Men’s Sexual Health: Are These Myths Impacting Your Life?

A topic within sexual health that is often misunderstood and not spoken about is men’s sexual health and men’s sexual functioning. As sexual health in general is being spoken about more and becoming less stigmatized (WOO!), there still seems to be some gaps in educating men on how their body, their feelings, and their relationship with their partner are all intertwined.  We are doing men, as well as the general population, a giant disservice by not talking enough about male sexuality and men’s sexual health. It’s important to create space for men to understand their own sexual health and functioning, especially outside the stereotype of men just wanting sex and not having emotions (helloooo Toxic Masculinity!).  

C/O Giphy

C/O Giphy

If you are a man or someone with male genitalia and you are experiencing low desire, trouble maintaining erections, ejaculating sooner or later than wanted, or feel ashamed about your sexual health or sexual functioning, you are not alone! All of the above concerns and feelings are completely normal, and almost all men experience them at some point in their lives (even starting as early as in their teens, 20s, and 30s). I’m happy to debunk some myths about male sexuality. Here are just a few of them:

1. Men are always horny or want sex all the time. 

Men are not sex robots. Shocking, I know. Men are human beings who experience stress, exhaustion, low libido, anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, body image issues, and so forth. And sometimes, that means they do not want to have sex, and that’s absolutely OK. Many of us get the message from media and pop culture that men are always horny and down for sex, which is a message that women internalize too. If you aren’t in the mood to be sexual, that’s OK! It doesn’t mean you’re less of a man or there’s anything wrong with you. It also doesn’t mean that you are no longer attracted to your partner. It means you’re a human being who’s allowed to have fluctuations in desire and arousal.

2. If you’re experiencing ED (especially when you’re young) there must be something wrong with you. 

It’s common to experience erectile dysfunction when you’re young. Most people equate trouble with erections with being middle-aged or elderly, not someone in their 20s and 30s. In reality, most men will experience a period of trouble with erections or rapid or delayed ejaculation at some point. And this is absolutely OK. If you’re struggling with ED, it’s very important to consult your doctor in addition to seeing a therapist. Seeing your primary care doctor or a urologist will help rule out medical issues, which may include issues with blood flow, testosterone levels, heart disease, diabetes and even sleep disorders.  If you see a doctor and they tell you there’s no medical issue, it’s important to see a sex therapist or therapist with training in treating sexual health concerns. A therapist can help you understand the mind/ body connection as well as tools such as mindfulness exercises and cognitive behavioral therapy methods to help manage anxiety and stress better. Basically, we teach you how to challenge your negative self-talk, make your behaviors more in-line with your self-care and connecting with your partner, and let yourself feel whatever feelings your having. Pretty straight-forward, right? 

3. Men don’t have feelings and if they did have feelings, those feelings would never impact their sexual functioning. (Insert major eye roll.)

This is probably the most unhelpful and frankly dangerous myth of all. Men, as crazy as this may sound: you have feelings and you are an emotional person. Take a minute to really take that in. When your feelings aren’t being expressed, acknowledged, or processed, guess what? They still live in your body.  And even more so, they impact your health, which also means your sexual health. When you bottle up your feelings, especially within a romantic relationship, that can absolutely impact your sexual functioning. An important aspect of our work in sex therapy is learning how to understand and express your emotions, especially to a partner.  Take away point: you have emotions, your emotions are valid, and you deserve to have those emotions acknowledged and validated. 

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C/O Giphy

Many of the men I work with say they feel like a failure due to sexual functioning concerns. If you are feeling this way, you are not alone nor are you the only person experiencing this. You are not a failure. Myths about sexuality and sexual health are so dangerous and harmful and cause stress and disconnection within a relationship. Once we understand that these are myths and these are normal health issues that many people face, you’ll be more equipped to understand your body and get treatment. There is absolutely no shame in seeking out psychotherapy to help understand how your own stress, emotions, and body are impacting your sexual health and sexual functioning.  

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT

Meeting People IRL- It's Possible!

I am constantly faced with this Million Dollar Question: How do I meet people IRL (in real life) instead of relying on dating apps? And I sure do feel that! In a culture that has been bombarded with technology, getting our needs met online has become the new normal. Although this may be convenient for having your groceries delivered, it leaves some people unsatisfied when it comes to finding love.

We have seen a rapid shift from eye contact to screen contact. A shift that has people saying to themselves, “will I ever meet someone who I can build a healthy relationship with and who is not distracted by dating FOMO?” You are not alone with this feeling. A change in mindset leads to more intention around why you want a partnership and what kinds of risks you are willing to take to get there. A change in mindset also sets you up to take different actions towards finding connection. But it has to start with you wanting to experience life differently.

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c/o Giphy

If you find yourself frustrated with online dating, here are some creative ideas to get out into the world IRL and off your phones. Remember, the intention of engaging differently is to expand yourself and meet new people in a different and creative way.

1.     Join an Advisory Board. If you are passionate about planning, fundraising, and giving back to an organization that has a mission you care about, then an advisory board may be a great fit for you. This will put you in contact with other people who have the same passions as you do and boost your social engagement. Chicago has a long list of advisory boards to join, ranging from the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Auxiliary Board to the Little Brothers Young Professionals Advisory Board.

2.     Get Physical. The great thing about Chicago is that it offers year-round intramural sports leagues. And you don’t have to be athletic to get in on the fun- there are competitive leagues for that. Everything from kickball and shuffleboard to volleyball and soccer is available. There are options to build your own team, join a league or you can sign up to be a substitute. Whatever you chose, have fun with this! Engaging in play is a great way to connect with other people. And don’t forget about dance and fitness classes!

3.     Talk to People. Like really engage with people in the everyday. Instead of checking Instagram while you’re waiting in line to check out at Trader Joe’s, talk to the person ringing you up. Chat up the barista at your favorite coffee shop. This may not lead to a lifelong friendship or relationship, but it can help you practice your people skills. This is also a great way to work through any anxiety you may have around meeting new people as these are low risk interactions.

