Exploring Sexual Dynamics: Navigating Desire And Relationships With Dr. Ian Kerner

The Most Important Conversations | Dr. Ian Kerner | Sex

Our ideas toward sex have drastically changed along with the times. Sometimes, it can be disorienting to navigate through it until we have to confront the way it impacts how we see relationships. In this episode, Chad Lefevre is with the esteemed Dr. Ian Kerner, a distinguished sex psychologist renowned for his groundbreaking work in the field of human sexuality. Join us as we embark on a journey into the intricate realms of desire, intimacy, and relationship dynamics. From dissecting the state of sexuality in modern society to unraveling trends in relationships and desire frameworks, our conversation offers invaluable insights for individuals seeking to enhance their understanding of sexual dynamics. Delve into discussions on navigating desire discrepancies, exploring polyamory as an alternative, and redefining the role of sex within relationships as both recreational and sacred. Drawing on Dr. Kerner’s expertise and extensive experience, we explore the complexities of human sexuality with nuance and compassion, offering practical guidance for fostering fulfilling and authentic connections. Tune in now and embark on a transformative exploration of desire and relationships with Dr. Ian Kerner!

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Exploring Sexual Dynamics: Navigating Desire And Relationships With Dr. Ian Kerner

Welcome, everybody. Thank you again for joining us on the show. It is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Ian Kerner, a renowned sex psychologist who has written several books, including She Comes First, Passionista, and his new one as well as many others, So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex.

The Most Important Conversations | Sex

Ian, welcome to the show.

Hello, Chad and September. It’s nice to be here.

State Of The Sexual Union

I’ve been excited about this conversation to have with you. It’s a topic that everyone likes to hear about, read about, and talk about, maybe in some circles and maybe not in other circles. Let’s get to the state of the sexual union for a second from your perspective. As a society, do you feel that after the sexual revolution, we went through this openness phase? Are we in a closing phase or an openness phase? What’s going on culturally from your perspective?

First of all, it was interesting because you said this is a topic that everyone loves to talk about, and I agree. We will talk about it with our friends, neighbors, and sometimes even strangers. The people we usually won’t talk to about sex are the people who are lying right next to us, our partners. Sometimes, you can be lying right next to each other and feel a million miles apart.

That silent desperation that people feel around sex is something that’s been persistent throughout my practice. As cultural and social mores change around sexuality, there’s still a lack of communication often between partners, both around their tastes, their preferences, what works, what doesn’t work, as well as entering into a language of sexuality and sexiness that, for lack of a better word, is a healthy objectification. That is something that seems to be persistent.

In terms of moving from openness to closing to openness, it’s really hard. I can tell you about a few trends that I’m seeing in my practice. Certainly, one of the biggest trends that I’ve been seeing over the last few years is couples who signed up to be monogamous, got married, cohabitating, and believe they have found their life partner are pretty much looking at their sex life as a closed system between the two of them. As they go through time, they realize that the sex part of the relationship isn’t working.

Other than doing what a lot of couples would traditionally do, which would be cheat, remain sexless, separate, or get divorced, more couples are trying to make the transition into some form of open marriage or some form of non-monogamy. I’m not talking about folks who started out in polyamorous relationships or communities. I’m talking about people who really took their vows and thought that they were going to be staring face-to-face with one person when it came to the missionary position, and are looking to outsource the sex piece. That’s certainly something that I help a lot of couples navigate.

Another trend that I’ve been writing about that I find really interesting and perplexing, especially amongst Millennials, is that more people are choosing to marry their best friends. What do I mean by that? They are deprioritizing sexual attraction. It was Valentine’s Day and I bought my wife a card. I was looking at all the cards, and then I saw one that said, “I didn’t come here to be friends.” It was something like that. I always joke that sexual attraction, sexual chemistry, and physical desire were probably the most palpable experiences I had in picking my wife. It was probably number one on the list. I picked on the right criteria. It was not solely on that criteria, but sex has been a glue throughout 25 years of being together.

I work with so many couples who have been serially monogamous. It’s not that they haven’t had a lot of sex in their past, but when it came to picking a life partner, they deprioritized sexual attraction. Here they are on my couch, so clearly, that’s a problem for them. I often ask, “Not that it had to be number one on the list, but why wasn’t it really on the list at all?” People will say to me, “When you get married, you stop having sex anyway. What’s the point of picking for sex when it’s going to fly out the window at some point or attenuate?”

