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 #219 – MAY 2018


Blaming porn for bad behavior—and avoiding the truth

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Internet porn is so common in our lives that it's easy to blame it for everything—from sexual violence to divorce to global warming.

But there are many, many ways that people behave poorly—OK, that MEN behave poorly—which look like they're about porn but aren't. Lots of Sam or Jose's poor behavior is the result of someone simply being a jerk.

Or being angry, disappointed, hurt, confused, frustrated, or lonely.

That's not to excuse it, just to explain that a guy who behaves poorly and also watches porn may have lots of reasons for behaving poor. Not necessarily good reasons, just non-porn reasons. After all, if someone—male or female—throws a box of tissues at someone they're angry with, it's foolish to blame the box of tissues.

Here are examples of ways that men behave badly that people are currently blaming on porn—and that certainly have other explanations:

"He pushes me to do stuff in bed that I don't want to do"
"He pushes me to dress like a porn star"
"He's withdrawn from me sexually"
"He leaves porn laying around the house, and the kids find it"
"He's clueless about what I really want in bed"
"He doesn't care about my pleasure or comfort"

These are ALL poor behaviors, whatever the reason. And while these guys might ALSO look at porn, if we blame porn we'll miss the personal or relationship dynamics that are driving them.

Like I said, if someone—male or female—drops their stinky gym clothes on the kitchen floor after you've asked them not to, it's silly to blame the stinky gym clothes.

So why do men behave like jerks with their wives and girlfriends in bed?

It's a form of communication, of course. Every week I have couples come in to the office complaining of "communication problems." Typically, they communicate fine, they just don't like what they hear.

The disdain. The resentment. The hopelessness. The inability to feel heard—as in "No, I don't want to wear a see-through blouse without a bra tonight, or next week, or ever. PLEASE stop asking permanently—and deal with your sadness, and get on with the rest of your life."

I do believe women underestimate the sadness many men feel about their unfulfilled sexual fantasies, reasonable or not. And I also believe that men underestimate how aggravating it is to get the same request over and over, after someone has said "no" absolutely clearly. This is the kind of thing we discuss in couples counseling all the time—not the see-through blouse or dirty socks, but the dynamics behind the frustration and quarrelling.

I see a lot of couples where the woman complains that "he looks at porn and climaxes every night, but we hardly have sex together anymore." And her solution is that he stop watching porn.

But that doesn't work. First of all, no one likes to be told what they can do in private. More importantly, no one destroys a vibrant, enjoyable sexual relationship just to enjoy masturbating to a screen or magazine. The withdrawal has its own reasons, and they're usually so upsetting that most men and women would rather argue about porn than discuss them.

The reasons include "You don't excite me anymore;" "We argue so much about money/parenting/chores that it's hard to be in the mood for sex;" "We're both so busy with our separate lives that it's hard to create an intimate sexual connection, especially since we're both always tired at night and on weekends."

And of course there's familiarity and aging—often both. It's hard to have sex when you hurt, and it's hard to have sex when you feel your partner's phoning it in. And if a couple has other, reliable ways to enjoy themselves—walking the dogs, playing Scrabble, binge-watching Netflix—it's hard to choose a leisure activity (sex) with an iffy payoff instead.

It's much easier to blame porn.

When his behavior says "I don't care about you as much as I used to," it's much easier to blame porn. When his behavior says "I don't care about myself as much as I used to," it's much easier to blame porn. And when his behavior says that he's depressed, or feeling hopeless, or in chronic physical pain, or just not interested in investing in his primary partnership anymore, it's easy to blame porn.

And I understand why people would do so.

But that's taking the easy way out. And it doesn't fix anything. Much better to communicate clearly:

"PLEASE talk straight to me. I will to. Even if it hurts, we desperately need to."

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BDSM In The Real World: Three or Four Shades of Grey?

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Periodically a patient or a couple ask me about BDSM. What's it like? Why is their partner interested in it?

Are people who like it sick, or maybe the victims of childhood molestation or sexual violence? Or is it an orientation, like homosexuality?

Should they try it? Will it rev up a boring sex life, or unleash a bunch of demons? Can you get addicted to it?

BDSM (bondage/dominance, sadism/masochism) is erotic power play: consciously playing with the power dynamics of an erotic situation.

It can involve equipment; it can involve restraints; it can involve pre-determined scripts and roles; it can involve temporary, intense moments of pain. Or it can involve none of these.

In fact it might only involve a few words and a couple of looks. Context, prior agreements, and the psychological makeup of those involved can make those few words and looks a powerful erotic experience. Without that BDSM psychological container, those few words and looks could easily mean nothing at all.

