So, how’s your sex life?” asks the engaging voice on the other end of the line.
No, the guy on the phone is not a pervert. Ever since my husband, Terry, and I signed up for “Partners, Pleasure and Passion,” a four-day sexuality program at Miraval Spa near Tucson, Ariz., I’ve been anticipating this call. Of course this isn’t his first question. Initial introductions and break-the-ice repartee provide foreplay. But as soon as Dr. David Taylor, co-leader of the program, introduces himself I know we are about to chat about the “S” word, and it feels downright weird talking to a stranger about my sexual appetite as I unload groceries in the middle of my kitchen.
“Do you have any issues? Tensions? Power struggles with sex?” he asks in the same tone my doctor uses to probe about flu symptoms. I tell him Terry and I have an ideal relationship. We signed up for the program, I say, because it sounded like fun and because, as a writer, I’m always looking for a good story. The fact that the program is offered at a world-class spa known for innovative mind-body therapies and is ranked numero uno by Travel & Leisure readers only added to its seduction.
“My husband and I are soul mates,” I boast in a tone that implies everything is hunky-dory between us. “We are extremely comfortable together.”
I anticipate positive feedback. Instead, Taylor’s response is unsettling. “Comfort can interfere with dynamic interplay,” he says. “If you hang out together your relationship can become more like comfortable roommates instead of energizing sexual partners. Everything is so comfortable you may be missing something. We want to give people the vitality of a vital sexual relationship. People let that go because they are comfortable.”
My first reaction? How ridiculous! But as the conversation ends and I place the peas and couscous in the pantry, I begin to wonder. Maybe contentment has replaced the pizazz of our hot pre-marital trysts. Most nights Terry and I do the crossword puzzle instead of you know what, and my sexy nighties have made their way to the bottom of the drawer, topped by T-shirts and flannels. Has comfort morphed into routine?
What if he’s right?
For many married American couples, “Sex in the City” reruns and “Desperate Housewives” may be the only place where sex is happening more than once a week. Despite living in a world filled with erotic movies, sultry TV stars and sexy magazine covers from Cosmo to AARP, “there’s not much sex happening,” says University of Chicago sociology professor Edward O. Laumann, author of several books on sex, including The Social Organization of Sexuality, which Time magazine described as “the most important survey since the Kinsey Report.” Laumann tells me the average number that couples have “partnered sex” is 6.5 times per month. “Couples are tired,” he says. “They’re working long hours, have different schedules and sometimes weekends are the only time for it.”
Professor Laumann’s words call up Taylor’s comments during our phone conversation. While I’ve always prided myself in scoring well above average in any undertaking, I’ve just learned that Terry and I are often “below average” in the sex department. My husband’s heart attack two years ago, the aftereffects of menopause— and the comfort (there’s that word again) of a long-term relationship comprise my rationale for our once-a-week rendezvous. But are these reasons or excuses?
On a warm winter day a few weeks later, Terry and I arrive at Miraval, check in and book an early afternoon massage. Just before 4 p.m., we stroll from our casita along walkways flanked by cactus and all sorts of interesting desert vegetation to a plain, windowless hospital-green auditorium that looks primed for a corporate retreat rather than the first day at a sex workshop— or “sex camp” as some will lovingly call it. An American flag punctuates one wall; two ho-hum floral displays are plopped on the stage and a PowerPoint presentation is ready for action. Big fat workbooks rest at each theater-style seat and pads, pencils, coffee and cold drinks are nearby. Each of us is given a dangling name tag a la a General Electric or IBM conference attendee and a “goodie bag” that mimics a corporate conference— only instead of pens and Post-it notes, it contains two bottles of massage oil (one standard variety and another that heats up on application), a bottle of KY lubricant, a book about the program, two Godiva chocolates and one purple feather— ooh, la la!
