Richard G. Petty, MD

Sex Drive and Relationships

The BBC is reporting on an article published in the journal Human Nature.

According to the report – and I haven’t yet seen a copy of the original research – investigators from the Hamburg-Eppendorf University in Germany found that the sex drive of many women begins to plummet once they are in a secure relationship. They found that four years into a relationship, less than half of 30-year-old women wanted regular sex.

Conversely, they found that a man’s libido remained the same regardless of how long he had been in a relationship. The researchers interviewed 530 men and women about their relationships.

They found 60% of 30-year-old women wanted sex "often" at the beginning of a relationship, but that within four years of the relationship this figure fell to under 50%, and after 20 years it dropped to about 20%.

And here’s a shock: The study also revealed tenderness was important for women in a relationship. About 90% of women wanted tenderness, regardless of how long they had been in a relationship, but only 25% of men who had been in a relationship for 10 years said they were still seeking tenderness from their partner.

The researchers then start talking about the evolutionary implications of all this: that women evolved to have a high sex drive when they are initially in a relationship in order to form a "pair bond" with their partner.

That is all quite plausible, but it is a usually a mistake to try and reduce human behavior to hormones, neurotransmitters and evolutionary drives.

Most men and most women may well have different sex drives, and the duration of a relationship may play a part. But it is just as likely that we are seeing the effects of having children who need lots of a couple’s attention and a natural reaction to one or both partners focusing more on their careers and outside activities rather than on the relationship.

In Healing, Meaning and Purpose I talk about the best solution to tired relationships: it’s not a matter of trying every variation in the Kama Sutra. The most valuable thing to ensure the viability of intimate relationships is not so much to try to learn lots of different techniques, but instead to make the time together really count. There is nothing quite as attractive as an intimate occasion marked by complete focus on and awareness of the other person. Feeling the dance of the duality, focusing on all your senses, and, if you can, feeling the subtle systems of the other person.

Simple things that have rescued countless relationships. And a lot cheaper than hours of therapy.

Sexual Health

One of the principles of integrated medicine is that anything that is really good for you should impact more than one system of the body. So for example omega-3 fatty acids will, in moderation, help your cardiovascular system, brain, mood and skin.

There is a good example of this in a study published this month in the Journal of Urology. The research was orchestrated by the Harvard University School of Public Health in Boston, and involved 22,086 American men followed over fourteen years. The findings confirm the importance of lifestyle choices to the risk of developing erectile impotence. Some of the same things that are bad for the heart also dramatically increase the risk of developing impotence. Men who were obese at the beginning of the study were 90 percent more likely to develop erectile dysfunction (ED) than were normal-weight men. Similarly, smokers had a 50 percent greater risk than non-smokers of developing ED. On the positive side, regular exercise appeared to protect against erectile problems. Men who reported the highest exercise levels at entry into the study’ were 30 percent less likely than their inactive peers to develop ED over the next 14 years.

The reason for these associations is primarily to do with blood flow. Anything that impedes blood flow increases the risk of ED, and anything that improves it will likely have a beneficial effect. We already know that people with diabetes mellitus and hypertension are far more likely to develop ED.

The message is very straightforward. If we ever needed any more evidence that smoking and obesity are bad for you, this is it. Stopping smoking, losing weight and taking regular exercise will all reduce your risk of developing ED. And if stopping smoking is a problem, not only do we have new medicines coming along, but I’ve also had some good results with homeopathy and the tapping therapies.

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Sex, Time and Energy

I was taking a long flight yesterday, which gave me the chance to read through the results of a large survey  done by Men’s Health and Cosmopolitan Magazines. You will see, gentle reader, how widely I spread my net in my ceaseless efforts to bring you important new materials to enrich your life….

The results of this survey of 6,000 men and women seemed at first to make interesting reading. More than half of men and women surveyed saying that they wanted to have sex at least once a day; around half of the women saying that they wanted to have more adventurous sex, and so the list went on. But then I started thinking: “Who are these people?” They certainly don’t sound much like the people that I know, or people with whom I’ve worked professionally.

