No, sex shouldn't always be spontaneous. Salon's "Sex Toast" host Ian Kerner explains why

We talk to the author, sex therapist and co-host of Salon's "Sex Toast" about how to get our collective groove back

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published February 14, 2019 3:00PM (EST)

 (Getty/Marilyn Nieves)
(Getty/Marilyn Nieves)

Ian Kerner has been trying to help you to have good sex for a long time. The psychotherapist, sexuality counselor and author of the classic sex guides "She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman" and "He Comes Next: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Pleasuring a Man" is joining Salon as the co-host, with Deren Jones, of our new series, "Sex Toast," debuting soon on SalonTV.

He and I sat down together recently to talk about why there's a sex recession happening and why he's hopeful we can all start to have more fun in bed.

I have a lot on my mind about sex lately. And it really comes down to the disconnect between perception and reality. We live in this culture where you wake up in the morning and as soon as you open your eyes you're deluged with images and conversation about sexuality. Yet in private, things are not always as sexy. This is a phrase that I read in an article about a year ago: the "sex recession." We are allegedly having less sex, that teenagers are having less sex, Ian. Adults are having nine fewer sexual encounters per year. I want my nine back again. What's going on?

Certainly I'm seeing individuals and couples every day and I can tell you there are a lot of contextual factors that are maybe causing a sex recession or inhibiting peoples' desire or libido. Some of these contextual factors could be new. We live in an age where more and more people are taking medications that have side effects and experiencing the sexual side effects of low libido.

A lot of people are turning away from the complexity of relational sex and more and more enjoying sex with themselves as a sort of easygoing, light experience. I actually love porn a lot and I think that there have been some amazing developments with couple porn and ethical porn, but when we look at a sex recession or people having less sex with others relationally, I think we can turn and look at more and more people are masturbating as their main sexual outlet.

I think that also we don't really know how to bring our sexual personalities or our sexual parts into our lives quite in the way that we're able to bring other parts of ourselves into our lives. I work with a lot of couples who are in great egalitarian relationships. They can talk about splitting up the chores, talk about splitting up childcare, talk about how to plan their vacations with each of their respective families, who's going to be doing chores and whatnot. But when it comes to bringing their sexuality into the relationship, their own sexual needs, their own erotic needs, their fantasies, I think that's where a lot of couples get really tongue-tied.

You mentioned teens, I work with a lot of Millennials. In the age of #MeToo, a lot of the younger men I'm working with are coming in suffering with psychological erectile disorder. They're going out on dates, they're on the apps, but when it comes to actually having sex they have tremendous anxiety that's inhibiting their performance. I think also navigating this new terrain of consent is an issue. And how to be absolutely respectful, clear, and trustworthy, and yet bring out something in yourself that's subversive, that's libidinal, that's primal.

That's fun. Right, remember fun?

I do.

I hear more from other women about that kind of compartmentalization that you were talking about. I know you've talked about this and written about this last year when DJ Khaled said he likes to receive oral sex but he doesn't give it. Because "It's different for men," and that is not an unusual attitude. It got a lot of attention because it was a famous person saying this.

But you can talk to women, you can certainly talk to teenage girls, and they will say the same thing. That they are coming up against this, "I want mine and then we're done." Like the woman's orgasm is almost an afterthought if at all.

It's interesting, when I'm working with individuals who are coming in with sex problems or couples, at some point in the session I always ask the question, "So tell me about the last time you had sex. Let's talk about the last sexual event you had." I love to just weave a whole conversation out of that because what you end up with is an event that has a narrative, that has a sex script. That sex script may have included foreplay, it may have included oral sex, either mutually or in one direction. It may have included intercourse, it may have been all intercourse. It may have included kissing. It may have included fantasy. But just walking through what can be a very simple sex script and what's happening and why it's happening, and what's not happening, generates endless fascinating conversation.

So on the topic of, say, oral sex and female orgasm, I meet men who are sexually narcissistically oriented, don't know how to ask a woman about what feels good or arousing. But I also meet plenty of women who are with men who would love to be giving more pleasure, would love to be giving oral sex or just more pleasure in general, and sometimes women find, "Well you know what, that's a little too vulnerable for me right now." Or, "It's easier for me to give than to receive," or "He always wants to do that and I actually am not so into that" for whatever reason.

So I always find with each person that I'm sitting down with, when I'm looking at their specific sexual personality, and then you add another person into the mix and their specific sexual personality, and their histories, and their turn-ons and turn-offs, and then you look at the overlap of that space that they're trying to create together, it's really . . . more complex than it seems to just have sex.

