Feminist Therapy: There is no ‘normal sexuality’

Feminist Therapist

*I am a therapist, but I am not your therapist. Therapy, in my opinion, is not just about the information I give, but also about the highly individualized relationship I build with each client, getting to know their unique needs, strengths, and challenges. This column is not meant to substitute individual therapy. And when in doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and who is equipped to support you exactly as you are.

** All of the questions I received were complex, and profoundly honest. Thank you for your submissions. The questions answered in this month’s column were edited for length and privacy, while attempting to preserve the original question.

Dear Feminist Therapist,

Do you have any advice on living with/being in a relationship with a man in this society? I talk to my partner about things I read here and on other feminist sites. Most of the time he listens and comments, but if we have fights, he will sometimes say he doesn’t want to hear it. He has made comments many times that lead me to believe he doesn’t see feminism as a legitimate thing. I’m not sure what to do. I’m starting to feel like there is this divide that will never be resolved. Should I just stop talking to him about it or compromise somehow? Or maybe even stop thinking about things in a feminist context for the sake of our relationship? Sometimes I feel like I should just be grateful he isn’t abusive and an overall great guy, so I should just let it go… but I find this very difficult.

– N

Dear N,

I’m glad you’ve asked the questions you have. I think a lot of people in relationships struggle to discern which aspects of their relationship or partner need to change in order for their needs to be met, and which are okay to accept. This comes up regularly when I’m doing therapy with couples, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, or length of relationship.

An important part of making relationships work is learning to accept things about the other person, while also figuring out what things are important enough to advocate for. That being said, there is a big difference between accepting that a person you love regularly leaves the cap off the toothpaste and accepting that you feel like the things which shape your worldview, values, and self-concept are disregarded and devalued by that person.

Whenever these issues come up in couples’ therapy, I try to help people learn to tell the difference between negotiables (what we can be flexible on) and non-negotiables (what has to happen). An example of a non-negotiable is the fact that the laundry needs to get done; a negotiable is who does the laundry, how often, and at what time of day. Helping couples discern between these two things enables people to better understand which issues are deeply meaningful for the other person, and which are simply preferences.

Next, I help both partners learn how to talk about the non-negotiables so that the other person can start to learn just how important a concern is to his or her partner. I’m not sure what is negotiable and non-negotiable for you — only you can decide that. But once you do decide, education can go a long way — especially with the people closest to us.

I notice a pattern in a lot of couples I work with, wherein people are so frustrated, angry, and hurt by the time they bring up the non-negotiable issues, that one partner feels attacked and shuts down. So, talking about things in a way that comes across as curious, informative, and sincere can make all the difference. As a feminist and therapist, I believe that equality in a relationship is non-negotiable, as is taking steps to work against sexist oppression as it emerges in the relationship. But the steps you both take to do this are negotiable.

If I was sitting down in therapy with the two of you, I might ask you to tell your partner what feminism and being a feminist means to you, how it has shaped you, what it would mean to you to be able to participate in critical dialogues with him, and how it hurts you when shuts you down and has “not wanted to hear it.” Hearing about how your ideas and his reactions to those ideas affect you on a personal level will likely help him understand why this is all so important to you and that, instead of being simply abstract constructs, these ideas and values represent something meaningful to you, and thus deserve to be treated accordingly.

After that, I would ask him about his reactions to you, and what goes on for him that makes him feel like he has to shut the conversation down. I often find that when partners ask each other about what is causing a reaction, without jumping to conclusions, that they learn a lot about each other, which can result in a simple,  patient, and gracious conversation which can resolve some of the conflict. If, after doing this, he still dismisses you and what’s important to you, that is a different conversation to have… How can you continue to be in this relationship if the things that are intricately linked to who you are as a person, and the reasonable and respectful requests you make of your partner, are continually disregarded, devalued, and dismissed?

You are allowed to want a satisfying, rich, and meaningful connection with your partner and you do not have to deny your desires and needs simply because he isn’t abusive. It is okay that you are able to appreciate that he is an overall good guy, but also know that you want more from your relationship. You are allowed to ask him to be supportive of you and to engage in conversations about things that matter to you, even if he does not identify as a feminist himself. You are also allowed to ask him to not use things that are important to you against you, or to shut you down during conflict. It may be time for him to learn how to engage in a healthier form of conflict, in which you don’t feel shut down when he is triggered. You don’t have to let the ideas and values that are important to you go, but you do need to be able to address these things in a way that is respectful and honoring of you both.

Fingers crossed for you!


Dear Feminist Therapist,

I stripped for about a decade and was a prostitute for several years. I made some changes, and met the best guy. Kind, feminist, and completely supportive in a way that I had never experienced. I stopped being a prostitute six months after we started dating. Now, three years later, we are getting married and our sex life is awful. We have sex maybe twice a month, and I get maybe one orgasm. My sex drive seems to be gone. We have very different sexual histories. I feel like a huge part of who I am has disappeared. I don’t even masturbate anymore. I don’t have any health problems. Were my past sexual urges just acting out, looking for love? And now that I’ve found love I’m basically frigid? I have experienced sexual trauma (as a child and as an adult) and a brief abusive marriage 15 years ago. I hope you have some insight or maybe links to some good resources. Thanks!

