From Chapter 1: Opening Yourself to Sexual Desire
I seem to spend much of my professional life reassuring people that it’s OK to feel good. Too many of us have been led to believe it’s self-indulgent or immoral. Don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t even think about it. Or we’ve learned that feeling good is all about material possessions—a glitzy ring, a flashy car. Or we imagine feeling good is about looking good. Self-esteem can sometimes hinge on a manicure. It’s the joy of shopping, not the joy of sex and intimacy.
What about a larger view of feeling good—one that offers more beauty, more vitality, more sense of belonging to yourself, more connection with your partner? What about self-affrming, emotionally juicy, transformational sexual experience? I’m not talking only about sexual performance, where intercourse or orgasm becomes the goal. I’m talking about pleasure that touches your core. I’m talking about feelings that reverberate far beyond the bedroom, and positive energy that expands your whole life.
This is what I call the return of desire. It means opening yourself up. It means knowing that it really is OK to say yes to what you want—and to let go of what no longer serves you. It’s the sense that feeling good sexually is a path of discovery, and an essential part of who you are. It’s not about your hormone levels. It’s not about measuring up to what others say. It’s about you.
The Many Faces of Sexual Desire
Sexual desire goes by many names: attraction, passion, love, energy, libido, and randy, all-consuming lust. It can fill us with wonder. It can lift our hearts, rock our bodies, touch our souls. It involves what I call skin hunger—the longing for hot, sensual touch. It also involves the inner woman—our cravings to know and be known. It involves the loves, wishes, dreams, memories, fantasies, and meanings that are ongoing parts of our lives.
But sexual desire is so full of contradictions in today’s culture that it’s diffcult to define it in an absolute way. On the one hand, sex is everywhere. Seventy-seven percent of network TV contains sexual material, says the Kaiser Family Foundation. Add to this the sexual material we encounter daily, from wolf whistles on the street to in-your-face images in commercials, billboards, rap music, the blogosphere, YouTube—you name it. Yet if you grew up in a just-say-no family or community, you probably never talked about sex, even in whispers. There was no direct language. Sexual desire was an invisible force of nature. When the winds blew right there was pleasure, life was good. Ill winds could bring darkness, pain, violation.
To complicate matters, hundreds of experts have written articles and books that frame sexual desire as a host for some grim problem—a medical syndrome, a loss of “drive,” a “sexless marriage.” A much-publicized paper in a 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association asserts that a whopping 43 percent of all American women just aren’t interested in sex—this based mainly on questions about how often 1,749 of them had intercourse, but never inquiring about their emotions or the quality of their relationships. My colleague, Petra Boynton, informs me of a new desire disease on the horizon: the British are now speaking of “dating toxins”—a mix of low self-esteem, shyness, pickiness, and desperation—which are said to “infect” 5.6 million single people in the United Kingdom, preventing them from getting it on with each other or even asking each other out.
Such assertions and reports may sound silly when you stop to think about them. But there’s a serious edge. The disease-based view of sexual desire is supported by science because epidemiological studies focus on dysfunction—and some of the studies are funded by the pharmaceutical companies that create the medications for the diseases. Most important, I feel, this view dictates how we judge our own intimacies, our own sexual performance. By the time the studies trickle down to most of us they’re presented as breaking news. You might think low sexual desire is a national epidemic, for at times it seems to get as much press as global warming.
The truth is, fluctuations in desire do pose genuinely painful problems for many women—and their partners. For some sexual desire gets derailed. For some it goes entirely missing. “For me it’s stress, boredom, and rotten relationships,” complains one woman. Others cite hormonal changes, illness, or surgery. “Our sex life was devastated after my hysterectomy,” says a fifty-eight-year-old teacher. Other women find desire altered by fear of pleasure, or by the antidepressants they take to relieve the fear. Still others may experience the shadow side of sexual desire—guilt, shame, abuse, violence. In the pages that follow I take all these issues seriously—as breaches of our birthright to pleasure and intimacy. At the same time, I also keep us mindful of the larger picture of health and satisfaction—so we don’t stay mired in the depths of pain and dysfunction.
