Sandra Pertot

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Will the Sexes Ever Understand Each Other?

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Dr. Sandra Pertot,

Clinical Psychologist


"Damn, I forgot to put the garbage out!"

Now, ordinarily, such a comment would be unlikely to cause an argument, but on this particular occasion, Sue said it when she was in the middle of having sex. It tended to throw Brian a little off his stride, although to his credit he recovered quickly and succeeded where a lesser man might have been totally deflated. But he was not pleased, and said so, which in turn annoyed Sue. The result was that they didn’t speak to each other for three days.

I’ve used this example in numerous talks on sexuality, both to women-only and mixed-sex groups, and it always produces a reaction. There is usually someone in the group who has a similar story to tell: suddenly noticing mould on the ceiling (after all, she was flat on her back), remembering a dental appointment, starting to talk about financial problems, and so on.

What is interesting is that women can’t understand why their partners get so upset, even angry, about it, and the men can’t understand how she can possibly think of such things during what is meant to be a total mind/body experience.

This is just one of many examples where the sexes can differ in the way they think and behave sexually. The trouble is, they are each approaching sexuality from different points of view, both in terms of their biology and the way they are raised. Because of this, many couples come for sexual counselling when there is really nothing wrong with either one of them, but the differences between them are causing misunderstandings, sometimes bringing them to the brink of divorce.

Jeff complained that Anne never seemed to feel like sex, although often once they did get started she would enjoy it. Allan was particularly hurt that although Barbara seemed to want sex as much as he did, she was never the one to start it. The women, for their part, felt that their partners put too much emphasis on sex, that other things were more important.

How does it happen that women often seem to be less interested in sex than men? Is she frigid? Is he a sex maniac?

It seems to be due to a combination of factors. In our society, we discourage both little boys and little girls from exploring their bodies, and particularly from experimenting with masturbation. Then, at puberty, males automatically experience sexual arousal, erection, and ejaculation which is usually associated with a feeling of pleasure (orgasm). By contrast, females begin to ovulate and menstruate, which, as any female will tell you, is not associated with pleasurable feelings. While they may notice vague sexual stirrings, they do not automatically experience arousal and orgasm.

Also, the male sexual apparatus is large and obvious, and it doesn’t take the average male too long to work out that he can make these nice feelings happen whenever he wants. Masturbation becomes something of a hobby for many adolescent males. The female sexual apparatus is small and hidden, nothing obvious is happening to give her any clues, so it isn’t as easy for her to discover masturbation. As a result, most adolescent females either don’t masturbate at all, or if they do, only infrequently.

Now, masturbation has a very important role to play in sexual development. It is a bit like sexual exercise. It exercises the body physically, helping to develop the sex drive. Just as importantly, it helps the mind to develop sexually. What do young boys think about while they are stimulating their penises? Their maths homework? A pleasant country scene? No, obviously they are playing out some wonderful sexual fantasy.

This gives men a decided advantage over women. It trains them to enjoy thinking about sex, it helps them to build sexual arousal by fantasy and to anticipate sexual activity, and it makes it easier for them to focus on pleasurable sexual feelings with a partner. This is part of the reason why women are generally more easily distracted during sexual activity, which helps to explain why Sue could suddenly think about putting the garbage out during intercourse.

There are a combination of reasons, including the influence of the male hormone testosterone, why males are more likely than females to think much more about sex during the day. This means Jeff is already way ahead of Anne when he tries to get her interested in sex. From her point of view, his attempts to start sex seem to come from out of the blue, and she needs time to catch up with him. Both Anne and Barbara don’t approach their partners for sex because a) the thought rarely occurs to them; b) if they do feel sexy, they may hesitate to let their partner know in case he expects her to be "hotter" than she really feels; c) it is easier for them to ignore any sexual feelings and let them go away.

Allan feels like tearing his hair out when Barbara says calmly "I really felt like sex last night." "Why didn’t you tell me," he says, wringing his hands. "Oh, I don’t know," she says, "it was late, I had to get the kids up early for soccer, you seemed tired."

