Before she begins talking about her work, sex therapist Kim Yost wants to make one thing very clear: “No clothes come off during the session!”
That might seem obvious, but Yost says people would be surprised at how frequently clients think they’re going to show her their problems. After all, sex therapy is still a fairly unknown realm for a lot of Americans.
“We still have a pretty puritanical culture, despite what we see in TV and movies,” she says. “There’s a need for help, because though we’re a very sexualized culture, we don’t talk about it.”
Fortunately, however, Yost says the sex therapy field is definitely growing (in Baltimore in particular), which she attributes to the more open exchange the internet provides, as well as the proliferation of books, TED talks and celebrity doctors and therapists who are more open to discussing sexual problems.
If you still find the whole concept uncomfortable, though, you don’t have to suffer in silence. Yost sat down with STYLE to discuss the problems women most often approach her with, and the (sometimes simple) solutions that can make a world of difference in the bedroom and beyond.
My partner is always in the mood. I’m not. What’s wrong with me?
“Discrepancy of desire is extremely common,” Yost says. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what you ‘should’ be doing sexually.” Part of this comes from popular culture, she says, in which a couple is rarely married (they’re usually both single or having an affair), it’s always hot, they’re both aroused immediately and they ultimately climax together…which Yost calls a “really unfair presentation of reality.”
As it turns out, these hot-and-heavy representations aren’t entirely ill-founded. Or, at the very least, they’re backed up by years of scientific research. The only problem? “Until recently, sex research was based on male sexuality,” Yost explains. “Since men were our researchers, our scientists, our doctors, understanding of sexual function was always coming from the male perspective, and women were seen as kind of ‘male lite.’”
A male’s cycle of arousal is fairly linear, for example: Arousal, followed by a physical sexual response, culminating in orgasm. In the past, women were expected to match that, often leading to feelings of insecurity about not being able to ‘turn it on’ as quickly as their male counterparts.
“In time, we’ve found that a woman’s sexual arousal isn’t linear, it’s circular,” Yost says. “Most women, if they were asked ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’ out of the blue, would say no. But if they’re receptive to hugging and kissing, easing into that cycle, they’re more likely to want to be sexual and can be just as aroused as a man. We’re not the broken version of a man, we’re not less than, we’re just different.”
It’s also important to be open with each other, she says. People misread their partners’ signals (such as a man assuming his wife wants to have sex because she takes a shower before bed, when maybe she just wanted to clean off), often resulting in hurt and disappointment.
“I really prefer people to talk about it,” she says. “People have a lot more sex — and by sex I don’t mean intercourse, but sexual behavior — by making it clear that sex is a goal for them and not waiting around for a subtle hint.”
Not to mention, she adds, that it’s really communication that’s at the heart of most marital issues.
“It shows up in sex, but it’s really about communication and understanding of one another,” she says. “Often, I have to take a step back from the sex part of it and let them feel like they can talk to each other and really be seen and be heard.”
I want to spice things up, but I’m scared of how my partner will react.
Making intimate life more stimulating might seem fun and exciting, but Yost says it’s frequently a source of stress for her clients. Once again, she credits this to America’s lack of open conversation surrounding sex and sexual interests.
“There’s this really neat metaphor about women’s sexuality,” she says. “Imagine that when a woman is born, she’s given a plot of land. As she grows up, her family, her surroundings, her culture and her faith plant all sorts of seeds (ideas about sexuality) in the plot, maintaining it until she’s 18. At 18, they turn it over to her, and she has a chance to go through its garden, pulling up the weeds that don’t serve her as an adult sexual being and nurturing the plants that do.”
The problem, Yost says, is that this second step isn’t often taken. A woman’s past can hold her back, making her unable to get past long-instilled guilt and shame. When a woman is told sex is bad all of her life but good once she is married, for example, it can be hard for her to let go of the bad associations even after she is in the “approved” situation.
“I think the biggest thing a sex therapist gives to their clients is permission,” she says. “Normalizing things, saying ‘you’re okay, what you’re interested in is okay.’ If you got the message as a kid that sex itself was bad, how are you ever going to tell your partner about a fetish or desire for something new? It’s all about encouraging sex positive attitudes and trying not to worry about cultural or family restraints.”
Once the topic has been broached, there are plenty of ways to explore new elements of your sex life: the internet, of course, but also female-friendly sex stores (like Sugar or Love Ones in Baltimore) that a couple can go to together to learn about and discover different implements they might want to introduce in the bedroom.
Yost has one caveat, however. Sometimes, if you want something that your partner flat-out does not want (such as an open relationship), the difference can be irreconcilable. But at the same time, she argues, why would you want to stay in a relationship where you cannot be fully happy?
I don’t feel attractive.
This isn’t always as simple as not feeling comfortable with your physical appearance, Yost says.
“I love to encourage women to take a bath, light candles, play soft music … whatever makes them feel relaxed and sexy,” she says. “It’s almost like starting the foreplay in the tub.”
Not only is this a pleasant way to get in touch with your body, it’s a way to change the tone of the day.
“You can’t just come home from a hard day of work, take care of the kids, then get into bed and think ‘OK, now I have to flip the switch and be hot,’” she says. “You have to take that transition time for yourself.”
The whole point, she explains, is intention; if you want to be sexual on your terms, stating intention alleviates pressure and will be a more pleasant experience for all involved.
And on that note, Yost adds that she’s all for women picking out their own lingerie.
“When men pick out the lingerie, it’s usually uncomfortable. It’s their fantasy, it’s what they want,” she says. “When you pick it out, you can get something that enhances what you want to enhance and hides what you want to hide. If you don’t like your stomach, get a negligee that covers it. If you need support, get something with a built-in bra. I’m a big fan of covering up what you don’t like instead of letting it bother you and worrying about it the whole time. You want to feel good about yourself as you are, in that moment.”
After all, isn’t feeling good with yourself and your partner what sex is all about?
Yost’s top three picks for a better sex life.
“Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life”
By Emily Nagoski, PhD
“The New Male Sexuality”
By Bernie Zilbergeld, PhD
By Barry McCarthy and Emily McCarthy