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Sexual Activity: Pressure vs. Pleasure

by Stanley Ducharme, Ph.D.

Although sexual activity for many people is a fun and satisfying experience, that is not always the case. For some people, sexual activity can feel pressured, stressful and demanding. In these cases, sex has lost its playfulness and sense of enjoyment. It has become an obligation or a job to be accomplished.

When sexual activity takes on such negative emotions, it is often because performance has become overly important at the expense of enjoying the intimacy and sexual pleasure. Instead of sharing one's self with a partner, the focus has shifted to achieving a satisfying erection or in insuring that one's partner reaches an orgasm. In such cases, function has become the goal of sexual activity rather than pleasure.

As a sex therapist in private practice, I see many people who struggle with erections, early ejaculation or issues related to their sexual performance.  As people strive to improve their functioning, sex often becomes something to be feared and something to be avoided. They are fearful of failure. Rather than accepting that sexual functioning changes each time we make love, individuals struggle for a "perfect" sexual experience each time. This is unrealistic. Our sexual functioning is a reflection of our medical, biological, relationship, emotional and spiritual selves. These contributions are always shifting and their influences change on a daily basis.

Good sex is not about the quality of erections, amount of lubrication or the ability to have an orgasm. Yet, these are the standards on which we "measure" each sexual experience. This is a performance model of sex. The best sex requires that we make a mental shift.  Expectations need to change away from this traditional individual performance model to a realistic shared experience model.

What is the "shared experience model" of sex? Unfortunately, many people have had little experience with a model of sex that focuses on promoting pleasure and intimacy rather than focusing on erections and functioning. This is what the "shared experience model" is about. With this model, sex is about pleasure and connecting. It is not about proving oneself.

As we age, develop disabilities and change relationships, our sexual interest, expectations and arousal evolve as well. What was once arousing in our sexual life may no longer be possible or as enjoyable as it once was. For example as an older adult, the challenge is to promote sexual desire, satisfaction and eroticism in the face of declining health and function. This takes time, patience and acceptance of each other. It requires a realization that good sex may be the goal and that sometimes along the way, sex may be disappointing or frustrating.  In the face of relationship issues, medical problems and aging, the challenge is to find methods of arousal, pleasure and intimacy in spite of life's changes.

At any given time, either member of a couple may experience some form of sexual dysfunction. These could range from erection problems, low desire or even pain during sexual contact. While the awareness and acceptance of these problems has increased in recent years, these difficulties are rarely simple performance problems with a simple cure. Unfortunately, there is not a pill or quick fix for most sexual difficulties.

When an individual experiences a sexual dysfunction, it is often accompanied by emotional distress and frustration. All too often, this can become an issue in the relationship and can erode sexual confidence. If the couple cannot communicate about the problem, it can quickly grow into an even bigger issue. All too often, one member of the couple begins to perceive the sexual problem as a rejection.  Sex then becomes something that is avoided or a source of conflict and insecurity.

For all of us, the quality of sex varies from day to day. On some days, sex may be very good. On other days, it may be mediocre or even poor. That's just the way it is for all of us. What is important however is that we not view sex as a pass/fail experience. For two consenting adults, there should never be a time when sexual activity is seen as a failure. Sex is not a win-loose situation.

In all intimate connections, relaxation, sensual touch and emotional pleasure are probably more important than sexual performance. This is the time to open new doors and to discover alternatives that make sex personal and enriching. In the months after injury, the goal for the individual or couple is to explore and discover a unique satisfying experience that promotes sexual enjoyment in spite of age, disability, gender or other potential barriers to pleasure. Here are a few tips for consideration:

1. Be creative and try something new. Bring a sex toy, a new position, food or something unique into the bedroom. Instead of being overly serious, try being playful.

2. Be honest about your level of arousal. If you're not in the mood, tell your partner and wait until the time is better for the both of you. Don't force sex at times that you may be feeling stressed, upset or tired.

3. Try being intimate in a way that ignores erections, lubrication and orgasm. Enjoy touching, holding, massage and oral stimulation. Instead of worrying about functioning, focus on pleasure, fun and enhancing sensual enjoyment.

4. If you typically use Viagra, Cialis or penile injections, try enjoying sex without them. Make a decision that sometimes sexual activity doesn't always have to depend on your physical performance and the quality of an erection.

5. As much as possible, let go of your past sexual behaviors and experiences. Instead look at yourself in an honest way and focus on what you can do to give and receive pleasure.

6. Try enhancing the emotional connection between the two of you by keeping your eyes open during sex. Make an effort to look at each other in the eye and describing what you are doing or what you are feeling. 

7. Clear your mind. Being intimate is not the time to be thinking. Get rid of cognitive thoughts and let your mind indulge in sexual fantasy, pleasurable sensations and feelings of closeness.

In conclusion, the key to a positive sexual experience is to move beyond the attention to physical functioning. All too often, we become obsessed with our own sexual performance at the sake of mutual pleasure. Make sexual activity fun and enjoyable by ignoring the quality of erections and focusing on the pleasures that you can receive and give to your partner.

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