Updated: Nov 16
“If our sex life were determined by our first youthful experiments, most of the world would be doomed to celibacy. In no area of human experience are human beings more convinced that something better can be had only if they persevere.” - P.D. James
This article offers some guidance for that perseverance. It describes four courses of action, that can lead to two different mistakes. Providing clues as to how they might be avoided. The two mistakes are considering other people too little and sabotaging wider goals. Problematic behaviours that have traditionally been set apart from other behaviour.
This setting apart comes at a cost. It ignores everyone's capacity to behave in these ways. Making that behaviour more likely to happen. As if the behaviour could not be understood and thus avoided. This blog is my contribution towards ending that oversight. It aims to complement, the welcome advances of, the 'me too' movement (Delavingne, 2022.) I begin by describing a course of action people may take when they feel 'too much.'
1) Feeling 'too much'
“Sex is always about emotions. Good sex is about free emotions; bad sex is about blocked emotions." - D Chopra
You may have had the experience of feeling too happy, too anxious, too sad, too disgusted or too angry. At these times you may have felt out of control. You may not have known what to do. At the same time, as we grow up we learn that, experiences of intimacy and sexuality can help us regulate our emotions. It would be reasonable then to imagine that making an experience more intimate, or sexual, might be helpful for us when we feel too much.
To do this safely we must remember these experiences may involve another person. So mistakes can happen if we indulge in private fantasies or choose to act them out, when with other people. In these ways we may accidentally intrude into another person's experience without consent. Imposing our unregulated emotions. An experience that may be distressing for the other person.
It makes sense that, the better we are able to experience emotions, without having to immediately act upon them. The less likely we are to make these mistakes. The skill of emotional regulation in other words. I think language is key to this skill.
So if we are able to talk about sex we are more likely to be able to safely engage in it. Specifically, talking with the person we would like to have sex with, before we have sex with them and while we are having sex with them. This habit should help us to not consider other people too little or sabotage our wider goals. These two mistakes can also occur when we feel too little in intimate and sexual encounters.
2) Feeling 'too little'
'Who has done that?'; 'Why did you / I do that?'; 'Why did I / you do that?'
These questions may come up if we make mistakes of intimacy and sexuality without it being a conscious decision. These mistakes can be understood as the result of a dissociation. Dissociation is when we disconnect from our immediate environment. Providing an escape when it feels like there is no other escape. Perhaps, an escape from particular feelings or memories.
Feelings, or memories, we may not want to identify with or re-experience. Depending on what we have found unbearable in the past. Feeling this way again may lead us to dissociate. Then act in ways that we normally do not want to. Perhaps unconsciously playing out an avoided memory.
Reducing the chances of these mistakes occurring involves pausing when we feel detached from intimate or sexual experiences. Perhaps when feeling nothing at all. Identifying and talking about these dissociative experiences and uncomfortable memories when they occur. Developing our ability to stay consistently connected to ourselves and our emotional experiences. Especially in the presence of another person. Another way we can consider other people too little, or sabotage wider goals, is by separating our intimate attachments from our sexuality.
3) Separating intimate attachments and sexual experiences
“Sex without love is merely healthy exercise.”- R. Heinlein
Separating our intimate attachments from our sexual experiences may be a conscious decision or an unconscious habit. To preserve an intimate attachment, we are scared of losing, through making it more sexual. Alternatively, to preserve a sexual experience we are scared of losing by making it more intimate.
Separating intimate and sexual experiences prevents the interaction of these needs. Eliminating a range of blended intimate/sexual experiences which may be differently helpful. So in the context of this separation, neither our intimate attachments nor our experiences of sexuality may feel sufficient. Potentially requiring more attachments and/or sexual experiences, to meet our needs. This pattern of behaviour, may neither consider other people sufficiently nor fit with our wider goals. If this is the case, we might need to consider reconnecting our intimate attachments to our sexual experiences.
