Their bedroom was made for love, but not much love was being made. The satin comforter failed to inspire seduction, and the gleaming Jacuzzi was used strictly for soaking. This long-married pair had decorated their boudoir as a love-nest but rarely had sex.
Frustrated, they turned to Ruth Morehouse of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colo., who found their story of sexual "blahness" not at all unusual. "Often, people don't like the sex they're having," says Morehouse, "and yet they do very little to explore what it would look like if they could have whatever they wanted. They have no idea what turns them on."
With Morehouse's encouragement, the couple brainstormed about erotically charged places or situations. Off they went with a blanket to an alpine meadow. There, they discovered that the risk of being seen by a passing hiker gave their sex a passion they hadn't felt in years.
By deliberately setting out to discover what turns them on, this couple took a step that experts say is key to a vibrant sex life: They charted their own map of erotic pleasures. Sexologists have found that each person's emotional and physical requirements for sexual arousal are extremely individual. People have quite specific styles of behavior during sexual activity.
A process that is both fun and informational, erotic "map-making" is especially important for women, Morehouse says, because some still believe that their role in bed is to follow a man's lead. In fact, if a woman becomes an expert on what she needs for her own sexual satisfaction, the relationship will benefit from the increase in energy and desire. "Think of yourself as an adventurer," she says. "You're exploring your erotic self."
If the numbers are accurate, sexual dissatisfaction is widespread in America, and many people could benefit from Morehouse's advice. According to a study published in the Feb. 10, 1999, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, 43% of women and 31% of men studied reported sexual dysfunction, including lack of interest or pleasure in sex.
"It's hard to believe when you're hot to trot early in a relationship that it's not always going to be this way," says Bernie Zilbergeld, author of Better Than Ever: Sexuality at Mid-Life and Beyond. But often, he says, sex fades in frequency, intensity, or pleasure. "At some point you have to make a stand and say, 'OK, this is important to us, and here's what we're going to do about it,'" he says.
One Woman's Sexual Success Story
Cathy Williams (not her real name), a 50-something mother of three who lives in California, hasn't experienced a drop-off in her sex life, probably because she has long been a student of what interests her sexually. If she didn't like the way one boyfriend made love to her in college during the late 1960s, she found another. With experience, she began to define her sexual style. One important piece of information came in the 1970s when she dated a "fabulous, sensual man," she says. "He felt comfortable enough in his body to dance naked in the big living room," she says. While "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" blasted from the stereo, he lifted her into the air. Then they made love.
She learned some of what fueled her desire: soul music by Marvin Gaye and James Brown, dancing, delicious food, good wine and stimulating conversation. Now in a long-term marriage, she's found that a sensual ambiance keeps the sexual pulse alive with her husband. For example, getting dressed up in a sexy outfit and meeting him at the bar of a swank restaurant gives a kick to their sexual energy, she says.
She also stumbled on other techniques of arousal. "I like seeing the latest pornography magazines," she says. "I'll go to a store -- a store I don't usually go to -- and look at them." She also likes to peruse the magazines with her husband in bed or watch X-rated videos with him.
Do Something Different -- Something New
Reading erotica, whether romance-laden or hard-core, is the easiest way to add some spark to your sex life, says Lonnie Barbach, author of Turn-Ons: Pleasing Your Lover While You Please Yourself. Reading about sexual fantasies can give you ideas you and your partner can try. Some women find, for example, that dressing up in silky lingerie makes them feel more erotically aware. Other women (and men) may enjoy role-playing.
"Often people find the things they think they wouldn't like, they like, and the things they thought they'd like are a dud," says Barbach. The important thing is to make some kind of change. "It's more a matter of doing something different, something new," she says.
Sex therapist Zilbergeld offers several exercises to help figure out your sexual desires. One he calls "simmering," which involves tuning into surges of sexual energy that typically occur throughout the day, even for people who say they aren't aroused very much. When you're aware of a sexual feeling, focus on it and develop a fantasy of what you'd like to have happen, he says.
Every few hours during the day, bring the image to mind. This works for both men and women, and doing Kegel exercises -- squeezing your pelvic muscles as if you're trying to prevent urination -- can increase sexual tone and pleasurable pelvic sensations for both sexes, too. If you'd like to act on these feelings when you get home, make a phone call to your partner to see if the timing is right.
What Are Your Own Special Requirements?
Another exercise recommended by Zilbergeld involves defining your preferred "conditions" for good sex. Compare exciting sexual encounters with those that weren't as satisfying, he suggests: Are there things you enjoyed in the past that you'd like to try again? Do you need to have sex at a certain time of day to enjoy it the most? Make a list of your conditions and act on them. Some women say they get an erotic charge hearing their partner utter the words: "I'll do the dishes." They could make doing the dishes a condition for having sex.
From personal as well as therapeutic experience, Zilbergeld says role-playing is a powerful way to increase arousal. Years ago, he was involved with a woman who would start playing a role during sex, he writes in The New Male Sexuality. "She would suddenly say something like, 'You haven't been a good boy today, so you're not going to get any.' Since what we can't have is infinitely more exciting than what we can, my passion immediately skyrocketed, even though I knew she was only acting."
Role-playing, of course, must be mutually agreeable. If one person finds another's role goofy or unappealing, negotiation is needed to find a fantasy that both parties enjoy.
Cathy Williams says that her erotic map-making is never finished, which is what makes it so exciting. "Sex is a wonderful part of life," she says. "If you're not having a great sexual relationship, allow yourself to explore and see what turns you on."