4.     Sign up for an Improv or Standup Class. Talk about risk taking! You’d be surprised by the kinds of people who join improv and standup classes. They are regular ol’ people, just like you, trying to push themselves out of their comfort zone. And because Chicago is the birthplace of all things comedy, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from.

5.     Volunteer. There are countless organizations out there who need your time. The great thing about volunteering is that it puts you in a position of helping organizations and communities in need and gets you working with people who share that same passion. And shared passions are a great way to connect with meaning to other people.

6.     Join a Club. Book club. Chess club. Cupcake club (if this exists, please let me know). Whatever! If the club you want to join doesn’t exist, then create it! Meetup.com and dabble.co are great ways to find your community.

These are all great ways to start exploring. If you are finding yourself frustrated with online dating culture, then take a step back and engage in the world differently. Dating apps are a tool, not the end all be all way to meet potential partners. If you want to have a different experience and meet new people in the process, then taking risks and doing new things is the way to start.

Risk = Growth

But what if you are already taking risks IRL and trying to meet new people offline? Keep it up! Remember, the point of engaging in the world is to grow yourself, find self-fulfillment and connect to others authentically. If you are engaging in the world IRL with the sole purpose of meeting love interests, then I suggest you take a step back and re-evaluate your why. You can rely on dating apps to meet people any day of the week. You can’t rely on them to help you grow on a deeper level. That’s your responsibility.

But wait, people don’t engage IRL anymore. I’m going to be weird. That mindset is precisely the problem. By continuing to fall in line with social norms, you are limiting yourself and perpetuating the problem. The intention is to connect with yourself and other people in a meaningful way. You can’t control how other people perceive your risk taking. Some might think you’re “weird” for sparking up a conversation- that’s on them. Don’t let social norms get in the way of your potential to grow and meet people. We are all on this earth to connect. So, take the risks and do just that.

 ~ Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

How Engaging Your Senses Can Improve Your Sex Life

When we think about sex, our brains often take us to touch. But why should we stop there? Because we are sensory driven, we have the opportunity to be more mindful about how we engage our senses during intimacy. A common conversation I have with clients is about how they experience pleasure in the day to day. One of the best ways to help identify everyday pleasures is to, you guessed it, engage your senses. We can feel pleasure when the sun hits our face, when we smell vibrant flowers and when we play our favorite music. If we can consistently engage our senses in our everyday pleasures, we are opening doors to more sensory experiences and connections in the bedroom.

So, here’s the quick and dirty on the science stuff: The five senses (touch, smell, sight, taste and sound) send messages to the brain about how we are perceiving the world around us. The interplay between our sensory organs and our nervous system keep us safe and healthy. Our sexual functioning (think arousal, orgasms, pleasure, etc.) are also attached to the nervous system. Basically, this means we have a two-way street between the body and the brain around how we not only perceive the world around us, but also how our sensations ignite (of inhibit) our sexual experiences.

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c/o Giphy

So, what do we do with this information? Bring it into the bedroom! The body is super cool. It is our vehicle to having a ton of different experiences, emotions, interactions, thoughts, and pleasures. By bringing our senses into the bedroom, or wherever you prefer to be intimate, we have the opportunity to have more heightened and pleasurable sexual experiences. Your body can literally be a tool during sexual play, so let’s focus on how we can expand your sex life with the tools you already have.

 Here are some creative ways to enhance your senses in the bedroom tonight:

 Touch

-       Experiment with variable touch. This can mean playing with the amount of pressure you are applying, the speed in which you are touching your partner(s) and the movements you are using. And don’t just use the palms of your hands. Using your fingertips, legs and mouth can provide a full body experience when you are experimenting with touch.

-       Bring in different fabrics. Whether it’s silk sheets, a piece of lace clothing or leather cuffs, feeling these kinds of textures against your skin can heighten your physical awareness.

-       Don’t use your hands. Use other objects to touch your partner, such as a feather or a leather riding crop. 

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c/o Giphy

 Sound

-       Talk to each other. This is another area where you can have lots of variation. Do you find that whispers in your ear give you goosebumps? Does talking dirty increase your arousal? What about moans? Experimenting with talk can allow you to hear what arouses you.

-       Play music. For some, playing music with sexually charged and intimate lyrics can really increase arousal. For others, the beat of the music can help put you in a groove for love making.  

 Smell

-       Incorporate scents. Candles, essential oils and incense can be a great addition to your bedroom play. Do you want to feel relaxed in the moment? Integrate eucalyptus or peppermint essential oils. Want to feel a little more sensual? Incorporate sandalwood or musk candles. Feel free to bring in any scent that you are drawn to and that brings you pleasure. 

-       Open the windows. Bring in the natural smells from outside. Did it just rain? Are the lilacs blooming? Nature can be a turn on for a lot of folks.

-       Take a deep breath. Taking in your partner’s natural scent can be especially arousing during intimacy.

 Taste

-       Use your tongue. This seems obvious. But a lot of people forget to use their mouth during intimacy because we get into a routine of the kind of sex we are used to having. By slowing things down and using your tongue to explore, you are opening yourself up to a variety of sexual sensations that you may have not been aware of.

-       Bring in food. This may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, especially if you are concerned about making a mess, but I encourage you to be open to this experience! Incorporating food, like whip cream, can add to your pleasure and arousal in so many ways. Think of all the textures you can bring in!

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c/o Giphy

Sight

-       Eyes Open Sex. The mere sight of watching your partner experience pleasure can be incredibly arousing for a lot of people. And there’s no need to stop there. Take a look at your body and how it’s grooving with your partner’s. The sight of seeing your own body be sexual and sensual can be a major pleasure enhancer.