This reconnecting is a skill. It involves meeting our needs for security and adventure in a limited number of relationships. There are at least three habits which may help 1) having periods of absence from your partner(s) 2) observing your partner(s) in their element 3) surprising, or being surprised, by your partner(s.) In these ways sex, with an intimate partner, may 'stop being a thing we do and instead become a premeditated place to go together' (Perel, 2013.) The final course of action is brought about through having an excess of sexual desire.
4) 'Excess' sexual desire
'We are excessive when something about ourselves needs to be recognised and we need other people to help us work out what it is' (Phillips, 2008.)
For example, excessive violence may be a response to an unrecognised long term injustice. However that may not be immediately obvious to the excessively violent person or the witness of the behaviour. So the same excess behaviour, that indicates that something needs recognition can also blind us to what that something is. Overwhelming our and other peoples abilities to think by flooding us with emotion. Circumstances which prevent people understanding what we need.
Similarly when the excess is sexual desire our resultant behaviour may demand recognition of an unmet need but not actually achieve it. Possibly because excessive desire considers other people too little. For example, excess sexual desire that feels like an irresistible urge to act. The individual, and people who come in to contact with that desire, can end up feeling 'mad' about sex. As if they had 'lost their minds' or had no choices. Consider John Malkovich's character in the film 'Dangerous Liaisons.' Who asserts (to Michelle Pfeiffer's character) that his aggressive seduction of her is 'beyond my control.' When in reality this is not the case and the character actually needs something else. The excess preventing the discovery, and recognition, of the unmet need by ourselves and others.
One clue to what that unmet need might be comes from Pullman (2015.) He suggests that 'we only seek what we are denied.' In addition, an individual may also rely on intimacy and sexuality to meet other unidentified needs. So sabotaging their wider goals. Avoiding these mistakes involves increasing our awareness of our sexual desire, talking about it and considering our actions as choices. As well as finding additional ways to identify and get our needs met.
In each of the four courses of action outlined above, I suggest that, an insufficient understanding of ourselves, and others, can lead to serious mistakes of intimacy and sexuality. To conclude, I have assembled habits that could increase our understanding.
Summary : Habits that could increase our understanding
“He'd noticed that sex bore some resemblance to cookery: it fascinated people, they sometimes bought books full of complicated recipes and interesting pictures, and sometimes when they were really hungry they created vast banquets in their imagination - but at the end of the day they'd settle quite happily for egg and chips. If it was well done and maybe had a slice of tomato.” - Terry Pratchett
It appears that healthy interpersonal intimacy and sexuality, can occur through a combination of shared play, talking, stopping and starting, and restraint. Marking safe enough relationships by negotiating boundaries. Being present without overwhelming each other. Acknowledging and apologising for small mistakes. In particular those that occur from the temporary overwhelming of our minds by emotional experience.
So with thought, insight, and practice, we can provide ways for each other to tolerate each other's feelings without violating each other's boundaries. So making intimacy and sexuality, safer, more fun and a healthier container for our emotions. Mastering these tasks seems to be made easier by talking about these issues. As individuals, in therapy, as couples and in wider discourse. So we may become, for each other, someone we are not too much for. A partner, in other words.
n.b. I have also collated a number of other helpful resources on intimacy and sexuality. To access them : CLICK HERE
Benjamin, J., (2017). 'Another take on the riddle of sex,' in Beyond the doer and the done too, (chp 4,) Routledge.
Delevingne, C., (2022). Planet sex, BBC series [Video file]. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0df25jx (extracted 12/12/22.)
Pullman, P. (2015). Northern Lights: His Dark Materials 1: now a major BBC TV series. Random House. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000b1v2
Perel, E. (2013). The secret to desire in long-term relationships [Video file]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sa0RUmGTCYY (extracted 23/10/2022.)
Phillips, A., (2008). 'Sex Mad' BBC Radio 4. [Video file] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hpbu3QmNIdM (extracted 11/10/2022.)