Willingness is Enough

If you move in sex-positive and/or feminist spaces, you may have heard the term “enthusiastic consent.” Enthusiastic consent is the idea that consent requires the presence of a “yes,” not just the absence of a “no.” The enthusiastic consent movement is doing a lot of important work reframing our cultural dialogue around sex and fighting against coercion and assault. However, sometimes I think the term “enthusiastic consent” can obscure something important—namely, that sometimes willingness is enough to engage in a sexual encounter.

Some people experience desire spontaneously. That is, they’re going about their day, and then all of a sudden they think, “Wow, I’d like to have sex”–and then, perhaps, they act on that desire in some way. This way of experiencing desire is what we tend to think of as the “normal” way. But it’s far from the only way, and in reality, it’s no more normal than any other experience.

Other people tend to experience more responsive desire. That is, they start to actively desire sex only after a sexual encounter is underway. They start with willingness, and their desire blooms as the encounter continues. This is a perfectly normal and healthy way to experience desire.

Because we tend to think of spontaneous desire as the norm, people who more frequently experience responsive desire may be pathologized as having low desire, or even NO desire. They may think of themselves as lesser or broken. Their partners may fear that they are not attracted to them, because they don’t tend to initiate sex. All of these problems could be avoided with the understanding that all ways of experiencing desire are normal.

Recognizing that willingness can be enough to begin a sexual encounter is an important way of validating and normalizing responsive desire. We can fight for the importance of affirmative consent, and work to eliminate even subtle forms of coercion, while recognizing that there are many healthy reasons to say “yes” to sex besides having an explicit experience of wanting. Here are a few:

  • To experience connection and closeness with your partner
  • Because you know desire will bloom as the encounter continues
  • To relieve menstrual cramps
  • To attempt to get pregnant
  • To enjoy giving your partner pleasure

 

In your own life, and for your therapy clients, how can you validate different ways of experiencing desire, and multiple reasons for having sex, while still addressing the issue of coercion?

Helpful Links

I started blogging in 2016. Now, two years later, I’ve amassed a pretty significant backlog of posts, each of which strives to provide something of value to therapists and individuals: useful tips about building fulfilling relationships, sorely-needed little-known facts about sexuality, answers to pressing questions from my subscribers and students.

When my course started at the beginning of this month, I received tons of questions from my new students–and realized that a good many of them related to topics I have written about here. I write about these topics because I want therapists to have access to thoughtful, high-quality information and advice about how to handle sex issues in therapy, and I want that information to be easy to access whether or not you take my course. For that reason, I thought I’d put together a guide to the topics I’ve covered before on my blog, so that you can easily find answers to your questions if I’ve addressed them before here.

As I wrote in the very first post on this blog, I’m on a mission to change the culture of therapy regarding sex, to create a world in which every therapist feels confident addressing sex issues, and every person struggling with a sex issue can access the help and healing they need. A big part of that mission is making sure that therapists and individuals have access to the information they need. This compilation is one small step in the direction of making that kind of information more readily available and easy to find for you and your colleagues.

Thanks so much for being part of that mission; I wish you much success!

Martha

 

Desire Discrepancy

One Question You Can’t Fail to Ask Your Clients

What Do You Do When There’s Love But No Lust?

All Levels of Desire Are Normal

Shifting an Unhelpful Dynamic in Desire Discrepancy

Why Desire Discrepancy is So Tough

Desire Discrepancy Lesson #1: Normalize Variation

Desire Discrepancy Lesson #2: Look for the Blocks

 

Consent

Modelling Consent in the Therapy Room

Nuances of Consent: The Therapist’s Side

When Consent Isn’t Simple

 

Managing Conflict in Relationships

How to Keep Fights From Damaging Your Relationship

10 Calming Strategies for Managing Conflict

7 Steps to Stay Steady in Tough Conversations

Don’t Let Strong Emotions Control You

Don’t Try to “Win” A Fight With Your Partner

The Case for Going “Slow and Steady” to Resolve Couple Conflict

The Key to Resolving Couple Conflict? Uncovering Internal Motivation to Change

Addressing the Issues Without Getting Swept Up in Emotion

Promoting Healthy Differences of Opinion Between Partners

 

Differentiation of Self

How to Build a Long-Term Relationship with Courage and Compassion

3 Ways to Handle New Relationship Bliss that Support a Long-Term Healthy Relationship

Sex and Differentiation of Self

The Discovery That Turned My Practice Around

Better Than “Better Half”

Sexual Intimacy and Vulnerability: Paths to Personal Growth

When Partners Encourage Each Other To Lie

Stop Negative Meaning-Making In Its Tracks

Helping Your Clients Find the Courage to Make a Vulnerable Disclosure

The Power of Checking Your Assumptions With Your Partner

Why Helping Your Clients Find the Joy is a Crucial Part of Couples Therapy

Differentiation of Self is the Key to Keeping Things Sexy in a Long-Term Relationship

Why I Hate the Concept of “Compromise”

What Kind of Partner Do You Aspire To Be?

 

Relationship Agreements

There’s No Such Thing as a One-Size-Fits-All Relationship Agreement

Making Relationship Agreements that Support Growth

What If One Partner Wants an Open Relationship, and the Other Isn’t So Sure?

Rules for Poly Relationships? It’s Not That Simple.

 

Building A Flexible, Resilient Sexual Relationship

When Sex Doesn’t Go As Planned

Beyond Communication Skills: What DOES Improve Intimacy?

