Ask Debby Herbenick | Female circumcision and a 16 year age gap
TOC's sexpert tackles your most penetrating questions.
Q My boyfriend and I are very happy with each other and have every intention of being together indefinitely. However, there is one glaring issue: Our sex life is tepid. When we first started dating, I had a lot of personal stuff going on, and sex was low on my list of priorities. As a result, he got the impression that I’m very conservative in that arena. He’s sexually adventurous and, undoubtedly, found me very frustrating. Now the tables have turned: My libido has returned in a big way, but he is juggling work and grad school. He’s exhausted all the time and rarely wants sex, leaving me frustrated. My attempts at being playful and at initiating sex are often lost on him. All this is compounded by the fact that he no longer lusts for me. He explains that he’s so accustomed to the “prudish” version of me, he now has a mental block and can’t see me as sexy anymore. I believe him when he says that it’s a psychological issue. He loves me and thinks I’m beautiful inside and out, but how can I make him want me again? How can we overcome the bad bedroom habits we have cultivated? This lack of sexual chemistry is a problem acknowledged on both ends; we have discussed it many times, but try as we might, we can’t seem to be able to figure out any solution.
A How about you forget intercourse for a while? Who needs it, anyway? That whole penis and vagina thing is totally overrated. Only I’m kind of serious about this—well, about the first part anyway. I think that all sorts of sex—intercourse included—can be incredibly exciting, pleasurable, surprising, funny and arousing. However, sometimes sex feels as predictable as a night of watching Wheel of Fortune with your grandmother. Other times sex sucks because of relationship problems or resentment. But you two are different. You never established a connecting, pleasurable routine. Maybe you used to feel pressured when your boyfriend was all up in your vagina while you were dealing with your issues. Now you’re all up on his penis and he’s trying to focus on juggling grad school and work. Sometimes it is hard to feel aroused or interested in sex because of pressure, or if a person is worried about disappointing his or her partner (your boyfriend may worry that he’s letting you down or making you feel unattractive). One strategy commonly used with couples who can’t seem to find their sexual groove is to agree to an all-out ban on intercourse. Both partners have to commit themselves to sticking to it, even if they feel utterly aroused or get drunk and want to come home and, as they say, fuck Matt Damon (“on the bed, on the floor, on the towel, by the door…”). During the intercourse ban, a series of touching exercises called Sensate Focus can be used to help couples relate to each other in pleasurable ways and come to find each other sexy and appealing again (rather than, say, feeling like you are roomies). For a more detailed scoop on Sensate Focus, send an e-mail to email@example.com. I’ve set up an auto-response e-mail with information and links. You can also get personalized support by connecting with a sex therapist (aasect.org).
Q I always enjoy your readers’ questions, though I am often disappointed with your “see a sex therapist” answers. But my mind was really blown when you compared circumcision to female genital mutilation (In & Out, TOC 154). You even mislabelled it “female circumcision” along the way—that is the Orwellian term that its apologists like to hide behind. Such comments are not only inane, they are harmful—to the many girls who suffer the horrors of such a practice and the education and consciousness-raising efforts made to stamp out this barbaric activity. Circumcision, in contrast, is a minor procedure that many health experts consider beneficial, for hygiene and potential disease-mitigation reasons. Your flippant comments were offensive and suggest you are unqualified to advise people on sexual matters.
A I don’t see what’s so disappointing about recommending a sex therapist (see above for an oops-I-did-it-again moment). Unlike many sex columnists, I actually do have training in the field of human sexuality, and you know what? Not all problems can be solved in a 200-word response. Next point: I did not compare male circumcision to female circumcision/genital cutting. Rather, in response to a question about male circumcision and its associated decreased risk of HIV, I mentioned that while some health organizations are now advocating male circumcision as a means of reducing HIV risk, this decision is controversial, given that so many other things factor into a man’s risk for HIV. By extension, I questioned whether health organizations would recommend that females get circumcised if—hypothetically speaking—it was found to reduce their risk of HIV. I don’t think they would. Male and female genital circumcisions are not the same. And while you may not like the term “female circumcision,” not all women who have had their genitals cut like the term “female mutilation.” Between their preference and yours, I take theirs. Having spent time in Kenya where female cutting/circumcision continues among some groups, I try to be respectful of the women’s use of language. The phrase I choose does not represent my personal feelings. Also, there are different types of female circumcision practices. Some circumcisions involve very little cutting (though these rarely receive media attention). In other cases, the cutting is much more extreme and poses high health risks (including death). In regard to your comment about male circumcision, you might be surprised to learn that most major medical groups do not consider male circumcision to be beneficial for hygiene. As such, male circumcision rates have declined in the past few decades. To learn more about female cutting/circumcision, check out Voices from Mutira (Lynne Rienner, $19.95).
Q I am a 27-year-old man who has been dating a 43-year-old woman for the past two years. We are crazy about each other. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. My question to you is: How realistic is this? Can we make this work?
A Even the best relationship research can’t tell us whether an individual couple will break up or stay together. You are 16 years apart: She will be going through menopause when your same-age friends are having babies. Then again, many same-age relationships end due to being on different life tracks related to careers or kids. Is it possible for May-December romances to make it? Yes. Might it be harder for the Demi-Ashtons of the world (older women/younger men)? Perhaps. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a shot. If there is any risk worth taking, in my sappy book, it is the risk of loving another person.