-       Wear something that makes you feel sexual. Feel free to think outside of the box here, because feeling sexual in clothing doesn’t always mean lingerie. Maybe you are wearing a dress or suit that makes you feel empowered. Maybe it’s your favorite shade of lipstick. Whatever it is, integrating something that you feel sexual and sensual wearing can deepen your pleasure during intimacy.

-       Keep the lights on. When we keep the lights on, we get a front row view of the sexual play that is happening between us and our partner (or solo sex).

And let’s not forget about sensory deprivation. When one of our senses is out of order, the others immediately step in to compensate. For survival reasons, this makes a ton of sense. For sexual reasons, this makes things a little a hotter. Using blindfolds are a great way to start your introduction into sensory deprivation.

By integrating some of these ideas into the bedroom, I’m confident that you can have a different sexual experience that is filled with heightened pleasure. I encourage you to take control of what could feel good for you and to experiment with your senses until you find one (or more) sensory experiences that increase your pleasure and arousal.

~Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

How To Date Authentically

Dating has become more accessible than ever. Naturally, higher accessibility creates more dating opportunities. But given these dating opportunities, it can become increasingly more difficult to stay authentic to who you are and what you are looking for when your dating pool turns into an ocean of possibilities. Many struggle with dating because they receive so many unhelpful messages from society about how to date and how to act when you date. When we aren’t our authentic selves when dating, this can cause issues down the line in long-term relationships and marriages. Relationships are healthier and more successful when we are ourselves and authentic from the beginning. 

I often hear people refer to the “dating game” or “dating rules” when discussing being single and some of the hurdles they face. They discuss feeling pressure to act a certain way or “play it cool” when it comes to dating and meeting someone new.  They have internalized rules and messages about waiting a certain amount of hours or days before responding to someone’s phone call or text message, and believe that you have to be distant in the courtship phase in order to maintain interest. These rules are ridiculous and outdated. And who has time to think about all these rules?!  Dating rules that are so often discussed in the media and by our society are not a “one size fits all,” and should not be treated as such.


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I have noticed in my work that this is a struggle for heterosexual women in particular.  Women are given so many mixed messages about how to be and act while dating. We may read in one article that we should wait for the man to approach us and be distant in the beginning, while somewhere else might read that we need to shower the man with attention to make him feel appreciated and cared for. How is anyone supposed to navigate dating when we have so many mixed messages surrounding us? IMO, the best way to navigate dating is to be open to new experiences and meeting new people while also maintaining your identity and your values. 

I encourage my clients to be as authentic to who they are as possible when dating, starting from date number one. The sooner you present yourself as genuinely and authentically as possible, the sooner you’ll have a better understanding of who is going to be a good fit for you or not. I have had clients describe stories to me where they have lied on a date about something they like or don’t like to appease the person they are out with. This is definitely a common occurrence and is often portrayed in movies and TV shows (when a man or woman pretends to enjoy a certain activity or pretends to have a hobby they don’t in order to show more commonalities with their date). While this is often portrayed in a humorous way, the reality of it can sometimes be harmful.


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Many daters think they have to adjust their personality and interests to come across in a way that seems more appealing to potential partners. If you end up being in a relationship with this person, the truth will come out eventually. While many times this may be harmless and end up being a funny story to tell to friends later, in some circumstances, it can have a detrimental impact on your relationship when one person feels mislead or “duped”.  

I have worked with couples in couples therapy who describe their courtship period as being notably different than the rest of their relationship because one or both acted so differently in order to appease or impress the other. When you start to take-on qualities and traits that are vastly different than your own, you are no longer being authentic to your true self, which can be misleading to the people you are going out with.  Healthy relationships can flourish when both people are being true to who they are, which can also mean that they appreciate the differences you have as well.  

If you are having trouble navigating your dating life and feel pressure to play the “dating game” or act in a certain manner to be in a relationship, it could be helpful to consult a therapist about finding your authentic voice among societal expectations. You already have an amazing life that you’ve created for yourself! Adding someone to your amazing life should compliment what you’ve already worked so hard to have, not completely change it. 

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT

How To Talk To Your Teen About Porn

We live in a culture where pornography is easily accessible but not easily discussed.  Anyone who has access to the internet can easily access pornographic content, and let’s face it: most of us have looked at porn at some point in our lives. What sex therapists and sexuality educators are learning is that many people report that their sex education came from porn (yikes!). Many schools in our country legally do not need to provide comprehensive sex education in classes, which leaves kids and teens feeling confused and ashamed when they want to start exploring their own bodies and engaging in relationships. Teens turn to porn to fill in the gaps that they didn’t learn in Sex Ed, which has the potential to be very harmful if no one is talking to them about it.   

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If you have an adolescent child, more likely than not, they have seen pornographic content through their own internet searching or friends have shown them. Regardless of your personal views on porn, it is your job as a parent to talk to your child about it and explain to them the difference between porn and real life. As uncomfortable as these conversations may be, they are necessary for your teen’s education and future sexual self-esteem. Here are some things to keep in mind when talking to your teen about porn:

  1.  Normalize it.   Even if your own personal reaction is fear, anger, or even disgust, it is important to normalize your teen’s curiosity and interest in sex. Something to keep in mind is to remember how you were feeling when you were their age.  Were you also curious about your body and sex? (Most likely.) Maybe you didn’t have nearly as much access to information as kids do now, but the curiosity and confusion was probably still there. It is perfectly normal and healthy to want to learn about sex and explore their own bodies through self-pleasure or masturbation.  

  2. Explain the difference and why porn can be problematic. We want to teach kids porn literacy, which is understanding the difference between porn and real-life. Take this opportunity to discuss body-image, consent, and violence. If you are comparing your body to what you see in porn, it will likely make you feel that there’s something wrong with you. It’s important to tell your kids that their body is normal and healthy, and usually porn and media do not show an accurate portrayal of the diversity of bodies in our society. A major component to a healthy sex life is missing from porn, which is consent and having a discussion about what feels safe for you. Porn often depicts sex as being violent and completely misses any dialogue between partners about negotiating boundaries. Teens who grow up watching porn as their sex education may have a skewed idea about what sex looks like and what their partner’s preferences may be.

