Your Brain on Sex: sex as self-help

Shawn Alff: How do you define "Intelligent Lust" and how can it positively impact your relationship?

Stanley Siegel: Intelligent lust is a process by which we discover and understand our true sexual desires. By understanding where these fantasies and desires come from and what they mean, we can use them to guide us into choosing partners with whom we are sexually and otherwise compatible.

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SA: Do most of your clients come in with a sexual or relationship problem, or do you discover through your sessions that these are some of the issues they need to work through?

SS: Some specifically come because of sexual issues. It may be that sex has gone out of a relationship, or they may be behaving in sexually compulsive ways, or they may be feeling disinterested in sex, or a variety of other things. Other people come in with seemingly unrelated problems and inevitably the conversation leads to sex.

Understanding yourself sexually is as important as understanding any other part of yourself. I think we underestimate the importance of sex. We take for granted that our sexual fantasies are random imaginings, but actually they are windows into the deeper levels of our psyche. They can help us improve our sexual lives, but beyond good sex we can also use those desires and fantasies to understand who we truly are.

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SA: What happens when someone explores her sexual desires and discovers that she is not sexually compatible with her partner and that he is not willing to work on these differences?

SS: In the book I give four or five case examples where people have faced that question. First of all, when you go through the process of intelligent lust it is always a good thing. While it requires solitary self-exploration, it is also something that you should engage your partner in. You may discover that you are not sexually compatible, but at least you have had the conversation about what the truth is. Usually people are sexually incompatible and do not even discuss it. Sex just drifts out of the relationship. If you are actually talking about sex, since most people don't, that creates a level of intimacy that may not have been there before, and also a level of respect and trust. At least you are building these elements in your relationship, and at least you are having a deeper, meaningful conversation about your life.

While I don’t recommend any particular course of action, people do different things. Some are willing to satisfy the other person’s needs and desires. Some will choose not to and they may simply decide just not to make sex important. But, at least they have improved their intimacy and have spoken about it and made a decision about it. Some people will choose to have an open relationship. Some people do just make the decision to break up, not only because of the differences in their sexual desires but because they couldn’t really talk about it, or they couldn’t have a respectful conversation.

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SA: What are some of the guidelines you have found helpful for couples who want to explore an open relationship?

SS: The first thing to do is to decide what the rules are. Is this going to be a relationship in which you ask your partner who you may have sex with, or do you need to ask before you start looking online for someone to hook up with. Some couples will say that sex can only happen once with the same person so there is not an ongoing affair, which is then less likely to develop into something other than just sexual exploration. Some couples limit the sex acts one can have with other partners. For some, oral sex is okay, but intercourse is not.

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SA: What advice do you have for someone who has a sexual desire that is illegal, like sex with an underage partner, or a man who has a rape fantasy?

SS: For illegal acts, of course I cannot condone that and I would not recommend that people act that out. Sometimes there are very modified versions of those fantasies, like acting out a kind of rape fantasy with a consenting partner that can begin to satisfy those desires.

I think the important thing in any of this is to remember this: all our sexual desires and fantasies come from our experiences in childhood. This is a really important piece of what I write about. Our desires come out of conflict that usually begins in childhood. By the time we have reached adolescents we have somehow eroticized those feelings that surrounded that conflict in our inevitable attempt to heal them. Unconsciously we take the pain of those events and we convert them into something pleasurable through our sexual fantasies and desires. Sex often becomes a way to make that pain pleasurable; it is an attempt to heal those issues.

Let us say you grew up in a family where you were constantly criticized, and maybe humiliated. As an adolescent, this is a painful feeling. Somehow the mind, in its attempt to heal that problem, turns humiliation into an erotic fantasy. You eroticize humiliation so you can think about those experiences without the pain. You can actually think about those things and experience pleasure or get off. By the time you get into adulthood you have that fantasy and that desire, so maybe you seek those experiences and maybe you do not.

