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Krystyna Romanowska: Is equality in couples necessary for sex to be good and satisfying?

Agata Stola: I look at it not only from the perspective of a psychotherapist, but also of a political scientist – it is a much more complex problem than juxtaposing two slogans: equality and good sex. Despite the fact that it’s been 21 years since we passed the declaration of human sexual rights, which says that we should have equal rights to sex and in sex, there are still controversies. Fortunately, they are more political and social than human or relationship related.

My answer is: equality is not necessary. Lack of equality does not exclude good sex, but equality gives you the possibility of even better sex. If we talk about being in a relationship together, then couples that have equal rights and obligations in the area of sex will have the most satisfying sexual life. Such a model, however, provokes anxiety and is mistakenly equated with “loss of masculinity”. Sociologist Michael Kimmel in the book “Angry White Men” describes the benefits that men derive from gender equality. He showed how equality brings a man closer to his emotions, how it allows him to be a loving and warm father, a satisfied employee, a fulfilled man, how it gives him a level of satisfaction and fulfilment in sex that is impossible to achieve in any other situation.

How do men benefit from equal rights in sex?

They acquire the right not to play the role of a sturdy, dominant man striving for the eternal satisfaction of his partner at any cost. Many men want very much to take this burden off themselves but are afraid to do so. And it’s not that they will never dominate in bed again and that women will think: “I don’t know if I want equality because I will lose the sex I liked.” The point is that people are able to say what kind of sex they want at a given moment, to approach each other with empathy and not to feel sad or disappointed when the other party says that they are not in the mood or honestly admits that today they didn’t have an orgasm.

But what does equal sex mean?

There is a couple whose vision of sex assumes that one party dominates and the other yields. This is their choice, preference, such sex fascinates them. Is this equal sex? No. Is it based on equal rights? By all means, because both parties have the right to sex that is satisfying for them. Therefore, the privilege of couples who decide to have equal rights is, among others, inequality in sex. Because it is their own decision, their own sexual script. Looking at this from the perspective of interpersonal messages, both in a relationship and in sex, it is about the same thing: communication and developing a common script, which is the couple’s own unique sexual story. Consent for inequality in sex is nothing else but equality.

I don’t think, however, that liberals convinced of the need for equality have good sex right away.

Of course not. They also have to work on it. The first thing you need to do is to identify inequalities outside the bedroom.

There are no inequalities. They are equal.

Of course there are inequalities. Even among couples who are certain that they follow the equality model in their relationship. Identifying inequalities is about how we share responsibilities. So – to put it simply – how much time someone spends on things that the partner does not see at all. This invisibility of various tasks, unfortunately more often assigned to women, is common even in relationships where a man considers himself a feminist. For example, a man, father of two young children who can’t cope with growing problems in various areas of life; above all, he’s tired, sleepy and longs for the closeness of his partner. He sees his relationship as a partnership, he’s sincerely involved in childcare and housework. He embodies the most desired and modern man figure: a partner. But he still feels underappreciated and pushed away. However, it becomes clear that he hasn’t noticed many areas of work of his partner or her burdens and worries. During our meetings, the man suddenly begins to realise what is happening around him, he begins to see the signals that he’s been receiving from his wife for quite some time. It turns out that his partner, due to attention divisibility, coordinates the complicated processes of their everyday life, which he hasn’t noticed. From making sandwiches for each family member (including preferences and allergies), through to the car inspection (including prices of all petrol stations in the vicinity of their home) to a name day card for their aunt and even ideas for the next vacation compiled in Excel. It must also be made clear that the partner hasn’t given up her job. She simply “naturally” takes responsibility for the household.

The process of “restoring visibility” does not mean that the couple is to suddenly destroy the order in which they function well. A woman often just needs to be noticed, empowered.

She wants to feel that her partner sees what she’s doing, that he sees her contribution to the relationship. Although it is best if the change goes further than compliments, and the partner begins to look for ways to align rights and obligations in a relationship.

Unnoticed, she will not have spontaneous and sensual sex.

In women, most of the emotions that repel them from sexual contact are in their heads. Noticing and empowering them helps them feel sexy. In addition, it is very important for a woman to be a sexual object not only when they both go to the bedroom. For men, the division of roles and living spaces is clearer: when I’m with my children, I’m a father, when in the kitchen, I’m a chef, and when in the bedroom, I’m a lover. To build their desire for sex, women need stimuli that build sexual tension – they must feel sexy outside the bedroom to feel satisfaction in erotic situations.

Are couples with a more traditional division of responsibilities: he works, she looks after the children, likely to have good sex?

Of course they can have good sex, but in the case of more traditional systems it’s also worth focusing on communication, not just sex measured by orgasms. When we look at sex only through the prism of reactivity, yes – it can be considered satisfying. Partners may not even feel that something (tenderness, closeness, communication) is missing in sex if they both have orgasms. This is a very individual matter.