  3. It’s going to be an uncomfortable conversation, and it still needs to happen. Many parents avoid talking to their kids about sex because it’s uncomfortable or they see it as the school’s duty, not theirs. Most schools do not provide comprehensive sex education or talk to their students about porn literacy. Even if your child’s school does, it is still important that they hear it from you too. If porn is serving as your teen’s main source of education, their views on sex and intimacy is likely to be extremely skewed and could potentially put them into dangerous situations. It is also developing their future sexual identity and sexual expectations. If they grow up thinking that sex and masturbation is a shameful thing, that could show up in their relationships with future partners.

Be a cool parent. c/o gihpy

Be a cool parent. c/o gihpy

Talking to your kids about porn can feel scary, uncomfortable, and embarrassing. By opening a dialogue with them about it, you are creating a space for your teen to ask questions and receive a message that it’s OK to talk about sex. When these conversations don’t happen, or if they’re only in the context of a fight or a punishment, it can leave teens feeling ashamed. I encourage you to be proactive and discuss healthy sexuality with your teens. A healthy conversation about sexuality, body image and consent can be powerful when it comes from a parent!

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT

Please Don't Date Someone Who "Checks the Boxes"

Dating can be rough.  Actually, that’s an understatement.  Dating can be REALLY rough. Whether you are fresh out of a new relationship or if you have been on the dating circuit for a while, dating can be overwhelming, empowering, exciting, and stressful.  Thanks to the insane amount of dating websites and mobile apps, many daters do not necessarily have a difficult time going on dates. What can make dating difficult is the process of filtering through the masses.  But how do you find people to connect with in a sea full of possibilities? If you’ve had this thought, you’re not alone!

Courtesy of GIPHY

Courtesy of GIPHY

One of the biggest barriers to connection that I often encounter in this work are those who have the long internal check list of “Must Haves”.  This person may go on many dates, and can easily find something wrong with every person they have gone out with. Someone who falls into this pattern may also have a mental checklist of qualities and characteristics that their partner must have.  A person with this pattern can have a difficult time finding a connection because they are caught up in whether or not their date meets their criteria instead of being present and curious. Sometimes a person who may fall into this type of pattern may actually meet their “perfect” match.  Since they have met someone who checks all of their boxes on their list, they may often mistake commonalities for true compatibility. This match may fit all of the right criteria (great job, nice family, loves dogs, same religion, and so forth), but there may not be natural chemistry or shared core values.  

I will often see couples like this who end up in therapy because they decided to get married because their partner checked all of their boxes, and it seemed like it was the right age to get married and settle down or felt pressure (and let’s be real, social media doesn’t exactly help).  A couple like this may end up being incompatible because they did not look for the important qualities in each other before tying the knot, such as shared values, personality, mutual respect, attraction, and a genuine fondness for each other.

The best way to break this pattern is to re-examine your criteria and checklist for your future partner.  Throw away superficial qualities, such as how they look and what kind of job they have, and focus on deeper qualities that will take the relationship to a more intimate level.  If you are aware that you may fall into this type of pattern, give yourself a little more time to get to know someone before deciding they are not worth your time.

Ask yourself, “Is this my checklist or my gut telling me this isn’t right?”  The more in-tune you become with your gut and what your body tells you, the easier it will be for you to identify if this is a good match.  Questions to consider asking yourself that can help you tune in are:

- How do I feel about myself when I am with this person?

- Does this person highlight positive qualities or values I have?

- Do I enjoy spending time with them?

- Am I attracted to this person?

Whether you are single and dating or you have been in a long-term relationship, it is always important to be curious and maintain an open mind.  When we weed out so many potential partners due to a check-list, you could be missing out on an opportunity to connect with someone who’s really amazing and may challenge you in a meaningful way.  So please, don’t date someone just because they “check the boxes”, and don’t partner with someone just because it seems like everyone else is. Instead, focus on what your body and gut are telling you!

~Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT


What's On My Sexual Menu?

Sex: it’s what’s for dinner.  When most of us think of having sexual intimacy with a partner, most of our minds will go to penetrative sex (whether it’s vaginal or anal).  But, what if you can’t have vaginal or anal sex? Or what if you don’t want to? What if every time your partner touches you, you flinch because you assume they’re only looking for sex and you’re tired, stressed out or hangry? If you feel this way, you are not alone.  The majority of couples entering sex therapy, especially for mismatched libido, report that when their higher desire partner even touches them, their mind immediately goes to sex, which then immediately triggers feelings of pressure and anxiety. Nothing kills the mood like anxiety and pressure.  

When we limit our sexual expression and sexual activity just to penetrative sex, we are missing out on a variety of other pleasurable and intimate options.  When we limit our views of sexual intimacy only as penetrative sex that ends with orgasm (specifically for a man or someone with a penis), we are also creating more pressure on performance and pressure to orgasm.  When our sexual menu is limited to just penetrative sex, we can be setting ourselves up for failure, especially as our bodies age. In fact, some couples who report having a “sexless relationship” (hello aging) find it is due to men having less consistent and firm erections, which can impact desire and sexual self-esteem.  When our only model for sexual intimacy is reliant on an erect penis, we can get into trouble.

But what if sex, or penetrative sex, wasn’t for dinner.  Or rather, what if it was simply an option for dinner on a menu of other options, such as oral sex, manual stimulation, masturbation, erotic massage, showering together, kissing, and so forth?  What if as a culture we reframed our idea of what sex means and help eliminate some of the pressure and emphasize pleasure and connection more than penetration and orgasm? That sounds like the kind of world I want to live in!

