Sept. 11, 2000 -- Steve and Cathy Brody of Cambria, Calif., on the Golden State's scenic Central Coast, are psychotherapists who specialize in couples counseling. When it comes to sexual dysfunction and its treatment, however, the Brodys' best success story is their own. And the best weapon in their personal therapeutic arsenal is the same advice they give others.
If you want a better sex life, they say, find the courage to share your sexual secrets -- to talk about what you want and don't want, sexually speaking.
"When sex hasn't worked for us," says Cathy, a marriage and family therapist, "we talk about it afterward. Because it's not the orgasm that's the goal, it's the intimacy. One thing couples can actually do when they're lying there is talk about it and say, 'We can try this instead.' "
Millions of Americans find it hard to talk about sex. Medical and behavioral scientists have said this for years, based on their clinical experience. And a recent survey of 200 people conducted by the Midwest Institute of Sexology in Southfield, Mich., strongly suggests they're right.
Nearly 9 in 10 men in relationships with women reported serious problems articulating their needs and desires. Of the women respondents in heterosexual relationships, half reported some difficulties articulating their needs and desires when talking to their partners about sex. The findings cut across all age categories, from teens to seniors.
In sharp contrast, most men and women in same-sex relationships said it was easy to discuss sex. The institute's survey, conducted on its web site, included questions that probed the frequency with which people told their partners what they wanted sexually and asked them to identify the reasons when they felt they could not. Seven of 10 gay men said sex was easy to talk about, and 2 in 3 lesbian women said the same, making the gay and lesbian respondents dramatically less reluctant to communicate sexual desires than the straight respondents.
Survey Imitates Life
While critics and the survey takers alike say the study, because of online data gathering, is not scientific, the findings do reflect what therapists hear in practice. "I see couples married 20 or 30 years and they're still having problems, says psychologist Linda Carter, director of the Family Studies Program at New York University Medical Center. "People have told me they've never talked about how they wanted sex, where they wanted it, and when they wanted it."
The good news? Shortcomings can be remedied and the lines of communication opened, experts say, if both partners are willing to work on it, change some bad habits, and talk, talk, talk. First, it's vital to understand why it is so difficult to talk about sex in the first place.
What's the Problem?
Co-authors of Renew Your Marriage at Midlife, the Brodys make it clear that learning to talk intelligently about sex is doable, not impossible.
But deep down, most people are conflicted, at least a little. "There's an idea in this society that a lot of people are engaging in sex freely, without inhibition -- it's the Playboy philosophy," says the Midwest Institute's director, psychologist Barnaby Barratt, PhD, professor of family medicine, psychiatry, and human sexuality at Wayne State University's School of Medicine. "In fact, everyone has conflicts. Though many of us try, strenuously, to make it appear that we don't, we do."
On one hand, he says, everything in our culture is greatly sexualized. On the other, we feel profoundly guilty and ashamed about sex and think that talking about it in detail is despicable in personal relationships.
Easier for Some?
Why do gays and lesbians fare better than straights when it comes to straight talk, at least in the survey? Barratt ventures a guess, but stresses that it is pure speculation. If your sexual orientation and preferences are those of the minority, he says, you may learn to speak about your sexual wishes as you develop them. You have to work out your shame and guilt. "You have to own your sexuality," he says. This attitude of course, probably applies most to those who are "out" and comfortable with their orientation. Those who are just beginning to realize they are gay or lesbian may think about what they want but not speak openly about it.
More Difficult for Others?
Heterosexual men, on the other hand, may find it more difficult to communicate their wishes because they may be afraid of what they'll hear in response, says New York City psychologist Elyse Goldstein. "They're afraid that if they speak up about their needs and desires, the woman will speak up about hers and they won't be able to satisfy her."
Chicago psychologist and online relationship counselor Kate Wachs says that heterosexual men are often conditioned from an early age to shut up and perform.
The Brody Success Story
Whatever your orientation and level of discomfort, the Brodys say you can become better at talking about your needs and desires.
Married 29 years, the Brodys have learned to communicate their sexual desires very effectively. He's 53 and she's 49, but there are times, Cathy says, when Steve makes her feel like a 17-year-old in the back seat of a car.
"I'll say to Steve, 'I really like it when you undress me,' " Cathy says.
"And sometimes,'' Steve says, "I'll say, 'I really need oral sex now, that would help.' "
Cathy: "Or saying, 'Let's have sex on the floor instead of the bed.' " Or doing it in the morning instead of at night.
Simple Self-Improvement Tips
There are many ways to improve your sex-talk skills, say the Brodys and other experts. Among them are some tips that sound obvious -- but are often overlooked.
- Is your partner doing something that pleases you? Tell him or her. It's called positive reinforcement. It works on lab animals and it works on humans, too.
- Make concrete requests, such as, "Hold me and kiss me.'' This is more likely to get the desired result than expressing a vague wish, like "Be romantic."
- Talk gently and honestly about sex afterward, about what worked and what didn't. When stating your preferences, begin by saying something like "I like it when . . ." It sounds better (and will evoke better results) than "You always do this wrong . . ."
Honesty, the Best Policy
Sometimes the truth hurts, but you can always look back and laugh. All Steve Brody has to do is remind himself of the Great Nibbled Ear Fiasco.
"For several years," he says, "I'd nibble on Cathy's ear. I thought it was supposed to drive her wild. Finally Cathy said, 'That doesn't really do anything to me.' "
Says Cathy: "I thought if I grunted loud enough when he got to the other places, he'd sort of get the hint!"
Now they both know not to leave their sexual wishes and desires to guesswork and grunts, but to communicate them clearly.
Scott Winokur is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist who often writes about health and human behavior.