It may be awkward because sex is taboo to talk about in our culture. People generally have shame around bodies and sexuality, so talking openly about sex and sexuality may bring up feelings of awkwardness.
So how do we talk about sex openly?
Thanks to the following guests for participating:
Sadia Azmat is a stand-up comedian and writer from East London. Through a chance encounter with a comedian in a call centre, she was introduced to the circuit and now is a regular stand-up. In 2018, Sadia launched her critically acclaimed BBC podcast No Country for Young Women, which was named as one of the best audio 2018, by the Observer and Apple’s Top picks for 2018. She currently works as a producer for BBC Studios. Sex Bomb: The Life and Loves of an Asian Babe is her first book.
Sex Positive Advocate & Founder of Jasexplains Jasmine Rajah.
Moroccan women’s rights advocate focused on the fight against sexual violence and purity culture Nayla Rida.
Parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja.
Dr Selina Nath-Gordon, a psychologist and yoga instructor.
TedX speaker Lucy Vittrup, who is a therapist, best selling author and trains medical doctors in conversations about sexuality and intimacy with patients.
Here are some of the resources from the show:
Alain de Botton is a philosopher, author, and founder of “The School of Life”. His work has been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life’ and explores love, status, meritocracy, religion, and self-knowledge. De Botton’s School launched in 2008 and it now has 13 locations globally and a YouTube channel with over 500 million views. Alain’s books Essays in Love, Status Anxiety, and The Architecture of Happiness, have sold millions of copies.
Books looked at this week:
Sadia Azmat: Sex Bomb: The Life and Loves of an Asian Babe.
Alain De Botton: How To Think More About Sex.
PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.
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Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.
Welcome to season 2 episode 72 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky topics and skills by reading through the best books out there.
Sex, a fundamental process to our existence as human beings, is seldom discussed in relationships and society as a whole. It is something most everyone is born interested in and can derive pleasure from, yet it is still approached with so much shame, fear, and disgust.
So why is talking about sex so taboo?
Here is Sex Positive Advocate & Founder of Jasexplains Jasmine Rajah and Moroccan women’s rights advocate focused on the fight against sexual violence and purity culture Nayla Rida on their views.
JASMINE RAJAH: We’re afraid to talk about sex because we were told that sex is meant for procreation and that it is a conversation between spouses that to see sex as something pleasurable is wrong and dirty, and to bring it outside the four walls of your bedroom, it’s shameful and sinful. But it is important to have these discussions not only with your partner, but with friends or people that you trust, because I truly believe that knowledge is power. The more we normalize conversations on sex insecurities, dysfunction boundaries, or shame, to name the least, the more we can empower ourselves to advocate for our bodies, for our pleasure, for our rights. The more we know about our bodies and our work, the more we flourish in other parts of our lives. So, yeah, talk about sex, but don’t just talk about it. Have conversations expand and go beyond. You never know who you’d help. You might even help yourself.
NAYLA RIDA: I’m not ashamed to talk about sex and that’s because I’m afraid of a society that wouldn’t talk about it at all. So, um, part of my work is trying to make conversations about sex more mainstream, because a few things happen when we become more comfortable talking about sex. First of all, uh, we become more prepared to recognize situations of abuse or things, um, that are not normal. And when we also learn what is normal and what is not normal, we become less ashamed of our taste, because chances are our kings are very common. And, uh, there’s probably nothing wrong about our desire. And knowing what is and what is not consensual is very important for us to protect ourselves and also children. So that’s why I also think it’s important to talk about what’s, uh, appropriate and what’s not appropriate to children, so they become better equipped to resist potential attempts of abuse and also talk about abuse when it does happen.
(Back to host)
Our first book is from Sadia Azmat, who is a stand-up comedian and writer from East London. Through a chance encounter with a comedian in a call centre, she was introduced to the circuit and now is a regular stand-up. In 2018, Azmat launched her critically acclaimed BBC podcast No Country for Young Women, which was named as one of the Best Audio 2018, by the Observer and Apple’s Top picks for 2018. She currently works as a producer for BBC Studios. Sex Bomb: The Life and Loves of an Asian Babe is her first book. She was kind enough to speak to me so here is a snippet but find the full interview on http://www.howtobe247.com or on the YouTube channel.
SADIA AZMAT: You know what? I’ve always loved writing. It’s a huge, uh, passion of mine. And I think writing a book takes a long time. And then Lockdown happened, so we had a lot of time. And I met my editor, Katie Packer. Shout out to the queen. She’s edited, like, the receipts, book and Kim’s memoir. So, like, she’s been an angel to work with.I think it’s, like, timing. It was perfect, to be honest with you. Uh, why was it the right time? Because I just realised that it is my truth and that so many other women feel the same. Like, when I was doing stand up, so many women were laughing along and enjoying it and at parts of that we relate to you. And so it just felt so convenient that the narrative we always hear about British Asian women is that we’re oppressed or repressed or whatever stupid word that the haters want to give us. And actually, I just really wanted to put sex on the table for conversation. I think there’s so much, like, messiness when it comes to racism. I think it’s, like, about mis-educating people to forget heritage and to forget what influences certain practices. And so, I mean, we had karma, sutra, babe. No one’s telling me I’m depressed. So if you want to think that I’m oppressed, that’s on you. But, like, we taught you 69, we taught you the clock, whatever that position is. The clock on the standing clock. But we’ve come up with a lot that they just conveniently want to either kind of due to hatred, very, or kind of remanufacture their own narratives that suits them. I don’t know what it is. It could be jealousy, intimidation, fear, hatred, all of the above. Not all of them, though. That’s the thing. And so people from every culture have some strangeness, don’t they? So it’s like, you don’t need to be labelled as that, uh, because you have to kind of let someone present themselves on face value before you kind of make those assertions. And so I’ve never really felt ashamed when it comes to sex. I’m a comedian. I’m able to laugh and make jokes out of certain things, but I just wanted to put something on the table that was original and that felt like me and that spoke truth to women and, um, our experience. But yeah, what happens when you don’t have the arranged marriage and you’re brown? That’s the book. It’s kind of like if you don’t feel like you fit on the dating scene, but you’re also not very sought after on the arranged marriage scene and then no one’s there to help you along the way. You’ve got to figure out a lot by yourself. And some of that means you might end up having some hard knocks along the way. Right? The problem is that how are you either going to be like a nun or a sex model? It’s like most people are somewhere in between. Like, you have your side where you’re kind of like professional whatever or corporate whatever it is. And then you have your like, sexy side. But it’s something that belongs to you. It’s not for other people. I don’t know, spectatorship. It’s like it’s how you want to kind of use it, really. And so again, it was something that I felt as a female, as a Muslim, as a woman. I’ve said a woman already, but like me, basically. It was something that nobody tells you that you’re going to have sexuality or what it means. And that’s like, it’s setting you up on the back foot because you have so much worse. And including but also excluding your sexuality is not everything. A lot of men approach us with that fetishisation as though, uh, we’re sex objects. And it will be like, oh, you know, I really want to wake up and I sleep with a girl like you. And it gets either too hot and heavy so quick, like literally in a DM, or you’re getting none of that and they’re acting like it shouldn’t disrespect you with eye contact. So I think why do we have these issues? I think it’s just where certain people and I’m not trying to say that we’re oppressed anybody listening, please. It’s just like, OK, so I think that some of our family as well didn’t have the conversations that we’re having today. And so if they were taught to be very prudish or to be very conservative, that obviously feeds trickles down into the way that we’re raised. I just feel like it’s a fine balance between micromanaging your kids and then doing nothing. So you need to kind of know what your kids have conversations with them, talk to them, but don’t smother them. Those types of things will be really, really important. So I think that’s probably why I feel like on that side of things, I have quite a healthy attitude because I wasn’t told you can’t do this or you shouldn’t do this. I was told if I didn’t mean it, if that makes sense. I wasn’t scared of the repercussions. And so if people had a little bit more of a stricter upbringing, then that can lead them to kind of maybe not explore their sexuality or sexual identities and kind of a time of their life when they would have. And then kind of then if you’re visiting it later, maybe you get that FOMO you’re trying to make up for a lost time. You know, like Mariah Carey, where initially huh, this is a funny example, but initially, her persona was, like, just a, uh, singer. And then I felt like due to some of the difficulties with Tommy Matola or whoever, her record company, then she kind of became this sex kitten. Right? And I guess judgement is like a really key thing where, um, I try not to judge people. I know that it’s not always easy, but it’s like you just never know what someone is doing or where they’re coming from, where they are on their journey. And so, again, I think if there was a little bit less judgement about she’s wearing lipstick, what does that mean? Yeah, I think trying to be less judgmental and more open to understanding and conversations would change things a lot.
(Back to host)
In this hilarious and honest memoir, Azmat takes us on a ride from the beginnings of her forming her sexual identity as an “Asian Babe”, to rejecting an arranged marriage, and to rejecting the stereotyping, politicisation, and fetishisation of the hijab.
“It’s so easy to put women in boxes,” writes the comedian. “Judging whether we’re the right or the wrong sort of girl, trying to make our identities and facets work for your head and understanding of the world, but ultimately you can take the hijab off the girl, but you can’t take the girl out of the hijab.”
As Azmat grew up, she talked about the notion of Prince Charming. Bollywood provided a rather skewed view of what to expect in love and marriage, and especially how men behave. Azmat said she did not see the pain or hurt that could be caused by men or love connections that didn’t work.
And in Azmat’s case and in many South Asian relationships, arranged marriages were not uncommon, and it was just labelled marriage like everywhere else. There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding relationships, especially in Muslim communities. Islam is expressly against forced marriages, even though in the west, it is often conflated as the same. Hence Azmat wanted to write a more honest account about being a Muslim woman trying to navigate sex and relationships.
Next, Azmat talks about her parents’ relationship and how challenging it had been. She said “at times it felt like a love-hate relationship. He felt slighted that she was more British than him which he considered aspirational and something the man should possess more of”. On top of this, her mother had lost her own mother to suicide due to depression, hence Azmat said her first templates of love, sex and marriage were confused and complicated at best.
As a result, the author said she did not expect much for her own relationships, and navigating being a girl with an Indian upbringing in a British world with family problems in a society that expected perfection – there was no way there could be stability.
When she was 19, she started wearing the hijab. It was a decision she made for herself with little thought as to what it would mean to others or how it would change the way she was perceived. The hijab wasn’t reductive for her, but the scarf completely transformed the way in which people would interact with her.
One thing she learnt was that the narrative of the hijab is closely linked to its role in preserving a woman’s piety, particularly a married woman. And so, she wasn’t prepared for how she would be perceived as a single hijabi.
She said marriage was one half of her faith. So even though she was wearing a hijab, which protected her from the male gaze, people assumed she wasn’t complete without a husband. At the beginning, it didn’t affect her because she had no intention of getting married. She wanted to find love and not marriage and most of us know those are two different things. Everything she saw felt like it was a compromise of one over the other. It turned out, in the hijab, she wasn’t able to find it either. It made it hard for people to separate her from the object.
Next she said her understanding of sex was that abstinence and piety could be bartered for acceptance in the community. She added that it was dangerous to view women as pure or impure. In a world where there’s next to no sex education for Asian women, and terrible sex education across the board, as we have no outlet for us to learn about sexuality, we should treat each other with empathy as we try and learn and grow. She said: “I wasn’t sanctimonious about my chastity because as I wasn’t haven’t having sex, I knew it wasn’t all I had and that I had more to offer”.
She hilariously lists the types of guys on offer which include pretty boy or the brag artist, the doctor, nice guy, mummy’s boy, Deliveroo driver who she says “delivers for the home but not the heart”, the tortured soul ie. musicians, comedians, writers etc. the waste who makes women pay for everything, the listener and “The One”. The problem she said was that Asian men behaved as if women were their birthright. At the same time, they wanted women to sleep with but not marry.
So she was stuck between a rock and a hard place because if she was virgin, the man that she was involved with wouldn’t sleep with her, and if she wasn’t, some men wouldn’t want to marry her. And it’s all because of our bizarre relationship with sex. At the same time, she was told that women were constantly the one to compromise, whilst mainstream feminism did not adhere to every kind of person, such as a Muslim women, especially in regards to hijabs.
