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Desire

by Samantha Keen and Rachel Flower

Two people rolling around play-fighting on the beach look innocent enough. And then in a moment something shifts and you know it has become sexual between them. It might be a look in their eye, a caress of the hand, or nothing may have changed on the surface.

If we switch to the couple, they also know the moment they are suddenly filled with desire. They are feeling hot and tingly. Their breath comes quicker and their pulse beats faster. This couple might play on oblivious of observers, even excited by the idea of being watched. Or they might suddenly stop when one of them pulls out of the game and turns away from their partner. The one that stops the game has in some way become self-conscious and desire has been overruled by stronger social conditioning.

This moment when desire stops is in many ways similar to what happens in the bedroom for many people who suffer from desire dysfunction – except that for those people the stop on desire happens against their will. Desire dysfunction occurs when someone experiences a sudden loss in desire even when they consciously want to be with their partner. When desire is not present for one of the two people in a relationship, sex becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Amanda Wilson (not her real name), aged 27-years, found that in a sexual relationship, she just could not enjoy sex. She did not feel that her problem resulted from a lack of sexual knowledge on the part of her partner or herself. In the first throws of romance, Amanda says she was able to feel desire for her partner and orgasm relatively easily. But after the six months passed and the initial passions ebbed, she would not be able to have sex with her partner and the relationship would inevitably end.

"I really had a lot of negative feelings about sex," Amanda says. "Just the thought of it would make me feel disgusting." She tried to work with the problem in counseling and traced it back to unresolved feelings about her father. "I saw two different counselors and I tried to work through my problems about Dad but none of that was really helpful," Amanda says.

Men and women both suffer from desire dysfunction, according to Brett McCann, NSW president of ASSERT (Australian Society of Sex Educators, Researchers and Therapists). The difference is only in their genital functions, in that a woman's vagina does not become lubricated and aroused, while a man cannot get an erection. Women can technically have sex without desire but it is uncomfortable. Men who suffer from problems with desire often find sex difficult because they cannot get a full erection, although some men can have partial erections.

Sex therapists, gynaecologists, urologists and psychiatrists all have numerous opinions on the functions of desire. And many professionals of the sexual health community are debating whether or not desire is a physical or emotional function. Obviously, there is a physical component in the arousal of the genitals and other physiological changes in the body, but there is an emotional component in the link to how people feel about their bodies and their partners. McCann says there are some people that do suffer from physical problems squashing desire. These are often related to other illnesses like diabetes or heart disease. Physical desire dysfunction is often treated with drugs and possibly even surgery. McCann stresses that physical-based problems almost always have emotional ramifications for both the sufferer and their partner. "Self esteem is deeply affected when sex becomes an issue in a relationship," McCann says.

Some psychologists say that non-physical-based desire problems are far more common than we realise. Non-physical desire problems occur when people do experience desire occasionally, when they are alone or asleep at night. However, when it comes to sex with a partner these people just can't feel those tingles. Many people experience periods of dysfunction in desire for reasons that are rarely purely physical, says Andrea Haas, who has a Diploma of Sex Therapy with ASSERT. Both men and women in long-term relationships do go through periods where they cannot bear the idea of sex with their partner, sometimes for years, despite continuing to feel love and emotional attachment to the relationship. This problem does not have to be a result of age, as the American Medical Association has found in a study that almost half of women aged 21-38 years had experienced loss of libido. And still the medical community, along with the rest of us, has little idea why and how the phenomenon of loss of libido really works.

The debate and uncertainty about the emotional or physical cause and treatment of desire dysfunction is reflected even in comments from researchers. One study carried out by the University of Amsterdam titled Drug Treatments for Women's Sexual Disorders highlighted a need for more knowledge in all areas of sexual dysfunction. "More standardization is needed in terms of erotic stimuli, designs and analysis," according to authors Walter Everaerd and Ellen Laan. "We definitely need more studies focussing on differential diagnosis and treatment effect. "Given the many unresolved issues in this area, and the complex relationship between physiological changes, sexual stimulation and sexual experience, it seems very important that everybody who is involved in diagnosing and treating sexual dysfunction is knowledgeable about sexuality."

