Intelligent Lust: How Smarter Sex Can Change Your Life

Editor’s note: This week’s column on sex and relationships comes to us courtesy of Psychology Tomorrow, the website edited by Stanley Siegel, LCSW. Siegel first came to Planet Waves’ attention in 2012; his article about the shared values of sex workers and therapists coincided with our coverage of 1992 QB1 and the idea of “Thresholders.” — Amanda

By Stanley Siegel, LCSW

If you’re like most of us, the subject of sex makes you at least a little uneasy, if not completely uncomfortable. Sex is shrouded in so much mystery and secrecy and considered so personal that it’s a wonder we can ever have an honest conversation about it. But if we could talk freely and openly with each other, we would discover that sex means something different to everyone, often something far from the ideas that Hollywood and Madison Avenue feed us.

Stanley Siegel, LCSW, editor in chief of Psychology Tomorrow.

Stanley Siegel, LCSW, editor in chief of Psychology Tomorrow.

Some of us think of sex as a simple act of physical pleasure, while for others it’s a way of communicating deep feelings, and still others see sex as a spiritual experience. The definition of sexual activity also differs from person to person. It can be kissing, touching, intercourse, bondage, oral, conversational, punishing, dominating, wrapped in leather, romantic, observing, disciplining and much, much more. It is as varied as our individual personalities.

But what usually doesn’t come to mind when we think about sex is what is actually happening when we engage in it with a real person. Sex creates a moment of extreme intensity in which our entire inner life – our history and imagination – is expressed in actions. It is an altered state of consciousness in which the past and the present, body, mind, and spirit, all merge to form a new reality unlike any other experience in our lives. Depending on the circumstance, sex can be either physically and mentally gratifying or alienating and unfulfilling.

Because sex is so compelling at all these levels, it is frequently in our thoughts. I have been a psychotherapist in New York City for thirty-six years, and during this time, I have counseled innumerable patients. In nearly every case, regardless of the problem that led someone to seek therapy, the conversation has inevitably turned to sex.

Some patients express disappointment over the amount of sex in their lives, some are frustrated by a partner’s lack of interest in sexual experimentation, some are concerned about sexual performance, some look in the wrong places to fulfill their desire, and still others are simply curious about their sexual fantasies and desires.

What I tell everyone, no matter what their issue, is that sex is more than any of these topics. It is a doorway into our deepest psyches. More importantly, sex can help heal our lives. By discovering our true sexual desires, as well as uncovering their origin, sex can be much more than just great. It can be life-changing.

I will guide you to understanding your true sexual nature and show you how to use those insights as tools for enjoying smarter sex, a kind of experience that will lead to personal and spiritual growth and a more fulfilling life.

Why? Because true sexual fulfillment is based on self-knowledge and authenticity-not just the sexual act itself.

Have you ever met someone who has grown out of childhood without some conflict or unmet need? For most of us, the pain or unhappiness associated with these conflicts does not preoccupy our current thoughts and feelings, but does become part of our individual psychology, setting the stage for how we interact with the world.

As human beings, we are naturally driven toward self-healing, whether it’s a small cut on our skin or a deep psychological trauma. Self-recovery enhances our chances of physical and emotional survival in the world. We are designed to do whatever we can to lessen pain.

At some point during the heightened sexuality of adolescence, we unconsciously eroticize these unmet needs or unresolved conflicts from childhood in a complicated attempt to heal ourselves. In other words, we turn early painful experiences into pleasurable ones in order to counteract their power over us. As human beings, we are driven toward reconciliation and catharsis.

As we grow into adults, these same conflicts, which now have sexual themes, are coded in our fantasies and desires or, in some cases, our sexual behavior. Through our sexuality, we attempt to gain mastery over feelings of powerlessness, shame, guilt, fear, and loneliness that might otherwise defeat us.

To help clarify this idea, here’s an example from one of my patients: thirty-eight-year-old Sarah, the only child of unhappily married parents. Sarah’s father, a warm and affable man, had failed in business as a contractor because, out of kindness, he often underestimated the cost of jobs, giving his clients bargains he couldn’t afford. He also had a secret habit of gambling on weekends and, over the course of a few years, lost the family savings. Furious, Abby, Sarah’s mother, never let her husband or Sarah forget this; Sarah was constantly compared to her father for her weaknesses and inability to assert herself in the world. Over the years, Abby’s anger grew increasingly abusive.

Sarah secretly wished that her father would stand up to Abby’s attacks and protect her – and himself. Instead, he withdrew from the family by sitting in front of the television for endless hours. Sarah felt abandoned by her father as he faded from her life.

During adolescence, Sarah daydreamed about sailors and sea captains and devoured romance novels with these themes. By the time she reached her late teenage years, like most boys and girls, she was flooded with confusing sexual feelings. Soon she was having sexual fantasies in which she was kidnapped by pirates, only to be later rescued by a strong and handsome sea captain. In her fantasies she unconsciously found an erotic solution to her childhood feelings of helplessness and abandonment by inventing a story in which she was held captive and finally rescued.

These fantasies reflect a common pattern. Not only are they enormously enjoyable but, enacted under the right circumstances, but they can also counteract feelings of powerlessness, guilt, shame, fear, or loneliness, and, remarkably, heal old and deep wounds. By sexualizing unmet needs and childhood conflicts, we convert the pain associated with these experiences into pleasurable events. Our true sexual desires, such as Sarah’s rescue fantasy, emerge out of an unconscious attempt to work through deep-seated feelings.

For many of us, our true desires (and their meanings) remain hidden from our awareness. When we are conscious of them, they are often shadowed by shame; we tend to think of them as “deviant”, “perverse”, or “sinful” because we do not understand their significance and instead internalize how powerful institutions such as religion and psychology have defined them. We police, deny, suppress, or keep our erotic lives secret. In the process, we disown an important part of who we are and who we could become.

The consequences of this denial can be enormous. If we do not understand our true desires, we can easily be lost in the dark. We may well choose the wrong partner. Or, if we act on lust alone without understanding the nature of our desire, we may mistakenly become attached to someone simply because we have great sex with him/her.

Likewise, if we choose a mate solely on the basis of personality or family background, we may attain stability or security, but sex can feel boring, empty, or, in time, entirely disappear from the relationship. Even when we do have a good time sexually, if we are not sharing our deepest desires and fantasies, we miss the opportunity to widen our vision and fully engage our true selves.

On the other hand, if we set out to identify our true sexual desires and the unmet needs or conflicts they serve to counteract, we take a giant step closer to wholeness. We lift our attention upward and create an experience of life based on self-knowledge and self-acceptance. From this position of strength, we can choose a partner with whom we create a sexual and emotional bond that satisfies our deepest needs or we can change our experience in our current relationship. I call the steps by which this is achieved, Intelligent Lust. I will share these steps with you in the forthcoming editions of this blog.

*names have been changed to protect anonymity.

First published in Psychology Today on August 22, 2011.


Stanley Siegel, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, author, international lecturer, and former Director of Education at New York’s renowned Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy. With over 36 years of experience, Siegel has developed an unconventional and highly regarded approach to psychotherapy. His latest book, Your Brain on Sex: How Smarter Sex Can Change Your Life is out now!

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