I have the best job in the world -- I’m a sex therapist in San Francisco. I get paid to help people have better sex.
I like to think of what I do as creative sexual problem solving. My clients come to me with issues like orgasmic difficulties and mismatched sex drives. They want to learn how to communicate about sex, how to feel more sexually confident, and how to rescue their floundering sex lives. I keep my antennae tuned into the particular challenges of their situations, then use a combination of accurate information, personalized exercises and good ol’ fashioned advice to help them start creating the sex lives of their dreams.
While a lot of my work is teaching the logistical stuff -- “Here’s a diagram of your clitoris,” or, “Let’s talk to your doctor about running some hormone tests," the majority of what I do is help people change the ways they think about their sex lives. You can give a blowjob that will make your partner sing your praises to strangers on the street, but those skills will be of little use if you consistently let work responsibilities take priority over sex.
Adjusting your sexual mindset can lead not only to better sex now, but can ensure that your sex life continues to be exhilarating for decades to come. While we are all special butterflies and these suggestions are by no means comprehensive, here are the five nuggets of advice I find myself doling out to my clients most frequently.
Be more playful.
People take sex so damned seriously.
Most of us feel like there are certain roles we’re “supposed” to play during sex -- wanton vixen, innocent girl-next-door, submissive female. It makes us feel inauthentic, it’s deadening, and it’s not a lot of fun. One of the questions I ask my clients is, “When was the last time you had fun during sex?” In response, I usually get a look that translates to, “I didn’t even realize that was an option.”
Give yourself permission to be yourself in the bedroom, and embrace the silly side of sex. Don’t be afraid to joke and laugh together while you’re rolling around in bed.
Get better at initiation and rejection.
Unskilled initiation and rejection are toxic to relationships. They breed resentment, frustration, anxiety, and even outright contempt. I have worked with dozens of couples whose relationships were on the brink of destruction solely because of their dynamic around initiation and rejection.
The typical pattern I see is that the partner with higher desire gets tired of being turned down and stops initiating directly. The problem is that they still want sex, so they start initiating in a bunch of indirect ways. The partner with the lower sex drive can sense all of these backhanded initiation cues, and starts pulling away with even more intensity. All of a sudden, little things like hugs or even touches become fraught with tension and anxiety.
You’re always going to have mismatches of some degree in your sexual relationships, so it’s imperative that you learn how to navigate them carefully and respectfully. The goal is to feel like a team, rather than opposing sides of a tense negotiation.
Here, some basic guidelines I give to my clients:
- State what you want clearly, but without being demanding.
- Be genuinely curious about what your partner is feeling.
- Ask if there’s a way you can help your partner feel more open to connecting. Does she need a hot shower and an Olivia Pope-sized glass of wine? Would he like to vent about his disastrous day at work?
- If you get turned down, feel your disappointment. Not getting what you want sucks! Don’t be pouty or rude, but allow yourself to feel bummed out.
- Really listen to your partner’s initiation, and give yourself a moment to consider it. Don’t immediately turn your partner down, even if “hell to the no” is your first inclination. See if you can find even the teensiest part of you that would be opening to connecting and feeling pleasure. That being said, don’t pressure yourself to do anything you don’t want to do. There’s a fine line to walk here.
- See if there’s something different you want instead. You may not feel up for the whole enchilada, but perhaps a make-out session sounds appealing.
- Give an honest reason for why you’re not interested. Not because you owe your partner an explanation, but because it helps take away some of the sting.
- Let your partner feel disappointed. It’s OK for you to say no, and it’s OK for him or her to feel let down.
Make pleasure your focus, always.
We can all get so wrapped up in pressure, expectation, anxiety, and embarrassment that we forget that one of the best reasons to have sex is simply because it feels good.
Prioritizing pleasure is one of the simplest but most powerful lessons I teach my clients. One woman shared with me, “Once it finally clicked for me that my only goal is to feel pleasure, it was like an entirely new world opened up.” When my clients feel doubtful or wary of the importance of pleasure, I share with them this list of the ways that pleasure can vastly improve your life:
- It helps take the pressure off of orgasm when you direct your attention to pleasure instead of the end goal. Dozens of my female clients had their first orgasms after being able to make this shift.
- Getting specific about what feels good helps you figure out what you want. Think about it this way: How can you tell your boyfriend, “Pizza sounds great for dinner tonight” if you aren’t acutely aware of just how delicious pizza is?
- Gently directing your attention to the pleasure your body feels during sex can alleviate body consciousness. It’s hard to feel worried about the cellulite in your legs when you’re fully tuned in to the sensations of someone's tongue on your thighs.
- Tuning into pleasure instantly helps you be more present in the moment. Because sex is no fun when you’re distracted by the pile of unfolded laundry on the floor.
- Trying to find the pleasure in even the most mundane aspects of your daily routines quite simply makes life more enjoyable! Ever appreciate the feel of warm, sudsy water when you’re washing the dishes? Do you actually enjoy the fresh air and birds chirping when you’re walking the dog?
Value and protect your sex life.
For as sex-obsessed as our culture seems to be, we sure have a hard time acknowledging that our sex lives truly are important to us. I see so many couples pretending that they’re OK with only having sex once a month or never trying anything other than missionary. Others stay in relationships that clearly suffer from sexual incompatibility.
When you don’t give value to your sex life, it’s hard to put the effort into ensuring it stays healthy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen couples who lament their complete lack of a sex life, only to respond with blank looks when I ask them what they do to make intimacy a priority.
You can keep your lips zipped, you can stay in autopilot, and you can pretend things are fine when they’re not. But these tactics aren’t sustainable. Your resentment and frustration will eventually leach out whether you like it or not.
Here are some of the suggestions I give to my clients:
- Tell yourself and your partner that sex is important.
- Ask for what you want honestly and openly, without feeling guilt.
- Have a regular “state of our sexual union” with your partner.
- Actively invest in your sex life. Do things like schedule date nights, buy fancy lingerie and quality sex toys, or read sexual technique books together.
- Turn off your cell phones, laptops, and "Game of Thrones," and make time for each other.
Have a beginner’s mind.
If there’s one thing that will keep the fires burning until you’re puttering around in a walker, it’s novelty. Our brains light up like Christmas trees when exposed to new things.
The fantastic news is that there are an endless number of ways to experiment with sex. Sex is something that you will never be able to fully master. There’s no black belt or foot-tall trophy in sex (although come to think of it, now I really want one). Approach sex like there’s always something new to learn and try, because it’s true!
Try out a sex position that requires a four-step process to get into. Maintain curiosity about what your partner likes, and ask him or her for input regularly. Try masturbating with an entirely new method. Play the “Would You Ever” game with your partner. Purchase a sex toy that seems perplexing yet oddly intriguing.
My clients usually laugh when I make these kinds of suggestions, but they inevitably come back the following week with smiles on their faces and a proclamation along the lines of, "We thought we already knew everything we like, but damn did we have some interesting discoveries.”
And keep #1 in mind here -- It’s OK to laugh at yourself if things go awry or don’t end up being as arousing as you thought they would be! A few embarrassing inside jokes are far better for your sex life than crushing boredom.