I encourage my clients to think about what is on their sexual menu besides penetrative sex.  Every person and every couple’s menu could be different. If you’re in a partnership, your menu doesn’t have to be the same as your partner’s.  When thinking about having a sexual menu instead of assuming physical intimacy means sex, it alleviates some of the pressure and allows each partner to have a stronger voice regarding their sexual needs and interests.  


Less pressure + practicing using your sexual voice = pleasure and connection.  


When thinking about what’s on your sexual menu, I encourage you to think about what sounds authentic to your desires and your pleasure.  Your sexual menu doesn’t always have to be touch, it can be reading erotic fiction together, watching porn or sexual imagery, sharing fantasies, or whatever excites you and fuels your desire.  Instead of having a one-item menu (a.k.a. penetrative sex), create a sexual menu with your partner with plenty of options and variety for a less pressured and more pleasurable sexual experience.

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT


Why We All Need to Be Talking About Female Masturbation

For far too long, our culture has placed an emphasis only on male masturbation by normalizing it in the media and expecting it from men, since men are often depicted as being constantly horny and unable to contain themselves (which is absolutely not true). But luckily, as of more recently, female masturbation is getting the attention it deserves by being highlighted in TV shows like Pen15, Big Mouth, Broad City, and Sex Education.

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When working with women, or folks with female genitalia, I ask about masturbation or self-pleasuring practices, and the responses are too often filled with shame and disgust. Our culture is teaching women that their parts are “gross” or need to be “perfect” and are only deserving of pleasure with a partner or when it looks and smells just right, or in some cases, not deserving of self-pleasure at all. And that is why I am absolutely thrilled to share with you that this is not the case! Masturbation is an important, and frankly awesome, part of your sexual experience and it is not just for men. In fact, only women have an entire part of their body just for pleasure (ahem, the clitoris). Here are 3 considerations for why we all need to be talking about the importance and value of female masturbation:

  1. When you know what you like and what turns you on, it’s easier to share with a partner for a better partnered sexual encounter. This is pretty self-explanatory, but can be hard to put into practice. Many people have the mind-set of, “my partner should just know what I like”, or feel it’s too embarrassing or vulnerable to talk about what they like sexually or to give feedback. It is not your partner’s job to “just know” what you like, what turns you on, or what gives you pleasure. Most women do not orgasm from vaginal penetration or from the “G-spot”, it is typically from clitoral stimulation. When you learn your favorite ways to orgasm (such as how much pressure you like, where you like the pressure, what kind of motion, what kind of touch, what position and so forth), it’s easier to share this information with your partner and coach them on what you like to increase the probability of you experiencing pleasure or orgasm during a sexual encounter. And contrary to popular belief, your partner is not responsible for your orgasm, you are.  

  2. It can improve body image, because your body is so freaking cool and was built for pleasure. Negative body image, especially among women, has become an epidemic in our society. Women are given strong messages that their body has to be perfect and thin, or have curve only in the right places, in order to be seen as sexy or desirable. Female clients report negative body image as being one of the top barriers to pleasure and connection with a partner. When you’re focused on what may be jiggling or if your cellulite is showing from a certain angle or position, you aren’t letting yourself focus on what’s most important: pleasure. Masturbation or practicing self-exploration with your body can be a wonderful antidote for negative body image (even though it takes time!).  When you explore your body with compassion and curiosity, and go on a treasure hunt for what’s pleasurable for you, you’re giving yourself the message of, “my body can experience pleasure,” and “wow, I can make myself feel good and my body allows that to happen.” When we start seeing our bodies as a vessel for connection, self-love, and pleasure, we can start being kinder to ourselves and ultimately more empowered. Your body is amazing and is built to feel pleasure. Even if you don’t believe it now, keep reminding yourself on your journey towards self-empowerment.

  3. Because you deserve pleasure (even on your own), and not to mention there’s lots of cool health benefits. A valuable lesson that every person needs to learn is that we all deserve to experience pleasure on our own. This message is not given to women enough, especially since most women’s first sexual experiences are with a partner, whereas most men’s first sexual experiences are on their own. Not only does it feel good, but masturbation can also help relieve stress and tension in your body, help with sleep, release endorphins in your brain (and remember Elle Woods taught us that endorphins make us happy), help your body with circulation of blood flow, boost your immune system, decrease menstrual pain, and can even help you live longer! Need I say more?

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It’s important to keep in mind that masturbation doesn’t always mean orgasm, and that’s OK. The goal of masturbation is to feel pleasure, to explore what feels good and comfortable for you, and to explore your body. When we place too much emphasis on “The Big O,” we aren’t paying attention to sensations in our body, and we end up putting too much pressure on ourselves (and then helllllo negative self-talk). If you are noticing that masturbation is difficult due to feeling shame, embarrassment, guilt, or anxiety, you aren’t alone and you can change your attitudes, feelings, and anxiety with the help of a sex therapist and lots of self-compassion and patience. Lots of women struggle with feeling self-conscious, afraid, and ashamed about masturbation, and it’s about time we change our attitudes and start empowering ourselves and the women around us. Bottom line: you deserve pleasure.

~Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT

Mindfulness: What IS it and How Can it Improve My Relationship?

The word “mindfulness” and the phrase “being mindful” has been catching a lot of buzz and media attention lately. You may be seeing this word more often on your social media feed and more celebrities and public figures are talking more about practicing mindfulness. But, do you ever wonder to yourself, “what the hell are they talking about?!” If you’re wondering this, you’re absolutely not alone! Many of us aren’t really sure what mindfulness is, and we often think about Buddhist monks or people meditating, which let’s be real, is hard to connect to when you have so many things on your plate.

