This is a speech I gave April 6, 2014 as part of the Sex Dialogues during the Science of Sexuality Exhibit at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener, Ontario.
I’m delighted to be here as the closing speaker in this very enlightened, informative series.
THEMUSEUM invited me because, through my work as a syndicated advice columnist, I hear from tens of thousands of people, from across the globe, kids as young as 10 messaging me, right up to 90-year-olds sending emails, and from people of every sexual identification.
Over the years, I’ve been told very personal relationship matters, along with people’s feelings, their attitudes and even their most intimate experiences with sex.
I’ve learned that what affects them most, is love and lack of it, sex and lack of it, plus the impact on both love and sex of pornography, parenting and aging.
So my talk today will take us all through the life stages of seeking sex, and wanting love.
Sex even affects our relationships with family and friends, since our attitudes about both sex and sexuality, are formed in childhood by parents, and in our youth by friends. The things we feel are okay to do, and to talk about, or are not okay and kept secret, are initially based on those perceptions.
Within couples’ relationships, there’s a laundry list of sex-related topics I’m asked about.
If you’re not familiar with the column, here are some - cheating, pornography use, who should initiate sex, low libido, booty calls, friends with benefits, sexual abuse, hookups… there are more topic questions to me than situations you can imagine.
Despite this constancy of sexual matters throughout much of life, most people feel discomfort and reluctance to discuss their sex life with the people with whom they’re having it.
We’re all enmeshed with communication technology, we’re barraged with information daily, and we even consider a typed exchange with strangers, as chatting.
Yet consider the four most off-putting words in a personal relationship …We Need to Talk.
That line’s enough to clear the room!
It signals a disconnect between the reality of sex and human vulnerability. Trust me, I’ve learned that NOT talking, can damage marriages, destroy self-esteem, and in young people having early sexual experiences, not speaking up can be disastrous.
Here’s an example: There’s been a much-reported trend of so-called hookup culture among singles.
With young teens, it usually refers to one-time sex, often happening with people just met. There’s no emotional content, but there’s also no experience on which to decide. But there ARE sometimes tormenting results, such as photos taken and sent viral, with tragic consequences.
With late teens and early 20s, a sizable number of students in college and universities, get involved in campus hook-up culture.
This involves having sex, perhaps over time, with people with whom there’s little or no emotional attachment, rather than have a serious relationship which can interfere with academic and career goals.
It’s an arrangement that often starts between near strangers, and which, for women particularly, has a risk of rape, which is relatively common on campus.
Of course some female students resist this trend, but others are TOO AFRAID to say NO, because it’s been considered a smart choice for an independent woman.
Meanwhile, some of these women reported after college, now in their mid-20s, that they had not yet learned how to date and build a real relationship dealing with their emotions.
So the aspect of sex that helps us know when and how to enjoy it –emotional intelligence – is left in the dark.
The evidence for me is how many married men and women show in their questions that they also don’t speak up about their sex lives, not even to their chosen life partners!
Rather than say what they like or want to experience in bed, they feel hurt or neglected when it doesn’t happen. Rather than say what they don’t want, they turn away.
What I’m hearing from sexually active singles who are in relationships, isn’t encouraging either.
A lack of self-esteem and absence of confidence pervades their sexual choices.
As example, a young woman wrote me fairly explicitly about what she called her “problem” with her boyfriend of 2 and 1/2 years.
I quote here: “I was performing oral sex on him. It triggered my gag reflex and I thought I was going to vomit.
“It terrified me. Since then, I've been hesitant and feel a lot of anxiety about pleasuring him orally.”
Now, here’s her REAL problem – and I quote: “I haven't told him about this because I don't want him to feel anxious about his sexual performance.
“If I don't find a way to overcome this, he might leave me for someone who can please him.”
I mentioned this to a doctor recently, and he says it’s not unusual among the personal sex stories he hears in his practice, too.
I find that so sad. Here’s a female who has sex mostly to please her boyfriend and hold onto him.
She says nothing about what sex means for her.
Let’s assume she enjoys whatever else goes on, and has otherwise been sexually satisfied these 2 + 1/2 years. Yet she can’t talk to him openly about fearing she’ll choke and vomit though there are other ways he can be satisfied.
Then there’s the porn issue affecting sex, sexuality, love and relationships.
