Sexuality is a core element of the human experience. People think about sex and sexuality in many different ways, some have conservative beliefs and view sexuality as always tied to family and reproduction: marriage, having children and raising them, While others view sex in terms of reproduction but also in terms of intimacy with another person and as a very personal dimension of one’s self-expression.
Younger people may also view sex and sexuality differently than older people. Many older people struggle with guilt and shame over wanting to have sex when they are divorced or widowed. Sex is a touchy subject in our culture, evoking many different emotions. Whatever your view may be, counseling may help you to better understand your view and its connection with society. Whether you are searching for couples therapy or a personal psychotherapist, Dr. Firestein can help you better understand yourself and society.
Below are some questions and answers representing some of the concerns of the people Dr. Firestein works with in counseling. Contact us today for a free 15-minute consultation.
Dr. Firestein wrote a monthly Q & A column for the Healthline magazine called Uncommon Sense for seven years. Below are excerpts from previous columns.
Question: I am a single woman in my 40s. I was married for 16 years, but now I am divorced. Even though my ex-husband and I didn’t get along in a lot of ways and grew apart, for the most part the physical side of our relationship was really good. I am a very physical person and I miss having touch and sex in my life. I don’t have any good relationship prospects in my life and I wouldn’t be ready for one right now anyway. How can I meet these needs in a healthy way without jumping into the wrong relationship?
Answer: This is a really good question. It is a question that many single women (and single men) are asking themselves. Whether always single, divorced or widowed, many adults feel lonely for companionship, but also for touch. No one really addresses how long-time single or divorced adults can meet those needs in a healthy way.
In counseling a number of clients over 20+ years, I have seen and heard about a variety of solutions single women and men have created to meet these needs–some with positive outcomes and some with negative outcomes. Let me share with you some of what I have seen work and not work for people who really miss having sex and non-sexual touch in their lives.
Some people just miss touch and affection but are not missing sex per se. Some women have the good fortune to have one or two close female friends with whom they share a natural, non-sexual affection. Some women friends are comfortable sitting on the couch and rubbing each others’ feet or holding hands in a friendly way when out and about. Other people have found it very helpful to get relaxing and therapeutic massages once or twice a month. This is one way to meet some of those needs for nurturing, non-threatening touch without the complications of a relationship involvement.
When non-sexual touch just isn’t enough there is the question of how to meet one’s partner sexual needs when not in a steady or serious relationship. I use the term “partner sexual needs” deliberately. Some women are comfortable with pleasuring themselves through masturbation and fantasy and this is satisfying enough to meet their short-term sexual needs. Other women just miss the affection and sexual intimacy that can only be shared with another adult.
Casual sexual liaisons are an option but you should be really clear about whether or not it is really possible for you to have sex without expecting a sexual encounter to turn into a relationship. In most cases it will not become anything more. Culturally, men are more psychologically able to have sex without needing it to lead to emotional involvement. (Of course, this is not true of all men.) Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can have sex without emotional involvement unless you know that this is something you can handle. In this type of situation or any sexual relationship be sure that you know what safe sex is and that you insist on it with each and every partner.
Single adults have also found that it is sometimes possible to have a physical (sexual or sensual) relationship with a person they know as either an acquaintance or a friend when both of you are in the same boat with respect to missing touch and intimacy. This type of relationship is usually referred to as “friends with benefits”. These relationships are also tricky but often work well, at least for a time. It’s important to talk with your friend about how you will handle ending the arrangement if either of you no longer feels right about continuing it. Try to handle such an ending with honesty, tact and gentleness. After all, this person has been a special friend to you at a lonely time in your life.
Of course, you can always have sex as part of a dating relationship that you hope may lead to a deep, committed relationship. Most adults these days do have sex as part of exploring the potential of a relationship. Just make sure and take care of yourself physically and emotionally. When in doubt about whether to do something, wait. It is much better to reflect and consider your options and the potential consequences of an action rather than act impulsively and regret it later. Take your time, look into your heart and let yourself know what your real truth is about this particular option; and know that we all have lonely times. This one too shall pass.
Question: I am 28, single, and about 6 months out of a relationship with a woman that was quite important to me. I feel like I am pretty well over the ending of that relationship and ready to start dating again. The problem is that my last girlfriend had herpes. Even though she told me about it and we tried to be safe, I still ended up getting herpes too. Now I am worried about dating and having to tell a new partner that I have an STD. How do I go about doing this?
Answer: I’m glad to hear that your previous girlfriend was straightforward with you. I’m not sure what practices you used to be safe, but most of the time precautions do work to prevent transmission of the virus. However, this is not always the case.
Avoiding unprotected sexual contact during outbreaks is generally an effective (though not foolproof) way to avoid transmitting herpes to a partner. However, newer research indicates that during a small percentage of days in a month the person with herpes can have “asymptomatic shedding” of the virus. This means that at times the virus may be present in the genital tract in the absence of visible outbreaks making it possible to unintentionally transmit the virus to your partner in the absence of any obvious symptoms.
This creates a tricky situation for potential partners trying to protect uninfected partners. In fact, a new partner who doesn’t believe they have herpes and has never had an outbreak may already be carrying the virus due to prior asymptomatic transmission of the virus from a previous partner. Without proper testing you may not know the other person also has the virus since many people never manifest the virus in obvious outbreaks. Thus, protection is a two-way street.
Herpes virus antibodies have been determined to be present in about 22% of the US adult population. Herpes has been described by one expert as “a life adversity, nothing more and nothing less.” It is not a life-threatening illness. Fortunately, lots of research has been done that indicates that asymptomatic viral shedding as well as outbreaks can be significantly reduced by taking anti-viral medications on a regular basis. Protected sex using condoms is also an effective method for greatly reducing the risk of infecting an uninfected partner.
The best thing to do is to inform yourself of the facts of your condition and communicate clearly and honestly the risk factors to any new potential sexual partner. Most people find that their partner is willing to work with them on this issue even if they are uninfected. A great resource for education is the website www.herpes.org. It has the most recent high quality information on herpes prevention and treatments.
Having herpes need not be a barrier to having a satisfying sexual-romantic relationship. It just requires a bit of preparation and caution to minimize the chances of becoming infected or infecting a new partner. Ultimately, you are the person and that can and will make the best decisions about when and how to disclose to potential partners. The important thing is to share this information with your potential partner before you have sex and to be honest and informed.