A Love and Hate Relationship with Sexuality

Part One


"…of course the feeling of losing oneself  in someone's arms — yet at the same time finding oneself there – is irreplaceable.  Nothing compares to the intensity of that feeling."

  Katarina Witt, Gold Medal Ice Skater, featured in Playboy Magazine December 1998

As I watched Katerina Witt enthusiastically discuss her Playboy Magazine experience on TV, I marveled. She has something very few people have - a clean, healthy comfort with her own sensuality.  It's worth looking up this back issue to see her  unabashed pride in herself as she lies draped over rocks, stands beside rushing streams, leaps down a hill, and throws her arms back as she stands perched on a rock with an ecstatic expression on her face. She could have easily posed for the statue of a temple dedicated, not to a mystical Buddha or god, but to the best within an individual.

Many people will laugh heartily at sexual jokes and will give the impression that it is a healthy part of their own lives, only to silently face, in the privacy of their own homes, a discomfort and an ambivalence with sex. Often this reaches a love-hate relationship with sex itself.  Most people have many conflicting ideas about it. Is it healthy or smutty? A welcome pleasure or a necessary chore? Should you feel elated or shameful after an afternoon delight? Genuine confusion abut sex is the unfortunate internal state of many people.

How can something so good and healthy as the delightful experience of being in your  partner's arms turn sour? Feeling sensually aroused, enjoying the emotional delights that your body and mind are capable of and wanting to experience the pleasure of sex - how do these get damaged?   There are many causes of sexual problems. The primary cause is holding the wrong moral code.

I want to focus on one common problem which will illustrate this: the ambivalence that leads many women (and not so infrequently, men) to let their sexual desire fizzle.

I have worked with many couples and individuals in therapy who have complained that sex has become a necessary chore, an annoying mechanical duty, a less than satisfying experience that has received too much hype. They may dutifully try to please their spouses, (e.g., get sex over with to get it  off the "to-do list") or just avoid sex altogether ("I'm too tired." "My back hurts.") What have they allowed to happen to such a potentially rich source of pleasure in their lives?
See if you can figure out what is happening. Come along with me to my early dating years. In one of my first romantic relationships, I recall lying alongside my boyfriend, kissing and hugging. I adored him. I was feeling very aroused and I was not inhibited in showing my enjoyment. I experienced a delicious sensual spontaneity. Suddenly he broke me out of my romantic trance by saying,  in critical tone, "Does this make you feel good?".

Now the simple, healthy response would have been for me to proudly, honestly and directly say "Of course - it feels great!". But instead I was mortified. I had been caught enjoying the sexual experience. I felt selfish.  From multiple sources in my life, I had partially bought into the idea that anything focused on me was bad, anything focused on pleasing others was good. Now I was translating this monstrous moral code into the area of my own sexuality. I must have tucked away the idea at that  moment that I would enjoy sex by not focusing on myself. Instead I would just try to please my partner.
See any problem with this? There is a built in contradiction. For a clue - think of what I must have been saying to myself in my mind. "Okay, have fun, enjoy sex, but make sure it doesn't feel good. That would be selfish.  I don't ever want to be that!"  Well, unfortunately for me, the alternative was to be selfless.

Selflessness involves, not self-valuing, but self-sabotage. It is the notion that "I don't need anything for myself.  What makes me happy is doing for others". This idea is psychologically deadly. When it's dressed up in an appealing-sounding name such as "altruism" its deadliness is only camouflaged. Altruism doesn't mean  being nice to others. You can value and enjoy the good aspects in others. This is consistent with liking yourself and being rationally selfish.
Altruism technically means  "other-ism": you are good only to the extent that you give up your wants, desires and goals and focus on pleasing others.  But a life of giving up that which is nearest and dearest to you is a life not worth living. Try to enjoy anything in life by being selfless. It can't be done.

Try to live by giving up those rational things that make your life delicious (e.g., your  dream career, your choice in hobbies, a boyfriend or girlfriend whom you adore). You will soon feel bitter, frustrated and depressed. This is the altruism trap. Too many women fall in to it.

Would you like to go to the bedroom to enjoy a romantic interlude? You can't if your partner wants to have sex on the couch while watching the game. By the moral code of altruism, you shouldn't "enjoy" or focus on your own needs. You are only there to "please your partner".He wants you to attend to his needs. What's in it for you? Nothing? Then you've achieved your ideal. You are not selfish. You're also missing out on sex.

So if you have fallen into the altruism trap and you're feeling that sex is a duty to be endured, how do you climb out of it? One of the key prerequisites in healthy sexuality is  feeling that you are and should be the center of your own world.  Rational self-interest is a prerequisite to your own sexuality and to having a wonderful intimate relationship with your partner. What  do I mean by that? Let's look at Katarina (literally and figuratively).

Unlike most people who feel a vague undefined self-doubt and who don't feel they are worthy of love,  Katarina Witt projects a sense of feeling entirely worthy. She seems to value her life, her character and her sensuality. (Whether this is true in the facts of her life is not my point. I am going by my  observations of her over the years on the ice.)
 Self-esteem is a psychological achievement, an achievement that requires many virtues. Since that broader topic is beyond the  scope of this article, we will focus on sex. How can you start to uproot bad premises about sex that you may have picked up unwittingly from your religion or family?


 Uprooting damaging ideas:

1. In order to learn to express what you like and dislike in lovemaking, first observe yourself in other areas in your life.  Do you find it easy to ask for what you want or do you typically let others make the decisions? Whether choosing a restaurant or a movie or deciding whether to spend your vacation time at a romantic getaway or with relatives, do you routinely "give-up" or defer to others' choices? Try an experiment - practice saying what you want assertively (not aggressively) and unapologetically.

For example, instead of saying "Of course we'll visit your mother during our vacation this year." you may try: "I know you feel we owe it to your mother to visit her during the  holidays.  It is my only vacation and I would much prefer that we go on a romantic holiday together in the Caribbean and visit your mother at another time. No, I would not enjoy having your mother come  with us to the Caribbean."

2. What happens when you make love?   Are you typically thinking "I wonder what he or she wants me to do? What should I do to please him or her?" or are you focused on the sensual pleasure you're getting from your partner? If your focus is almost exclusively off yourself and on your partner, you need some skills to get your focus back on yourself. That doesn't mean you should ignore your partner. It does mean that you fully allow yourself to experience the pleasure that earns sex its good name.

3. Ask yourself how often during the week do you think of food. Now compare that to how often you think about sex. Most people spend some time each week, if not each day, anticipating an enjoyable meal. Is sex something you give yourself time to focus on - or is it something you push out of your mind and don't even think about? An article in my local paper was titled "I almost had a thought about sex." If your thoughts about sex are few and far between, here are some tips to spice up your sex life.

Part Two