From Intimacy to Ecstasy
Sex is God’s joke on human beings. ~~ Bette Davis
There is nothing like sex to complicate relationships. These intimate acts can draw two people together or push them apart. Each person’s experience of sexual intimacy is as unique as that person’s soul. Everyone ascribes a different, multi-layered meaning to sex based on their beliefs, upbringing, attitudes, and experiences— none of which may be soulful at all. All of these influence a person’s experience of intimacy and ultimately their soul health.
Most health and wellness models discuss sex only briefly as one small element of overall physical health. However, in my work as a psychologist, it is clear that sexual health deserves much more than a cursory glance. Our knowledge, experiences, and the meanings we apply to sex are all critical in the quest for radiant health. This chapter explores many facets of the sexual branch of health, including what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship, how our sex life—or lack of one—affects other aspects of soul health, and how unresolved sexual trauma can inhibit our overall health and our soul’s evolution altogether.
Spiritual relationship is far more precious than physical. Physical relationship divorced from spiritual is body without soul. ~~ Mohandas Gandhi
Sex is a powerful force in human life. It not only expands the population, it also greatly affects and even alters our experience of the human condition. Whether you have too much, too little, or just enough sex, you can be sure that this branch of soul health affects all others. A study by David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick indicates that the happiest people, in general, are those who engage in sex most often.
The study reported that sex is such a strong and positive factor in the happiness equation that the researchers estimated that, for many people, increasing intercourse from once a month to once a week would generate an increase in happiness equivalent to receiving a $50,000 raise in annual income. While the importance of sex differs from one person to another, the study does imply that healthy sexual activity can enhance overall well-being.
On the other hand, it is widely known that everyday stress, anxiety, and depression can also result in sexual dysfunction or disinterest.
This is partly because these conditions decrease sexual hormones, lower serotonin levels, deplete energy, and intensify worrisome thoughts and negative thinking. Unfortunately, many antidepressants—which, of course, are meant to offset these emotional concerns—tend to change brain chemistry in such a way as to diminish blood flow to the sex organs, thus interfering with sexual health even more. Even if a person feels aroused, he or she may not be able to perform. This, of course, can lead to even greater sexual dysfunction and result in feelings of inadequacy or inhibition.
Many other factors influence the health of a person’s sex life.
Society itself has great impact on people’s sexual attitudes and experiences. Impulsive, irresponsible and empty sexual encounters are everywhere in the media (television, movies, magazines, advertisements, internet content). This exposure contributes to the alarming increase in sexual addictions, which now affects one in seven people. Also, statistically speaking, reports of sexual traumas have become nearly epidemic. One third of girls and women and one-fifth of boys and men suffer sexual abuse, and one-fourth of women are raped during their lives. The impact on sexual health is widespread throughout the branches of soul health.
Many other aspects of the human condition can greatly affect sexual health.
Grief, economic concerns, additions to the family, moving to a new home, job stress or change, spiritual or religious concerns, communication issues, physical or emotional issues, and lack of time for leisure or fun can all cause problems in the sexual branch of health. As a result of other life factors, one in five women and one in ten men report that sex gives them no pleasure. Our ability to experience a healthy sex life is complex and awareness of what influences our sexual health is important in balancing our overall well-being.
Making love makes us more vulnerable than any other interaction we will ever have with another human being—it can also be the most soulful encounter shared with another person. Many factors play a part in whether your sexual branch is healthy.
Wendy Maltz, a certified sex therapist, clinical social worker, and author, outlines five key aspects of healthy sexuality: consent, equality, respect, trust and safety.
- Consent means you are free and comfortable in choosing whether or not to engage in sexual activity with a partner. Consent also implies that you and your partner make a conscious and informed decision to engage in sexual activity and that either one of you can change your mind and stop the sexual activity at any time.
- Equality allows both people to feel personal power, with neither one dominating or intimidating the other before, during, or after sexual activity.
- Respect is present when you and your partner have positive regard for yourselves and each other, not only through sexual intimacy but in how you treat each other at all times.
- Trust is based on both people accepting and showing sensitivity to each other’s needs and vulnerabilities.
- Safety means that you and your partner feel no emotional or physical risk or danger as you engage in sex and that you are comfortable and assertive about where, when, and how the sexual activity takes place. You also have no fear of negative consequences such as unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.
When you think about these five characteristics of healthy sexual relationships, you can’t help but imagine a soulful bond with a partner. Sadly, though, how often are all these necessary conditions portrayed in our culture? The depictions of sexual encounters in books, magazines, television, movies, and the internet are too often not examples of soulful interactions.
Instead, the image of sex we receive is oft en one of merchandizing goods, sensationalizing the plot of a movie, or exposing a betrayal or scandal on a talk show. Our ideas of normal sexual changes across our lifespan have also been skewed by the misuse and overuse of drugs for erectile dysfunction and other naturally-occurring sexual concerns that emerge as we age. Somehow these natural changes have become pathologized rather than acknowledged as a normal part of aging.
Following is the Questionnaire for the Sexual Branch of Health.
As you answer the questions, consider the soulfulness of your sexual health as well as how this branch affects your overall soul health.
Questionnaire for the Sexual Branch of Health
On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the level of your health within each area described. A 10 describes optimal, radiant health, while a 1 describes an almost complete lack of health within the given aspect of the sexual branch. Remember, this questionnaire is designed to create a roadmap to overall radiant health. It is not meant to overwhelm you.
1. ____ I know what it means to engage in sex.
2. ____ I am knowledgeable about sexual practices.
3. ____ I am knowledgeable about sexual anatomy and sexual responses.
4. ____ I know my body and its sexual responses.
5. ____ I understand how I developed my beliefs and attitudes about sex.
6. ____ I know what I like and don’t like when it comes to sex.
7. ____ I know how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.
8. ____ I know what a sexually-transmitted disease is and how to prevent it.
1. ____ I know what safe sex is.
2. ____ I engage only in safe sex.
3. ____ I never wonder if I have been unsafe with a sexual partner.
4. ____ I have received adequate education about safe sex.
5. ____ I take precautions to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
6. ____ I take precautions to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
7. ____ I always talk to sex partners about their sexual health before engaging in sex with them.
1. ____ I feel emotionally secure when engaging in sex.
2. ____ I feel physically secure when engaging in sex.
3. ____ I have sex only with partners I trust.
4. ____ I can communicate freely with my partner(s) about sex.
5. ____ I know and respect my own sexual boundaries.
6. ____ I know and respect the sexual boundaries of others.
7. ____ I feel good about my sexuality.
8. ____ I feel good about expressing myself sexually with my partner(s).
Beliefs about Sex
1. ____ I have healthy beliefs about sex.
2. ____ I do not feel guilty about sex.
3. ____ I do not feel ashamed of sex.
4. ____ My beliefs about sex do not interfere with how I feel about other aspects of my life.
5. ____ I enjoy sex.
6. ____ I feel good about my sex life.
1. ____ I have consented to all of my sexual experiences.
2. ____ I have only positive memories of my sexual experiences.
3. ____ My past sexual experiences have not negatively affected my sex life.
4. ____ I have sought help to resolve issues related to past negative sexual experiences.
5. ____ I feel at peace with all past sexual experiences.
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, but yet the body is his book. ~~ John Donne
“What you don’t know won’t hurt you” does not apply to sex. However, few people receive an adequate sex education, let alone see good role models for a healthy sexual relationship. What we learn about sex usually comes from our peers, television, movies, books, and magazines and the proverbial birds-and-bees talk from parents is usually greatly abbreviated or absent altogether.
George Bernard Shaw expressed his concerns for our youth’s lack of sexual education in stating, “Instruction in sex is as important as instruction in food; yet not only are our adolescents not taught the physiology of sex, but never warned that the strongest sexual attraction may exist between persons so incompatible in tastes and capacities that they could not endure living together for a week much less a lifetime.”
