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Do Men and Women Have to Compromise to Have Satisfying Sex?

It’s helpful to regard all of us as, well, perverts. Here’s why.

Alex Barinov1987/Shutterstock
Source: Alex Barinov1987/Shutterstock

Unquestionably, various exceptions exist. But on average, women desire more romance in marital lovemaking, while men want something earthier — maybe even more “animal-like.” So how can couples find a middle ground equally gratifying to both of them?

All too often, committed partners feel constrained not only in physically manifesting their sexual preferences, but simply in communicating them. The result is that neither partner becomes particularly adept at erotically “turning on” the other. And that’s unfortunate: After all, shouldn’t your own spouse reveal some mastery in knowing how to excite you in bed?

Still, as many writers have pointed out, in the context of a long-term, intimate relationship, what your significant other thinks about you can be crucial to how you think about yourself. So unless your self-regard is virtually unassailable, totally independent of anyone else’s evaluation, why would you take the chance of sharing something extremely personal that could prompt your spouse to see you as coarse, crass, boorish, or perverted? Or, if you’re a woman, overly sentimental, mawkish, dewy-eyed — or even inane?

Psychologist Jesse Bering’s acclaimed book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us (2014) highlights the idea that, finally, we’re all perverts. And sex therapist Dan Savage, enthusiastically reviewing this well-researched book for Scientific America, elaborates on Bering’s disarming thesis:

We may not want to admit it, but . . . there is a spectrum of perversion along which we all sit. Whether it’s voyeurism, exhibitionism, or your run-of-the-mill foot fetish, we all possess a suite of sexual tastes as unique as our fingerprints — and as secret as the rest of the skeletons we’ve hidden in our closets.

In this characterization, the words that stands out most for me are “secret” and “skeletons,” which imply that idiosyncratic (or maybe not so idiosyncratic) sexual proclivities must somehow be viewed as illicit, and therefore too hazardous to disclose. And it’s precisely this fear that sharing with our partner what would most excite us runs the risk of being seen as unprincipled, uncouth, or out-and-out weird that forces us into resigned silence. If, regardless of our partner’s immediate reaction to our confiding in them our erotic fantasies, we lack the self-confidence or resilience to remain authentic, our felt vulnerability will oblige us to renounce our ambition to realize our sexual potential with them.

The usual result of such self-protective suppression is that over time, our lovemaking will become more mechanical, less creative and spontaneous — and offering neither of us the passion we may have enjoyed earlier in the relationship. Particularly when in the past the husband has been criticized for his brazen or boorish approach to sex, or the wife for her over-emotional, lovey-dovey, or “mushy” sexual predilections, our willingness to openly declare our sexuality with them will decrease — as our carnal self-consciousness increases. Moreover, the frequency of our sexual encounters is also likely to decline. After all, if our sexual expression is more and more governed by society’s perceived norms, our lovemaking will begin to feel routine. And that hardly fosters any couple’s erotic arousal.

The remainder of this post will focus on an excellent, ground-breaking article on what’s legitimate in couples’ sexual expression, called “Is All Fair in Love and Sex?” by sex therapist Joe Kort, Ph.D. I’ll be citing this piece regularly in the effort to describe how couples can discover — or rediscover — the sensual connection that not only can enliven their sex life, but also deepen their all-important attachment bond.

The most effective route toward strengthening a couple’s erotic union lies in helping them understand the inevitable bio-psycho-social differences between them. It’s in their growing willingness to accommodate, and integrate, these inevitable discrepancies that they can succeed in co-creating a sexual alliance enabling them to feel more emotionally connected to each other. In gradually letting go of past hang-ups, both in communicating their withheld desires and then in finding ways to enact them, each partner can expand their notion of what’s possible — and now acceptable — in the bedroom (or kitchen, closet, backyard, etc.). And because they now recognize that their sexual relationship need not be bound by constraints more appropriate to non-sexual areas in their life, their more primal, appetite-driven parts can be set free.

To begin with, let’s consider that what frequently turns a male on most is, more often than not, what’s most likely to turn their partner off. Multiple reasons exist for this gender disparity, but we need only consider that “sluttish sex” can be incredibly arousing to a male but, to his female partner, feeling anything like a floozy is typically experienced as shameful or degrading.

Nothing in this piece is meant to suggest that a woman ought to “cave” to her partner’s most barbaric desires. In all situations, a woman’s personal boundaries must be honored and respected. Nonetheless, it’s altogether possible that many limits in lovemaking that women diligently adhere to have a lot more to do with what they think they must abide by than what, deep down, they might actually (and “indecently”) long for. If men have a feminine, more tender side that ought to be revealed in lovemaking, so also do women have a masculine, lustier, more aggressive, and dominant side no less worthy of amorous expression.

As Joe Kort frames it for therapists:

While it’s important for some men to develop their ability to express attachment using words of love, we [therapists] shouldn’t ignore the need to help some women understand the provocative kind of sexual attachment language their partner may be using.