There is another important factor to take into account when trying to understand why women may be less interested in sex. It’s a generalisation, but it seems to hold true for many couples: Women need to feel good before they can respond sexually, whereas men often seek sex in order to feel good.

If Anne has had a busy day, she is feeling tired, a little hassled, chances are that when Jeff tries to get her interested, she is likely to respond with irritation. Jeff believes that having sex is a good way to settle down and get a good night’s sleep after a hard day, but for Anne, breast and genital stimulation can be very annoying.

There is a very good physical reason for this. When women are tired or feeling negative for any reason, physiologically her ability to become aroused is depressed, and her time to orgasm increases. Jeff knows that when Anne is feeling this way, he seems to have to work hard to bring her to climax, but it’s nothing like the hard work Anne herself is doing. She has to really concentrate, and it seems to be forever before she gets those nice telltale feelings that let her know she is on her way. When Jeff is tired, he is more likely to come quickly, so he can’t understand what the problem is with Anne. How can having an orgasm be hard work?

Yet it is, so, if she isn’t feeling good, and he shows he is interested, she would rather go to sleep. It isn’t worth the effort, and she is likely to become increasingly annoyed if he doesn’t leave her alone.

But, here’s the catch. Sometimes, when he persists despite her initial groan of annoyance, she slowly becomes interested and eventually responds well. Jeff can’t work it out. What on earth is he to do? Leave her alone as soon as she says she isn’t interested? "But," says Jeff, "that’s most of the time. How am I supposed to tell when to continue and when to stop? Sometimes if I keep going she ends up getting really angry, other times she has a great time."

The easiest answer to this is to reconsider foreplay techniques. Jeff’s way of letting Anne know he wanted sex was often to cuddle her and begin stroking her breasts, hence the groan of annoyance. On an average night, when he is not too sure of her reaction, he would do better to talk to her, tickle her back, give her a massage. This isn’t guaranteed to lead to sexual interest on Anne's part, but it gives her time to be more in tune with her body so that she can let Jeff know whether she is interested in more or not. Certainly Jeff shouldn’t persist once it is clear that attempts to continue get her more annoyed rather than change her mind.

Many male clients experience this confusing indecision with their partners, and it drives them to distraction, because they don’t want to be inconsiderate and force themselves on their partners, nor do they want to give up if there is a chance she might actually be interested. The only way I can see to cope with this is to keep your sense of humour!

Jane and Rodney sought counselling because Jane never seemed to have an orgasm, even if she was relaxed and they spent time on various techniques and positions. Rodney felt he was letting her down, and Jane thought she must be frigid. It soon became clear, however, that Jane often enjoyed the different things they tried, and sometimes felt a pleasant sort of feeling around the genitals during foreplay. This left her feeling relaxed, contented, and she was surprised to learn this was orgasm.

Orgasms can be rated on a scale of 0-10. Books and movies always describe tens, but ones, twos and threes can be very pleasant too. Males also experience this sliding scale of enjoyment, but because they ejaculate "proof " that they have come, they do not get caught up in worrying about whether they have actually done it or not. Some of the best sex manuals have told women that when they have an orgasm they’ll know it, but this just isn’t true, because women and their partners are often expecting the writhing body, heaving sighs and yell of pleasure. Little orgasms are often quiet - but still nice.

So, Jane was having orgasm sometimes, but not during intercourse, which for her was rather an anti-climax: in our culture, probably only 50% of women can reliably achieve orgasm with intercourse, most do it easier with clitoral stimulation. Jane felt that the only normal way to have orgasm was with intercourse, but Rodney seemed pleased that she was getting somewhere. He wanted to know how to improve things so that she could have stronger orgasms, and more often.

This is where Jane and Rodney started to disagree. Like Anne, Jane found that sometimes she had to work really hard to get any response at all, and she would avoid having sex because it just didn’t seem worth the effort. There were times when she would prefer a "quickie" rather than spend all that time and get nowhere. Rodney felt if he did this without her having orgasm too, he was just using her.

