"So is it true? If you don't use it do you really lose it?" If only I had a dollar for every time this question, or a variation of it, was posed by one of my clients. As people, we are all very interested in what is normal...healthy...ok. We strive to fall within the bell-curve, ultimately. So when the idea of losing a capability comes into question, we certainly become concerned and start paying attention. Before I give my answer to this frequently asked question, I'd like to address some of the elements that I believe underpin some of the contextual factors behind the question at hand.
In general, men and women alike think of sexuality as an entity unto itself. Private...separate...different, somehow. Sex is showcased openly in society, but still taboo when it gets personal. It never ceases to amaze me, even though these days, I encounter this theme more days than not. Who we are sexually is part of our physical self, for sure; intrinsically involved in the body's necessary functionality involving urinary and fecal excrement and release; when the hierarchy of needs is considered sex is involved in the most basic, primary tier; and most obviously to me, for crying out loud, without acknowledgment of penile and vaginal functionality, human life, as we know it would fail to exist. However, sexuality is vulnerable and has been traditionally linked to shame, guilt, discomfort, mysticism, double-speak, and many other elements that can be linked with incongruity and anxiety. Across healthcare professions, in schools, in religious settings, in therapy, trained professionals have been shown through research to do a poor job at addressing sexuality across development. There are many reasons for all these things, most of which could be a discrete conversation within itself. From my point of view, to put it simply, as a cultural whole, we are just really bad at talking about sex in a healthy way. So, if sex is in a distinct, less accessible box to begin with, are we more likely to lose it, if we never really had a good grasp to begin with?
It's quite probable.
From a neurological perspective, neural and synaptic connections are known to be strengthened by use and weakened by neglect and lack of use. New experiences, conversations, and perspectives allow our neural network to literally be more well-rounded and plastic. If we don't talk about or think about sex this will effect us. If one doesn't look at their penis or vagina (which is much more common) to begin with, and doesn't use it in a way outside the necessary, then rigidity about these structures will be formed habitually, but also in reference to the way the brain organizes its connections around sex and our social coined "naughty bits." Our neural pathways will be impacted, making it virtually harder to think about sexuality in certain ways. This thought certainly skirts the line of the idea of perception and consciousness. For the purpose of this blog, I am simply not going to go into that philosophical diatribe, but , in my experience, both seem to change, when sex is addressed in a more regular and routine way through conversations like those that take place in therapy. What this looks and sounds like can vary quite vastly, but the transformation is present from a qualitative point-of-view. I have seen many transformations in simply getting more comfortable with addressing and embracing sexuality.
For this reason and from this standpoint, the more you become accustomed, comfortable with, familiarized in, the more savvy one becomes at mastering, working with, talking about, etc a particular thing or entity. I think sex is, by far, no exception to this idea.
So why do people even struggle with this concept? Also a complex question that will not be fully answered in the body of this blog, but I do have some relatively short answers to this. Please note the plurality of "answers."
- Social constructs make it difficult: As I said before, we plain suck at talking about sexuality. In addition, porn depictions are so vast that they crate standards that are often incongruent with what sexual acts people are engaging in
- In many homes, churches, schools, and communities there is a circle of shame around sexuality. Some contexts are better than others but, by and large, consistency with addressing sexuality in a useful manner is lacking.
- In general, men and women have been influenced by the "romance novel standards;" the strong, aggressive, take-charge hero who is tall, dark and handsome accompanied by the female protagonist, a shrinking violet, in need of a dominant male. Excuse me while I puke! Although some women do like to be dominated and there are men who prefer to be dominant, his image overlooks so many sexual realities and leaves so many feeling as if there is something wrong with them. It leaves men feeling emasculated if they prefer to submit and women feeling harsh and whoreish if they prefer to dominate. Don't even get me started about how this socially influenced image doesn't even begin to consider the LGBTQ populations and many variations of eroticized kink!
- The last of the answers that I will discuss in this blog (while it is certainly not the only other) is one of the most sad to me. Within social work, psychology, counseling, and marriage and family therapy programs, sexuality is not only marginalized, but oftentimes ignored altogether. I started teaching at a local social work program after initiating contact with the dean of the program, inquiring strongly why there was no sexuality program. I was promptly taken up on my offer to teach the class ;-) The aftermath of sexuality not being included in graduate programs is not only critical for clients that these graduates will serve but for the soon-to-be clinicians themselves. To talk about sex it takes comfort with one's own values and beliefs around sexuality. If graduate students are not given the opportunity, they will likely enter into the clinical realm, complete with all their personal hang-ups around sexuality. I can't tell you how many times I have received a referral, meet with a couple who has received "marital therapy for years" and not once, talked about sexuality. It is deeply sad.
- For pre/peri/menopausal/post-menopausal women penetrating sexual activity is highly encouraged in respect to vaginal lubrication changes as well as narrowing of the vagina that happens with age
- Masurbation is considered a best practice for treating sexual anxiety
- When stressed or tired, hormones released during sex create a natural "pick me up" that can't be accomplished in every other way
- For men and women alike, sexual activity helps maintain a healthy pelvic floor which correlate positively with sexual pleasure, vaginal comfort, and positive prostate health
Until next time...#Withlovefromyourlocalsextherapist