I have been teaching and talking about sex with people for years, and I have heard people’s stories of vulnerability, of lost desire, of wanting, and of the need for healing. I work with women and couples who have already been somewhere in their lives and they are searching for deeper meaning around sex and sexuality. They know there is something missing and that the key will be found in their own journey to sexual empowerment.
It’s from this work that I’ve developed my “5 stages of sexual need”, and I want to share a little bit about a stage I think many people have experience with — the stage of love and belonging.
Historically, this is a relatively new motivation for sex. People used to marry for convenience, family status, economic security, property and other very practical reasons. Making ‘love’ part of the equation is actually a fairly recent development. It was only in the 20th century that the concept of ‘a good partnership’ grew to encompass the idea that your partner/spouse should be your soulmate whom you love and with whom you share everything. As my colleague Esther Perel writes: “In modern times, intimacy has shifted from being a by-product of a long-term relationship to being a mandate for one. Marriage used to be primarily about economic sustenance and it was a partnership for life. Now its role has expanded to include emotional sustenance as well, and the partnership is expected to last only as long as it remains emotionally satisfying.”
I would say it’s now commonly accepted that sex is a way to meet others emotionally. This is the classic “sex needs love approach” that many people have—and that women are stereotyped as needing more than men. Surely, many people have a sex and love connection because sex is vulnerable; being with a partner whom we love and trust makes it easier to open up. (Of course, other people are perfectly okay with having fun and even deeply meaningful sex with someone they do not yet love.)
Conversely, discordant desire and a sexless relationship can be hugely draining to someone who has the sex-and-love framework. Sex is really important to them for feeling love and that they are loved; without it, they disconnect and withdraw. Being with a partner whose libido is lower, or whose framework around sex falls more into the “survival” or “safety/security” stage, can lead to conflict in the relationship. I think it’s important to understand the frameworks we have around sexuality so we can articulate them more clearly to the people we get involved with, and understand where our perspectives differ.
Love is a really good start…
Another potential trap of the love-and-belonging approach that our culture teaches is the idea that “If we love each other the sex will be good.” This is a false belief, full “my wedding night will be blissful”-type expectations. If you approach your sexual relationships believing that love will solve all issues, fix any discrepancies, and automatically make you the perfect lover, you are setting yourself up to be hurt and disappointed. And indeed, some people will run away if sex is not good because they assume there is a problem with the emotional connection.
For this framework to work, like any other, you have to develop your emotional and communication skills. If that is bypassed because you think love will overcome any obstacle, it’s a setup for problems in the bedroom (and elsewhere in the relationship). I always say that “love is really good start”, but a true relationship actually requires much more than this. If you want to move beyond this stage of sexual need, and into the realms of self-esteem and self-actualization, it’s essential to hone your emotional and communication skills. Sex can open so many deep emotional currents within us; without the tools to navigate those currents, we’re setting ourselves up for trouble. But getting clear on the intersection of sex, love and belonging within us can help us reach new and wonderful experiences of intimacy.