Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

Letter to a Young (Sexual) Person

Why your sex life isn’t good

Let me tell you something that the elders around you are too polite or afraid to tell you: Your sex life isn't any good. This is not bad news. Actually, it's good news, since it means that you have a journey ahead; an adventure; a mission possible, should you choose to accept it.

It's not surprising that your sex life isn't good, given the adverse conditions you have had to deal with.

First, you're a novice. Good sex involves skill, like playing a musical instrument. Even if you have the talent, the motivation, and the access, you still can't get good in one day, or one year. True, you've been dreaming about awesome sex for a long time, but as the great writer S.Y. Agnon once said: "if you dream of a muffin, you have a dream, not a muffin."

Second, moving from novice to expert requires more than time. It requires good teachers and role models. You have none. In high school, a reluctant gym teacher, who earlier drew the short straw in the teachers' lounge, perhaps mumbled something about ‘fallopian tubes,' which sounded to you like the name of an obscure emo band. A severe nun may have told you you're going to hell for these evil thoughts you're having. (Thinking about pleasure is a sin. Misinforming children and scaring them somehow is not.)

Your parents could have been good sex teachers. After all, they have your best interests in mind. And they are experienced; but the very thought of your parents having sex--even though it's a fact that they do, or at least did, at least once, if you're an only child--is enough to make you feel ill.

Your parents, for their part, have not really been itching to take on the role of sex educators. If they found the courage to say anything, it was probably something safe and responsible, like: "Be safe and be responsible," which are important tips to be sure, but are no more likely to improve your sex life than they would be to improve your driving.

And driving is a relevant example here because you did have good opportunities to learn how to drive. You took driving lessons. You passed a driving test; you got a driving license. Traffic cops keep watch over you. There are even special rules and restrictions for teen drivers while they are still mastering their new skill. There are no equivalent sex schools, sex tests, sex licenses, sex cops, or special rules for sexual novices.

You also have good role models for driving. You watched your mother drive you to soccer practice, back in the days when your parents still hoped that their little Pele would fetch an athletic scholarship. Your father took you to the Kroger's parking lot and let you go round and round in the family's minivan, practicing your 2-10 hand position and parallel parking maneuvers. Not so with sex. Chances are you do not have a long history of watching your parents having sex, unless your family is really special. Chances are your father didn't take you by the hand when you were 16, sit you down in the corner of the bedroom, and say something like: "Son, your mother and I are going to demonstrate for you the art of fine lovin', safely and responsibly, of course. Watch and learn."

No, odds are you learned about sex from your friends and from the movies. Friends and movies are fine things, to be sure, but they can't teach you about good sex. Your friends, after all, are like you. That's why you like them. So they have no clue, either. And media sex is not designed to educate, but to entertain, titillate, distract, and mostly to sell products. If you imitate movie sex, you're more likely to get a concussion than have an orgasm. Trying to learn sex from the movies is like trying to learn driving from the movies. Weaving frantically, Jason Bourne-style, on highway 270 will land you hard time in County Jail, not Jimmy Johnson's endorsement deals.

In the absence of competent educators and good role models, your sexual mind is like the mall's movie theatre: filled with distracting nonsense, much of it scary. And the biggest nonsense is that your sex life is good. It cannot possibly be good.

Now, you may argue that sex is natural, an instinct. You don't need to learn it to know it. This is not true. First, human beings are learning, not instinctual, animals. Our big brain, our claim to fame in the animal kingdom, is an agile learning machine, not a store of rigid prefabricated instincts. Whatever instincts you have are mostly innate predispositions toward learning something. Moreover, even if you can, by some instinctual inclination, find sex--like you would by your survival instinct manage to scavenge some food for subsistence--do you really want your sex to be subsistence sex? Most of us wish for gourmet sex, and a gourmet meal doesn't just happen naturally.

Your sex life isn't good also because you're scared and confused. Society tells you contradictory things about sex: sex is dirty, dangerous, hidden, forbidden; and yet sexy people are attractive, popular, famous, rich, and powerful. Sexiness is prized, but sexuality is feared. The culture around you is doing to sex what it has done to eating, turning it from a mindful, healthy activity to a mindless, sickening compulsion. The titillating incessant food ads everywhere, the constant availability of cheap processed food--manipulated by corporations to make you crave and buy more, not to meet your health and nutrition needs--overwhelm your ability to identify and cultivate the deep, subtle satisfactions of healthy eating, resulting in disease and disability.

So too with sex. You are awash in the cultural noise machine of sexual salesmanship, and the mindless din prevents you from hearing yourself. But good sex is mindful. It's about making music, not making noise. Good sex is not a pose, or a hollow gesture; it's not divorced from your inner experience, but rather a genuine expression and exploration of it. Good sex, like good eating, has a relational component. The ‘good' part of ‘good sex' is, as a rule, an emergent property of the interaction between you and your partner. Like all things that require cultivation, it does better in certain environments than others. Good sex is more likely to flower in an environment of trust and intimacy, not suspicion, fear, and anonymity.

Your sex life sucks, as it must given your situation. But you can do something about it. You can start by recognizing that good sex is like a good education: it takes time, commitment, attention, and discipline. You can't be passive. You can't just lie there and have it done to you. You have to assert yourself, identify your values, your needs and desires. You have to ask questions and explore for answers. You have to read, and not just the comics; and open your mind, not just your legs. You may begin by reciting to yourself the following subversive declaration: "I'm entitled to my sexual life, sexual liberty, and the pursuit of my sexual happiness."

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

more...

Subscribe to Insight Therapy

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?