The point is, often you do not understand where these desires comes from, so you choose partners with whom you may submit, but you have no understanding of what it is you are doing and you do not include the other elements of it. You do not find a partner with whom you can act that out, which has all the other restorative elements that will help you heal the original conflict. For instance, if you choose a partner you can have a conversation with, who you trust and can act out your fantasies, then you can reverse the conflict you had in childhood. Now you have a partner who may humiliate you, who you may submit to sexually, but who treats you with respect and trust, kindness, generosity, and honesty. A key point to intelligent lust, to having smarter sex, is knowing where these desires come from and using them to find a partner who helps you repair those early conflicts from which those desires and fantasies emerged.

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SA: Do you think that most fetishes stem from a negative feeling or a childhood conflict? Are there any fetishes that have biologic roots, such as the suggestion that some foot fetishes may be rooted in the connection between small feet in women and increased levels of estrogen?

SS: There are plenty of theories about the biology of sex, or the social evolution of sex. I don’t look at it that way. I think that someone who fetishizes a body part for instance is often someone who grew up in a family in which survival depended on emotional detachment. So, when they get to adolescents and they are in a heightened state of sexuality they eroticize this attachment. They cannot take in the whole human being and they can’t take in the intimacy. Instead they take in a part of the human being. In some cases it is feet. In some cases it is breasts. In some cases it is an inanimate object because that allows them to continue to play out the feeling of detachment.

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SA: What do you think about the imprinting phase of human sexuality? In one case I read that a man experienced his first orgasm as a boy when he was tied up by his cousins and tickled. He claims this was at the root of his bondage fetish. How can parents provide a healthy and positive imprinting phase for their children, especially now with the Internet giving kids access to every kind of sex act imaginable?

SS: I do not agree with the idea of an imprinting phase. In the case you mentioned, where the boy was tied up, some boys would be furious and would protest and scream, and would never eroticize that. I am sure there were lots of elements before this incident where he may have felt helpless in his family, so that moment where he actually captured the feeling of helplessness with rope became erotic. Someone else who did not feel helpless in their family would not have eroticized that. I think there are lots of dynamics that happen before that imprinting moment that lead to whether or not that does become imprinted.

In terms of family, there is no reason we should protect our children from sex. We should be talking about sex with our children. We should be conducting ourselves with a lot of respect toward sex. We should be open about sex, like any other element of our lives. I do not necessarily think there is a specific age when a conversation should happen but I do think if we have that attitude toward it, if we make sex important and central in our lives, if we know sex is a tool for understanding ourselves, then we will communicate that same thing toward our children. It is our attitude that carries the most energy and most importance.

But, I also think that no one can escape childhood without some kind of conflict. What we eroticize is based on those conflicts. That is not something that a parent can in any way be a part of. I think what parents can do is be good parents by respecting our children, being generous with our love, and being respectful—these are all things that lesson the conflict. But even so no one can escape childhood without conflict, and it isn’t a bad thing that we eroticize these issues. It is just what happens.

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SA: Is there any danger in thinking too much about your sex life or placing too much importance on sex in terms of our happiness? I know a lot of guys have issues with penis size because they think the size of their penis is directly correlated with the amount of pleasure they can provide women, or some men worry so much about sex that they suffer from psychological impotence.

SS: I think men who focus on the size of their penis and feel that their penis is too small are really men who feel inadequate. Some of them have eroticized the humiliation around that and some of them have converted it into something about being powerful.

I do not think we can place too much importance on sex. It is not sex that is the problem. It is that we are not really understanding what our sexual needs and desires are. We have to understand them and learn how to use them to help heal ourselves. I think there are occasions where people think too much about sex or act compulsively when it comes to sex, but that is another issue. In these cases, again they are not really dealing with what sex means to them.

Order Stanley Siegel's latest book, Your Brain on Sex: How Smarter Sex Can Change Your Life here and keep up with Siegel's weekly advice on Intelligent Lust, updated weekly on Psychology Today.

Follow Alfie on Twitter or Facebook and email him if interested in writing about Sex & Love.

Most of us are stuck wondering how to meet someone to have sex with, or how to enhance the sex we are having with the same partner. Few of us ever consider that sex can be a vehicle to navigate through and overcome our psychological hang-ups. In his new book, Your Brain on Sex: How Smarter Sex Can Change your Life, renowned psychotherapist, Stanley Siegel, explores how we can lead a more fulfilling life by examining our sexual desires and what causes them.


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