It cuts across age groups, from children, yes, to seniors.
One study published in the Journal of Pediatrics stated that 42% of Internet users aged 10 to 17 have been exposed to pornography.
By the time these children reach adulthood, pornography can be a common part of their lives.
It’s been documented that excessive porn-watching, such as a daily habit, can become addictive, and that those who are addicted, especially to hard-core and exotic bizarre porn, may lose interest in real live sex.
Studies as far back as the 1980s show that repeated exposure to porn leads to behaviour and attitude changes – for one, males exhibit increased callousness toward women.
And both men and women develop distorted perceptions about sexuality, and decreased sexual satisfaction with their partner’s performance.
I’ve heard from women who’ve become self-loathing about their bodies, compared to the pumped-up breasts and sexual athleticism of porn stars. I’ve heard from men who become obsessed with their seemingly small penis size compared to enhanced male sex performers.
Therapists report these effects of porn on young women: Eating disorders, a rush to plastic surgery, unrealistic expectations of perpetual orgasms. Plus feelings of depression and sorrow about their partners’ preference for porn over them.
The effect on men’s relationships? Older men who once only read occasional skin magazines, now turn to porn so readily that their wives see it as a form of sexual and emotional cheating.
It’s not uncommon that a man, young or old, will leave his partner in the bedroom to watch a porn video and masturbate, then come to bed long after she’s asleep … night after night.
But there are adverse psychological effects on porn-addicted men, too. There’s a neutralizing effect such that some experience a decreased ability to be sexually aroused and responsive. Some turn to extreme porn, even illegal child porn to be able to sexually perform.
According to one US study of divorce lawyers, half of all divorces are caused by issues related to porn.
However, porn is a billion-dollar industry that isn’t going away, so it remains on the sightlines of thought and attitudes toward sex and sexuality in today’s world.
And we need to learn how to help our children and teens deal with it’s presence when they become aware of it, and manage their responses to it, so they can make balanced decisions about porn as young adults and older.
Some couples have found a place for porn in their stock of occasional sexual turn-ons. They may view soft-core and erotic porn together, or read very sexy literature together. People use these aids to create fantasies, or ideas for new positions that they might not have otherwise tried because of lack of knowledge, shyness or fear.
So, YES, despite my own disgust at the pornography industry’s exploitation of vulnerable women and men, and its distortion of sex at its extreme levels, I’ve learned that, some people find porn helpful, which is their private business so long as it’s blocked from any young kids finding it.
I don’t promote porn but I do look realistically at sex and sexuality in the 21st century.
Here’s another example of that: You know, the title alone of the film that was part of this series, had a message: “Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid to Ask.”… inspired by the book by Dr. David Reuben.
Woody Allen’s no hero to me, but my point is that almost 40 years ago, the book and the film addressed the lack of real, open talk about sex.
The film did it comically and was a smash hit in 1972, in the supposedly enlightened post-60s Sexual Revolution era. It spoofed hitherto un-discussed topics such as orgasms, sodomy, ejaculation, transvestites and more.
But what’s revealed to me, every day, still, is that grown men and women, not just youth, remain afraid to talk much about sex except in superficial ways, or crude jokes.
Rarely, are they talking inquiringly and honestly with each other about sex in their own lives. Or listening openly and raising leading thoughts, age-appropriately, with their children. Think, for example, what you would say if you discovered that your 10-year-old had accidentally seen adult porn and was uncomfortable, shocked or laughing about it.
Without that conversation, children may grow up with a contradictory, hypocritical sense of sexuality – this, in a world where they can see the most graphic images online, hear rap songs about fornication, and find kids as young as 13 willing to participate in oral sex just for popularity.
Many teens cannot talk openly to their parents about such things, even though they’re being asked to do them. So they don’t think through the risks, or develop their own confidence to avoid some sexual acts, and instead worry about looking foolish or hurting another’s feelings.
Which is why that young woman, likely in her 20s, wrote me about not wanting to bruise her boyfriend’s ego, even if it means choking.
The early lack of communication about sex also causes a later disconnect between young married couples, busy parents, and even older longtime marrieds, as I’ll now describe through those life stages.
We need to understand the gap between what we feel sexually and what we don’t say, in order to improve our relationships.
