Is sex actually an indicator of a healthy relationship, as so many seem to believe? Turns out it is, but not in the way you might think.
“Our society without shame would be as unrecognizable as Earth without gravity,” sex expert Kimberly Johnson tells me over the phone. She says shame shapes the way people think, behave and feel to an alarming extent, especially when it comes to sex. I have to agree; people discussing their erotic desires publicly and plainly sounds about as alien as my cat swimming through air.
Johnson is a certified sexological bodyworker, somatic experiencing practitioner, doula and post-partum women’s health specialist, but I’m mostly concerned with her self-appointed title: “the vaginapractor.” As in, “Brb, I have to call the vaginapractor,” a phrase I had the opportunity to use in earnest last week.
I also called Dr. Chris Donaghue. He’s a doctor of clinical sexology, a certified sex therapist, a TENGA brand ambassador, the author of Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture, and the co-host of the podcast Loveline with Amber Rose. Johnson and Dr. Donaghue have more in common than their sentence-long titles. They both help their clients, often couples, reshape and reclaim their sex lives in a culture they both described as being in need of “dismantling.”
It seems like expectations around sex are at a tangled all-time high — it should be good and frequent, but exciting and varied — and the topic of how much sex people are having has become something of a litmus tests for satisfaction in monogamy. Unfortunately, it’s a barometer that offers pressure and quotas in lieu of solutions. I asked Johnson and Dr. Donaghue to share some tips for people dealing with these struggles. Below, some ways you can flip the script if you want to.
First and foremost, Johnson says the way we talk about sex is far too narrow: “I recommend expanding the definition of what sex is beyond penetration, which is so heteronormative.” Sex isn’t just one behavior, nor is it just about “finishing.” She explains that when people over-index on the pursuit of orgasm, particularly the male one, they emphasize the finish line instead of the playful exploration that precedes it.
Dr. Donaghue suggests thinking of sex as less of an act, more of a tool. “Sex is supposed to be — if you choose to make it so — about bonding, and a level of intimacy,” he says. “It’s a tool for partners to use for connection.” He never assigns sex like a homework assignment. “The way I frame it is that for couples, sex is an available resource for intimacy building and connection that your other relationships don’t have.”
Johnson says shame is to blame for society’s obsession with how much sex couples are having, instead of what kind. “We live in such a quantitative society, where our standards around sex are so impoverished that people only know how to talk about sex in terms of how much they’re having.” The pressure to have a certain amount adds undue stress, Johnson explains, and just as it’s harder to pee when someone’s watching, it’s harder to enjoy sex when it’s a box to check. “That’s not how the hormone system works, nor how our nervous system works.”
With his clients, Dr. Donaghue never gives out numbers and avoids the language that “healthy couples have a lot of sex,” as it breeds the wrong ideas. “Too much paranoia shifts what the true purpose of sex is… Every couple is going to go through different phases. You’re going to experience aging, illness, life events and stresses together, all things that shift the amount of sex you both desire and acquire.”
Both encourage their clients to practice accepting these natural ebbs and flows.
Talk about it (even when you’re not naked)
Too many couples only talk about sex when they’re having it, or not at all, and Johnson believes this is a missed opportunity. “We don’t have a lot of communication practice outside the stereotypical sitcom thing where the person says, ‘A little bit more to the left!'” Johnson suggests building a practice of fluidly discussing desire. “If a couple is having hard and fast, porn-style penetration over and over and they don’t want that, yet they haven’t ever practiced saying what they do want, they’ll feel stuck.” Johnson says “I’m not in the mood” can often mean “I’m not in the mood for the kind of sex we’re having,” and that opening up the discussion is important for changing it.
Dr. Donaghue agrees you have to be willing to share honestly what is and isn’t working, even if you don’t know the solution. “Intimacy is really about vulnerability,” he says. “So say what’s hard to hear and hard to say. What isn’t working for you? Is it the amount? The ways your doing it?” If you and your partner aren’t comfortable having that kind of conversation, he suggests practicing having difficult conversations about non-sexual things first, and working your way up.
Never stop exploring
Johnson believes the idea that sex gets stale in longterm relationships is a dangerous myth. “Sex can get better and better over time,” she says, “and it typically does with people who are able and willing to meet themselves at their edges, to be radically honest and continue exploring, rather than assuming they already know what their partner likes.” She suggests prioritizing exploration rather than just “getting off.”
Dr. Donaghue recommends couples start by asking how close they are feeling to one another. He explains there are may ways to feel close: emotionally, socially, erotically. “If you’re with someone you love, care about and feel safe with, try to use sex as a way to expand yourselves and your closeness.” Challenge your own ideas about how sex should look. “There is a heteronormative assumption that all guys are tops, for example, but some guys are bottoms. Just because they have a penis doesn’t mean they’re an aggressive, assertive, sex partner.”
Many unsatisfied couples are trapped in a pattern of sex with predictable steps, Dr. Donaghue says. For example: “Step one: I just took a shower; step two: I’m going to come sit by you; step three: we’re going to make out; step four: I’m going to touch your boobs…and it’s this boring path that’s become a force of habit.” Try to break that. Whether that means having radically honest conversations or going to a sex boutique together, he suggests you be open to exploring new avenues.
Think about your desires
Johnson says lot of people make the mistake of framing their sex lives around what their partner wants and needs, instead of what they want and need. “Some people won’t own that for themselves, but it’s important to say, ‘You know what, I do want this to be different, and here’s how I want it to be different, because a sexual connection is important to me.'” If you and your partner’s sexual desires are different, she suggests you both voice what you want and why, and see about meeting in the middle. “Work it out. Talk about it. Define what you both need.”
Dr. Donaghue says women are often taught to be a passive object to be sought after, and a lot of his work is in helping individuals find confidence in their active desires. Sometimes that means helping clients learn to feel comfortable with the body they have instead of waiting until they have the one they want, something he hears frequently. He suggests you consider your sexual influences. “Understand where your body-esteem is coming from,” Dr. Donaghue says. “Try to understand the images you’re holding yourself accountable to, and the messaging.” Try engaging with body and sex positive spaces online.
Remember nothing is wrong with you
“People panic and think, ‘It’s going to be this way forever,’ or they listen to what everyone else is saying and doing and assume something is wrong with them,” Johnson says. It’s this attitude that brings anxiety into people’s sexual experiences. Instead, make it deeply personal. “We really have to unpack our own sexual internal monologues. Start to ask, ‘What does sex give me?’ Really examine your own turn-ons. Ask yourself, ‘How do I turn myself on?’ Not how does someone else turn you on, but how do you turn yourself on?”
Dr. Donaghue explains compatibility comes in many forms. The three he often refers to in his practice are 1) emotional and psychological compatibility, like having a deep understanding of each other’s minds; 2) social compatibility, like enjoying the same things; and 3) sexual compatibility. “The strongest relationships often have all three,” Dr. Donaghue explains, because two can bolster the other when natural imbalances occur, but that it’s important to remember it’s possible to have some without all. He says he’s seen couples who hit the first two so powerfully “that the sexual intimacy isn’t really required or important to them.” But he urges people to remember that sex is a form of connection, and to not rob your relationships of that opportunity out of fear or discomfort.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; Creative Direction by Emily Zirimis.