Bright side presents - Your sex questions answered (by a real sex therapist )
By Alana Rae (she/her)
If you’ve got questions about sex, you’re definitely not alone. Sometimes at university it can seem like everyone is clued up except you, or maybe it’s just one niche question that you can’t quite work out. Jo Robertson, one of our AUT Bright Side guides, is here to tell you that it’s totally chill, and that you are, in fact, “normal” (if that’s what you want to be).
Jo runs the Better Relationships, Healthier Sex programme here at Bright Side. She also runs her own therapy practice as a qualified sex and relationship therapist with speciality training in sexual addiction and partner betrayal trauma. Jo is also the research and training lead for The Light Project, a charity educating youth, their families, and professionals on how to navigate the new porn landscape, and recently delivered a well regarded TED talk on why we need to talk about porn. So, needless to say, she’s got the tips and advice that we’re looking for.
Alana: Kia ora Jo! Thank you so much for joining me today. I wanted to start right back at the beginning for you and find out what made you want to become a sex therapist in the first place.
Jo: I never imagined this would be my life. When I was in primary school, I had this idea in my head that it was really hard for people to have secrets. I remember always thinking, 'I want to be someone people can talk to. I want to let people create safe spaces and to let them say whatever they want and feel cared for in the process'. Going into my 20s, I was trained as a counsellor and I was working with kids doing trauma and abuse work. I kept constantly thinking, what's going on for the adults in these kids’ lives? Where did they get their ideas about sex and how that should look? Often it was interwoven with power. I kept thinking about people's personal worlds and what they could and couldn't get support for since it was taboo. I decided to pursue all of those thoughts and did my master's in sex therapy.
Alana: Moving on to where you're at now, what is one of the most common questions that you get asked as a sex and relationship therapist? Is there a common question?
Jo: Every client, experience, or day in the life is quite different, but the most common question people would probably ask is 'what is normal?’ Followed by, 'why don't I like sex?', or 'why doesn't my partner like sex?'
Alana: As you say, people often ask whether they are normal as the baseline question. What do you say to that? What is normal?
Jo: The classic cliché response to that would be that there isn't a normal, but I don't really like giving that as a response. We could make some generalisations about sex and maybe that's helpful for people. The latest study shows that, on average, people have sex 47 times a year. That's average across all agents and takes into consideration different seasons of life. But, what that means is, essentially, people have sex nearly once a week.
If your partner is requesting sex every day, that sits outside of the norm. That doesn't make it bad or not okay. If you want to have sex every day, or three times a day, or whatever it is, then that's totally fine. What's important is that we don't expect to get what we want from our partners. It's always a negotiation and that's something that isn't demonstrated a lot in culture and media. If there isn’t a conversation, false agreements can start. This is where there's a type of sex life that's being held between people and it’s good for one person, but not the other. It looks like agreement, but it's not happy or authentic. They're just keeping the peace and that's not a particularly satisfying sex life for that relationship or person.
Alana: Is there a healthy amount of sex or masturbation? Or, like you say, is it just whatever works for the person as long as it's consensual and not impacting their life in a negative way?
Jo: The area that you want to think about is ‘how do I feel about this?’ Maybe you're masturbating or having sex multiple times a day - and it's not impacting your real world - but you don't feel great about it. It's real-world impact, but it's also your personal experience. What are you getting out of it? Are you using sex - when I say sex, I also mean masturbation - to mitigate negative emotions? If you are, it's not really about pleasure, it's about escape. In which case, you probably want to look at some more sustainable ways to manage those in the future when that current practice isn't working anymore.
Alana: Why do you think society tends to shut down conversations around sex and why is it just so taboo in general?
Jo: I think a couple of reasons. One is that you're actually talking about genitalia. Talking about genitals is something we're taught from a very early age not to do. We learn that they're private and special, and it’s actually an important safety message to kids. But from that, we can also infer that talking about bodies is not okay, and that we shouldn't explore them. The other reason is that we're not taught how to talk about it. This passes through generations and we see sex happening in movies and television without any conversation. That's also what we've seen in porn.
I think as well, it starts with a lot of parents and caregivers feeling scared to talk about sex. Even if they don't think it's a bad thing, they make it a taboo because they don't want to say the wrong thing. They don't want to encourage you to do it when you're too young and they want you to be safe. That comes from a good place but as a result, it sends the message that this isn't okay to talk about. But with each generation, we're getting better. Alana: Why do you think it's getting better? Jo: I think part of it is the liberation of women's voices. As women have had more space in the public sphere, they've talked about things that are important to them. Reproduction in particular is felt more tangibly for women.
So, I think that the pursuit of equality has made a difference in the sexual health conversation. I would say it started with talking about sexual health and reproduction, and then as that becomes more comfortable, we can talk about pleasure. As that becomes more comfortable, we can talk about exploring sexuality. It's an incremental approach, but women's liberation has made a difference in and amongst that.
Alana: Would you have any advice for people who might be wanting to explore their sexuality in healthy ways?
Jo: Some people use porn to explore what they like and don't like. I would be very reluctant to encourage that. I don't think I've ever encouraged anybody to do that because the messaging in porn is pretty problematic. It has pretty sexist themes, racist messaging, as well as a lot of transphobic and homophobic messaging too. So, I would be wary of that. Other things that you could do is listen to erotic stories that you can find on more ethical platforms. You can also just use your own fantasy and see what it does for you in terms of masturbation.
I think if you're going to explore with a real-life person, it's important that it's safe for both of you emotionally and physically. Try to make sure someone is not going to make fun of you because you did something wrong. Make sure that, for the other person, they don't feel used by you and that they don't become just a resource upon which you explore with. I think it's okay to explore with people if you're both open and honest about what's happening and it's an authentic agreement. Also staying physically safe, using protection, and both getting regular checks.
Alana: What should Debate readers know about themselves, in order to have positive relationships or sexual encounters?
Jo: The most important thing is to critique the messaging that you have received over your life and to ensure that any unhealthy messages aren't also your default. One that I got was that relationships are really hard work. I thought that if relationships are hard, that they are somehow good because you're working towards something. What I came to realise was that relationships should actually be fun. There are definitely harder seasons, but if you are in a constant state of conflict, that's not good for you. When we can be critical of our default, we grow and we become better.
Bright Side is a space for AUT students – designed to explore self-knowledge, how to have authentic relationships, and what a life with meaning and purpose looks like. Our programmes help you develop leadership skills, increase resilience, unlock your potential, and succeed in your studies and work.
Head to aut.ac.nz/brightside to find out more about our programmes that are kicking off in the second half of the semester!
Bright Side programmes:
☞ Future Focus ☞ Personal Financial Relationships ☞ Resilience During Global Change ☞ Building and Sustaining Positive Habits ☞ Design Your Life ☞ Design Your Life 2.0 ☞ Beating Stress and Self-Doubt