Because, somehow, in 2014, it seems that the protest cry of the Sixties - “Make Love Not War” - was long ago drowned out by geopolitics, religious hostilities, terrorism … AND a persistent human awkwardness about sex.
The ordinary person can’t do much about the global issues, but we CAN all make our personal lives as satisfying and nourishing as possible.
I believe that goal has a lot to do with how we approach sexuality with our kids, in age-appropriate ways, and how we use and enjoy sex as a key element in our mental, physical and emotional health, at all ages.
So where do we start really talking about sex?
With the birth of a child. Whatever it’s gender, how parents and society socialize that child feeds into his or her sense as a sexual being.
Yet so many parents are far more ready and able to talk about a child’s accomplishments in, say, pre-school finger-painting, rather than about where they’re touching themselves and why.
Meanwhile, sexuality becomes an issue of much curiosity and concern at least by the time children reach adolescence, and it’s a critical issue in their teens.
Listen to the findings of a therapist who works with teenage boys in several private schools. She was hired because the boards of these schools recognized what she already knew to be true. In her therapy practice with grown men of 40 and 50, she was hearing problems that had started in their teens.
Some men had become so deeply wounded when a wife or girlfriend rejected them, even for mutual reasons, that they suffered long depressions.
Inevitably in some cases, the therapist learned of a previous rejection from as far back as junior high, which had left the client feeling insecure about relationships ever since.
So she designed a program for boys, where they could discuss sex and relationship issues in a group, and also, alone with her.
Many of the boys, she said, feel very scared of sexual contact. Others are certain they’re inferior in some way to the seemingly popular boys, still others more certain that they’re isolated and weird if they ever have feelings for another boy which, incidentally, does not “prove” that they’re gay.
Parents need to fully understand that teenage years are tough, frightening, with unknown stuff to face, school and parental pressures, plus decisions about the future.
And that so much has changed from their parents’ lives that there’s even different words being used
Their parents can have no idea what their jargon really means, unless they ask, and listen.
This therapist also confirms, in her words, that “Porn has changed everything … the way boys perceive what sex is, what they think two people do together, what girls are supposed to look like, what the sex act is supposed to be about.”
Now let me get back to parents– those couples and single parents initially overwhelmed with the needs of new babies, then protecting toddlers, stressed from hustling youngsters off to school and activities, while many are also working at jobs, then bombarded with the needs and moods of teenagers.
These phases are unfortunately common set-ups for two potentially devastating events in marriages – the period of No Sex, with its feelings of rejection, and the period of Cheating, with its loss of trust.
The new mother is tired, her body hurts, her mind’s on all her new responsibilities. But without sex, compassion and sharing of the baby-bonding and chores, both spouses become defensive and distanced.
Even a hug is mis-interpreted as, “Oh, No, he wants sex and I’m too tired,” while her husband takes her falling asleep as an insult to his manliness.
They know they should talk it out but they’re both hurt.
As Heidi Raykeil, author of Confessions of a Naughty Mommy: How I Found My Lost Libido, puts it,
“Sex is a socially charged and highly personal issue that remains a bit taboo despite our seeming openness. And talking about not having sex? Chances are, the subject comes up when one of you wants it and the other doesn't. Bad time to talk.
Another resource for this stage, is "Valerie Raskin’s Great Sex for Moms: Ten Steps to Nurturing Passion While Raising Kids.
But young parents don’t buy the books unless they recognize the problem and stop blaming their partner, or feeling too insecure, shy, or vulnerable to raise the topic.
It’s a great shame, because if they ever needed that bond of being stroked and desired, or having orgasmic release of tension, it’s after a child throws mud in the laundry machine, or a boss says there’ll be layoffs in three months.
Sex won’t solve those problems, but it sure helps people feel refreshed to tackle them together.
There are some different issues over sex among parents of teens…opportunity vs desire, for example, when teenagers are home, awake till all hours, and quick-to-disgust about even the hint that their parents might STILL be having sex.
Fortunately, many parents by this stage are stronger in their sense of independence and needs, and if the will is there, they get creative about keeping those endorphins working.
There’s quickie sex, sex in the shower, the date night that can sometimes include a night away, and the teenagers’ own much-loved sleepovers elsewhere.
And there are credible and creative sex manuals like the revised edition of Dr. Alex Comfort’s “The Joy of Sex,” to spark fresh ideas and renew arousal.
