Written by Sexual Wellness Institute Therapist, Eric Anfinson, MS LMFT
It's never fun talking about difficult topics or have arguments in your relationship. Many tend to avoid them as much as possible. Sex, in particular, is hard to talk about - it's such an innately vulnerable subject. It's no wonder then that many couples just accept mediocre or declining sex as part of any long-term relationship. People assume that intimacy just fades with time, libido dies off, raising children gets in the way, etc. Many also assume that they, or their partner, should just know how to have good sex and there should be no need to talk about it, inside or outside of the bedroom. Almost all topics in the sexual realm, however, can be solved by just talking to your partner about it, or doing a little self-reflection.
What Sex Education Really Should Be
Today we'll look at some sex education 101 (what sex education really should be, not just here's a biology lesson and a stick of deodorant, welcome to puberty). I'll split things into three parts, our minds, bodies, and how to put the two together.
Learning to Drive, Sex Drive
Most of the time it's our mind where we get turned on and this leads to our body following suit. Knowing what helps and hinders getting you into the mood is of the utmost importance then. In a recent meeting, our clinic director Amanda made an offhand comment that for many women the question "What turns you on?" is a very unfair one. As a man I've been bombarded with messages about sexual fantasy, turn-ons, and sexual contexts since before I hit puberty. We're encouraged to discuss with our peers and engage in this fantasy through movies, tv, and other forms of media. But apart from seeing all the guys take their shirts off when I watch the bachelorette with my partner, I don't see much of this exposure for women. On top of lack of exposure, sexuality and fantasy can be discouraged for women (at least until they're in the bedroom with a partner and expected to know what turns them on). So, whoever you are, how do you take the journey of discovery to find what works for you?
Your 101 homework for this step is to explore past sexual experiences to pull out what creates a positive sexual context for you. Think of the best sex you've ever had, then look at every possible facet of what made it good. How did you feel about yourself? How did you feel about your partner? How had your day been? Where were you? Next, do the same thing with bad sex that you've had. What we're looking for here are the contributing factors to what made it good or bad. What we really want are not specific things but big ideas. Maybe some of the best sex you've had was outdoors. OK, what about it being outdoors was sexy? Maybe it was that there was a little fear of getting caught and that was exciting for you. From here you have a start on your turn-ons and your turn-offs. Now for what's potentially the hardest part of this exercise: You've got to talk about it with your partner. Arming yourself and your partner with this information allows both of you to work to create these positive sexy contexts that will lead to more frequent, and better, sex. It also allows you to avoid or work past negative contexts that aren't helping your love life. We all want to know what helps our partner get into this space and our partners want to know what helps us.
Let's Get Physical
Bodies are kind of a requirement for sexual activity. Everyone's body is different so learning about your own is extremely important. Most people begin the sexual exploration of their own bodies through masturbation. If the idea of that is making you a little uncomfortable, then you're in the right place - keep reading. If you're more than comfortable with masturbation, stick around because we've got a lot to add. What we're looking for when exploring our own bodies, either through masturbation or simple touch, is simply what feels good and what doesn't. This is where the context we discussed comes into play. If you're lying on the bed touching yourself, you're not going to feel much, sexual or otherwise. That feeling of being turned on in your mind changes how the touch feels. Something that might feel ticklish when you're not aroused suddenly feels enticing. Something that numb normally gets transformed into a feeling of pleasure. As a man, the simplest example of this is going to the bathroom. A guy using a urinal feels no sexual pleasure at touching himself. That same touch in bed with his partner suddenly takes on a whole new feeling because the context has changed.
So, our 101 challenge for this section is to put yourself in that sexual context and explore your body. See what feels good, what feels bad, what feels great. Not only does this take time to learn about yourself, it changes as we grow and age. As I said earlier, masturbation is a fantastic way to love yourself by learning what works for you. Create a safe and comfortable environment, engage those sexual contexts, and just sit back and take your time exploring. There's no rush. No one needs anything from you. You don't have to orgasm, and you're not responsible for anyone else's orgasm. You deserve this. If masturbation still feels like a big stretch for you, this can also be a great activity to do on your own just before being intimate with your partner (or even with your partner), as long as you stick to the mantras I just listed. Once you've begun learning this information about yourself, or if you already know it, we come back to the final step of these exercises which is talking to your partner about it! Again, all of our partners should be excited to hear this from us. We're learning together how to connect better, pleasure better, and create a lasting and healthy sexual relationship.
Putting It Together
You've already got a start on combining these concepts by creating a sexual context for physical self-exploration. Here's a great way to really get into using these tools together. As I’ve already mentioned, talking to your partner about all of this is key - they need to understand what you're trying to accomplish by working with these things. In this case, you can improve the quality of sex through attention to thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that are pleasurable for you. Next what we want to do is create what I would call a "practice sex" space in your relationship. Most couples see sex as something that always has to be great, passionate, and natural. This doesn't leave a lot of room to explore, communicate, try new things, or have challenges or difficulties. By creating and entering a practice sex space with your partner, you can try all of these fun new things without the pressure of needing the experience to be great or passionate. So how do you do this? More conversation! This sounds something like, "Hey babe, let's have some fun tonight but I just want to focus on learning and trying new things without needing to get to penetration, orgasm, or for things to be amazing." I like to use the metaphor of riding a bike: When you go for a bike ride in the park, you go to enjoy the ride and take in the experience. But to do this you have to have spent the time learning to ride the bike and feel confident in the environment. Use this practice space once in a while to grow confidence and practice so that when you want to have really great sex, you can focus on the experience instead of riding the bike.
Curious About Starting Sex Therapy in Plymouth, MN?
If all of this sounds interesting to you and you'd like to improve the intimacy side of your relationship, then working with one of our therapists can be a great way to move forward! Our sex therapists want to help you address sexual concerns here in Plymouth, or anywhere in the state with online therapy in Minnesota. Get started by following these simple steps:
Other Mental Health Services in Minnesota
In addition to sex therapy, our LGBT & polyamory friendly sex therapists provide a wide range of mental health services at our Plymouth, MN counseling office. Other services include couples therapy & marriage counseling, EFT, evidence-based couples therapy, EMDR & sexual trauma therapy, as well as, teen therapy. In order to help serve the mental health needs of all those living in Minnesota, we also offer online counseling & sex therapy. We also provide a variety of helpful tips on our mental health blog. Please feel free to reach out with questions, or if you would like to schedule an appointment to begin working with a skilled sex therapist! Your sex life can be amazing. Sex therapy can be a part of that process for you.