What if I said that everything you’ve been led to believe about your sex life isn’t true?
That the standards by which you judge yourself, and possibly your partner, are unrealistic? That you can feel little or no spontaneous desire, but at the same time have a happy and mutually satisfying sex life in the long term?
There aren’t many areas of science where we have got it so wrong for so long that great myths have seeped into our collective psyche, but sex is one. So much of our understanding comes from culture, religion, hearsay and magazines that we have lost track of the facts.
My time as a clinical psychologist and psychosexologist has been spent unlearning everything I thought I knew about sex in order to help those who come to see me. The truth is, sex science has moved on — but the way in which we understand sex and desire as a society has not yet caught up.
Dr Karen Gurney who is author of new book Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire, shared advice on how to ‘futureproof’ your sex life (file image)
My new book, Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire, And How To Futureproof Your Sex Life, is intent on righting some widespread wrongs.
These include the idea that desire should happen easily if you love each other, that a good sex life equals lots of spontaneous sex and that sexual satisfaction inevitably dwindles throughout a long-term relationship.
The last one is particularly unhelpful, as it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A lifetime of great sex doesn’t happen as if by magic. But all of us can, and should, strive for our sex life to get better and better over time.
So how exactly do we ‘futureproof’ our sex life?
Forget the good old days
Many couples come to see me because they want it ‘to be like it was in the beginning’. But the intense lust of the early stages can’t last.
Sadly, it is very common for women to blame this change in desire on themselves and to feel broken because of it.
Take Anna, 36, who is single, who told me: ‘In the beginning I feel like sex a lot but then, after some time, it just goes. It must be me that has the problem, as it’s happened in every long relationship I’ve had.’
Anna’s drop in spontaneous desire is a normal experience for women. In fact, a large proportion never or almost never feel like having sex out of the blue with their life partner.
Dr Karen said maintaining a high level of sexual satisfaction with the same person requires investment, research shows discussing sex together can improve your sex life (file image)
This is not a problem with desire, but with how we understand it. Wouldn’t it be great if Anna — and the rest of us — understood that desire works perfectly well if we know how to encourage and maintain it?
For many couples, the things they value about longer relationships (security, knowing another person completely) can bring an over-familiarity and predictability that isn’t always great in the bedroom.
If we add this to society’s unhelpful message that you should desire sex spontaneously, then we can start to understand why sexual dissatisfaction within relationships is so common.
It is possible to maintain high levels of sexual satisfaction and desire while having sex with the same person again and again, but it requires investment and effort.
Let’s talk more about sex
Research reveals that the more you talk about sex together, the higher your chance of a better sex life. Talking allows us to share our likes and dislikes — we cannot expect our partners to be mind readers, after all.
Women are often having the wrong type of sex for them, then feel guilty when they don’t enjoy it
But communication is also important because we are heavily influenced by the world we live in. Unless we are able to state our preferences, we risk being shoehorned into a model of what society tells us sex should be like. We also risk making wrong assumptions about our partner, based on gendered stereotypes.
Take Helen, 48, and Doug, 51, who’d been together 15 years when they came to see me.
Helen had been feeling less inclined to have sex. She put it down to early menopausal symptoms and the fact that she was caring for a sister who was suffering from cancer.
Clinical psychologist revealed it’s common for heterosexual couples to fall into a ‘set menu’, with women often having the types of sex that isn’t best fit for their anatomy (file image)
She had started to find Doug’s pleas for sex irritating and perceived his repeated requests for sex, or ‘jokes’ about how long it had been, as insensitive and hurtful.
During therapy, however, we learnt that Doug was actually motivated to have sex when he wanted to feel close to Helen. Over the course of her sister’s illness, he had become increasingly worried about Helen’s mortality and preoccupied with her becoming ill.
She was shocked, and understanding what sex meant for him totally changed her feelings. In fact, sex took on a life-affirming meaning in a time of heightened stress.
Always shun the ‘set menu’
Are you stuck in a sex rut? Does intimacy always start with a quick fumble followed by penetrative sex?
It is common for heterosexual couples to fall into a ‘set menu’ — despite it being not terribly fulfilling for the woman and not conducive to maintaining desire for either partner.
In fact, women are often having the types of sex (penetrative) that are not the best fit for their anatomy, then feeling shame for not experiencing the ‘right amount’ of orgasms.
Dan, 36, and Vanessa, 34, are a case in point. They had been together for 11 years and Vanessa’s desire had dwindled until it was non-existent.
I discovered that, like most women, Vanessa mostly enjoyed clitoral stimulation as her main source of sexual pleasure.
Dr Karen said another bad habit couples can fall into is giving each other the scraps, one-word answers and barely any eye contact (file image)
Yet their sex life tended to amount to two minutes of kissing followed by Vanessa pleasuring Dan, then penetrative sex that lasted until he had an orgasm.
Dan wasn’t intentionally orchestrating sex that limited Vanessa’s pleasure. Vanessa hadn’t even thought about it. They were both just recreating an image of sex that is society’s norm.
But it’s unsurprising that Vanessa’s arousal, enjoyment and desire had dwindled.
The one word in our language I despise the most, which restricts our sexual pleasure by its mere existence, is foreplay. It represents a hierarchy that elevates some types of sex as ‘better’ or ‘more like proper sex’.
Pay attention to the dangers of such assumptions and always ‘ordering the set menu’. Especially if you are planning to eat in the same restaurant every night for the rest of your life.
Stop giving each other the scraps
Can you remember the last time you really laughed, felt excited or exhilarated by your partner?
