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Sunday, November 26, 2023

To Improve Intimacy in Your Relationship, Get Off the Sexual Staircase

In their book, Desire - An Inclusive Guide to Navigating Libido Differences in Relationships, Lauren Fogel Mersey, PsyD and Jennifer A. Vencill, PhD., discuss the "Sexual Staircase" to describe the kind of routine, goal-oriented sex that people engage in when they're having sex with their partner (see my article: Understanding Your Sex Script).

Improve Intimacy in Your Relationship

What is the Sexual Staircase?
According to Mersey and Vencill, the Sexual Staircase, which is a metaphor, is how most people think sex is "supposed to be."

The Sexual Staircase is a list of hierarchical steps that usually start at the bottom of the staircase with foreplay and ends with sexual intercourse and orgasm.

Depending upon the couple, the sexual acts between foreplay and intercourse can include kissing, caressing, genital touch, oral sex, and so on.

For many people in long term relationships these steps don't deviate. They engage in the same steps in the same way most or all of the time.  

After a while, people in long term relationships often skip some of the steps as they prioritize a goal-oriented approach that always ends with penetrative sex and strives for orgasm.  

Having sex the same way all the time becomes boring after a while (see my article: What is Sexual Boredom in Long Term Relationships?).

What's the Problem With the Sexual Staircase?
If you and your partner enjoy doing the same thing, the same way all of the time and neither of you have a problem with it, then there's nothing wrong with the Sexual Staircase for you.

But many people find this approach to be too routine and unfulfilling.  The problem is that they think this is the way they're supposed to do it, so they just keep doing it the same way.

People who find the Sexual Staircase boring, sexually unfulfilling or not applicable to them often have the following problems with it:
  • It's a heteronormative sex script that focuses on cisgender heterosexual men. For heterosexual men, sexual intercourse is one of the most reliable ways to have an orgasm, but this isn't the case for most women (see below).
  • It assumes that most people want penis-in-vagina sex even though there are many people who don't want it or it doesn't work for them because of problems with dyspareunia (persistent or recurrent genital pain that occurs during penetrative sex) or erectile unpredictability (a persistent or recurrent problem with getting and maintaining an erect penis) or because they're not heterosexual (see below).
  • Sexual intercourse is the least reliable way for most women to have orgasms because they need direct clitoral stimulation, which they often don't get from sexual intercourse or clitoral stimulation is skipped altogether (see my articles: Closing the Orgasm Gap - Part 1 and Part 2).
  • In many long term relationships, the Sexual Staircase gets shorter and shorter over time so that there is little or no foreplay, which has a negative impact of women's sexual pleasure. The focus becomes getting sex over and done with it as quickly as possible because it's unsatisfying.
  • In addition to problems with painful sex and erectile unpredictability, penetrative sex isn't always possible for a variety of reasons, including childbirth, certain disabilities, age-related physical limitations, surgery or other types of problems.
  • When penetrative sex isn't possible (for whatever reason), many couples skip having sex altogether because penetrative sex is the only way they know how to have sex.  Over time, one or both of them become frustrated and dissatisfied.
  • The heteronormativity of this model isn't useful for LGBTQ people, as previously mentioned. Many LGBTQ people assume that since they're not having penis-in-vagina sex, they're not having "real sex," which, of course, is false.  This often leads to feelings of shame, guilt and self consciousness about their sexual orientation.
The Wheel Model
The authors of Desire cite the Wheel Model, which was inspired by Robert T. Francoeur in his book, Becoming a Sexual Person (1991).

Picture a wheel that's divided into different sections with sexual activities represented in a non-hierarchical way.  

Rather than the linear, hierarchical model represented in the Sexual Staircase, in the Wheel Model none of the sexual activities has a higher priority over any of the others.  Other than sexual pleasure, there are no goals, which usually means less pressure for both people and more enjoyment.

In addition, with the Wheel Model, people can engage flexibly pick and chooe what they like, in whatever order they like without being constrained to the rigid model of the Sexual Staircase.

The authors provide an example of what sexual activities might be included in the Wheel Model:
  • Kissing
  • Caressing
  • Touching
  • Massaging
  • Using a sex toy
  • Showering together
  • Cuddling
  • Oral sex
  • Orgasm
  • Penetrative sex
  • Manual stimulation
And more.

The sexual activities included with the Wheel Model are only limited by your imagination.

But this is not to say that you and your partner should engage in the activities they write about or that you should stop having sexual intercourse if it's enjoyable to both of you.  You can do whatever you both enjoy.

The Wheel Model helps to dispel the myth that there's one right way to have sex or that everyone should have the same predetermined sex script.  

Making Changes to Your Sex Script
Once again, I want to reiterate that if you and your partner are happy with your sex script, you can continue using it without a problem.

But if you're stuck in a routine and you're getting tired of doing the same thing over and over again, consider how you can work towards making changes  in your sex script (see my article: Changing Your Sex Script).

As Emily Nagoski, PhD., sex educator and author of the book, Come As You Are, says, "Pleasure is the measure."

This means "good sex" is what's pleasurable for both of you.

Getting Help in Sex Therapy
A skilled sex therapist can help you to overcome sexual problems.

Sex therapy is a form of talk therapy where the focus is on sex and relational problems getting in the way of sexual enjoyment (see my article: What is Sex Therapy?).

Individuals and couples seek help in sex therapy for a variety of reasons (see my article: What Are Common Issues Discussed in Sex Therapy?).

There is no nudity, physical exam or sex during sex therapy sessions (see my article: What Are Common Misconceptions About Sex Therapy?)

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help in sex therapy so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

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.