Some people will say, “I’ve had a lot of hot, wild sex. I’ve learned that you can’t have both in one person. You can’t have a solid, dependable, and loving partner and sexual attraction in the same person.” What I have often heard people say is, “We have everything else. We thought that this part would come or that we could make it happen.” That is a myth that gets perpetuated out there often mainly by couples therapists and a sex therapist that desire is something that you can create from nothing. If it wasn’t there in the first place, you can create it.

I’ve had debates with a lot of very prominent sex therapists. I’m open to being persuaded, but I really believe that lust is the seed and love emerges from lust. How can we fall in love with somebody on the first date? To me, lust is the seed of it all. Those are two trends that I’m seeing. They are related because the couples who are opting for non-monogamy are very often the couples who married their best friends.

Lust is the seed and love emerges from lust.

I was going to say that’s what I was observing from listening to you. You’ve said it, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve heard other sex therapists say it as well. I know Esther Perel has commented on something similar to what I’m about to say. It’s what you’re alluding to. It’s that sex is the barometer of a healthy relationship.

Desire Frameworks: Masculine And Feminine

What I’m going to qualify that with is there are people out there, and I don’t know how many there are in terms of a percentage in society, that you would call them asexual. They have limited desire. Sometimes, they get together as a couple. The barometer is more like, does the person you’re with align with the level of your sexual desire or not? This is one of the things that I heard Esther say before. She said if you’re in a long-term relationship, you’re in fact in a long-term relationship with 5, 6, or 7 people because people change over the years. It’s always a negotiation to recalibrate the level of desire.

In addition to that, what makes it even more complex? You’re talking about innate differences in libido. Certainly, the life cycle can bring us a lot of non-innate stressors or events that can affect libido. You’re talking about innate differences in libido that start to emerge, which are very real. The other thing that happens is that at the beginning of a relationship, especially in that infatuation slash limerence period, there is a honeymoon period of sexuality. Many of us can relate, men or women, going through a, “I can’t keep my hands off this person,” phase. That is a characteristic of an emerging relationship.

As relationships evolve, it’s very common for partners to fall into different desire frameworks. It’s not that one partner has more or less desire. It’s that they’re in different frameworks that are discrepant and that they don’t understand each other’s frameworks. They don’t know how to speak the language of each other’s frameworks. By that, I’ll give you the clearest example.

I’m not stereotyping or generalizing. This can be true of women as well. For many men over the life cycle, there is what we would call spontaneous desire or highly reactive desire. It is a stable quality of their sexuality. By that, I mean that men can respond to a visual cue and really feel a sense of physical sexual appetite. My wife, still after twenty years, wants to be sexier. As she is getting out of the shower, dressing up, and looking great. I can see her and I could want her the way I want to eat a piece of food. I feel the hunger palpably.

My wife is still very attracted to me. She could see me getting out of the shower and might say, “That’s a nice-looking attractive guy,” but she doesn’t feel that palpable hunger in the same way. Her desire is quite strong, but it doesn’t initiate in the same way. Many people, men and women, in long-term relationships fall into what we would call a more responsive desire framework where desire isn’t the first thing that you feel. It’s that bolt or that flash of electricity. Arousal has to percolate and simmer in the right context. When it’s simmering in the right context, desire emerges from that.

Those are two different desire frameworks, but we live in a culture that does not accurately represent responsive desire. What it does represent is spontaneous desire. I challenge you to go find 10 sex scenes and I guarantee that almost all 10 begin with two people looking across a room, cut to them having passionate sex, and begin with that jolt. I don’t think there’s any real, concrete, and consistent depiction of how real sexual desire or responsive desire in long-term relationships comes into being.

I want to invite September into this conversation. From a woman’s perspective, how does that land for you? Do you have a follow-up question for Ian on the nature of desire?

The perception has been that the masculine has the spontaneous desire come upon them whereas the feminine tends to need to percolate a while and warm up a bit. Is that true that it’s more of a masculine feminine or is it the nature of the person?

There has been a lot of research, but the research is always changing. This model of responsive desire came out of a feminist sexual research movement. A lot of female sexuality researchers and sexologists found that the typical model of sexual response was very male-focused. This model of responsive desire was meant to be a model that more accurately characterized female sexuality than male sexuality.

That said, in my practice, I find that many partners, male, female, or non-binary tend to fall into a responsive desire model, at least within the relationship. If you wanted to generalize, we would say that spontaneous desire is a male version of desire and responsive desire is a female version. Do you challenge that, September?

