Sexual Intelligence, written and published by Marty Klein, Ph.D.
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Each month, Sexual Intelligence® examines the sexual implications of current events, politics, technology, popular culture, and the media.

Dr. Marty Klein is a Certified Sex Therapist and sociologist with a special interest in public policy and sexuality. He has written 6 books and 100 articles. Each year he trains thousands of professionals in North America and abroad in clinical skills, human sexuality, and policy issues.

Issue #211 – September 2017


The Sex Lives of Engineers (and Other Humans)

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For over thirty years I've lived and worked in Silicon Valley. I've literally watched the invention of laptops, smartphones, and social media right down the street. If you use a device or software of any kind, chances are dozens of my patients worked on it at various times. Now they're creating the next generation of this stuff.

Almost all of these engineers are men. Some of them have sex. Some want to but don't. Some have questions about it. Some are perfectly content without it.

Of course, engineers are a heterogeneous bunch. But they all have one thing in common: they are professional problem-solvers. Their job is to create routines for the rest of us to follow: click this way, swipe that way, upload now. To organize our lives like that, they create layers and layers of algorithms—sets of rules, procedures, formulas.

That's what many of them are looking for in sex.

And that's what they come to see me for—those elusive algorithms. How do you touch a woman so she likes it? What do you say when you lose your erection? How do you know if a woman has climaxed? What should you do if she doesn't like the way you kiss? When you're both naked, when is the right time to insert your penis?

Alas, I almost never provide formulas for sexual decision-making. This confuses a lot of new patients: "But you're the expert," they say. "Surely you know the answers to such questions, and how these things work, what to say and how to do sex the right way."

So I explain that memorizing formulas about "sex" or "women" (or "men" for that matter) is the wrong way to go. Some people leave in frustration. The ones who stay get way more than they expected. They learn how to participate in human connection.

I'm afraid that when it comes to sex, most of us are engineers. We want formulas. Instead of understanding ourselves and our partners better, we create and use categories: "women;" "men;" "hard to please woman;" "typical emotionless male;" "nerd;" "sexually damaged;" "you wouldn't understand;" "lousy kisser;" "too kinky;" and the ultimate categories, "normal" and "not normal."

For the most part, categories like these prevent closeness and sexual connection. They help us explain to ourselves why we don't get what we want—but they don't help us get what we want.

So if I don't teach my engineers (or anyone else) the answers to questions like "what are reliable ways to know if she's climaxed" or "how do you know if she wants more kissing" or "how can you tell if she's using birth control," what do I say to help them navigate the complexities of human relationships and sexual situations?

Communicate: Ask. Listen. Remember. Answer. Reveal.

Just about every week, someone pays me good money for the life-changing secret code to women, or men, or sex. Here it is for free: you don't need to know about "women." You need to know about the unique woman you're with. And the expert on what she wants, feels, and enjoys, the expert on her various body parts, fluids, and reflexes isn't me, isn't a bunch of bloggers, isn't your uncle or older brother.

It's her. The answer to practically every sex question that heterosexual men ask me about sex is, Ask Her.

If you're too embarrassed, Ask Her anyway. If you don't exactly know what your question is, Ask Her anyway.

If you're a woman wanting to understand "men," same answer—don't try. If you want to understand George, or Jose, or Duong, same answer—Ask Him. For gay men, lesbians, and everybody else—Ask Him, or Her, or Them, or Whomever.

Masturbation is much simpler than partner sex. You know what you like, or what's good enough. You know when to do it (and when you want to, but can't). You know when you're satisfied (or when to stop because you're not going to be). And if you don't get excited or satisfied, there's no one to apologize to (or to fake it with).

Partner sex, however, requires us to show up. What we do with our hands, mouths, and genitalia is important, but it's overrated. The most important things we do in sex are mental: we do or don't pay attention, notice the other person, limit our distractibility, communicate our experience moment by moment, whether verbally or non-verbally.

For those activities, there is no formula. We can learn to be more present. But it's pointless to try to pretend to be present—even if you think someone really wants that from you.

The difficult part of sex isn't the sexual "function" part—erection, lubrication, orgasm. It isn't the skill part—the perfect handjob, knowing a dozen ways to kiss. For most people, the difficult part is being present.

That's something I help engineers—and other human beings—learn and practice every week.

And as soon as possible, we move on to Ask Her. Or Him or Them or Whomever.

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Sex and Pain

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How do porcupines make love?

Very carefully—exactly like humans in physical pain.

