Dr. Sandra Pertot
Sue and Allen have come for sexual counselling, and are looking decidedly nervous and uncomfortable. They have a guilty secret. We talk around the situation for a while, and from where I sit, their sex life sounds pretty good: both are interested on a regular basis, they usually like the same things, he has no problems with erection or ejaculatory control, she can have orgasm most of the time. So what’s the problem?
Suddenly, Sue blurts out the awful truth:
"We like to use our mouths on each other, you know, down there. What’s wrong with us, isn't that a bit sick?"
Does it help if I explain that this scene took place in 1972?
It might sound hard to believe now, but in those days, oral sex was typically thought of as revolting, dirty, disgusting, and/or immoral. At that time in the U.S., some states actually had laws against oral sex, among other sexual behaviours such as anal sex and sex with animals.
Recently, I saw another couple, Clare and Paul. Paul felt Clare had a problem, that she had some sexual hang-ups that were affecting their sex life. We went through the usual check-list, as with Sue and Allen, and everything seemed to be checking out well, until, red-faced with indignation, Paul said that Clare wouldn’t go down on him! She shot me a worried but defiant glance, while Paul went on to say that other partners had, so what was wrong with Clare that she wouldn’t.
How things have changed: something that was then thought of as sick and disgusting is now regarded by many as an essential requirement in a lover. It is a common source of disagreement in sexual relationships when, as with Clare and Paul, one partner expects oral sex as a regular part of their sex life, and the other simply can’t accept the idea. Some couples have split up over the issue. As one of the first sex therapists to be trained in Australia, back in the early 70s, it has been interesting to observe the changes in sexual attitudes, beliefs and behaviours over that period. This leads me to ponder on how much current beliefs about what makes great sex are part of the many sexual problems which I see in my practice.
Things were certainly different at that time. Censorship laws severely restricted the type of sexual material which was available to the public, and there were quite a few sex manuals and educational materials we couldn’t import even for training purposes.
Sex in the movies was portrayed quite blandly, with sexual activity implied rather than portrayed explicitly. The James Bond movies were amongst the first to be more daring, and all we saw was James kiss the lucky girl and then the sheets moved suggestively up and down.
Then, the most common sexual problems related to ignorance, particularly about female sexuality, and "wham, bam, thank you, ma’am" sex was often thought to be the only way to do it.
Many couples didn’t know that women were capable of orgasm or, if they did they had no idea how to go about producing one. The clitoris was an unknown quantity, at least in part because it was kept secret by the guardians of morality who believed that telling women they could enjoy sex might lead to the breakdown of the very fabric of society. I remember attending a meeting on sex education in the schools. We were looking at some of the material to be used, and I noticed that the clitoris was missing from the diagram of the female genitals. When I brought this to the attention of the meeting, the convenor spluttered that it had nothing to do with reproduction and would not be included.
However, even sex education focussing on reproduction didn’t have a very good track record. As late as the mid-70s there were couples whose infertility problems were traced to the fact that they were not having intercourse properly, and didn’t know it. They were either putting the penis between the woman’s thighs, or rubbing it on her belly or, even trying to put the penis in the belly button.
Many young girls before the 70s did not know that males got erections, and were left to discover the fact with a mixture of horror and amazement during furtive petting sessions - and this was only if you were "that sort of girl". The wedding night was something of a shock to many a virgin bride.
Masturbation was thought of in much the same way as oral sex: disgusting, dirty, and immoral. Nevertheless, most young males of the time still did it, albeit with a sense of guilt. Males had in their favour the fact that they are more aware of their sex drive at puberty than females, and they have large, obviously-placed genitals which automatically begin to function sexually at puberty. Females, with their smaller, hidden sexual parts and less intense sex drive, tended not to discover masturbation, thus missing out on an important part of sexual development.
When masturbation for women was discussed by sex therapists as an important way in which a female could develop her orgasmic response, there were horrified, earnest discussions about whether this might lead to women preferring to masturbate rather than have sex with husbands. Funnily enough, I never heard similar discussions about men who masturbate.
