Beyond Performance: Reimagining Healthy Sexual Connection

“Sexual desire is energy—a sustainable resource that’s available to all of us if we want it, even those of us who may not have it right now. Not just to lead us into steamier encounters, but to reconnect s with ourselves, our partners, and to discover new sources of pleasure and joy.” Dr. Gina Ogden, The Return of Desire, A Guide to Rediscovering Your Sexual Passion.

When you think of “having sex,” what comes to mind? Chances are, you think of sexual intercourse. Ever since Masters and Johnson developed their performance-based model of human sexual response, the “performance script” has reigned supreme in terms of defining “normal” sexual behavior, with penis-in-vagina intercourse and orgasm as its centerpiece.

While the performance model is a convenient tool to measure the mechanical aspects of intercourse and orgasm (and to pathologize behavior that does not fall within intercourse-based standards) it completely fails to capture the full range of the complexity of human sexual expression and desire. Unfortunately, the performance model has become the reference point for cultural norms around sex: if you aren’t living up to what the performance script tells you is “normal,” then, well, you’re just not cutting it. It is no wonder that so many men and women feel insecure about their sexual expression and experience low desire.

Dr. Gina Ogden explores the complexity of desire in The Return of Desire: A Guide to Rediscovering Your Sexual Passion, and based on years of extensive and meticulous research, developed the ISIS Wheel of Sexual Desire (Integrating Sexuality, Spirituality) that proposes that four distinct energies ignite sexual desire: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Dr. Ogden indicates that the ISIS model differs in at least six major ways from performance-based models:

·      Sexual desire is part of our whole selves—“our physical sensations, our emotional feelings, our thoughts, and our spiritual longings.

·      Sexual desire “is connected to our whole history,” past, present and future.

·      We cannot separate our intimate relationships from all other relationships: “[h]ow we connect with them serves as a template for how we connect with all of our relationships.”

·      “The most powerful aphrodisiacs are not always quick fixes that come from the outside.” They arise from open communication, partnership and positive engagement with our partners.

·      “The ISIS Wheel is not a standard by which to measure our sexual performance.” It is a framework through which we can understand our unique expressions of our sexuality.

·      “The ISIS Wheel engages us as active participants to explore the depth and breadth of our own sexual desire.”

Reading The Return of Desire has been a breath of fresh air—it underscores the passionate belief growing within me that sex for me—for each of us—doesn’t have anything to do with how I or my partner “perform” or what other people think: it has everything to do with what I decide it is for me—on my own first, then with my partner. Sex is not about performance, how often, how many times per week, how great—it is about intimacy, connection, spirit, passion, lust, growth. It incorporates mind-body-spirit-emotions and is not just a quick hop-on-and-thrust.

When we can view sex as so much greater than the simple act of intercourse, we can break free of the inherent restrictions of basing how we think and feel about sex based on performance during intercourse. We are then free to explore the breadth and depth of our desire and to enjoy what we enjoy without an outside standard telling us whether we’re making the grade. Can you see how liberating—empowering—this is? I highly recommend The Return of Desire, and look forward to reading Dr. Ogden’s additional publications.

Next week: More on how the performance model has done a number on our heads and how putting aside performance can lead to far greater sexual satisfaction.