Last year my friend’s husband died suddenly and like when all young and thriving people pass unexpectedly it was and still is a huge loss for our group. A few months after he died, my friend asked if she could talk to me since, as she said, “You’re a sex therapist and all.” She told me about a specific pain and heartache she feels regarding the death of her husband. They had a monogamous relationship and with his abrupt death she also lost her partnered sex life that same awful day. She told me that sure she misses the sex, but what she is realizing in her grief is that she is also missing the laughing, the cuddling, the caressing, the hugging, the holding each other, the looking into each other’s eyes, the silly moments, the awkward moments, and yes even the disappointing moments. While masturbation scratched an itch, she said with partnered sex she had exactly that: a partner and intimate friend with whom she could share all those things. It was the 'sharing with' that felt particularly special for her, and is something she profoundly misses now. I was, and still am, deeply moved by her experience and her description of her experience. And with her permission, I share it here as a way in to discuss how partnered sex is different than solo sex.
(On a side note, she also said this issue has not been addressed in any of the grief support groups she’s been going to. Yet another time my profession falls short when it comes to sex. And just this morning on my way to my office I heard the radio deejays describe partnered sex as “that special connection you have with someone else.” It seems everyone understands partnered sex is fundamentally different than solo sex.)
As I talked about in my previous blog (see below), I define solo sex as your first and primary sexual relationship and it is a relationship you have for your entire life regardless of your external relationship situation. I also said that solo sex is your internal experience of your sexuality and chosen external expression of that internal experience. For those that also desire a partnered sex life (because there are people that do not and that’s just fine), solo sex is the foundation of partnered sex.
Partnered sex is when you decide to share your solo sexual self with another person or persons and they decide to share theirs with you. So all parties must first consent. While consent is necessary it is not enough. What exactly is everyone consenting to? For how long? In what order? What kind of safer sex method(s) will be practiced? Who decides when it’s over and how? And what will happen after it’s over? When I ask my clients that initial question (“What are you consenting to?”), they usually say “Duh, sex!” But that still is not clear enough because as I’ve learned everyone has a different idea of what sex is (and isn’t).
As you can see from my questions, when we choose to engage in a partnered sexual encounter, there is a lot more that needs to be addressed ethically. How many times in your life did you engage sexually with another person but you didn’t discuss beforehand about what would and would not happen or what you would and would not do? I think everyone. Looking back, what was missing? “Yeah Diane, it’s called communication” is probably what you’re thinking. OK sure. But that word, “communication”, is horribly inadequate to describe what skills are needed in a partnered sex scenario. A better description of what is needed are things like: self-awareness regarding your likes and dislikes, turn ons and turn offs, and hard and soft boundaries; verbally describing these things clearly and assertively — and of course having the courage to say it; knowing how to negotiate when differences occur; resolving your ambivalence if there is any about any aspect; understanding your hopes and expectations for the experience itself, what happens after, and describing these expectations; preparing for the possibility of disappointment (or judgement) and coping well if it happens; and then having the knowledge that, empathy for, patience with your partner(s) has all these things going on too. You don’t need all these skills in solo sex and this is what is precisely different about solo sex vs. partnered sex. And you can see why when partnered sex “is good”, it brings people closer together and they say they feel more connected - they’ve not only shared of themselves and shared something with someone else, but they’ve also revealed something about themselves to another and it was received with respect and (hopefully) tenderness. And you can also see why when partnered sex “is bad”, just why it’s so darn painful: partnered sex offered the promise of intimacy and connection, seeing and being seen, and mutual pleasure but resulted in hurt feelings, disconnection, and perhaps even relationship discord.
Yes, it is a complex process that in my experience most vanilla (as opposed to kinky) people don’t take the time to do…and when they don’t, they end up experiencing all kinds negative consequences. If you know anything about kinky folks, one of the the hallmarks of kink is how and what is discussed and negotiated beforehand. This is a valuable skill many vanilla people need to learn from kinksters.
I’ve had clients tell me that there are times when they are in the mood for and ready to handle all the complexities of partnered sex that I just described and there are times when they are not in the mood and not ready for dealing with the complexities of partnered sex. I think that’s great - that someone has that much self-knowledge to know this about themselves. I hope more people will come to know and understand themselves better in this way.
I often talk with my clients about “solo sex” and “partnered sex.” If you Google “solo sex”, you’ll see that in the majority of the articles where the phrase is used, it’s referring to masturbating by yourself and that seems to be how most of my clients understand the term. OK sure, that’s fine — another phrase for masturbating — but don’t we have enough of those already? Ask any 14 year old adolescent male or Adult Swim viewer how many terms for masturbating he/she/they can think of in 10 seconds and you’ll see what I mean. Instead, I want you to expand your conceptualization of the term “solo sexuality” to include SO MUCH MORE. I think that if you do, your sex life will improve.
So what do *I* mean when I say “solo sex”? Yes, I can be referring to masturbating by yourself. That’s just one aspect of solo sex. But I’m also talking about your internal experience of your sexuality and chosen external expression of that internal experience. This can include your romantic, sensual, erotic, and sexual fantasies; your turn ons, turn offs, and how you relate to them (if you don’t understand what I mean by this just think of the ashamed fetishist); how you experience your sexuality in your body sensually, erotically, and sexually; your relationship to pleasure; how you utilize your mind and body to express this sexuality (so here’s where masturbating comes in but I also mean things like how you dress or dance or when and where you choose to feel sexual feelings and with whom); and heck even things like that pleasurable and fun zing! you get when you see an attractive person on the street or the decision-making involved when you decide to flirt with that cute barista who makes your latte every Friday just the way you like it.
Do you see what I mean now? Solo sexuality needs to encompass all this and more!
Your solo sexuality is your first and primary sexual relationship and it is a relationship you have for your entire life regardless of your external relationship situation. It can and does frequently change over the course of your life as you grow and have new experiences both challenging and successful. Unfortunately for many, their solo sexuality can also cause immense confusion, fear, and shame.
Based on the clients I have seen over the years and speaking in generalizations (something I should probably get a slap on the hand for), it seems that a lot of men regardless of sexual orientation seem to understand my broad concept of solo sexuality. They have already had hundreds (if not thousands or more) of private experiences with themselves and their solo sexuality. One subset of people that seem to need some help with this idea is women. Many of my female clients don’t have a solid understanding of, acceptance of, or pleasure in their solo sexuality. There’s lots of possible causal factors for this: our culture’s fear of a truly sexually empowered and embodied woman; the taboo nature of female pleasure; and how historically female sexuality has been minimized or denied or thought to be there for the purpose of men. Some women feel uneasy about masturbating (see my previous blog entry) or some women feel that they *should* (there’s that word) only experience their sexuality in a partnered setting. In fact, it’s not just some women who have this latter belief. Another subset of people who seem to need help with my idea of solo sexuality are a few religions and 12 step programs that say partnered sex is the only acceptable sex one can have. Ay yi yi.
Besides all the things I’ve mentioned above, another thing I tell my clients who have little understanding, acceptance, or pleasure with their solo sexuality is that their pleasure during partnered sex is dependent upon their understanding of their solo sexuality. How can you tell your partner where or how you like to be touched if you haven’t explored that on your own? In the absence of that knowledge, these clients stressfully default to focusing on their partner’s experience “I’ll just make it about you tonight”. So long as their partner isn’t pathological, at first this can be experienced as my client is giving them a gift and/or being sexually generous. But it’s been my experience that if this behavior happens repeatedly over time it’s inevitable that their partner will want them to become invested in a mutually pleasurable sexual experience. Their partner is asking for a sexual equal. What’s more feminist than that? This means knowing what you like and want sexually in a partnered experience. So once again we’re right back where we started: developing and understanding your solo sexuality. It’s a worthy endeavor to embark upon. And I hope that by reading this, you’ll become more attuned to your solo sexuality and its fascinating nuances and edges. In a future blog post, I’ll discuss more about the differences and similarities between solo sex and partnered sex.
One of the genuinely heartbreaking aspects of my work is how little cisgendered and heterosexual women know about their own bodies. In particular, how little they know about what I call the anatomy of pleasure. Now that being said, most, if not all, of these women have some knowledge about the clitoris. That when I say the phrase “sexual pleasure”, many of them tell me they immediately think of this one organ.
“Yes, the clitoris!” I say with excitement. "Talking about the clitoris a great place to start. Have you found its four legs on your own body with your own hand or a vibrator perhaps?” I ask. Most of these women give me a confused look or a blank stare. Then I often hear one of the following responses:
“The clitoris has legs? What do you mean?”
“I don’t own a vibrator.”
“I have never touched my genitals with my own hand.”
As I’ve said before in this very blog, I am so thankful for my clients’ honesty as it tells me precisely where we need to begin our work.
And so I tell them about the clitoris. How it’s not just the external nub; it has four “legs” inside the body. I can get quite animated and enthusiastic extolling the wonders of the clitoris. Hell, sometimes I even get out a piece of paper and draw a representation of it. (I always wonder what my clients think when they see this side of me.) If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an article that explains more.
A good part of my work involves this kind of education (a.k.a. sex education) as the first step. But as any sex therapist can tell you, that’s often not enough. Putting this information into the context of the client’s own psychology and sexual relationship is the next crucial step.
First, integrating this knowledge into the person. Many women tell me they feel awkward, uncomfortable, and some even say they feel “dirty” or “bad” for touching their genitals with their own hand. I point out they touch their own genitals when bathing, when going the bathroom, dealing with their menstrual cycle, perhaps using certain contraception and safer sex methods, maybe even when changing or adjusting clothes. So we look more closely at why touching her own body for pleasure is taboo to her. Shame always is part of this and usually takes center stage; there’s usually a lot to unpack and reprogram.
Eventually comes the day when she gets a ‘homework assignment’ from me, her sex therapist: go home and touch yourself or buy a vibrator and use it on yourself. Then come back and tell me how it went because learning your own body is so crucial to understanding your own sexual response and enjoying a sexual relationship. And that’s when therapy can really enter a whole new dimension.
Different women have different reactions to this ‘assignment’. Some are so curious and motivated they leave my office and stop at the local sexuality shop on the way home. Some go home and immediately buy a vibrator online. Some make a point to take a private bath that night. Other women, though, are more hesitant or ambivalent. That’s OK, I tell them; that just means we need to work on the shame some more.
(And BTW it’s not just the clitoris that allows a woman to feel sexual pleasure. Other parts of the body are erogenous zones too like breasts, the inner thigh, neck, ears/earlobes, small of the back, buttocks, hands, feet and toes. It’s wonderfully unique from person to person.)
Women and their own pleasure. It’s such a huge topic that every woman needs to grapple with and decide where they want to land with it. The question is, where do you want to be / what’s your goal in terms of your own sexual pleasure? The answer to that question will tell you exactly the work that needs to be done to get there.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Supervisor located in Sonoma county, California.