or that you can't help, or that circumstances control. "One thing just led to another" isn't a description, it's an excuse. An excuse worthy of a ten-year-old.
To Jacob: The willingness to tell a partner you've been close to infidelity recently (or more than once), and that this is a clear sign you two have things you need to discuss.
To Masha: The understanding that you can't stop your mate from being unfaithful—and that it isn't your job anyway. People don't cheat because their partner is inadequate, and people don't cheat a second time because they're inadequately monitored after the first time.
To Shaz: The realism to know that when you change from a long-distance relationship to living together, sooner or later things get less glamorous—which doesn't mean you've made a mistake.
To Monique: The decision to let go of a years-ago hurt that you and your partner will never agree on—the facts, or what you'd agreed on, or who said what to who. If you do this, you might then be able to have sex without feeling like a doormat, or like your partner "got away with it."
To Dix: The readiness to let go of a deceased spouse, and accept your current partner. Yes, your new relationship will never feel like the old marriage. Nothing will be quite as familiar, or feel like your life's destiny. But if you let go of your dead partner just a bit, you might get to have a live one. In many ways, this could be an improvement.
To Mendoza: The ability to feel normal when you reject a drop-dead gorgeous, sexually-skilled partner just because you don't like the way they treat you. It may help to keep in mind that very little of a sexual relationship is spent actually having sex.
To Abiola: The literacy to recognize that porn isn't real, and that real sex doesn't feel like porn looks. The permission to investigate what is available from sex with your current partner and your current body.
To Madison: The relaxation that comes when you know you don't have to compete with porn images. Most of us don't try to compete with LeBron James or Scarlett Johansson or Mark Zuckerberg, so why try to compete with the professionals in porn films?
To Cameron: The lubrication that will make partner sex (and masturbation, by the way) more enjoyable. The self-assurance to say "let's use lube every time" instead of waiting until you "need" it. And do keep it in the night table rather than in the bathroom. Unless, of course, you generally have sex in the bathroom.
To Panchari: The maturity to take responsibility for your choices and preferences, rather than attributing them to evolutionary biology or "my culture."
To Jackie: An acceptance that sex doesn't always include an orgasm, or even an erection. The recognition that what you enjoy in sex may change according to your mood. The knowledge that for adults, enjoyable sex generally requires planning—which is freeing, not a failure. And the truth that starting sex when you'd rather sleep generally leads to disappointing sex.
Vanilla sex—or "just" vanilla sex?
"Vanilla sex" is slang for sex that is plain, or traditional, or unimaginative–not "kinky." It generally doesn't involve role-playing, games like BDSM, risk-taking like exhibitionism, or unusual locations. Most people don't use "vanilla sex" as a neutral term; the implied term is frequently "just vanilla sex."
I beg to differ.
When people are sexually dissatisfied, the word today from books, magazine articles, websites, and professionals is…get away from vanilla. Go tantric, go nasty, go poly, go handcuffs, go anal, go dildo, go giant dildo.
As a sex therapist, I deal with sexual dissatisfaction every day. Of course, almost nobody goes to therapy as their first strategy; people use it mostly after everything else they try fails. So before calling me, people have typically looked for new positions (sorry, there aren't any), or tried spanking, or liposuction, or encouraged their partner to get a boob job, maybe scoured porn films for exotic techniques. Or urged their partner to watch porn with them.
People are often surprised when I suggest improving the vanilla.
"But isn't that the problem," they ask–"that we're too vanilla?"
It actually depends on the reason that people are vanilla. If they're ashamed of their body, or convinced that God hates oral sex, or they believe that "real men" don't like their nipples caressed, if they feel forced into vanilla sex because they're afraid of everything else, we can certainly say that more of that sense won't help anything.
But people who are sexually free can choose vanilla. People who aren't afraid of their own eroticism can choose vanilla. And choosing to make it better can be a powerful door. So I tell patients let's get more information, more communication, more comfort with each other, more acknowledging how things really are. Socks in the winter, a towel if you're starting your period.
And go pee if you have to go pee (and just call it what it is). You'd be amazed at how many people pay me good money so they can ask "what should I do if I have to pee during sex?" No one's ever asked me "what should I do if I have to pee while watching the Super Bowl?"
As I say in my 2012 book Sexual Intelligence, the two best strategies for improving sex are better communication and more self-acceptance.
Communication: using proper words instead of "y'know," and talking about what's actually going on: I have a cramp in my leg; I need to switch hands; please slow down a bit; I'm not ready yet for intercourse; I'll never want a finger in my butt, so please quit asking.