I do. Since we have that type of programming, women who have that spontaneous desire think there’s something wrong with us. We’re like, “I’m not feminine enough. I’m too masculine in my sexuality. I’m more aggressive in my sexual desire than my partner.” My follow-up question to what you said was do you typically find that one partner will be a little more aggressive or more spontaneous than the other?

It’s nice having that. Having a partner that can push you outside your comfort zone is very valuable. It can stimulate a lot of growth and deep connection to have something like that. I see the challenge being when both partners are not quite aggressive or I don’t have that spontaneous desire that comes upon him.

Chad said something very interesting at the beginning that sex is a barometer of a relationship. Sexual health is a barometer of our overall health. When our sexuality feels strong and accessible, very often, we are creating a healthy context for sexuality to emerge. Often, when desire starts to go down, it’s because there are so many stressors in the environment. It can be a lack of sleep, body image, lack of attraction, stress, grief, sadness, distraction, or boredom. You name it. All of these life stressors can start to impact desire.

You’re right, September, that if both partners end up succumbing to those stressors and end up in a responsive desire framework, then it’s going to be a low-sex marriage. If one partner in the relationship is in that spontaneous desire framework, I do have to say, honestly, in my practice, and it could be the demographic that I’m seeing here in New York, it is generally the male who is still in that spontaneous desire framework. I’m really open to talking about what you had to say, which is interesting and true.

To me, regardless of who has the spontaneous desire, it’s like a knock on the door or a tap on the shoulder, like, “Let’s have sex. This is important. Let’s do this.” That can motivate another partner to become engaged in sex and really engage in an experience that hopefully feels great. The problem, especially when it comes to male spontaneous desire. is that it isn’t always a gentle knock on the door or a tap on the shoulder. It’s more like kicking the door down or fucking wrestling somebody to the ground. It’s not received because it’s not given in the right way. The invitation isn’t made in an attuned way.

Let’s go back to the idea that the woman has more of that spontaneous desire. She’s a little more aggressive and has a higher sex drive. Let’s start there too. There’s a much stronger sex drive and the ability to compartmentalize, like, “Work is work. Work stress belongs in the work stress box. It does not belong in my relationship box.” There’s some compartmentalizing that can be done.

I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, that’s a different mindset than my children who were in their early twenties. They’re both with their partners because it’s their best friend. They have a close relationship with them. The idea is that if a woman is more spontaneous in her desire or has a higher sex drive, there are all these derogatory names that get attached to us. There’s a shame that’s attached to that. It can be very difficult to move through that piece, especially when you are not your typical female. You don’t typically need to percolate. You don’t need to take a long time to warm up and these sorts of things. You can be more spontaneous, which is more masculine.

I’m so curious to know about those dynamics and what you see, especially in women who are grappling with this. They’re like, “This is my nature to be more aggressive. I have a much stronger desire for love-making and intimacy with my partner,” but then, there’s also this idea that you fit into a derogatory label of what that means.

One thing I do want to say is that it is really nice when both partners, regardless of gender, can access spontaneous desire. Another complaint that I often hear from men and women is, “I want to be wanted.” Sometimes, it’s not even about the sex itself. It’s about wanting to be wanted. I was working with a couple. The guy was complaining, “We never have sex.” The female partner said, “What do you mean? We have sex 2 to 3 times a week. That seems pretty good for a couple with 2 kids, two dogs, and 2 jobs.”

He said, “You’re right. We do have sex 2 or 3 times a week. What I mean is that what we don’t have is desire. We don’t express desire for sex or we don’t flirt. There’s no sexiness in the environment. What I’m saying is I want to feel wanted. I don’t want to show up and have sex. I want to feel wanted.” When both partners regardless can access spontaneous desire, it’s great because it satisfies something that we really want.

It is really nice when both partners, regardless of gender, can access spontaneous desire.

Your question is, what happens when a female partner has a higher sex drive? I don’t think it’s so different than when a male partner has a higher sex drive. You can start to feel that your partner is the gatekeeper of your sexuality. Your partner is holding the keys to something that’s so vital and innate to who you are. I was working with a woman in eroticism, sexiness, flirtation, and desire. Having sex is so core to who she is. She does have that spontaneous desire. She’s in a long-term relationship. Her husband’s dealing with erectile issues as well as a lower sex drive and she’s frustrated. She loves her husband. She doesn’t want to get divorced or separated, but how do you deal with that? How do you then handle that?

