NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, January 30, 2021

Understanding Your Sexual Accelerators and Sexual Brakes - Part 2

In my prior article, Understanding Your Sexual Accelerators and Sexual Brakes - Part 1, I began a discussion based on Dr. Emily Nagoski's book,  Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.  Dr. Nagoski is an expert on sexual well-being and healthy relationships.  In this article, I'm continuing this discussion with a clinical vignette to illustrate the points I made in Part 1 of this topic.

Understanding Your Sexual Accelerators and Sexual Brakes

To summarize Part 1: Everyone has certain sexual turn ons and turn offs that are particular to them. The turn ons function as sexual accelerators for sexual desire and the turn offs function as brakes.  Knowing what your sexual accelerators and brakes are and communicating them to your partner helps to improve your sex life.

For many people, this is easier said than done because they think something is "wrong" with them if they don't conform to certain societal myths in the media or what they've seen in porn.  

For instance, in porn videos women are shown as being instantly turned on with little to no foreplay when this isn't true for the vast majority of women.  They're also shown in these videos to experience orgasm through sexual intercourse alone when most women get more sexually excited with clitoral stimulation.  In addition, sexual taboos learned in childhood can interfere with sexual pleasure for individuals and couples.  

These examples are just a few of the many issues that can make women feel like they're not "normal" when, in fact, they are normal.

The vast majority of women need sexual stimulation to get turned on.  Their sexual desire is also context dependent.  In Dr. Nagoski's book she gives the example of being tickled.  

So, for instance, if a husband tickles his wife while she is hurrying to get their child ready for school, she's probably going to feel annoyed.  Whereas if he tickles her when they're being playful together in bed, she's more likely to experience this as a turn on.  In both cases, the husband is tickling the wife, but the context in each case is very different.

About 16% of women and almost all men experience spontaneous sexual desire, according to Dr. Nagoski.  In terms of understanding sexual accelerators and sexual brakes, they have sensitive accelerators and not-so-sensitive brakes.  Their sexual arousal isn't as dependent upon context as the women who are context dependent.  However, even these women can experience problems with sexual arousal if they're worried about their children or they're highly stressed in some other areas of their life (e.g, financial problems, health problems and so on).

Clinical Vignette: Understanding Your Sexual Accelerators and Sexual Brakes
The following clinical vignette is a composite of many different couples. All identifying information has been removed:

Dana and Bill
After being married for five years and raising two children, Dana didn't feel as sexually passionate at times as she did when she and Bill first got married.

Sometimes Dana felt like she was just going through the motions when she and Bill had sex while she kept one ear alert for the sound of their five year old son and two year old daughter in the next room.

At 45, Dana experienced vaginal dryness at times and during sexual intercourse, and Bill saw this as a sign that she wasn't turned on--even when she really was sexually turned on.  He thought she was just having sex to appease him, which was a turn off for him, and Dana couldn't would convince him otherwise.

They decided to leave the children with Dana's mother so they could go for a romantic getaway.  But when they were alone in their hotel room, Dana felt such pressure and anxiety to be sexually turned on that she just couldn't get sexually aroused.

Soon after that, they stopped having sex altogether.  Although Dana was concerned about this, she was also relieved not to feel pressured so she didn't bring it up with Bill.  And Bill thought Dana would feel uncomfortable if he brought it up, so he remained silent, even though he felt sexually frustrated.

Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months.  Finally, after almost a year of no sex, Bill broached the subject with Dana, "We haven't had sex in almost a year. Don't you think we should talk about this?"

As soon as she heard Bill's words, Dana felt defensive.  She thought he was blaming her for the lack of sex in their relationship.  So when they sat down to talk, she was surprised that he wasn't blaming her--he just wanted to improve their sex life.

Dana told him that, even though she was still sexually attracted to him, she noticed she wasn't as sexually responsive since they had their children.  She also admitted that she didn't feel comfortable talking about sex because in her childhood home sex was a taboo topic, so it always made her feel uncomfortable to discuss it (see my article: How to Talk to Your Partner About Sex).