As my friend Lonnie Barbach once said, "the most important sentence in the English language is 'a quarter of an inch to the right, please.'"
Self-acceptance: your body is the way it is; you're not going to lose 10 pounds this weekend. You can climax from oral sex and hand-jobs, but not from intercourse alone—and that's not going to ever change. One breast is bigger than the other, one nipple has a few stray hairs, your penis is exactly the size it is. Nobody gets erections (or orgasms) every single time they want to.
Vanilla sex isn't what makes people bored. Focussing on distracting stuff does. Feeling disconnected does. Having sex when you're resentful or too tired does. Having to give the same instruction every single time ("you can pull my nipples, but please don't pinch them"; "that's way too much teeth on my balls") does.
If you and your partner(s) enjoy some kink, or a different time/place/activity every time you have sex, by all means have a good time. Nothing wrong with that if it works for you.
But for most people, wilder isn't necessarily better. In fact, wilder actually pulls some people away from the connection and focus that can make sex enjoyable. For better sex, don't diss vanilla—slow down and get to know it better.
Late December is the time for receiving gifts, isn't it? So in addition to World Peace and the loss of twenty pounds before New Year's Eve, here are some other things I'd like for the holidays.
As a loyal reader, you get to share any of the following presents that I do receive.
* Better sexuality training for therapists
It's still possible to become a licensed marriage counselor without hearing the words clitoris or fantasy in your training. Sadly, learning about sexuality often means learning to ask patients if they've been molested, or how to recognize the signs of "sex addiction."
Some states now require a "diversity" component in graduate programs. So students learn stereotypes about people of color, trans people, and other minorities, but they don't learn about the real sexual diversity in every population—such as preferences for BDSM, styles of masturbation, the widespread use of pornography, and how chronic pain affects sex.
For a bonus gift, I'd love it if would-be therapists were required to learn how to empathize with people whose (consenting) sexual practices they find distasteful.
* More porn literacy
Now that broadband internet has brought 24/7 porn into everyone's home (and most offices), it would be nice if everyone would commit to knowing and believing a few basic facts:
~ Porn doesn't destroy healthy sexual relationships;
~ Porn doesn't damage the brains of consumers;
~ Porn is almost entirely non-violent—because that's what most consumers want;
~ Porn features very, very few victims of trafficking—because young women are lined up around the block begging for a chance to make porn videos.
For a bonus gift, I'd appreciate it if every parent would sit down each of their kids who uses a smartphone and explain the difference between real sex and whatever porn they watch—even when each kid swears they don't watch any.
* More fact-based school sex education
Oh, I've been asking for this gift for years—no, for decades. And although it's acquired more sponsors, the REAL Act still languishes in Congress, where it will probably never see the light of day. Its central legislative point: to require that all sex education in America be medically accurate. Wow, talk about controversial—requiring accuracy in schools.
As a bonus gift, I'd love for schools to require training for anyone who teaches sex education. And no, neither the Old nor New Testament qualifies as a training manual.
* More news coverage of the decrease in sexual violence
Of course, one rape is too many.
But according to the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control, and local police departments, the rate of sexual violence has been dropping steadily for 20 years.
Yes, we all know that rape is under-reported—only a portion of rapes, attempted rapes, and domestic violence are reported. However, no one suggests the under-reporting is increasing; if anything, a higher percentage of these crimes and attempted crimes are reported today than ever before.
Why doesn't the media report the good news about the decline in sexual violence? Why doesn't the media describe the dramatically flawed methodology that led to the bizarre "1 in 5 college women are raped" (a statistic that no other study has ever been able to duplicate)? Why don't the media discuss the varying definitions of rape and sexual violence that different activists and government bureaucrats are using that defy logic and lead to unnecessary fear?
As a bonus gift, I'd appreciate a government webpage with simple data on sexual assault that is posted in every American high school and college campus—showing that it is less common than some people claim, but more common than acceptable in a civilized country.
* More vasectomies
Vasectomy is the modern miracle that keeps giving, year after year. It costs very little, is simple and pain-free (of course, the gentleman is sore for a few days afterwards), and has no effect on sexual function. It solves the she-doesn't-want-hormones-&-he-hates-condoms dilemma, although most people could solve this with an IUD or diaphragm.
As a bonus gift, I'd sure like more people to realize that sex doesn't have to include penis-in-vagina intercourse every time—which would reduce the urgency of the birth control discussion just a little bit.
Another bonus gift I'd love is for the Catholic Church to grow up and reclassify vasectomy as no longer a Mortal Sin—although I already enjoy the fact that the Church doesn't require men with vasectomies to reverse them.
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