Does Sex Have to Suffer in Long-Term Relationships?

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It only takes one glass of prosecco, compounded with months or years of sleep deprivation, for the mom friends in my circle to say: “Will I ever want to have sex again?” To be fair, it’s not just the moms. I hear it from couples in their 40s who have been together since college; I hear it from stressed and overworked colleagues — who do not write about sex — convinced that the only way to experience a killer orgasm again is either by themselves or by having an affair. I even hear it from my own inner voice, begging to know what ever happened to my formerly wild self?

Fortunately, we all have a new book by Emily Nagoski, complete with instructions, on what to do about all of the above. Come Togetherthe much-anticipated follow-up to Come As You Are, a revelatory book about female sexuality that swept away both Glennon Doyle and Gwyneth Paltrow  is all about having good sex in long-term relationships. Nagoski is adamantly unconcerned with frequency or adventurousness. She simply wants to ensure that the sex, is, well, pleasurable. And pleasurable can mean many things.

Here’s what I get from some of my 40-something mom friends: Instead of telling me how to fix my sex life, tell me it’s okay to take sex off the table. Would that be good advice or bad advice?
It’s good advice. Tell them to take sex off the table. Tell them: You are tired. You need more help and you need more rest. And all of that is more important than sex. If you feel it’s too hard to find your way to the mood, that’s because it is. I mean, Chapter One is like: Sex is not that important! What is it that matters about any of this? 

While that sounds very freeing, they’re all going to say, “But won’t it hurt my marriage?” 
Right. And relationships do matter. The answer requires a fundamental shift in understanding how to think about sex in a relationship. It’s not about how often you have sex, or even how much you want to have sex, it’s about how much you like the sex you are having. The greatest thing I learned in writing Come Together, and what was totally absent from the mainstream conversation about how sex and long-term relationship works, is that those who lack “desire” are not describing their sex lives as intensely pleasurable, deeply connected, authentic, playful; they describe sex that is dismal and disappointing. It is so silly to say this out loud … but also so revelatory to say it out loud: It is normal not to want sex you don’t like!

Can one genuinely “like” sex without coming from sex? 
Yes! Orgasm is one way that people can experience pleasure, but there are countless ways to experience pleasure. You can be really pleased to feel your partner’s body close to you, to feel their hands on your skin, to enjoy the fact that they’re enjoying lots of pleasure and … yes, not have an orgasm. There is even a place for having sex with your partner just because it makes them happy, as long as you actually like the sex! The mistake people make is having sex just to make their partner happy, even if they themselves do not enjoy it. All that matters is if you like the sex you’re having.

And what if you don’t like it? Is that the end?
No. It’s the beginning of a whole new world! That’s a difficult conversation to have with a partner, and I recommend people talk to a therapist to help with that conversation. The goal of figuring out the sex you like is a goal that’s about moving closer to each other. And because we are so tender around sexuality, it is very easy for us to take it personally when our partner offers a suggestion for creating change. A therapist can make sure you don’t hurt each other on that journey.

“Let’s try something new” can be a very hot conversation.
Yes! Now, not every partner is going to be able to go on that journey. But way more people than you think can handle it.

Do you personally feel pressure to have a great sex life? Sometimes I feel that way … like it’s my brand.
I feel like it’s my brand to be able to fix problems. Writing Come As You Are was so stressful that it eliminated all interest I had in having any sex. We’re talking about months-long dry spells. I tried to use the science I knew: Put your body in the bed, let your skin touch your partner’s skin … but instead, I would cry and fall asleep. Not so sexy! I knew I needed more information.

Then writing Come Together did the same thing as Come As You Are. And I’m perimenopausal now, and I have long COVID. But when I got done with this book, it was so different from the last time. Now I had all these instructions on finding my way back to my partner. And things are better than they’ve ever been. It’s so much more fun. I’m taking myself so much less seriously. I learned that I needed that play space of friendship and laughter. People feel tremendous relief to know that I, too, struggle. I had to disclose that this was me too.

It’s been ten years since Come As You Are was published. Are there any sex-related trends today that you never imagined in 2014?
One of the main things that has changed in the last ten years is TikTok. That has been a huge space for sex education to grow, and yet, it is not a sex-positive platform. People have to spell it “SEGGS” and use all sorts of euphemisms. I think about doing sex education in a context that is not built for it, and is built to make it more difficult, and I get so frustrated. And then I think about 100 years ago when it was against the law to talk about birth control, and we found a way to do it anyway, and I feel hopeful. That to me is the nature of sex education. People are starving for factual knowledge to help them experience their own sexual and reproductive health in a positive, non-scary way, and there will always be people who will get the questions, and find out the truth, and then share the truth.

I often hear from my Sex Diarists that they aren’t going to see someone again because “the pheromones were off …”
There’s actually no evidence that humans perceive pheromones. “Pheromones” are a thing for other species. What they’re trying to say is the connection wasn’t there. However, there is value in sticking that out. Attraction can happen when you get to know someone and they have a spectacular sense of humor and they are smart in a way that is very fun for you, and they are enormously trustworthy, and so likely to be there for you! That’s all very appealing. There’s a book that’s about to come out called Love By Design that’s about this sort of emergent love. It’s the kind of attraction that sustains over the long term.

So your advice is to stick with someone who you might not immediately feel sexually attracted to?
If you feel like you don’t want to jump this person, but also you can’t collaborate with them to explore your sexual connection, to create sex that you both really like, that I would take as a bad sign. If you can’t say from the start, “You know what I really like about oral sex is when you go directly to the clit, stay with the clit, make hard contact with the clit …” If you can’t say those things to your partner, how are they ever going to know? It probably won’t work.

Do you really think most monogamous, heterosexual men can survive such conversations
They definitely need extra, bonus help. It’s like, “Hey, guys, you benefit from this. You have been cut off from an enormous part of what could be bringing you big sexual pleasure, and when your girlfriend or your wife ‘criticizes’ you, and asks for things, that’s actually a sign of hope. She wants to stay connected with you. She’s not pushing you away when she asks for more from you. She’s trying to move closer.”

Does Sex Have to Suffer in Long-Term Relationships?