Sex Therapy > Keeping Sex Vital: A Paler Shade of Grey

Keeping Sex Vital: A Paler Shade of Grey
Dan F. Pollets, Ph.D.

The book and now movie, 50 Shades of Grey, has evoked a huge social media commentary and discussion.  Everyone has an opinion about the plot that played out themes of submission/domination (S/M) in a sexual relationship.  The topic hits a cultural/sexual nerve, titillates, and arouses very strong reactions varying from disgust to self-righteous endorsement.   No matter how you feel about the movie or book, there are issues raised about keeping our love life energetic and the role fantasy plays in this that is quite germane.

The lead character in 50 Shades,  Mr. Grey is a damaged man having survived a number of attachment traumas that have affected how he relates (his “love map”) and what gets him off (“arousal template”).  The female character, Anastasia, has had very little experience sexually before she meets Mr. Grey and is progressively seduced into an S/M relationship.  Anastasia becomes attached, excited, and more comfortable with her sexual passions as things between them evolve.  

The fantasies played out arouse power emotions, excitement and are addicting.  She experiences her sexuality as she never did but also has the need to attach and form a bond with him.  Unfortunately for her,   Mr. Grey is essentially unable to “do” emotional/sexual intimacy outside the frame of his “one up” position (and his specially equipped S/M room).  Ultimately, she is hurt and turned off when the boundary of aggression and power is transgressed.  She leaves the relationship when the submissive role she must assume for Mr. Grey becomes too “punishing.” The submissive role he demands for his own fetishist enjoyment is a one way street and without empathy.  She walks (until the sequel).

But what is the role of fantasy for those struggling to keep sex alive and well, fun and exciting, mysterious and arousing?  Against the gravitational pull of domesticity, can interest be maintained? (See Esther Perel’s work which is inspirational).  How do we reconcile our need for the secure, predictable, safe and reliable with our equally strong need for innovation, change, newness, “out of the box”, novel and stimulating?  If you and your partner can access fantasy, remember that it is play and there are accepted rules, can this be the secret elixir to ongoing desirousness in the coupling?  What if playing at S/M or whatever your proclivity, courageously voiced and expressed, could transfuse life into the bloodstream of our long term secure attachments?

My professional experience teaches me that a secure bond is necessary but insufficient for sexual adventure.  It takes safety in a relationship to feel comfortable in expressing the deep sexual longings make sexual interest more assured.

Feminists might argue that to give into the submissive role reinforces patriarchy and male dominance.  Practitioners of S/M or “kinky sex” would hold that playing out these fantasies of domination and submission can be done without violence and pain and keep desire strong and thus relationships secure.  The boundaries regarding what is done or not and for how long are carefully negotiated as is what are the clear signs to stop a particular activity. 

Ms. Perel suggests that acting out Kink can be a way to express our secret longings or what we cannot inhabit in our real lives.  You give yourselves temporary visitation to a fantasy world where you are free to play and imagine.  If dependency is shunned in life, you can experiment with this role in erotic life. 

If you are anxious about expressing aggression and avoid conflict at any cost, sexual enactments can allow a safe experience of power. What is play if not vacating the dreary work-a-day world to enter a moment of focused attention and “flow”?  Pleasure then follows. The huge interest in 50 Shades might indicate that Kink has moved from the fringes to mainstream.  Its popularity is “not for anything.” 

Those wishing to be happy with the same partner over many years must solve the problem of keeping sexual interest from rust and corrosion. Being free in our sex lives to play at the forbidden and experiment with the edge of our deep erotic desires might be the ticket.  

Here’s the universal paradox:  a safe and secure relationship where power is shared and respect conveyed provides the foundation for sexual experimentation and exploration.  If you are “handcuffed” into a constricted and repetitive role (especially for the submissive), you will eventually tire and feel abused.  Sexual satisfaction in long term relationships needs an infusion of empathy, resonance, romance, seduction, and a language of love.  It’s like building a house on firm ground. 

The self must feel there is a safe base to return to in order to explore the edge and let go into play.  This is as true for two year olds as it is true for adults. The challenge is how to reconcile and balance our need for security and safety with our equally strong need for novelty and newness. 

Erotic pleasure needs some mystery emboldened by fantasy.  If security is based on sexual inhibition and is threatened by innovation, boredom will result.  If a secure relationship provides the freedom to risk take, deeply communicate about desires and longings, and ultimately refresh and enliven sexual relating, things can stay interesting.  There can be a rainbow of colors not just grey.

Dr. Dan Pollets is an ASSECT credentialed sex therapist and well trained in cutting edge couples, individual and group therapies. 

Dr. Pollets is in private practice in Medford, Massachusetts and treats patients from Boston, Cambridge, Arlington, Winchester, Somerville, Melrose and the greater Boston Metro MA area.  He is Associate Clinical Professor at Boston University School of Medicine and a published author in the Psychology Today web site.