Polyamorous Relationships

There are some really interesting pieces to this. I want to add to the conversation. I like where we’re going with this here. Ian, you started talking about a trend that you’re seeing in your practice with a rise in long-term couples entertaining and even practicing polyamorous relationship structures. That, to me, ties in a little bit to what we’ve been talking about with September and yourself here in a way. At some point, there’s a line where it’s like, “You don’t want sex as much as I do,” whether it’s the male or the female in the relationship, “We’ve tried XYZ.”

How much effort and how much time do you put in before the conversation opens with, “I love everything else about our relationship. There’s no need to go get a divorce and disrupt the family and the infrastructure we put together as a couple. Let me handle this outside.” What have you been finding in your practice of where that line is? I know it’s not going to be a cut-and-dry thing where as soon as you hit this, then you have to go to that. How do people arrive at this decision?

A couple comes in and they’re in a sexless relationship or a sex-starved relationship. Either one or both partners has a higher sex drive or both partners have lost interest in sex. We sit down, and at some point, I may put on my game show host hat and say, “There are three doors here. Let’s pick what’s behind door number one. You two work on making a world between the two of you in your bedroom. That can be bringing in fantasy, bringing in touch, and bringing in new ways of thinking about sex. It’s what you two are potentially able to create together. Behind door number two, we have some shared sexual adventurousness. Why not go out into the world together with your sexuality?”

I have plenty of couples who are monogamous slash non-monogamous. They are dating other couples. They are having fun with other people. They’re going to parties together. They’re inviting one or more people home with them. They have a shared sexual adventurousness that they would not be having without each other.

There’s door number three, which is a more traditional version of a non-traditional relationship or a more traditional version of non-monogamy. It is, “We’re going to give each other free passes,” or, “We’re going to allow each other to have their sexual and romantic needs met outside of our primary relationship.” In most of the couples that come in, sometimes, there’s one partner who wants to skip right to door number three. The couple that’s willing to entertain door number two is rarer. Often, couples will acknowledge, “We need to dig into door number one more and really focus on ourselves.”

That has a lot to do with whether there is still attraction and interest in each other. Can desires still be found in both partners? Was it there in the first place? If so, what happened to that desire? How can it be cultivated? What other parts of the relationship may need to be addressed? It’s when one partner marries their best friend and another partner marries someone to whom they’re really sexually attracted that these kinds of conflicts and discrepancies can happen.

I know New York Magazine published their lead article. The cover, and you probably saw it, was all around the rise in polyamorous relationships and this thing. It doesn’t surprise me that you’re seeing it in your practice as well as an increasingly more popular model to explore for people. When we’re dealing with a 50% or 60% divorce rate, it’s not that great. It’s very disruptive to society. It doesn’t mean divorce doesn’t have its role in certain circumstances.

The conversation around the polyamory side of things has created a new framework for people to say, “It doesn’t need to end everything else.” Especially if you’re someone who married your best friend and then you have a level of sexual desire that is far above your partner, it’s like, “This is still my best friend. I don’t want to not be with them, but I also am missing this very important part of my life and who I am.”

Sex plays a couple of roles as I see it. I want to interject this into the conversation so we can dance around with it a little bit as well. The way I view sex is that it’s one of the ways, if not the more predominant way, that adults play. It’s a form of play. Children go out and play. This is how adults do it. There’s also a sacredness to it that can be found that’s really connecting to people. It’s the glue that binds them together. That’s where it can get difficult for people who are exploring the possibility of polyamory.

The Most Important Conversations | Sex

I read an article about this. They were suggesting, “You don’t want to become polyamorous as a reaction to a relationship that’s a sexual relationship that’s not working. You want to explore polyamory as an added benefit to a relationship that’s already solid and grounded.” What are your thoughts on that? Is it a solution for a relationship that’s struggling or would that cause more issues perhaps?

I’ll answer, and then I’d love to hear September’s response. For the couples who remain committed and want to become non-monogamous, it’s because they have a really powerful primary relationship. They have a reason to be there. Sometimes, the reason can be practical in the form of kids, but more than that, it’s like, “We are best friends. We do love each other. We love spending time with each other, traveling, and co-parenting. You name it, but we don’t have the sex piece.”

