Safe Sex and Birth Control
It goes without saying, great sex should be safe sex, especially when you’re with a new partner and have not verified their current state of sexual health or whether they have practiced safe sex or not in previous relationships. We’re all adults here. I’m not going to write about the importance of using condoms or the danger of HIV. These topics should have been self-evident from your sexual education curriculum in school and hopefully through your own education about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases.
Even in well-established relationships, trust but verify someone’s sexual history. I don’t mean hire a private investigator to go snooping through their medical records, as this would be highly unethical not to mention illegal. But when you reach a comfortable point in your relationship, don’t be afraid to ask your partner how many people they have had sex with. The higher the count, the greater the potential risk to you. On the other hand, someone who’s had two partners without practicing safe sex could be carrying an STD as well. To make the topic more complicated, men tend to exaggerate their number of sexual conquests while women tend to downplay them. These can be awkward conversations to have but important ones in this day and age. Better to err on the side of caution and use protection than gamble with your health.
Birth control, like the topic of safe sex, has a habit of coming up in the heat of passion when our hormones are racing and our impulse for physical closeness strives to override our rational mindset about contraception. Though easier said than done in a new relationship where timing can be awkward at first, don’t wait until you’re naked and embroiled in the throes of passion to broach the topic of birth control.
For many adults, the joy of sex is diminished by fear of pregnancy, especially for couples in long-term relationships who’ve already been blessed with children. Particularly for parents of very young children who might feel apprehensive about the potential to accidentally add a welcome, yet unexpected, addition to their growing family. I’m not downplaying the virtue of having children or the infinite blessings children bestow upon us. I’m simply saying there’s a time for procreation and a time for having sex for the pleasure of sex itself because we crave the emotional and physical closeness it brings us.
The stronger the birth control method employed, the less anxiety couples tend to feel about the potential for sex to lead to pregnancy. So much less, that for many couples, a man’s vasectomy or a woman’s tubal ligation provide for a greater overall enjoyment of sex because each partner can proceed with total peace of mind. Sex can be had for the pure pleasure of sex without worrying about building a baby in the process. Permanent, or near-permanent sterilization procedures offer a measure of last resort for couples who may still wish to conceive one day, but other highly effective, and temporary, birth control methods designed for use alone or in conjunction with other means to prevent an unwanted pregnancy also exist. The specifics on various birth control methods extend beyond the scope of this book and encompass everything from condoms and birth control pills to contraceptive rings, diaphragms, sponges, spermicides, and intrauterine devices. In the context of enjoying great sex, discuss birth control with your partner earlier than later, assuming your desire for sexual relations excludes the goal of pregnancy.
Sex without emotion equates to sex in the physical sense but not necessarily more fulfilling sex. If you have sex with the TV on and you find yourself more in tune to the commercials than to your partner’s desire to meld with you, then you’re emotionally vacant. For fully functioning men, an orgasm is pretty much a sure thing. For women, not nearly so. Sex for the sake of sex, without a strong emotional commitment still constitutes sex, but in the end, one or both partners will start to suffer from an unfulfilled longing.
If we don’t engage with our lover on a deeper level and take the time to explore and understand each other’s needs and desires, then we’re missing an essential component in our relationship. Whispering compliments to one another before, after, and even during sex will help build trust and intimacy. For women, feelings of emotional intimacy in their relationship often advance their desire for sexual expression. Men view sex as a way to increase intimacy. Neither approach is wrong. Just different.
In Dr. Phil McGraw’s book, Love Smart, he points out how men and women are hormonally and neurologically different; how each sex has been socialized differently from birth, with men brought up to be less sensitive and emotional. I would extend this concept to say the converse holds true and that women tend to exhibit a stronger emotional freedom. It’s important to understand and appreciate the differences between men and woman as well as their similarities. “Romantic partners can also complement each other’s sexual, intellectual, and spiritual needs,” wrote clinical, social, and organizational psychologist Ayala Pines. “The more complementary the needs,” she contends, “the easier and more satisfying their gratification.”
