When “Self-Help” is Part of the Problem

When it comes to sex, most self-help books offer more “self” than “help.”

People keep buying them—when they stop, so will the publishers—and they keep feeling disappointed. Many readers wonder what’s wrong with them when they don’t achieve the greatest sex in the history of the world.

When these books don’t deliver the ultimate sex, it’s generally not the reader’s fault. It’s because most self-help books are limited in what they can actually offer. And they leave out some very important facts that help shape our sexual experience. Let’s look at a few:

* Desire:
There are two good reasons many people don’t want sex: 1) they don’t expect to enjoy it, or 2) they’re not getting along with their partner. When one or both of these are true, low desire is healthy, not something to fix.

Our romantic culture declares that desire is supposed to be driven by love, but our own experience tells us this isn’t necessarily true: most people have desired someone they didn’t love (and maybe even disliked), and most people in long-term relationships watch their desire decline with the very person they love most.

No one really knows what keeps a few older couples hot for each other while so many other adults lose interest in their mates. It’s some rare “chemistry”—these couples don’t need or use any secret techniques. For most everyone else, methods of maintaining novelty are essential, and for many people even this doesn’t work.

Sex therapists unanimously agree that desire problems are the hardest to repair in adults. If books don’t help with yours, you are certifiably “normal.”

* Female orgasm:
Different women climax in different ways, and most women never come from intercourse alone. Lots of books urge women to pursue orgasms by stimulating their vagina or G-spot, while other books suggest you’re not really alive if you don’t have multiple orgasms.

While all these variations can be lovely, for too many women (and their partners) such suggestions feel like pressure.

If you’re a woman and you like your orgasms, keep doing what you’re doing. If your partner is dissatisfied with your “limited” repertoire, that’s probably his or her problem more than yours.

If you want to experiment, go ahead, but do so in the spirit of “what if,” rather than “I have to do it better or right.” The clitoris is the only organ in the human body with no purpose other than pleasure, so feel free to depend on it for that.

* Aging:
Our bodies change over time, and our sexuality changes with them. “Recapturing” our sexual function from 15 or 25 years ago is rarely possible, and isn’t such a good idea anyway.

Rather than attempt to have desire, erections, lubrication, and orgasms like we did when young, we should be learning more about the kind of sex our bodies want at our current age—and start noticing the next set of changes that are unfolding right now.

Getting hard or getting wet takes longer as we age. No pill, technique, or visualization is going to change that. Perfectly healthy people watch their tissues dry out; they get tired sooner; their backs hurt. Our sexual choices must keep pace with the changing facts “on the ground.”

We all learn about sex when we have the body of a young person. No one has that body for very long—so if we don’t develop a vision of sexuality that fits the body we eventually grow into, we’ll be stuck with an obsolete picture, and our sexual experience (and self-esteem) will suffer. Books that offer to help us return to the sex of our youth are promising something they can’t deliver.

* “Men” vs. “women”:
Many books describe the supposed differences between men and women, and urge readers to learn about male sexuality & psychology or female sexuality & psychology.

Authors of such books apparently don’t realize that as people move through adulthood, their gender is less and less a determinant of their sexual experience. To put it another way, the similarities between male and female sexuality become increasingly important, while the differences, small to start with, become even less important.

Men and women want the same things from sex—closeness, pleasure, validation, a sense of adequacy. Sexually, men and women are distressed about the same things—performance anxiety, insufficient information, not feeling attractive enough, difficulties communicating honestly.

And there’s no point in understanding “men” or “women” (like such a thing is possible!), since no one has sex with “men” or “women.” We have sex with George or Maria or even both, but we don’t have sex with some abstract group of 100 million people. For better sex, learn more about the person(s) you’re with, not “men” or “women.”

* * *
The truth is that for adults, good sex usually takes effort, focus, and patience. Be wary of any book—or pill or TV show or expert—claiming that “everyone using our technique will get the best sex of their lives.”

The desire for sex to be simple and extraordinary is understandable. Too many books exploit this fond desire, and readers pay the price for believing their fantasies.

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