Some couples I meet, heterosexual or gay, are in relationships that aren’t working. They’re not working on a number of levels and they want to open up the relationship. I will sometimes ask the question, not as bluntly, but like, “What are you trying to hold onto? Why are you trying to hold onto each other? What’s there?”

Some people can’t make that split or don’t want to make that split between sex and intimacy. This is not to say that non-monogamy can’t encompass emotional investment, intimacy, and romance. That’s also a line that some people have a hard time crossing. They’re like, “If non-monogamy isn’t sex for the sake of sex, then I don’t want to do it or I don’t want my partner doing it.” Often, what we are looking for is a romantic energy that doesn’t have to threaten the primary relationship.

This is very new information for me. The polyamorous lifestyle is something that I have no interest in like I have no interest in skydiving. It’s that level of interest, but I have no judgment of it. It says a lot about a person and how they feel about themself to be able to allow their partner to step into that lifestyle. For example, I have a friend who is starting to explore a polyamorous lifestyle. Her husband is supportive of it. He’s not interested in looking for an additional partner. She is.

It goes to what you were saying. They have the kid, the house, and the job. They’re like, “Everything’s great. Let’s not mess this up,” but she wants more sex. She wants more experimentation that her husband is not comfortable with. She wants to explore her sexuality. She doesn’t want to let go of her marriage, and her husband is not interested in exploring sexuality with her.

Having your take on this is very interesting to see the other facets of how all of this is set up and what people will process as they make that decision. There’s something really magical when you marry your best friend or in a relationship with your best friend and you have an amazing sex life. It adds richness, depth, and magic. I’m at a loss for words to describe how powerful it is to have both. I truly believe you can have both. It takes work and the willingness and desire to want that same experience. It’s like, “I want a deeper experience with you and I’m willing to do what it takes to get us there.”

I don’t disagree as someone who’s been with my wife for 25 years. With the couple that you’re describing, what’s amazing though is if they can make this work, it will relieve so much pressure. I can’t tell you how many people open up their relationships and they’re relieved. They’re like, “We don’t have to still have sexy Sunday where every week, we try to show up, have sex, and put ourselves through the motions. We don’t have to worry if every handholding is supposed to lead to sex.” I’m sure for the friend that you’re describing, it’s going to relieve a lot of pressure.

I do agree with everything that you’re saying, September, about the beauty of a monogamous relationship and the depth. I do wonder about the extent to which it is also culturally determined, how it’s reinforced, and how we are brought up with this idea of what a beautiful relationship is supposed to look like. I could make a case. I’ve been working with a lot of couples who pick their best friends without sexual attraction. I asked them the question, “Why did you do that?” as though some things were wrong with that decision.

Sometimes, I reframe things for myself and say, “Maybe relationship structures are evolving. Maybe marriages are evolving. Maybe we’re moving from the concept of a romantic marriage,” which is already different from concepts of earlier marriages. I’m like, “Maybe we’re moving from the concept of a romantic marriage to more of a concept of a companionate marriage where we are picking our best friends but we are leaving sex out of that mix and starting to outsource the sex.” If you grew up in that model, that might be the model that you think of as normal and make work. Sexuality is very flexible, and humans are adaptable.

Sex And Culture

I’m sure you’re familiar, Ian, with Christopher Ryan’s work, Sex at Dawn. It’s a very interesting book. It goes to what you’re bringing up here, which is that our understanding of sex, how we relate to sex, And how we understand sex in the context of a relationship Is not like there’s an objective truth out there that has for all time withstood time. It’s very cultural. That’s what his book highlighted.

He makes the argument, quite frankly, that human beings are non-monogamous. He’s making the assertion that that’s the case and that we’ve layered on top of the non-monogamous reality of human beings. He goes to great lengths to show all of these different people groups around the world over time and things that they can discern through anthropological records and stuff like that that we’ve layered on top of non-monogamous ways of being all of these versions of monogamy. What do you think about that?

He makes a compelling case that he does provide anthropological evidence, but a lot of people have challenged the evidence. The case that he’s making, which does make a lot of sense, is that at one point for a very long time in society, we were a more nomadic species and hunter-gatherers. We stay in one home and on one piece of land. As we were moving as groups, our sexuality was much more within the group as well. There was a much more communal disposition towards sexuality and raising children.

As we moved into a more agrarian model where we own land and livestock and we would want to keep that land, livestock, and parcel for ourselves, a different version of marriage emerged from that. Certainly, a lot of cultures still practice arranged marriages very successfully. We may be a little bit in the minority with our take on romantic marriages. September, I’m living in the same kind of relationship it sounds like you’re living in and I’m loving and enjoying it.

