January 31st, 2006
Recently I was asked by a journalist to help with a feature about changing people’s sex lives. I won’t go into many details since it’s not come out yet, but the general focus of the piece (like many others I’ve recently been called about) was around transforming relationships where the reader would be encouraged to make their sex lives new, different, and ‘more adventurous’.
And my role, as expert, was to endorse this idea of sex and relationships and add the obligatory ‘science bit’. Their opening gambit was for me to explain why I felt ‘improving and changing sex was good for a relationship’ and to ‘say how important this is’.
My heart sank because this was going to be one I’d have a tough time explaining. I started out by stating the evidence doesn’t really suggest ‘improving and changing’ is automatically good, and many sex researchers and therapists don’t think constant changing is important or necessarily helpful to a relationship.
I tried putting this into context, explaining how in the recent past the view of relationships was to constantly refresh and overhaul them with new techniques and strategies.
However evidence from research, therapy and education suggests many people can feel threatened by this approach, and in fact the constant encouragement to transform sex makes people feel they’re missing out or pressurised. Sex features ought to focus on pleasure, adventure, enjoyment and exploration, so features that encourage people to think ‘good sex equals new sex’ means they never really get time or space to explore their sex lives.
Many couples benefit from just a simple change in their sex lives (for example sex you enjoy in the bedroom with the lights out could be the same sexual techniques but on the living room sofa with the lights on). Rather than seeing sex as a constant set of targets or activities to achieve, people find it more empowering to explore what they already know and move from there. This might mean they stick with what they already know and enjoy it, or perhaps take a step back and try old favourites they’ve not done for a while, or make small changes that suit them and their partner.
Rather than feeling they ought to do new things, people can be encouraged to ask ’why do I need to?’ and ‘why do I want to?’ That way they might identify whether there’s some desire they wish to fulfil, or perhaps they believe they ought to be having loads of different kinds of sex because they think it makes them better in bed. Maybe they believe doing lots of different things will make them more attractive to a partner, or convinces them they’re doing what they believe everyone else is. Perhaps they want to try new things because they’re interested to explore them, or maybe they do it because they’re terrified their partner will leave them. Maybe they think their sex life is in trouble or have been led to believe it’s ‘boring’ and so decide an array of new activities, toys or outfits will overcome this problem.
Magazines frequently tell readers what to do, not how to do it and suggest changes can be made in an unproblematic way, assuming when you present to your partner brandishing your new sex toy, erotic dvd or fetish outfit that they’ll always be delighted. Because magazines present change without conversation they overlook how you go about transforming sex, how you negotiate desire, why you may want to change (and who for), and how to cope when your partner isn’t thrilled but actually feels threatened by your attempts at changing your sex life.
Magazines might tell you to buy a new sex product to make your sex life over, but they don’t tell you how to cope if your partner gets all huffy and thinks you’re implying they’re no good in bed. And they never say that it’s okay for the reader to say they don’t want to change, they’re happy as they are.
It’s not to say all change is bad, just that relationships may work better if you explore what you enjoy, rather than feel you’re always keeping up with the sexual Joneses.
Now all this looks quite long-winded written here, but I put it briefly to the journalist, clearly explaining how they might use some of the ideas in their piece – and outlining evidence that would let them be contemporary in their writing. I was aware they were probably very busy and most likely wouldn’t listen to me, but I needed to explain the evidence and the problems the general public have around understanding sex. I know it’s a pain when you want someone to endorse a story and you’re on a deadline, but people call me because I’m supposed to be an expert and as such I have to share with them what I know about an issue without prejudice.
So after my whistlestop tour the journalist replied,
’Yes, but obviously making improvements is good. That’s what this feature is about’
And I said ‘sure, improvements can be good, but that doesn’t automatically mean improvement has to equal change’.
’Well, thanks for putting the other side, that alternative perspective’ the journalist sighed sarcastically.
’Well it’s not exactly an alternative perspective, more like an overview of current evidence in this area’ I tried.
’Yeah, right, whatever you want to call it’ they said, and put the phone down on me.