Clearly, men and women express emotions in different ways. The emphasis should focus less on how we express emotions and more on the importance of continuing to express our emotions toward one another. In Daniel Beaver’s book, More than Just Sex, he describes how unexpressed emotions can inhibit our sexual desire. This includes withholding negative emotions as well as positive ones. Any time we keep emotions bottled up inside, either negative emotions like fear, jealousy, and anger, or positive emotions like love and empathy, we block our flow of emotional expression and deplete our sexual energy. As Beaver points out, you don’t have to agree with your partner’s emotional reality, but you have to accept the importance of their reality “if you want your lover to stay intimately close and turned on to you sexually.”
If you’re not emotionally committed, you’re doing yourself and your partner a disservice. Our emotions tie directly to the chemistry we feel. The stronger the romantic chemistry between two individuals in a romantic relationship, the more likely they will develop and sustain an emotional commitment. In Passionate Marriage, Dr. David Schnarch explains how emotional issues have a direct physiological impact on our sexual functioning. In his words, “The more unresolved issues that intrude during sex, the further away you are from your sexual potential. You might be able to reach orgasm, but your satisfaction is usually diminished.”
Daniel Beaver contends a positive emotional atmosphere outside the bedroom makes for a better quality sexual experience in the bedroom. To help achieve and sustain this positive emotional atmosphere, he promotes the following five requirements:
- “Constructive communication of emotions between partners, without emotional censorship,” (i.e., You don’t have to agree with your partner’s emotional state of mind, or even understand the logic behind it, but you should learn to accept it).
- “A high degree of vulnerability in which both partners are able to communicate information that could expose them to being hurt,” (i.e., Partners should not fear vulnerability but recognize the value of vulnerability in their intimate relations).
- “A strong sense of trust and commitment to the relationship,” (i.e., Accept the cyclical nature of trust and commitment, where a stronger commitment bears more trust and more trust builds a stronger commitment).
- “The ability of each person to listen effectively and acknowledge the other’s emotions verbally,” (i.e., Employ active listening, which I describe in more detail in Chapter IV).
- “An ability to resolve conflicts so that there is no unfinished emotional business between them when they go to bed at night,” (i.e., Leave the negative emotions at the door, and never go to bed angry at one another).
Meeting Your Partner’s Needs
As I wrote in Chapter II, the foundation of a meaningful and lasting romance involves an understanding of our own needs and desires as well as those of our partner. The importance of understanding our partner’s needs is an often understated point. In Chapter V, I’ll touch on several common high priority needs men and women seek from their romantic partners. But for now, from a purely sexual perspective, if something feels good, then tell your partner. If something feels wrong, then make it known, gently but firmly. Emotional intimacy is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t make you clairvoyant. If vocalizing your needs makes you feel uncomfortable during sex, then take your partner’s hand and put it where you want it. Or signal with a kiss or gentle nudge. Eventually, we attune to one another and learn to express ourselves in the throes of passion without pausing to engage in a clinical discussion on sex.
Some people were born to be wild and crazy, able to cast their inhibitions aside at a moment’s notice without remorse or regret for their behavior. Other people take comfort with a drink in hand, standing at the back of the room quietly watching events unfold while they shy away from making eye contact or striking up a conversation with a stranger. We tend to label people with low inhibitions as loose or easy, or perhaps to some extreme, unconscionable. On the other hand, we’re also prone to label people with strong inhibitions as shy, reserved, timid, self-conscious, or God forbid, boring. Somewhere between unconscionable and boring lies a happy middle ground, where we learn to step out of our comfort zones and overcome our insecurities to the extent we are able to fully enjoy the sexual aspects of a meaningful and lasting romance.
Often, our inhibitions burrow themselves in fear; a fear of embarrassment from taking the dance floor and coming off like a goofball; a fear of public speaking, where we’d rather hide in the bathroom than stand in front of people and give a speech; a fear of rejection by believing we won’t live up to some preconceived standards we feel others will compare us against; or a fear of not knowing what will happen next if we brave the office party and connect with a colleague we’d previously ignored to heed some self-prescribed rule about not dating people from work. To some extent, certain anxieties are unavoidable, and often the act of avoiding anxiety stifles our genuine intimacy and ability to enjoy sex.