Everaerd and Laan found, much sexual dysfunction could be put down to a lack of understanding on behalf of the clients. "It is our belief that a fair part of the sexual problems of women (and men) can be explained by the lack of knowledge," they say.

Haas says Amanda Wilson's problem is typical of many people with desire dysfunction in that simple emotional or physical solutions often do not get to the root of the problem. Haas said desire for a partner is a complex interplay of sensitivities and expectations that can become blanketed by held in emotions. Amanda knew there were emotional problems to do with her father that somehow tied up her desire, but she could not release them. Amanda needed to go into the intensity of the emotional wound to really feel the pain and hatred tied up inside her before she could free up her sexual desire. "The full charge or intensity of an emotional wound must be felt and released to free up desire. This is not a problem that can be fixed by thinking up a solution," Haas says.

Amanda says she has found relief after receiving treatment from Haas. Haas is trained in Inner Space Techniques (IST) which encourages and facilitates sensations in the body, a psychotherapeutic approach which helps establish links to the feelings of the body. "The process allowed me to see a whole heap of other things about my feelings around sex that I didn't know were there," Amanda says. "It is really good to see the whole reason for those bad feelings (about sex)." Amanda says she initially thought her problems stemmed back to her father, but when she went into her body and felt the depth of her emotional holding, there were more feelings she remembered.

Haas says it's unfortunate that most people with desire dysfunction try to deal with the problem from the mind. "If you could tell your genitals from the mind to go for it then you wouldn't need to be here in my office! Your genitals have their own ideas. They are highly volatile and they do what they want regardless of what your mind tries to tell them." Haas points out that sexuality does not happen only in the mind. "It's a highly emotional experience, there are energy rushes, you feel alive, you feel good. This is all about energy and emotion." When People experience sexual difficulties they usually have cut off from the links to their feelings and sensations. They have cut off from what is going on inside their bodies from their minds. There are certain mentally constructed beliefs that come into relationships, pre-programmed by aspects of their upbringing influencing sexual relationships.

As David Schnarch points out in his book, Passionate Marriage, since the early days of Christianity up until the last few decades, people's self-worth was measured by their ability to destroy their sexual desire with their mind.

However, "Society's view of sexual desire has reversed in the last three decades. But we've gone beyond making it OK to want sex. Now you're supposed to want it. Low sexual desire is almost always considered a problem" Schnarch goes on to say that he approaches this issue rather differently than a lot of sex therapists, seeing that far from being a treatable 'disorder' a lack of sexual desire can often reflect good judgement. Namely, that "healthy people don't want sex when it's not worth wanting." In other words, if there is not enough meaning in the sex, if the connection and intimacy is not there, then desire is reduced.

Julie Craven, 37 (not her real name) had been with her partner for just over two years, and found that her sexual desire had slowly declined over that period. "Even though right from the start we were very close emotionally and the sex was OK, it slowly declined in quality and quantity, until more recently it became almost a chore," she says. "I felt closed down in some ways. On the surface we were getting along fine, there was still a lot of fun and openness, and yet on a deeper level there was a lack of real intimacy. I used to close my eyes every time we had sex and just focus on the physical sensations," says Julie, "because that's what I'd read somewhere in one of those popular magazines."

Unfortunately this advice in these popular women's magazines can often be very misleading. There is a great deal of focus on technique, different positions, and on trying to please each other physically. Mostly this is a response to the cultural belief that "a good lover satisfies his/her partner," when more often than not the issue is an emotional one. Most of us are not pleased when our partner is more eager to demonstrate prowess than to be with us. Sexual desire is not a formula. It is the result of an intricate link between body and emotions – a link that so many of us often overlook.

Antonio R. Damasio, in his book Descarte's Error offers the scientific basis for ending the division between the mind and body. He states that the human brain and the rest of the body are an interconnected organism, interacting with the environment as an ensemble. "The physiological operations we call mind are derived from the ensemble rather than the brain alone." He says that love and hate, kindness and cruelty, the creation of ideas and plans are all based on neural events within a brain, provided that the brain has been and now is interacting with its body. "The soul breathes through the body, and suffering, whether it starts in the skin or in a mental image, happens in the flesh." Damasio goes on to point out that we define ourselves by our responses to our inner world, and the external world of people and events.

