Helping couples develop a sexual style that integrates intimacy and eroticism is a major contribution of sex therapists to both couples and clinicians. This concept positions a couple as an intimate sexual team, rather than being stuck in the traditional power struggle of men emphasizing eroticism and intercourse frequency and women emphasizing intimacy and affectionate touch. Many women see his erection as a demand for intercourse, so they don't engage in touching unless they want to have sex. This is a loss for her, him, and their intimate relationship.
What follows is a psychosexual skill exercise developed to enhance this kind of non-demand sexuality. Non-demand pleasuring involves affectionate, sensual, playful, and erotic touching both inside and outside the bedroom, which creates an empowering understanding that not all touching can or should lead to intercourse. Read each exercise separately, discuss it together, and, most importantly, begin the exercise in a manner that facilitates sexual comfort and pleasure for both of you.
Start by discussing your feelings about non-demand touching. Be aware of when and how you feel pressure that diminishes spontaneity and playfulness during a sexual encounter. Remember, in these exercises there is no demand involved; your desires and choices are what count.
During this discussion, develop and refine a "signal system" that tells your partner whether you want to proceed to intercourse. This communication may be verbal, like saying "I really want to make love," "I'm not in the mood to screw," "let's get it on," "let me just hold you," or "I've enjoyed this; let it be." The communication could also be nonverbal—for example, massaging your partner's genitals and switching to an intercourse position, moving to sensuous pleasuring, using eye contact to say yes or no, or moving your partner's hands to or from your genitals. Your partner can answer with a signal that says, "okay" or "not tonight: let's just play." Don't stop at saying or signaling "no." Suggest something you would like to engage in instead: a backrub, lying and talking, holding each other, taking a sensuous bath, giving manual or oral sex, taking a walk, cuddling and going to sleep. Pleasure-oriented touching, not sexual performance, is the key to couple intimacy.
Begin this exercise nude in your bedroom. Lying on the bed, the woman should position herself behind her partner with their entire bodies touching—her chest to his back, her knees bent inside his, her arms around his body while he holds her hands. This is a nice position in which to lie together and feel close and connected. He is in a protected and passive position, allowing himself to feel cared for.
In this scenario, it is the woman's prerogative to indicate whether she wants to extend pleasuring into intercourse. You can use any signal system you want, verbal or nonverbal. The criterion of effectiveness is whether your partner clearly receives and understands your communication. It's unrealistic to assume the man is always ready and willing to have sex—this expectation can create undue pressure.
The optimal relationship is one in which both partners feel comfortable initiating intercourse and both feel they have the right to say no. If either partner does not desire intercourse, he or she can suggest an alternative way to connect, like holding each other and talking or manually or orally stimulating each other to orgasm. If you do not desire intercourse, suggest an alternative sensual or erotic experience.
Especially when you have only recently become a sexual couple and your relationship is focused on sexual frequency, if either person becomes highly aroused the usual pattern leads to intercourse. This is fine, but it is not a realistic model for sex in a serious, long-term relationship. There's nothing ‘wrong' with arousal not culminating in intercourse or orgasm. Sexual expression is a choice, not a duty.
Be sure to discuss your experience in the morning, focusing on how comfortable and clear your communication system was. If there was a problem, what would you be willing to try next time to improve the communication process and sexual experience? Sexual desire is enhanced by positive anticipation, choice, freedom, and open communication. Desire is subverted by pressure, performance demands, predictability, and viewing sex as a way to prove something to your partner. Openly communicating a range of alternative ways to stay connected facilitates a positive sexual experience, even if it does not include intercourse.
Barry and Emily McCarthy have just published Sexual Awareness: Your Guide to Healthy Couple Sexuality, 5th edition. This book includes a comprehensive set of psychosexual skill exercises like this one, designed to enhance desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction.