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Integrating Eroticism Into Your Relationship

It's time for a new mantra in sexuality.

Key points

  • Much of the advice on how to promote eroticism turns out to be anti-erotic.
  • Eroticism is integral to female, male, and couple sexuality.
  • Integrated eroticism is key to a motivating and empowering model of couple sexuality.

The new mantra in the sexuality and sex therapy fields is emphasizing desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction. All four dimensions are integral to female, male, and couple sexuality. Eroticism is the most controversial and misunderstood dimension.

When I ask my college students how to keep eroticism alive in a relationship, they confidently give the “sexually sophisticated” answer—watch porn together and act out erotic fantasies. The media and self-help book advice about eroticism is simple—“hot” couples use role-enactment arousal for eroticism. This includes sex toys, master-slave scenarios, porn videos that provide an erotic charge, variant arousal scenarios, sharing and playing out sexual fantasies, illicit and lustful scenarios, and being sexually unconstrained.

Is role-enactment eroticism based on science, or is it a new sexual myth based on erotic demands and expectations? Although there is little research on erotic scenarios, most couples find this erotic advice counterproductive, and it can be anti-erotic. The couple is caught in a power struggle of who is at fault that eroticism is lacking. They do not feel “good enough sexually,” especially erotically.

An empowering and motivating approach is to affirm the value of integrated eroticism, especially partner interaction arousal. Partner interaction arousal is giving and receiving pleasure-oriented touch, which transitions to erotic touch. Your partner’s receptivity and responsiveness reinforce your arousal. The major aphrodisiac is an involved, aroused partner. The best couple sex is mutual and synchronous, which means both partners experience high levels of desire and satisfaction.

A second eroticism pattern is called self-entrancement arousal. In this scenario, one person is the giver, the other the receiver—similar to the sensate focus format. The receiving partner is not passive. She/he is aware, mindful, and responsive to the pleasure flow. Usually, but not always, partners switch roles. Often the self-entrancement scenario is asynchronous (good for both, but better for one partner). Accepting asynchronous eroticism is healthy for couples' sexuality as long as it’s not at the expense of the partner or relationship.

This asynchronous guideline is also relevant for role-enactment eroticism. Subjective arousal (on a 10-point scale, where 0 is neutral, 5 beginning arousal, 8-9 erotic flow, and 10 orgasm) is 10+ for the person with the variant arousal while it is 7+ or 2 for the partner. If the erotic scenario is less than 3 or 7 for the partner, this is an anti-erotic experience.

For most couples, partner interaction and self-entrancement arousal are a good fit. Integrated eroticism works for both people. Some couples enjoy role-enactment eroticism, at least on occasion. However, for many couples, especially couples with a traditional sexual style or best friend sexual style, role enactment is anti-erotic. A paradox of eroticism is that when it is successfully integrated into desire and pleasure, this enhances vitality. However, when it is not the right fit, the scenario is anti-erotic and devitalizing for the couple. Integrated eroticism enhances sexuality for the woman, man, and couple.

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