For example, a person may say to their partner over lunch, "If we have sex this weekend, don't expect me to kiss you." That may be an invitation to wrestling, pretend bullying, or pretend begging. For people who don't play these games the same statement may express frustration, or a developing cold sore; in most couples, the statement simply wouldn't come up.

BDSM always involves three things:

Trust: The fundamental dynamic in BDSM is trust. Without it, there can be no surrender, no experimentation, no intimacy. During BDSM activity, people are highly connected with each other. That kind of focused minute-by-minute attention allows them to relax and trust each other.

Communication: BDSM players talk about sex, bodies, and feelings a lot. If people are going to play with their limits, and see their bodies as vehicles for experimentation, there's a lot to talk about. In fact, for a lot of couples BDSM involves way more talking than "sex." That's why it's impractical—even potentially dangerous—for people who are drunk or essentially strangers.

Safety: In every BDSM encounter there's a safe word, which both partners know means "Stop, and I really mean it." Participants know and respect each others' limits. Joe may like his nipples pulled just a little too hard, but not pinched; Mary knows that, and knows the difference between a little too hard (good) and too hard (not good). And she knows that gradually pinching Joe's nipples harder and harder is not a game he'll enjoy, so they don't do it.

BDSM isn't:
* Coercive: If it is, it's violence.
* Impulsive: If it is, it's extremely difficult to do right, as it requires a lot of cooperation and subtle communication.
* Simply about pain: It's about intensity and mutuality. If there's pain, it's in the service of these other things.

So BDSM is about trust, not pain; about surrender, not powerlessness; about dominance, not selfishness; and about expanding the conventional definitions of sex.

So is interest in BDSM "normal?" Various participants call it a kink, a fetish, or an occasional detour. Some people just don't enjoy sex as much without it. That's because of the psychological intensity it can provide on top of whatever physical stimulation they're having.

Questions about the "normality" of any given sexual preference are primarily political rather than scientific; yesterday's "perversion" is today's "preference" or "empowerment." A century ago clinical professionals considered the desire for cunnilingus a pathology. Today it's typically considered a woman's right, and often recommended by physicians and therapists.

The definition of sexual "orientation" has changed dramatically. It used to refer to the gay-straight-bisexual continuum; that is, the gender of one's preferred partner.

Today the meaning of "orientation" mostly involves perceived identity—and the insistence on being categorized accordingly.

Various people claim, for example, that Asexual is an orientation. There's nothing necessarily wrong with people being uninterested in sex; the majority of Americans over 60 are (not all, just more than 51%), along with millions of people of every other age group.

There are also people who have no interest in Chinese food, Barbra Streisand films, puns, or fashion. We don't have special names for these people, and they don't seem to need one. They don't seem to think that their lack of interest in fashion is a centerpiece of who they are.

Asexual is an orientation like not playing golf is a hobby.

And now you can read about a supposed orientation called Demisexual: Someone who only feels sexual attraction when they're emotionally connected with a partner. The word for that used to be "mature." While that approach reduces the risks of getting sexually involved with a person who shouldn't be trusted, it's certainly not a sexual orientation. In fact, up until recently, Western culture expected adults (especially women) to limit their sexual interest to those they knew and felt close to.

These days I also hear about Sapiosexuals—people turned on by intelligence. Again, there's nothing wrong with such a preference, but if that's an "orientation," what about preferring sex with a person who has good hygiene? Or with a person who's nice to you, or sexually competent, or funny?

It seems that the meaning of sexual orientation is now a matter of tribal identity politics.

That's too bad. While everyone's sexual preferences should be respected, you don't need to be special in order to simply enjoy what you enjoy. You don't need to establish and belong to a club in order to have sexual rights. Claiming that you have sexual rights because your preferences are an "orientation" is short-sighted politics.

And what about overlapping "orientations"? What if you prefer sex with a person who's intelligent, funny, sexually competent, smells clean, and treats you nice? Does that mean you have five sexual orientations, or is that combination of the five its own orientation?

If that combination is an orientation, we already have a word for it. The word is "sensible."

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How People Make Sex Too Complicated—and Harder to Enjoy

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Every week, people tell me exactly how they make sex way too complicated, and therefore difficult or impossible to enjoy.

They don't realize they're saying that, of course. I wish I could just say "Stop making sex more complicated than necessary!" But I'm afraid effective therapy isn't quite that simple.

Here are some examples of how people undermine their own sexual satisfaction.

"We have sex before I'm ready"

In this scenario "sex" almost invariably means "intercourse."

When a woman in couples therapy says this, she generally expects me to turn to her male partner and say "You selfish bastard! Stop doing that!"

