I admit, I have not read 50 Shades of Grey. Because of that, I wouldn't pretend to know what either the storyline or the writing style says about female sexuality. What I will note, however, is that the sheer success of this erotica novel has raised some notable questions about what interests women when it comes to sex. Some have suggested that the book's focus on a BDSM relationship appeals to a woman's desire to be dominated. Others say the novel's success is a good sign for feminism, openly proclaiming that women have a natural interest in sex. Many have suggested that the book could be "spicing things up" in the bedrooms of its readers. One CafeMom.com headline declared that "50 Shades of Grey Could Turn Moms Into Sex Kittens."
Yet, my speculation is of a different nature. My concern is whether the popularity of a text like 50 Shades of Grey reflects a more pressing psychological matter regarding sexuality. Does it really reconnect readers with their desire to be physically intimate? Or does it merely point out how easy it can be for us to lose touch with our own sexuality? How much are we drawn to real romance, connection, passion, and affection with a partner? And how much are we drawn to fantasy? Are our actions moving us toward or away from having a close and fulfilling sexual relationship?
In the course of my career, I've noted countless male and female clients, couples, and friends who've complained of having lost the spark in their intimate relationship. In more extreme examples, a person may "lose interest" in sex altogether. Yet, in an overwhelming number of cases, there is something else keeping couples from getting close and staying close on both a physical and emotional level. This is an obstacle that's far less tangible to describe than "I'm just not in the mood" or "I'm just too exhausted." What seems to elude these people is a true desire to be personal during sex.
When two people first get together, the sexual relationship is often described as fun, wild, passionate, or even casual. When I mentioned this to a friend, she described a scene from Sex and the City in which the main character exclaimed about her relationship with her boyfriend, "We don't have wild sex. We used to, but now we have sweet sex. Wild always beats out sweet." This skewed mentality has more implications than one might imagine about how many people start to view sex more negatively in the course of a long-term relationship. Yet, a 2009 Psychology Today blog titled "The Lazy Way to Stay in Love" points out how gentle or sweet "bonding behaviors," like skin-to-skin touch, eye contact, and hugging, act as "a practical means of restoring and sustaining the harmonious sparkle in a relationship."
In his blog "Alive Sexuality," my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, described the cause of this shift that so often takes place in intimate relationships.
Most people view their mutual patterns of withholding and their diminished sexual attraction to each other as part of the normal course of events and mistakenly place the blame on the familiarity, routine, and daily contact inherent to a committed relationship. In truth, once people have been damaged in their basic feeling about themselves in their early lives, they find it difficult to offer or to accept love and close companionship. They hold on to their negative self-image, because to change would lead to anxiety.
As things get closer within a couple and when feelings start to deepen, sex often becomes more intimate and personal. While for many, this is one of the most exciting aspects of falling in love, it can also come at a cost. Getting close to someone brings emotional challenges that many of us aren't prepared for. This can be particularly true when it comes to sex.
One woman I worked with described feelings of being trapped by her husband, for whom she'd long felt deep attraction and love. Seemingly out of the blue, she'd started having strange thoughts when they were being sexual. When asked to describe these "critical inner voices" in the second-person, a key step in "voice therapy," she shouted, "What does he want from you? Don't let him get too close. He's just using you. Don't trust anyone." These thoughts were confusing to her, because even as she was saying them outloud, they didn't sound like her point of view.
Critical thoughts that arise during sex, whether directed toward ourselves or our partner, support our self-protective defenses and encourage us to push a loved one away. If we ignore these thoughts and remain present in the moment and feel love being directed toward us, even though this may bring up feelings of sadness, it will ultimately challenge the fundamental and flawed ways we view ourselves. Maintaining intimacy can also raise the stakes in our relationship, causing us to fully feel the preciousness of our partners, ourselves, and of life in general. This poignant emotional reaction can ignite fear in us on an existential level. With more to lose, we are more likely to put our guard up or pull away from being close. This also explains why it may be easier for us to tolerate less personal sexual interactions, as they fail to stir up these deeper emotions.
Once we start listening to our critical inner voices, we've often interrupted a real connection we have with our partner. At those moments, when you start to get lost in your head, it's valuable to try to stay in close emotional contact with your partner. You can make an effort to focus on your feelings as opposed to your thoughts, or you can talk to your partner about what is going on in your mind. This may seem awkward or embarrassing at first, but it can lead to a much closer and more satisfying experience.
The scene I've described above may not paint the graphic or risqué picture of sex that you'd find in 50 Shades of Grey, or any erotica text for that matter. But anyone entering into a relationship will learn that maintaining the excitement and romance that so many find appealing in the pages of these fantasy books in our real lives means having to look inward at ourselves. What do physical closeness and intimacy mean to us? Are we making an effort to maintain a personal experience? What critical inner voices might be getting in our way? When we challenge our defenses, we stay close to our real feelings of love and attraction. We find a way to keep passion alive, to have fun, to relax, and to enjoy our sexuality at a deeper and more sustainable level. We learn that "sweet sex" doesn't mean dull, routine, or "vanilla." In fact, it can mean just the opposite. So the question about sex isn't just, what do we really want? But once we've gotten what we want, can we tolerate it?
To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on intimacy visit PsychAlive.org