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By Emma-Louise Boynton
t’s 7:30am and my window is rattling in its frame as gale-force winds continue to howl outside. Having been woken up several times during the night, convinced the glass was about to be blown in and my supine body ripped to smithereens, I’m still blurry-eyed when Aleks, my sex therapist, calls on WhatsApp for today’s session.
As per, Aleks is tanned. She radiates that effortlessly healthy glow one seldom sees on the face of any weather-beaten, pollution-poisoned London-dweller. Our shimmer – whenever we have one – is just the misty sheen of freshly fallen rain.
“Where would you like to begin today?” Aleks asks.
Sexting, I respond. Or rather, I’m curious as to the power of sexual visualisation and fantasy as a means for overcoming issues around sex. I’ve been doing some research...
I’ve never been a sexter, I explain, but lockdown spawned a number of unexpected pastimes, of which exchanging increasingly heated messages with a near-stranger is one. It is mid-March and with lockdown rules still in place, dating remains complicated. Needs must.
I never thought I could feel remotely turned on by a string of messages on my phone. Not sexy, not hot, just awkward, I’d imagined.
And yet recently, I have found myself blushing deeply while transfixed to the lines of seductive script popping up on my phone from a now familiar stranger I met on a dating app. We have yet to meet in person due to logistics, I inform Aleks. He is also a writer and, quelle surprise, has a certain way with words.
Initially, we kept things appropriately PG, swapping pictures of whatever we were watching or reading, an obligatory podcast recommendation here and there, but then one day, as though by some tacit agreement, our conversation slipped into more erotic terrain. From there, the floodgates opened.
As the days went on and our exchanges have grown more sordid, each of us became increasingly emboldened, more forthright in how we describe, in acute detail, all the things we’ll do to one another when finally we can meet IRL.
The solely digital nature of our proximity serves, it seems, as the perfect veil behind which to metaphorically undress from our respective insecurities.
“As our exchanges grew more sordid, we became bolder in sexting in acute detail the things we’ll do to each other when we meet IRL.”
Where I have often found it hard to verbalise what I want sexually – in part because I am seldom sure what that even is and also because I can’t bear the sound of my own voice as I try to sound sexy, confident, commanding and sultry… of late, the words depicting every fantasy I didn’t even know I had have been rolling off my digital tongue with ease.
In the virtual company of this familiar stranger I feel encouraged to explore what I want, to play with language and experiment with purely verbal seduction. It feels, I explain to Aleks, so new and real and fun. I am genuinely turned on.
And I wonder: can visualising and discussing sex with this familiar stranger help me overcome some of the residual issues I have around intimacy?
Might I be preparing myself to feel comfortable and at ease when it comes to actually having sex with him, or anyone for that matter, by talking and thinking my way through it first?
According to an article I read recently, elite athletes often use visualisation as a technique for improving their sporting performance. By repeatedly imagining you are performing a specific move or exercise in a certain way, research shows you create the same neural pattern in your brain that would occur if the action was actually being performed.
“Mental imagery,” the piece notes, “conditions our minds to react in a certain way so that when the action actually happens, the mind is familiar with how it has to process information, which turns into a better performance of the athlete.”
By extension, I reason, you must be able to (re)train your brain to feel more comfortable during sex in a similar way.
“Yes!” Aleks responds emphatically. “Or it can at least help.”
“Visualisation is a really powerful tool because it enables you to explore something like sex in a safe and comfortable environment, thereby allowing you to ground yourself in what is called the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’.
This brings the body back from the ‘emergency status’ that the sympathetic nervous system puts it into. This means that rather than being in fight or flight mode, you are in rest and digest mode, and better able to experience pleasure.”
“Often, when we experience anxiety around sex – which might be rooted, as in your case, in having had negative experiences during intimacy previously – the sympathetic nervous system is activated and it is much harder to relax into our body and experience pleasure,” Aleks continues. “This is how anxiety dampens sexual arousal and makes it harder to orgasm.”
She concludes: “Visualisation, or in this case sexting, helps in two ways. Firstly, it allows you to explore sexual fantasies in a safe and relaxed environment (aka, alone in your bedroom), so you can get used to reconnecting with your body as a source of pleasure and experimenting with what you might like sexually.