Today, all this has changed. It would be rare indeed to find a teenager who didn't know about menstruation, ejaculation, masturbation, and the mechanics of intercourse. Where teenagers of the 1960s debated whether it was alright to kiss on the first date (I kid you not - we females, at least, had many serious discussions about this), and the rights and wrongs of pre-marital sex were heatedly debated, today, most teenagers have had sex by 19, and it would be very unusual to find a virgin bride or groom. 1960s movies, such as "A Summer Place", which dealt with the trauma of pre-marital pregnancy, and caused quite a furore, would seem tame, almost pointless today.
So, what happened? And have all these changes been for the better, or not?
To begin with, all societies change over time, to one degree or another. Take dress, for example.
What was de rigeur in 100 A.D. was obviously passe by the Middle Ages; what was immoral in the mid-1800s was the height of fashion in the 1920s. Change also occurs continuously with language, sex-roles, education, religion, in fact, in almost every area of Society.
Such changes happen as new generations challenge the old, scientific discoveries advance our knowledge, new technologies bring inevitable changes to work-place conditions, and better communication systems mean information is spread more easily and more quickly throughout society. These forces have affected sexual attitudes and behaviours no less than other aspects of human society.
The two most powerful influences on sexuality have been improved contraception, and the development of the entertainment industry for the masses. The contraceptive pill, which came into general use in the 1960s, took away one of the main reasons young couples didn’t go "all the way": fear of pregnancy.
The other significant change took place more slowly. The introduction of cheap paperbacks and the development of the film industry over the first half of the twentieth century meant that, for the first time in history, stories of adventure, romance, amazing exploits could be presented to the masses in an increasingly realistic way. In a sense, these developments and the later development of television, have meant that the culture has been saturated with tales of fiction to the point where they form part of our everyday lives. Compare the huge range of paperbacks with what would have been available fifty years ago. One hundred years ago, people did not see stories of fantasy presented to them as realistically as can be achieved by film. How much time does the average person today spend watching T.V.?
One of the problems with this explosion in story-telling has been that writers of books and films have had to develop new and more exciting story-lines to hold the audiences attention. I mean, you can see just so many swash-buckling films before it starts to get a little tiresome, and just how many times can we listen to Dirty Harry telling someone to "make my day" without it all becoming monotonous?
In order to keep the masses willing to spend money on books and films, the producers have had to keep developing new ways to capture and hold people’s attention. The universal themes of power and sex have been pushed to more and more extreme limits. Violence as a form of power has gone from John Wayne shooting a dozen bad guys with a six-bullet gun, to the raw, explicit scenes depicted in movies of more recent times. Now if someone gets shot, we are likely to see the passage of the bullet through the head and the resultant mess on the wall behind - gone are the days of the bandana with the telling red stain.
Sex has been treated in the same way. Although the themes of many early movies dealt with sex, there were rules governing how this could be presented to the audience. I grew up believing all American couples had twin rather than double beds, because the latter were forbidden to be used in films of the fifties. Double beds were far too suggestive! If a scene called for some physical intimacy in a bedroom, one of the couple had to have at least one foot on the floor (that is, not both on the bed) or the scene would be cut by the censors. Physical caresses stopped at kissing - no roaming hands in those days.
During the 70s the presentation of sex in both novels and film became more and more explicit. The era of the blockbuster novel had begun. The authors who make the millions are not those presenting well-written literature with serious themes, but those who can churn out easy to read stories of money, espionage, power, and, of course, sex.
In the movies, sex was more explicitly portrayed ostensibly in the search for greater realism, and it seems that films have had greater impact on the belief of the masses than novels. First of all, it is easier to understand and believe something we see rather than hear about - as in "seeing is believing". In addition, when the producers pushed the line that they were striving for realism to justify the sexual content of their films, we have believed them. The old question of whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, is particularly relevant here. It seems to me that we have tended to adopt the stereotypes used in fiction as our own views of what is common and normal, rather than vice versa.