So, what is mindfulness and how can I practice it? There are four basic steps to keep in mind when practicing mindfulness, or what The Gottman Institute calls “RAIN”:  recognize, accept, investigate, and non-identification. The first step is to recognize what emotion you’re feeling and label it in your mind. The second is to then accept the experience you’re having, even if it’s uncomfortable. The third, investigate, is to be curious about this experience by asking yourself, “where do I feel this emotion in my body?” and “what kind of thoughts am I having?” Lastly, non-identification: see the emotion as a passing event rather than who you actually are. For example, adopt the attitude of, “anger is arising and will soon pass away” or “sadness is coming up in me, and at some point will dissolve”.

Therapists often use “mindfulness” as a technique to teach clients how to be more present-focused and ultimately learn to be more aware to your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment. Studies tell us that practicing mindfulness can decrease the negative effects of stress, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and can improve sleep, mood, and overall mental and physical health. Practicing mindfulness can not only improve one’s overall well-being, but it can also improve intimate relationships. How cool is that?

Practicing mindfulness can improve your romantic relationships in two significant ways: by communicating more effectively and decreasing anxiety around physical intimacy. Practicing mindfulness can improve communication, especially with close relationships in your life, because it forces you to slow yourself down. Something that is said or done that triggers us can cause a reaction out of us in a matter of seconds, often times without realizing why we’ve been triggered or what it’s making us think and feel. By being more mindful, you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions, and therefore can respond to a trigger rather than react to one.  Rather than immediately becoming defensive or shutting down, you can better respond to your partner by being a more active listener and explaining your own perspective. Practicing mindfulness also makes you more emotionally attuned to your own thoughts and feelings, which can therefore allow you to be better at communicating them.

Mindfulness is also a necessary and helpful tool in sex therapy or when someone is struggling with anxiety around physical touch or there’s a trauma history.  I often hear clients say in couples therapy that their mind wanders during sex to anything from a work email they forgot to send, what they’re going to make for dinner, to whether or not their body looks desirable from this angle or whether or not their sexual encounter may cause pain. When our minds wander or are filled with self-critical thoughts, we aren’t connecting with our partners and we aren’t enjoying ourselves as much. During physical contact, focus on physical sensations and feelings and ask yourself, “am I comfortable?”, “does this feel good?”, and if not, give your partner feedback and tell them what’s going on. If you need to stop or take a breather, let your partner know and you can discuss what would be best.

Practicing mindfulness can improve many aspects of your life and overall well-being.  You don’t have to practice meditation every day or convert to Buddhism to practice mindfulness.  Anyone can incorporate mindfulness practices into their every day life by doing small things, such as paying closer attention to your senses and surroundings, as well as connecting what emotions feel like in your body. Mindfulness is a practice, and we all have to start somewhere, so why not start now?

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT

How to Manage Going Home for the Holidays When You're Single

There are plenty of reasons why many of us have mixed feelings about going home for the holidays.  Sure, who doesn’t love delicious food, pumpkin and cinnamon flavored everything, catching up with family and friends, and uncomfortable conversations about politics?  And then comes the questions about your relationship status and, then the, “wait, you’re still not married?”, or “I can’t believe you’re still single, you’re so great!”, and the all-time best, “well, at least you have your cat.”  Whether you’ve been single for years or you’re recently single, and whether you’re feeling down about your singledom or you’re living your best life, it’s not your great-aunt Susan’s business how you feel about being single nor does it require an explanation.  Here are three ways to manage going home for the holidays when you’re single:

  1. Mentally prepare yourself for what questions may be asked and have a short, to-the-point answer ready.  You know your family.  You probably know ahead of time who has no self-awareness or boundaries and asks inappropriate questions, and who will support you or back you up.  Do what you can to practice self-care prior to a big family gathering. Take a walk, write in a journal, listen to a mindfulness meditation, talk to a friend or an empathetic sibling or cousin, and do what you can to be in a relaxed and present head-space.  Also, give yourself this opportunity to reflect on some possible answers to questions that may come up about your relationship status, such as, “I’m satisfied with my life right now, including my romantic life. Thank you for asking.” Or, “I’m doing my best, and I appreciate your concern.”

  2. Have an exit strategy or take a break.   As much we can try our best to plan ahead and practice mindfulness and self-care, family gatherings can be triggering for many of us.  We have a tendency to revert back to our adolescent-self and get defensive or shut-down, especially if we feel like our personal boundaries are being crossed.  If this happens, and you can feel yourself getting dysregulated (rapid heart-beat, getting hot, racing thoughts, etc.), excuse yourself and take a breather. You can always go to the bathroom and text a friend who may be in the exact same position you’re in, take 10 deep breaths, remind yourself how awesome you are and it’s absolutely OK you’re single, and you’re doing your best!  When you return the group, try redirecting the conversation by talking about that awesome new promotion you got or a new interest you just got into.

  3. Watch your alcohol intake.   It’s really tempting at holiday gatherings to numb yourself by drinking more than usual, or by using a substance to subdue your feelings and reactions.  However, when we drink too much or we’re under the influence, we’re more likely to react defensively and say something we’ll regret, or we may disclose way more than we meant to, which we may also regret.  Disclosing more than we wanted to feels icky and also like a violation of our boundaries. Prepare yourself ahead of time with how much you’re open to disclosing about your romantic life. This is something to be particularly mindful of if you’re grieving a relationship ending, and you have trouble talking about it without getting emotional.  Practice mindfulness by paying attention to your body, and if you feel yourself getting more buzzed than expected, stop drinking alcohol and stick to water or La Croix.

Break up’s. Are. Really. F-ing. Hard.  You may have taken all your energy to get yourself out of the house for the holidays, and you may not have anything left to give.  And that’s OK. It’s OK to cry, it’s OK to be devastated, and it’s OK to not want to talk about it with everyone at the Thanksgiving table. On the other hand, you may be single and loving the time to focus on yourself and your career, your interests, your friendships and all the other wonderful things you do.  Regardless of what meaning you’re giving to not being in a relationship, it doesn’t have to be a topic of conversation at a holiday meal.  If you’re going home for the holidays or to a family-centered gathering, remember to practice self-care and think ahead about what boundaries feel healthy and appropriate for you.  And maybe bring your own La Croix so your family doesn’t go through all your Pamplemousse.

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT


3 Ways to Be Mindful During Cuffing Season

Cuffing season has arrived! The season shifts away from the bustling summer months and the singles of the world start seeking a partner to cuddle up with as the cold approaches. In a nutshell, cuffing season is the time of year where singles are highly motivated to couple. Dating apps see a spike in activity while singles are rushing to find someone to binge watch Game of Thrones with. While dating and meeting new people can be exciting, it can also lead to burnout and a sense of mindlessness as we are swipe swipe swiping. And because we are so engaged with technology these days, it’d be beneficial to integrate some healthy dating practices into your day to remain true to what you are looking for and avoid dating burnout. Here are three ways to be mindful while dating during cuffing season:

  1. Designate a time of day to be present with your dating app. When we feel the mounting pressure to couple during this time of year, that may mean we find ourselves constantly checking our apps or dating sites. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider setting 30 minutes aside every day to mindfully engage with your app. By setting this boundary, you are making an active choice to be present with what you are actually looking for in a partner as opposed to mindlessly swiping as you wait in line for your coffee. By practicing this, you can stay present with yourself and the people around you during your day, instead of having your attention focused on reading another profile about how someone likes to travel, laugh and have fun. *Insert side eye.* To make this a healthy and rewarding ritual, find a comfortable space in your home, turn off all other distractions, and take your time to read profiles. Once your 30 minutes has passed (I encourage you to set a timer), put your app away until the next day. If you are feeling the pressure to chat with people throughout the day, consider setting aside time in the evening to answer messages or start conversations. Maintaining this boundary will hopefully leave you feeling more excited and present with your dating experience as opposed to overwhelmed.  

  2. Focus on one love prospect at a time. I get it. There are so many options out there!  It’s easy to develop dating “FOMO” and feel reluctant to focus on one person. When you are engaging with one person at a time, as opposed to 10 at a time (we’ve all been there) it can help you focus on how you actually feel around someone. With this in practice, you are going on one date a week, deciding whether or not you want to see that person again, and then moving forward with a second date or moving on to another potential partner (and no ghosting)! By integrating this, you will be able to focus on what kind of partner you are seeking while staying present with the person who is also setting aside their time to meet with you.

  3. Get offline and be mindful with your surroundings. This. Is. Big. It’s super easy to get caught up in the convenience of the dating supermarket you have in your pocket. Stop swiping while you wait in line at Trader Joes while there are literally single people within feet of where you are standing! So, what would it be like to make an active decision to put your phone back in your pocket and engage with the world around you? Go ahead and make some eye contact. Maybe even spark up a conversation with the barista. You know, practice your human skills. And don’t stop there! There are endless ways to engage with the world that do not require your cell phone. Taking the class you’ve been meaning to sign up for, joining an intramural sports league or hosting a board game night are just a few of the ways to do something different and meaningful with your time. Connecting to your interests and engaging in the world in an active and mindful way means you are putting yourself in situations with likeminded people. This sets you up not only to meet potential love interests, but also new friends. All while doing something you enjoy and have actively chosen to be present in.

These are just a few of the countless ways to stay mindful with your dating experience. By implementing these boundaries into your love life, I’m confident your connection to dating can change in a positive and meaningful way.   

~ Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

3 Ways Toxic Masculinity Could Be Hurting Your Relationship

The term “toxic masculinity” has been getting a lot of attention from the media lately.  Toxic masculinity is a term to describe dominant and stereotypical gender roles that are often culturally assigned to men that promote aggressive behavior, avoidance of vulnerability and emotion, and may include a dominant presence and personality.  Toxic masculinity is a systemic and cultural norm that is taught to boys in their childhood and adolescence by their parents, teachers, peers, and society. They are given the messages, “boys don’t cry,” “boys will be boys,” and taught that vulnerability and emotions are weak and “feminine.”  

When we teach boys not to process their emotions and give them the message that vulnerability is a weakness, then the only difficult emotion that is socially acceptable for them to show is anger. Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy and author of Hold Me Tight, explains that often anger may be the outward and immediate emotion.  When time has been given for reflection, anger is often on the surface with sadness, fear, or shame as the primary emotion underneath.  If our culture is teaching men to use anger when they’re feeling sad, fearful, or ashamed, we are doing them a giant disservice in how they communicate and relate to others, especially in their intimate relationships.  

Toxic masculinity can be damaging in close relationships, especially in romantic relationships.  It can interfere with how you relate to your partner, how you express your emotions to your partner, and whether or not you even allow yourself to feel a certain emotion.  This emotional disconnect between yourself and others can impact not only communication and conflict resolution, but also your physical intimacy. Here are three ways in which toxic masculinity could be hurting your relationship:

  1. Communication, especially during an argument.  Effective communication between couples requires active listening, expressing understanding, providing empathy, and learning the skills to articulate how you’re feeling.  Most of us aren’t taught these skills from our parents or from society, and from my work with heterosexual couples, I notice it can be difficult for some men to identify what their partner is feeling and ask about the feelings as opposed to become defensive or angry.  On the other hand, a man may have his feelings hurt by something that happened, and he may struggle with how to express himself without coming across as angry, aggressive or avoidant. By not teaching boys and men how to communicate when they’re hurt or upset, we are hurting them in their communication and how they connect in their intimate relationships.  

  2. Physical Intimacy.  The same way society puts unrealistic expectations and pressure on women about their sexuality and libido, we also place a great deal of pressure on men.  Men are often labelled as “sex fiends” or needing to have an insatiable sexual appetite, or there must be something wrong with them. Men are taught that they must easily and quickly have and maintain an erection, or they’re a failure in the bedroom.  These pressures coupled with no emotional outlet to discuss stress and anxiety can often cause erectile dysfunction and anxiety related to sex and other physical intimacy. Such pressures can place further strain on the relationship causing partners to become emotionally and physically distant.

