Is my sex life “good enough”?

Most of us are concerned about how we are perceived by others. It is part of being human to want to be accepted by others and to fit in with the group. We are social animals after all. Our perception of ourselves as sexual partners is part of this broader sense of self.

Our tendency to compare ourselves to others is tricky though when it comes to sex, due to its very private nature. Often we are taught growing up, that sex is not something to be talked about with other people, maybe not even with the person we are having sex with. People may also be very reluctant to give honest feedback to their partner where there are sexual problems, for fear of hurting their feelings.

So for all the above reasons, the concept of a “good enough” sexual life is a very difficult one for us to define. In the absence of open communication and accurate information, this vacuum may unfortunately be filled by sources such as the media (magazines, movies etc), advertising, and the pornography industry. Some of these deliberately set out to create anxiety in order to encourage purchase of a product (e.g. advertisements for libido enhancers), while others simply portray an unrealistic and unobtainable ideal (e.g. buffed and beautiful bodies engaging in air-brushed sex scenes in movies). Pornography deserves special mention – access is easy and anonymous nowadays due to the internet, and the sex portrayed in this material is light years away from what normal sex between everyday people actually looks like. If in our minds we measure ourselves and/or our sexual partners against these models, then feelings of inadequacy or dissatisfaction are likely to be the result.

So what is “good enough” sex?

  • 1. How often should I be able to orgasm?
  • 2. What if I really can’t be bothered, is there something wrong with me?
  • 3. Should sex be mind-blowing every time?

Therapists who work to help people with sexual problems tend to agree on a few key principles – one of these is that seeing sex as a performance, with an ultimate goal of orgasm, can be very unhelpful. Mutual pleasure is a better goal, which is less likely to result in anxiety about performance and feelings of failure when one’s own standards of adequate performance are not achieved. So the first question is emotionally destructive and no answer will be offered here!

Another key principle is that for most people, sex is experienced as most satisfying when it is with another person that you care about – that is, where there is intimacy. Intimate relationships go through stages of development. The initial weeks or months are characterized by high and spontaneous desire, what you might describe as being horny. This is the stage where your heart beats in anticipation of seeing him/her, and you enjoy watching them sleep. This intensity is delicious, but is unsustainable, dependent as it is on novelty and unfamiliarity. It is normal for spontaneous desire to reduce over time, due to a myriad of factors. On average the sex drive is less for women than for men, but there is also huge individual variation. Issues such as age, relationship duration, general stress levels, depression, relationship distress, illness, medications, substance abuse, and sexually abusive past experiences, will all have an influence on levels of sexual interest and desire in a relationship. Sexual pain is another factor which can affect both sexes, but more frequently women.

So, in answer to Question 2, sometimes, or even often not feeling like sex (an absence of spontaneous desire), does not mean there is something wrong with you. Rather, an openness to being sexual with a partner that you love may be the key to maintaining a satisfying sex life over years and decades. As sexual contact occurs, sexual arousal increases and with it, sexual desire. The desire may not be spontaneous, but it is nonetheless desire, and still leads to sexual pleasure and increased intimacy.

Another myth that movies, including pornography movies, perpetuate, is that sex should be mind-blowing every time. This belief, in the absence of real information, can lead people to see themselves as failures sexually and create performance anxiety that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An excellent article by Michael Metz and Barry McCarthy appeared in the Journal of Sexual and Relationship Therapy in 2007, and answers the third question with a resounding ‘NO’. In this article they describe their “Good Enough Sex” model, which recognizes that among satisfied couples the quality of sex varies from time to time and from very good to mediocre or even disappointing on occasion. Reasonable expectations and a focus on intimacy and pleasure, rather than seeing sex as a performance with orgasm as the finale, are key.

So try not to waste valuable time worrying about your sex life and comparing yourself and your relationship against unrealistic ideals. Instead, talk to each other, focus on mutual pleasure, don’t take it all too seriously, and if problems persist, professional help can be extremely helpful.

Sandra Fowler is a Christchurch based clinical psychologist in private practice specializing in working with individuals and couples with sexual problems, including gender identity issues and compulsive sexual behaviour.


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