So I showed the survey to She Who Must Be Obeyed, and she immediately agreed: “How old are they? And how many of them have children?”

Most healthy adults are interested in having intimate relationships, but how many people are too tired and too distracted to do everything that they want to? And how many people are busily multitasking their lives away to the exclusion of everything else? I was recently talking to a married couple who had packed the children off for the evening and had a date night all organized. The restaurant was booked, the theater tickets in hand, and they both fell fast asleep on the couch and missed both.

I’m sorry to disappoint some of my readers, but the world is not quite the way that it is portrayed in some magazines. At least not once you take on responsibilities. The problem with surveys like this is that it can make some people very dissatisfied, for it leads them into the trap of comparison: “If that’s what the survey says, then what’s wrong with me?” The answer is, of course, that there is no such thing as “normal behavior.” What you and your partner like and feel comfortable with is all that really matters, so long as it isn’t infringing on anyone else. Every time another survey like this comes out, every one of my therapist friends sees an increased number of people worried that they aren’t performing up to par.

Sexual mismatches can create a lot of difficulties in relationships, but let me make a suggestion: the most valuable thing to ensure the viability of intimate relationships is not so much to try to learn lots of different techniques, and it is sometimes just not realistic to put aside as much time for each other as you would like. So instead make the time together really count. There is nothing quite as attractive as an intimate occasion marked by complete focus on and awareness of the other person. Feeling the dance of the duality, focusing on all your senses, and, if you can, feeling the subtle systems of the other person. You already know that our experience of the passage of time is highly elastic. Focused awareness of another person can make even five minutes seem like a lot longer, and remember what I have said before, and is an important theme of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: time management is far less important than energy management.

And remember this: you will never be free so long as you are concerned about the opinions of others.

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Sexuality and Spirituality

The talk shows and multiple Internet sites have picked up on a story about a controversial website  that is pulling a great many people to a progressive church in Granger, Indiana. Some people have been getting very hot under the collar, and saying that there’s no place for frank advertising and for discussions of sex in a church, or a church-based website.

To be honest, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. It is self- evident that no two people are ever going to agree about everything to do with religion. And just as obvious that there are some clearly different schools of psychological and spiritual development. Some are by their very nature sexually repressive while others, and I am thinking here primarily of Tantric and Taoist traditions, have actively used sex for spiritual enlightenment. But there has also been an important study that has shown that many people who are not following any particular spiritual tradition have spiritual, mystical or transcendent experiences during sex. This is reported in a very fine book by developmental psychologist Jenny Wade.

In the introduction to Jenny’s book, the philosopher Ken Wilber makes an important point, that leads us straight back to the controversy over the website. He asks why so many people laugh at or snigger about sex? And his answer is superficially astonishing, but, I think, quite correct. He says that we laugh at sex because it can kill us.

Many psychologists and philosophers have examined the basis of laughter, and have all, in their different ways come to the conclusion that it has something to do with an event that we find unnervingly significant. I think that is was Freud who pointed out that laughing when someone slips on banana peel causes laughter because it is a reminder that anybody can fall victim to the same thing.

So what does Ken mean by that statement? He means that sex can kill the “everyday you,” your normal personal ego, and sometimes enable people to experience the depths of their own spirituality. And that can be very scary. Clinicians still see a great many people who have developed problems because of conflicts over their own sexuality and their beliefs; In particular their religious beliefs. Yet here is the paradox: sex may not be conducive to religious belief but it can be highly conducive to spiritual experience. Yet Jenny Wade’s study also showed that 80% of the people who had these experiences never told a single person about them. Presumably because they fear that they will be laughed at.

For the people who felt upset about the Church in Indiana, I think that it’s important to realize that sex is not going to go away. Everybody knows that sex sells, and if people are drawn into hearing a balanced message to help them re-establish their moral compass, isn’t that a good thing?

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