Talking for Better Sex: Understanding Your Partner’s Sexual Response

Photo of couple's entwined hands against background of sea and sunsetThis article walks the reader through an imaginary sexual interaction between a couple working to overcome various challenges in order to connect. Throughout the story, the author will interject to highlight what worked and describe the research-based skills that made it possible. This article focuses on the woman’s experience. Next month, the author will present the same interaction from the perspective of the man. Though this article focuses on a heterosexual couple, the scenario could easily take place between individuals of any gender.

The relationship between the two partners described here represents a composite of cases from the author’s work as a sex therapist. A year ago they were distant, hurt, and defensive, and they have both worked hard in therapy to get to this point—a much better place.

Sandra gets home from work at 6 p.m., tired from a long day. Before she can even think about relaxing, she needs to prepare dinner, do chores, and make sure the kids are ready for school the next day. Devon, Sandra’s partner, gets home shortly after Sandra and helps her finish cooking. By the time they have addressed chores and childcare, it’s already 9:30 p.m.

The Dual Control Model of Sexual Response

The dual control model of sexual response, developed by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft at the Kinsey Institute in the late 1990s, organizes sexual response into two parts: the Sexual Excitation System (SES), the sexual “accelerator,” and the Sexual Inhibition System (SIS), the sexual “brake.” Each person’s SES and SIS have different levels of sensitivity. There is no right or wrong here—the important part is for each person to learn what specific conditions are optimal for their own sexual response.

Devon and Sandra have spent time learning about their own and each other’s SES and SIS. Things that typically trigger Sandra’s SIS, or brake, include worry about the children, stress about her to-do list, physical fatigue, and, at a deeper level, fears of inadequacy as a partner. Sandra’s brake is moderately sensitive, meaning that these factors inhibit her desire and arousal, but not so much that they feel insurmountable. On the other hand, Sandra’s SES, or accelerator, has a low sensitivity. This means her sexual response takes a while to warm up. Things that engage Sandra’s accelerator include Devon helping with chores, feeling desired, planning sex ahead of time, noticing Devon’s positive traits, and experiencing a slow build of physical stimulation.

“You work so hard,” Devon says, wrapping his arms around Sandra, “I want to help you relax and feel good tonight.” Sandra remembers they talked this morning about having sex tonight, but sex is the last thing on her mind right now. She feels a rush of inadequacy and anxiety about not being a more responsive partner, but she also feels annoyance at the expectation for her to be sexual after a long day. Sandra stops herself in these self-critical thoughts, takes a deep breath, and remembers that although her SIS is blocking any sexual desire she might feel otherwise, this is perfectly normal, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with her.

Each person’s SES and SIS have different levels of sensitivity. There is no right or wrong here—the important part is for each person to learn what specific conditions are optimal for their own sexual response.

She collects her thoughts to respond: “Honey, that sounds wonderful. I want to connect with you too. I just need some time to switch gears from work and “mommy mode” into “sexy mode.” Devon nods and smiles; he knows this. Sandra continues with a specific request, “Could we spend some time cuddling and talking about us for a bit first?” Devon agrees and offers to massage Sandra while they talk. As Sandra’s stress dissipates, she notices her body feeling more relaxed and aroused.

Sandra did three things here: she stopped her judgmental thoughts, recognized what she needed to release her brake and begin to engage her accelerator, and communicated what she needed in a way her partner could receive and understand. Devon knows Sandra’s SES and SIS well, and the couple has practiced communicating about this, and these factors both help matters significantly.

As Sandra begins to kiss Devon and touch his body, her desire builds. Over the past year, she has become more confident taking the initiative in their sexual interactions, which also helps signal to Devon when she is feeling ready. He reciprocates, and they slowly build the foreplay into full-body stroking, fondling, and teasing of each other’s erogenous zones. This feels wonderful, and yet Sandra notices part of her mind is preoccupied. She knows it will take at least another thirty minutes of focused stimulation in order for her to build to a large climax. Sandra has heard that some women come easily, but she has never been one of them. She used to feel ashamed of this, wondering what was wrong with her. Now, she actively practices embracing her body just as it is. Her accelerator is more like a slow-cooker than a flash-fryer—she takes longer, but the process of getting there can be quite enjoyable.

Sandra has learned certain things help turn up the heat more quickly, such as using a vibrator on her clitoris before and during intercourse or having an extended period of foreplay. Tonight, however, Sandra decides she wants to enjoy the slow simmer rather than push her body for a climax. She’ll save that for their Saturday date night when they both have more time and energy. Wanting to communicate this to Devon in a way that doesn’t feel like rejection, Sandra remembers she has options to describe pleasure. “Honey, I’m so into you and love being close like this. Tonight, my body is taking time to warm up, and I know it would take a while for me to come. So I want to fully relish riding the slow, rolling waves of pleasure I’m feeling, without having to push for something more.”

Devon replies, “You know I don’t mind spending time on your pleasure. We’ll take however long you need.” Sandra continues. “Thank you, honey. This right here is exactly what I want. The way you stroke me and hold me feels amazing and has me wanting more of you. I’d like to have intercourse for a little while until we both feel satisfied, then get to sleep before it gets too late.” Devon has done enough of his own work in therapy to be able to both trust Sandra will ask for what she wants and accept it’s okay if she doesn’t orgasm. They have intercourse until both feel satisfied and hold each other afterwards, expressing their appreciation for the shared pleasure and intimacy.

Techniques to Improve Communication

Sandra used several techniques here. First, she gave herself permission to let go of orgasm as a measure of success. Once she did so, she was able to identify what she actually wanted in that specific moment. She then communicated her desires clearly using flexible language to describe her pleasure and genuine affirmations for her partner. When Sandra and Devon began therapy, they, like many couples, were not accustomed to verbalizing positive feedback or asking specifically for what they want sexually, and it seemed awkward and unnatural to them at first. However, practicing this regularly has had immeasurable benefits for their sex life and relationship. Sandra and Devon succeeded because they learned what activates their SES and SIS, or sexual response accelerators and brakes, and implemented changes accordingly. Moreover, they learned how to communicate with each other about their sexual needs and desires in a way that builds intimacy.

If the struggles Devon and Sandra have experienced sound familiar, or if you would like to learn more about sexual response accelerators and brakes and the impact they may have on your relationship, a qualified couples counselor can help you explore these topics with your partner.

References:

  1. Kurpisz, J., Mak, M., Lew-Starowicz, M., Nowosielski, K., & Samochowiec, J. (2015). The dual control model of sexual response by J. Bancroft and E. Janssen: Theoretical basis, research and practical issues. Advances in Psychiatry and Neurology, 24(3). p. 156-164. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pin.2015.08.001.
  2. Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rachel Keller, LCSW-C, therapist in Odenton, Maryland

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

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  • delia

    delia

    August 16th, 2017 at 10:40 AM

    Why is it that sex is one of the most integral parts of life, but it remains one of the toughest things to talk about even with a partner who is loving and open to talking about it too.

  • Rachel Keller, LGSW

    Rachel Keller, LGSW

    August 17th, 2017 at 3:13 PM

    I ask the same question all the time Delia. Our culture as a whole is sexually inhibited – sex is everywhere, yet, most of us have difficulty talking about our personal, intimate experience with it. You could trace this back to various cultural influences that teach us sex is wrong/bad/taboo/private, while the media tells us we should be having wild, crazy sex with no problem. There is a disconnect here! Communication like this is one way to bridge the gap.

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