Barry McCarthy, Ph.D.

Barry W McCarthy Ph.D.

What's Your Sexual Style?

Sex

Sex Scandals and Healthy Sexuality

The number of ways sex can destabilize people seems endless.

Posted Jun 02, 2011

The media is overflowing with reports of sex scandals-affairs, compulsive sexual behavior, child sexual abuse, and sexual assault. The number of ways that sex can destabilize individuals and couples is seemingly endless.

How do sex educators and therapists combat the stigma created by sex scandals? When I speak to clients, teach college sexuality classes, and write books I describe 4 categories of sexuality:

1. Healthy Individual and Couple Sexuality
2. Positive Sexual Alternatives
3. Tolerable Sexual Differences
4. Abusive, Destructive Sexual Behaviors

The guiding principles are that sexuality is a positive part of life; your sexuality is integral to your personality and to who you are as a man or woman; the healthy role of sexuality is to affirm you as a person and to energize your intimate relationship. Sexuality has an integral but relatively small role in psychological well-being, contributing 15-20% to life and relationship satisfaction. Paradoxically, destructive, conflictual, dysfunctional, or avoidant sexuality plays an inordinately negative role, 50-75%, destabilizing the person and relationship.

I. Healthy Sexuality
The new mantra in sexuality is desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction. The role of sexuality is to affirm self-esteem and to energize your intimate relationship. Healthy sexuality promotes feelings of desire and desirability. Whether 21, 41, or 71, married, partnered, or single, the question is how to ensure that sexuality is playing a positive, integral role in your personal and relational life. The essence of healthy sexuality is giving and receiving pleasure-oriented touch, rather than sex as a perfect performance to prove something to yourself or your partner. It is the difference between genuine connection and dramatic, but insecure, sexuality. Healthy sexuality plays a number of roles and provides different meanings at different times in your life and relationship. Sexuality can be a means to share pleasure, enhance intimacy, serve as a tension reducer, reinforce self-esteem, or create a planned, wanted child. A crucial element in healthy sexuality is to accept occasional negative or dysfunctional experiences while maintaining a pro-sexual approach in your relationship.

II. Positive Sexual Alternatives
Sexually, one size does not fit all. The best example is sexual orientation. For gay men and lesbian women the challenge is to accept being gay as optimal for them and to live their lives psychologically, relationally, and sexually as first class people. Obviously, this is facilitated by family, friends, and the culture accepting that being gay is healthy for this person and celebrating healthy gay relationships.

Another example is couples who decide not to have children. It is not a negation of family to accept that for a variety of reasons some people chose not to be parents.

A final example involves your couple sexual style. The majority of couples choose the Complementary couple sexual style which involves both people valuing intimacy and eroticism, as well as each person feeling responsible for her/his "sexual voice" and acting like an intimate, erotic team. However, some couples prefer a Traditional couple sexual style (emphasizing traditional gender roles), others prefer the Soul Mate sexual style (emphasizing intimacy and mutuality), and still others choose the Emotionally Expressive sexual style (fun and erotic). The challenge is to play to the strengths of your chosen couple sexual style so that it promotes desire and satisfaction.
The theme for positive sexual alternatives is to reinforce the integral role of sexuality for the individual and couple.

III. Tolerable Sexual Differences
This is a value-oriented, controversial category. As long as the sexual behavior involves adults, is consensual, and is done in private it deserves to be accepted by the culture even if not personally acceptable to many people. This can involve a wide variety of sexual behaviors from pornography to triadic sex, erotic fantasies to affairs, fetish arousal to playing dominance-submission sex roles. Sexual differences are a good example of sexuality being multi-causal, multi-dimensional with large individual, couple cultural, and value differences.

Rather than being judgmental and using a broad brush, it is crucial to help the person and couple carefully assess the roles and meanings of sexual differences.

An example is extra-marital affairs. The involved partner typically has a very different understanding and reaction than the injured partner. Typically, affairs destabilize the primary relationship (although not always). If the reality is that there is or has been an affair, the challenge to the couple is to make meaning of the affair so it doesn't control the primary relationship. Affairs have a variety of causes, dimensions, and outcomes.

Another example is when the man has a fetish arousal pattern, and has not shared this information with his partner. She feels confused and rejected because couple sex is avoided while he masturbates to fetish images, usually using Internet fetish internet sites. The fetish serves as a barrier to couple intimacy.

This is totally different than couples who know about the fetish issue from the beginning and agree to integrate it into couple sexuality or to compartmentalize it. The key issue for sexual differences is whether there is a secret sexual life which subverts couple intimacy or the couple can work with or around the sexual difference.

IV. Abusive, Destructive Sexual Behaviors
There are four factors which make a sexual behavior abusive or destructive:

1. Public sexual behavior (such as exhibitionism or voyeurism).
2. Sexual behavior involving children (pedophilia) or adolescents (hebraphilia) where there is a five year or more age difference.
3. Forced, non-consensual sex behavior like acquaintance or stranger rape
4. Compulsive, secret, shameful sexual behavior which destabilizes the person or relationship (spending inordinate time and money in massage parlors, prostitutes, or cybersex).

Rather than the misperception that sexuality professionals accept, or at least condone, any sexual behavior it is crucial to realize that like any other relational or emotional dimension, sex can be used in ways that are harmful to the individual, relationship, and culture. Sexuality professionals agree abusive or destructive sexual behavior need to be confronted and changed. An important perspective is that approaches which are shame-based and punitive usually interfere with the change process.

The Bottom Line
Sexuality is a good thing in life, your sexuality is integral to you as a female or male, and you can express your sexuality so that it has a 15-20% positive role in your psychological well-being and intimate relationship. Rather than one size fitting everyone sexually, sexuality professionals honor individual, couple, cultural, and value differences while confronting and helping people change destructive and abusive sexual behavior.