Another bad habit we often fall into is presenting the most dynamic, interesting sides of ourselves to our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours. Back home, we give one-word answers, lie on the sofa and barely make eye contact. I call this giving each other the scraps.
Taking a positive view, it can be seen as the joy of having a committed other, someone in whose company you can completely relax.
Recent research suggests an injection of novelty and ‘self-expansion’ outside the bedroom can boost what happens within it (file image)
This in itself is a wonderful thing. But there is also a risk that you and your partner could start to forget those ‘best’ sides of each other that were so delightful in the early days.
A recent paper by sex researcher Dr Amy Muise and colleagues in the U.S. suggests an injection of novelty and ‘self-expansion’ outside the bedroom can affect what happens within it, and that couples who spend more time engaging in novel and challenging activities individually or together see an improvement in their sex life as a result.
That might include learning a language, visiting a new place or taking on a physical challenge.
It could be as simple as watching our partner charm the new neighbours at a party, and seeing them through fresh eyes. For others it might be planning an adventure together or learning how to dance.
Don’t be fooled, though, into thinking that spending time in the same room, house or flat constitutes this time.
To start with, put down your phone, switch off the TV and really connect, listen and value each other’s thoughts or opinions.
The idea is that such activities bring about a change in intimacy, and new perspectives on a partner who may otherwise seem too familiar. This can bring about a real injection of desire.
Dr Karen said it isn’t always realistic to expect sex to just happen, it’s normal to want to watch Netflix and scroll through Instagram after you’ve totted up your time (file image)
Add intimacy to your to-do list
One of the main hurdles for couples is the notion that sex should just happen. That’s what we see in films and on TV, so the idea that you should set time aside is seen as decidedly unsexy.
But let’s be realistic here. Think about your week with your partner. Discount any time with children or family and any time at work, exercising or seeing friends. Discount any time you spend getting dressed, cooking, cleaning, doing admin and sleeping. How much is left?
By the time you’ve totted it all up, you may feel as if all you want to do is watch Netflix and scroll through Instagram. You would be normal in this regard.
But how much of a challenge is it to expect sex to happen easily in this narrow window?
Katy, 26, and Ryan, 28, came to me after realising their schedules had no space for sex, and that their expectation that sex should happen spontaneously was unrealistic.
They decided to put aside one night a fortnight — Katy’s yoga night, which Ryan usually spent with friends — to really connect emotionally and physically, to create the right environment and conditions for sex.
They didn’t always have sex on these nights, but more often than not they did. Your sex life is on its own trajectory. The question is, how much you want to steer it — or just see in which direction it drifts?
Dr Karen revealed developing high levels of sexual currency is one of the easiest changes you can make to improve your intimate life (file image)
Turn up the sexual currency
The term sexual currency refers to the amount of erotic charge or interaction between you and your partner, aside from actual sexual experiences. And it’s one of the easiest changes you can make to improve your intimate life.
Introduce ways of reacting to your partner that have undertones of sex. A brief touch as you pass in the kitchen, a seconds-long but passionate kiss before heading off to work, or just spending some time naked in bed together, not having sex.
The litmus test is: would you do it with your aunt? If not, and it doesn’t involve a sexual act of some type, it’s sexual currency.
High levels of sexual currency make you a more sexual couple whether you are having sex once a day or once a year.
If you are reading this and realising that you and your partner only ever passionately kiss as part of sex, or relate to each other mainly as flatmates or co-parents, then the important thing to realise is that you can easily change this behaviour.
Once we know more about how desire works, we can be in the driving seat — in control.
Yes, yes, yes… it can get better With age
Our sex lives are constantly at the mercy of changes in our relationships and changes to our bodies, identities and preferences. This is why communication is key; without it we have no way to navigate these changes.
For example, women generally report fewer concerns about body image the longer they have been with a partner. They also report higher levels of sexual assertion — and so sexual satisfaction — as they age.
For some of them, this can show itself in a newfound sexual confidence and feeling of wanting more variety in their sex lives as they move through life.
The myth of women reaching their ‘sexual peak’ at an older age to men is not about sexual function per se, but an awareness that (sadly) it can take women decades to stop being held back by fears about body image, lack of knowledge about their bodies and feeling unable to demand the types of sex they need.
Research suggests many people in midlife and older don’t feel comfortable talking to a doctor about their sex life (file image)
This increase in sexual confidence is to be celebrated, but the relationships women find themselves in need to be able to withstand these changes and adapt to them.
One way I often talk about couples embracing change and growth in their sexual relationship is by creating a ritual of regular review and conversation about sex.
This involves four key questions: What’s been going well in our sex life that we want to continue? What would we like to do more of? What new directions might we take? And what would we like to explore, try together or alone, or learn more about?
We often think of changes in bodily function, health and ability as negatives for sexual function, but they need not be.
The physical and psychological impacts of the menopause, such as hot flushes and low mood, of course reduce desire. But research suggests that how your sex life was pre-menopause, and your feelings towards your partner, are more reliable predictors of how sex will be post-menopause than oestrogen levels.
Research also tells us many people in midlife and older don’t feel comfortable talking to a doctor about their sex life.
This is a by-product of the impact of ageist (and inaccurate) ideas about our sexual needs. But please do get support through this transition, so you can enjoy the surprising benefits of ageing when you’re out the other side.
Adapted by Felicia Bromfield from Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire, And How To Future-proof Your Sex Life, by Dr Karen Gurney (£14.99, Headline Home), out on March 5. © Dr Karen Gurney 2020. To pre-order a copy for £12 (offer valid to 05/3/20; P&P free), visit mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155.