What's a "normal sexual life"?

Although sex is usually a source of pleasure, sometimes it may bring serious discomfort to the couple.  Even if one feels satisfied with his/her sexual life, it may happen that they worry and feel anxious  about their performance when listening to others describing what they do in their bedroom and how often. 

However, a satisfactory sexual life does not depend on frequency standards or specific sexual practices. On the contrary, it has to do with the degree to which sexual experiences induce pleasure to you and your company.  

Many people wonder whether their sexual life is "normal". Can you help us understand what a normal "sexual life" includes?

Very often people wonder whether the frequency and kind of their sexual activity is similar or different from others' sexual life. For example, a couple may read statistics reporting that the average couple has sex 3 times a week. However, this "average" may happen to be the "mean value" of a wide range. Sexual intercourse frequency may range from 0 (for some couples) to 15-20 (for others). Thus, even if the frequency is above 3 times, their behaviour belongs to the wider framework of the normal human sexual activity. What really matters is not whether the frequency or the way we have sex comes close to some mean value, but up to which extent each person feels comfortable and satisfied with his/her sexual relationship.

It is very hard to end up with a specific definition or standard about what is 'normal' and what is 'not normal'. Our culture, religious beliefs and social convictions may shape what is considered to be 'normal'. Within this cultural and social context, the couple's viewponts about what is 'normal' and what is 'abnormal' are highly significant. Let me give you some examples to consider about.  Musleems' sexual practices  differ from those of Christians, but which ones would you regard as normal? The sexual life of a couple having 3 small kids and living with their grandparents may differ from a couple living on their own and having fewer responsibilities. The sexual life of someone who has severe health problems may differ from somebody else who is healthy, but would you characterise it as 'normal' or 'not normal'?  Humans can respond to a great variety of sexual stimuli. As long as a sexual behaviour or fantasy does not lead to emotional or physical discomfort, tension in the relationship or problems in other domains of life, then there is no reason for any concern. 

What questions could we ask our partner in order to understand whether his/her needs are covered?

The best way is to observe our partner and discuss together how both of us feel. For example: Does the anticipation or expectation for sexual intercourse make you happy, enthusiastic, excited? Or does it create inside you guilt and feelings of pressure and obligation? In addition, you should think  about how you feel after having sex. Do you feel satisfied, relaxed and pleased? Or do you experience guilt, anger and disappointment? As long as the anticipation for and the actual act of sexual intercouse induces pleasant feelings to both partners, then their sexual relationship works well for the couple. If, however, one of the two or both of them experience negative feelings, then there is some problem. 

What would you suggest to couples having significantly different levels of sexual desire? 

People may differ from each other a lot concerning the level of their sexual desire, but even the same person's sexual desire may range from time to time during his/her life. If the differences in desire between the couple are small, then it is usually possible for the two partners to sort out or manage this diversity in such a way so that they both feel satisfied. 

However, when there is a huge gap in the level of their sexual desire, this may have negative effects on the couple's relationship. In this case, the partner having the lower desire usually feels  pressure for doing something s/he does not really want to. As time goes by, this may lead to even further stress, anger or withdrawal and, therefore, to further reduction of sexual desire. As a result, the partner with  higher sexual desire usually feels 'unwanted', experiences rejection, disappointment and sometimes despair. These feelings may lead this person to seeking sexual contact even more urgently or persistently and result in a 'vicious circle'. So, the partner with the hypoactive sexual desire loses even more his/her desire, while the partner with the higher desire craves even more for having sex. 

The strategies for coping with such situations may be complex and require help from an expert, particularly if the problem has been there for a long time. The therapist often suggests that the partner with high sexual desire should not exert pressure on the other for participating in a sexual intercourse. At the same time, the therapist may explain to the partner with the hypoactive desire how important it is for the other partner to have his/her sexual needs covered. One way to fulfill both these conditions is for the partner with low sexual desire to provide sexual satisfaction to the other one in ways that do not require penile penetration. 

When this strategy is followed, the hypoactive partner may feel delighted for pleasing his/her partner.  The fellow partner may then feel that his/her partner cares for him/her and is not indifferent. In some couples, this strategy ultimately results in stimulating the desire in the person with the hypoactive sexual desire and reducing the pressure that is exerted by the other partner.

 However, some couples cannot accept such an approach. They may feel that they should not participate in any sexual practice as long as they do not both feel sexually aroused, or they may believe that any sexual activity not including penetration is not proper.

What would you suggest to a couple experiencing tension because one partner seeks sexual practices in which the other partner finds no pleasure at all or to which s/he has a total aversion?

When the desire of one of the two partners for some sexual practice causes tension in the relationship, then the couple could use negotiation techniques in order to reach some mutual satisfactory agreement. Certainly this requires that both partners are willing to listen to  and understand each other, so as to avoid criticism and  sneering.

In case some sexual practices are aversive to someone, then s/he should not participate. However, if they just seem indifferent, s/he could probably just give it a try and experiment with the partner's fantasies or sexual behaviour, so as to find out what it is like, and may probably discover s/he actually  likes it. If someone decides that s/he does not want to participate in some practice, then it is better for the partner to stop asking for it. Should the couple not come to an agreement, they had better consult an expert.  

What are the optimal circumstances  contributing to a satsifactory sexual activity?

In order for a person to be sexually aroused with a satisfactory sexual funtion and performance, it is highly significant to be self-confident, without stress, with mental or physical stimuli and ability to concentrate on thoughts or actions stimulating sexual arousal. If there is any interference in the above, sexual intercourse may be inhibited. If one or more of the above requirements are persistently not met, then sexual inability may turn into a chronic problem.

Being self-confident  presupposes believing in the following: "I can function sexually, my partner finds me sexually attractive and s/he is well-disposed towards me." In case one of the two partners underestimates or threats the other, then this self-esteem is seriously undermined. 

Any kind of stress during sexual intercourse may be inhibitory to sexual function. Sexual performance anxiety is very common, that is when one fears s/he will not function sexually. However, this fear is so stressful that inhibits sexual arousal and, as a consequence, performance anxiety is even further enhanced.

In order to be aroused sexually, a man or woman usually needs mental stimuli from the partner they love or desire, in combination with physical/body stimulation. The need for further physical stimulation increases with the advancement of age.  

Of course, stimuli can achieve sexual arousal only if the person concentrates on them. If the person is under stress and his/her attention is distracted by thoughts and concerns for potential dysfunction or low self-confidence, it is possible that there will be no sexual arousal. 

When should a couple ask for help from an expert?

If the couple experiences repeated unsuccessful sexual intercourses or if there is serious disagreement on sexual practices, then they should seek help from an expert. Performance problems may have to do with erectile dysfunction, inhibited sexual desire, difficulty reaching orgasm, premature (rapid) or delayed (retarded) ejaculation, dyspareunia (pain during intercourse) or simply  because for some other reason the couple feels unsatisfied with their sexual life. Given that sexual function is not affected only by our relationship and psychological factors but also by organic factors, an evaluation should be made always combining and taking into account both parametres.