“Secondly, it’s also a great way of preparing yourself for what to expect during sex with the person you’re speaking to. You’re essentially using communication to build safety before you’ve actually met,” she says.
Communication, communication, communication
It always comes back to communication, doesn’t it? I ask.
“Yep,” Aleks says. “Always.”
It sounds so simple, I think. Just communicate what you want, what you’re thinking, what you need.
And yet, it seems so many of us just aren’t doing it. While we have broken down myriad taboos around sex in the public sphere: sex is discussed ad nauseum in the media, it is the favourite topic for many Netflix shows, and at least among my friendship group is discussed often and in great detail – but as soon as you get to actually being in an intimate situation with someone new, that all goes out the window.
Whenever I mention I’m in sex therapy, I tell Aleks, whether to a friend or near-stranger, I’m more often than not met by a similar response.
Seemingly encouraged by my own openness with the issues I’ve experienced around sex, people are increasingly divulging to me in some detail their own issue(s) and insecurities around intimacy, often caveated by “I never usually talk about this”.
Everyone, it seems, carries some weight of expectation, worry, fear or sense of shame into sex, and yet so few people seem able to admit it to a sexual partner.
As this familiar stranger from the dating app recently noted, while sex is encoded in our genes, a part of our primate hardware, as evolved humans we are much in need of a software update – we need to get better at using language to improve physical connection.
Sex is, he went on in rather hyperbolic fashion, the very best and worst of humanity.
My mind wandered back to a recent conversation with a male friend, who had told me in the context of discussing my most recent sex therapy session, that he’d never been able to forget the first time he’d been unable to “get it up”. It was etched into his memory like a painful scar.
He was in his late teens at the time and the experience left him fixated with worry about if or when it would happen again. He said he refused to see the girl with whom he had failed to get an erection with again because he was so embarrassed and has kept a packet of Viagra in his wallet ever since, even 15 years on. All his friends did, he said. You’d be surprised at how many men take it.
“You broke up with someone you fancied rather than talk to her about why you couldn’t get an erection,” I asked in surprise. “You wouldn’t be embarrassed about not getting it up now, right?”
“I’d like to say yes,” he responded. “But in truth, the shame if or when it happens seeps into every inch of your body before you know it. Even now, in my thirties, I feel so emasculated if I can’t get an erection - it’s as if I don’t work properly and can’t give a woman what she wants.”
I thought then of all the times I’ve felt anxious during sex, in no small part because I’ve asumed the other person has all these expectations of me, that they know exactly what they’re doing and must be judging me the entire time. Seldom have I thought they too might be saddled with just as many, if not more, worries around sex.
The tyranny of silence
The gulf of silence that exists between two people in that most intimate of moments is just so pointless, I think aloud to Aleks. We are all so straightjacketed by what we feel unable to say.
“We are,” she agrees. “This comes up all the time in sex therapy with my various clients. The issues people experience around sex are really quite universal,” she explains. “Except that everyone feels so alone in them.”
Our session is drawing to a close and my mind is awhirl with how simple it seems it could be for so many people to have such much better sex, myself included.
“I’m not going to set any homework this week,” Aleks says.
“Except I am going to encourage you to continue exploring this idea of visualisation as a way of becoming more comfortable talking about sex and your desires with potential sexual partners.
“Even if you don’t end up sleeping with this person, or whoever you’re talking to, it sounds like you’re learning a lot about what you need and want just by having these sorts of conversations.
“It’s why I think dating apps can actually be great, because you can straight up talk to people you match with about sex and then filter out people you can’t have these sorts of open discussions with.”
To more sexting then, I respond.
“Yes!” she says.
Software not installed
One week later, the familiar stranger and I sleep together.
Less than 12 hours after leaving my bed the following morning, he slips into my best friend and flatmate’s DMs on Instagram to proposition her. He says he thought there had been a definite connection between the two of them at our shared dinner table the night before, when they’d met for the first time. She is stunned. We both are.
Clearly, his software update has yet to be installed.
Nonetheless, the fantasy had been a fun one to entertain for a while. Sexting has turned out to be a very powerful tool for my own sexual exploration, even if the reality didn’t quite live up to the erotic prose in the end.
At least I know what I want for next time.
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