Today is the first day of the rest of your sex life. Dr. Berman, at your service. O: What are the biggest myths about women's sexual satisfaction?
Laura Berman: One, that you have to be with a partner to be sexually satisfied, and two, that you have to have intercourse to be sexually satisfied. Sexual intimacy does not always have to end in intercourse. There are other ways to become aroused and have orgasms, including self-stimulation, oral sex, and massage.
O: If a woman complains that her partner can't satisfy her, is it her responsibility to teach him?
LB: Yes, to a certain extent. This is actually a big crusade of mine. Men learn about sexuality, about female sexuality, in a couple of ways. They may get some basics of anatomy and physiology as part of their elementary and high school education. They may hear about it from their friends—who are all misinformed anyway—or they may watch the average porn movie, whish is really geared towards a man's response, not a woman's. So you can have a man who has been with 200 women and still has no idea how to satisfy a partner, unless one of the women he has been with was able and willing to teach him. I think a lot of the responsibility does rest with the woman—as it does with the man to educate the woman about what he likes.
O: And in cases where no amount of tutoring seems to make a difference?
LB: Well, if a woman's partner just doesn't get it, or has a problem with erectile dysfunction or early ejaculation, it becomes a couple's issue. If there's something on his part that needs to be attended to, that's what we do first. Before we beef up her response, we want to make sure her partner is where he should be. In the meantime, I think an important tip for any woman is to know your body. As Woody Allen explained in Annie Hall: "It's sex with someone [you] love."
O: How can a woman heighten her sexual response, and how do you get over your shyness about doing that?
LB: There's still a sort of subtle social taboo. A "nice" girl doesn't feel absolutely entitled to her sexual response; she fears that if she advocates too much for her sexual needs, her partner will think she's a harlot or too demanding, and he'll be turned off. You'd think this would have vanished, but even Gen Xers, who have so much power in so many areas of their lives, are still struggling with their sexuality. They say, Look, I have this high-powered job, I probably make more money than he does, I'm assertive in all these areas of our relationship. If I start telling him what to do in the bedroom, he's going to run the other direction. But if he's worth keeping, he won't. I think the urge to run depends partly on the man and partly on the style of communication.
O: Tell me how a woman might let her partner know what she wants.
LB: Well, most important, the conversation shouldn't be in the bedroom. If there is something you'd enjoy or want more of—or less of—the time to talk about it is often when you're not being sexual. Like: "I really enjoyed last night. You know what I really loved is when you did...It would be great if you did more of that. I really like being touched here. I have this fantasy that I do such and such." In the bedroom, it gets a little tricky. When you're actually in a sexual situation, the directives should all be positive: "That felt really good" versus "That felt bad."
O: What about women who just don't have the desire?
LB: Desire is much more than the sum of hormones. Psychological factors play a huge part. Women should keep in mind that there are good times and bad times in one's sexual life. And we change—how we define ourselves as women, the pressures we're under, the goals we're working toward. How we experience life is very different when we're single as opposed to when we're married or in a long-term commitment, different after our first child as compared to our second, different at the end of our childbearing years. As our experience of ourselves and the world around us changes, our sexuality changes, too.
O: What do you tell women who have no problem with desire but who want better orgasms?
LB: A lot of things. For instance, a lot of people aren't aware of a little-known use for Altoids, those very strong mints. You can put one or two in your mouth and use them during oral sex. (The menthol causes a tingling sensation, which can enhance excitement for both men and women.) That's a free sex tip. And of course, any kind of lubricant can enhance pleasure.
O: And what about the gadgets—is there a less embarrassing way to get them than going to the Pink Pussycat Boutique in Greenwich Village?
LB: There are actually a range of female-friendly erotica shops—for instance, Eve's Garden in Manhattan and Grand Opening in Brookline, Massachusetts. These places are oriented towards women. They're run by women who are, in effect, informal sex educators. These women are not shocked by anything, and they have a lot of really useful knowledge. You can also get information and products through the web. There's Babeland.com, there's GoodVibes.com.
O: How do you know if you're not having as much fun as you should be?
LB: One of the biggest mistakes women make is to compare themselves with other women, especially with those they see in the media. For instance, on Sex and the City, the women are swinging from the chandeliers every time they have sex. The expectations have to be realistic. You get yourself into trouble when you start asking yourself, Am I having as much fun as I should be? The question should be, Am I having fun? Do I enjoy my sexual relationship with my partner? Are there things I would like to improve upon? Usually there are. There's nothing wrong with that. But constantly saying to yourself, Maybe things can be even better, is counterproductive. There's a difference between chronic dissatisfaction and taking positive steps to enhance something that's already pretty good. Certainly, women shouldn't be ashamed to use whatever tools are available.
O: Is sex better in a monogamous relationship?
LB: I think it depends. One study that came out of the University of Chicago found that married people had more satisfying sex. And because women are conditioned to experience sexuality in a context of intimacy, most women will say they feel greater satisfaction within a relationship. They feel more comfortable exploring and asking for what they want. They feel safer, less vulnerable. But on the other hand, a single woman has a unique opportunity to really grow: She doesn't have to attend to children, doesn't have to attend to her spouse, doesn't have to divide her attention. She can just enjoy her own connection to herself, do things that help her develop emotionally and spiritually, and all of that adds to her power. If you're centered and strong, that's a major aphrodisiac.