Terry and I scan the crowd. Portly, lean and fit, chic and couldn’t-care-less-about-fashion, the 30 couples range in age from early 30s to late 60s. “She’s so cute. He’s a hunk,” we discreetly point and whisper to each other. “Why are they here?”
We’re feeling pretty comfortable since “we” don’t have any sexual problems, but it must take a lot of guts for these couples to walk into this room— no couple wants to admit to themselves, let alone to others, that they have troubles between the sheets. We’d expected our classmates would be mostly our age, the over-50 crowd. Instead, about half appear to be young professionals, a fact Taylor later tells me is a bit unusual. “We’ve had couples as young as in their 20s but the majority of attendees are over 40.” They have to be successful to afford the tariff— the roughly $7,000 per couple includes a room for four nights, three meals each day and a few spa treatments. (Taxes, service fees and alcoholic beverages are additional.)
After Taylor and his wife, Dr. Lana Holstein, deliver an overview of the program, we are divided into two groups, Anasazi and Agave. Each group heads to a small, cozy room where we sit on the floor in a circle, shoes off, and talk about why we’ve come to the workshop. A stone embellished with a yin/yang sign makes its way around the room. When you get the stone, it’s your turn to speak.
“My husband is retiring. Sex is the only thing in our relationship that could use some tweaking. Coming here was a Christmas gift from him,” says one 65-year-old heavyset woman.
A pretty young gal says she has trouble “getting there.” Two 50-ish women say they have bigger sexual appetites than their husbands. (I later learn that, contrary to popular opinion, women don’t have a monopoly on the low libido market. Men just don’t talk about it.)
One young man says he wants a closer, more meaningful relationship with his wife. A handsome 40ish man wants his wife to enjoy sex more. Two men in their 50s who’ve undergone prostate surgery praise their understanding wives but say “not performing” is a problem for them. They are looking for other ways to enjoy sex. “I don’t enjoy sex and I want to change,” says a teary 30-something woman. “I love my husband, but our private life is so difficult.”
After listening to the woman, Holstein says, “During your time here you will run up against issues. If you’re going to change, you’re going to meet some resistance. It’s supposed to be challenging.” One by one, an airline pilot, three dentists, a TV talk show host, two artists, a pediatrician and several retired executives reveal why they are here and what they hope to accomplish. All the while, I’m dreading my turn.
When the stone is plopped into my hand, I mumble something about having a great relationship and we are here to see if we can make it even better. Terry says he doesn’t want to say anything and passes the stone as if it were on fire. He is English and talking about his sex life in public is as foreign as his U.K. passport.
That night when Terry and I dine on our own in the spa restaurant, which is mostly filled with women on gal pal spa getaways, I feel like we “sex school” couples stand out like clothed people at a nudist colony with our hand-holding, flirting and “soul gazing,” looking deeply into the eyes and soul of our beloved.
The next day at 8 a.m. sharp, we’re back in the hospital-green auditorium, listening to Holstein tell us that “sex is a skill. In order to be good you’ve got to know the anatomy and physiology.” Then she introduces “Mona.” Think stuffed animal— only this is a stuffed vagina. (Male equipment gets discussed sans a tangible prop, probably because it’s much less mysterious.) This is one of the few sessions in the entire four days that’s devoted to nuts and bolts. The program’s mantra is that every couple can learn to have sensational, reliable and repeatable sex by removing their physical, emotional or spiritual barriers. So Taylor and Holstein don’t emphasize technique so much as they teach ways to enhance intimacy. And though it might sound New Age-y, the doctors have rock-solid credentials to back up their approach (not to mention having been featured on “Oprah”). Both Yale Medical School grads and former family physicians, Holstein had a successful practice in sexuality counseling before becoming director of women’s health at Canyon Ranch and now managing director of Miraval’s medical programs. She and Taylor developed this couples-only program after attending a workshop about a mind/body/soul perspective on sex and deciding to combine that perspective with their medical expertise.
