On a recent Saturday morning, at a farmer's market in a hip L.A. neighborhood, I watched a woman swagger past the children's drum circle holding a leash, not with a dog, but a man attached. He wore a pink dog collar and his eyes were downcast as curious onlookers whispered and smiled. I was equally amused and especially liked the extended cigarette holder she held high in the air between two fingers, sans cigarette. However, as a psychologist specializing in sex I was also aware that the erotic psyche is complicated and there is often more than meets the eye.
In our fervor to laud the diversity of sexual preferences, it's easy to forget that desires can have unwanted consequences. In my private practice, couples seek guidance when their sex life has gone awry. I've seen cases of fantasies involving betrayal (largely from the proliferating cuckold fetish, a scenario in which a man watches his partner have sex with another man, often while she makes humiliating comments to him) or partners coaxed into open lifestyle situations leading to hurt beyond repair. Others feel pigeonholed into a role like teacher or slave, resulting in the loss of their own sexual voice. Knowing when to accommodate someone's desires and when to say no is tricky, especially if you want to please your partner.
Typically, one person introduces an idea (i.e. a threesome, watching porn together) and the other must make a choice. How these decisions are handled, how difference in general is handled, is what determines the survival of the relationship. There are real stakes at hand. If you shut someone down, they might go underground. If you go along with something you don't want, you might shut down. Sexual expression and diversity is healthy and differences in sexual taste are normal, but what can be done when the differences seem irreconcilable?
The first step is direct conversation. To prevent knee-jerk judgments and angry reactivity, understanding what the sex act means to each person is key. By asking questions, you can learn how a fantasy developed, what it's actually expressing and what function it serves. Most people are surprised by the answers. I've learned never to assume that I know what a fantasy means.
Sex is a stage where we act out our inner dramas--the roles we want to play and the parts we cast for others. Our scripts are filled with themes that reveal our wishes and our fears.
We all show up to the bedroom seeking. And it's not just a physical release we're after, but a yearning for connection. The nature of that connection varies. We may seek closeness, security or validation. Some are looking for friction--to push against, to express defiance and rebellion. We may be searching for power or surrender. All of these longings can lead to key insights about the self--what we need to express in our personalities or where we've felt deprived.
Life experiences form an erotic map. Traumatic and pedestrian experiences alike may become sexualized, embedding themselves into our preferences. For example, I've observed that shame is a common thread in fantasy, as if the psyche is playing with this tormenting emotion, seeking mastery by transforming it into titillation or inversing its effect by projecting it onto another. It's a rather poetic mechanism of the mind, full of metaphor and symbol, bringing a richness to our very human struggles for power, value, love and attention. This eroticization of pain brings healing to some, and for others, it creates problematic patterns--this is what I refer to as unconscious sexuality.
Unconscious sexuality is driven by trauma, neediness and insecurity. It's the shadow side of desire: addiction, body loathing, or the urge to exploit or harm others. Sometimes it's an obsessive focus on performance or conquest. The pain seeping into our sexuality is not an innate preference; rather, it's a result of our psychology, an aggregate of our experiences. If your partner's proposal is driven by trauma, they may be passing along their pain--or asking for healing. It's helpful to have a conscious approach, a decision-making process about what to do with the underlying feelings (i.e. act them out sexually or find another means of addressing the pain.)
Sexual tastes are not set in stone. Many of the couples I've worked with in therapy have moved through their impasses. The following questions taken from my book, The Women on My Couch, can help couples get back on the path to pleasure.
1. Is the preference causing healing or harm?
2. What is the impact on my self-esteem?
3. Are you aware of your own preferences or following your partner's script?
4. Are you stuck in one repetitive fantasy?
5. Do you need to learn how to connect more deeply?
6. Do you need distance?
7. Do you need aggression?
8. Do you need to feel more power?
9. Do you allow yourself to feel vulnerable?
10. Do you need to overcome inhibitions?