  3. Expressing vulnerability.  Being able to express vulnerability in your romantic relationship is a key factor in building trust, maintaining security, and feeling emotionally and physically connected.  Vulnerability can show up in all types of ways in your relationship, and often, we don’t see it as a missing piece after an argument or when something is feeling off. To take accountability for your actions and offer a genuine apology is extremely vulnerable because you have to admit to yourself and your partner, “I messed up” or “I hurt you.”  Vulnerability also plays a major role in connecting physically. If you see being vulnerable equated to being weak or something to stay far away from, you may be inadvertently sabotaging your relationship.

Toxic masculinity can be harmful to yourself and to your relationships; however, it can be improved upon and changed with intentional self-reflection, work, and time.  Toxic masculinity can be combated by examining messages you’ve received about what it means to be a “man” from your family, your cultural background, your religion, and so forth, and by reflecting on what is helpful and relevant to who you are today and what isn’t helpful or what is an outdated message.  Many of the cultural and societal messages we give to men about what it means to be “masculine” or a “real man” can be harmful and can cause men to feel disconnected and confused as to how to handle difficult emotions in intimate relationships. If you are struggling with how to combat toxic masculinity individually or in your relationship, I challenge you to take action. Finding a therapist for yourself or for your relationship, joining a men’s support group or simply starting to open up to loved ones are good starting points in experiencing deeper intimacy in your relationships.

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT

Low Libido Blues

One of the most common sexual issues couples experience is desire discrepancy. And when I say common, I mean almost ALL couples experience this issue at one point (or multiple) throughout the course of their relationship. So, what is desire discrepancy? In a nutshell, it means that one partner wants to have sex more than the other. But what are the causes of desire discrepancy and why is it so common? Let’s break it down.

There is always a low desire partner and a high desire partner (Schnarch, 2010). You are two different people which means your sexual desires will not be in sync 100% of the time. The low desire partner is the deciding factor as to whether or not sex is going to happen. The feeling of not having control can deeply frustrate the high desire partner, especially having experienced rejection over and over again. For the low desire partner, pressure to perform can be a big issue, and may contribute to their lack of motivation to have sex. Do you see that pattern? And because we are rarely educated about effective partner communication, let alone sexual communication, couples can get into some deeply hurtful arguments, leaving both partners feeling lonely, sad and confused.

Here’s the reality. Mismatched desires can stem from a number of emotional, psychological or physical issues in a relationship. And reasons for mismatched desires will vary by couple. An important factor to consider, and something I tell clients every day, is that context matters! (We can thank the brilliant Emily Nagoski, PhD for writing an entire chapter in her book, Come As You Are, just on this topic). What does that mean, you ask? It means that when intimacy is initiated (usually by the high desire partner), your environment, mood, energy level, to-do list (I can keep going) all matter! Are the kids in bed? Did the trash get taken out? I’m still pissed at you from our fight yesterday. See what I mean? All of these things matter when it comes to shutting off your distractions and focusing on getting physical.

What’s a couple to do? If efforts to communicate about this issue have not helped, considering an investment in sex and relationship therapy is a great start. Especially if you are both feeling confused about how to handle such a sensitive topic. We sex therapists know a thing or two about desire discrepant couples. We understand that barriers to intimacy are real and need to be handled effectively with empathy and understanding. Integrating intimacy building interventions (both emotional and physical) are staples to this process. And while being caught in a relational dynamic that’s impacting the quality of your sex life can be frustrating, it’s absolutely possible to improve your dynamic if both partners are willing to show up, look at their contributions to the problem, and make appropriate changes.

~ Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

 

Schnarch, D. M. (2010). Intimacy & desire: Awaken the passion in your marriage. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications.

Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

On Being a Sex Therapist

I was recently at an event in Chicago where I was mingling and meeting new folks while taking in the city views. In the typical back and forth of new people conversation, an inquiry of what I do for a living came up. This is where the conversation can get interesting. You see, I’m a Certified Sex Therapist. I work with people in the greater Chicago area who are struggling in their emotional and physical relationships. Pretty normal stuff for someone like me. Not so normal for someone who has never met a sex therapist or even heard about sex therapy before. Once that cat is out of the bag, I typically experience the conversation going one of two ways. While some people might be a little intimated by what that means (which I totally respect and understand), others are naturally curious and will start asking a lot of questions. And I get really excited when people ask questions.

So why do I tell complete strangers what I do for a living? Because I understand that at some point, they may need a therapist like me. A specialist who can work with their deeply personal issues in an informed and non-judgmental space. Someone who has the specific qualifications to work with them so they can feel confident and fulfilled again.

Here’s the thing, relationships are hard work. They demand consistent efforts towards intimacy building, self-awareness and vulnerability. And when people run into issues in their relationships, they typically experience issues with their sex lives. For a lot of people, sexual intimacy problems can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and a whole lot of other stuff. So, when I tell people about my job, I want them to know that this kind of resource is available to them, if and when it’s ever a need.

There are multiple reasons why someone may seek sex therapy. The most common issues I see in my practice are mismatched desires between partners (i.e. one partner wants to have more sex than the other), sexual dysfunction, low sexual self-awareness and sex after trauma or illness. Other issues range from sexual communication issues to painful intercourse. I love educating people about their sexualities, breaking down not-so-correct social constructs and creating a space for a new and healthy narrative. I value my job and the people I work with.  Every day, I am impressed by the work my clients undertake to improve their lives. I will continue to spread the word about sex therapy because there’s no other profession I’d rather be in. 

~ Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

Sex therapists are trained to work with a variety of relationship configurations and sexuality preferences and problems. There are a number of wonderful helping professionals out there in the sex therapy community. If you are looking for a qualified professional in your area, please visit the professional directory page at the American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT).