Karen maintains that the standards you’re judging your s3x life by are unrealistic. If you were told you that it's simultaneously impossible to have a feeling of desire towards your partner but its still possible to have a great s3x life that lasts the distance of time? You’d find it hard to believe wouldn’t you?
But you can. Karen explores the perceptions and stigmas around desire, the gaps we have in our knowledge and how, with better understanding of desire its possible to have a mutually satisfying and active sex life whilst actually feeling no spontaneous desire.
Karen meets with many happy couples at her clinic who are dissatisfied with their sex life which they don't feel is hitting the mark. The desire they feel for one another is not as present as they think it should be, particularly for the woman in a lot of cases. They feel that this lack of desire has started to feel like a looming disaster in their relationship. Karen states that there are so many similar couples. Her belief is that perhaps the work to be done isn't on the couples but outside of the therapy room helping people understand the different aspects of sex so that less couples need to come and see her in the first place.
The reality is that they, us, we have been sold a lie. S3x science has made new discoveries in the last decade that are putting forward new ideas about how desire works. Ideas that came to dominate popular opinion and dominate our sex lives, then what came later were new understandings. These ideas have revolutionised the teachings of sex therapy but haven’t quite trickled down into the mainstream and certainly not to most couples.
Why? Surely if they were that important we’d all know about them? Well sadly the evidence is strong in history about real facts in sex struggling to cut through a fog of moral and social opinion. S3x is an area where so much of our understanding comes from culture, TV, religion, art, hearsay and magazines that it's hard for us to see the woods for the trees. Ideas such as how masturbation can make you go blind are still ideas that people bring to the therapy room to this day! (masturbation doesnt by the way so you carry on playing!)
The idea that you should be able to feel sexual desire for your long term partner frequently and that good s3x should just happen if you love each other - this idea is the reason couples end up in therapy. At this moment in time, how much do you whilst you sit reading this blog believe in that idea? Even if it's not happening for you, everything around us speaks to this idea - it's everywhere. But it's not the truth.
So how do we know? One of the biggest surveys on sex lives happens in the UK. It's called NATSAL (National Surveys of S3xual Attitudes and Lifestyles) and is a s3x census that happens every 10 years. The most recent saw 15000 adults questioned and out of this number, 34% of women and 15% of men reported a lack of interest in s3x lasting 3 months or more in the past year. That’s a third of women and more than 1 in 10 men.
This is no surprise. Everyone is worried about how much s3x they or their partner are wanting, how much they’re having compared to other couples and what’s the ‘norm’. A relationship that can stand the test of time and still be passionate is seen as the holy grail of modern relationships.
Couples have 2 opposing and equally unhelpful narratives to choose from about s3x in long term relationships.
In the first, we believe that everlasting spontaneous desire can make someone endure fluctuations in relationship satisfaction, stressful life events, and changes to our bodies and preferences without any conscious effort from either of us at all.
The second is a hopeless inevitably that after the honeymoon period sex is doomed forever. That somehow long term companionship and a netflix subscription should make up for it.
So which is it? Passion that lasts a lifetime or s3x only on special occasions? The truth is it's neither. Desire and great s3x are cultivated and available to all of us if we want them. But we have not yet been given the knowledge and skills we need to do this.
So why are so many people concerned about their interest in s3x?
There’s at least one explanation. We’ve been led to believe that desire just happens out of the blue so if it doesn't, we feel like there’s something wrong with us and we’re left with no idea how to fix it. But how do we arrive at this understanding? Well, as with most areas of science there are theories, and these trickle down into the mainstream. And then these ideas form our societal understanding of how things are.
In s3x science we were lucky enough to have pioneers, back in the 60’s, researching how people feel towards it and building the model we now know of The Human S***al Response Cycle. And with some additions in the 70s for the first time we had a model to describe what happened to humans from the start to the end of the s***al encounter. But, their model started with desire. Desire came first and that's how we all understand it. It's certainly how most couples understand it. But they’re not experiencing this desire as 34% of women and 15% of men in the UK can testify to.
So if a partner kisses their partner for longer than say 2 seconds - one might start to think “I know what they want but I’m not experiencing desire at this moment in time so we better wrap this up before it gets awkward”. Research tells us that this type of desire that we’re conditioned to expect out of the blue is high at the start of a relationship. But typically a year or 18 months in, things start to change. We get used to each other, we can risk falling into a routine of having sex in the same predicatbale way. We stopped kissing for kissing’s sake. We spend more time relating to each other as housemates, co-parents or friends. This is certainly part of what most couples describe.
Karen calls this a decline in s***al currency and it's one of the potential pitfalls of a monogamous relationship that can reduce our desire overtime for the same person.
Let’s use dining out as a way of framing this. Basically no matter how much you love your favourite restaurant (your partner), eating there for every meal and having the same starter, same main course, same dessert in the same order, well you might start to lose your appetite! Every once in awhile you need to eat something different or at least in a different order. You might lose your motivation to go to that restaurant you love in the first place, perhaps look to eat somewhere else.
We also know that women’s desire suffers more than men when with the same partner over time. And when sex researchers have asked women how often do you feel like s3x out of the blue in your long term relationship, a large proportion say well, never. Or almost never. Infact women report this so often that we now consider it normal for women to never feel like sex out of the blue in a long term relationship. So if this is the case how do we get the desire to feature more if it's what we want?
To understand this, we first need to consider newer ideas that have emerged from s3x research in the last few decades. Which is that desire does not always come first. Actually arousal, meaning the body’s physical response to a sexual stimulant, such as a passionate kiss or being naked can come first and then trigger desire. We need to understand that having s3x is often fuelled by many other motivations other than feeling like it. Such as wanting to feel close, wanting to show attraction, wanting to feel alive. So it can be many things other than desire that comes first and for many people, waiting for desire is going to leave them waiting a very long time.
Desire basically arrives later to the party once the party has got started. This is the reason that one of the first things someone might say in therapy is that they never feel like having sex but when they do its great and then they say they should do that more often. We call this experience responsive or triggered desire and when we measure this type of desire we usually find it works perfectly well.
So what's the secret to future proof our s3x lives? What can couples do?
Well, first it's important for us to understand that for many people not feeling like having s3x is normal and doesn't mean there’s a problem. But because of this many people in long term relationships will need to find a way to trigger desire if they feel like they want desire to feature. Turning towards rather than away from kissing is the type of thing we need to be doing more of. But importantly without pressure from either person for that to need to go anywhere. Because someone was expecting to have to feel desire from the outset, they then stop the potential trigger in its tracks. The very opposite of what desire might need.
Lastly we need to think of our s3x lives which, if a priority to us, we must treat as such by finding ways to raise our sexual currency and relate to each other as partners from time to time. Not just housemates, co-parents or friends. It doesn't have to be a big change. A series of small shifts such as turning that peck on the cheek as you leave the house each day into a 5 second passionate kiss can make all the difference.
Some of you might be thinking, does it matter? S3x is just a recreational activity. But actually for many it does matter. S3x meets psychological and relationship needs. And a good s3x life is a known buffer in a drop in relationship satisfaction overtime. Once we know how desire really works, we can be in the driving seat of how we want it to be in our lives moving forward. We’re no longer a passive recipient but totally in control of how much we want it to feature and the direction we want it to go.
If you want to find out more about desire and Karen’s finding, theories and tips for futureproofing your sex life then read Karen’s book: Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire & How to Futureproof Your Sex Life.