No, you protest loudly, that’s rubbish, I’m not influenced by films and novels at all. Okay, so where did your ideas about what is great, even normal sex come from? And why are they so different to what was believed only 50 years ago?
Let’s try to think this through. Try to imagine what it must have been like before sex was dealt with so openly. Compare, for example, the messages given about sex in the Doris Day - Rock Hudson type movies of the 50s, with today's movies - you could almost choose one at random.
The early messages were: Sex is private, only to be done as part of a loving, married (that, in fact, was more important than loving) state, anyone (but particularly female) who had sex outside marriage was scandalous - all this, with very little mention of what sex actually is. Hence the ignorance problems.
Today’s messages can be summarised as anytime, anywhere, anything, with anyone (although there is now more emphasis on safe sex). In the movies and on television, we see in beautiful photography, naked bodies entwining each other, breasts being licked and nibbled, backs being stroked, deep-throat kissing, heightened arousal, powerful orgasms, always by penis-vagina contact. More explicit movies as well erotica sites on the Internet show an interesting range of positions, oral sex, group sex, gay sex, and an amazing diversity in sexual activities and sex games.
In order to enhance the fantasy elements of sex and make the story more exciting, we don,t see women requiring 15 or more minutes of clitoral stimulation to come to orgasm, women enjoying sex without orgasm, men coming too soon, men not being able to obtain or maintain an erection, someone saying he/she doesn’t like whatever is being done eg "I don't like you sucking my breasts," or "the thought of oral sex turns my stomach." In fact, communication about sexual wants and needs is totally missing.
Realism is boring - and that’s just the point - sex as portrayed in the media is fantasy, not reality. When we see Superman flying or the hero get beaten up yet still manage to conquer the villain, we know that is fantasy - we don’t expect to fly as well. When it comes to sex, however, we seem to have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.
Over the years, people have said to me that surely there isn’t the need for sex therapists that there used to be, that today’s young people know all there is to know about sex. In fact, I believe the opposite is true, that there is now a greater need for sex therapists than ever.
In the past, they may not have been doing it right, and they may not have been particularly enjoying what they were doing, but, neither did they agonise over their sex lives in the way we see today. Now it seems to be a national pre-occupation.
We have created such artificial stereotypes of normality that it is difficult for most people to live up to them. In a sense, during the 70s and 80s, we lost our sexual individuality. To be a good lover, to be "normal", a person should desire sex often (several times a week), arouse easily, enjoy experimentation, if you are male to be able to delay ejaculation for a minimum of 10 minutes, never to have problems with erections, and, if you are female, to enjoy being fondled at any time, to arouse easily, and to always have orgasm, preferably through penile thrusting. Sex should always involve extensive foreplay and prolonged intercourse: quickies are thought to be bad manners or a sign of sexual inhibition or a symptom that you either don't love your partner or are not sexually attracted to him/her. Mundane things like being tired, having a bad back, or finding sex boring or messy, should never intrude.
What about the person who only feels like sex once a month, or who really enjoys the traditional position, or the woman who rarely comes to orgasm and the man who comes in 2 minutes flat? (Actually, in Victorian time, a man was a good lover if he came quickly, out of consideration for his wife, who was expected to find sex repulsive). What about the woman who always hates having her breasts touched, or the man who doesn't find breasts appealing?
All of these people are variations of normality. Consider the example of athletics. Some people have a natural athletic ability, and with training can reach Olympic standards. Some people have the same ability but aren’t interested so never do any better than average. Others have little ability but with a great deal of effort may reach competitive levels, while the remaining have so little athletic prowess that any coach would give up in despair.
Sex isn’t all that different. Some people have high drive, some people very little interest. Some people enjoy experimentation, some people find it boring. Some people love marathon sessions, others prefer quickies. Some men will always come within a few minutes of thrusting, others can delay ejaculation for 10 minutes or more. Some women can reach orgasm easily, others find even a strong vibrator little help.
