While I have written about the topic of sexual responsibility before, the issue has been coming up a lot recently with my private practice clients, so I think it is worthwhile not just to revisit the topic but also to take a deeper dive.
Twice in the recent past, different clients have said the following to me: “We are still processing something you said to us a little while ago.” Of course, this piqued my interest, so I asked what I said that had an impact on them. “You said, ‘An erection is not a call to action.’” Ah, yes.
In one example, the couple I was working with were not just not having sex, but they were not having any form of physical closeness or touch. I’m talking no hugging, kissing, cuddling in bed, foot rubs, holding hands, or even a pat on the back or shoulder. Working with sexless—and touchless—relationships is one of the presenting problems I treat, and I see many couples where this is the case.
Of course, each relationship is unique and has its own path to becoming sexless and touchless. There is a common point, though, where one partner stops initiating all non-erotic and non-sexual touch because they assume it will lead to the other partner becoming sexually aroused and then requesting sex. These thoughts and feelings have implications for the relationship.
There is a lot I can say about this particular relationship dynamic. Touch (not sex) that is kind and caring is vital to our well-being. Couples in this situation need to talk more about their subjective experiences and listen to each other’s subjective experiences without becoming defensive. Negotiation is key.
Behaviorally focused couples therapy would have couples focus on those strategies for moving through this impasse. But there is often a deeper dynamic at play, involving gendered stereotypes and expectations in sexual contexts.
As I wrote about in the prior article, both men and women can have the assumption that if the man has an erection, something needs to be done about alleviating that erection. Yet there is a truth that I like to point out to my clients: men have been getting erections, figuring out what to do about them, and taking care of themselves since they were adolescents (if not younger). They are not new to getting an erection and then deciding whether to pursue orgasm or letting it pass. They have ways to handle that situation that work for them (“Think about baseball”).
And yet, here are some common reactions to that situation:
- “But I’m going to get blue balls.” So, while yes, that’s a thing, it is basically just being highly sexually aroused for a long period of time without orgasm or ejaculation. You can easily get rid of the condition, as noted above.
- “She’s/I’m being a tease.” This is a misogynistic description. It may indicate the woman may fear how saying no will be perceived or that the man's reaction to being told no is to name-call. Eotj makes the situation emotionally messy.
- “I’ve just made him upset, and I don’t know what he might do while upset, so maybe I should just help him get off so I can feel safe/get away from him/get out of here.” It sounds like either a trauma response and/or a way to end a bad situation.
All this brings me back to my phrase, “An erection is not a call to action.”
When partners are able to not just understand but cope well with this mindset in the moment, any real or perceived pressure or coercion in an intimate scenario can quickly fade away. Then, it opens things up to new possibilities for that scenario, possibilities that maybe neither partner has considered before. That is when the couple can use those behaviorally focused strategies to find more connection, closeness, and touch. And maybe have sex, too.