So at the same time that Kort will explain to a husband that his wife may have experienced males objectifying her pretty much all her life, and so can hardly help but feel demeaned, insulted, or disrespected if he wants to talk “dirty” to her or do something with her similar to what he’s seen on a porn site, he’ll also suggest that the wife consider whether her partner’s verbal and behavioral preferences might simply be his gender-based way of expressing his caring attachment for her.

Understandably, for many women, such a concept is difficult to grasp, and probably all the more so because of the long-overdue #MeToo movement. Yet such a professional intervention paves the way for both parties to begin reassessing the dynamic that’s caused them to become increasingly frustrated in their failed efforts to get their partner to conform to what they’ve needed to feel loved by them. The “shoulds” each of them have tried to impose on the other haven’t worked and, realistically, couldn’t work. And without receiving new information about their ongoing dilemma, their contrary biases — hinging as much on their (gender-influenced) psyches as on contemporary sexual mores — are hardly subject to change.

Here’s an example in which both parties need, creatively, to discover how to meet in the middle — how to affirm their sexual predilections, even as they endeavor to accommodate their partner’s. And like just about everything else in couples counseling, what’s pivotal is helping each partner to develop more empathy for the other’s discordant position. A therapist authoritatively siding with either the husband or the wife almost never solves the problem. But assisting each partner to vicariously identify with the other’s wants and needs is very likely to. In fact, once that mutually compassionate comprehension is achieved, most couples show they’re quite capable of fixing their own problems.

Largely independent of any couple’s particular sexual issues, the therapist’s typical goal relates to expanding a couple’s erotic repertoire. Doubtless, discussing what needs to change is important. But finally, what matters most is that each partner become more sympathetically understanding of what their spouse requires to feel genuinely cared for. That’s how a relationship-affirming compromise is attained. Additionally, a couple’s sexual problems rarely can be overcome without their being able to locate and clarify the various assumptions, biases, and beliefs underlying these difficulties.

It cannot be over-emphasized that, generally speaking, a man’s “love language” isn’t usually congruous with a woman’s. And this divergence can (and all too frequently does) lead to a variety of miscommunications between them. Here’s how Kort explains it to one couple after the wife complains bitterly to him about how outraged she felt when her husband spoke to her as though she were some sort of hooker, talking about wanting to “f**k her hard” and for her “to s**k [him] until he came”:

That [responds Kort] is how many men talk sexually . . . how they express their attachment to their partner during sex. In the same way, women like to say things like “take all of me” or “ravish me” or “tell me I’m the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.” One conveys words of love, and one is dirty talk — they’re just different languages. He’s speaking in objectified ways that allow him to be more turned on. You know . . . research indicates this is a way men can separate their partner from, say, the mother of their children, and even their own mother. When people are intimate, many times another persona comes out to play, one that’s hidden from the rest of the world. . . . It’s kind of a paradox: by objectifying you, and talking dirty to you in bed as if you were a different person than you are in day-to-day life, he ends up feeling closer to you.

And when, somewhat “softening,” the wife still protests that her husband shouldn’t be watching porn or masturbating when she’s available for sex, Kort cites David Ley’s scholarly yet humorous book Ethical Porn for Dicks, which makes the case that men can enjoy both porn and sex with their partner — that one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other, adding:

Think about books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. . . . People call these “cliterature” because they’re a turn-on for women. They express a desire to imagine a partner who’s more exciting than the person with whom they’re sharing their bed. But having such fantasies doesn’t have to mean that a woman will betray her husband with someone else, or that their relationship is somehow doomed. It’s just fantasy.

So here we can see the author’s nomalizing — or extending the norms of — what had been outside the wife’s carnal comfort zone. And further, Kort inquires whether she might in the past have had fantasies either of being aggressively taken by an alpha male (the most common theme in romance novels, written especially for a female audience), or taking on a dominant role herself in abandoned lovemaking. Such exploratory, non-confrontational questioning assists the wife in broadening her understanding of both her husband’s — and her own — erotic love map.

As Kort’s case description illuminates, viewing something from a far less constrictive (and judgmental) mind-set can eventually enable the resistant partner not only to offer herself to her spouse sexually in a way that might multiply his sexual gratification, but also serve to increase her own marital/sexual satisfaction. Not that such a major alteration happens overnight. For generally it takes weeks or a few months to effect such an attitudinal and behavioral change (and possibly much more than this if the couple enters treatment with a whole host of non-sexual issues as well).

If a couple wants to reintroduce romance and passion back into their relationship, adopting a new, and less critical, viewpoint of their differences is key. When each “bends” to better accommodate their partner — the man’s willing to adopt at least some of his wife’s love lexicon, and the wife’s agreeing to participate in some of her husband’s favored libidinous expression — their “incompatible differences” can become increasingly compatible.

So it’s essential that we look at the divergences in our sexual preferences not in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, but — as long as they’re not experienced as abusive to either party — distinguishing characteristics (however “perverted”) to be reconciled in any way that's acceptable to both parties. And an effective resolution will lead not simply to a happier sexual relationship but to a much happier relationship overall.

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.