The point you make is interesting as well because it was around the time, at least according to Christopher Ryan’s work, that when we became agrarian, developed agriculture, didn’t have to move anymore, and weren’t so nomadic, it was also around that time that women’s role in society started to shift to one of property. The connection between women being property and exchanged between families was part of that dynamic of private ownership of property and being fixed in one place.

We have since broken through that over the last couple of decades. I heard that it wasn’t until 1971 that women couldn’t even still in the United States be heard in a court of law with their own voice. They needed a father, an attorney, or someone there with them because their voice wasn’t recognized as late as 1971, which I thought was quite astounding. We break down some of those legal structures and then it opens up the opportunity to explore our relationship to sex and relationships from a different dynamic.

There’s so much sociological insight. The other thing about me is when I think about my sexuality and if I were to be non-monogamous, and if I’m thinking back even to my youth, I don’t think I was ever primarily interested in sex for the sake of sex. I was interested in that romantic energy and that falling-in-love energy. I hear a lot of people say, “I might as well masturbate if all I’m looking for is some sort of sexual object.” If we do expand our definition of non-monogamy and become more embracing of polyamory, we also have to accept that sex and this romantic energy are often very intertwined.

Making Space For Sex

That leads me to another question. I was creating space in case September had a follow-up to that. Sex is play. Sex has this sacred experience. There’s this show, and I’m sure you’ve heard of it, that was on. I don’t think they renewed it. I don’t know if they did. It’s How to Build a Sex Room. It was on Netflix. This idea of creating a physical space in your home that has a very specific purpose around sex is interesting. What you’re saying is, “This is so important to our relationship. We’re going to be really intentional about creating a space where this happens and it’s not where other things are going on.” What have you seen in that regard?

This is a bigger question. If you extract out from the sex room and you’re making space for sex, to what extent in a long-term relationship can sex be scheduled? Can you know when you’re going to have sex? A lot of people say, “Sex is spontaneous. We shouldn’t have to schedule it. It should emerge.” I give people a lot of sex homework. I scaffold people’s sex lives. I call this homework very often a willingness window because you’re showing up for a window of time and you’re bringing your willingness and motivation to engage.

Often, people will challenge that. They don’t want to feel like they’re scheduling sex. We live in such scheduled lives and we’ll schedule everything. We’ll schedule much less pleasant things than sex. We’ll schedule dental appointments, colonoscopy appointments, and all this horrible stuff. Why won’t we schedule something that can be a joy, a pleasure, and a connection?

I very much believe in creating windows for sex to occur in which we show up with our willingness and motivation. I don’t know so much about sex rooms, but having a ritual around sex, like a weekly ritual of a date night that leads to sex, is making space. Sex is so influenced by stressors that we should leave stressors out of our bedroom as much as we can. We should leave the iPhone, the paperwork, and the conversations about the kids and planning for summer camp. We should make a conscious effort to leave that stuff outside of the bedrooms. Our bedrooms become our sex rooms.

Sex is so influenced by stressors that we should leave stressors out of our bedroom as much as we can.

It’s interesting. I remember seeing in the 1940s and ‘50s in movies, they always had couples sleeping in separate beds. With the sex room trend, it’s the flip. It’s like, “We’ll sleep in the same bed, but we’re going to go to that room. We’re going to focus on our relationship, romance, sex, and that kind of stuff.

Chad, I live in New York City. If anybody has an extra room, somebody’s sleeping in it or something’s getting stored in it. I guarantee you. You’d have to be in the billionaire class in New York City to have a sex room. September, I saw you were chiming in there.

In the idea of scheduling, you already know what’s going to happen. Doesn’t that take away the excitement of it? It’s like, “It’s 6:00. Let’s go in there and get started.” Doesn’t that take away some of the spice in the relationship if it’s scheduled like that?

If you’re the kind of couple that can figure out how to have spontaneous sex and you’re having it, more power to you. You’re living some kind of life that accommodates that. Most of us are really not. I don’t know how most of us can create the space for us to feel desire and sexy at the same time. I often will give couples a homework assignment. It’s not about scheduling the sex. It’s that when you wake up, live that day knowing that you’re going to have sex. How are you going to live in a way that gets you sex?