Unfortunately, some parents of teens tell me a different story…the workaholic parent is still gone long hours, maybe travelling too, while the one more involved with the kids and their schedules, can no longer abide doing it all.
Greater self-confidence now works the other way, with a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude.
But do they talk about changing their dynamic, getting counselling, making time for intimacy? No. In those cases, enter the Internet, and the search for ex’es, or trolling dating sites for excitement, or flirting beyond the line, with a co-worker.
What happens with middle-aged sex? Changes, of course, because aging goes on even when we fight it with Botox, cross-fit workouts and Sudoku.
Women have an easing off of estrogen and testosterone, causing menopause sometimes as early as late 30’s, and leading to dryness that can make intercourse difficult or painful, with an accompanying loss of libido.
Some of these women arbitrarily shut down sex at this point, even though their husbands are left frustrated and angry.
Men in middle-age may experience less predictable erections, or have the kind of menopause-like experience of moods. If put on anti-depressants which can also interfere with erections and libido, some become embarrassed and withdraw emotionally as well as sexually.
Yet this is the very time when sex can be most fulfilling. Children are less underfoot and the main tasks in shaping them have been completed.
Hopefully, older parents have developed confidence from what they’ve accomplished, and many have goals of new adventures, even career changes.
Yet so many at this stage dismiss the importance of sex.
Meanwhile, for all the wrong reasons, all the age cohorts beforehand can barely conceive of people in their 50s, 60s and yes, 70s and 80s having sex. But they can and do.
My healthy and active 100-year-old uncle surprised his children, ages 60 and 50, when he said of his current girlfriend (his two wives and a previous girlfriend had all died), that he likes her because she’s “sensual.” His adult children ages 58 and 70, couldn’t even bring themselves to ask just what he meant.
We can’t picture it. Our media doesn’t often let us see lined flesh in romantic embraces. We get a movie like “The Wolf of Wall Street” with young naked women’s breasts, pubic areas, and buttocks exposed, smooth, and taut.
It’s a narrow view. Middle-aged and older people who love each other, and who’ve proudly come through “stuff” together, still feel desire for each other’s softer, cosy bodies.
That’s why, older women who remain sexually pro-active find out how to stay in the game. They explore their genetic risks with their doctor, to decide if they’re comfortable using a hormone patch or pills to help maintain libido.
Or they try alternative therapies like black cohosh, they use lubricants, stay fit and active and find they can maintain a healthy sex life, even several times a week.
Men who are similarly motivated talk to their physicians, because they know that maintaining sex is good for their health and their relationship. They may use Viagra or Cialis, they may need more stimulation than before, but they can still enjoy sex.
They know that sometimes, a close session of cuddling, kissing and hugging is all that’s needed to feel intimate.
And they also know that excess drinking or substance use is detrimental to sexual performance, so they don’t let it interfere with the priority of staying lovingly connected to their partner.
The good news is that you can have good sex at any age. For the young, it means having the confidence to say No until you’re ready, and being selective about whom you trust.
They also need that confidence to insist on using protection to avoid pregnancy and some sexually transmitted infections. And the self–protective conviction to ask a potential partner about herpes and HPV which are common today and easily transmissible, before getting intimate.
And for those who want to stay virgins, and wait till marriage, it means knowing your rights to your own principles, and believing that it’s a valid choice they needn’t be embarrassed about. There ARE other people who’ll respect that choice.
In the busy years, couples need to keep sex and intimacy going, as part of their commitment.
It’s as important as dealing equitably with chores and finances, and makes all the other challenges of this period less likely to damage the relationship.
For those 50, 60, 70, some health changes may interfere with intercourse but they don’t have to end the connection of touch, caring and closeness.
If a couple makes a mutual decision to end their sexual relationships, that’s their business. But an arbitrary one is unfair, and can erode other aspects of the partnership.
And for those people who remain on their own, by choice or through loss, sexuality is still a positive part of who you are, how you present yourself, and how you relate to others.
Our human need for intimacy is ageless. Studies now confirm that no matter what your gender, you can enjoy sex for as long as you wish. Sex at 70 is different from sex at 20, but, with wisdom and confidence, it has qualities that enhance it beyond those early couplings.
So keep smiling, stay positive and speak up about what you want. There’s plenty to look forward to at every stage.