When Sex Almost Works

“It’s hard to get enough of something that almost works.” Vincent Felitti MD (quoted in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts)

There are a lot of reasons people have sex. We do it because we want to express love, feel pleasure, or build connection. We also do it because we’re bored, we’re stressed out, we want to distract ourselves from our problems, we want to manipulate our partners, or to avoid arguments.

In one of my workshops, I have the participants list some of the reasons that people might choose to have sex. I (and other sex educators) have been doing this sort of exercise for years, so I’ll admit that I wish I’d published it before David Buss. His research team interviewed people about their reasons to have sex and came up with a list of 237 different ones. Now, I don’t think his research is perfect, but the take home message I got is that there are A LOT of motivations for having sex. Even more than I’ve seen in my workshops.

I was thinking about this when I read In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a book about drug addiction. The author’s perspective is that, for many people, drug use and abuse is rooted in the urge to self-soothe, to relieve pain & suffering, and to try to feel better. Of course, for many drug addicts, part of the pain they’re experiencing is the result of the drug or from withdrawal. And when the drugs almost work to make people feel better, it can be hard to recognize when it’s time to look for a different solution. In many ways, this parallels the general tendency people have to throw good money after bad, convinced that “this time, it’ll work.” When you’re in it, it’s hard to see the pattern.

As I read the line about the difficulty of getting enough of something that almost works, I started wondering how that connects with Buss’ research, as well as my experience in class discussions and in conversations with people about sex. One of the common problems that people seem to come up against is trying to use sex to meet a need that it doesn’t quite manage to do.

For example, if someone is trying to feel better about themselves by having sex or if they’re trying to distract themselves from their difficult feelings, but they then feel shame for their sexual desires or practices, it’s a similar situation to drug abuse. In both cases, the attempt to self-soothe leads to (or increases) the distress that the person is trying to alleviate. And in both cases, it’s common for people to keep trying to meet their needs with the same solution, without recognizing that it’s contributing to the problem. As Maslow said, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” I’d change that to “if the only tool you think you have is a hammer…” but that’s a minor quibble.

Now, I want to be very clear that I’m not trying to blame or shame anyone. After all, can any of us honestly say that we’ve never done something similar? Do you ever feel so overwhelmed by your to-do lists that you procrastinate, which only makes the time pressure worse? Or do you ever try to make your partner feel better by making light of something that’s bothering them and end up hurting them more? Perhaps you drink coffee or smoke cigarettes because you don’t want to deal with how bad you feel when you don’t, despite the health consequences. Maybe you eat comfort foods that are full of sugar or other stuff that later makes your body feel worse. I’m pretty sure that you’ve done something like this. I know that I have. It seems to be part of being human.

There are a lot of ways that we might do something that contributes to our problems, despite our intentions, hopes and desires. Personally, I don’t care whether it’s technically an addiction or not. There’s a lot of debate about whether sex addiction or gambling addiction (among others) really qualify as addictions , but for me, the important thing is whether we’re doing something that almost works or something that actually does the job. A lot of what gets labeled “sex addiction” is really an attempt to use sex to meet a need that it simply can’t and not realizing that we’re going about it the wrong way.

That’s why I try to avoid the trap that some sex-positive enthusiasts and magazine column writers seem to fall into when they say that better, or more, or kinkier orgasms are the solution to sexual shame and sex-negativity. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with any sexual desire, fantasy, or practice (as long as it’s done within the bounds of consent), there also isn’t anything that guarantees that it’s the best way to deal with your situation. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to look for a different response to the distress, rather than trying to fix it by having sex. Sure- a lot of the time, sex is a perfectly fine and fun way to work through our stuff. But not always.

It seems to me that it’s important to be mindful of what our reasons for having sex are. After all, if we don’t know what they are, or if we’re not able to admit them (to our partners or to ourselves), it’s pretty difficult to know whether we’re getting our needs met. If, for example, you want to have sex in order to feel love and connection but the experience you’re having is a one-night stand (not an uncommon situation), you won’t get what you want. It might almost work, since it can feel like there’s a connection while it’s happening, but if it evaporates afterward, you’re no better off than before. And you might even feel worse, especially if you keep trying the same thing over and over. The same thing can happen if you try to “spice up” your marriage with kinky sex, instead of resolving the conflicts that are causing emotional and sexual disconnection. It’s just isn’t a sustainable solution.

Of course, the only way to know for sure if something will work is to try it and find out. And when something almost hits the target, it can be tempting to try it again and again, hoping for a bullseye. Sometimes, you can get better information from a not-quite-right situation, tweak the parameters and find the mark. And sometimes, no matter what you try, you never get any closer. As they say in AA, insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Going in circles feels like moving forward, until you realize you’re not getting anywhere.

One way to know that you’re in an almost works situation, at least when it comes to sex, is that you keep making excuses for why it hasn’t worked yet and you’re sure that the next time will be different. Another sign is that you feel worse afterward than before. Still another is that you try to escalate things, as if a bigger dose will somehow work when a smaller one didn’t. Or if you refuse to listen to outside advice about your situation, especially if you get defensive and angry when someone offers their perspective. In these sorts of situations, I find it useful to step back and take a good look at what’s going on to see if perhaps I’m using the wrong tool to try to fix whatever is going on.

At the same time, it’s also important to acknowledge that it sometimes take a few tries before we can triangulate in on the target. Giving up too early can mean that we miss out and never figure things out. Ironically, that can also be a form of something that almost works. There’s a balance to be found between giving up too early and hanging on too long.

I don’t think that there’s an easy answer to this. Each situation, each person, each motivation is different, so a one-size solution doesn’t exist. But knowing that people have a tendency to keep trying to make do with something that almost works, and that it often leads to trying harder to force a square peg into a round hole can help. At least, I find that when I’m in those situations, remembering that it’s simply a part of being human and that pretty much everyone does it sometimes helps me not beat myself up for it. And that makes it easier to change what I’m doing.

So when you find yourself having sex in a way that almost works, I invite you to think about whether there really is any likelihood of making it better or whether you need to cut your losses. And remember- an experiment isn’t a failure if it doesn’t do what you hoped for. It’s only a failure if you don’t learn from it.

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