Soon after that, Dana went to see her gynecologist who ruled out any medical problems.  He recommended that she use lubricant when she and Bill had sex.  He called in Bill, who was waiting in the reception area, and explained to both Dana and Bill that women can be sexually aroused even if they don't experience vaginal wetness.  Bill was surprised, but he respected the doctor's words.  In addition, the gynecologist recommended that they see a couples therapist to see if they could revive their sex life.  

During their couples therapy sessions, the therapist explained to them that it wasn't unusual for there to be a decrease in sexual activity after a couple had children and experienced other stressors related to being married.  She also explained the concept of sexual accelerators and sexual brakes to them and assured them that they were both "normal" (see my article: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples?).

To remove the sexual performance pressure, the couples therapist recommended they practice sensate focus, developed by Masters and Johnson, where they touched each other sensually, but where they didn't have sexual intercourse during those times.  She said that sensate focus is a way to explore what turned each of them on sexually without the pressure of performing and the pressure to have an orgasm.

Dana and Bill felt awkward at first, but they soon began to enjoy sensate focus.  Dana felt more comfortable touching and being touched without worrying about sex, and they both enjoyed exploring what turned each of them on.

During this time, the couples therapist also recommended that Dana spend time on her own exploring her own sexual arousal.  She recommended that Dana try using sex toys, including a vibrator, to masturbate and learn what was sexually pleasurable for her.  She told Dana that she didn't need to worry about having an orgasm--she could just discover what was sexually pleasurable for her.  

At first, Dana felt uncomfortable.  Her thoughts went back to the time her mother found her in the bath tub, when Dana was 10 years old, running water over her clitoris and enjoying the sensation.  Her mother was shocked.  She scolded Dana and told her that what she was doing was "a sin."  After that, Dana never attempted to masturbate again.  She believed her mother when she said Dana would "go to hell" if she did it again.

Dana needed several individual sessions with the couples therapist to feel comfortable enough to masturbate on her own.  After these sessions, she was able to approach self pleasure with an open mind to discover what turned her on (her sexual accelerators) and what inhibited her sexual desire (her sexual brakes).

When Dana and Bill returned for their next session together, Dana said she was able to put her childhood memory aside, and she was surprised at how turned on she felt using the vibrator.  She said that even though she wasn't trying to have an orgasm, she had one of the most powerful orgasms she had ever had in her life.  Then, she turned to Bill and told him she hoped they could use the vibrator as part of their foreplay in the future, and Bill was thrilled to agree.  

When they were at the point where they were ready to have intercourse again, their couples therapist recommended that Dana use lubricant each time so sexual intercourse wasn't uncomfortable if she was dry.  

She told the couple to take as much as they needed for each of them to get sexually aroused and that pleasure was the goal--not orgasm.  She also told them to keep sex light and playful and that when Bill was pleasuring Dana that he focus on clitoral stimulation first (see my article: Sex Tips For Men: How Men Can Be Better Sexual Partners With Women).

Dana's mother took care of the children the next weekend while Dana and Bill enjoyed alone time.  To keep things playful and fun, they took a relaxing bubble bath together.  Then, they took turns giving each other a massage.  

Focusing on sensuality naturally led to sexual intimacy without pressure.  Even though they weren't focusing on it, they both experienced orgasms.  Afterwards, they cuddled in each other's arms and fell asleep peacefully.  

They were able to talk the next day about what each of them found pleasurable and what they wanted more of and less of when they made love again.  They also became more sexually adventurous and open to new experiences.

Many people are misinformed about sex because they have been raised with sexual taboos or they have learned about sex by watching porn, which has a lot of misinformation and distortions of all kinds.

Other people are worried that they're "not normal" either because they believe they should feel and act a certain way sexually rather than freeing themselves up to experience sex in a way that is most comfortable for each of them.

If a couple is open and willing to explore, they can learn what each of them enjoys sexually, their turn ons (sexual accelerators) and turn offs (sexual brakes) and develop a sex life that is pleasurable for both of them.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you and your partner are struggling with your sex life, you're not alone.  Help is available to you.

Seek help with a licensed mental health professional who works with couples so that you and your partner can have a more fulfilling relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples) and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.