Debbie Marielle Elzea, JD
Jennie Marie Battistin, MA
We live in a culture that is both sex-obsessed, and starving for genuine, loving connection.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (Laumann, Paik, & Rosen, 1999), an astounding 42% of American women have low libido or desire, pain, and/or elusive orgasms. Many more lack emotional connection with their lovers. This is a concern for marriage and family therapists, as disappointing or non-existent sex lives are leading causes of breakups and family dissolution. Further, healthy, fulfilling sexual lives are essential for physical, mental and emotional well-being, and sex provides a unique opportunity for connection and bonding.
Couples face many sexual challenges, and it is natural for MFTs to view issues from a systemic perspective. However, many sexual problems are individual challenges. Blocks like body shame, negative conditioning, or the inability to relax and ‘get out of her head’ are very common for females regardless of background or relationship. To determine whether a challenge is a couples or individual issue, a rule of thumb is to consider whether the challenges predate the couple's relationship and/or would exist independently of the relationship. If so, the individual may be best served in a one-on-one setting.
So, what are the most common blocks and challenges from the female perspective? What are the high-level distinct approaches used by sex therapists versus sex educators and coaches? Knowing these answers can give you comfort as you make referrals when sexual issues take you take you out of your expertise or comfort zone.
Sexual issues are often a root cause of dysfunction, yet shame and conditioning may prevent the couple from bringing the subject up themselves, even in therapy or couples counseling. Conversely, many therapists are reluctant to ask this question, as they have limited training in working with sexual problems and may even be embarrassed by having sex talks. Not addressing sexual challenges is a lost opportunity, because a loving physical bond can cause other grievances to lose importance as great sex floods the lovers with pleasure and bonding hormones.
While traditional sex therapy is often about healing past wounding, trauma, abuse and understanding emotions, coaching is skills and mindset based, and future oriented. If therapy has a goal of getting a client to a baseline of normal, sex coaching’s goal is to empower the client to create the pleasurable, connected sex life they desire.
Not every sexual dysfunction has its origin in trauma or the past. If a woman struggles, she is not broken; it may simply be that female sexuality is inherently complex, a science, an art, and a learned skill, that no one taught her. It may be that she has received negative messages about her body or desires, doesn’t have experience or education, or she doesn’t feel comfortable discussing sex. Sex and intimacy coaching fills a gap between therapy and self-growth, helping women shed shame, negative conditioning, learn about their bodies, arousal and response cycles, their unique likes, dislikes and turn-ons, and how to ask for what she wants from her lover. For women to have enjoyable, connected sex lives over the long term, they need six things: knowledge, worthiness, time, embodiment, creativity, and emotional connection.
Few women understand physiological facts about arousal: for instance, that there are a half dozen types of orgasms to experience; that neglect or trauma may cause a body to feel desensitized or numb; that the brain is the most important sex organ, and that it can be rewired to experience more pleasure via practice, touch and imagination.
Coaching provides a personalized sex education so a woman learns not only the facts, but also discovers her own preferences, turn-ons, and arousal cycles, as well as dislikes and boundaries. She learns how to communicate her desires and preferences to her partner in a way that feels connected and not critical.
Worthiness and Confidence
Growing up, many women received negative messages about their sexuality, bodies and desires, which can cause lasting shame, confusion and guilt. These might be considered micro-traumas as opposed to “capital T” trauma sex therapists regularly see. A goal of both therapy and coaching is to release shame and shift mindsets in an atmosphere of empathy and support. Talking about and normalizing sex gives a woman ‘permission’ enjoy her sensual self and celebrate her desires and fantasies.
In addition, as a stressed out, unhappy woman is unlikely to experience much physical pleasure and joy, in coaching she is encouraged to keep her spirit and self-love tank full with self-care and gratitude practices. Worthiness means she does not need a perfect body, relationship or performance to enjoy pleasure, because confidence, skill, relaxation and enjoyment are what make her a satisfied and exciting lover.
A great sex life does not just happen; it needs priority and time. ‘Mutually spontaneous desire’ is a myth, and there is nothing wrong with planning sexy times. Coaching keeps her accountable for stress relief and self-care practices that boost her happiness and confidence, and lovemaking is given time and priority; not just relegated to the end of the day when partners are exhausted.
In addition to prioritizing lovemaking, the female body needs time for arousal. If a man’s sexual response is like a microwave, a woman is more like a wood stove that needs kindling and fuel to be stoked. Parts of female anatomy need 20-40 minutes of attention to be primed, yet the average sex act is over in six minutes! It is no wonder women have an orgasm deficit compared to men and faking is so prevalent. In coaching, she discovers turn-ons, techniques, rituals and touch she likes—then applies them in an unrushed, sensuous way.
A top sexual complaint of women is the inability to get ‘out of their heads’ and into pleasure—it can be a challenge to banish distracting thoughts, judgment, performance anxiety and the furtive chase of orgasms. Many women feel numb or distracted, as their touch sensitivity has been diminished by a lack of pleasurable touch, menopause, or trauma. Fortunately, sensitivity and focus can be revived and enhanced through mindful sensation practices, which use elements of breath, movement, touch, sound, and imagination. Rewiring the body and brain to receive more pleasure is a process that takes effort and support. Guided visualization, breathwork, mindful touch and home play practices help her break out of distracting thought patterns and connect with heart, body and sensuality.
Coaching teaches embodied sensuality; however if her lack of ability to relax is due to unresolved trauma, a trained sex therapist can help resolved negative cognitions and freeze responses that will allow women to move back into their bodies and experience their sensual self.