Both doctors stress that the program is designed for couples who have drifted into a routine and want to put the oomph back into their sex life, or for sexually happy couples who would like to reach a higher level through soul-sex practices developed ages ago in the Orient. “Rather than thinking of what we do as a form of therapy for sexual dysfunctions, think of it as a new way to explore a familiar activity from a radically different perspective with the support of experienced professionals and fellow explorers,” Taylor tells us. Significant problems caused by infidelity, bitter divorces, sexual traumas or negative attitudes about sex may require more work or professional counseling, he cautions.
That first morning, Taylor and Holstein lead us into the heart of the program, which is exploring the Seven Dimensions of Sexuality and putting them into practice. Of all of the dimensions— biologic, sensual, desire, heart, intimacy, aesthetic and ecstatic— the last two, which address the spiritual or sacred aspects of sex, intrigue me most. Even Erica Jong, the ‘70s literary Lolita who penned the best-selling “Fear of Flying,” recognized them in a recent interview in The Washington Post. “Love isn’t about some technique,” she said. “It’s being so close to someone that you can feel what they feel. There are spiritual things that you can’t describe.”
To reach that soulful place Holstein advises us to practice soul gazing. Create a sacred space for making love that’s just about the two of us. Remove those family photos in the bedroom, light a candle, put rose petals on the bed and GET THE TV OUT OF THERE. And, she says, schedule sex— even write it on the calendar and keep the appointment!
Many in our group seem surprised: Make an appointment for sex with your spouse? Yes, Holstein acknowledged, the idea seems less than spontaneous. But it makes sense if you don’t want lovemaking to get lost in the day-to-day grind. And, she says, the notion of hot, spontaneous sex is wonderful but unrealistic. If you want more and better sex, schedule it. What if you don’t feel like having sex at the scheduled time? Do it anyway. Sexual desire doesn’t just happen; you have to make it happen. She says most people who go ahead and have sex even if they didn’t think they wanted it are glad they did. “It’s like working out,” she says. “Do you really want to go to the gym? No, but once you do you are glad you did it.”
Oh, and, keep your eyes open— all the way through!
After the day’s lectures, some of us visit the spa for a massage, herbal wrap or salt rub. Others explore the Zen-like 317-acre resort dotted with a labyrinth and Zen garden. But it’s our daily afternoon “homework” in the privacy of our rooms and nightly “tell all” sessions that really generate the buzz.
Our first homework assignment requires the man to make a date with his partner for an afternoon that’s all about pleasing her. The man must put into practice what he has learned in class as well as from an instructional video. He is to receive zero pleasure. Terry sets our date for 2 p.m. At the appointed time, giggling like a schoolgirl, I tap on our door. Terry appears in a white fluffy bathrobe, grinning and giggling, too. The TV is covered with a shawl, the lights are dimmed. A candle is burning. While we didn’t think we needed sex camp, something wonderful is happening. We are laughing more, flirting again and talking and talking about sex.
The next day, roles are reversed; the afternoon is all about pleasing him. Before lunch the women watch an explicit instructional video of a woman pleasing her man using only her hands. We learn where to find the guy’s version of a woman’s G-spot plus a few touching techniques. We each receive a gift— a thin white shawl with 12-inch fringes that we can wear, throw over the lamp or use to tie him to the headboard! I may have giggled before yesterday’s date, but today I roar as I greet Terry wearing the flimsy shawl.
For our third assignment, the pleasure is to be shared. Forget the shawl and that scented candle. The goodie bag is put to good use. Oh, that purple feather!
On the last day we complete a sex self-assessment that defines our strengths and weaknesses and write a “Good Sex Business Plan.” This document defines how we plan to retain the closeness we experienced at Miraval, and explains how we will deal with conflicts, complete with consequences if we don’t live up to our commitments and bonuses if we do. Terry and I write our vision statement: “We are always aware of our passionate soulful deep loving sexual connection and it is the wellspring of our life together.” We are told to hold a monthly board meeting to discuss if we are living up to the commitments we made in our business plan.
