How does Ireland only have one clinical sexologist? Surely we need, like, one for every parish at least. When we got the opportunity to meet Ireland's only clinical sexologist, the lovely and wise Emily Power Smith, we grabbed that chance by the, er, horns and posed these wide-ranging and totally essential questions that we think cover all the bases.
So, in the blunt 'n' brilliant words of Salt 'n' Pepa, let's talk about sex.
- How important is masturbation?
Research shows that women who masturbate understand their own arousal cycle and sexual needs better than those who don’t. They also tend to have higher desire levels, but there is no “one size fits all”. The question is: why don’t you masturbate? If it’s because of shame, embarrassment, guilt or disgust, then it’s worth breaking down those barriers to become comfortable with your own body and sexuality.
When teaching women how to orgasm, I recommend a minimum of three 30 minute sessions per week. But, this is not realistic for many busy people. Part of the learning is to carve out precious time to dedicate to self-love which might also include exploring all of your body, to fantasise and to discover your own erogenous zones.
- What happens to our bodies, chemically, when we orgasm?
No two orgasms are the same. An orgasm can take less than a minute or over an hour to achieve – you can imagine the chemicals released into our body differ. There’s no such thing as a bad orgasm. We get a rush of endorphins - dopamine - the feel-good pleasure chemicals that rush our body, flood our bloodstream and in cases of powerful orgasm can create a sense of euphoria and connectedness to oneself, one's partner and even the universe!
- What are the most common post-coital behaviours?
It really, really depends on the couple. I knew a couple whose favourite thing to do after coitus was pull up their underwear and re-join their friends at the dinner table in the restaurant.
- Why do women find it so much harder to orgasm from sex than men?
There are a number or reasons for this. Women can find it a challenge to switch off and concentrate on one thing. It takes practice to focus on ourselves. It’s a skill and can be honed with repeated effort, mindful breathing and focusing on what our bodies are doing/feeling. Also, most people misunderstand the female arousal cycle. They expect females to reach orgasm as quickly as males, but the male arousal cycle is different. It’s like expecting oranges and lemons to taste the same. They just don’t. Women tend to need longer for their arousal to build but are under pressure to “hurry up, get on with it" and most of all to not bore their partner.
We seem to believe that the vaginal canal is the female sex organ. It is not. The clitoris is the female sex organ and equivalent of the penis. Therefore expecting to have an orgasm without direct (or near direct) clitoral stimulation is usually very unhelpful. The vagina does not hold the nerve endings needed for orgasm which is why penetration alone is not enough. We need to slow down, give ourselves time and be curious about our bodies.
- How often is considered often enough to be having sex in a healthy relationship?
There is no “too much” or “too little”. It comes down to what each person/couple enjoys. For some very happy and fulfilled couples once a week is great. Others like it twice a day. Equally, we need to stop focusing on penis in vagina sex as sex because it limits our repertoire. It’s time to start connecting sexually in other ways too, such as through oral or manual sex. Think of sex as a table of tapas dishes rather than a starter of a bit of foreplay followed by the main course of penetration.
- How important is it for partners to match each other's libido? Will it not work if one person has a higher sex drive than the other?
It’s crazy to expect two very different people to maintain identical sexual desire levels over time. Everybody peaks and troughs. Hormones, fatigue, illness, stress, age, medication, kids all can zap the mojo at different times. The important thing is not to panic or take desire discrepancy as a sign that the relationship is over. It takes work, and it takes empathy to find a way of creating a sex life that works for both partners when one’s desire is higher than the others.
Broadening your sexual repertoire is a great help here so that if you’re exhausted you might enjoy being naked together and stroking and touching and kissing before falling asleep. You have connected but not with penetration. Each individual being responsible for their own orgasms also takes the pressure off. If you’re not up for sex play, invite your partner to touch themselves or masturbate. But don’t make that the default way of rejecting any advances as it can become hurtful over time.
Sometimes the person with the lower desire may decide to “gift” sex to their partner. But if you do that, do it with all your heart and not in a detached way. And tell your partner you love them.
- If you have a low sex drive or feel generally disinterested, is it something to be concerned about?
There may be. Start with talking. It may be that you feel unloved, uncared for or unattractive. It may be a tell-tale sign that you have an underlying problem with hormones or with blood flow (a pre-curser to heart disease if erections are poor), or it could be due to meds you’re on (SSRI’s are notorious for damaging libido).
- What advice do you have for people who can't tell whether or not they are NOT interested in sex with their partner because they are no longer interested in their partner or because they are having issues with their own sex drive?
Age may play a part. Not because there is any physiological reason to slow down sexually but because we are expected to by society and we often expect to ourselves. If your relationship is really good, strong, happy, close, trusting and you have good communication – AND you’re not feeling sexual at all (with yourself or with fancying others besides your partner) then there may be a physiological reason that needs checking.
If you don’t like your partner very much, they don’t like you very much, you feel lonely or unattractive, then it may be more a relational problem rather than a libido problem. Some people become best friends but lose the sexual attraction. This can be rebuilt with effort and time if the foundation is there and there’s a will. But it’s not easy.
- Are we reaching a point where people are no longer embarrassed to discuss sex openly?
We’re reaching a point where people are becoming more comfortable using sexualised language; however, this should not be mistaken for authentic, healthy, helpful dialogue around sexuality.
We met Emily thanks to Durex Ireland and their ‘Cut the Clichés’ campaign. Durex carried out a survey of Irish men and women and found some nuggets of sexy info, like it seems as though we Irish don't really like Valentine's Day that much. The survey found that over half of Irish couples would rather stay in this Valentine's Day and watch a film with their partner. In fact, only 24% of couples are even looking forward to V-Day!
Are you marking Valentine's Day in any way this year? And, more importantly, do you think that sex should be spoken about more freely in this country? Or is it better discussed behind closed doors?