science of us

A Sex Therapist on How She’d Approach the Sexual Problems in On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach, the BBC adaptation of the 2007 Ian McEwan novel that premieres in the U.S. today, contains no actual sex, but it’s nevertheless all about sex — wanting it, fearing it, the power it has to destroy a relationship. For the unfamiliar: The movie spends most of its time on the 1962 wedding night of two young British newlyweds as they move, increasingly awkwardly, toward consummating the marriage; the husband, Edward, is trying to hurry things along, while his new wife, Florence, does her best to deflect and delay, finally laying down stiffly and doing her best to go along with what’s happening, even as it’s clear how badly she wants to be anywhere else.

It’s a little bit excruciating to watch, but that’s nothing compared to the fight that follows: Florence, horrified when Edward ejaculates prematurely on her leg, becomes so agitated that she has to run out of the room. Through flashbacks, the movie hints that she may have been sexually abused by her father; whatever the cause of her distress, she knows that she never wants to have sex, ever. She loves Edward, she tells him when he chases her down, and she wants him to fulfill his sexual needs with other people; it’s just something that she can’t do. But Edward, angry and wounded, can’t accept the offer.

Ultimately — spoiler — the two get the marriage annulled. But Vanessa Marin, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy, says that isn’t the inevitable outcome of a situation like the one these two characters face. We spoke to Marin about coping with sexual abuse, what happens when guilt masquerades as consent, and how couples with dramatically mismatched sex drives can approach their seemingly incompatible needs. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

If a couple comes into your office where one wants to have sex and the other has an aversion to it — how do you begin to approach that?
It really boils down to that person who feels the aversion — what their goals are with their sex life? If they don’t have any desire to change, if they’re saying, “This is who I am, I don’t want to work on this,” then there’s not really much that anyone else can do. As a sex therapist, I would not see it as my role to try to change somebody’s opinion about what they think is best for themselves and what they want for themselves. So that’s where I would start. It wouldn’t be likely that a couple would come in with one person definitively saying, “I don’t want to work on this at all.” But that would definitely be the starting place: What do you want to happen here? Are you willing to work on understanding what the feelings might be that are coming up for you? Are you willing to see if there’s a way for the two of you to connect?

What are some of the reasons why someone might have that total aversion?
Definitely the most common reason is some sort of history of sexual abuse. It makes a lot of logical sense: If you have any sort of experience with sex where your boundaries are violated, where your needs and desires were not listened to, then of course sex is not going to seem very appealing or interesting or even safe. So especially if it’s a very intense emotional reaction that comes up, it’s most likely due to some sort of sexual trauma or abuse from the past.

There are also definitely people who just aren’t very interested in sex. There’s a wide spectrum of what our interest levels are toward sex, and for some people, it’s just not really important to them. They don’t get a ton of enjoyment out of it, or it’s not something that feels very important in their lives. That definitely does exist, and I think it’s important for people to recognize that. Typically, those kinds of reactions won’t be very emotional — if a couple is starting to be intimate and someone has that really intense, triggered reaction, that’s not going to be because of this. This will be more just a general lack of interest: “That’s not really my thing, I’m not really that into it.”

Would that be considered asexuality?
Asexuality can apply to a wide umbrella of circumstances, but I only like to use the term “asexuality” when a person identifies by that. I don’t like to say, “I think you’re asexual.” I want somebody to be able to say, “Yeah, I identify with asexuality, where sex doesn’t feel very appealing or interesting to me.” Some people might identify themselves as asexual if they have had a history of sexual abuse, so it’s not like those two things can never go together. But I think the most important thing for me is just that the person defines themselves as that, rather than the label being put on them.

