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Rethinking sex in relationships

Rethinking sex in relationships

Recently I was interviewed Rachael Healy for a couple of articles on My Viv about sex beyond penis-in-vagina intercourse and about navigating no-sex spells in relationships. Here’s my full interview about these topics…

Why do many couples feel pressure to have a certain type of sex?

Unfortunately we have a cultural script that only certain things count as ‘proper’ sex. Generally this is penis-in-vagina sex leading to orgasm, although there are different scripts among women who have sex with women, or men who have sex with men. Even there there is still often an idea that there’s a default way that people should have sex.

Other things that many people like just as much – and often more than – penetration are either seen as ‘foreplay’ before the ‘real thing’ (like oral sex or mutual masturbation) or as ‘alternative’ forms of sex, with a lot of stigma around them (like kinky play or threesomes).

We see this idea of proper, normal, default script everywhere from Hollywood movies, to the medical categories for ‘sexual dysfunction’, to sex advice books, so it’s hard to escape from even when we know that it’s problematic.

How can people start to move beyond these expectations?

I think it’s useful to realise that – far from being good for us – the idea of a certain kind of normal sex is responsible a lot of problems people have with sex.

Trying to ‘achieve’ penetration and orgasm takes us away from being in the moment and from being open about our desires, which are the two things that are most vital for enjoyable sex.

The default sexual script also leads to a lot of people having unwanted sex – because they feel they ‘should’ do this ‘proper sex’ – which makes them end up wanting to do it even less. In long term relationships, people often stop enjoying sex because of having such a limited sexual script, rather than being able to enjoy how their desires shift over time and pick from a wider menu of  activities which can all be great.

If people are experiencing a period of no sex within a relationship, how can they approach and resolve the situation with their partner?

The first thing to say is that it’s absolutely normal to stop having sex. Actually far more relationships stop being sexual over time than those that stay sexual, and even in those that do remain sexual, the sex fluctuates over time.

As therapist and writer Esther Perel points out, it’s actually very difficult to have relationships that are both warm and companionable, and hot and passionate, at the same time. As most long term relationships become more warm, they stop being hot. It’s a cruelty of the sex advice industry that it sells us the myth of ongoing hot relationships.

Also people in asexual communities teach us that it’s perfectly possible to be a healthy human being – in a healthy relationship – without being sexual, so accepting not being sexual is absolutely an option. One thing people should never do is to try to make themselves have sex that they – or their partner – don’t want. So much non-consensual sex happens this way and it takes a massive toll on people’s mental health.

If one or both partners do still feel desire for sex then there are a huge array of openly non-monogamous and monogamish relationship styles to consider. It’s also worth thinking how each person is building solo sex into their lives, including fantasy, erotica, and/or porn – this is really important in itself, and for understanding yourself as a sexual person. If partners do want to have sex with each other, then exploring their individual fantasies and desires, communicating about these, and finding the potential areas of overlap is a good start. 

What are the best ways to begin a conversation with a partner about rethinking expressions of sex and intimacy within the relationship?

I’ve created some zines to help with this, with Justin Hancock, called Make Your Own Relationship User Guide and Make Your Own Sex Manual. These can help you to figure out both what relationship style works for you and your partner/s, and what you’re into sexually, as well as communicating that. It’s a great idea to make these things an ongoing conversation in your relationship as people often have different assumptions about what their relationship rules are, or what they’re looking for from sex.

Beyond heteronormative penetrative sex, what forms of sex could couples explore?

Justin and I recommend expanding out your notion of sex as far as possible. Get together and write down all the things that could possibly be thought of as erotic, sensual, or hot by somebody somewhere. Then you have a menu to work off and can go through ticking which ones you’d be keen to try, or not, and other thoughts about each activity. That way you can build up a sense of your overlapping desires and interests.

It’s also a great idea to explore sexual fantasy – whether that’s fantasies you have in your head, erotica, or porn, that you enjoy. Sharing this can be an excellent way to see where your areas of overlap might be.

Justin and I did this podcast of all the things you can do sexually with somebody which don’t involve genitals – it’s a really long list. The Wheel of Consent 3 minute game is also a great way to explore different kinds of physical touch and dynamics between you. It’s a good way to learn how to be consensual too.

What other forms of intimacy could couples explore?

Often when people want sex it’s for some particular reason, for example to feel close with their partner, to relieve stress, to get into a high energy state, to relax, or to be playful. It’s worth checking in with the state you’d like to be in – rather than just saying that you want sex. There might be lots of things you could do – alone or together – to get into that state.

Taking the pressure off sex is one of the most common pieces of advice from sex therapists. So think about carving out time to spend together as a couple where you tune into what you’d like to feel at the end of the time together, and come up with non-sexual things you could do to get there. For example it might be that a massage, cooking together or going for a walk together relaxes you and meets your need for intimacy, or that playing a game together, teasing and tickling each other, or watching comedy meets your need for playfulness.

It’s great to do solo time like this too because it’s good for couples to get both time together and time apart.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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