With sex all around us, oozing out of our televisions, theaters, magazines, fashion, on the streets, one would think we are the most sexually informed, open and comfortable nation on the planet. We manage to connect sex to just about anything we sell, buy, eat, smell, see, or touch. It is such a part of our daily lives, we have become like fish in water, unaware of its constant presence… except of course when a tit falls out in the middle of Super Bowl. It’s no wonder, then, that when a new study, “Why Humans Have Sex,” by Cindy M. Meston and David H. Buss, revealed its finding that there are 237 reasons why people have sex, every media outlet jumped to cover it.
Typically, however, the news and related conversations came and went, leaving us no better educated than we were before. This topic deserves greater attention. I would like to press the pause button long enough to have us stop and think about our sexual lives and ask the following question:
How is it that we are so obsessed with sex, and yet know so little about it?
As a couple and family counselor, I have first hand experience with the confusion, frustration and pain so many people experience due to their lack of education. The impact is not merely hurting individuals in their bedrooms, but deeply affects their overall relationship with their partners, as well as, their self esteem. Our sense of self arises out of all that we are. Among many other things, we are sexual beings. This part of us has not been fully examined, understood or expressed. We cannot suppress or ignore our natural drives anymore than we can suppress or ignore an earthquake. It will express itself one way or another, and for our society it has emerged as a chaotic, dysfunctional obsession.
Whereas most of us are aware of the many horrific sexual disorders plaguing our society including, rape, human trafficking, incest, pedophilia, and violent pornography, we are not as cognizant of the unconscious, yet profound ways our sexual suppression is affecting our families.
I believe it is time to remove the taboo around human sexuality, responsibly embrace our biological drives and begin to discuss this issue more openly and honestly so that we do not continue to perpetuate the same harmful effects on future generations.
My primary focus in this paper is to discuss how our lack of comprehensive sex education contributes toward many of the difficulties experienced by heterosexual couples. There are several evolutionary, physiological, cultural, social and spiritual factors impacting individuals’ sexual attitudes and behavior. It is important to understand how each of these variables influences the whole. However, since physiology plays the most significant role for most people, and I am not writing a book, I will limit this discussion predominantly to this factor.
Differences between men and women
It is well known that men and women have very different sexual drives; men have a much stronger sexual drive than women. It is also apparent that men get aroused more readily and in different ways than women. What is not as well understood is the extent to which these differences are physiologically wired in their brains. With the technological advances in neurophysiology, scientists are now able to see why these differences are so significant. They show us that the areas responsible for sexual and emotional drives are considerably different in men and women. As Louanne Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist, wrote in her book, The Female Brain, “Women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion, while men have a small country road.” Men, however, “have O’Hare Airport as a hub for processing thoughts about sex, where women have the airfield nearby that lands small and private planes.” This hard wiring in the brain explains the frustration both men and women experience as each gender unsuccessfully tries to conform the other to its needs – men cannot get women to make love with them more frequently, and women cannot get men to express more emotions. The genders’ respective drives are part of their biological nature and cannot be easily controlled or changed, unless they learn how to work together with their distinct wiring.
The following scenario is presented to illustrate how this plays out with a typical couple. Note, it does not apply to all couples, but is a generalization of what I have seen in my practice over the past twenty years. When a couple meets, and there is chemistry between them, they begin the dance of courting each other. The man may buy her flowers, give her cards, wine and dine her, and do whatever he can to win her over. The woman dresses attractively and sexily for him. She gives him a lot of attention, and in general makes him feel desired and loved. They bring passion, mystery and adventure to their new found relationship. Both are excited and hungry for each other. At this point their biological differences are not noticeably affecting their sexual drives because the woman is receiving the affection and attention she needs to arouse her.
When they get married, or settle into a long term living situation, their future is filled with hope and dreams. They are looking forward to sharing a life together as partners and lovers. It doesn’t take long before things change. They gradually fall into the routine of life and unintentionally start taking each other for granted. Their romantic dance diminishes more and more over time. The man may stop buying her flowers or doing other things which made her feel loved and special, and the woman may stop dressing sexily for him and giving him the attention he needs. This is where the biological differences kick in. While the man, because of his wiring, is still hot to trot and wants to engage in sex with her as often as he did before, her drive diminishes significantly since she is no longer receiving the emotional stimulation essential to trigger her sexual desire for him.
