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The Myth of Spontaneous Sex

Do you think sex "just happens?" You might want to think twice.

I was reminded recently about a major belief many people have about sex—which is that sex happens spontaneously. “I don't know, it just happens." Shrug.

When a sex therapy client of mine reveals they have this belief, I generally like to poke around and ask more questions to get a better understanding of this. Common ideas I hear from my clients include thinking the initiation of sex is effortless; that no communication is required—“we both just know we’re ready”—and that it is basically magic when it happens.

Oof. So much work to do here.

But before I dive into why, let’s explore deeper some of these beliefs. Believing that sex happens spontaneously sure feels great, doesn't it? It allows for a passivity from one or both partners: You do not have to do much of anything at all in order to make sex happen. Easy peasy! It also allows for a lack of self-awareness in that we do not have to do the work to identify our turn-ons, turn-offs, sexual boundaries, or build good sexual relationship skills like communication, emotional self-management, or assertiveness skills. And it also allows for a lack of responsibility in that if we think it “just happens,” we do not have to examine our part in either making sex happen or not happen.

Sure is a convenient belief, isn’t it? Keeps us comfortable.

This inaccurate belief requires work from both therapist and client. This is the not-so-great part of my job: when I tell my clients things I know they do not want to hear—like that sex never was or is spontaneous. It was and is always anticipated or planned to a certain degree. (Note: I say anticipated, not guaranteed.)

Think about when you were dating (pre-pandemic, of course). For example, you made plans on a Wednesday to get together with your boo on Friday night. That gave you 48-ish hours to plan and prepare for the possibility of having sex: all genders, you definitely planned your outfit, made sure it was freshly laundered. Vulva owners, perhaps you planned which sexy underwear to wear and prepared your body in other ways (bathing, shaving/waxing), and penis havers, you made sure you had plenty of your favorite cologne and also prepared your body (bathing, shaving, trimming). Maybe you packed a few things like a change of underwear or toothbrush in your bag or made sure you had some cash on hand. Now the thing is, when you are in the early stages of a new relationship, these activities of preparation and planning are joyful! This is positive anticipation—and maybe the planning and preparing even helped increase your desire and/or arousal.

But that stage of a new relationship never lasts. Now you are elbow deep in family life, job stress, house repairs. Maybe trying to manage your mental and physical health. Maybe taking care of sick parents. Maybe trying to help your kids do distance learning. Maybe sex just is not as high on your priority list as it used to be. And yeah, sex no longer “just happens.” So now sex, if it is going to happen at all, needs to be explicitly planned and prepared for. Remember it always was and is planned; only now it’s planned in an entirely different emotional landscape than you have experienced before.

I get pushback from my clients on this idea. This pushback is not “resistance” (a common therapy term); it is grief and loss. We are not as young or maybe as healthy as we were back then. We are not as carefree as we were back then. We have more stress and responsibilities now than we could have ever imagined back then. We have complicated and multi-layered thoughts and feelings about our long-term partner now (like disappointments, resentments, and lingering hurt) that get reactivated, may not be fully resolved, or make us want to pull away from our partner. Your partner has fallen off that new relationship energy pedestal, probably with a hard thump, and boy do you miss it. I get it. Sex now, perhaps for the first time in your life, has an added layer of feeling grief and loss.

So of course, at this moment is when people long for the mistaken idea of spontaneous sex. Because clinging to it means you do not have to change or do any work. It reminds you of better days. Because actually feeling grief and loss is so, so painful that it seems to be human nature to avoid feeling it, even if that means twisting ourselves into a pretzel psychologically or relationally.

But you can get through it. Letting go of the mistaken belief that sex is spontaneous is important work in adult sexual development. And I promise you there is something on the other side. You just have to get curious about what it may be.

© 2020 Diane Gleim

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