You may have heard me use the term “scripted sex” or “linear model of sex” before. By “scripted” or “linear” I mean a concept of sex that follows a widely-accepted progression: first base, second base, third base, home.
You could add more bases, but, according to the model of scripted sex, if you are having a “good” sexual interaction, you’re moving forward from one base to another. What I mean when I say scripted sex is what most people think of as just “sex.” But in my opinion, the model of scripted sex creates a lot of mischief and bad feelings.
The scripted model of sex labels most sexual activities “foreplay,” and accepts only PIV (penis in vagina penetration) as “sex.” This means that a lot of people feel really bad or broken if they can’t have PIV or don’t want to have PIV–even though there are a whole lot of sexual activities, besides PIV, that generate pleasure and connection between partners and have the potential to lead to orgasm.
These words and ways of thinking about sex are very linear and very restrictive. They don’t leave any room for unique experiences, varying function, and perfectly normal differences between people.
What if all pleasurable sexual activities ranked the same? You could make a mutual decision in the moment about what activity you want to participate in. You could feel free to shift between activities according to what you each want or would find pleasurable in each unique moment. No meaning would be made about how things unfolded. “No PIV? Fine! What shall we do instead?”
This improvisational way of experiencing sex is more workable than the linear way in about a million ways. But it does still present some challenges. It requires some kind of verbal or non-verbal communication of desires and preferences in the moment. It also requires an ability to be flexible about expectations, and not make negative meaning about how things unfold.
For example, the scripted model creates problems when one partner wants to go from “third base” to “first base” (which is what I call downshifting). According to the scripted model, you’re supposed to go “forward”, not “backward,”–which means that people often experience a lot of negative emotions and meaning-making when their partners ask for a downshift.
“Did I do something wrong?” “Does my partner still find me attractive?” “Am I bad at (whatever activity you were just doing)?” “Am I taking too long?” These are just a few examples of very common fears that tend to rear their ugly heads when we have expectations about what sex “should” involve and how it “should” progress.
Does this ring true with your experience? Can you think of a moment when your partner asked for a downshift? What meaning did you make of it in the moment? Can you think of a moment when you asked for a downshift, and your partner made negative meaning out of the moment?
For many people, the possibility of a negative reaction to downshifting means that they hold back from expressing their preferences in the moment, for fear of hurting their partner’s feelings. But hiding your real feelings and desires during sex is a recipe for disconnection, and over time can result in diminished sexual desire overall.
A better solution is to recognize that downshifting isn’t going backwards; it is just a change of subject. If you embrace flexibility and subject changes as ways of exploring what feels best for you and your partner in the moment, rather than seeing it as a sign of failure, it can mean more connection and more pleasure, not less.