There are some people who define themselves as asexual but might be willing to engage in occasional sex with their partner, or there might be different arrangements you work out, where it’s an open relationship or one partner is allowed to have sexual relationships with other people, or certain acts that are or aren’t on the table, or it could be just sex but no emotional connection or romantic dates or anything like that. So there can be a lot of different arrangements — it just comes down to what the couple wants and what’s going to feel okay to them. I never try to pressure or push people into having sex when they don’t want to or when it doesn’t feel right to them. But there could be a lot of creative arrangements that could be worked out, if both partners want to get creative. It does happen pretty frequently that if a person isn’t interested in sex, they will say to their partner, “You can get sex elsewhere, that’s okay with me.”

In your experience, how do people typically react to their partners making that suggestion?
What I see in my practice, typically, is that it will be met with a negative response. I think one of the reasons for that is that whenever I’m working with couples with mismatched sex drives — for whatever reason, or whatever the context is — the lower sex drive person tends to think about sex as a numbers game, like, “Oh, my partner wants to have sex three times a week,” that type of thing. And what the higher sex drive person will usually say to me is, “Sex is about more than how often we’re doing it, it’s about the emotional connection. This is an experience that we share together, it’s a way to feel closer and more bonded with each other.” So I think typically that can be where that negative reaction comes from. It’s that feeling of, “This is not just about me wanting to have an orgasm, I want to feel that connection with you. I want to have this be something that we experience together.”

What can cases like this — where one partner wants to have sex and the other never does — teach us about consent?
Let me speak specifically about a situation where a person’s aversion is because of sexual abuse in the past. If you’re in a situation like that where a person is saying, “Okay, I have these traumatic experiences in my past but I want to move past them, I want to be able to have a romantic sexual relationship with my partner,” definitely the first thing I would recommend is that you seek some sort of therapy, both couple and individual. Sexual abuse is something that a person should not have to process on their own — it’s an incredibly traumatic thing that’s been forced upon you, and you deserve to have a lot of support and understanding of the impact that it’s continuing to have on your life. The starting place has to be just having that support.

And the couples work can be really beneficial as well, for helping you guys navigate the nuances of consent. A common thing that happens with sexual-abuse survivors is that they feel uncomfortable with consent, because their consent wasn’t given in this really traumatic experience in their life. So a lot of survivors will push themselves to say yes even when they’re not in the mood or when they don’t feel safe, and then could have re-triggering, re-traumatizing experiences. It could be that the partner is trying to be perfectly loving and supportive and non-pressuring, but the survivor ends up being re-traumatized by it.

So it’s really important to have some support in understanding how to give consent. With a client like that, I’ll always start with learning how to say no first. You can’t say yes to something until you know how to say no. So I think that would be just guiding the two of them through getting more comfortable with those dynamics and how they come up between the two of them, and then from there being able to learn how to say yes. And to recognize that there are a lot of nuances to consent. We can say yes to certain things but not to others; you can say, “Yes, we can start with this and see how it goes, but I might take back consent at a certain point.” There are a lot of nuances to it and lessons to learn around it, but it is definitely something that can be worked on.

Could their partner benefit from individual therapy as well?
I do a lot of work with helping the partner recognize some of the signals that might come up for the survivor. This can really vary from person to person, but for example, maybe the person says yes but they’re not making any sort of eye contact, or maybe they’re holding their body in a certain way, or have a certain look on their face or a certain emotional tone or tremble in their voice. So helping their partner, somebody who loves them and cares about them and already knows a good deal about them, is just helping them get more tuned in to those signals so they can recognize, “Okay, my partner might be having more of a reaction right now.”

What about in cases where abuse isn’t the reason?
I think that just gets into learning more about your yeses and nos too, really being able to understand that we are all entitled to having our own needs and boundaries and desires around sex, and that it’s important to be able to express what those are for each individual person. Typically, with the clients that I work with, I don’t often see a lot of couples where one partner is forcing themselves on an ongoing basis to have sex when they genuinely don’t want it. So it doesn’t tend to be a super common occurrence, but it’s the same sort of thing of being able to get confident and understand that your boundaries and needs are just as important as your partner’s.

A Sex Therapist on the Sexual Problems in On Chesil Beach