I really love that you put the word "thinking" into your book titles, because there is a feeling that sex is just supposed to be easy and natural and come without any thought and without any planning. It's like it's either supposed to be like in porn or in some ways almost worse, like in rom-coms. You fall into bed and there's no actual tripping over your socks and then everything is like one, two, three and the woman has an orgasm lying on her back with a man thrusting on top of her.

That happens to maybe 25 percent of women, right? That is a fantastic statistic. So sex requires thought. Sex requires planning. Sex requires the kind of attention that we don't always necessarily give it, because it feels like if I'm thinking about it, I shouldn't be.

I work with so many couples who are so busy, so over-scheduled. They made time to come and see me for 60 or 90 minutes, but when it comes to actually making time to have sex they recoil at the notion. "Oh you're telling us that sex should be scheduled in some ways or planned? No, sex should be spontaneous." Sex should be "spontaneous," and I hate that.

I hate the word "spontaneous" when it comes to sex, because as you said, we see the rom-com. Man enters room, woman enters room, exchange glance. Cut to fantastic sex with mutual orgasms. Everywhere in culture I feel that sex has been depicted as something that's supposed to be spontaneous

We hear [that] men think about sex a thousand times a day, or a hundred times a day, or eleven times a day, whatever the number is. And it is true that many men, and many women too, do experience a spontaneous desire, or can process a sexual cue into the arousal platform and want to have sex. OK, that's for some people, it's not for all people. It sometimes is for people in new relationships versus being in long-term relationships. But how do we thoughtfully create an environment in which we can allow ourselves to be aroused? Go into our own bodies? Get out of our own heads? Remove all the stressors and inhibitors, and somehow engage the exciters? That does take a little bit of collaboration. It does take a little bit of planning.

One of the best things I ever heard a sex expert say is, "What is dating, but scheduled sex?" What is dating but, "Oh my god, I can't wait until Friday night and I'm going to wear this, and I'm going to do this." You know that Friday by midnight it's going be on. That's sexy. That's actually not like, "OK, I have to take out the recycling." It's not. It's very different.
And you can have that kind of relationship with your sex life where you're looking at it as something fun to do that you plan the way that you would plan your vacation, the way that you would plan something you enjoy, as opposed to another chore.

Absolutely. I totally agree. I talk to couples about that all the time. I give them an exercise to do where I ask them to schedule something, but I say, "I actually don't need you to show up with your desire. I don't need you to show up with your wanting of sex or your craving for sex. I need you to show up with the quality that you exert most of the time in your life, which is just the willingness to put one step in front of the other and actually end up somewhere and go through the experience. Just have the willingness and let's see if you have the willingness, what gets generated from there."

As opposed to, if it's not perfect and flawless. And that's supposed to happen without communication. Without the vulnerability of saying, "I want this" or "I like this," or whatever. I'm not saying it's not hard to do, but when the expectation is we're all supposed to spontaneously have an orgasm.

I am intrigued by this because when we talk about the fact that there is an orgasm deficit for a lot of women, and there is erectile dysfunction. We see the boner pills ads on Hulu and we think that it's something that happens to grandpa while he's out boating somehow. Instead erectile dysfunction affects 25 percent of men under 40,

Yup. I never see grandpa. Grandpa will just go to the urologist and get a prescription. I see college students. I see guys in their 20s, guys in their 30s, who are beset with a kind of anxiety around sex that has gotten inside them like a virus.

Some of that we think may be attributable to antidepressants, which doctors often do not really talk seriously to adolescents about.

Sex gets demoted in any conversation. If you're going to see a psychiatrist for your well-being, your mental health, forget the sex. That's a side effect, you'll deal with that. If you're going for prostate surgery, we may not be able to spare all the nerves and you may have a permanent loss of erectile capacity but we gotta get in there and do that. Sex is demoted in almost every conversation. In fact, when people pick each other, when they're picking their partners, when they're going into relationships with dreams of a lifelong attachment, sex is the thing that they're usually privileging the least.

Those are the couples that I end up with, the people who have demoted sex in their own lives when they were selecting or picking their partners, but no surprise we're in a culture where yes, sex is everywhere, sex is in the media. But when it actually comes to the interactions that we're having with teachers, with educators, with our parents, with healthcare practitioners, sex is either not verbalized at all, or it's demoted.

Or it's expendable. If the side effects of something mean decreased libido, we may not even talk about it.

