By Dr. Denise Renye, Licensed Psychologist (PsyD), Sex Therapist, Life Coach
A Sexologist’s Perspective on Sexuality
When it comes to sexuality, most people think of, well, sex. This word is both loaded and very limited. However, there are so many other aspects of sexuality that don’t get nearly enough air time.
I’m a certified sexologist with the American College of Sexologists International and a licensed psychologist with a master’s degree in human sexuality. I’ve dedicated years to thinking about, researching, writing, and teaching this topic. I care about this deeply because, even today, there’s a lack of awareness and communication regarding sexual topics in the general public. I know there can be a lot of pressure around sexual activity, but to remove it from its broader context of sexuality does us no favors.
Sex Is Complex
Having worked in domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers as a counselor and court advocate, I know sex can be used as a weapon of violence. But I also know through educating individuals and couples on the techniques of erotic massage, eye gazing, and non-violent communication, that sexuality can be an expression of connection and deep love and admiration. Sex can be experienced and used in a myriad of ways across the continuum of pain and pleasure.
A Model for Understanding Human Sexuality
But sex is more than the physical act. When talking about sex, I like to widen the lens and talk about sexuality, which is as deep as it is multifaceted. A holistic model I teach often to couples, individuals, and students is the five circles of sexuality developed by Dr. Dennis Dailey in 1981, which is still relevant. Note: In his original model he listed “biological gender” in the sexual identity circle. We now have a more nuanced and better understanding that gender is a social construct and sex is biological anatomy. Dailey’s work expanded the definition and understanding of sex at the time. No one benefits from a narrow definition – in fact, many are harmed by it – but we can bring our better understanding to his contributions and still see the insight of his work.
In this model, values lie at the center of sexuality, but surrounding it are circles: power and sexualization, sensuality, intimacy, sexual identity, and sexual health and reproduction. All of these aspects of sexuality are important parts of the whole for each individual.
- Power and sexualization refer to how you use your potency and sexualness. This circle involves not only interactions with other people but also messaging from media and advertising. Positive power exchanges include flirting and giving/receiving pleasure. It’s important to note these exchanges occur between consenting partners. Consent is imperative and sexy. Negative power exchanges are when one person does not (or cannot) gain consent, yet engages in a sexual act. Negative power exchanges are withholding sex as a manipulation tool, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, incest, and any other abusive sexual behavior including harassing and trolling online, as well as stalking.
- Sensuality is the awareness, acceptance, and enjoyment of your own body and/or the bodies of others. Included in sensuality are fantasy, body image (how you feel about your body, which influences how and when you allow yourself to experience touch, sexual and otherwise), and skin hunger (the need for physical touch). Everyone has a different level of skin hunger, which is more than fine! Not all bodies crave the same type, duration, and frequency of touch. Sensuality allows for pleasure and includes smell, touch, taste, sight, and sound.
- Intimacy is the degree of emotional closeness between people – not only romantic partners but also friends and family. To establish intimacy with someone, you need to take risks, be vulnerable, communicate well, and establish trust. To do so involves acts of caring/sharing, as well as liking/loving.
- Sexual identity refers to who you are and how you label yourself as a sexual being. It includes how you see yourself as a gendered being (or not), gender role cultural expectations, who you’re attracted to, and the types of sexual practices that excite you/bring pleasure.
- Sexual health and reproduction denote the physical fact of your body and how it functions sexually. This circle includes the components of reproduction, the physical changes that happen from birth to death, and the challenges people may face such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual dysfunction, and infertility.
How These Circles Interact
As you can see, sexuality is multi-faceted. Furthermore, these circles of sexuality influence one another. For instance, if you have a history of negative power exchanges, that may make it harder for you to build intimacy with others. Or if you are a transgender person, you may be less inclined to seek out sexual-related healthcare because you don’t feel safe disclosing that information to certain healthcare providers.
When someone comes to me with a sexual concern, there are usually several factors at play that require attention and care. I spent 2+ years earning a master’s degree in human sexuality (with various practical application internships) on this topic because sexuality is so complex and cannot be distilled down to a sound bite or a 3-step method to sexual healing. That said, certain exercises come up frequently in my practice; sensate focus is one of them, and I’ll be back to share more about that next week.
Dr. Denise Renye is a licensed clinical psychologist, certified sexologist, and yoga therapist as well as psychedelic integrationist. She has a friendly, down-to-earth and professional approach that will allow space for you to be at ease when talking about sensitive subjects. She has specialized training and works with people in the areas of complex trauma, sexuality, intimacy, states of consciousness, and fringe relationships. Her practice is in Northern California and globally via virtual therapy and coaching.
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