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Sex, Actually

The 15 most significant variables that define your sexuality.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

For more than four decades, I have been a practicing psychologist, marriage counselor, and sex therapist. During that time, I have heard literally hundreds of patient’s recounting of their sexual experiences and how they felt about themselves as they participated.

As people enter into sexual encounters, they are influenced by a host of internal expectations and past experiences. Those memories and prior events affect how they feel about themselves, their partners, and what expectations/fears/needs they anticipate as they enter a new partnership. Most people are reluctant to share some of their innermost thoughts about sex with their partners, even when they have formed long-term relationships. They tell me they fear that knowledge might turn their partners off or render themselves too vulnerable to criticism.

Yet, when I’ve been able to open up these sensitive subjects with my couples, they have unanimously ended up closer and more trusting of each other. They are not only grateful for the opportunity to understand more deeply, but often become more successful as sexual partners. I’ve learned so much from their willingness to share these vulnerable and fragile experiences with me. It’s given me the opportunity to categorize and choose the following 15 areas of influence that I believe have the most significant effects on a person’s sense of themselves as a sexual partner.

My hope is that after reading this article, you will feel more open to sharing yourself more completely in your current and future sexual experiences.

1. Unequal Appetites In most cases, males have a greater appetite for sexual arousal and orgasm than women do. That can make them less interested in a long courtship process. When sex is a mutually desired, instant attraction and not part of an emotional relationship, the difference in timing and frequency may not be a problem. As a relationship matures, however, the difference in appetites can become more of an issue. The old adage, “Women need 36 hours to warm up, and men wake up with a hard-on,” is often truer than not. When partners have been together for a while, life demands can create diversions, and many women end up participating in sex without sufficient arousal. If that continues over time, many women end up not looking forward to sex as they once did. Partners may also have different feelings of how important sex is in the totality of their relationship. For some, it is central to their feelings of security and compatibility. For others, it is pleasurable, but more peripheral or sometimes even dispensable.

2. Power Differentials Is there a regularly more dominant and more submissive partner in the sexual encounter? In some relationships, those roles are interchangeable, but it's more likely to be a stable interaction in most relationships. The difference in initiation, control, timing demand, and sexually preferred behaviors gives the partner who is designated dominant the power to coordinate and direct the sexual encounter.

In cases where that power difference is agreed upon and mutually shared, the sexual encounter may be successful for both partners. If, on the other hand, coercion and punishment are involved in the maintenance of dominance, and there is an abuse of power and domination, the victimized partner’s fear will often prohibit sexual arousal to occur.

3. Prior Trauma If, whether in childhood or through a lifetime, either partner has been subjected to sexually traumatic experiences, he or she will approach a sexual encounter as though those tragedies might recur. Many even unconsciously are attracted to a similar experience, because of its sense of familiarity, as well as not knowing that there could be better. Many people are reluctant to talk with their current partners about prior sexual trauma. Without that knowledge, those partners may unknowingly repeat certain phrases or behaviors that trigger memories of those prior tragedies. Or a trauma victim may actually unwittingly accept them as part of their “due,” not knowing how to ask for help for fear of humiliation or rejection.

Sexual trauma is much more prevalent than most people realize. The extent and duration of those experiences always affect a sexual encounter when triggered, or even before one begins. The previously traumatized person may go in and out of arousal, pull back at the moment of orgasm, become angry during the process, disconnect quickly when the sexual experience is over, oscillate between enjoyment and fear, or try to get the sexual encounter over as quickly as possible. Many sexual insecurities, anxieties, reluctances, needs for control, or even aggressions are actually symptoms of prior trauma, whether consciously or unconsciously experienced.

4. Taboos Early teachings affect everyone, but especially so when the discussion of a subject is avoided or thought of as immoral, dirty, or unacceptable. Children incorporate those lessons and then have to somehow integrate them with their own natural desires as they mature. When there is a large difference between what a child innately feels and what he or she is told not to allow, a sexual taboo can drive that person, as an adult, to act out those repressed desires in an exaggerated manner, or urgently suppress their presence when they emerge. They may resort to inward fantasy, while outwardly restricted in their capability to behave as they desire. There are also societal taboos against certain behaviors. Most people live within them, because they don’t want to pay the price of being outcasted in some way, while others are attracted to those behaviors simply because they are frowned upon and try secretly to have it both ways.

Most probably the most indulged in, yet still somewhat condemned, is the regular use of pornography. A very large percentage of men and a significant percentage of women watch pornography on a regular basis. For many, it is not only a ready release and an opportunity to indulge in taboo fantasies, but can also augment a sexual relationship by education and an increase in acceptable behaviors. What is crucial in a relationship is that the involvement in pornography does not substitute for partner sex in a way that dismisses the other partner, and that it is willingly shared if the other partner is interested.

5. Physical Plumbing Men’s outer genitalia make them much more susceptible to stimulation. In times of arousal, they cannot hide the outward evidence. When they are in fear of erectile dysfunction, they may avoid sexual interaction even when they have desire. That cycle of anticipated dysfunction and avoidance can lead to premature ejaculation, or even an inability to ejaculate when they do connect. Women who are interacting with male partners can choose to interact sexually without those obvious external signs. Many women have told me that they often don't share their level of arousal with their male partners if they are not able to match their partner's excitement, concerned that they will distress them or turn them off.

The way women are touched or aroused can be very different for women than it is for men. Heterosexual women more often tell me that they feel invaded if men reach for their erogenous zones before they are more generally aroused both physically and emotionally. As a contrast, heterosexual men often share with me that they feel most accurately responded to sexually if their partners reach for their genitals early in the sexual connection. People who have had same-sex partners, or are primarily involved with those of the same sex, are more likely to intuitively understand those differences. Sharing the same anatomy makes it easier to identify and accordingly respond.

6. Senses Touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste are highly variable from one person to another. Chemistry is often a combination of super-compatibility in all of those areas, even if a relationship fails miserably in others. How, when, and where a person wants to be touched, what olfactory experience is preferable, visual attraction, how and which phrases are emitted, and how a person tastes to another as they mix fluids, are central to a sexual relationship’s success.

The basic human emotions of fear, anger, joy, surprise, sadness, and disgust interact and are expressed through the senses as well. They all contribute in concert as to how one person approaches, interacts, and feels about another. 7. Sexual or Sexy What may be sexy to one person can differ highly from what may be to another, and sexual attractions do not always mean sexual satisfaction in the long run, or compatibility with other dimensions of a relationship.

Sexy, as most people describe it, is comprised of confidence, independence, charm, welcome, mischief, teasing, playfulness, being hot, but not needy. Sexual simply means a high sex-drive and can be perceived by a willing partner as a plus, but by one who is not turned on as onerous. Of all the sexual experiences, sexiness is in the eye of the beholder. And it has its place. Those in relationships may, at one time, love that their partners are seen as sexy by others, but can also feel threatened by the same behaviors in other situations.

8. Masturbation Versus Partner Sex Most people begin their sexual experience privately. Drawing from observing others at home, in the media, or hearing from others, they form their masturbatory fantasies that help them achieve self-exploration and orgasm. Those fantasies remain with most people, in some form, for their entire lifetimes. They also, during auto-arousal, know their own rhythms, timing, and touch preferences. They don’t have to worry about how their behavior is affecting another or be concerned about their own performance or reputation.

When it is time for a person to change that comfortable self-experience to that of being with another, it is often hard to integrate the two. In a new relationship, filled with intensity and lust, those differences do not emerge. Most new partners, caught up in the frenzy of new passion, go effortlessly between their own internal experience and living in that of their partners, without thinking or experiencing how that is happening. The ability to stay in the present and connect with another during love-making can only happen when fantasies and reality merge, and the partners are open to being with one another in real time. If there is performance anxiety, or they cannot share when they temporarily disconnect and retreat into their own world, they can end up simply mutually using the other partner to fulfill what is inside. Those who, by choice or by situation, masturbate much more than they copulate may have more difficulty switching over. The tendency to stay in old fantasies that work when alone is a powerful pull that can interfere with interpersonal intimacy.

9. Romantic Sex Romantic sex is basically a criss-cross of parent-child nurturing combined with sexual passion. People don’t call their friends “baby” or tenderly embrace adults the way they do children. People newly in the throes of romantic love only have eyes for each other, openly embrace in situations where they would normally be more discreet, and put almost all other priorities on a back burner. They treasure one another as parts of themselves and anticipate each desire or request with eagerness to comply. In the initial weeks of romantic love, any potential red flags or past losses are ignored or forgotten, and sexual discrepancies disappear.

As the partners simultaneously or sequentially discover that the perfect partner they thought they had morphs into reality, they feel “abandoned,” “rejected,” “disillusioned,” or “discarded.” The truth is that they were never only who they appeared to be, but both partners wanted to leave out what did not fit in their mutual illusion. Some intimate partners have been lucky enough to have created other dimensions of compatibility and understanding that hold the relationship together as the parent-child interaction fades, and still treasure those feelings of unconditional love enough to recreate them from time to time. Sadly, most romantic relationships cannot navigate that process. 10. Strangers Versus Known Partners New, forbidden, or unknown strangers can carry a mystique of their own. One-night stands can be thrilling, because of the uncertainty that, when not triggering insecurity, is often deeply freeing. Being unknown and anonymous can release prior restrictions and allow fantasies to emerge. There was a popular website many years ago that required and encouraged those entering it to pose as an imposter to participate. People could then become part of an imaginary world, where they could pretend to be anyone they wanted to be. When it is not required to be known, to have a history, or to be expected to be a certain way, many people can allow themselves to act out their fantasies, because of the limited exposure and privacy those interactions allow.

Of course, there are risks involved in having sex with a total stranger. But when the tryst is thrilling, and there are no insufferable losses, they are well worth it for some people at that particular time in their lives. 11. How Many Partners? During eras of free love, many people have multiple partners, either sequentially or concurrently. Their emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual experiences can range from superficial to deeply intertwining.