And then you have young people, winding up in these situations where they're puzzled. And then we live in a culture where it's men are supposed to be horny all the time, you're supposed to be able to get it up all the time, 24/7. And sex is supposed to be this coercive dance where he's always ready and she always has to be reticent. And if that changes, if he is not ready and if she is, then you start to think, "There's something wrong with me."

It's sad and it's true. A lot of couples come in and a female partner says, "I get it. I get that he's nervous. I get that this has a history. I know I'm attractive. I know this isn't about me or my self-esteem, but why isn't he just walking up to me with a boner when I come out of the shower?"

This is what women do. "What's wrong with me? What is my deficiency?"

That's where the cognitive part of your brain, the manager who can offer all of those explanations, is totally disconnected from the midbrain part of you that's just hijacked and scared.

What we're really talking about here is intimacy. You can have great intimacy, you can have great communication, without love. But how can you have great sex if you don't have great connection? And great connection comes from great communication, I would think.

I'm really optimistic, and that's part of one of the reasons I'm doing this web show, "Sex Toast" with my cohost Deren Jones.

I live in a little office in the West Village seeing individuals and couples. I mainly interact. If I'm not interacting with my wife and kids or some near friends, it's usually other therapists. So I've gotten to really know my little neck of the woods well, but when I'm doing this show it's a chance to talk to other people who think and care and are passionate about sex, but in a different way.

On this show I think I'll probably always be the sex therapist or the sex doctor, but I'm interested in talking to other people whose lives intersect with sex. We'll be bringing on feminist creators of sex toys, sex workers, people who organize sex parties, people who are helping others with consensual non-monogamy and polyamory.

I feel like this show is really about my curiosity and my chance to get out of my office and talk to other people who are just as passionate about sex as I am, but have a different point of view.

That's what the show is about, and to answer your question a little bit, one of the reasons I'm so happy to be doing the show and optimistic, is I think we're living in a really interesting moment of time. We come from a culture that has historically vilified masturbation, vilified sex. Sex for many years only existed as a procreative act. It was really only codified and talked about as a procreative act, and eventually it became more of a relational act, and now we have romantic comedies and movies, and we think of sex as lovemaking, and we think of sex very relationally and when we need to procreate we'll also hopefully be able to procreate if that's what we wanna do, but a dimension that's really now come into the forefront in our current cultural moment, I feel, is sex also having a high level of recreational value and a high level of fun and pleasure for the sake of pleasure.
Sometimes I talk about the moment we're in is a fusion between the relational and the recreational. I sometimes call it "recleational."

It's an interesting moment because the people that we are going to be talking to on this show are the people who are exploring sex parties and sex toys and tantra and new ways of having fun, and new ways of being intimate, the opportunities for sex to speak to both the relational qualities we're seeking and the fun and the erotic and the sexual selfishness that we also have. I think it's a fascinating period in time.

That's your best-case scenario, because I know you've also talked about the tyranny of too many choices, and that in some ways that may be what's inhibiting us in our culture right now. It's like when I go on Netflix and I've got a million movies to watch, so instead what I wind up doing is just, "I'm gonna look at puppy videos on Reddit." I think maybe there's an equivalent sexually where you can just keep swiping all night long and then at the end of the night, I'm just gonna bust out my vibrator.

I think what you're talking about is that most of us — myself included and most of the people that I work with — did not necessarily grow up in really sex-positive homes. The ones who did were lucky.

Most of us grew up in either negative or sex-evasive homes, so we just don't have any language. At least what you're describing when you're in a world with Netflix and Hulu, you have some experience watching TV, so you can at least start to go through the channels and sorta sort it out. What I do in my office, and what I hope to do on the show, is to open up the conversation, and once you just start to open up the conversation and do so in a way that doesn't activate people and push people outside of their window of tolerance, then they can really start to take the information in and feel comfortable.

If everyone right now could take home one thing, one homework assignment that they could do with their partner or themselves today to feel better sexually, what might it be? Just a beginning exercise.

I would say think of one activity that you really like that gets you sexually aroused, maybe a physical activity, touching, kissing, massaging. Think of just one sexual activity that gets you kind of aroused and turned on, then maybe also think of one psychological activity that gets you turned on, maybe a fantasy. Or something that you could do. You could put your hands on the table and you'd be doing something like thinking of a fantasy or watching something or reading something, and you'd feel changes happening in your body. You'd feel yourself getting turned on. So pick a physical activity, pick a psychological activity, get together with your partner, give yourself 20 minutes or 30 minutes with a partner to just engage in that activity. And start from there.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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