I’m not saying you have to stop what you’re doing, not go to work that day, play hooky from grad school, or whatever it is you’re doing. Think about what leads you towards sex. Maybe that’s a day when you eat really well. Maybe that’s a day when you go to the gym if that’s important to you. Maybe that’s a day when you want to focus on your appearance or make yourself look sexy. Maybe that’s a day where you and your partner are being sexy and desirous of each other and are percolating somehow throughout the day, whether it’s together in the same room, through text, or through phone calls. Maybe we are also treating ourselves sensually, whether it’s engaging in great food or playing with scent and sight.

It’s very easy to shift into a sexual mindset and still live your same-lived day and end up with sex in a way in which it doesn’t feel like this abrupt transition. The thing that you’re talking about, that abrupt transition, is why so many people end up in sexless relationships. If I approach my partner with my spontaneous desire and they’re not interested, it is going to bristle their nervous system. It’s going to be agitated.

It’s like a form of rejection. With a little rejection here and here, they slowly add up. You’re like, “What’s the point? Why should I keep initiating and trying to be playful even if it doesn’t lead to anything in that moment?” Being playful for an extended period of time to build enough tension between the space of knowing, I’m like, “I have to take care of my responsibilities, but later, I get to play with my spouse. We get to play together.” I like what you’re saying about building the expectation. Building that tension throughout the day is how I would describe it.

I call it the erotic thread. What connects our sexual events? If I’ve carved out a Friday night date night that hopefully leads to sex, what’s happening Monday through Sunday or through Saturday through Thursday connecting those sexual events? How are we still showing our sexual selves? It’s like that patient I was describing who said, “I have sex three times but I don’t feel wanted. I don’t feel desired.” That’s the erotic thread.

You talk in your newest book, So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex, about cultivating an erotic personality and developing that sexual potential in us. This is where it can get interesting. For some people who are like, “I want to have sex every day or at least every other day,” that erotic thread’s going to look very different than someone who’s looking for Friday night date night.

Welcome to human life and the discrepancies of human life. If you’re sex-positive, you’re also pro-masturbation and pro-self-love. Relationships require a lot of collaboration, compromise, sacrifice, calibration, and adjustment. Sex is no exception to that. There are plenty of times also when a partner may get sick, a partner may have to travel, or a partner may have given birth to a baby and we can’t have sex necessarily. We have to work on how we can be sexually autonomous as well as show up for our partners and live together habitably, like live together and be happy.

The Most Important Conversations | Sex

Any follow-up on that, September?

On Being A Sex Psychologist

I could sit here and talk for days on this. I have so many questions running through my head and so many conversations I want to have.

We’ve got a few more minutes, so drop it in while we’ve got the time.

I don’t even know where to start, honestly. The things that you’re sharing are a new paradigm. It’s a new idea. I’ve been introduced to some of the things that you’ve said to think about it that way. To schedule your lovemaking is a new idea. I would think, “That’s boring. That’s not exciting at all.” I like the way that you say, it’s not quite in a box the way that it sounds. There’s what you call the thread that you need to weave through all of that.

I want to say you have the most fascinating job ever. How fun would it be to have these conversations with people? It’s not just because the topic is sex, but because of what you create for people. That sense of joy, connection, desire, and lustfulness that you can have in your relationship, to help people find that has to be rewarding. Tell me how you feel about your career.

I really do love it. In the morning, I’m a little grumpy. I’d love to sleep in. Once I’m at the office, I will see probably 5, 6, or 7 individuals or couples per day. I like to do long sessions. I get so activated. I could probably say that most couples are dealing with the same handful of issues, the same half a dozen or seven problems, but every person is so unique. Every context is so unique as well as every story.

To be brought that close to such an intimate part of people’s lives, to be in a room where 3 of us are sitting together with 2 or 3 feet separating us, and sometimes, they’re talking for the first time ever about this topic and I get to be there, it is so interesting. I’m always coming home late because I’m always spending way more time with people than I’m supposed to be in terms of the schedule. My work keeps me very alive. Trust me. Sometimes, I come home grateful for the marriage and the relationship that I have. People have gotten themselves into such binds sometimes.

On Gen Z’s Relationship With Sex

What do you think, Ian, about the trend that I’ve been reading about, especially in the last few years, with Gen Z not having as much sex as the generations before them? This is directly tied to the way that people are socializing, which is largely through a phone. It’s a mediated experience of socialization. Have you seen that? What do we do about that? That’s not good for us culturally.

