There’s nothing we like better than a frank discussion about sex.
We sat down with Nicholas Rose – a counsellor and psychotherapist who specialises in working with gay men and gay couples. When it comes to talking about the complex and sometimes tricky subject of sex, it’s clear that not much surprises Rose.
We had a lot of questions.
Why is sex such a big deal?
In all relationship counselling, the sex act is a vital and central kind of spotlight on the nature of the relationship. What happens in bed often reflects the wider relationship - issues around power and control, or who pleases who, can manifest in the sex act and impact the satisfaction of the couple in their sex life.
What is it about gay relationships or sexual encounters that mean that we often self-categorise in relation to our sexual preferences? What makes us decide that we’re a Top or a Bottom?
The sexual roles adopted by gay men in the sex act attract a lot of mythology. While for some men there may be a physiological element in relation to the amount of pleasure that can be achieved through anal sex, for most people the self-categorisation into sexual roles stems primarily from expectations, assumptions, or fantasies about what’s sexy and what isn’t.
Mythology and perceptions can be quite unhelpful. For example, some of the misconceptions around someone who identifies themselves as a Bottom can cause shame, low self-esteem and low self-confidence, when actually – when it’s talked through – that person can realise that they are more powerful with others than they first realised.
If we’ve self-identified as a Top or a Bottom, is that something that we can change?
This can often be a source of conflict within relationships.
We change all the time – the most marked examples of this may be someone who is very low in confidence or self-esteem and may therefore allow others who are more experienced to take the lead. Over time, as confidence and experience builds, you may want to take a more active role in the sex act. Conflict arises if one partner wants to change the role that they play and the other does not.
As a therapist, I always think it’s unhelpful to fix yourself as something which can be labelled. We do change as we grow older . We live in a changing environment . As our context changes, we need to adapt and change in order to survive.
What’s the best way to try to negotiate some of these challenges within a relationship?
The complexity in this is that for many people, the sex act is not just a sexual encounter, it’s a means of intimacy.
Start by asking yourself some questions:
- What is it that happens when you have sex?
- What do you do?
- How is it initiated?
- What roles do you play?
- What positions do you take?
- What do you like?
- What don’t you like?
- What does sex mean for you?
Think about how you have sex as a couple:
- Are you a pleaser or someone who wants to please?
- Who does what for who when you’re having sex?
- Is there a connection between how you are in your sex life and the relationship generally?
- What are the parallels?
- Are you happy with that?
- Is that what you want?
If some of the answers to these questions indicate that you may have a problem in the relationship because of issues within the sex life, how do you start to tackle that?
The most important thing is to be able to talk about it openly. Effective dialogue between the couple will enable the issues to be revealed and then worked on.
For example, if one of the couple wants to have sex seven days a week, then what is a workable solution? How is that negotiated?
Of course, sex isn’t everything, but it’s one of the main pillars of the relationship.
Why do we find it difficult to talk about sex?
Sex is when you’re at your most intimate and most vulnerable. It involves trust, safety, shared experiences, affirmation, and it’s a fundamental building block of the relationship.
You may feel ashamed for wanting something more, less, or different. If that’s then causing issues within your relationship, counselling can help to enable you to discuss your sex life explicitly but neutrally.
The main thing to remember is that a relationship is co-created – the important thing is that both sides are happy in it, that there’s a working compromise, and that there are no rights or wrongs.
Ideally these conversations should take place at the start of the relationship so that you’re then building on strong foundations.
Psychological research indicates that it takes half the time to get over a failed relationship as of the length of the relationship itself - so, if you were together for four years it will take you two years to ‘get over’ the end of the relationship. Investing in your relationship is a form of self-protection.
One of the areas that often seems to lead to conflict in relationships is when one partner wants to open the relationship so that it’s no longer monogamous or exclusive. Is that something you see a lot of in counselling?
If one partner is wanting to change the rules of the relationship, it’s important to discuss what’s wrong with the sex life at the moment? How is there a conflict in the relationship around this issue?
Often, it may be that the one that wants to open the relationship has reached a point of frustration about not getting what they need from the partnership.