Much of my work in helping people navigate sexual issues revolves around how we think about sex. Your thought life, and your understanding of God and sex, are very important to your sex life. However, the basic truth is this: you can’t have sex without a body.
Sex, at one level, is a gift exchange of two bodies. I give my body to my husband and he gives his to me. There have been seasons where I felt like I was giving a very subpar gift—kind of like that Christmas present you found on the clearance rack. Even as the recipient opens it, you find yourself apologizing. What I’ve learned over time is that the gift of sex is muted when we don’t give with joy and confidence.
When I was struggling with body image, my friend Linda Dillow gave me some advice that really helped me. “It’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with what you have.” Don’t focus on what you can’t give; focus on what you have to give.
There are some things we can’t change about our bodies, but there are also ways we can make the most of what we have.
Get some Z's. In The Secrets of Eve, the authors found that the greatest deterrent to sexual desire for women is exhaustion. It’s not just the inability to muster up the energy for sex. A lack of solid sleep interferes with testosterone production in both men and women. Given that testosterone is a main factor in sexual desire, getting your eight hours can have a direct impact on your sexual desire and enjoyment.
We all know that we should get more sleep. The Centers for Disease Control reported that 35% of Americans are sleep-deprived. The question becomes, what are you going to change in your life to make sure you prioritize sleep? One simple step might be turning off electronics at least an hour before you need to be in bed. (You might even find some fun ways to fill in that hour of extra time in the evening—wink!)
Get some exercise. Working out can do more than just help you shed a few pounds or tone your body. It also has an effect on sexual performance. Research consistently demonstrates that exercise like weight lifting, resistance training, and high intensity interval training boosts testosterone levels, particularly in men. (Training for a marathon, however, might backfire as extreme endurance activities can deplete testosterone levels.) For women, research shows that “women who exercise regularly tend to have more active sex lives, are more easily aroused, and reach orgasm more quickly than those who don’t work out.” There is also evidence that non-impact exercise like yoga can be beneficial in stimulating blood flow to the genital area.
Seek medical help for sexual issues. I don’t know anyone who actually enjoys going to a doctor. And then add on the additional awkwardness of asking a question about sex:
“Intercourse is painful. Can you help me?”
“I can’t maintain an erection. What should I do?”
“Ever since I started taking this medication, I have no sex drive. Could that be a side effect?”
To add one more layer to this awkwardness, there is a chance that the first medical professional you ask won’t help you at all. They may respond with a generic, “Everything looks good from what I can see” to dismissive advice like, “Just have a glass of wine before you have sex. That should help you relax.”
Dr. Carol Tanksley is an OBGYN who specializes in helping women overcome barriers to sexual intimacy and pleasure. Her advice is good, but difficult to accept. “Don’t stop looking for help until you find answers.” Be willing to engage in some difficult and vulnerable conversations to save you and your spouse from years of frustration.
God created us with powerful senses through which we interact with the physical world. Our senses of sight, smell, touch, and sound are particularly important to sexual pleasure and arousal.
Pay attention to how you look. Have you ever asked your spouse how he or she likes your hair or what you wear? This may be particularly important to husbands. A research study from Emory University “found that the amygdala, an area of the brain that controls emotions and motivations, is much more activated in men than women when viewing sexual materials…It is also no mistake that women spend more time caring for their physical appearance. How they look has much more impact on a man’s brain than the other way around.”
Please don’t read, “I must look perfect for my spouse to be aroused by me.” Feeling insecure about your body may actually be the real turnoff—not how you look! The takeaway is to consider your spouse’s preferences as part of blessing him or her with your body. Why not plan a fun date to go shopping and pick out for each other what you would like your spouse to wear when you get home?
Pay attention to how you smell. I was leading a group of small women through a marriage study when we began talking about the topic of sex. One woman said, “Will you please write something for men about body odor and bad breath?” That led to a ten-minute conversation of women sharing about what a turn off smells can be for them. It turns out that a woman’s sense of smell in general is more sensitive than a man’s. While men might tune into how she looks, she is more aware of how he smells! Before intimacy, consider a quick shower, brushing your teeth, using mouthwash, and introducing smells like cinnamon, lavender, and vanilla that can heighten arousal.
Pay attention to how you feel. The Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau vividly describes two different types of men. One was hairy, and one was smooth. You might picture the burly Esau, covered in body hair and smelling musky with outdoor activity. His brother Jacob probably couldn’t even grow a beard on his smooth and silky skin. Have you ever talked about your preferences in the area of touch? Some wives find a little five o’clock shadow to be sexy. Others prefer a clean shave. Some men love it when their wives shave or wax parts of their bodies. Others find the natural look sexier. The point is, sexual intimacy involves touch. Use that to your advantage, and be aware of sharp nail edges or itchy stubble that are particularly irritating when in contact with sensitive areas.
Pay attention to how you sound. God gave you a unique voice print. One day I was in the grocery store, and I distinctly heard Mike’s voice a few aisles away. Without question, I knew it was him—but I had no idea he was at the grocery store. It was such a surprise to hear my husband’s voice at a completely unexpected time. Your voice is a gift to each other, but also a gift that can be cultivated. Pay attention to how you sound. Is your voice friendly or harsh? Demanding or inviting? How do you use words and inflections, even encouragements and verbal signs of excitement, to build sexual intimacy in your marriage?
These suggestions are not meant to add shame or give a husband or wife ammunition to make demands. The spirit of intimacy in marriage involves tenderness and sensitivity. If you don’t have that, all of these practical tips will fall flat.
Building intimacy will always require intentionality. For many couples, the barriers to sexual intimacy can seem daunting. While there is certainly a time to tackle big issues like trauma and betrayal, making small changes can also make a significant difference in your love life. Perhaps start by picking two or three of the suggestions in this blog, or check out some these resources: