As a clinical psychologist that works with a large portion of clients with sexual dysfunction, some of the issues I explore with people include low or discrepant libido (sexual desire), unsatisfactory sexual frequency perhaps due to pain, anxiety, or low mood, and broad sexual dissatisfaction. At the heart of these issues is often a belief that the desire for or engagement in “sex” always refers to penetrative intercourse. What I, therefore, want to do, is re-write this belief so couples can still engage in intimate experiences.
Out with the old…
One of the first things I discuss with my clients is the model of sexuality I subscribe to. For most individuals, they implicitly adhere to a narrow and rigid model of “legitimate” sexuality that entails three components: physical arousal => penetration => ejaculation/orgasm. The sexual episode starts when both parties are physically aroused. This may include some “foreplay”, which is only ever seen as an aid to the “legitimate” sexual experience that is, typically, penis-to-vagina penetration in heterosexual couples. A lot of the time male orgasm or an ejaculatory experience then marks the end of the sexual episode, although sometimes this may also include female orgasm too.
In with the new…
I ask my clients to try and let go of this model and instead take on the willingness-to-pleasure (W2P) model (first proposed by Loulan  and further developed by Basson ). This model states that the first part of any sexual experience is the willingness to engage in an experience to give yourself the opportunity to experience arousal/desire and ends with the feeling of pleasure. The sensation of pleasure can be experienced via a smorgasbord of experiences, from kissing, touching non-genital erogenous zones (e.g., neck, ears), showering together, massage, or perhaps genital touch.
The W2P model incorporates the other, older model (given that having penetrative sex ending in orgasm can include willingness and pleasure) but also allows for much broader and more varied experiences as well. What I like about the model is that to start with willingness acknowledges that it is completely normal to not be sexually aroused at the same time as your partner. To be willing is to say “no, I do not have a particular desire yet, but I am open or willing to give us the opportunity to see if it will arise”.
To be willing DOES NOT MEAN to be coerced or pressured. An individual must willingly consent to choose to engage in an intimate or erotic experience. What reinforces this notion of consent is to finish with a feeling of pleasure. As pleasure can take many (non-penetrative) forms, one can choose to stop at any stage pleasure has been accomplished. Of course – even if you have been willing to try and be aroused, it does not guarantee it will happen. Again though, the idea is to have engaged in an intimate and pleasurable act that gave it the opportunity to arise, while you are still enjoying yourself.
This model allows couples more freedom and flexibility to connect with each other without one believing they’re always “asking for it” and the other “always says no”. When this pursuer-withdrawer pattern happens, it is often because there is an expectation all sexual experiences must end in penetration and orgasm. Then what may happen is that when the withdrawer notices any type of sexual cue, they end up shutting down and backing off immediately. The pursuer partner then feels starved of intimacy and unloved while the withdrawer feels frustrated their partner only ever thinks of sex.
The biggest barrier I have found for this model to be successfully implemented is poor or minimal sexual communication. If you are not used to explicitly talking to your partner about sex (including your fantasies, desire, or reflecting on what you enjoyable or less satisfying from your previous sexual experiences) then it may be challenging to talk to them in the moment about what you are willing to do. If you are not willing to invite your partner in on your needs in the moment, then it will likely be difficult to change problematic sexual dynamics.
If you are unhappy with your sexual relationship and you are aware that your expectations of what ‘legitimate’ sexual experiences must include, then I ask you to challenge your beliefs. Next time your partner initiates a sexual experience when you are not yet aroused or feel desire, ask yourself whether you would be willing to give that desire an opportunity to arise. What act or experience are you prepared to engage in that, in and of itself, may be pleasurable and intimate, but may also give rise to your desire. Then, when you are satisfied that you have achieved pleasure, or given your desire the best opportunity to arise, communicate that the experience is ending. Open communication and legitimate consent are a cornerstone of the W2P model and vital for its success.
Dr Daniel Brown (Clinical Psychologist)