Written by Sexual Wellness Institute Therapist, Eric Anfinson, MS LMFT
Sex is intimate, personal and important to talk about
When it comes to sex, each of us attaches a lot of personal values to the act. These values can be positive or negative, big or small, serious or casual. For example, someone might believe that sex is an intensely intimate experience, of great importance, and specifically for getting pregnant. Another person might believe that sex is disgusting, shameful, and not important to them. Still another might think sex is just neat, not a huge deal, and something you can do for fun. All of these values tend to vary not only from person to person, but in relation to who we're having sex with and when (such as a long-term partner or before or after getting married).
As a sex therapist I see a lot of couples struggle with the values each of them has attached to sex, and the conflict that this can cause. This can also cause problems for individuals when it comes to self-love and masturbation, or even seeing themselves as a sexual being. What I want to look at today is how to identify these values, where and how they cause problems, and how to reconcile these issues.
It's more complicated than sex is "good" or "bad"
To get started, we'll need to identify what our values are. The easiest way to get going is to just take the time to ask yourself and/or your partner, “What are my/our values about sex?” We should be able to pick out a few things off the top of our heads based solely on how we feel about sex.
Talk about likes and dislikes
Another good way to find values is to take a look at things within the realm of sex that we like and dislike, and then ask why we like or dislike them. For example, someone could think, “I really like foreplay and taking my time with sex.” They could then extrapolate that when it comes to sex, they value patience and not feeling rushed or pressured. Another person might think about trying swinging with their partner and find that they hate the idea. When they ask themselves why, they might identify a value of sex being something special that's just shared between two people.
How did we get here?
A third way to identify values about sex is to take a look back at your history and see what you've learned about sex. What did your parents teach you about sex, either by talking about it or not talking about it? What did you learn from school sex ed? Or church? Or friends? Or media? We are constantly blasted with sexual messages throughout our lives, even if they're subtle. Each one of those sexual messages has value attached to it. Have you ever watched a movie and the protagonist scores their love interest at the end? See that happen enough and maybe you pick up the value that to be successful you need someone to want to have sex with you. Then you're pressuring your partner for sex all of the time because without it, you don't feel successful.
Different Strokes for Different Folx
Another thing to think about when it comes to values is that it's ok to have different values about sex than other people -- you just want to line up with your partner or partners. For example, a couple might hold the value that sharing sexual pleasure is their number one value, and they don't really value sex as something that's shared between just two people, so they start swinging and sharing sex with another couple to increase both of their pleasure and live their value. But if they talked to a non-swinging couple and both agreed that sharing pleasure is a top priority, the non-swinging couple might be shocked by how the other couple is accomplishing that. This example also shows the complexity of the interaction effects between each value. To be happy swinging, the couple needs to value the fun and pleasure of sex and not value sex as just something between two people.
Now that we've looked at how complex these values can be, you may be getting an understanding of how they cause problems. Let's take a look.
Getting our values crossed
One of the biggest reasons I see a difference in values cause problems in the bedroom is because we don't often talk about sex in terms of values. Sex is just that: sex. The beliefs we hold about sex are often so core to who we are that we just assume our partner shares those values. Sure, it can be easy to accept that people who are different from you have different ideas about sex. But your partner? The person you chose to be with? You get along so well they must think and feel the same way about sex. Assumption in general causes problems, but when we assume our partners values around sex, it can throw our entire intimate lives off.
Get on the same page
Another big issue when it comes to values and sex is when we know we share the value with our partner, but we think living that value means different things. Let's make up a couple as an example.
We'll call them Taylor and Kelly. These two talked about their values around sex and both agreed that sex is something that should be built on trust and respect. After being together for a while, Kelly suggests that the next time they are intimate, they should engage in some bondage play. Kelly would really like to tie Taylor up for some added excitement. Taylor is appalled. They both agreed that sex is based on trust and respect, so how could Kelly suggest something so demeaning? This leads to a fight that might sound like, "You lied to me!" "What happened to your values?!" or from Kelly side, "I thought we agreed that we trust and respect each other?!" What's going on here is a miscommunication of not only, "How do we live our values?" but also of, "Do specific acts within sex itself have value attached to them?"
So, how do we work out all of these problems?
You're going to have to talk about it:
Knowing that you're going to have, at the very least, one big conversation about this is a good starting point. Knowing what your values are and how you live them is a good first step. Actually getting into the meat of these values and being willing to shift, not our values, but our understanding of them and how they apply, is how we really solve value problems when it comes to sex. For example, let's go back to Taylor and Kelly and imagine that instead of starting a fight, Kelly hears a potential value problem and says "Ok, let's talk about our value of trust and respect." From a value perspective, Kelly explains that, to them, bondage is rooted in trust and respect. For Taylor to be tied up and not in full control of themselves, they need to completely trust Kelly. If there's any fear of what Kelly might do, then the trust isn't there. By following through on their agreed bondage plan, Kelly demonstrates that they respect Taylor’s wishes. Here, Taylor can accept this change in perspective on how bondage can exist with trust and respect. Taylor isn't changing the value that sex needs trust and respect, just understanding that this can be a part of it.
To solve value problems, we need to find where our values can line up and include new things. We also need to be mindful of all of our values. Kelly couldn't say, "If you value my pleasure, you'll let me go sleep with other people for fun" if Taylor holds the value that sex is something that stays in the relationship. Don't sacrifice your values. Just be willing to see how they can include more than you first thought.
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