Chad, I’m not so sure that’s accurate. When people are talking about these studies about Gen Z having less sex, are they counting oral sex? What are they looking at when they are defining sex? Often, they are looking at intercourse. Are you looking at an orgasm with yourself? Does that count as sex? I’m not sure that sex is being counted in the most expansive way. In the end, there’s more in common between the generations than not.

I wrote this book, So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex, where I want couples to understand their sex script. What does a sexual event look like for you? For most couples, sex tends to fall into a default way of being, or maybe you have 1 script, 2, or 3. If they’re working, it’s great. It might be all you need for a lifetime. Often, our sex scripts aren’t working.

Here’s the thing. Our sex scripts exist in the context of the larger cultural scripts around sex. We all operate under cultural imperatives. September, we were saying that in a cultural imperative, sex should be spontaneous and sex shouldn’t be scheduled. For a lot of us, a cultural imperative is that intercourse is sex and everything else is an appetizer leading up to sex. It’s really about challenging these cultural imperatives and thinking from a fresh perspective about sex.

Any final questions before we wrap up, September? Is something nagging at you?

Sex Education

If you think about it, in our generation, how we learned about sex was through our friends, magazines, and videos. In my house, I was very comfortable and wanted my boys to be comfortable asking me any type of sexual questions that may pop into their heads. I didn’t want them to feel shame about the topic. There should be no shame in your sexuality in how you experience yourself or how you experience somebody else, but I don’t think that’s the normal household.

More households and more parents are becoming more comfortable having sex conversations. I know growing up for me, it was, “You’re not an adult. You don’t talk about it and you don’t do it.” That was my training. In third grade, we’re at the lunch table and a friend’s talking about, “Do you know what a period is?” This is where I got my education. A lot of people in my age group probably got their education the same way.

Most of us grew up in either sex-negative homes or sex-avoidant homes. As a result, sexuality wasn’t modeled or mirrored for us. We didn’t have the language to speak about it. It’s the area that we usually launch into life and we’re the most confused about. When we can create sex-positive environments for ourselves and for our children is important.

Where do you start? That’s my last question for this episode. If you haven’t had the right information, you don’t know where to start. You don’t know a whole lot about your sexuality, what you like, what you don’t like, what’s okay to experiment, and what’s not okay. Where can a person begin to educate themselves in a way that is aligned with what’s best for them?

For my kids, we talk about sex sometimes. I have two adult sons. Sometimes, we don’t. They feel pretty open. The thing that taught them the most was being around a couple that was sex-positive and that didn’t shut sex away in some other room. There’s no study that shows that if a child walks in on their parents having sex, they’re going to be psychologically damaged. There’s no study to prove that would be the case. There are plenty of studies that have shown that children growing up in angry environments and environments without intimacy or connection do experience psychological consequences.

The first thing is, hopefully, we can model what it feels like to be in a healthy relationship to our children. I’m not saying we should invite our kids into our bedrooms, but they should know that’s part of a connection. In terms of if there’s something that you don’t know about sexuality and you do want to know about it, the first is to really understand what you’re looking for and what you’re asking.

Model what it feels like to be in a healthy relationship to our children.

Often, we can begin with a complaint. We’re like, “I don’t feel loved during sex. You don’t make me feel loved during sex.” What does that mean? What do you mean you don’t feel loved during sex? You’re not engaging in kissing enough or touching. You’re going straight to intercourse. You’re not engaging in foreplay. What would it look like if you were getting loved during sex? We’re then like, “It would look like this.” You paint a picture and a fantasy. Suddenly, you have a clearer sense of what it is you’re seeking. Part of it is even being able to form the question in a positive way and know what it is that you’re seeking.

That’s very good. Thank you.

Ian, thank you so much for your time. For those of you reading, if you want more information about Dr. Ian Kerner, you can go to his website. It is IanKerner.com. You can find any of his several books on Amazon or in your bookstore. Is there any other place, Ian, you’d like to direct people other than those two places?

I don’t even know if it’s of my generation, but I only have my website. I don’t have any other social media or anything like that.

If you’re lucky enough to live in New York City, then you could also book an appointment with him, so for those of you who are there. Ian, thank you so much for your time. We really learned a lot. We could chat with you for several hours about this. Who wouldn’t want to talk about this for several hours? Maybe there are some people, but not the two of us on this show. We appreciate your time so much. We’ll see you again soon. We’ll be in touch. Thank you.

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