Certainly, a general understanding of sex is necessary for a satisfying relationship; however, it takes much more than this to create a bond conducive to soul health.
As mentioned in the chapters on the social and interpersonal branches, our relationships often teach us our most vital life lessons. Therefore, knowledge of your needs for sex and intimacy will take you to more conscious unions with others. For this to happen, sexual health must include knowledge not only of the mechanics of sex, but also of the emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal factors that can affect our sexual health.
- Where did you learn about sex? Do you trust that these sources or people provided good and accurate information?
- What questions do you have about sex that were never addressed or answered?
- How have you expanded your » knowledge about sex on your own?
For the first time in history, sex is more dangerous than the cigarette afterward. ~~Jay Leno
Given the high rates of sexual assault and sexually transmitted diseases (1 in 4 people in each case), one cannot stress enough the importance of safety. However, safety in a soulful sexual relationship has just as much to do with emotional security as with possible physical risks.
As noted in the chapter on the interpersonal branch of health, several factors are essential for all emotionally healthy relationships; the same applies to emotional safety in sexual relationships.
Communication, healthy boundaries, personal integrity, equality, respect, and unconditionality toward your partner’s needs and insecurities all play a part in developing a healthy sexual relationship.
If any of these are missing from your interpersonal relationship, they will also be lacking in your sexual relationship.
Many people experience close calls in their sexual relationships, fearing they will become pregnant or contract an STD. In the human condition, our physical enjoyment sometimes overrides the need to take precautions, but giving in to the moment can undermine our sense of physical safety. Appropriate precautions, thus, guard your physical, emotional, and ultimately your soul health. Remaining aware of unnecessary risks can safeguard you from potentially traumatic sexual events.
According to the National Institutes of Health, more than half of all sexual assaults occur when the perpetrator, the victim, or both are under the influence of alcohol. Awareness about the effects of alcohol on your own behavior may prevent unwanted sexual advances by others.
- What safety precautions do you need to protect your sexual health?
- What concerns do you have for safety related to sex in your life?
- How often do you re-evaluate your safe-sex practices?
Boundaries are to protect life, not to limit pleasures. ~~ Edwin Louis Cole
While physical safety is imperative in creating a healthy sexual relationship, emotional security is also important in enjoying healthy, soulful sex.
Even so, far too many people engage in sex even when they don’t feel emotionally safe or spiritually connected with their partners. Interactions like these inevitably impact your overall radiant health because they dishonor your deepest ally—your soul. In my psychotherapy practice, I often hear stories from individuals who feel pressured to engage in sex to make their partners happy, regardless of their own sexual interest or emotional safety at the time. To experience full sexual health, one must not dishonor oneself in the process.
Emotional security in a soulful relationship requires open and honest communication with your partner about your needs, likes, dislikes, and interest in sex at any given time.
If ever you feel pressured or disrespected, then the partnership is not soul-based, and further mistrust and insecurity are likely. If you cannot honor your own boundaries, you cannot fully experience healthy sex, nor can you create a soulful relationship with yourself or others.
- How does emotional security » affect your sexual health?
- What do you need from your partner in order to feel emotionally secure when engaging in sex?
- How openly can you speak to your partner about your needs?
- How soulful is your relationship with regard to security?
Beliefs About Sex
Sex relieves tension—love causes it. ~~ Woody Allen
As it does with most other things, our early upbringing influences our ideas and beliefs about sex. In addition, our sexual beliefs are shaped by everything from culture, religion, societal values, gender roles, and the media as well as beliefs and attitudes passed on by both our elders and our peers. Sexual trauma— abuse, molestation, assault, inappropriate exposure to sexual content— tends to alter our ideas about sexual health. In fact, it is difficult to find anyone these days who doesn’t have some sort of sexual glitch or hang-up. In western culture, this is partly because sex continues to be a taboo subject despite its widespread presence in the media.
If shame enters the picture when you are thinking or talking about sex, it is important to take a look at your beliefs and how they were formed.
It is not unusual for years and even decades to go by in a relationship with neither person talking about their beliefs regarding sex. People in soulful relationships are able to discuss their thoughts and feelings about sex openly and can explore fl awed or unhealthy beliefs in order to improve the health of the union.
- How were your ideas or beliefs about sex formed?
- Who did you—or can you—talk to about these beliefs?
- In your relationship, when was the last time you talked about your sexual beliefs?
- How have your beliefs changed? How would you like them to change?
The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul. ~~ William B. Yeats
All of our past experiences bring us to the present; and unfortunately, some of these may have diminished our ability to fully engage in healthy sexual relationships. Emotional or physical abandonment by parents in our childhood may have led us to forge unhealthy bonds as adults. Inappropriate early sexual encounters may have taught us that loveissex, not just one component of love. Rigid beliefs we were taught as children may infuse sex with shame.
Sexual trauma may make us feel “dirty” even though the offensive act was completely out of our control.
Whatever our past, there is no way it cannot affect our present and our future; and this goes for sexual health as much as for soul health. Understanding and healing our past—a main concept of the Soul Health Model—will allow us to develop our overall radiant health.
- What sexual traumas or » experiences do you need to resolve or heal?
- How do these experiences play a part in your current sexual health?
- How open are you with your partner about these events?
- Have you considered seeking professional assistance in resolving these?
Sex and Soul Health
All aspects of soul health directly affect the sexual branch, but there is a reciprocal effect as well. Many studies show positive impacts of sex on general physical health. A healthy sex life has been shown to improve cardiac health, increase immunity, decrease the likelihood of strokes and prostate cancer, reduce generalized pain, and improve sleep. From the psychological perspective, sex has also been shown to decrease stress, improve self-esteem, and improve intimacy between partners.
On the other hand, compromised soul health— or a lack of balance in life— is strongly tied to sex difficulties, especially in today’s world. Growing numbers of people find that their sex life suffers due to long hours at work, leaving less energy for sexual intimacy. It is also not uncommon for couples to experience low libido following the birth of a child because their new role as parents is oft en stressful and exhausting.
Endless other factors contribute to sexual health concerns as well—anxiety, depression, relationship issues, work stress, grief, physical ailments, changes in household status (moves, children entering or leaving the home, income fluctuations, etc.), and the natural changes that come as we move through the life cycle.
The challenge, as in all other aspects of health, is to explore which other branches of the human condition are contributing to your experience of sexual health.
Whether our lack of sexual health is physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually or other-based, reaching an understanding about the connection between sexual health and the rest of the branches will enhance our ability to engage in and enjoy soulful sex.
As you explore the Soul Health Model further, you will see how the dots connect and how to re-balance all aspects of health over time.
- What would help make sex more soulful in your life?
- Which other branches of soul health do you need address in order to enhance your sexual health?
This article is an excerpt from Dr. Katherine Kelly’s book: Soul Health: Aligning with Spirit for Radiant Living and has been published with the author’s permission.
About the author
Katherine T. Kelly, Ph.D., M.S.P.H. is a licensed psychologist in her own psychotherapy and consulting practice in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Southern Colorado (1992), and both her Master’s (1995) and Doctorate in Counseling Psychology (1999) from Indiana State University. She also earned a Master of Science in Public Health degree (2000) from the University of Missouri-Columbia where she completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the university’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, a top-rated residency training center for physicians. She has received specialized training from the Mind-Body Medical Institute of Harvard University, as well has been trained in various holistic, natural health and spiritual methods of healing.
Dr. Kelly has authored several academic publications and is an ongoing contributor to local health and wellness magazines. Her books Soul Health: Aligning with Spirit for Radiant Living and There’s No Therapy In Heaven: The Soul’s Guide to Mastering the Human Condition (coming soon) are in the finishing stages with a final publication date soon to be announced.
To know more about Dr. Kelly, visit her website www.drkatherinetkelly.com.