In 1976, Joseph and Lois Bird broke new ground with their ..." /> In 1976, Joseph and Lois Bird broke new ground with their ..." />

Going up? Or down? Channeling Sexual Energy

Elevator up and down buttonsIn 1976, Joseph and Lois Bird broke new ground with their book Sexual Loving, daring to explore the importance of genuine emotional connection in an era when “free love” was often taken to mean “sex right now because it feels good.” Their book states, “Only one who, tragically, has never experienced love would question whether sex can be fulfilling when love is absent. Physically satisfying, perhaps, but never fulfilling. It can never reach the depths of what we are as human beings, and what we are capable of becoming. To climb the heights, sex education is not enough. We need to learn how to love.”

Two decades after the Birds wrote their book, my colleague Wendy Maltz developed a new model to assist in sex education and therapy. Maltz and her husband Larry first published the Maltz Hierarchy of Sexual Interaction in the 1995 Journal of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, describing it as “a progressive model for understanding sexual relating.”

I use it frequently to help people in therapy evaluate their sexual interactions within the rich context of intimacy, or lack of intimacy. Maltz compares sexual energy to water, calling it a “benign, natural force.” Like water, sex can be channeled in dangerous or positive ways. Loveless sexual interaction can be impersonal, abusive, or violent.

As a sex therapist, I see many people who are coping with the results of what Maltz calls “mischanneled sexual energy.” A person who has been sexually abused, for example, may have a difficult time thinking of sex as safe or enjoyable again. Early sex therapists gave little consideration to past experiences such as incest. Instead, they focused primarily on performance. For instance, they might work to help a man get and maintain an erection. Their focus was entirely on what was NOT working, and heterosexual intercourse—which leads to procration—was the true goal.

In contrast, Maltz’s model is egalitarian. It offers all individuals a progressive framework for evaluating sexual interactions, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. She offers a continuum for self-actualization, describing the conditions for great sexual interactions that fulfill both participants.

In my therapy practice I sometimes work with people who have arousal templates that might differ from what most folks consider “normal.” Take, for instance, a person who is turned on or aroused by spanking. Using the Maltz model, a specific sexual behavior is not criticized or judged. The focus is on the spirit or context: Is spanking for these partners light and playful? Or is it humiliating and painful? Are both participants aroused?

The Maltz hierarchy shows us sexual energy channeling along one of two routes: The path to disintegration and disconnection or the path to integration and connectedness. She encourages individuals to visualize sexual energy as “ground zero, like the lobby level of a hotel.” This ground zero sexual energy is entirely neutral, with each of us able to choose how we direct it.

Imagine that when you begin an erotic encounter you are getting into an elevator at lobby level—ground zero of sexual energy. If you descend, the negative qualities increase and intensify as you travel down from emotional isolation to destruction of body and soul, deep in the basement. Many sexually compulsive people that I work with are plummeting in this way—sexual addiction can move us away from genuine intimacy to danger, dishonesty, and shame.

Or you can take the elevator up, with positive qualities increasing and intensifying as you ascend. Maltz suggests that caring, safety, and consent can lead upward in a positive direction and culminate in life-affirming celebration that connects lovers on a truly spiritual level. “Which way will we take the elevator from the lobby?” she asks. “On which level will we exit? We can choose how we channel our sexual energy.”

Joseph and Lois Bird swam against the tide in emphasizing emotional connection. Wendy Maltz took that idea and developed a model which has stood the test of time. (Maltz has written several books, and her website is They are true sexual pioneers whose work has enhanced our lives more than we know.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CSE, CCS, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • David Hamilton

    May 1st, 2012 at 3:11 PM

    I completely relate to the chasing to satisfy sexual desires, in an unfulfiling way, especially for men, as the message is spread out everywhere to “be a stud” and conquest. Just so unfulfilling for healthy expression of sexuality in creativity, and with deeper connection.

  • Jenna

    May 1st, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    I really don’t care if people find love with a member of the opposite sex or if it is a member of the same sex. What I do find important though is that they find a loving relationship with someone who can give that very thing right back to them. This is so true that relationships or sex that is based just on the physicality of the act can be so impersonal, and can often become abusive because I think that they are looking for the emotions that are otherwise not there. That’s no way to live when there are so many better options out there when you open yourself up to them.

  • Julia T

    May 1st, 2012 at 5:07 PM

    The elevator ride is a nice analogy, and one I think that a lot of us can relate to. I have been on the ride up and the ride down, and believe me, going up is much better.

  • Shannon gregory

    May 2nd, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    Sex is such an integral part of our human lives, but you know that there are people who use this to their own advantage with really very little thought given to how they may be affecting others and really how they could be affecting their own mental health and well being not to mention their physical health!

    Sex is something that should be used for fulfillment, yes, but not to the exclusion of someone else’s own enjoyment, and never to do harm.

    I really think that those who use sex as some kind of weapon in life rea;;y are some sick and might I say some pretty damgerous people.

    That’s not really the kind of eprson that I want to have in my own life.

  • Lenn

    May 2nd, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    I don’t even think that sex can be as physically gratifying without loving your partner as it is when you are fully and completely in love with that person.

  • Praveen

    April 4th, 2016 at 5:26 AM

    I Am an idiot had a fantasy of sharing my girlfriend. But at the same time I loved her to the Core . She was everything to me she. Came to tok ow about my Secret fantasies and she broke up with me she was a. Perfect lover she was tooooo good. I don’t like to have sex with any one else other than my girl I only had some fantasies and I chat. With few unknown people shared the. Private. Photos. Of my girlfriend which she came to know. Now I recovered from those stupid idiotic behaviours but I payed a lot for that I lost my relationship I love her madly I need her badly I wont betray her My question is. Though I loved her how I was. Able to share her with someone else is. That any kind of psychological problem

  • Praveen

    April 4th, 2016 at 5:28 AM

    I need my girl back please someone help me

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