The man, still aroused by his woman, approaches her night after night (or day), only to be rebuffed more often than not. She may tell him she is tired, has a headache, is not in the mood or falls asleep before he gets into bed. At those times where she finally relents, she does not appear as engaged or excited, leading him to believe she is not really into him. He becomes frustrated, and starts putting pressure on her to sleep with him. The woman, after some pressure will succumb either because she feels guilty or she just wants to shut him up. Now the nature of their sex lives changes dramatically; for the woman it becomes mostly work or duty; for the man it is laced with frustration. As this cycle continues, the act of sex turns into something she resents or avoids which only increases his frustration. The breakdown occurs because the man doesn’t understand that it is not that she doesn’t want him or sex, it is that she is not aroused. While she requires greater sexual foreplay in the bedroom prior to actual intercourse, she also needs emotional foreplay during the day to trigger her sexual drive. Emotional foreplay for women can range from receiving a brief loving note or phone call from their men to cooking dinner or taking out the garbage. These actions give a woman the sense of being thought of and cared for – filling her heart with joy and desire. When the woman is emotionally wooed, it triggers her hunger for him and she becomes an eager partner. It all has to do with how the man enters her, emotionally. If he doesn’t arouse her through her emotional world, she will end up wanting sex less frequently and having it with resentment.
What further complicates matters is that men need sex to feel loved, and women need to feel loved to want to make love. He, not understanding what is going on, takes it personally, and thinks that she doesn’t love him or is not attracted to him anymore. She, also taking his reaction personally, perceives it as, all he wants is her body – he is not interested in her or her needs. Unable to clearly articulate what is going on with her, she begins to complain and nag him about things that seem trivial to him. They both end up blaming each other, feeling resentful, frustrated and unloved.
These feelings spill into their everyday life, affecting the way they interact with each other. His anger and frustration cause him to become less affectionate or emotionally available to her. She grows more unhappy and disconnected from him. Depending on the couple, they may begin to drift apart with different consequences. With some couples, the men transfer their sexual energy to their work, and/or pursue other sexual outlets; the women meet their emotional needs by talking to their girlfriends, taking care of their children and/or finding a man who will provide them with emotional sustenance. Each gender loses the sense of partnership and moves further into its separate and distinct role. They settle into a life of quiet desperation. For other couples, their disconnection becomes so significant they end up getting a divorce, contributing to the 50% divorce rate.
Some suggestions for healing
This cycle can be broken if the couple develops a deeper understanding of their different drives; honor the importance of meeting each other’s needs; and finds ways to make it work for both of them. Because it is not part of women’s nature to desire as much sex as men do, and it is not natural for men to be more affectionate and romantic, they have to help each other override their wiring. This will require from both partners a commitment to work through the resistance that is typically present when people are trying to change old patterns. We are habitual creatures – change does not come easy to us. Breaking old patterns requires a great deal of time, energy, discipline, consistency and patience. It also requires a level of maturity where individuals are willing to do whatever it takes to get the results they want. The other reality is where else can they go? This pattern will repeat itself no matter how many new partners they find.
Breaking old patterns
Breaking old patterns that have been biologically, culturally and socially ingrained in them is not going to be easy. In order for them to truly take this on, they must first recognize that it is no one’s fault that they came into the relationship uninformed about the differences in their sexual needs. They then have to reconnect with the love they felt with each other when they were dating. When they were dating, their primary desire was to make each other happy. Lastly, they need to understand the amount of time and energy they will have to invest in order to get the results they want. They can start by setting some time aside every week to begin communicating openly and honestly with each other. Here, they may encounter great resistance since they usually have a lot of noise around this issue, both from their upbringing and from the hurt and anger they may feel toward each other. Furthermore, men are not programmed to communicate their feelings. The only way to transcend this resistance is by working through it with commitment and determination. If they stick to it, over time, it will become much easier.