When a current society defines sexuality as a precursor only to monogamy and eventual commitment, those who have had multiple partners can be condemned as somehow lacking in their inability to hold on to a relationship. People who have chosen or simply endured many short-term sexual encounters tend to hide them from their current partners, for fear of being rejected. Though many feel that applies more predominantly to women, I have found that there are men who are reluctant to share their past histories as well. Despite the sampling of many potential long-term partners that is now more readily available, most people still yearn for “the one.” Sequential monogamy seems to fill the gap, but, in many cases, is simply the new term for the old romantic relationships that faded when reality set in.

What is most important is not how many partners any one person has had, but how they cumulatively feel about themselves as a desirable sexual partner in the present. 12. Availability and Compromise This dilemma is, sadly, one that many would-be sexual partners face in their quest for new experiences. Ageism, geographical location, vocation, illness, physical limitations and/or desirability, financial constraints, religious restrictions, and personality issues can all contribute to a lack of potential options or the need to compromise. When it is necessary to limit options because of ideas, moral choices, physical attraction, social condemnation, or hopes for compatibility and continued love, many people enter relationships feeling discouraged and somehow pre-defeated, or end up with a sense of incompleteness after a sexual encounter. Yet, some opportunities for physical gratification may be better than loneliness or a lack of touch. There are seekers of intimacy who just can’t allow themselves to make the compromises that their life circumstances allow in order for them to be sexually active. Sometimes they try to find ways to live without those experiences in their lives, but many have told me of the loneliness that accompanies those decisions. That is especially true of those who are different, older, or too damaged from prior trauma. 13. Love, Sex, or Both For some people, sex is sex and can be enjoyed regardless of the quality of a short-term or long-term relationship. For others, sex is the physical expression of a deeper affection and connection.

When courtship was a requirement in order for sex to follow, it was more difficult for more highly sexual people to participate, primarily males. The uncertainty of whether or not the orgasmic goal would be achieved and the intricacies of seduction were hard for many to navigate. As sexual availability is now more common without the necessity of those complicated overtures, many people can indulge in sexual connection relatively soon into a relationship without needing to develop other dimensions as readily.

Unfortunately, sexual passion, without those additional connections, most often abates over time when love hasn’t had the chance to adequately develop. Though great chemistry will forever be desired and enjoyed, most of my patients would prefer to have it all and to simultaneously hold on to the passion they felt for one another at the beginning of their relationship.

14. STD's and Other Painful Embarrassments Many of my patients have been exposed at one time or another to a sexually transmitted illness. Because society still correlates those conditions with sexual impropriety, those who have been infected often feel that sting, even though their exposure may have been innocent. Even in the safety and comfort of the therapeutic environment, most people do not even share that knowledge readily, and often with embarrassment and humiliation. When do they tell a potential sexual partner they may be contagious? How do they let them know? How can they trust a new partner to let them know if they are in danger? Many people also have understandable concerns sharing any kind of sexual dysfunction pattern, like erectile difficulty, painful intercourse, or anorgasmia. Others feel embarrassed about their physical attributes and fear that the nakedness of sexual connection will reveal them to rejection or humiliation. Childhood shame around masturbation or being told that sex is dirty, obligatory, or self-serving may approach physical intimacy with a combination of normal desire mixed with guilt or self-reproach. If their partners are not aware of these vulnerabilities, they may inadvertently say or do something that can set off triggers they did not know existed. 15. The Outliers Mutually desired sexual connection, in all of its myriad forms, inhabits a wide swath of attitudes, behaviors, desires, and interactions. Yet, society does accept some of those behaviors more readily than it does others.

For instance, a number of people seek polyamorous involvement, dominance/submissive interactions, multiple partners at one time, or any form of sexuality that might be referred to as “kinky.” Many who engage in those more fringe behaviors may choose not to speak freely of them to others who do not. Some sexual behaviors are criminally forbidden, and those who engage in them are usually careful to stay anonymous.

If any form of sexual connection is mutually agreed upon, and there is no coercion/punishment involved, and both partners are not selling out in ways that could be eventually self-harmful, most sex therapists would not find that wrong. There are still those who would put restrictions and negative consequences on them, simply because they cannot accept those behaviors in themselves. The emergence and awareness of gender fluidity have put many people under a prejudiced microscope in terms of their sexual behavior. As it was many years ago for homosexual people who were often thought of only in the ways they were sexual, transgender people today are often unfairly depicted as sexually deviant. So, Who Are You Sexually, and Are You Okay With Who You Are?

After reading through this article, are you able to see yourself more clearly as a sexual being?

Do you feel comfortable talking to a potential sexual partner openly about what you bring to the relationship as to what you need and what you can authentically offer? Do you understand what drives you to connect sexually, and what your limitations and desires are?

Can you work through your sexually conflicted areas so that you can transform into a more integrated and comfortable sexual partner?

Does it make more sense to you now how you may have ended up allowing your sexual experiences to harm you or to continue triggering old memories that need to be resolved and left behind? Can you see, accept, and embrace your own sexuality better than you could before?


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