Is sex actually an indicator of a healthy relationship, as so many seem to believe?
“Our society without shame would be as unrecognizable as Earth without gravity,” sex expert Kimberly Johnson tells me over the phone. She says shame shapes the way people think, behave and feel to an alarming extent, especially when it comes to sex. I have to agree; people discussing their erotic desires publicly and plainly sounds about as alien as my cat swimming through air.
Johnson is a certified sexological bodyworker, somatic experiencing practitioner, doula and post-partum women’s health specialist, but I’m mostly concerned with her self-appointed title: “the vaginapractor.” As in, “Brb, I have to call the vaginapractor,” a phrase I had the opportunity to use in earnest last week.
I also called Dr. Chris Donaghue. He’s a doctor of clinical sexology, a certified sex therapist, a TENGA brand ambassador, the author of Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture, and the co-host of the podcast Loveline with Amber Rose. Johnson and Dr. Donaghue have more in common than their sentence-long titles. They both help their clients, often couples, reshape and reclaim their sex lives in a culture they both described as being in need of “dismantling.”
It seems like expectations around sex are at a tangled all-time high – it should be good and frequent, but exciting and varied – and the topic of how much sex people are having has become something of a litmus tests for satisfaction in monogamy. Unfortunately, it’s a barometer that offers pressure and quotas in lieu of solutions. I asked Johnson and Dr. Donaghue to share some tips for people dealing with these struggles. Below, some ways you can flip the script if you want to.
First and foremost, Johnson says the way we talk about sex is far too narrow: “I recommend expanding the definition of what sex is beyond penetration, which is so heteronormative.” Sex isn’t just one behavior, nor is it just about “finishing.” She explains that when people over-index on the pursuit of orgasm, particularly the male one, they emphasize the finish line instead of the playful exploration that precedes it.
Dr. Donaghue suggests thinking of extra bronnen sex as less of an act, more of a tool. “Sex is supposed to be – if you choose to make it so – about bonding, and a level of intimacy,” he says. “It’s a tool for partners to use for connection.” He never assigns sex like a homework assignment. “The way I frame it is that for couples, sex is an available resource for intimacy building and connection that your other relationships don’t have.”
Johnson says shame is to blame for society’s obsession with how much sex couples are having, instead of what kind. “We live in such a quantitative society, where our standards around sex are so impoverished that people only know how to talk about sex in terms of how much they’re having.” The pressure to have a certain amount adds undue stress, Johnson explains, and just as it’s harder to pee when someone’s watching, it’s harder to enjoy sex when it’s a box to check. “That’s not how the hormone system works, nor how our nervous system works.”
With his clients, Dr. Donaghue never gives out numbers and avoids the language that “healthy couples have a lot of sex,” as it breeds the wrong ideas. “Too much paranoia shifts what the true purpose of sex is… Every couple is going to go through different phases. You’re going to experience aging, illness, life events and stresses together, all things that shift the amount of sex you both desire and acquire.”