Two years ago, after an eight-year hiatus, Ava Owens reentered the dating arena. Let's just say that things have not gone well. Three disastrous sexual relationships with wildly inappropriate men—"I actually slept with the cable guy"—led her to realize that she had a serious problem. In fact, the 41-year-old single mother living in what she calls "a hotbed of male ambivalence" (Ashland, Oregon) recently decided that it would be easier just to be celibate.
Ebullient, smart, and funny, Ava, a former slam poet who has a master's degree in psychology, never lacked for male attention. "I was incredibly sexually active throughout my teens and my early 20s," she says. But after the birth of her son 11 years ago and the exit of his father four months later, her love life ground to a halt. Her son's Asperger's diagnosis gave her other issues to focus on. So did her work, overseeing quality management for mental health halfway houses.
In 2008, however, Ava made two big changes: She started her own consulting business and decided to date again—but this time without settling for bad relationships. And that's when she discovered that "if sex is involved, I bond immediately, even if the guy is a complete and utter moron."
Laura Berman, PhD, was intrigued by Ava's dilemma. Founder of the Berman Center in Chicago, a clinic serving women who want to improve their sex lives, Berman is assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and ob-gyn at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and host of Better in Bed with Dr. Laura Berman on Oprah Radio on Sirius/XM. She agreed to do an hour-long phone session with Ava.
Ava describes her typical relationship pattern as "Oh my God, you're so handsome and I'm so into you," followed by sex, followed by "Okay, you're it, I'm in love." Followed by (on the new man's part), "Whoa. Whoa, whoa. Where's this coming from?" as he backs rapidly away.
Berman explains that sex, especially if it includes an orgasm, washes the female brain in oxytocin, the neurochemical that's associated with human attachment (it's also released during breastfeeding). For a woman, this chemical reaction creates an emotional connection, regardless of how she consciously and intellectually feels about the man she just slept with.
"Are you pretty orgasmic, or not so much?" Berman asks.
"I do not reach orgasm vaginally. I never have," Ava says. "And so if he's just going at it, I'm thinking, "Are you having a good time? Because I'm not." But if it's somebody who is talented enough to bring me to orgasm, then yes."
"How old were you," Berman asks, "when you had sex for the first time?"
"I was actually date-raped at the age of 13," Ava answers. "That's how I lost my virginity." Her devastation was compounded, she says, by the response of the rapist, her friends, and even her parents, who sent conflicting messages of either "That didn't happen—you're making it up" or "If it did, you brought it on yourself because you dress provocatively."
When a young girl who is just becoming a sexual person is raped, Berman explains, the trajectory of her development is dramatically altered. Berman has seen many patients who try to regain control of their relationship to men through hypersexuality. But their unfulfilling encounters only cement the sexual trauma, leaving the women feeling even more disconnected than before. Berman compares Ava to a child who grows up with an alcoholic parent and then, as an adult, repeatedly chooses alcoholic partners in an attempt to rewrite and heal the past. In Ava's case, the mental equation has been: "If I can have sex with this person and then turn it into a relationship, that's going to validate me."
"I totally hear you," Ava tells Berman. "I think that's right on."
Berman has four recommendations:
1. "My reading is that you've been very casual with your sexuality because you've never really owned it as the great gift that it is." Continuing with celibacy is a good idea for now, she advises, but Ava should ask herself what kind of partner would deserve her sexual gift.
2. In Berman's analysis, the rape—and the fact that no one took it seriously—has prevented Ava from building a long-lasting sexual relationship, and she urges her to try to find closure in order to move past it. "Have an honest conversation with your mother," Berman suggests. "Tell her how hurtful her response was and how it has affected your life." Writing a letter to the rapist, even if she never sends it, could also be a powerful way to heal the trauma, says Berman.
3. Ava's comment about not having a good time during sex also worries Berman; it implies a tendency to disassociate, which could almost become a replication of the rape. When Ava does have sex again, it will be important to let her partner know that she doesn't have orgasms vaginally but does manually or orally ("a pretty common female experience," Berman notes).
4. For now, Ava should try "owning" her sexuality by honoring her body through self-stimulation, almost like a meditative practice. "Light candles," Berman says. "Take a bath. I'm a huge fan of vibrators, but in your case, using one could almost continue the disconnect because you wouldn't be literally touching yourself."
This makes immediate sense to Ava. "What you're suggesting is self-reverence."
"Self-reverence," Berman repeats. "I think that is a great way to describe it."
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"It's so easy to just go through the motions and have intercourse," Berman says. "But by exploring other ways to be sexual, couples become more creative in their lovemaking—which, besides being more erotic, can actually be much more intimate." can actually be much more intimate."
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