A little Barry White. A candlelight dinner. An amorous encounter — and fireworks as the angels sing. At least, that's what he thinks happened.
Men and women often walk out of the bedroom with completely different ideas about what just occurred, recent research showed. The recently released National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found that men overestimate whether their partner has had an orgasm and underestimate their pain.
In the survey, 64 percent of women reported having an orgasm last time at bat, but 85 percent of men said their female partners had one. Also, about 30 percent of women reported that sex was painful and, presumably, men are unaware of that too, or else, being the gallant gentlemen we are, we’d stop and snuggle. (Hey, it could happen.)
Granted, this stuff can be funny — as dozens of sitcoms testify. But the findings from the survey, culled from 5,865 people ranging in age from 14 to 94, underscores the troubling fact that men and women, young and old — even couples who've been together for many years, don't talk about sex. And because we are not, we are missing out.
“Sex is hard to talk about even when things are going well. We approach our sexual limitations with fear,” said Debby Herbenick, one of the survey’s authors and the associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University in Bloomington. And when things aren’t going well, communication is even worse.
Even cancer patients who are used to discussing everything from nausea and bowel movements to hair loss and blood counts with their partner won’t talk about sex, numerous studies show.
“When patients had poor erectile function, their partners were more likely to report that the couple avoided open spousal discussions; this in turn was associated with partners' marital distress,” a team from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center reported in the journal Psycho-Oncology last year.
If all this seems odd for a 21st century sex-saturated country like ours, June Reinisch isn’t surprised at all. She’s been studying sexuality, and counseling couples, for 41 years, 11 of those as director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, and all that experience has taught her that couples young and old “are not comfortable, and they don’t get comfortable” exchanging information about their sexual needs and desires.
Why? Because, Reinisch argued, from the time boys and girls are about 5 years old, they segregate into same-gender groups. Boys play with boys, girls with girls, and then society enforces that natural segregation when it comes time to talk about our bodies.
“We do nothing to enhance communication between males and females,” she said. Even today, sex education often happens in same gender classes. The message sent, Reinisch argued, “is that it’s taboo or undercover, that you do not talk about male things with females and vice-versa.”
What we ought to be doing, she said, is, from young ages, teaching boys and girls what it means to be a good friend, how a loving family operates, and later, not just how each gender’s body works, but what love is, how to be a good boyfriend, a good girlfriend. Talks about sex shouldn’t just be between father and son, mother and daughter.
Once we are adults, we need to think beyond the obvious about what’s behind our reluctance to talk. “There is research in women with vulvodynia” — a condition that results in pain when the female vulva is touched or stimulated — “that they feel they are not being a good wife,” said Herbenick told me. So it’s not about the pain itself, it’s the fear of one’s own self-perception.
For example, Reinisch explained, the reasons men might ask for oral sex aren’t just about the physical feeling.
“The penis has incredible meaning, way beyond that it feels good, in terms of the sense of self, goodness, lovability and being loved,” she said. But women can’t be blamed for not fully appreciating this. “If you talk to men as I have in my career, they don’t think about how much it means, they just know they like it a lot and protect it with their lives. But when it is honored by their partner it makes them feel better about their whole selves…It’s quite amazing. I don’t think women understand the power of honoring that little part.”
(Note to women: calling it “little” probably isn’t a good way to honor it.)
Likewise, she said, men need to better understand the bigger meaning of women’s sexuality. A woman might not want to say sex hurts because maybe she’s growing a little older “and in this culture, God forbid you get old. So maybe she feels it’s a sign she’s not sexy, she is not lubricating, or she is not being aroused.”
Let's talk about sex
The obvious way out, of course, is to talk — really talk, openly and frankly. That works best if couples are used to experimenting and Reinisch doesn’t just mean the ropes and latex variety, she means collaborating on new positions, new products – some women are even reluctant to use vaginal lube for fear it signals waning youthfulness and sexual allure– or new methods of seduction.
Couples also have to be accepting when a lover makes a suggestion, she says. Saying “How did you come up with that? Did you try it with somebody else?” is a bad idea. When a partner who has been reluctant to share does so, he or she should be rewarded.
For those whom talking is simply too uncomfortable, Reinisch stresses “baby steps,” even non-verbal communication if necessary. Some couples have been so closed off that she has counseled them to use two small porcelain dolls on a mantle; a doll facing out can mean “I’m in the mood,” one with its back turned can mean “not tonight.”
Whatever strategy couples use, there is a reward for communicating. Women can stop feeling pain, men can stop guessing about orgasms, and both partners can get the kind of sexual experiences they want. That’s why, Reinisch insisted, says “communication is the best lubrication.”
Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.