Postpartum Low Desire: Improving Intimacy and Strengthening Relationships

Postpartum Low Desire: Emotional Causes

Sexual Intimacy and Vulnerability: Paths to Personal Growth

Willingness is Enough

What To Do When You Don’t Have an Orgasm With Your Partner

What Makes Good Sex Good?

Getting What You Really Want Out of Sex

Good Sex Over a Lifetime

 

Pleasure

Are Vibrators Habit-Forming?

7 Tips For Getting Creative: A Sex Therapist’s Guide to Trying New Things

How (and Why) to Talk About Self-Pleasure in Therapy

 

How and Why To Talk About Sex In Therapy

What Terms Should I Use When Talking About Sex in Therapy?

3 Reasons Therapy Clients Need to Discuss Sex, Not Just Connection

I’m On A Mission–To Change the Culture of Therapy Regarding Sex

After Will Lily: How to Use What You Learn in Brief Assessment (Part 1)

After Will Lily: How to Use What You Learn in Brief Assessment (Part 2)

How Asking About Satisfaction Can Guide Your Treatment Plan

Putting Clients At Ease With Sensitive Topics 

 

Unscripting Sex

When Sex Doesn’t Go As Planned

Unscripting Sex for More Connection and Pleasure

Flexibility is the Key to a Satisfying Sex Life

Good Sex Over a Lifetime

 

Non-Normative Sexualities

Reader Question: What is Gender Fluidity? Part 1 and Part 2

Reader Question: Is Abstaining From Sex Healthy?

 

Polyamory

Rules for Poly Relationships? It’s Not That Simple.

Should Polyamorous Couples Share Everything?

What If One Partner Wants an Open Relationship, and the Other Isn’t So Sure?

What Polyamory Can Teach Us About ALL Relationships

Poly 101: Working With Jealousy

Discussing Poly in the Aftermath of an Affair Part 1 and Part 2

Working With Secondary Partners

A Common Dynamic that Causes Problems in Primary/Secondary Poly Relationships

 

Health and Physiology

Orgasm and Heart Conditions

How To Set Loving Goals for Lifestyle Change

Body Positivity and Health Consciousness

Life After STIs: The Therapist’s Role

How to Talk About STIs With Your Clients

Postpartum Low Desire: Physical Causes

Mindfulness: A “Magic Bullet” for Building a Healthy Sex Life

Having a Satisfying Sex Life on Antidepressants

Why I Teach Anatomy to My Clients

Facts About Anatomy that Your Clients Need

Facts About Anatomy that Your Clients Need, Part 2

 

Body Positivity

How To Set Loving Goals for Lifestyle Change

Body Positivity and Health Consciousness

Resolution: Start Loving Your Body, Today

How You Can Help a Client With Negative Body Image

Modelling Consent in the Therapy Room

Whenever I teach a class about sex, there’s one thing I hear over and over: “Wow, I learned so much about consent!”

I’m glad that my students are learning a lot, but I also take that as indication that we’re not getting nearly enough education about consent from our schools, from our families, or from our culture.

In my work as a sex therapist, I see that consent violations are distressingly common. I believe that a lack of education about consent is a major contributor to this problem.

There are two ways I address this as a therapist. The first is overt: I educate my clients about consent and help them build the skills which are necessary both to say “no” and to be able to hear and respect a “no” from a partner.

But there is also a more subtle way I teach consent in the therapy room. I call this modelling consent, and today I want to focus on how it works and how you can apply it in your therapy practice.

I model consent by making very small interventions that have a huge impact. I let my clients know I welcome their feedback, and when they give me feedback, I am clear that this is a positive thing, and important to me. A person can’t say “yes” unless they feel sure they can say “no”. This is as true in a conversation with a therapist or at the dinner table as it is in a more physical interaction.

Here are some examples of what I do to model consent in the therapy room:

  1. I respect my client’s boundaries around sex. When I do my intake process and ask about sex issues, I always make sure to give my client the option to say, “No, I’m not comfortable talking about that.” If they’re not comfortable, I respect that, and I don’t push it. If, for instance, knowing about their experience with self-pleasure would help me assess a sex issue, but they’re not comfortable with self-pleasure, I may ask why, but I will certainly respect their boundary.
  2. At any point in therapy, I respect my client’s boundaries. Any time my client is able to tell me something about their preferences, even if not particularly complimentary to me, I am truly grateful. Differentiation of self is crucial for both giving and withholding consent. So I help my clients identify what they think, feel, and prefer and then hold steady while expressing it even if the listener might feel uncomfortable hearing it, even if I am the uncomfortable listener. Giving me feedback in the therapy room is a courageous example of differentiation, and my job is to stay warm and curious so they get the message that they can say what is true for them whether or not someone else likes it.
  3. I demonstrate consent with my anatomy psychoeducation.  Very often I do anatomy psychoeducation with my clients. When I do, I always make sure to model consent by showing respect for the model in the diagram. For instance, if describing a specific kind of touch that might be pleasurable, I will always say something along the lines of  “with permission, you could touch the clitoris through the labia,” and etc. This expresses to my clients that consent is a necessary prerequisite to any kind of touch.
  4. I demonstrate consent when discussing my clients’ sex lives. I use similar strategy when talking about my clients’ sexual experiences–making sure to highlight consent as a prerequisite for any activity. For instance, when describing a possible intimate interaction the clients might try, I say something like: “If he were to allow, you could….” and etc.

These are just a few very small and simple ways to model consent in the therapy room, but they go a long way towards helping clients feel safe, and in a larger context, building a cultural expectation of respect for boundaries.