– E

Dear E,

It sounds like your current sex life is a lot different than you’d expected. I imagine this is confusing, disappointing, and frustrating, considering who you’ve always known yourself to be. I’m sorry that this feels distressing, but I think that there is an opportunity here to examine several things, including your identity and sense of self.

While sexuality has been a big part of your life, there may have been times when you confused your worth and value with your sexuality, and because of your current situation you are being forced to reexamine that. Considering that you’ve been through an abusive relationship, childhood sexual trauma, and have been involved in stripping and prostitution, it might be a good idea to do some therapy, particularly with someone who has expertise in experiential trauma therapies, to help with the rewiring of your brain/body system.

Because of your experiences, certain kinds of sexual behavior may have become linked to arousal, and now that the specific sexual behavior you used to engage in is gone, the arousal may be too. (See my column last month for an explanation of how trauma and past sexual behavior can get mixed up in our brains and create links between things that weren’t there in the first place). After doing trauma therapy with several of my clients who have histories of sexual abuse, they were able orgasm relatively easily, some for the first time ever. (Whether or not you have this experience will depend on your personal story and the work that needs to be done in relation to that.) For some people, this kind of therapy can help to remove some of the psychological barriers to orgasm.

As for sexual desire, it is normal to have both spontaneous (out of the blue) and responsive (as a result of sexual stimulation) sexual desire or arousal, as women. Not all women experience spontaneous arousal, and even those who do don’t necessarily experience it consistently throughout their lives. Changes or decreases in spontaneous desire can be linked to changes in health, medications, or hormones (particularly androgens) throughout the lifespan.

That said, only having responsive arousal (instead of spontaneous) doesn’t indicate that you have a problem, or that your sexual arousal or desire is dysfunctional in any way. But, because of the way sexuality is typically depicted and reinforced socially, we often think there is something wrong with us, as women, if we don’t spontaneously desire sex.

As a culture, we have come to understand women’s sexuality through the lens of Masters and Johnson’s traditional model of sexual arousal, which was formulated through studying the male sexual response cycle several decades ago. Since then, Rosemary Basson has made contributed significantly to our understanding of female sexuality and how it differs from male sexuality, including how emotional connectedness affects sexual arousal and desire. Reading her work may be of interest to you, and it may help remind you that you don’t need to feel shame about what you’re currently experiencing. It’s normal, just not well-advertised.

Within any culture there are constructed assumptions about what “normal” sexuality looks like. Generally, that is based on heteronormative or hypermasculine hegemony. By this I mean that, as women, we believe are supposed to have lots of sex in order to keep our male partners happy, otherwise we are [insert misogynistic term here] and will not be valuable or desirable. It is hard to imagine that the things we desire or want to desire, (for example, frequent and/or aggressive sex) could actually be shaped by inherently oppressive values, because we often think of desires as coming from within us. But when they are the currency for affection and value in our culture, these cultural values shape us from early on, even before we’re aware of it.

It’s important to remember that you don’t need to compare your sexuality, both as an individual and with your partner, to anyone else’s sexual narrative. This is a very hard thing to do because, as much as our sexuality feels private, it is readily dictated by the sociopolitical sphere. While, throughout history, women have been “diagnosed” with clinical “disorders” in relation to what is considered a problematic level of desire, these “disorders” are just social constructs — groupings of experiences that occur beyond a certain threshold of frequency or intensity. This social construction of psychological disorders has generally reinforced the oppression of women and penalized them for not conforming to societal expectations (in this case, wanting sex regularly).

It could be really helpful to go see a sex therapist with your partner, in order to have facilitated conversations about how the two of you can better understand both of your needs, desires, fears, and preferences. I would recommend asking the sex therapist if they know about “Basson’s model,” and can support you and your partner in a way which makes both of you feel safe. There, the two of you can work out some of the specific relational barriers to helping you orgasm.

It’s certainly not perfect, and not intended to be read as a clinical manual, but I have found that many of my female clients struggling with sex or desire have benefited from reading Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, which is part Wolf’s own personal narrative, cultural critique, and well-researched description of the neurobiological components of the vagina and women’s sexual experiences. You may benefit from reading this, as could your partner. For people who have been through sexual abuse during childhood, the books I regularly recommend are: The Courage to Heal, The Body Keeps the Score, and The Sexual Healing Journey.

I hope you can find someone to talk to about this — either on your own, or as a couple. Regardless of what this journey reveals for you, I hope that you can be compassionate, gentle, and patient with yourself. The issues we have in our lives, including with sexuality, rarely emerge overnight, and thus are rarely resolved overnight.

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