What's Your Sexual Style?

How a couple can share desire, pleasure, and satisfaction.

Bridges to Sexual Desire

The key to sexual desire is positive anticipation and freedom.

Among American couples the average intercourse frequency is between 58-61 times a year, a little over once a week. This data on relatively low rates of intercourse surprises most people as does the data that married couples have more sex than either dating or cohabitating couples (who have been together 2 years or longer). This data is important in helping couples set realistic expectations and not feel intimidated by media hype or bar talk which makes it sound like everyone is having more sex (5-10 times a week) than you.

From my point of view as a couple and sex therapist, this frequency of intercourse does not promote sexual health or relationship satisfaction. The new mantra in couple sexuality is desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction. The function of sexuality in a healthy relationship is a 15-20% role of energizing your couple bond and reinforcing feelings of desire and desirability.

Many, if not most, couples connect in two ways-affectionate touch or intercourse. The concept of bridges to sexual desire alters the narrow, rigid model in two ways. First, it introduces non-demand pleasuring-the value of sensual, playful, and erotic touch as valuable in its own right as well as serving as a bridge to intercourse and second, emphasizes the role of positive anticipation and responsive sexual desire to broaden your opportunities for sexual connection.

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Sensual touch focuses on non-genital pleasuring such as back rubs, cuddling, and caressing. Playful touch involves both genital and non-genital pleasuring (which can be clothed, semi-clothed, or nude) and includes showering or bathing together, romantic or erotic dancing, playing games like strip poker or twister. Erotic touch includes manual, oral, rubbing, or vibrator stimulation to arousal and orgasm for one or both partners. Again, each dimension of pleasure-oriented touch can have value in itself as well as serve as a bridge to sexual desire. This breaks the trap of "intercourse or nothing" that so many couples fall into.

The key to sexual desire is positive anticipation and freedom to choose whether an encounter flows into intercourse or not. Sometimes the way to build sexual anticipation is erotic fantasies or needing orgasm, but most of the time for most couples it is touching and awareness of your own or your partner's needs for physical and emotional connection that builds desire.

A commonly believed myth is that spontaneous sexual desire is more genuine than responsive desire or experiences based on bridges to sexual desire. For couples with jobs, children, and personal and community commitments, as many as 80% of sexual encounters are planned or semi-planned. Common bridges to sexual desire include getting out of the house and going to a movie or to listen to music and being sexual when you return home, cuddling on the couch watching a romantic comedy with that setting the stage for your sexual encounter, going to a wedding and it being a cue for you to be sexual that night, bringing juice, a bagel, and coffee for breakfast in bed and sex as dessert, surprising your partner by joining him in the shower and then transitioning to bed (or being sexual in the shower), or having a glass of wine and an appetizer with sex as the main course. Couples who have "his", "her", and "our" bridges to desire enjoy a powerful relational resource.

Desire is the core element in healthy couple sexuality. The more bridges to sexual desire and the more ways to connect and reconnect (non-demand pleasuring both inside and outside the bedroom) result in strong, resilient couple sexuality.

Barry W. McCarthy, Ph.D., is a tenured professor of psychology at American University and a best-selling author.

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