Rodney’s consideration for Jane was commendable, but his belief that Jane needed to have orgasm to enjoy sex was putting them both under unnecessary pressure. Women vary tremendously in how easily they can achieve orgasm, the most effective way to have orgasm, and how often they want or need orgasm. Some women rarely have orgasm and are perfectly contented, while others are able to come to orgasm with most sexual encounters.

Because orgasm is hard work for many women when they are tired, etc., sexual activity can actually be more enjoyable without it. It’s the difference between sensual sex and sexual sex. While men tend to arouse and desire orgasm with any sexual activity, women find sensual sex more like an intimate cuddle. They focus on skin contact, feelings of comfort and reassurance, just being close, and having to work hard to have orgasm distracts them from this.

Rodney took a bit of convincing, but in the end he was quite relieved; it meant it wasn’t going to be as difficult to be a considerate lover as he had thought. In time, as Jane becomes more confident and is able to tell Rodney what she likes and doesn’t like, and whether she feels like orgasm or not, it is very likely that she will have stronger orgasms, and come more easily and more often. For the moment, however, she isn’t doing too badly at all.

The major benefit of being flexible about what is expected during sex is that if Jane feels she has a choice about how she responds, from being still and quiet to raunchy and active, she is much more likely to have sex more often. If she feels obliged to perform in a particular way, she is going to say no when she isn’t sure she can do what is required. Thus, one more piece in the puzzle of why women may seem to want sex less than men falls into place.

If Rodney can accept that Jane’s idea of good sex can be different to his at times, without this causing an argument, he may be pleasantly surprised to find that her sex drive can match his. Sex drive is about wanting sex for any reason, not only to have an orgasm. When Jane feels the world is dumping on her and she needs comfort and reassurance, letting Rodney know she wants quiet cuddly sex is just as important as approaching him because she is feeling lusty.

If some men have difficulty understanding and accepting that their partners do not want sex as much as they do, spare a thought for the plight of the couple where the position is reversed. This was Meg and Bob’s problem. Where Meg felt like sex a couple of times a week, Bob was only interested on the weekends. Even as a teenager he had not masturbated much, and now he had a demanding job and just wasn’t interested during the week. Meg was angry because she felt somehow he wasn’t very masculine, and also because she said it made her feel she was being aggressive and pushy to have to ask him for sex. Meg was being influenced by the macho ideas of our society which put men under a lot of pressure to be super-sex machines. Despite common differences between the sexes, there are also vast differences between individuals, so some couple’s will have to deal with situations which may not be as obvious or frequent as other problems.

Any couple who have different levels of sexual interest have to begin to solve their problems by firstly respecting the other’s sexuality: arguing about it cannot change things, except to make them worse. By trying to understand the other’s needs, and confidently explaining his/her own, the couple can begin to work out compromises. Compromises which don’t oblige the non-randy one to become aroused include the use of vibrators, manual or oral stimulation, and for women, quiet sex using an artificial lubrication. Since it is obviously difficult for a man who doesn’t feel like sex to produce an artificial erection, when his partner is feeling lusty his options are more limited. The bottom line for both sexes is that one person is not responsible for another’s sexual needs, if one wants sex and the other can’t stand the thought of it on that occasion, the solution lies in the lusty one’s own hands.

Another situation in which men are often under pressure is over so-called premature ejaculation. The accepted term now is rapid ejaculation, which limits the problem to men who come at around sixty seconds or less after vaginal penetration. I’ve seen some men who can delay ejaculation for five minutes and yet still believe they have premature ejaculation.

Two couples, Cathy and Paul, and Leanne and Jim, believed that premature ejaculation was their main problem. However, there were important differences in their situations.

Cathy relied on intercourse for orgasm, and she felt that Paul came before she was ready, leaving her frustrated and irritable. When they first began having sex, Paul had been able to hold off his orgasm for several minutes until Cathy was ready to come. Occasionally, Cathy took longer to come than he could last, and he would feel he had let her down. Then he began to worry about whether he would last long enough. Now, we have already seen that when a woman is tired or worried, she takes longer to climax, but generally the reverse is true for males. The more he worried, the quicker he came, and the more he worried.

