Rethinking sexual experiences: The Willingness-to-Pleasure Model

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 [1984] and further developed by Basson [2001]). 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”.

Consent

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.

Sexual communication

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.

Final words

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)

Overcoming low libido (sexual desire)

One of the most common problems I see as a clinical psychologist in a sex therapy clinic is the issue of low libido (sexual desire). I find that one of the most important issues that impacts a person, or couple’s distress is simply a lack of understanding about what affects libido and a general belief that sexual desire is something that should just happen. For a significant portion of people, simply getting to know the factors or context that gives the best opportunity for sexual desire to arise is enough to change the narrative and engage in pleasurable experiences.

Let me quickly preface the rest of the content here by acknowledging that I will be writing as if there is not a primary biological mechanism for the low libido. If you have experienced a change in your libido and it is now lower than what it used to be, then you should talk to your GP for an appropriate biological assessment. A change in hormones, for example, particularly around menopause can, for some people, have a profound impact on their sexuality so definitely get this checked out

1. Re-formulate what is ‘legitimate’ sex

One of the first things I discuss with clients is the Willingness-to-Pleasure model of sex, discussed here. Then, I introduce the idea of a dual-process model of sex, discussed at length in Emily Nagoski’s book, “Come as you are” (highly recommended read). This model of sexual desire incorporates two components: as accelerator system (the things that turn you on) and a brake system (the things that turn you off). To give your desire the bestopportunityto arise, we must produce a context that turns on the accelerator and turns off the brake. This means, it is your job to understand the factors that hit your accelerator system and the factors that hit your brake system.

There is a belief that for some people desire is spontaneous. This would mean that both physical and psychological arousal just pops up, as if out the blue, completely at random. Yet, rarely have I actually encountered someone who, with no awareness or understanding, magically gets an erection or experiences vaginal lubrication. It is nearly always cued. The cue may be external (noticing an attractive person) or internal (noticing an erotic thought) and for some people they may need very few cues to experience desire (these are the people who look like they have “spontaneous” arousal/desire) but this still means the arousal is responsive. All arousal is responsive, we just need to encounter enough cues that turn on our accelerator and minimise exposure to the cues to our brake system, to give our arousal the best opportunity to arise.

2. Curate my context

So, what the hell are my cues? What is the context that gives rise to my desire and arousal? What are the things that slam the brake on?

At this stage, I ask my clients to do some exploratory homework and reflection. I ask them to start to engage in material and stimuli to understand what are the things that push their accelerator. This may be specific erotic material (e.g., porn, erotic literature), TV shows or movies that have sexual scenes or themes they have previously watched, or fantasy material based on memories or idealised scenarios. Importantly, this phase is not meant to be about merely engaging in erotic stimuli, the purpose is to understand what is it about these stimuli that turns my accelerator on? Is it the dynamic between the people involved, is it the physical scenery, is it the music, is it about the tense lead up to a sexual experience, etc? We want to understand the breadth of factors that impact your accelerator to understand how to replicate these in your life.

Simultaneously, we need to understand the brake system. For this, as above, I ask individuals to reflect on stimuli they did not want to engage in. Let’s say you watch porn, and you find yourself scrolling past certain types of videos, ask yourself, what is it about these videos/scenes that I just don’t connect with? Similarly, we explore specific scenarios that the individual has been in whereby their partner wanted to have sex, but they did not. We reflect on what was happening for them and the factors that impacted their desire or willingness to engage in the sexual activity. This may include factors such as a messy environment, stress, physical fatigue, expectation that all sexual activity will end in penetrative sex, low mood, etc.

3. Take ownership

More often than not, when someone experiences low libido, they also rarely initiate sex. This may further exacerbate a pursuer-withdrawer dynamic. Such a dynamic is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that the withdrawer (i.e., the person with low libido) often loses touch with the factors that affect their accelerator and brake system. Therefore, after we have explored these factors, I ask for the individual to initiate an intimate experience at least once a week. This means, at least once a week, the person needs to take ownership of curating a context that is going to give them the best opportunity to experience desire and to move their mindset to be willing (from the willingness-to-pleasure model) to have an intimate experience. I’m being specific in using the words “intimate experience” here because this does not have to end in penetrative sex. It can be any experience that is pleasurable (this may be kissing, touching and may or may not even include genitals).

4. Practise, practise, practise

If you know that some of things that press your brake are incomplete chores and feeling like you have enough time, then pre-plan your intimate night on a day where you can ensure all the chores are done in the morning and you have set aside enough time to not feel rushed. If you know that some of the factors that press your accelerator are clean sheets, feeling sexy in nice clothes, and flirting, the pre-plan a day when you can get the sheets in the wash, that you have a place to wear your special clothes, and that your partner is aware that you want to go out and be flirty and light-hearted together. While it may seem “unromantic” or “unerotic” to plan your sexy/intimate times – how else can you ensure your context is right, the brakes are turned off, and the accelerator is turned on. We must move past the idea of “legitimate” sexual experiences being spontaneous (all desire is actually responsive!) and must end in penetrative sex.

After this, there is a whole lot of practice and reflection in here.

5. Go get help from a professional

I do want to point out, this is a simplified version of what actually happens in therapy as typically we want to explore factors such as stress management, low mood, anxiety, or pain that may be impacting libido. Similarly, other relationship factors may be impacting an individual’s willingness to connect with their partner. It also isn’t uncommon for us to make these processes more structured by putting in rules such as no penetrative sex for a time period, then slowly allowing erotic touch and genital touch before finally, if desired, incorporating penetrative sex. We might implement this to help re-write the expectations that all intimate experiences must end in orgasm or penetration. If unsure, I would recommend finding a therapist/psychologist who is comfortable working with these issues.

Dr Daniel Brown (Clinical Psychologist)