Why is it so hard to talk about sex?
Talking about sex can make us feel extremely vulnerable and insecure. It’s not normal for a lot of people. And some of us would rather avoid that conversation than deal with the potential fall out from an unsuccessful one. Granted, there are fantasies you might have that you probably shouldn’t share with your partner because they will never look at you the same way again if you do. So discretion is advised.
How do I begin?
For starters, you need some degree of safety and intimacy in your communication to begin with and if that isn’t there—then talking about desire discrepancy is probably going to be exceptionally difficult. You will naturally feel some anxiety around asking for what you want, what turns you on, what doesn’t, exploring fantasies and taking risks. I suggest taking small steps and doing it not when you’re in the midst of having sex. You don’t have to take a critical inventory of your sex life in a way that will invite shame and blame. You should first share your appreciation of your partner and then make a suggestion to incorporate something new or different.
Make an agreement not to drag all the other issues you have going on into that conversation. I recommend bringing compassionate inquiry to the question. And if the whole thing sounds too scary to do by yourselves, I recommend doing it with a sex therapist or a couples therapist you trust.
How do we get back to that initial level of sexual attraction we had in the beginning?
Well, it will never be the same. There is no going back to the beginning. There’s only moving forward, and if you’re already in the companionate (stable, familiar, 2nd) stage of a relationship—it’s going to take attention, focus, and most importantly some imagination. There’s a fallacy that passion has to feel spontaneous and organic and if it isn’t—then sex is going to feel forced and in-authentic. The idea of going from passionate to intentional sounds a labor intensive but anything worth our time requires a renewing of commitment, a renewing of our attention and yes, bringing imagination into the equation. Accepting the impermanence and loss of that initial erotic sexual connection —and taking responsibility for the next chapter—is how you’re going to re-shape your erotic life.
The Desire Model Gap: Spontaneous versus Responsive Arousal
One problem stems from a basic lack of understanding of both female genital physiology but also around the nature of female desire itself. Our desire construct is based on the male model of spontaneous arousal, penetration and orgasm whereas most women become turned on through responsive desire. It’s a much slower process. Women may not immediately feel turned on when their partner does. Instead they require something to get them in the mood. They need a little mental, romantic or physical stimulation like flirtation, fantasy, play or extended foreplay,—scenarios that create erotic or romantic excitement and tension. If men typically orgasm in 3 minutes and most women take about 21, that’s a big gap to close. Dr. Ian Kerner, a New York sex therapist strongly advocates for making sure your female partner orgasms first so that pleasure is both reciprocal and mutual.
The much more elusive piece is for each partner to rekindle and rediscover their erotic sense of self—separately and together. A self that has nothing to do with —and may feel completely at odds with the confines of domestic life.
Esther Perel has volumes to say about the nature of desire and our problematic and overburdened conception of modern marriage. She has brought the conversation into the culture in a very signifiant way. I highly recommend both of her books and ted talks and she also has a terrific online course on rekindling desire.
Is there really a solution to desire discrepancy?
I’d rather frame this question as how can I have a more conscious relationship to desire discrepancy. Get curious. Expand your knowledge base. There is so much more information around sex and some incredible educators, full of humor and humanity. Two of my favorites are Emily Nagoski, author of Come As You Are —which is essential reading on women’s sexual arousal response and Dr. Ian Kerner, author of She Comes First. He goes into great detail about how to give women oral sex which many men (not all, but many) are not very skilled in or curious about.
Desire discrepancy is not necessarily a sign that your relationship is headed down hill. If there is absolutely no spark left and zero sexual compatibility, and you and your partner have really tried—then it’s time to consider alternative choices, of which there are a few, including opening your relationship or consensual non monogamy. But I would investigate what’s possible between you two first. There is a whole new world of information and resources out there that are easily available. There are also an abundance of toys, erotica, and ethical porn. You can do all of this exploration from the privacy of your home. As Proust famously said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Esther Perel: Mating in Captivity & State of the Union
Emily Nagoski: Come As You Are
Dr. Ian Kerner: She Comes First