On our final night each of us must present a gift to our partner in front of the group— a meaningful symbol of our love that cannot be bought. “These seven stones represent the seven dimensions of sexuality,” says a choked-up young man as he emotionally presents them to his wife. Tears and tissues accompany each person’s gift— a hand-carved love arrow, a paper crown, several beautiful poems and, with the help of the chef, a cake! Terry and I are moved by the displays of love and transformation. I sing a love song and Terry writes a beautiful story and presents me with a rock that contains all the love in the universe. Champagne and strawberries follow and everyone is high on love. Can this euphoria last?
Several months later, I check in with a few participants and learn that, overall, the effects of the program appear to be long-lasting and positive. “We’ve been good about creating the right environment … candles, relaxing music, no kids in the house. We come home for lunch during the workday for this to happen. We eat lunch in our robes before going back to work. It’s kinda fun,” said one young mother. Another couple in their 30s said that they have turned their bedroom into a sanctuary. “We now refer to our sacred space as our love shack. We’ve removed the kids’ pictures and surrounded ourselves with things that make us feel romantic.”
One fortyish man said he and his wife were using the touching exercise to help deal with the stress of daily life. “We’re both over-analyzers so it has been somewhat terrifying yet also exciting to find each other again through touch and not so much verbal-verbal-verbal.” One fifty-something woman said, “We are having a hard time keeping the peace of Miraval in daily life, but I put on the Miraval body lotion to reawaken the sense of being there, and that helps some.”
Still another said, “My husband and I are nurturing the sense of connectedness that we rediscovered there. My world feels different now. In addition to a more open and connected relationship with my husband, I find myself approaching those I work with in a different way now than before. Who knows where this could all lead?”
Sadly, one couple decided to divorce. “The program was wonderful, but just couldn’t help me bridge the issues we had,” said a 50-ish woman. “They went beyond intimacy.”
So what about Terry and me?
After being together for more than 12 great years we rarely take the time to talk about sex but for four days at Miraval, we did nothing but. Even though we haven’t continued all the exercises, referred to our “Good Sex Business Plan” or held even one “board meeting,” we still think the program made a positive difference. We learned that even the best of soul mates are not mind readers. We need to take the time to talk about sex because there is always something new to learn. Terry summed up the program by saying, “It heightened my awareness about how easy it is to slip into a routine or comfort zone. The program is a good kick in the backside.”
I agree with him, though instead of a kick, I’d describe it as a nudge— or a gentle caress with a purple feather.
For reservations and availability for “Partners, Pleasure and Passion,” call Miraval Life in Balance at 800-232-3969 or check http://www.miravalresort.com. Programs are scheduled in January, February, March, May, July, September and November 2007. Cost per person, per night is from $455 to $555 plus tax and service fees. Includes a lovely room, three meals, all non-alcoholic beverages, three $110 spa services and transportation to/from Tucson Airport. For more details about this and a new four-day program, “Cancer, Sex and Intimacy,” click on http://www.holsteinandtaylor.com.
Don’t want to travel? Your Long Erotic Weekend by Dr. Lana Holstein and Dr. David Taylor details the entire four-day program in an easy-to-follow book so you can complete this program at home. Includes a listing of 30 additional books and videos on different aspects of sexuality from “Finding God Through Sex” to “Tantra: Ancient Secrets of Sexual Ecstasy for Modern Lovers.”
For a qualified sexuality expert near you, contact the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors & Therapists. 804-752-0026, http://www.aasect.org
Less expensive and much less luxurious than Miraval, the Human Awareness Institute runs couples weekends all over the country. $395 all inclusive. Check http://www.HAI.org for details, dates and locations.
As seen on “Dateline,” author and therapist Dr. David Schnarch and his wife, Dr. Morehouse, conduct Couples Enrichment Weekend programs around the country. For locations, dates and price, check http://www.passionatemarriage.com.