Guilt, shame, fear, and feeling unlovable can all fuel anxiety over sex but these are treatable.
THE SESSIONS, starring Helen Hunt (Cheryl Cohen Greene), John Hawkes (Mark O'Brien) and William H. Macy (Father Brendan) is a movie based on the real life story of Mark O’Brien. At the ripe age of 38 and still a virgin, O’Brien, paralyzed from the neck down and living in an iron lung since a childhood bout with polio, hired a sex surrogate to experience the emotional and physical pleasure that eluded him to this point. The experience was life changing and left O’Brien feeling “victorious, cleansed, and relieved.”
While most of us don’t have to deal with serious disabilities like Mark and the resulting physical barriers to meeting people and entering into sexual relationships, we bear the scars of past invisible wounds to our sexual psyches that can be crippling. Guilt, shame, fear, and feeling unlovable can all fuel anxiety over sex and rear their ugly heads in the ways we interact with and respond to our sex partners.
In O’Brien’s case, where his emotional baggage coupled with his physical limitations rendered him unlucky in love, he worked with a sex surrogate to gain the relationship skills, comfort, and competence he needed to be successful in future intimate relationships. While you may not ever have the opportunity to see a sex surrogate, here are seven things you can learn vicariously from O’Brien’s experience:
1) Your partner is not a prostitute. In the first session when the sex surrogate, Cohen Green, meets O’Brien for the first time, he blurts out, “Your fee’s on top of the dresser.” When you’re strictly procuring sex for money you can forgo the niceties if you wish. In fact, that might work for both as you get off quick and he or she gets to move onto another client. But in a mutual relationship based on love or attraction or infatuation or almost anything else besides fee for service, a little conversation goes a long way. When you’re with a new lover, take some time to get to know him or her and share something real about yourself. And when you’re with your long-time lover, don’t take her or him for granted.
2) Yelling isn't sexy, nor is bringing unresolved resentments, frustrations, or raging arguments into the bedroom. When Cohen Green is undressing O’Brien for the first time, a potentially very erotic moment for a 38-year-old virgin about to get laid, his shirt sleeve gets hung up on his contracted hand and he goes berserk. This scares the hell out of her and puts an abrupt stop to the action. O’Brien wasn’t really physically in pain. His fear and anxiety resulted in him verbally lashing out. No one likes to be yelled at, especially in a sexual situation. That brings me to the next point.
3) Acknowledge your partner’s anxiety—and your own—when it’s in the room. Much of what is good about surrogacy is the emphasis on communication and authentic sharing. Unaddressed anxiety can lead to panic and/or self-fulfilling prophesies of failure. On O’Brien’s way to his first session his attendant says, "Stop acting like you are going to your own execution." O’Brien responds with his self-effacing humor, "I'm not acting." Cohen Green recognized O’Brien’s anxiety when she asked him how he was feeling and he replied earnestly that he was “out of his league" and terrified. O’Brien calls her on her anxiety when she compliments him on his shirt for the second time. In O’Brien’s essay, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” he writes, “She asked me whether I had been afraid to see her that day; I admitted that I felt spasms of deep terror. She said it had been brave of me to go through with the session despite my fear…. I began to tell her about my life, my family, my fear of sexuality. I could see that she was accepting me and treating me with respect.” Talking helped them both to relax, a precursor to good sex.
4) When giving, ask what feels good and what doesn't. So many of us do unto others in the bedroom what we would like done to us. Usually this is a big mistake. During the sessions, Cohen Green introduces O’Brien to body awareness exercises or, what we call in the business of sex therapy, sensate focus exercises. She uses a variety of different touches on various parts of his body while asking for feedback. She instructs him to tell her what feels especially good or bad and not to tolerate anything that is uncomfortable. She learns that stimulation of his ears, something many find arousing, is “weird.” Different people react differently to the same stimulus, and to make things even more tricky, they may like a tongue in their ear in one context and not another. That’s why you should always keep an open line of communication during your pleasuring time together.
5) When receiving, ask for what you want and, equally as important, let your partner know what does not feel good. Cohen Green gives O’Brien permission to explore her body also. In one scene she guides him in exploring her breasts. “Now if you touch one, you have to touch the other,” she said. “That’s the rule.”
6) Give your partner positive reinforcement, or as what surrogates call, “appreciations.” During and after each session, Cohen Green makes it a point to offer O’Brien sincere compliments. Among other things, she comments positively on his soft hair, choice of cologne, and size and functioning of his penis, all of which help to build O’Brien’s confidence and enhance his enjoyment. Appreciations pave the way for a more loving partner and more pleasurable sexual experience.
7) Take turns. Sex doesn’t always have to be mutually stimulating and orgasms don’t need to be simultaneous. Simultaneous orgasms are wonderful when they happen. However, a lot of anxiety can be generated when couples “strive” to climax at the same time. Overly goal-oriented sex can rob the experience of true sensuality. You can take turns giving and receiving pleasure and that doesn’t even have to be in the same session or on the same day. Learning to give selflessly (not for what you’ll get in return) and to receive which is to say an act of surrender will add new dimensions to your sensations.
8) With patience, understanding, perseverance and a sense of humor premature ejaculation (PE) can be overcome. In fact, patience, understanding and a sense of humor can smooth the way in a variety of problematic sexual situations.
After securing a sex partner, PE turned out to be the primary roadblock to O’Brien fulfilling his desire to loose his virginity. Fortunately sexual surrogates are well versed in teaching techniques to gain more control over the timing of release.
Over three sessions, O’Brien learned to relax enough to hold off until he achieved penetration. In the first session he came before Cohen Green’s could even get into bed; in the second session he ejaculated on her thigh and again upon attempted intercourse; in the third session O’Brien was able to enter Cohen Green and ejaculate inside her, if only for a few moments.
Cohen Green’s approach of taking each incident in stride made this progress possible. Undismayed, she taught him that PE doesn't have to end sexual activity and that he can regain his erection and try again. She complimented him on his load after he releases too soon (see looks down and says, “Impressive.”), explained to him that his PE wasn’t a curse from God but that it was her overwhelming beauty that made him loose control, and gave him a detailed account of what she was going to do next. Through her patience and understanding, O’Brien’s feelings of anger, self-hatred, and humiliation over his PE began to subside. After his success Cohen Green asked if he had enjoyed himself. O’Brien replied in the affirmative but only up until his early climax. From his essay, “She assured me that she had enjoyed it, which cheered me somewhat. And it was still pleasant for me, lying beside her, the two of us naked.”
9) It is important to set and maintain boundaries in a relationship. Cohen Green explained up front that their sessions would be limited in number to six. The relationship wasn’t about her needs but about helping him reach his desired goals. Cohen Green began to question her feelings toward O’Brien and sensed that she was on the verge of crossing a professional boundary. Hence, she suggested their fourth session, when O’Brien had already reached his stated goal of successful intercourse, be their last. Setting a boundary in a personal relationship can be as simple as saying, “don’t come in the bathroom while I’m on the toilet.” Being clear what is and is not OK with you, allows you to feel comfortable and safe within the relationship.
10) Intercourse is not the end all and be all. I leave you with these words from O’Brien’s essay: “Is it in?” “Yes, it’s in.” “I couldn’t believe it. Here I was having intercourse and it didn’t feel like the greatest thing in the world. Intercourse was certainly pleasant, but I had enjoyed the foreplay — the kissing, the rubbing, the licking — more.”