As with most problems, it helps to compromise. Cathy experimented with different ways of arousing prior to intercourse, and practised vaginal exercises to improve her response with penile thrusting, but she had to accept that Paul would take time to improve his control. Paul practised a number of the techniques to delay ejaculation, including changing his worried thoughts to relaxing ones, and learning to recognise when he was about to ejaculate and experimenting with tensing and relaxing his pelvic muscles.

For Leanne and Jim, however, different tactics were required. Leanne could only climax with hand stimulation, and was more than satisfied with that. Jim believed he came quickly when in fact he was well within normal limits, usually lasting several minutes. He thought that if he could last longer, Leanne might be able to climax with intercourse. Leanne, however, lost interest when he did last longer, and found her vagina would become dry and irritated. He thought she was just being kind when she told him she actually preferred him as he usually was. It only took one session for Jim to be reassured that they were both doing fine, and to relax and enjoy himself.

Perhaps the most common disagreement that highlights the differences between the sexes is over the "cuddles-touching-sex" dilemma.

Jacqui complained, "He only ever cuddles me when he wants sex." Steve replied "She doesn’t let me touch her most of the time." Jacqui's response: "Well, he never talks to me, then he wants to grab at me all the time." "If I didn’t like the look of you, I wouldn’t want to touch you, so you should be flattered," says Steve. "FLATTERED," exploded Jacqui, "how would you like to be mauled all the time?" "I wouldn’t know, you never give me the chance to find out!"

Despite the changes in our society over the last few decades, boys and girls are often brought up differently. She is allowed, even encouraged, to be emotional, but good girls aren’t blatantly sexual; he is taught to be comfortable with his body, to place a lot of importance on sexual performance, but not to cry or need cuddles. At the same time, she hates sexual touch if she is preoccupied, he is likely to find it soothing.

When the couple get together, he finds it hard to say "I’ve had a bad day, talk to me, give me a cuddle." He finds it easier to express himself sexually. She misreads this as, "he only wants me for my body, he doesn’t care about me."

She sees further "proof" of this when she does give him a cuddle. Before she knows it, he has an erection! Well, that’s it for her; he’s done it again. Half the time he had no intention of going further, he can’t help his biological response, but he finds this hard to explain. She begins to avoid cuddles because he always seems to want to go on to sex, or so she believes. He gets pleasure out of touching her, so continues to try to pat her on the bottom or touch her breasts on odd occasions, like when they are dressing, and doesn’t understand when she gets cranky. "Don’t you love me?" he says.

She tries to talk to him about her feelings; he doesn’t seem interested. Often, however, the reality is he doesn’t know what she wants him to say. She says "Don’t you love me?"

Jacqui summed up their problem when she said, "He thinks we have a sexual problem and I think we have a relationship problem. He thinks if we had sex more often, if I didn’t complain about being touched, we’d get on better, but I think if we talked more, if he gave me cuddles without expecting sex all the time, I’d want sex more often."

Who is right? Obviously, they both are in a way; neither is being deliberately mean or hard to get on with, it is like they are talking different languages. Sadly, unless they work together to sort it out, the relationship may end. One partner may have tried to talk about their problems for years, but the other has dismissed the attempts with "there’s nothing wrong", or "not that again", often because they just don’t know how to solve the problems. When Jacqui told Steve she was going to leave, his reply was "I have no idea what it is she wants from me; I’ve done the best I can, worked all the overtime I could get, tried to do everything to give her a good standard of living. What more does she want? I don’t understand."

So, CAN the sexes ever understand each other? Of course: lots of couples have already worked it out. Perhaps surprisingly, those couples who are most happy together are not necessarily compatible sexually, but are those who have learned to cope with, even enjoy, their differences. All that is required is to accept your partner’s sexuality without blame or argument, and to be confident about your own sexuality, so that you can both listen to and talk to each other about any differences - then be prepared to work it out together.


© Sandra Pertot