Scaring Ourselves Out of Good Sex

Internal narratives of powerlessness make it hard to improve sex.

Posted Mar 28, 2018

Every year, millions of Americans experience sexual frustration. Their bodies don't cooperate, they don't desire partners they love, they feel awkward and alone in bed.  

Half the country, it sometimes seems, wants better sex. 

Men and women blame a variety of things—often each other—but this doesn’t seem to reduce mediocre or physically uncomfortable sex. The widespread low desire now commonly called an epidemic is easy to understand when you realize how many people don’t have sex worth desiring.

One big obstacle that keeps men and women from improving their sex lives is the stories they tell themselves—stories of powerlessness.

I am NOT talking about situations in which people are forced or manipulated into sex. Rather, I’m talking about the ongoing internal voice that interferes with people feeling, talking, relaxing, choosing, experimenting, and creating what they want sexually.

Psychologists call these stories narratives—coherent yet arbitrary ways of organizing reality. Whether about sex, money, religion or any other dimension, narratives shape our lives whether we’re aware of them or not. 

To take a simple example, if you fear a partner’s rejection, you’ll be inhibited whether that partner is considering rejecting you or not. Of course, acting inhibited will have a big impact on the relationship—again, whether a partner is considering rejecting you or not. The narrative “I’m at risk for rejection” has a profound impact on how we behave in relationships.

When it comes to sex, too many men and women keep generating stories of limitation—why they can’t or shouldn’t feel or want or say or do this or that, and the dreadful consequences they’ll suffer if they do. As a result, they can’t take the simple steps—including communication and self-acceptance—that would make sex more enjoyable.

Here are some common stories—narratives—my patients tell themselves that result in a sense of powerlessness around sex:

~ “I could never ask for that—I’d die of embarrassment.”
~ “I could never just do that—what if s/he thinks I’m too kinky?”
~ “I could never ask for that—what if s/he just does it out of feeling obligated?”
~ “If I don’t have sex (or a special position, or an orgasm), s/he will be disappointed, insulted, hurt, or angry.”

In other words, “My truth will kill the other person.” And “What I want (or don’t want) is so strange that I don’t deserve to have it, or even advocate for it.” Besides, “I shouldn’t make such a big deal about it—so the sex isn’t perfect, that’s life.”

These self-scaring and self-limiting stories also expose how many people don’t trust their partners, even in otherwise loving relationships. For many people, in fact, the more they’re attached to someone, the less they’re willing to take sexual risks with them.

~ “I can’t compete with sexier men or women, so I might as well give up.”

Many people imagine they live in a world of sexual competition, in which they can’t possibly win. The ubiquity of porn makes this way too easy—although not inevitable. Women complain that men compare them to porn actresses, but women do this to themselves way too much—even when their male partner is attentive and desires them.

Of course, men compare themselves to porn actors, too. Big mistake—those physical specimens are as rare as LeBron James or Mick Jagger. And editing makes their on-screen performance completely unrealistic.

But porn didn’t invent this problem. Unfortunately, people compare themselves sexually to their younger self. And to their partner’s ex-lovers. And to people they see at the airport. There’s no limit to how far some people will go in the quest to disqualify themselves from sex.

~ “I’d rather not do that, but everyone else seems to like it.”

Many men and women are anxious to feel sexually normal. 

And everyone has intuitive ideas about how much and what kind of sex others “like them” have. It can be other newlyweds, other middle-aged couples, other post-menopausal women, other Italians, other anything. Few people aspire to be average, but many people want to be like everyone else sexually. This keeps people from discovering their authentic sexual self.

~ “Look at me—I don’t think I’m sexy, and no one else will, either.”

In a culture obsessed with youth, looks, and money, many people who lack one or more of these decide they are simply ineligible for enjoyable sex. Whether it’s a big belly, a bald head, a missing breast, unemployment, or some other life feature, many people think they’d seem pathetic if they wanted or enjoyed sex. So they don’t.

This is so, so sad. After all, sex is one pleasure of life that’s available in some form or other to everyone. Everyone. And to access it, each of us has to start with a decision—it’s ok, even for ME, to have some of this. 

~ “Men are just like that” or “Women are just like that” 

Stereotyping our partner or potential partners this way is one of the worst stories we tell ourselves.

Believing your partner simply can’t understand you, or can’t remember what you like, or won't believe your needs, or can’t be expected to navigate your incredibly complex sexual needs is self-defeating and generally not true. 

If you’re with someone who ACTUALLY is like this—if they say so, or if their uncaring behavior is clear and consistent—it is NOT because they are a man or a woman. It’s because they’re terribly limited. Or emotionally disordered. Or full of rage. Or they're a jerk. Yes, I’m aware that there are such people. I see them in my therapy office every week.

Don’t use their gender as an excuse to give up. A partner who treats our sexuality (or the rest of us) so dismissively must be held accountable. Saying nothing solves nothing.

* * *
We spend so much time trying to prevent unwanted emotions and experiences during sex that we don’t focus enough on what we want. We’re so afraid of our partner’s reaction that we don’t talk enough about ourselves—or ask substantial questions about the person we're with.

Narratives of powerlessness isolate us. The isolation soon feels inevitable.

The #MeToo movement isn’t going to change this. Consent programs that don’t discuss pleasure or internal narratives aren’t going to change this. Programs to reduce sexual violence aren’t going to change this. 

Because for the majority of women and men who are not in coercive relationships, the powerlessness and normality anxiety they feel INTERNALLY is the most important limit to their sense of sexual agency. To improve sex, people need to stop telling themselves what they can't or shouldn't say--and start saying it.

While consent is obviously necessary for any healthy sexual interaction, ambiguity will always be part of sex. Sex can be “safe” in the sense that all boundaries will be respected and all parties will be truthful, but it can never be entirely risk-free. That’s because healthy sex (not to mention exciting sex) requires continued self-exposure, and there can be no complete guarantees about how accepting or understanding one’s partner will be. In the absence of any perfect guarantee, good sex will always require the belief that one can manage through rejection, and that one can be sexy even if one’s partner doesn’t think so. 

Sex also requires us to imagine that our partner can manage their own discomfort. Any narratives that make us doubt our or our partner’s abilities to navigate adult sexuality will diminish our experience—and us.

Has our constant digital communication—along with today's SexPanic, too much porn, chronic fatigue, and homes that are now workplaces most nights—simply anesthetized us to the possibilities of communicating in real time with a real person who’s just 12 inches away?