We once worked with a couple who had been together for forty years and came to us desperate to reignite their spark. When we started engaging them in a dialogue about their favorite sexual acts Courtney volunteered, “One of my favorite things is having my toes sucked.” Her husband’s eyes widened. “We’ve been together for forty years. Why have you never told me that you like your toes sucked?” Courtney just shook her head and looked down. “I don’t know. I guess I was just too embarrassed to ask.”
Courtney is not alone in her desire for some toe-lovin or in her fears that talking about what she wants will be embarrassing. Most of us were brought up in cultures that approach sex with shame and repression. We lack a roadmap for how to discuss what we want. In families, sex is rarely discussed and when it is, these dialogues are marked by embarrassment and fear. In most schools, sex education focuses on the mechanics of biological procreation, STIs, and pregnancy prevention; students are generally taught nothing about pleasure. Many religious institutions look at sex as sinful and preach abstinence until marriage. After a childhood and adolescence in which you were taught to think of sex as sinful, dirty, and dangerous, you are supposed to magically fall in love and know exactly what to do sexually. You are expected to share the same desires, tastes, and expectations around sex without ever having to talk with your partner, or anyone else, about erotic pleasure or intimacy .
In the animal world there is no sexual shame or repression. We have all heard about the Bonobo monkeys who brilliantly solve most of their social problems with some form of pleasurable sexual stimulation. Sex is an integrated part of day-to-day life, and primates learn how to have sex from watching their counterparts have sex, an opportunity few of us have outside of staged pornography. Because of our highly developed frontal cortex, desire is much more complex for humans than it is for animals. Our sexual desires are also shaped by our social environment. Monkeys don’t need sexy lingerie, flowers, or blindfolds to get turned on. The idea that sex will just happen naturally between any two people, with all of their uniquely shaped sexual needs, is unrealistic and damaging.
Rather than expecting to go “animal style” we suggest making use of that frontal cortex and the gift of speech in order to learn what your partner wants and communicate what you desire. This means shedding the belief you should “just know.” In our upcoming book, Making Love Real: The Intelligent Couples Guide to Lasting Intimacy and Passion, we walk through all of the steps to communicating your sexual needs and getting them met. Whether you have been together for 3 months or 30 years, if you have not talked openly about sex and taught your partner what you like, your sex life will likely be much less fulfilling than it could be.