During their weekly discussions, their conversations should be as concrete and detailed as possible. Men often complain that they cannot read their partner’s mind. Women generally resist telling their partner they want a card, flowers, or help around the house. They feel if they have to tell them then it is not really coming from their hearts. The truth is most men want to please their women and make them happy; it helps them feel useful and appreciated. They simply don’t have the natural tendency to initiate it anymore than a woman has the natural tendency to initiate sex. They truly have no clue. When a woman tells her man specifically what she needs, she helps him express his affection in a way that will satisfy her.
Men, on the other hand must tell their partners how their complaints affect them. They need to instruct their women on how to communicate in a way that they can hear them. This usually entails women learning how to make requests without sounding like they are nagging.
The more deeply a partner feels and appreciates the other’s needs, the more likely s/he will be moved into wanting to fulfill them. To facilitate truly hearing each other needs, individuals must cultivate the art of listening. This means no interruptions and no blame; just being fully present to what the partner is stating. With love, sympathy and compassion, both partners can get more of their needs met.
A word about expectations – couples need to be realistic – results are not going to come over night. It will take some time and much practice before they see consistent behavioral changes. Patience and understanding is of the essence.
Other biological issues
Additionally, two other important biological factors come into play which significantly lowers a woman’s sexual drive, childbirth and menopause. In both instances, hormones play an important role. Since one of the primary biological drives for sex is reproduction, the sexual drive for women post childbirth and post childbearing years diminishes greatly. (If you are a man, and still reading this paper, you may feel like nature is playing some practical joke on you or is down right cruel. I don’t blame you. Look at the bright side, it is better to know that this is her wiring and not her rejection of you).
After childbirth, men can help their women by sharing more of the caretaking and household responsibilities. If they support their women, men can achieve two objectives, their partners feel loved and cared for, and they get some much needed rest. Feeling loved and rested, they are more likely to feel a desire to make love. This would be a great opportunity for the man to take the out the trash.
Post menopausal women should know that there are ways to increase their sexual drive. There are many resource books available on this subject, including The Wisdom of Menopause, by Dr. Christiane Northrup.
Finally, women thrive on sharing their feelings and communicating about relationships. To quote Dr. Brizendine again, “Connecting through talking activates the pleasure centers in a girl’s brain. We’re not talking about a small amount of pleasure. This is huge. It’s a major dopamine and oxytocin rush, which is the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm.” Appreciating the effect connecting through talking has on women, can provide men with the incentive to become more attentive and engaged in conversation with them. In the bedroom, both need to communicate honestly what they like or dislike. Men are more comfortable asking for what they want. Women are reluctant to say what brings them pleasure either because of their social upbringing or because they are afraid of hurting their man’s feelings. For both their sake, it is time for women to be authentic in the bedroom.
The intention of this article is to help couples understand, respect and work through their sexual differences. At this point, it is important to acknowledge that certain issues, as they pertain to men’s biological needs, have not been addressed. These include men’s natural tendency to look at other women (men’s sexual drive is greatly triggered by visual cues), and their biological drive for variety. The complexities and implications of these issues necessitate a separate discussion.
Ultimately, I hope this article creates an opening for discussing our sexuality more freely so that some of the suffering around this issue will be alleviated. In this new open space, we may also begin to provide our children (age appropriately) with better education, giving them a chance to lead healthier emotional and sexual lives. We are sexual beings and we want to expose our children to sex in a matter of fact way, without all the hang ups and indirect, harmful innuendos that are currently present in our society.
As we develop a true appreciation for how our different programming affects the genders’ behaviors, perhaps we might also develop some humor around this issue. After all, from an evolutionary perspective we may understand how our different wiring served the survival of our species in the past. But for goodness sake – at this point in our evolution – it is truly absurd. What choice do we have…we might as well laugh about it.
*If you are interested read the “Why Humans Have Sex” study (pdf).
Please note these findings describe mostly single, undergraduate individuals.