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Enhancing Couple Sexuality

A chat with Barry and Emily McCarthy, authors of "Enhancing Couple Sexuality."

Used with permission of author Barry McCarthy and Emily McCarthy
Source: Used with permission of author Barry McCarthy and Emily McCarthy

Although sexuality should be a positive factor in the lives of couples, too often it isn’t. Having a great sexual relationship will add something to your life—but having an unsatisfying sexual relationship will have a much larger and far more destructive effect.

What do you consider some of the most counterproductive myths about sexuality?

Sex myths continue to be pervasive in our culture. Old sex myths such as “Traditional sex roles are the most satisfying for both the man and the woman” are based on ignorance and oppressive attitudes. Newer sex myths, such as “G-spot orgasm and multiple orgasms are the most satisfying” are based on erotic performance and “pop sex.” Other sex myths reinforce unhealthy sex splits, such as “Intimacy-based couples therapy almost always enhances sexual desire, especially erotic feelings."

Sexuality is multi-causal, multi-dimensional, and complex, with large individual, couple, cultural, and value differences. Sexually, one size never fits all. Awareness of psychological, biomedical, and social/relational factors promotes individual and couple sexuality. Knowledge is power.

What is the paradox of sexuality?

The sexual paradox is that healthy sexuality has a positive 15 to 20 percent role in people’s lives and relationship. However, dysfunctional, conflictual, or avoidant sexuality has a powerful destructive (50 to 75 percent) role in subverting the person and destabilizing the relationship.

Healthy sex cannot save a bad relationship, but sexual problems and dysfunction can destroy a loving relationship. Sexuality energizes the couple and reinforces feelings of desire and desirability. The positive functions of sexuality are a shared pleasure, a means to reinforce intimacy, and a tension reducer to deal with the stresses of life and the sharing of lives.

It is striking that you have a chapter devoted to female-male equity. Can you discuss its relevance to good couple sexuality?

Many people grow up with the traditional double standard, whereby men are the sex experts, sex initiators, and intercourse is the man’s domain; and women are sexually inferior, stuck dealing with sexual problems from unwanted pregnancy to sexual pain, whose domain is affection and relational security. The rules are clear—but totally wrong for women, men, couples, and the culture.

The new, empowering model is female-male sexual equity. Rather than splitting eroticism (the man’s domain) and intimacy (the woman’s domain), both partners value intimacy and eroticism. Female sexuality is first-class, more variable, flexible, complex, and individualistic but not inferior to male sexuality. There are many more sexual similarities than differences between women and men, especially in an intimate relationship. Couple sexuality is more satisfying when two people are an intimate sexual team.

What is the new sexual mantra, and how does it differ from the old? What’s shifted? And why?

The new sexual mantra is desire/pleasure/eroticism/satisfaction with desire as the core dimension. Traditionally, the focus was on arousal, intercourse, and orgasm. Clients and professionals believed achieving orgasm was the key, specifically for female sexuality.

We are strong advocates for female orgasm, but the keys for female sexuality are “responsive female sexual desire” and valuing sensual, playful, and erotic scenarios in addition to intercourse. The new mantra emphasizes that sharing pleasure and eroticism is more important than individual sex performance.

Satisfaction certainly involves orgasm but is much more than orgasm. Satisfaction involves feeling good about yourself as a sexual person and bonded as a sexual couple. This mantra allows women and men to have a shared language.

You discuss good-enough sex—what is it, and when is good-enough sex good enough?

Good Enough Sex (GES) is a breakthrough couple concept focused on sharing pleasure. It replaces the traditional male model of sex as an individual pass-fail perfect-intercourse test. GES affirms the multiple roles, meanings, and outcomes of couple sexuality. GES is more easily embraced by women because it is congruent with female sexual socialization and lived sexual experiences.

GES emphasizes variable, flexible couple sexual response, not the male model of intercourse as the only measure of sex. GES emphasizes positive, realistic sexual expectations, including that it is normal that 5 to 15 percent of sexual experiences are dissatisfying or dysfunctional. If the encounter does not flow to intercourse, rather than panic or apologize (which is anti-erotic), the couple turns toward each other and transition to a sensual or erotic scenario. GES is not “settling,” it celebrates broad-based couple sexuality and positive, realistic expectations.

How can longstanding couples maintain an erotic edge in their relationship?

Rather than eroticism being the man’s domain or eroticism following the porn model of crazy sex, crazy women, and male dominant–female submissive, both the woman and the man value integrated eroticism. Eroticism is an integral component of the desire/pleasure/eroticism/satisfaction mantra.

The key to eroticism in an ongoing relationship is sharing intense sensations and feelings. An advantage of a marriage (life partnership) is that you feel free to take sexual risks and try a new erotic scenario, a different sequence of multiple stimulations before and during intercourse, integrating playfulness and eroticism, engaging in one-way (asynchronous) sex, being sexual at 2 a.m. under the kitchen table, or watching an R- or X-rated video and enjoying the intensity of sexuality. Whether 40, 60, or 80, you can reinforce your “erotic voice.”

You declare, “you are responsible for your sexual desire and orgasm.” What are you trying to tell people?

A crucial concept is that each partner is responsible for their own sexuality. This is a challenge for both women and men, but for very different reasons. In the traditional double standard, it was a measure of a man’s skill as a lover to turn her on and “give her an orgasm” during intercourse. What a destructive approach.

The new understanding is she is a first-class person responsible for “finding her sexual voice,” which is different from his, but not inferior to it. “Responsive female sexual desire” recognizes that her desire is in response to giving and receiving pleasurable touch (very different than being passive in “foreplay”) and experiencing arousal as a result of physical and emotional connection.

This is empowering for women. She “finds her orgasmic voice,” which can include manual, oral, intercourse, rubbing, and vibrator stimulation. Only a small minority of women orgasm like the man—a single orgasm during intercourse without additional stimulation. Most women find multiple stimulation key to being orgasmic. Both women and men thrive sexually when they are intimate and erotic allies.

You make the case that sex is not a performance test. Don’t most males feel that it is—especially when they feel they fail it?

Adolescent and young adult men learn sex as easy, in his control, totally predictable, and “autonomous”—he needs nothing from the woman. He has a spontaneous erection, quickly initiates intercourse, and has one predictable orgasm (often premature ejaculation). Men consider an erect penis as the measure of masculinity and intercourse as an individual pass-fail performance test.

A little-known reality is that when couples stop sex after age 50, it is almost always the man’s choice because he has lost confidence in erections (ED) and intercourse. He uses pro-erection medications or penile injections as a stand-alone intervention, which usually fails. Ideally, he would turn toward his partner for support and be a “wise man” who adopts the pleasure-oriented GES model. This facilitates sexuality in his 60s, 70s, and 80s. Traditional men cling to the narrow definition of sex as intercourse performance and stop being sexual out of frustration and embarrassment.

Now that so many people are living vibrant lives well into the senior decades, is the sexuality of older people changing in any way? And are cultural perceptions about sex and older people shifting in any significant way?

In my college sex class, I ask students whether they can imagine couples their grandparents’ age having sex. Only 1 in 13 can. There is solid scientific evidence that couples can be sexual in their 60s. 70s, and 80s. Sexuality with aging is more genuine and human—you need each other to share intimacy, pleasuring, and eroticism. When you welcome sexuality with aging you confront two stigmatized issues—aging and sexuality.

Remaining sexual is a “wise” decision for men, women, and couples. In term of quality of life, investing in intimacy, pleasuring, and eroticism is better than putting $100,000 in your retirement fund.

How does sex become more of a team sport as people age?

All the good things about sexuality come to fruition with aging. Healthy sexuality involves sharing pleasure and turning toward your partner as your intimate and erotic friend. You need each other in a way you didn’t in your 20s or 40s. The most powerful aphrodisiac is an involved, aroused partner.

As an intimate team, you share sensual, playful, and erotic touch in addition to intercourse. The challenge for couples whether married or partnered, straight or gay, is to integrate intimacy and eroticism into the relationship. Sex is not individual performance; it is about being an intimate sexual team who turn toward each other whether the sexual experience was wonderful or disappointing. You trust your partner “has your back.”

What would you consider the single most important message you would like readers to get from Enhancing Couple Sexuality?

The core message is to value a satisfying, secure, and sexual relationship. The role of healthy sexuality is to energize your bond and reinforce feelings of desire and desirability. The woman and man are first-class sexual people who share intimacy, pleasure, and eroticism. A key to sexual satisfaction is accepting Good Enough Sex (GES) and recognizing that sexuality involves sensual, playful, and erotic touch in addition to intercourse.

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