How Does Your Body Know What Feels “Sexy”?

Why does spanking (or holding hands, or oral sex, or masturbation, or gentle love-making) make one person feel alive, while it makes another person feel dreadful? Or to put it another way, when both Mary and Sally say “spanking makes me feel dirty,” why does one smile approvingly and the other frown disapprovingly?

Sexuality is a complex biological, psychological, and social phenomenon. Since it involves our bodies, our experience is mediated in our brain—which tells us how something “feels.” With the exception of extreme pain, most physical experiences are ambiguous—we can interpret them as pleasant or unpleasant, soothing or challenging. We generally interpret sensation rapidly and without conscious thought.

Thus, our biography—what we’ve done, where we’ve been, who we’ve been told we are, what we believe—has a tremendous influence on what our body actually experiences.

Depending on how we have grown up, loved, been loved, and struggled, our body interprets various kinds of sensory input (touch, smell, etc.) as, variously, sexy, scary, fun, confusing, gentle, pleasant, painful, teasing, overwhelming, exciting, or threatening. Or some combination of these.

To make things more complicated, culture has a voice in the way we interpret our body’s experience. Society attaches (mostly arbitrary) meanings to various physical experiences—such as womanly, aggressive, insulting, spiritual, intimate, perverse, and “real sex.”

So by the time we get into bed with a partner—whether a life partner, a one-night stand, or someone in-between—there are a lot of factors influencing our subjective experience of whatever happens. Sexually, friction is not just friction, just one body rubbing against another body. Every sensation is interpreted before we know how it “feels.”

Understanding the way our biography (i.e., psychological and cultural influences) mediates our biological and sensory inputs during sex is the key to understanding our sexual experience—including our function and dysfunction, desire and frustration, anxiety and pleasure. Of course, it’s impossible to do this literally.

What can be done—by trained clinicians working with motivated people—is examining and understanding the silhouette cast by this internal, continual, lightning-quick process. This can be seen as the set of erotic narratives that individuals tell themselves, both consciously and unconsciously. These are stories—in effect, instructions—that people use to understand and describe their sexual experience. Some of these narratives are conscious (“I’m the smart but unattractive sister”). Others are unconscious (“If I give people what they want they will abandon me”).

By exploring these, client and therapist can see the processes by which the client takes their raw physical experience and transforms it into meaningful (positive, negative, or mixed) erotic interactions. If someone is dissatisfied with the kinds of sexual interactions they’re having, working backwards to identify and see their narratives will help them understand how they create these unsatisfying situations in the first place. This can make deep change possible.

Conscious or unconscious, common erotic narratives include:
* “I’m not sexually desirable; I’m lucky to have any partner at all.”
* “I’m only valuable for my sexuality.”
* “Although I’m a man, my sexuality isn’t very manly.”
* “Sexually, I should do practically anything my partner wants.”
* “Sex is really for making babies, not for mere pleasure.”

Changing narratives like these isn’t simple, but it can be done. When people do so, they interpret their sexual experiences differently. They then change their sexual decision-making. Increased desire and satisfaction, and more reliable, adult function is a typical result.

Truly, sex is more than an activity–it’s an idea.

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