The other conversation that had been hushed up was mental health. Azmat said in one UK study, middle-aged Pakistani men and older Indian and Pakistani women reportedly had significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety in comparison to white people, even after taking into account differences in socioeconomic status. Other studies have demonstrated particularly high susceptibility among South Asian immigrant females to self-harm and certain mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and eating-related psychopathology. Many also fear that acknowledging mental illness might prevent them from getting married.
At the same time, Azmat said she had struggled to make some effort when it came to dating, understandably so given what she had witnessed. This had included her father’s behaviour towards her mother, and even flaunting another wife – though this is illegal in the UK. However, her friend said “how do you expect to find someone if you’re not going to do any of the work?” Making herself get better at reaching out to people and to be vulnerable to find what she was truly looking for is also an important part of sex and relationships. She had realised, all she had wanted was what she had seen: instant gratification and quick wins.
She lists how to spot an asshole list, except she didn’t say the word asshole. This includes, people who always speak for you without asking permission; someone who says they want to tell you something and then says it’s nothing as a form of gaining control of a situation; users who always take and never give; someone who feels their voice is louder and more important than others; playing games with people; non-apologies ie. I’m sorry you feel that way etc. In the end, her friend Monty intervenes and recommends “when it comes to intercourse you know everyone has their different ways to how they approach the topic…you will find the right [person] for you eventually who takes you for all that you are because that’s what you deserve.”
When she had to go through an abortion, Azmat said even though she knows many Muslim women have gone through it before, a lot of Muslim or Asian women have no one to talk to about it. We’re taught nothing about sex, which I can personally vouch for. We didn’t understand our sexuality as much of what is said is through a heterosexual lens. We’re also encouraged to ignore our emotion, she says. Without knowing that our sexuality was ours to control, it was easy for it to be used for and by others. Sexuality is part of being human. Sex was a currency in many ways so without knowing how to use it , the author writes, Muslim women ran the real risk of being short-changed.
Ultimately, this is a book about enjoying sex on your own terms and rejecting what other people think you should do or be. It’s about upturning society’s rigid ideas of what it means to be a South Asian woman, and casting off the prioritisation of white women as the acme of hotness.
Before the next book, here is Sangeeta Pillai, founder of Soul Sutras and host of the British Podcast Award-winning show the Masala Podcast, on her views.
SANGEETA PILLAI: A massive taboo that we carry with in our culture is sex. Sex and women now that’s complicated because as women growing up in this culture, we are told that sex isn’t really for us and that it’s for men. And we’re just the kind of passive participants, as it were, we’re raised to kind of offer our bodies to men and never think about our own pleasure, our own orgasms. Kind of sexual volition doesn’t for women really doesn’t exist in our culture. So this makes it very complicated because we’re giving all the power over to men, really, and all the pleasure and joy that our bodies carry. So I think, like with any other patriarchal system, I think owning our own pleasure as South Asian women, owning our own orgasms is super, super important because. We’ve got all this power and we’re. Just kind of giving it away.
(Back to host)
Our next book is by thinker and philosopher Alain de Botton. He is the author of seven books on topics ranging from architecture to social anxiety, and the founder of the School of Life, an educational company that offers courses designed to help us lead more fulfilling lives. In How To Think More About Sex: Sage sex advice from a philosophical polymath, de Botton delves into the strange and sometimes uncomfortable world of sex. Here he is speaking to London Real.
ALAIN DE BOTTON: I think it’s very easy to feel you’re weird around sex and sex makes us want and do pretty weird stuff. We love a quote from Kingsley Amos where he said that having a sex drive is like being chained to an idiot for 50 years. If not an idiot, certainly a pretty strange person. I mean, somebody who in the rest of their life believes in dignity and seriousness and equality may, when it comes to their sex life, want to be on the floor in chains, having somebody else insult them. And you think, what on earth is going on here? Now it’s our belief at the School of Life that almost every socalled bizarre sexual practice can be traced back to a pretty understandable part of human nature. Take the desire to dominate another human being, insects. Right now, this is one of the most scary things. You know, people who are in ordinary life, as I say, very democratic and kindly and gentle may feel that the only thing that’s going to be able to turn them on is to hit somebody else with a whip or, uh, to call them rude words. And you think like, wow, I’m so strange, I’m so ashamed. I can’t possibly admit this to anyone else. What’s going on? And again, people will become mentally ill because they are so divided against themselves. Now when someone comes along like this to us, we say, look, it’s so understandable. One way to look at sex is sex is a relief from many of the pressures that ordinary life imposes on us. It is an immense sign of trust. If somebody enables you, allows you to display your more ruthless, dominating characteristics. If somebody loves you enough to allow you to do things that 99% of people will never allow you to do which is to be a little bit impolite to them and to almost relish your strength and your capacity to hurt and humiliate. Now you’re not doing this out of hatred and it’s because it’s on such a fine line that people get so nervous about this. But ultimately this in an arena of love is an attempt to get close to somebody. It’s a major act of intimacy to be able to play sexual games and people like to do this. But so many people are cut off from the origins of their fantasies and the origins of what they so called really want to do and they don’t tell their partners. They don’t even tell themselves because it sounds so weird. They want to dress up as a pirate or they want to put on a strange hat or the kind of watch their father used to wear or a pair of shoes that they once saw somebody wearing 20 years ago. And it sounds so odd. But very often it’s linked to trying to express bits of our personalities that are important to us that are uh taboo in the rest of life but that we’re aching to tell somebody else about in an arena that’s safe. And sex should be about safety. It should be about neutrality. It should be about an opening up of parts of the self that we can’t share with others. That’s true intimacy. True intimacy isn’t taking off your clothes. It’s unreal your soul. And that means putting yourself in a position where 99% of people would laugh and giggle and point. And that’s the point. You found the one person that you’re not going to be humiliated by and that’s your pal. That’s your friend. That’s your lover.
(Back to host)
Sex is a confounding and convoluted subject, and the problems often only really begin in earnest after we’ve had it. No wonder. Sexual desire is where millennia of biological hardwiring tango with the Freudian unconscious and its seemingly whimsical drives. Once the sparks start flying, we’re pushed to emotional extremes. Our sex lives are defined by an array of emotions, some bitter, others sweet. Love, the painful sting of rejection, vulnerability, frustration – these feelings can form a complex maze that’s hard to escape once you find yourself at its centre.
It’d be logical to assume that, once sex was accepted as a natural biological function especially in the 1960’s, all sex-related feelings of shame and guilt would have been forever dispelled. But that’s not quite what happened. The fact is that sex remains a sensitive subject even today.
What exactly is sex? Most of us understand the biological function, but the emotional side is a different thing. Take evolutionary biology. It offers a compelling account of why we find intelligence, strength and beauty attractive.
The first quality, for example, implies an ability to swiftly adapt to a range of different situations – a handy skill when it comes to ensuring the survival of offspring. Strength is another attractive quality indicating an ability to protect infants from potential predators. That’s why displays of brawn are often so beguiling.
Beauty is suggestive of yet another important quality – health. A huge number of studies carried out around the world show that most of us find facial symmetry attractive. The reason? Evenly distributed features are indicative of a well-functioning immune system and the absence of genetic diseases.
Though compelling, these explanations don’t account for people whose tastes diverge from the norm. Nor does a purely biological account of sex give a full enough picture. An evolutionary biologist would claim that the pleasure stems from the nerve endings in our genitals, which are stimulated during sex. That, they’d add, is our reward for engaging in the tricky but vital task of propagating the species.
However, that does not account for masturbation? Or impotence? Such counterexamples suggest that we need to turn elsewhere if we want a fuller picture. If we’re interested in finding out why sex can make us feel awkward, we need to look at our psychological development.
If we’re lucky, we’re born into an environment in which we experience a brief period of unconditional love and devoted affection. But changes when we grow up can be a process of estrangement.
Take physical contact. Once we’ve outgrown the need for diapers, our relationship with our bodies begins to change. Starting with the genitals and proceeding to the belly, neck, armpits and so on, ever more body parts become taboo. Eventually, the only acceptable form of physical contact with others is an occasional handshake or hug. We start to feel shame regarding our bodies. Clothing itself, while useful for warmth during colder temperatures, makes little sense during boiling hot weather, which means self-control and conventional decorum regulate most of our interactions.
