Debbie slumped in her chair in a cloud of defeat. “I really do love my husband, and I think he’s handsome, too, but I’m just not a sexual person. I never have been. I’ve always been more comfortable dressed than exposed. I’ve never particularly craved physical touch. And I was never terribly interested in romantic stories or movies. I’m just not that kind of woman, and I’m not sure if that will ever change.”
There are many different variations of Debbie’s self-assessment. The implied assumption is that, somehow, we are all either “sexual” or “not.”
I would suggest that a person’s sexuality* is not “fixed” naturally; it’s something that can be cultivated over time and with effort. Carol Douek wrote a wonderful book called Mindset, in which she describes the difference between believing that desirable traits such as intelligence are set and predetermined vs believing that they have elasticity. She quotes compelling research supporting the idea that people who believe in growth are most likely to make meaningful efforts and achieve more.
Some people have the good fortune to be naturally gifted in a particular area, in a way that’s obvious:
“Sarah was practically born with ballet slippers on her feet…”
“The minute Michael discovered a football, he knew he’d found his calling..” “Amy sat mesmerized through her first physics class, then devoured the textbook saying: ‘where have you been all my life?!’”
“He’s been singing since he was in diapers…”
Talents, hobbies, abilities are a phenomenon we almost take for granted. That there are areas of interest towards which some of us gravitate more than others is clear. There are some activities that are meant for those who have keen interest and ability, and others which all or most of us must gain some ability in order to function as adults. For example, not everyone needs to be a graceful dancer, but most of us would like to have social skills. Some examples of optional skills are: painting and baking, while some examples of more universally important skills are: reading and writing.
There is also an important difference between “talent” and “skill”, similar to the difference between “nature” and “nurture”. Talent is general seen as a natural inclination, a gift in a particular area. Skill is usually viewed as ability, acquired through training, education, and practice. Often those who possess innate talent develop are praised, enjoy their success, find pleasure, and develop an interest in their area of talent, and so they go on to train and become skilled as well.
Sometimes we hear of child prodigies who were “clearly born for this life”. Other time we hear of world renowned pros and experts who failed through school and early careers, who were told they would never amount to anything in their chosen fields. Sometimes success is foreshadowed, and other times it’s surprisingly or painstakingly acquired later on. Sometimes it’s natural and effortless, and other times it requires blood, sweat and tears.
It is my belief that sexual technique, confidence, pleasure, proficiency, and intimacy are abilities that can be cultivated, rather than fixed talents. And I have witnessed the transformation in couples who thought there was no hope. Yes, there are many individuals who are innately sexually inclined, and others who by nature are more inhibited. But sexual connection is the type of skill that is worth investing in; it can be a powerful tool to express and create intimacy in a loving relationship. Sex therapy and couples counseling are ways to obtain professional help in this area, but there is also much that can be achieved by just the couple, through communication, reading, and experimentation.
When a couple begins to openly discuss their sexual experience, there is vulnerability, and closeness, which itself can lead to improved physical intimacy. When they feel more in tune with each other’s thoughts, feelings, preferences, they feel safer, and more able to relax and try to new things, and to give each other loving feedback for further improvement. When a person who feels sexually inept begins to take an active role in educating herself, in owning her body, in exploring pleasure, in taking chances, she develops a curiosity and an excitement that fuels further growth.
When a couple moves from a place of sexual stagnation, avoidance, or frustration, to one of openness, curiosity, and exploration, they feel deeply gratified and bonded. So if you are someone who has been wondering whether you’ll ever enjoy your sexuality, please don’t give up. Call a professional, doctor, or counselor, or start reading and doing your own research, to find out more about the different ways that others like you have been able to achieve sexual joy.
*If you'd like to learn a healthy, holy way to revisit sex education, feel free to check this out: Sacred Not Secret, a Religious Family's Guide to Sex Education