NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, January 7, 2024

What is Erotic Empathy?

The term "erotic empathy" was coined by Canadian psychotherapist Amanda Luterman, founder of the Centre for Erotic Empathy, as she observed couples struggling to understand each other sexually (see my article: Don't Yuk Anybody's Yum).

Developing Erotic Empathy

What is Empathy?
Before delving into the meaning of erotic empathy, let's define the meaning of the word "empathy."

As psychotherapists in training learn early on, empathy is an essential part of working with clients in psychotherapy (see my article: Why is Empathy Important in Therapy?).

Empathy has been defined in many ways and it includes a wide range of experiences. 

Emotion researchers define empathy as the ability to sense other people's emotions and to imagine what other people might be thinking and feeling.

Empathy is the first step in experiencing compassion.

Researchers believe that empathy has an important evolutionary history among mammals for cooperation and survival.

Researchers describe different types of empathy:
  • Affective Empathy: The ability to experience sensations and feelings derived from other people's emotions
  • Cognitive Empathy (also called Perspective Taking): The ability to identify and understand other people's emotions
What is Erotic Empathy?
Erotic empathy is the ability to communicate your emotional and sexual needs to your partner as well as the ability to understand their needs.  

Developing Erotic Empathy

Erotic empathy does not mean that you do things you don't want to do sexually or that you expect your partner to do things they don't want to do (see my article: What Are the Basic Rules of Sexual Consent?).

But when either of you suggests doing something the other doesn't want to do, erotic empathy means you don't criticize, show contempt or respond with disgust (see my article: How to Improve Your Communication By Avoiding the "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse").

Why is Erotic Empathy Important in Your Relationship?
Good communication is essential to a healthy relationship.

It's often hard for people to talk about what they want sexually, so if you respond to your partner with criticism, contempt or disgust, you could shut your partner down and make it that much harder for them to talk to you about sex the next time (see my article: How to Talk to Your Partner About Sex - Part 1 and Part 2).

Developing Erotic Empathy

Rejecting sexual suggestions without compassion is hurtful to your partner. Feeling rejected, your partner might withdraw emotionally and sexually from you (see my article: Coping With Sexual Rejection From Your Partner).

The outcome could be that you both get stuck in a rut following the same boring sex script indefinitely (see my article: What is Sexual Boredom in Long Term Relationships?).

And just like you probably wouldn't want to eat your favorite meal every day from now until forever, you would get tired of engaging in the same sexual acts all the time (see my article: How to Change Your Sex Script).

Clinical Vignette About Erotic Empathy
The following clinical vignette is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information removed. It illustrates how a couple can learn to develop and use erotic empathy.

Bill and Lena
One day Lena came in the house after doing yard work. Her husband, Bill, gave her a hug and said, "The kids will be out for a few hours. Let's have sex."  

Inwardly, Lena groaned. She felt sweaty and dirty from doing yard work. Having sex while she felt this way was the last thing she wanted to do so she told him, "Forget it! How could you even suggest having sex while I'm such a mess."  

Then she saw the hurt look on his face, but she didn't know what to say, so she left the room to take a shower.  

While she was showering, she had time to think and she felt badly about rejecting Bill. She thought she should talk to him about it, but when she went back into the living room, she saw Bill was on his computer finishing up some work.  When he didn't look up when she walked into the room, she took that as a sign that he didn't want to talk and she went to the kitchen to start dinner.  

After a few more incidents like this, Bill stopped initiating sex and Lena felt too uncomfortable initiating.  As a result, months went by and neither of them felt comfortable initiating sex or even bringing up the topic.  

Then, one day, after feeling increasingly uncomfortable, Lena blurted out that they should attend sex therapy because their sex life had become nonexistent, and Bill agreed.

Their sex therapist helped them to understand their feelings and why it was so hard for them to talk about sex.  

She also helped them to develop erotic empathy for each other so that, instead of rejecting each other sexually, they learned to start by being open and getting curious.  

After they went over the incident with their sex therapist where Lena rejected Bill, they learned a different way to communicate with each other.

Lena said, "I realize how I responded to Bill was hurtful. The truth is I enjoy sex with Bill, but I just felt so dirty and smelly that I needed to take a shower.  I wish I would've told him, 'I would love to have sex with you. Let me take a shower first and then let's meet in the bedroom.'"  Then, turning to Bill, she said, "I'm sorry I rejected you. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."

As Bill turned towards Lena and put his arm around her, he said, "I wouldn't have minded if you were dirty and smelly. I think it might've even been a turn-on for me, but I understand you didn't feel comfortable, so I would've been happy to wait while you took a shower. I'm sorry I didn't understand how you were feeling."

As part of their sex therapy homework, Bill and Lena practiced developing erotic empathy with each other as part of improving their communication.

As part of expanding their sexual repertoire, over time, Lena and Bill learned to overcome their shame and discomfort with talking about sex so they could communicate more effectively with each other and expand their sexual repertoire (see my article: Changing Your Sex Script: The Beginning Phase - Sexual Arousal).

At one point, their sex therapist gave them a Yes, No, Maybe list to see what sexual activities they both would like to add to their sexual repertoire.  

The list had over 100 sexual activities with a scale of 0-5 with 0 indicating no interest, 5 indicating a strong interest and the rest of the scale being a spectrum indicating various degrees of interest or disinterest (see my article: Creating Your Sexual Menu With a Yes, No, Maybe List).

Each of them filled it out separately and then brought their filled out list to their next sex therapy session.  

Their sex therapist helped them to start by adding the sexual activities where they both had a strong interest (5 on the Yes, No, Maybe List).

There was a clear understanding that neither of them had to do anything they didn't want to do, but they had to communicate with erotic empathy.

As they included more items from the list as part of their sexual repertoire, they talked about it in their sex therapy sessions.  

There were times when they both enjoyed a sexual activity they explored. There were also other times when one of them enjoyed it and the other one thought they would enjoy it but, once they tried it, they didn't.  

Each time, they learned how to talk about what they liked and disliked with empathy for the other partner.  

After trying all the #5 items on the Yes, Maybe, No list, they talked about the other items from Level #4 and below.  

At times, it was challenging, but they maintained their sense of openness and curiosity and respected each other's decisions.

Throughout this process, their sex life became more satisfying for both of them.

How to Develop Erotic Empathy
  • Develop a Sense of Openness: To start, learn to cultivate a sense of openness about understanding your own and your partner's sexual turn-ons.  Start by understanding your own erotic blueprint.  You can explore your own sexual pleasure through pleasure mapping.  This kind of openness can be difficult if you experience sexual shame and guilt for personalinterpersonal or cultural reasons. Choose your discussion time wisely. Don't try to have a talk about sex when you're tired, rushed or when you don't have privacy. Choose a time when you're both relaxed but not when you're about to have sex because that will cause too much pressure. So, for instance, you can both be sitting on the couch and enjoying each other's company when you bring the discussion.
  • Get Curious About Your Own and Your Partner's Sexual Turn-ons: Along with a sense of openness, a sense of curiosity also helps you talk to your partner about what each of you would like. Instead of automatically rejecting your partner's sexual suggestions, ask your partner what s/he likes about a particular sexual activity. If you each understand what makes this sexual act appealing, you might be more willing to try it or, if not, you might come up with a compromise that you both might like and get just as turned on by it (see my article: Getting to Know Your Own and Your Partner's Sexual Brakes and Accelerators).
Developing Erotic Empathy

  • Get to Know Your Own and Your Partner's Sexual Turn-offs: Sexual turn-offs can change to turn-ons for some people after they give it a try.  But if not, you each need to respect the other's wishes. So, for instance, if you know you need a little time to decompress after coming home from a stressful day at work, let your partner know this. Be as specific as you can about what you need so your partner will understand. In the same vein, learn to appreciate your partner's needs. Be aware that stress can be a libido killer, so take steps to reduce stress.
  • Learn to Experiment and Develop a Willingness to Try New Sexual Activities: As long as it's not a complete turn-off, try to learn to be sexually explorative for sexual activities you and your partner can try. Sometimes you might discover you don't like a particular activity, but at other times you might discover something else that's new to add to your sexual repertoire.
  • Know That Discrepancies in Libido Are Normal: You wouldn't expect that you and your partner would always like the same food or the same hobbies, so why would you expect that you would both enjoy the same sexual activities in bed?  Discrepancies in libido are the #1 problem that people in relationships seek help with in sex therapy because one or both partners are unhappy with either the frequency, duration or type of sex they're having. But discrepancies in libido are normal, and you can learn to negotiate these differences with help from a sex therapist (see my article: What is a Sexual Libido Discrepancy in a Relationship?).
  • Learn the Difference Between Spontaneous Sexual Desire and Responsive Sexual Desire: Both men and women can experience spontaneous sexual desire or responsive sexual desire. With spontaneous sexual desire, a person can think about sex and get turned on. With responsive sexual desire, a person might have to start having sex to get turned on, but they know from personal experience that once they start having sex, they will get sexually aroused. So, it's important to know how you and your partner each experience sexual desire. If you're the person who tends to experience responsive desire, rather than saying "no" when your partner wants to have sex because you're not immediately turned on, you can explore your own willingness to allow yourself to get sexually aroused after you begin having sex. And if you're the partner who experiences spontaneous desire, you can learn to be patient and allow your partner's sexual desire to build (see my article: For People Who Experience Responsive Sexual Desire, a Willingness to Start Having Sex is Often Enough to Get Sexually Aroused).
  • Get Help in Sex Therapy: If you have tried to work on sexual problems on your own and you haven't been successful, you can seek help in sex therapy.  Most individual therapists and couples therapists aren't trained to deal with sexual problems, so you need to seek help specifically from a sex therapist for sexual problems.

Getting Help in Sex Therapy
Sex therapy is a form of talk therapy (see my article: What is Sex Therapy?).

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

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

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help from a skilled sex therapist so you can have a more fulfilling sex 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.