We’re also usually deeply attentive to personal space. In fact, most of us unconsciously maintain a certain distance (usually between two and three feet) when interacting with others, so as to avoid uncomfortable proximity. In most situations, our bodies are strictly off-limits to strangers. Those we allow to get close to us, like doctors and dentists, are exceptions that prove the rule. So why does self-control stand in the way of intimacy?
As we develop and become sexual beings, we increasingly come into conflict with societal expectations. We look to sex to help us alleviate these pressures and find a way out of isolation.
Sex lets us embrace who we really are and what we truly desire. And such self-acceptance is a great foundation for more honest, trusting relationships. One of the reasons sex feels great is that it helps us reconcile our public persona with our “shameful” private self. There is acceptance of each other’s naked bodies during intimacy.
In addition to helping reconcile our public persona and private self, sex can also provide an outlet for the more aggressive parts of our natures that we successfully repress in everyday life as well as our fantasies. This can help us develop a sense of trust and once again there is a level of acceptance and approval.
Physical attraction is often seen as a shallow affair. But for evolutionary reasons, we’re biologically hardwired to find some traits especially attractive. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that attraction is also connected to deeper psychological factors.
Just as some may assume someone who looks large and strong is healthy, then it stands to reason that we might associate other attributes – such as patience, for instance, or kindness – with the curvature of a pair of lips or the shape of a person’s eyes. De Botton believes that we tend to find attractive what we ourselves lack. He says when we understand why we find some people more attractive than others, we can reassure ourselves that we’re not being shallow. Though I believe this doesn’t always refer to people with certain narcissistic personality types.
We’re all fetishists of one stripe or another, even if our particular turn-ons are sometimes of the “milder” variety. Trying to understand one’s fetishes is a great way of deciphering what one’s unconscious is up to. And coming to grips with one’s unconscious drives has a definite benefit: it tends to alleviate feelings of sexual deviancy. Individual fetishes can be traced back to childhood. Both good and bad experiences continue to mould us later on in life.
So for example visual symbols like being aroused by what someone wears in particular, may be tied to a childhood memory where a parent either possessed qualities that you admired or perhaps the opposite – where the parent neglected you, you might prefer something completely different.
When we understand fetishes in this way, we can also see that objects shouldn’t be dismissed as insignificant trivialities because they’re “merely” capable of triggering sexual desire. We should take them seriously because they lead us toward the higher, intangible qualities that make us love other humans. So fetishes aren’t just for the “sexually deviant”! In fact, identifying our own fetishes and tracking them back to their sources is how we can become comfortable with our desires.
For De Botton, he says we shouldn’t rank love or sex on top of one another. Attraction is normally the product of two divergent and conflicting forces – the desire for love and the desire for sex. But if you don’t communicate your desires in your relationship then it is an equation for disaster.
But being honest about our desires isn’t a simple matter. Both forms of desire are bound up with equally prohibitive taboos. By admitting a desire for love, for example, a person may risk coming across as weak and soppy. And for the other to admit that their only desire is sex would be to risk seeming cold and vulgar. Which is why De Botton says both should be seen as equally valid desires.
If we can only get sex by pretending to be in love, we’re certain to act dishonestly – running for the hills when the time comes to truly commit. And if we pursue love by pretending all we want is sex, we’ll be signing up for painful experiences of abandonment. From a moral point of view, neither option is superior to the other, since dishonesty defines both of them. But if we look at it from another angle, we can also see that there are powerful prohibitive taboos associated with these desires.
The surest path is one of honesty. When we’re clear about what we want and avoid making snap judgments when others tell us what they want, we’ll be better able to avoid suffering and alleviate our feelings of guilt.
And this doesn’t just apply to sex and love. Being honest can also help soothe the pain of rejection. Rejection is painful. It feels like a confirmation of our preexisting sense of isolation. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We interpret rejection as a confirmation of all our niggling doubts and self-loathing and, in its aftermath, view ourselves as contemptible creatures undeserving of love. At its most extreme, rejection can even call into question our right to exist at all.
It’s helpful to take a step back and think a bit more carefully about what rejection actually is, though. What’s going on when one person rejects the amorous advances of another?
Simply put, it means no more than that one person isn’t turned on by their would-be wooer. That’s not a spiteful judgement – in fact, it’s not a choice at all. It’s an automatic and irreversible reflex. Though it may offer little solace in the moment of rejection, we all understand this. After all, when we’re doing the rejecting, there’s little doubt in our minds that we’re following our instincts. That’s why it’s important to remember that rejection isn’t a judgement on our worth.
In a perfect world, every long-term relationship would guarantee frequent sex and immunity from rejection. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Long-standing relationships are as likely to be defined by infrequent sex and rejection as the lives of singles.
Even worse, the pain this causes can be more intense when we’re in a relationship. Here’s the thing: eroticism is the fruit of mutual arousal, and the longer a relationship lasts, the harder it is to get both parties in the mood. Although rejection is never easy to deal with especially in long term relationships, a good start is trying not to take it personally. Once we understand that some rejection is a normal part of any relationship, it’ll become less painful.
Sex and domesticity tend to clash, the author says. Why? Well, sex is all about playfulness and relinquishing control. Day-to-day life, in contrast, is about discipline and taking control. Sex always threatens to undermine our ability to take care of the essential aspects of everyday life.
There’s a silver lining to this gloomy diagnosis, however. We don’t avoid sex because it isn’t enjoyable but because its pleasures simply undermine our capacity to focus on domestic responsibilities.
Initiating sex is about allowing ourselves to become vulnerable. We have to admit to desires that might seem trivial or embarrassing. The shift in registers between that and a practical conversation about, say, which washing machine to buy can be hard to navigate.
We usually divide people into two different categories. It’s often thought of as a male tendency to view potential partners through the prism of the Madonna–whore complex, but women are just as likely to adopt a similar lens – call it the nice person –bastard complex.
The sex life of domesticated couples can take a hit because it’s difficult for us to play both roles simultaneously. If we want to manage this tension, it’s best to start by being honest about our desires and expectations concerning these two roles.
The Freudian aspect is that after a while, partners become like family, so talking about sexual desires actually become instinctively uncomfortable. Especially if there is a power dynamic between the couple, such as that of the breadwinner or carer. De Botton says a lot of infidelity is based on the fact that intimacy starts becoming challenging with your partner.
So what’s the answer? Well, once we become aware of our subconscious thoughts, we can begin to reconnect with reality. That means resisting the temptation to embrace quick fixes, and then working on our relationship with our current partner. We don’t need a replacement; we need to find a new way of seeing the person we’re with.
At times this could just mean changing your environment for the night, so you have one mission and that mission only. We should try to see our subject – the person we’ve chosen as a partner – afresh every day. Once we start doing that, we’ll remind ourselves of why we fell for that person in the first place.
The other aspect is porn. Vast amounts of pornography are consumed around the world every day. That’s a problem. Every minute spent watching porn is a minute that might have been better spent raising children, painting a masterpiece or simply cleaning out the attic.
Pornography distracts us from our plans and aspirations. When we consume porn, we’re undercutting our ability to handle forms of suffering that we need to be able to endure in order to lead a normal life. Like drugs and alcohol, it dilutes our tolerance of anxiety, worry and boredom.
That’s because it’s an instant fix. As soon as we begin pursuing its fleeting pleasures, we’re no longer concerning ourselves with trying to figure out what it is that’s bothering us or riding out our ennui and waiting for inspiration to strike. All too often, we turn to porn the moment we’re confronted with anxieties and feelings of boredom.
Admitting that we’re more susceptible to the lures of pornography than we’d like to think might be in our best interest. Once we’ve confessed our weaknesses, we might just find that the path to a new, more constructive form of sexual art has been cleared.
Sexual straying isn’t the only form of betrayal – surliness, being uncommunicative or simply failing to develop or inspire are also ways of betraying a partner. Adultery is based on magical thinking. It assumes that we can fix or escape from a difficult marriage by having sex with someone outside it. But that just serves to undermine what’s good about the relationship. And while there are plenty of different marriage templates, such as open relationships, these are usually guaranteed to end up causing us, our partner and our children even more hurt, especially if it hasn’t been communicated and isn’t consensual.
That means we should consider the notion that both parties might be to blame when it comes to an extramarital affair. But if our partner remains faithful, we should tell them that we recognize and appreciate their sacrifice.
So to sum up:
Azmat says in Sex Bomb that she thinks because people have been dictated to perceive Muslim women a certain way for so long, it will take a someone to look below the surface to be intimate with her. Whereas in the past she had been guilty of sex bombing — in other words trying too hard — she now appreciates what she failed to see the whole time: that sex is only one aspect of a relationship. To focus simply on this one thing can lead a relationship to implode. There are so many other things that require some focus such as listening, caring, kindness and respect. The other aspect is the fact when you don’t have these conversations around sex, you end up having a warped expectation of it.
De Botton says in How To Think More About Sex that we’re hardwired to desire sex, and it’s the source of both extraordinary pleasure and great pain. Most of us believe we think enough about sex, but the subject often remains more awkward than we’d perhaps like to admit. When we learn to think more about sex, we begin to understand our true drives and desires. And that puts us in a position to pursue healthier, happier and more productive relationships.
Long-term relationships can be great, but they also have their downsides. One of the most common drawbacks is flagging sexual desire. Keeping old passions burning can be tricky once we’ve become so accustomed to our partner that we begin to see them as family members rather than lovers. One simple trick that can help reanimate slumbering desires is to learn to truly see our partners in the way that an artist’s eyes dwell on his subject. So take a moment each day to forget the practical routines of domestic life and really look! You may soon see why you fell for your partner in the first place.
Having grown up in the South Asian community, I can definitely attest to the fact there was silence in regards to discussing sex. It was completely unheard of, and we ended up basing most of our idea on it through the school’s terrible sex education and whatever information was available which wasn’t very helpful. Please join in on the conversation by following @howtobe247 on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and subscribe to the podcast, which can be found via http://www.howtobe247.com.
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Before we go, here is parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja, Dr Selina Nath-Gordon, a psychologist and yoga instructor, as well as Tedx speaker Lucy Vittrup, who is a therapist, best selling author and trains medical doctors in conversations about sexuality and intimacy with patients. See you in two week’s time!
ANGELA KARANJA: Sex is one of those activities that is so potent, so powerful, such a creative activity, that it has the ability to bring forth another life. Here is the irony. That very good thing has somehow been twisted, and somewhere along the line we were conditioned with the idea that it’s a dirty thing, it’s something to feel guilty about, it’s something to feel shameful about. This most pleasurable creative activity has been twisted and tabooed. I think it’s very important that we begin to recalibrate our minds that this is natural, biological, it’s a, um, good activity. In fact, research shows that there are so many health benefits associated with healthy sexual activities. And the problem is, the more we hide away from talking about it, the more negative outcomes we have on these topics surrounding sex.
DR SELINA NATH-GORDON: Growing up in a South Asian community, especially if you are socialised as a girl, means that sex is basically not spoken about ever. And if it is, it’s associated with negative aspects of sex, about getting pregnant, teenage pregnancies, or it being like a shameful act. Nothing about it being about choice or something pleasurable, nothing like that discussed at all. In addition to that, I feel like when it comes to aspects of sexual assault or violence or anything like that, again, that’s something that’s brushed under the carpet in South Asian communities. I speak about this because it’s a community that I belong to. So, yes, sex is pretty much a very taboo subject.
LUCY VITTRUP: Well, sexuality, especially female sexuality, has been suppressed, it has been controlled, it has been shamed for a couple of thousand years at least, um, by religious leaders, by political leaders, in a way, to try to control this indefinite force that sexual energy is. It is this creational force itself. So, obviously, it’s important to start speaking about it and taking it out of shame into acceptance, into the light. Because when we liberate the sexual energy, then we start becoming really free. And it has the opportunity to both give us an immense quality of life, but also give us access to a life force energy that liberates our true selves, uh, indefinitely.