However, no sexual impulses occurring between two people will lead to the same sexual satisfaction that an open and honest conversation about sex can bring. When people start talking about sex, regardless of whether they are conservative, liberal or leftist, their sex becomes better. It can always be better.

It’s also more and more often said that where there’s great synergy in couples and where both partners are similar, desire disappears. Does equality at all levels reduce libido?

It’s often said that these couples are like trees that intertwine. My answer is: a relationship is hard work, you need to be vigilant, when you get too close to each other, you need to invest in yourself. For example, in your individual development, get back to your passion or hobby from the past, or just give yourself a little more space in everyday life, even if it is a bit forced.

Of course, if we live with someone and have some kind of symbiosis with them, we are well-matched, we have similar interests, we read similar books, then we will experience some weariness.

However, if people are close to each other, they have great potential to experiment with different things in their relationship and in sex, to take on different roles and scenarios – so that sex and life are satisfying for them all the time. The problem is that they don’t always come up with the idea to do it. And sex is an area where you can’t stand still, you need reforms and sometimes revolutions.

The matter is more difficult when people are not similar at all and, at the beginning of the relationship, when looking for similarities, they create and present themselves in a way that shows how much they share that may not be an accurate representation of themselves.

Women do it more often – they create the perfect image of themselves. Men are less eager to do this. Then, in the course of the relationship, the truth comes to light. Sometimes, weaker women in relationships, with less gender equality, become completely subordinate to men. The patriarch in these relationships is so strong that they themselves believe that they like everything that the partner chooses. Sooner or later, however, something in such relationships breaks. Frustration is inevitable. And the fact that closeness was an illusion doesn’t help in therapeutic work on a relationship.

We don’t talk about sex in relationships simply because nobody discussed it with us.

People have a certain vision of sex based on individual research: some from porn, some from romance novels, some from what they observed at home, some from their peers when they were teens. It is a certain imaginary creation that does not really match what human sexuality is, what the role of sex is and what good sex can give them. When we decide to have sexual contact, we have some idea of it. People go to bed with each other. For the first, second, third time then it can lead to a relationship.

But do they talk about sex? To be honest, not properly. Most sex talk is limited to a dialogue like: “Did you come?”, “Yes, I did”, “Was it good for you?”, “Yeah, yeah”. We are pleased. Most often, this “key conversation” takes place 5 minutes after sexual contact. And this is not the place to talk about what you want in sex. You need to initiate such a conversation just as you initiate sexual contact.

At therapeutic sessions, it turns out that the most difficult thing for people is to have a one-to-one conversation about sex. In the company of a third party, a specialist, they are able to open up and talk about their needs. I remember meeting an otherwise loving couple – the woman told her partner: “I haven't had an orgasm with you for years.” And he replied: “And when I asked you, why did you say that you had?”

What would “no” mean for their sex?

A new beginning or a definite end. It all depends on how they approach it as a team. They are a couple married for 25 years, so despite the fact that they have huge communication deficiencies, there is the potential to get down to work. It turns out that she was lying to him because she didn’t want to hurt him. She explains that she did it out of love. If they had talked about this problem at the beginning, they would definitely have worked out a way to have more satisfying sex or would simply have consulted a sexologist. This story, however, gives hope, because it turned out that the resources of equality in this relationship were large, despite being discovered so late.

My beloved film, which presents sexuality in an optimistic way and promotes communication in sex, is the Hungarian “Stream of Love”, in which old women talk about... oral sex while peeling potatoes.

They probably have not experienced equality in their marriages...

Certainly not. But perhaps their conservative husbands did their best to prevent them from having affairs. In their simple conversations, these women show how important and essential part of life sex really is. Therefore, we should not waive our right to make it good and satisfying. That is when it brings the greatest happiness.

I want to think that these older ladies have had satisfying sex throughout their lives.

There are different stages in sex. Therefore, it’s good to be in a relationship in which we are able to tell the other person: “Now the time has come that I need more tender sex” or “Today I want you to tie me up.”

And that’s a good time to ask about your own limits and the limits of your partner in sex. Do you know them? Many people respond: “Yes, yes, I know his/her limits. I know because I feel this in bed.” But can you guarantee that you know how he/she feels in bed?

So what should such a conversation be like? About sex and limits in sex.

If I were to focus on technical aspects, the most important thing is to release unnecessary pressure and embarrassment of the other person. They may not be prepared for such a dialogue. So you need to explore the ground. Fantasies are a good way to start a discussion. They’re safe. At the beginning it’s good to talk about whether we have them at all, and if not, what they could be like, without details. Fantasies help us to reflect on our preferences and limits (“I would never do that”) and are a safe area to talk about what you want and how you want it. But this is not yet a conceptualisation of what we want to let into our bedroom and there is no obligation or pressure to do so at that point.

Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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