In general, as we age, we tend to take a more conservative approach to life. At twenty-one, the thought of skinny dipping in the pool might seem like an adventurous proposition. By middle age, the same intention seems less appropriate. For many of us, our increased inhibitions stem from religious beliefs, dating experiences or lack thereof, parenthood challenges, undeveloped social skills, or any number of other reasons. Some of us enjoy a life completely void of inhibitions, living moment to moment without worry.
Since the dawn of man, or at least it seems that long ago, men and women have indulged in alcohol to appease our inhibitions. But what alcohol giveth in the way of greasing the skids to the bedroom, it also taketh away in the common sense and good judgment departments. To shed our inhibitions is one thing, but to cast our ethics aside and sail off with a broken moral compass prompts more trouble than it’s worth. A little sauce goes a long way. Enjoy a drink in moderation to help relax, but don’t go overboard. If you don’t drink alcohol, no worries. Consider yourself one of the lucky few who can lower their inhibitions without it.
Confronting inhibitions involves learning to feel comfortable in our own skin. How? By learning to love ourselves. I’m not talking about promoting a narcissistic attitude, but rather, learning to define what we like about ourselves and promoting those grand qualities. For women, this might involve accentuating a voluptuous figure, a tone physique, gorgeous hair, brilliant eyes, a sexy walk, a sensual voice, or a movie star smile. Men tend to focus on their physiques, their cars, or various permutations of facial hair from beards and mustaches to short goatees or a fuzzy soul patch to accentuate a chiseled jaw line.
Promoting our positive qualities extends beyond our physical attributes. Engaging a sense of humor can serve as a powerful tool to lower our inhibitions. A strong intellect also works well for those who find comfort in a stimulating conversation. Some of us employ a certain charm or charisma to boost our confidence in the presence of the opposite sex. If you prefer the quiet sofa at Starbuck’s to a loud bar downtown, then seek like-minded people who prefer a laptop and a cup of java to blaring music and hordes of inebriated strangers. For all of us, no matter where we find ourselves along the spectrum from shy to gregarious, it’s important to support our admirable qualities and feel comfortable with ourselves. Women don’t need a perfect body to build confidence in themselves the way men don’t need bulging biceps or a thick head of hair to feel empowered and unconstrained. You start with what you have and what works for you.
We all have our faults, and while no good comes from dwelling on these, we should strive for incremental improvements where we can. If you’re out of shape, then exercise and adjust your eating habits. If you’re shy and yearn to be more outgoing, try some private dance lessons, go out with friends, join a club, join a bowling league, or give online dating a try. The opportunities for social interaction are endless. Take baby steps and make small adjustments day to day. Don’t expect an instant makeover or a total personality transformation. You are who you are, the way God intended you to be. Embrace yourself. Love yourself. And smile as often as you can. Smiling is a universal language that opens hearts and communicates love better than almost anything else. In fact, research shows smiling improves our physical and emotional well being by flooding our systems with positive neurochemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin.
Learning to overcome our inhibitions involves learning to rejoice in who we are as individuals and promoting the constructive aspects of our lives. If you’re already at a state of readiness in terms of confidence in yourself, but you still feel inhibited in your sexual relations, I have a few suggestions. First, try standing in front of the mirror, alone, stark naked. Do this several times over several days or weeks until you feel comfortable staring at your own body. Over time, this will help you feel more comfortable undressing in front of your lover. Later, try leaving the lights on when you’re having sex. For some people, having sex with the lights on can be a scary proposition, but it can also help you overcome your inhibitions. Again, proceed with caution. Start with leaving the bathroom light on or a hallway light with the door ajar just enough to cast your naked shadow. Enjoying sex in a hotel provides another way to help overcome inhibitions. There’s something about taking a break from your day to day life and treating yourself to a night of passion at a random location away from home.
Communicate with your partner. A great way to take control of your inhibitions is to talk about them. Trust plays an essential part in this discussion. Start with sharing something small and build from there. Maybe you feel uncomfortable about sleeping naked. Maybe you wear a mouth guard to keep your teeth from grinding. Or maybe you don’t feel comfortable taking a shower together. Whatever it is that gives you pause about yourself, your partner, or your romantic relationship in general, it does no good to hold it in and not broach the subject. In fact, you might be surprised to discover your partner shares some of the same anxieties.