It is simply ridiculous to assume that everyone can and should perform the same way sexually and enjoy the same things, when we clearly don't expect it in any other sphere of life. Many people seek sexual counselling because they believe there is something wrong with their sexual performance. It’s like a person seeking therapy because he can’t run the mile in Olympic times. So often what people are seeking from sexual counselling is quite unrealistic, given a) their individual sexuality and b) their lifestyle. Some women will always find orgasm difficult to achieve no matter what techniques are used; many will never have orgasm with penile thrusting. Some people will never feel "randy" more than perhaps once a month, and that will be quite normal for them. Some males will tend to ejaculate with only brief thrusting.
I also find that people expect sex to be good, despite their lifestyles. For example, some men can't understand why their wives don’t appreciate being woken up for sex when they come home in the early hours of the morning after evening shift. Also, stress is a common cause of premature ejaculation, indeed, biologically the man is primed to come quickly when he is stressed. Lifestyle must have an impact on sexual performance, yet it is rarely recognised by couples as part of their problem.
Sex therapy, then, has three possible goals: to improve actual sexual performance, to change the client(s) attitude to what they are already doing, and a combination of both of these. Certainly, it is possible to improve the orgasmic response in some women with a change in techniques, or to help some men control ejaculation. By improving sex knowledge and technique, frequency of sex can be improved for couples where one wants it much less than the other. However, in some cases, what they are doing already is likely to be as good as it gets: sex therapy simply cannot make people into what they are not. There’s something quite sad about the fact that so many people feel sexually inadequate when they are well within normal limits. Therapy then is aimed at helping the clients to enjoy what they are already doing rather than bemoaning what they aren’t.
So, what makes great sex? or a good lover?
Great sex, we all agree, is doing whatever you feel like, but whereas we usually take this to mean feeling uninhibited enough to have sex on the kitchen table or try any position, I believe this should mean to have the confidence to be who you are. It might mean having and enjoying oral sex, or it might mean letting your partner know that you find the thought revolting, without being intimidated by his/her attitudes. It doesn’t mean giving up your fantasies, your erotic movies, your sexy books. These can be a great turn-on and lots of fun as foreplay, provided you recognise that fantasies, by their nature, are usually unrealistic. It means listening to your partner’s sexual needs and desires, and compromising where possible because you each care about the other’s feelings. It means not getting angry or irritated because your partner doesn’t always want sex when you do, and perhaps bringing yourself to orgasm if the need is so great.
It means recognising that great sex varies from time to time depending on factors such as tiredness, time available, and interest of the other person, and so relearning the delights of quiet, sensual, passive sex, or enjoying a quickie, rather than expecting marathon sessions in which both are active and aroused. It means recognising that great sex rarely happens in a vacuum, where you and your partner don’t get along, or rarely spend time together. It might be old-fashioned but the quality of the relationship between you and your partner is every bit as important as sexual technique.
It means, above all, learning to communicate about sexual matters, and this depends on a) understanding and accepting your own sexuality even if it differs from the current stereotypes b) understanding and accepting your partner’s sexuality, even if his/her beliefs and expectations are very different to your own. Rarely is someone frigid, inadequate or abnormal; the "problem" belongs to them both because it has to do with the differences between them. Communication should be open and positive: your partner can’t read your mind, despite the belief that a good lover should automatically know. Also, I’ve never known a sexual problem be solved by argument: your partner may give in for the moment, but the problem is still there, and will resurface.
It may be that some couples differ so much in their sexual needs and expectations that the relationship may end. However, in my experience, couples can put sex back in perspective, and can learn that in a caring relationship, with a busy lifestyle, great sex is hassle-free sex, the joy of accepting and being accepted, even though that might mean you'll never win any medals in the sexual Olympic games.
© Sandra Pertot