In 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.
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 www.HealthySex.com.) They are true sexual pioneers whose work has enhanced our lives more than we know.
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