Recently I wrote an article, "Sex Always Consists of 'Leftovers'," describing how normal sexual relationships start: Both partners eliminate sexual behaviors that make them nervous and/or they don't want to do, and together they do what's ever left over. It may seem strange to realize this at first, but once you do you may think, "So what's the big deal?" Doesn't it seem like common sense and basic decency that each partner gets this courtesy? You wouldn't want to do sex acts that make you nervous, would you? And it doesn't seem fair to pressure your partner in ways they wouldn't like. So on second glance, it seems reasonable and obvious that this happens.
But there are more issues in play here. Another ecological rule of love relationships is operating underneath "Sex always consists of leftovers." It is, "People have sex within the limits of their sexual development." Here's what this means when you and your partner are "making leftovers":
"Disgusting and perverted" depends on your sexual maturity
Do you remember when you first heard of oral sex? You probably thought, "That's a disgusting and perverted thing to do! Certainly I wouldn't do that!" The process of becoming a sexually mature adult involves progressively turning "disgusting perverted behaviors" into making love.
Is it true all rejected options are beyond your sexual maturity? Must you like everything to be a sexually mature adult? Certainly not. Many people don't think of "golden showers," coprophilia or partner-swapping as sexual development. But our goal here isn't debating these options. Sorting out what's "too extreme" is an important process through which partners develop and define personal identities and core values within their relationship.
People don't wait for "safety and security"--until they're in a relationship
When you were an adolescent, you probably didn't wait to try some new sexual behavior until you felt "safe and secure" and were comfortable doing it. I've encountered rare people for whom this was true, but generally speaking, our species would die out if no one experimented sexually until you were sure how things would turn out.You really can't get comfortable beforehand. You have to do it while you're still uncomfortable with it, do it again and again until you master your anxiety, develop some competency, and learn how to "use" that sexual behavior. Then you go on to do something else you swore you'd never do. From French kissing to oral sex and intercourse (and whatever else you do), human sexual maturation involves tolerating anxiety, challenging your identity, and doing things you're not comfortable with yet.
I point this out because couples and attachment-based therapists seem to think the rules change once you're in a relationship. All of a sudden people demand "safety and security" before they try something new. This is not how love relationships work. Yes, having sex beyond your sexual development creates anxiety. You're doing sexual behaviors you've never done before. There are meanings to these behaviors you're not used to handling. You're afraid of looking inadequate or being rejected. But this was also true before you were in a relationship, and this didn't stop you then.
Sex beyond your current sexual development makes you nervous
The mile markers of adolescence are often sexual in nature. Holding hands. The first time you kiss. You touch someone's breasts and genitals or let someone touch yours. Your first intercourse. Many of us are brain-dead with anxiety during these steps into the unknown. Boys' fast ejaculation and girls' difficulty reaching orgasm are caused by massive anxiety and not knowing what to do. But the point is, your anxiety didn't stop you, you moved forward despite it.
Once in a relationship, things continue similarly. Shifting from missionary position (face to face) to rear-entry intercourse is a big change in meaning. "Tell me you love me" shifts to more carnal "Do me!" Let's say you're still at the stage of development where "sex is (only) for love," and you're not yet at "Let's get down and dirty!" Then doggie-style sex is going to make you uncomfortable. It's going to challenge your value system and your personal identity: Are you a carnal person? Is it OK to "do" the one you love? Where does healthy aggression and submission come in?
For many women, getting on top is a huge shift from being on their backs. Some feel this makes them responsible for knowing what to do. Others feel free to move as they want. Some get afraid of coming off too aggressive. Others love the chance to put their partner into orbit. And some get self-conscious and preoccupied with cellulite on their thighs and butt. Many men don't understand the difference being on top makes to their female partners. The men who really get it are those who love being put into orbit, or those who are intimidated by women's eroticism.
Oral sex is an even bigger step for many people. It challenges any lingering beliefs that sex or genitals are dirty. It puts you face to face with your partner's "private parts." You're confronted with unfamiliar tastes and smells that can take some getting used to. Your comfort with your own body is challenged when your partner goes down on you. Some couples don't take this step during 30 years together. Others do it in the dark or with their eyes closed and never look at each other.
Case example: Reggie and Angie
When you depend on a reflected sense of self, it's hard to change sexual behaviors. Besides getting your sense of self from other people, you get your identify from things like cars, clothes, physical appearance and status. This includes sexual behaviors you do and don't do. Changing your sexual behavior is like changing your haircut or gaining or losing weight: This challenges your identity. Who are you to think you could be attractive or sexy. The last thing you want to do is look pathetic. Doing things that don't fit your identity makes you nervous.
For example, Reggie and Angie came to see me for marital and sexual problems. Besides constant bickering, their sex life consisted of trading orgasms. Reggie complained about lack of frequency. Angie finally admitted she felt their sex life was boring. Reggie said he didn't think their sex was that bad. Angie countered, "That's because I give you oral sex, but you never go down on me! I'm tired of this!" Reggie blushed and acknowledged that he liked receiving oral sex, but he wasn't comfortable reciprocating. He said guys didn't do that where he came from, and if you did, other guys kidded you about being "pussy-whipped." Angie said, "Then get one of those guys to give you oral sex! I want to be treated like an equal."
Reggie was in a quandary people go through all the time. He couldn't really argue with Angie wanting equal treatment. And he didn't want to give up Angie blowing his brains out. But Reggie had this macho thing that "guys didn't do that." And he hadn't gotten over the idea that women's vaginas were "yucky." He was caught between his sexual immaturity and the better part of him that knew right from wrong. His reflected sense of self made him worry his buddies would laugh at him. I said Reggie acted like if he gave Angie oral sex, it would destroy his brain, his masculinity and his identity. Reggie ruefully admitted part of this felt true.
All this has huge implications when applied to "Sex always consists of leftovers." It stops being about sex per se and spills over into issues of selfhood. If people have sex up to the limits of their sexual development and going beyond that creates anxiety, how do you ever get out of this box? How do you create a wider array of leftovers? How do you cook up a sexual smorgasbord of delights? How does Angie ever get her fair share of oral sex and a partner she can respect?
We'll answer these questions of the ages next time.
Read the prior article in this series, "Sex Always Consists of 'Leftovers'."
Extensive reader case examples and my responses are available here.
For a nice overview of my approach, read the post "Lust For The Long Haul" by Elizabeth Devita-Raeburn
© 2011 by Crucible Institute. All rights reserved.