Stress and Sex

Helping women decrease stress and enhance desire.

If It's Fun, It's Not Duty Sex

Great sex doesn't have to start with physical desire

In replies to comments on my last blog, I mentioned that many women find it helpful to know that they don't have to feel horny to have sex but instead can get horny by having sex. One of my readers, a therapist herself, aptly labeled this the "Just Do It" approach to sex. She also said she isn't a fan of this Nike approach to sex. While I don't know this for sure, I am guessing that she, like many others, equates Nike sex and service sex.

Service sex is sex that someone has only to satisfy their partner and derives no enjoyment from -- or worse yet, finds aversive. Service sex reminds me of a client who once told me that she had sex once a week with her husband, so he wouldn't seek it elsewhere, but that she literally gritted her teeth through the entire experience. I'm not advocating such duty sex here. What I am advocating is mutually satisfying sex that doesn't have to begin with a physical sensation in the woman's genitals.

In the linear model of sexuality that most of us are familiar with, all sexual activity begins with feelings in one's genitals - or what we commonly term "feeling horny." In this model, desire (or feeling horny) leads us to engage in sexual activity which results in arousal and if we are lucky, orgasm. It is this lack of spontaneous sexual desire that thirty to forty percent of women are worried about when they say they have lost their interest in sex.

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If women knew what the sex therapy textbooks say, they wouldn't be so concerned. As stated by Dr. Rosemary Basson in one of the most widely used sex therapy textbooks (edited by Sandra Leiblum, 2007), "Understanding that spontaneous sexual desire is a reality for only some women, most notably when there is a new partner....would cause an unknown percentage of women concerned about their lack of spontaneous sexual desire to perceive their experience as normal."

This raises the question: What is normal for women? Again, quoting lines from this widely used textbook, "The sexual response cycle of women tends to be circular and interactive, with arousal and desire triggering and being triggered by each other. For many women, in fact, sexual arousal precedes conscious feeling of sexual desire whereas for most men, sexual desire precedes arousal." Stated slightly differently, yet still quoting, "....Evidence makes it clear that ... overt desire is infrequent in many sexually functioning and satisfied women - especially those in established relationships."

To put this in non-textbook terms, the research tells us that many women in long-term relationships stop feeling spontaneously horny. However, most women don't know that this is normal. Some of them stop having sex altogether. Others continue to have sex - driven by motivations other than a pressing feeling in their genitals. Studies find that women engage in sex for a variety of reasons, including a desire for emotional closeness, because their partner wants to, or because they know it will be great once it gets going. In fact, there is a name for this: Receptive Sexual Desire. Helen Singer Kaplan, the theorist who first wrote about sexual desire discussed both spontaneous and receptive sexual desire. Sadly, only the former was adapted into the well-known linear model of sexual desire.

Knowing only of this falsely linear model of desire causes many women to feel ashamed, even if they are having great sex. These women come to my therapy office, telling me that they have no interest in sex, but they "just do it" and it is good - even great - once it gets going. What relief they feel when I tell them that they are not alone and that in fact, this is normal for many women! What relief they feel when I tell them that this has an official name, and that it is a bona fide part of women's circular sexual response cycle.

While Receptive Sexual Desire is the official name for initiating and being receptive to sex for reasons other than genital tension, I have another name for it. In my book, A Tired Woman's Guide to Passionate Sex, I call this the "Have Sex, Feel Horny" model (which I juxtapose with the more linear model which I call the "Feel Horny, Have Sex" model). In my book, I also explain that using this model is akin to knowing that your car can be cold when you start it, but will warm up while you drive. You can still experience a very pleasant drive, even in the winter time.

Taking this driving metaphor one step further, why lament yourself for having a cold car at the start if you end up with a wonderful ride? Great sex doesn't have to start with physical desire. Just because it doesn't' start with physical desire doesn't mean it is duty sex. After duty sex, one says, "I am glad I got that over with for the week." After great sex, one says, "I forgot how great that was. I need to do that more often!" If it's fun, it isn't duty sex.

If women knew what that the sex therapy textbooks say, they would be more comfortable "Just Doing It" without judging it as deficient.

Laurie Mintz, Ph.D., is the author of A Tired Woman's Guide to Passionate Sex: Reclaim Your Desire and Reignite Your Relationship.

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