With all the talk about tantra, BDSM, and the latest exotic position, too many bloggers, so-called sex coaches, and popular magazines are encouraging regular people to create their own personal Sex Olympics. But even if people are uninhibited, are in a good relationship, and have good sexual "function" (their plumbing works the way they want it to), there can be another obstacle to enjoyable sex.

It's very un-sexy. It's physical pain.

For starters, the pain can be genital: vaginismus, a herpes outbreak, post-menopausal atrophied tissue, a urinary tract infection. There can be pain in one or both partners attempting intercourse without sufficient lubrication—common in couples rushing to avoid erection problems, or when there's a desire discrepancy.

But from head to toe, the rest of the body is vulnerable to pain that can interfere with sex.

When I was being trained (while dinosaurs roamed the Earth), we learned about the sexual parts of the body: the genitalia, nipples, anus, mouth. Throw in the ears and neck if you're liberal.

Now, as a 60-something-year-old, I have a different view of the sexual parts of the body: they are the lower back, the knees, the neck, the hips, the elbows. Yes, any weight-bearing joint becomes a sexual body part when it hurts. Most people even use their ankles during sex; we only realize that when our ankle hurts.

Smartphone and computer use have led to an epidemic of carpal tunnel syndrome. And even without these devilish devices, our precious hands become arthritic with time.

When hands or wrists hurt, the quality of sex goes down. We want to caress, to squeeze, to push or pull. Our hands are the way we connect with a partner's breasts, back, legs, face, and everywhere else. And the grabbing that's instinctive during passion can hurt, disrupting the passion.

Many years ago I spoke at a conference of hand injury professionals at Stanford University. "Ever notice how especially cranky hand injury patients are?" One hundred fifty physical therapists nodded in agreement. "And how many of you ask your hand injury patients about masturbation, maybe brainstorming comfortable and safe ways they can do it during their recovery?" One hundred fifty physical therapists were dead silent. "Why do you suppose these patients are so cranky?" I asked.

* * *

One obvious way that pain interferes with sex is the disruption. You're cruising along, and then you feel stabbed or burned unexpectedly. Pain jars you out of your reverie, your bliss, that treasured world where nothing matters. It disrupts your sense of timelessness, your connection to your partner, perhaps your journey toward orgasm.

Pain makes us protective. We turn our body to avoid it, favor one limb or one side over another. To prevent pain, we have to be conscious of that body part every second. While sex is about letting go, pain is about vigilance. The two are almost impossible to reconcile.

Then there's the emotional impact of pain (and the fear of pain). While hurting (and adapting the sex to the pain) we don't feel young, we don't feel graceful. We fear we'll never have pain-free sex ever again. We miss our former body intensely. The grief can be unexpected, suddenly flooding over us just as someone is caressing us or saying we're beautiful. A partner's desire for us can be terribly bittersweet when the body they crave is a body that continually betrays us.

We can't allow pain to end our sex lives. But what can people in pain do to make sex more possible, more enjoyable?

  • Stretch first. Just two minutes of stretching wherever it hurts will make it hurt less during sex. This is especially true if you have early-morning sex.
  • Start slowly. Like an experienced jogger or biker, let your body get into a rhythm slowly.
  • Prepare for sex with a hot shower or bath, perhaps some ibuprofen.
  • Tell your partner honestly what positions or activities are painful, and try alternatives together. When you discover what works best, make those your go-to sexual activities.
  • Feel free to cry as you let go of some of your old favorite sexual positions or activities.

If sex hurts, stop—or at least slow down. Since you're already in bed together, there's almost certainly something great you can do that hurts less. And it's far easier to discover it or do it with your partner's cooperation, rather than doing it secretly, hoping he or she doesn't find out.

Physical pain: not sexy. Maybe the end of sex the way it used to be. But not the end of sex.

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Why Is Alcohol The Number 1 Sex Drug? And Does It Matter?

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To make sex more compelling, Americans take huge amounts of Viagra, anti-depressants, hormones, and various exotic things from health-food stores. Asian societies have hunted sharks and rhinos to near-extinction for the legendary (and nonsensical) sexual properties of the fins and horns.

To improve sex, people also use street drugs, primarily marijuana and cocaine. But the largest-selling sex drug by far is alcohol. That's true for all ages, genders, and income levels.

It's apparently been true since the beginning of recorded time. Who ever heard of a Roman orgy without wine, or an ancient Greek celebration without Dionysus? Even Shakespeare noted that drink "provokes the desire," although he also cautioned "but it takes away the performance." And today, a fraternity party without alcohol is, well, study hall without the studying.

