There are a lot of myths in our culture about how sex changes over our lifetime, and so many of them are simply untrue. What does research show us about sex and desire, and how might this information impact you and your love life?
In my personal life and professional life, I’m particularly interested in learning (and unlearning, really) about how we are harmed by misinformation about our sexuality. We’re inundated with misinformation about how our bodies work, what relationships and sexual desire are in long-term relationships, and what sex should look like through our lifespan. I want to have a lifetime of good sex—that is, I only want to have Sex Worth Having.*
Misinformation about sex and sexuality comes via social media, mainstream media (movies and television), maybe our schools, and often from our families of origin, too. As a child of the 1980s, I have dozens of stories from TV and movies about what sex and relationships should be, and most of them are total crap. In this article I’m going to tackle three big myths about sexuality so that you can rethink sex for you:
- Sexual Health Myth #1: Women want less sex than men.
- Sexual Health Myth #2: Sex should be natural.
- Sexual Health Myth #3: Only this one thing ‘counts’ as sex
Sexual Health Myth #1: Women want less sex than men.
This is totally untrue. There are countless jokes about and stereotypes of women drying up in middle age, turning away from their partners, devoting themselves entirely to their children, and not wanting sex. There are a myriad of reasons some women might turn away from sex in long-term, monogamous relationships. Research shows it’s often linked to two big things in the relationship.
Firstly, it’s not that women aren’t hungry for sex, it’s that they don’t want the sex that’s on the menu. I first heard this term from sex researcher Emily Nagoski in her book, Come as You Are. You can hear more about this in this TikTok below featuring renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel. In it, she talks about what desire really looks like in long-term monogamous relationships, and explains why women get bored with monogamy faster than men. Research shows that while men’s desire declines gradually, women’s desire plummets after marriage. This doesn’t mean that women don’t care about sex, it’s about the TYPE of sex they are having. Quite simply, the sex on the menu is not interesting enough for them. See below for more discussion on redefining sex for you!
Another Reason Women Might Lose Interest in Sex
Women are overwhelmed. Often when sex and desire disappear from a relationship, the blame and the required ‘changes’ are put upon the women. Research shows that in heterosexual relationships, the division of household labor and childcare is wildly imbalanced, with women carrying most of the household burden and the mental load. And this is killing their sex drive.
When women carry the mental load, it turns partners into dependents, and (understandably) squishes their desire. Have you ever heard a friend joke about her boyfriend/husband being ‘another kid to take care of”? Yea, they’re likely not having sex. Just how big of a challenge is this? In a study about the mental load and division of labor of nearly 300 heterosexual couples in Australia, there weren’t enough couples in which the male partner does more household work, so they couldn’t use that group to draw any conclusions.
The mental load is something that is so important, and often overlooked, in relationships even modern, more egalitarian heterosexual relationships. Even if the physical duties are more equally divided, often one partner is tasked with the bulk of household and/or family management or the mental load (eg: when do we need to buy toothpaste, go to the doctor, take out the trash, send the birthday card to parents, etc.). This overwhelming task of ongoing household management completely sucks away desire, damages connection, and can build resentment and frustration in the partnership. Neither of these are good ingredients for a good sex life. Read more in my longer article about the mental load and desire, and check out the following videos from Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez talking about the mental load and how this affects relationships:
Sexual Health Myth #2: Sex should be natural and easy.
We’re told in direct and indirect ways that if we love someone, sex should be easy. Our models also show us that we should just always know what our partner wants. This is so untrue, and yet I see it come up so often.
Of course we don’t know how to talk about sex. There are no models for talking about or thinking about our sexual and romantic relationships. We watch movies that show us that if we love someone, sex should be natural and easy. These movies show us should not need to talk about it! This graphic from Dr. Joe Kort explains this well. Expecting mind-reading isn’t helpful, especially when it comes to sex. Instagram no longer allows embeds so I’ve copied the images here!
To be clear, sex is natural in the way that our bodies are literally made for pleasure. However, it’s not natural that we should just KNOW how to pleasure other people. In order to really have sex worth having, we need to learn how to do it, and this takes work.
Having sex—especially good sex—takes effort. Many of us don’t yet know what good sex is (for us). We haven’t yet learned what we crave, and we don’t yet know how to create #sexworthhaving. This quote shared by Dr. Laurie Mintz sums it up pretty nicely:
To have deeply connected, loving and joyful sex lives, we need to prioritize conversations around sex. We also need to find time for sexy playtime, and practice openness around sex. Putting in effort here tells our partners that, “Yes, sex matters to me, and it’s important enough to prioritize it in our relationship.” The sex conversations necessary for a good sex life aren’t once. This is an ongoing commitment to learn and grow, individually and together.
I know it’s hard to start these conversations. That’s why sex coaches and sex therapists exist! We can help with these conversations. Is having a dynamic and interesting sex life is important to you and your partner? If yes, the first thing to do is set aside time to have the important conversations about your sex life.
Sexual Health Myth #3: Only this one activity ‘counts’ as sex
One of the ways I help people improve their sexual play and become better lovers is to unwind the idea of what SEX is and what it can be.
We’ve been taught a super limited definition of sex: sex only counts if it’s a penis in a vagina (PIV). Maybe you learned this from romantic comedies, p0rn, inadequate sex education, or perhaps directly from partners. It’s simply not correct.
Here’s why saying PIV is the only thing that counts as sex is a problem. First, this is incredibly heteronormative and leaves out queer and trans couples who may not have those body parts; it also leaves out differently-abled folks who might not have sex in that way. And even in hetero couples, it’s still problematic to only define sex as PIV because it’s often sex that doesn’t work well for women. Despite what we’ve seen in porn and movies, only about 4-18% of women can have orgasm from vaginal penetration; most women require some type of clitoral stimulation in order to climax. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with PIV intercourse: as a woman in a relationship with a man I’m a big fan of PIV intercourse. And we also have a big umbrella of sex activities… of which ‘count as sex to us!
How Many Ways Can You Have Sex?
There is literally a whole world to explore when you rethink what sex can be outside of the limited scope of PIV. Not only is it more fun, it’s vitally important to a healthy sexual relationship, because how you define sex in your relationship now can impact how to approach sex and pleasure during the rest of your life. All of us will face changes to our bodies and our libidos as we age. Couples will go through ups and downs // ebbs and flows in their sexual relationship. We also might experience illnesses or injuries that prevent us from having one specific type of sex, so it behooves all of us to explore what sex can be!
Below are some ideas about what sex can look like when we step away from the PIV model. Each of the activities can ‘count’ as sex on their own, or they could be a great way to prioritize pleasure differently, or these can be ‘sexy vignettes’ (little sexy moments for 10-15 minutes; this is what my partner and I have started to call them). All of them can be great ways to keep your erotic thread connected between longer playtimes.
Many of these activities require that we unwind the idea that sex is “finished” when one person (usually the one with the penis) has an ejaculatory orgasm. It’s possible (and very pleasurable) for people with penises to learn to de-couple orgasm from ejaculation. The are so many ways to enjoy sexy time… and yes, it’s all SEX !
How to have sex without penis in vagina intercourse:
- Mutual masturbation
- Oral sex (internal and external stimulation)
- Anal pleasure (internal and external stimulation)
- Digital pleasure (aka hands-only)
- Playing with toys
- A hot makeout session
- A sexy shower
- Cuddling or lying together in bed, naked or not
- A sexy breathwork practice
- Listening or watching erotica together
- And what else…?
I’m so passionate about this concept, and I want to share it all with you! Sex Worth Having* is the name of my new podcast, launching in January 2024.