The Scientific View—Sex as Performance
In the mid 1960s, the sex-therapy team of William Masters and Virginia Johnson developed a model of human sexual response that quickly became the gold standard for all subsequent research in human sexuality—especially after a phase of desire was added in the late 1970s by Helen Singer Kaplan, author of Disorders of Desire and other books on the medical treatment of sexual dysfunction. These pioneering researchers posited that this basic medical model represented the universal pattern of sexual activity—beginning with desire, and moving phase by physiological phase through arousal and orgasm to resolution. It’s worth taking a look at this model, because it has formed the basis of the way that most of us make judgments about how we carry on our sexual relationships.
I’ve sketched an outline of their combined sexual response cycle below. As you can see, it’s a performance model—goal-oriented and focused on getting from desire to orgasm with no room for straying from the track.
What is missing from this performance model of sex? For one thing, it’s disconnected from the rest of life. The desire phase appears out of the blue, with no antecedent, no history. And the cycle ends when you roll over on your side and go to sleep. This leaves out most of what actually occurs in our sexual response—which will become clearer and clearer as you read women’s stories throughout this book. In addition, this model is linear, an action model—which may work fine for the men who are able to proceed in a pretty much straight trajectory from desire to “doing it” to climax to dead sleep. But if you’re like most women, you take a more circular sexual path, enjoying the view before and after and along the way. This will also become clear from women’s stories.
All through this book I’m going to encourage you to look at your own sexual responses in a much more expansive way—that acknowledges all the dimensions of your personal experience: emotional, mental, and spiritual as well as physical. I’ve found that it’s from this broad perspective that it’s most possible to discover what may be keeping desire at bay—and most important, to discover ways to reconnect with the vitality that informs all aspects of your life.
So instead of viewing desire as a commodity, something that we’re in danger of losing or missing out on, I’d like us to agree up front that sexual desire is energy—a sustainable resource that’s available to all of us if we want it, even those of us who may not have it right now. Not just to lead us into steamier encounters, but to reconnect us with ourselves and our partners, and to discover new sources of pleasure and joy.
Also, if you’ve been searching for desire for a long time without finding it, let’s consider that you may have been searching in the wrong place. Maybe you’ve been looking outside of yourself instead of inside. My experience as a therapist and as a human being on this planet tells me that the key to finding desire sometimes requires a deep and fearless search for yourself. You can apply to the bureau of missing persons, but if the person missing is you, you are going to have to participate fully in the search. I’ve had clients who’ve called me “the restorer of lost women to themselves.” But I always decline that honor. You are the only one who can find the missing you. Let the search be part of your adventure as you read this book.
Beyond Performance—Giving Yourself Permission to Feel Good
Accepting that it’s OK to feel good is a big leap for some of us—it was for me. From earliest childhood I had the job of rescuer in my alcoholic and neglectful family. It took years of failed relationships, psychotherapy, and spiritual healing before I uncovered my pleasure-loving self hiding under layers of emotional armor. When I finally emerged, I had to learn how to resonate with myself beyond pain and suffering—and beyond trying to be Superwoman. I had to learn not to rescue people who didn’t want to be rescued. Most of all, maybe, I had to learn not to say no when I really wanted to say yes, yes, YES!
A defining moment dawned for me when I received my first massage—neck, back, belly, legs, the whole works. I was thirty-eight years old. When I rose glistening with oil from the table, it was the first time I ever remember being free from physical pain. The disorienting thing was that I hadn’t been aware I’d been hurting—because up to then I’d been clenching every body part I could against feeling bad. In holding so tight all those years I’d also managed to keep myself from feeling a full range of pleasure. In my newly vibrant state, I realized that a significant portion of my life had simply passed me by. I’d been too numb to notice it.
As I trained to become a psychotherapist, and eventually a sex therapist, I learned I wasn’t the only human being walking around only seeming to be present. Many of us live out our days—and nights—far removed from our deepest feelings. I now know that we develop defenses against feeling for very good reasons—so we can survive the traumas and dramas that shape our lives. But if we defend ourselves hard enough for long enough, we lose the ability to respond to new information—our systems become programmed to respond to what happened in the past rather than to what’s happening in the present. So we may find our sexual relationships locked into painful patterns of repetition. It’s a universal problem, but each of us has our own unique story.