This mind-body-world interaction is also explored intricately in the field of Kinesiology – the study of muscles and their movements, especially as applied to physical conditioning. At a level far below conceptual consciousness the body 'knows', and through muscle testing is able to signal, what is good and bad for it.

Julie began to explore her relationship with her own body, with herself, and with her partner using Clairvision body/mind exploration to unravel her feelings. She says she discovered areas in her body where she felt she was literally holding her sexual energy. Exploring deeper, she came to see that in a very subtle way she was pushing her partner away, fearing that deep level of intimacy for which, ironically, she craved. "It was strange," she says, "because I was pulling and pushing at the same time. I wanted sex, but I didn't. I never saw it like that before." Julie says even though she thought she had an open relationship with her partner, she saw that she was not clearly differentiated from him, living in some way through him because she wasn't comfortable with who she was. "I felt inadequate," she says, "and this made it hard for me to really open to anyone deeply. This also made my partner feel more closed."

She came to see how she was blocking her sexuality as a result of some inner fears. She found it hard to let go into the experience because she was afraid of losing control, afraid of letting another person really close to her.

A lot of the difficulties that people have with their sex life can be traced back to internal responses. Focussing only on relationship dynamics may not be enough when you want to resolve these issues. For example, Haas says people may have had many disappointments in life and inside there's a sense of 'why bother?' extending into the bedroom. Perhaps others have a deep personal wound, directly related to previous sexual experiences, recent or not. Many people might even feel sexy and have desire, but there is an inner conflict, preventing them from enjoying sex.

Sex does not have to be about feelings. It is possible to "bang away with the same partner for years and not know him/her" as Schnarch points out. But the feelings make sex something different. Feelings add a dimension of eroticism and intimacy that people essentially crave. Despite this, Schnarch says, many people withdraw into their sensations when they are having sex and break contact with their partner. He goes on to say that real issue in sexual mastery is self-mastery. We need more respect for the power of a positive vibrational link between people. Tantric sex experts are well aware of this too. They know that self-awareness during sex is part of our sexual potential and the goal of sex. They say this helps partners focus their minds and emotions, channeling their energy and transforming their unity into ecstasy.

Julie says working with the understanding of self-awareness during sex has helped her immensely. She says she has been guided to take a good look at herself and her responses, and how her mind interacts with her body.

She came to see how certain personal wounds that she was carrying were blocking her to fully opening to her sexual self. In particular, she realized how an early sexual experience in her twenties when she was taken advantage of while drunk has affected her in her sexual expressions. The experience imprinted in her a sense of violation and the desire to energetically 'push away' any sexual contact. She was not aware of this consciously until recently and has found that working with that understanding has brought significant sexual freedom. Haas says that this kind of experience is common, namely, that of not being consciously aware of the reasons for the block. This is why we have to dig deep to go to the source, and then we can understand and effect change. This can of course be confronting, and not everyone is ready to do this. "But there's so much to be learned from going inside," she says, "It can give life so much more depth and meaning." "I'm able to open physically and emotionally to my partner in ways I never could before", says Julie. "Now I keep my eyes open," she says, "I want to see him, feel the connection. It's taken us to a new height. I look forward to more! It took some work, though, to get to this point," she adds, "I mean, I had to feel pretty good about myself to let him look inside me like that." Schnarch expresses this very eloquently 'The biggest trust issue in (relationships) isn't about trusting your partner. It's about whether or not you can really trust yourself.'

Sexuality is all about sharing the physical body, energy and emotions with another. But if we do not feel safe to express emotions then something will block us internally and we will not be able to fully open to the experience. Just like those people on the beach when the opportunity to open to each other came up with the feelings of sexual desire. When one pulls away they are making a decision not to share that moment, for whatever reason. The point here is whether these people are choosing to pull away from each other despite the feelings of desire, or whether one of them is bound by an unconscious reaction in the body and mind that refuses to allow them to pursue connection with a partner.

(originally published by Living Now)