Eventually, I do get around to asking the guy if he realizes she has "sex" when she doesn't want to. If he does, I ask why he proceeds anyway; if he doesn't, I ask why he isn't paying closer attention.

But first I ask the woman: why are you having intercourse (or doing anything sexual) when you're not ready? Here are some typical answers:
~ "His erections are unreliable, so we have to use it when we have one;"
~ "He doesn't listen anyway, so we might as well get started;"
~ "I take a really long time to get aroused, so I can't expect him to wait that long;"
~ "We don't really talk about sex that much."

Reasons like these reveal a sense of disempowerment that can undermine sex in a wide range of ways. It's the real reason people "can't" do what they want, say what they want, or find out what they want. It's the reason behind the reasons that some people can't use a vibrator, can't have oral sex, can't have sex during their or their partner's period, can't have sex with the lights on, can't ask for more of what they want or less of what they don't want.

And it explains why I sometimes tell patients in a gentle, friendly way, "Please don't blame sex for how you think about sex."

"Looking at porn is a form of infidelity"

Most men respond to this by saying "No it isn't." Then the couple quarrels about whether it's infidelity, rather than talking about what she's uncomfortable about, and why he likes to look at porn.

"I don't want you looking at porn" is a solution to a problem. Until couples agree on the problem, it's pointless to debate a solution. And "it's infidelity" is a way of justifying the solution, NOT talking about the problem.

There are plenty of reasons a woman might be unhappy with her partner's porn use. They generally involve distress about her sex life, AND her theory that porn is a cause of that distress. For example,

~ "You always say I should look or act more like a porn star;"
~ "You never look at me or talk to me during sex;"
~ "You've lost interest in having sex with me;"
~ "Lately you're pushing me to watch porn even though I don't want to."

If this is what someone is unhappy about, she should just say so. These are legitimate complaints, and I would expect her partner to pay attention to her upset. The behavior she dislikes may result from his porn-watching, or it may have nothing to do with it.

The first step isn't to debate a solution, but for him to acknowledge her feelings; they can then discuss whether he wants to change his behavior, and various ways to do that. The ultimate goal should NOT be to get him to stop watching porn, but for them to agree on ways to live whereby they both get what they want. I hope that would include an enjoyable sex life, emotional closeness, and good communication.

Anyone who says these are impossible if a man looks at porn is naïve; so is anyone who says these are easy as soon as he stops looking at porn.

"Now that we're married you shouldn't masturbate"

Some people explain this by saying "If you want sex, just come to me." Others say "When you enjoy sex without me it's like infidelity," or "That makes me feel left out."

There's a profound conversation to be had about autonomy within relationship, and to what extent a person in a couple actually owns their own eroticism. Simply establishing a rule about what someone "shouldn't" do invites conflict, not cooperation. And that conflict is what will undermine a couple's sexual relationship, not one partner's masturbation.

"I feel inadequate if I can't make her climax from regular sex"

"Regular sex," of course, is penis-vagina intercourse. It's astounding when someone who understands how to program an Apple Watch can't understand the simple fact that for most women, the primary sex organ is the clitoris, not the vagina.

Simple geometry makes it clear that an object (penis, finger, toy, zucchini) going in and out of a woman's vagina will generally miss her clitoris. It may feel good, but for most women it won't generate an orgasm.

The massive cultural (and clinical) ignorance of this simple fact leads to both men and women feeling sexually damaged or inept. A couple might as well feel bad that rubbing her clitoris against his testicles typically doesn't lead to his climax. Sure, that's nutty—but so is expecting a woman to orgasm from intercourse or other insertion/thrusting activity.

I don't say "if she can't climax from intercourse don't blame her, blame her anatomy." Rather, I say "If she knows how to climax, celebrate that. It's a wonderful emotional skill combined with a wonderful biological capacity. How nice that she's sharing that with you—and that you can be an enthusiastic part of it."

"If he really thought I was hot he would get it up all the time"

Just like healthy eyes can only see when there's sufficient light, healthy penises get erect only under certain circumstances.

Penises aren't designed to get or stay erect when their owner drinks too much alcohol, or is afraid of failing (again), or fears God's (or mother's) disapproval, or is taking any of a long list of drugs (including cocaine, chemotherapy, and opioids).

Adult penises need more to get erect than their own watching an attractive woman undress. They need him to be sober, to feel more or less emotionally comfortable, and, for most men, to feel some sort of connection to the woman (or man). Many men need privacy. Some men want to hear the words "I love you." Some men want to be teased, or to feel special.

There are lots of reasons a man might have erection difficulties with a woman he really, truly desires. And one is that sex with a woman he desires is intimidating.

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