Why exactly is alcohol such a popular sex drug? For better or worse, here are some common reasons (note: this is NOT an endorsement of alcohol use!):

It reduces inhibitions

We become less choosy about partners ("beer goggles"), less self-conscious about our bodies, more willing to do things that we otherwise feel anxious or moralistic about. We also become less concerned about the consequences of our behavior, regarding both others and ourselves.

It helps us forget

Forget ourselves, our past experiences, our resentments toward our partner, our resentments toward every member of the other gender (or same gender if you're gay); forget what we promised ourselves we wouldn't do, forget what happened the last time we drank a lot before sex; forget why lube is worth whatever hassle it takes to find and use it; forget to check what time it is.

It's an analgesic

Alcohol reduces our awareness of physical pain ("I was feeling no pain!"). Not only does that help increase range of motion, short-term stamina, and willingness to have sex, it also helps people with chronic pain feel younger and more graceful. Or at least less old and stiff. Of course pain is a warning sign, so we ignore it at our peril. The tissue around a penis or vulva can get very, very sore in a very short time when we're not appropriately aware of those delicate nerve endings.

It makes us more suggestible & impulsive

We're more likely to go along with someone else's suggestion without thinking, and more likely to follow our own impulses uncritically. For people who are uncomfortable with admitting their own sexual desires, this allows them to do things without a sense of responsibility ("I didn't decide, the alcohol decided").

To put it another way, alcohol is an effective way to get someone else to have sex when they don't especially want to.

So that mostly sounds pretty positive, right? Aside from the calories, then, what's the problem with alcohol as a sex drug?

Well, there's no such thing as a free lunch. It turns out that the very qualities that make alcohol a popular sex drug also make it a troublesome sex drug.

Alcohol numbs us emotionally and mentally

That is, both our feelings and our thoughts. Enjoyable sex is about increasing our mental presence, not decreasing or obliterating it. Of course, that's what's problematic about sex for many people—all that extraneous thinking and disempowering feeling before, during, and after it. But the solution isn't being less present.

Impulsivity is a poor method of decision-making

Of course, acknowledging what we desire, deciding to pursue it (and to refuse what we don't want), and actual planning require identifying ourselves as sexual beings. And possibly "perverts," too (that's my patients' judgments, not mine). Having sex while taking little or no responsibility for our sexual choices is an important (if not entirely conscious) goal for many people. Self-acceptance is a far better solution to this existential challenge than alcohol-induced loss of control.

Emphasizing contrasting agendas

We all know how convivial it looks when people drink together. And we all know how quickly the geniality can turn ugly. Tiny misunderstandings can become huge insults, and small disappointments can become scary threats. When one person responds no when the other says yes, alcohol can magnify the difference into a big problem that can't be resolved with calm talk.

Difficulty negotiating verbally

Almost everyone agrees that "communication" is a key element of enjoyable sex. Since no one makes as much sense after a few drinks as they do when sober (unless they're incoherent when they're sober), drinking has to undermine sex. In particular, those half-conversations of "um, a little more to the left, please," or "I'm not quite ready for that, let's keep doing this a little longer" invariably get lost in the shuffle of alcohol sloppiness.

This is also where consent can get problematic: "I didn't know you meant no," "Why didn't you just say stop," and "C'mon, you were having a good time, too" get all mixed up in the haze of drinking. Judging what someone means when it's dark and you've both been breathing heavy and the music is loud is hard enough. When one or both people have been drinking, it's much, much harder.

In fact, the sexual assault problem on college campuses is completely tied up with male and female binge-drinking.

It turns out that verbal communication contains a certain amount of subtlety that quickly gets lost after just a couple of drinks.

Difficulty controlling body parts

No one says "let's drink a whole lot before playing tennis" or "drinking makes me a better swimmer." And no sober person thinks their driving improves after drinking.

That's because alcohol affects every aspect of our physicality: our reflexes, our visual perception, our control of our hands, feet, body, and head. If you use any of those in sex (and who doesn't use all of them?), control of them is compromised after drinking. Simple rule: anything that makes it harder to thread a needle or change your car's oil also makes it harder to have sex the way you intend.

Waking up…

…next to…who? 'Nuff said.

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You may quote anything herein, with the following attribution:
"Reprinted from Sexual Intelligence , copyright © Marty Klein, Ph.D. ("
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