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What is Sex and Intimacy, Anyway?

Intimacy is more than sex, and sex is more than intercourse. While the term ‘sex’ is usually associated with sexual intercourse, it includes all sexual activity. Intimacy involves all of the ways we share a deep and meaningful connection with our partner.

There are several different types of intimacy - spiritual, intellectual, emotional, recreational, physical and sexual.

If we can take a step back and broaden our perspective just a little bit, we can experience intimacy in countless ways throughout our day (i.e. whisper in ear, kiss on neck, a little tap on the bum, cute remarks, cuddling/spooning…)

PLAY! Often overlooked, play has a crucial part in your relationship to allow you to let down your guard and lighten the mood. It allows you to keep the focus on each other and the experience you are sharing. What’s important is the effort you both make to connect, not necessarily what the outcome is. When there’s too much focus on the outcome, we lose sight of the present experience, and with it, our sense of enjoyment. It’s important to remember that pressure and obligation often ruin the mood. Keeping a light heart and having fun together will lead to happier, more genuine moments of connection.

“PLEASURE IS THE MEASURE” of sexual satisfaction! (Emily Nagoski) - not frequency or specific outcome.

One of the most common concerns couples express when presenting for therapy is having different levels of desire between partners… So, what is desire?

First, we must distinguish the difference between desire and arousal:

  • Desire is our libido, our “sex drive,” our mental and emotional “wanting” of sex, “being in the mood”

  • Arousal is the way our body physically responds to a sexual stimuli (i.e. our physiological response)

Many people lump these two experiences together, although they are two separate processes/parts of our sexual response cycle. We can have one without the other, AND we can have one before the other. Desire and arousal look and feel different to every human being. It’s important to remember that your partner’s desire or arousal may look different to your own.

There are two different types of desire: Spontaneous and Responsive

Spontaneous desire occurs when mentally and emotionally you want sex before getting physically aroused; Sex is something that is thought of often and in different situations; This is typically the person that initiates sex more in the relationship; Research shows that men tend to have a more spontaneous sex drive than women.

  • Responsive desire occurs after being physically aroused, often while in the midst of a sexual experience; Sex is not thought about often, but is enjoyed when it does happen; This person typically does not initiate sex and tends to want sex less often; Research shows that women tend to have a more responsive libido than men.

It's important to keep in mind that neither are “better,” they are just different. We are often taught to believe that each person’s “sex drive” or level of desire falls into two categories: “high” or “low.” However, according to Dr. Emily Nagoski, sex educator and author of Come As You Are, we can understand sexual desire in terms of when and how we become aroused—it heavily depends on context and we definitely do not have a fixed drive.

Factors that Affect Sexual Desire:

Stress is one of the number one killers of libido! Our sexual desire is affected by sociocultural and psychological factors, because the body cannot sufficiently relax if you are feeling things like worry, fear, and danger. Desire can also be significantly affected by hormones, medications, depression, energy/lack of sleep, lack of time, environment, self-esteem, and everyday distractions.

Desire for women is influenced and enhanced by: trust, communication, respect, admiration, affection and touch… while men tend to access love and affection through the physical realm. In the words of my guru Esther Perel, “often (heterosexual couples) need to learn how to be “bilingual” within relationships, speaking to both the emotional and physical.”

How to Apply This Information to Your Relationship:

  • Know what type of desire you and your partner typically have: Spontaneous or Responsive; Are they the same or different? This can help you adjust your perspective of your partner's needs and adjust as needed.

  • Work as a team - Often helpful for the partner with spontaneous desire to practice patience and focus on taking the time to help partner get physically aroused, while the partner with responsive desire can be more open to physical intimacy knowing that desire will come within the experience.

  • Foreplay - Take your time without any demands or expectations! Enjoy each other's company, enjoy the moment; Play, explore, experiment! A problem with the word foreplay is that it implies something needs to happen after. However, if we think of the experience as exactly what it states: for-play, we can embrace and experience the pleasure versus focusing on a specific outcome.

  • Set the mood - Make it a point to create a special moment to connect. You can try sending each other sexy text messages throughout the day or create a sort of “ritual” to establish a state of intimacy (candles, music, lighting, lingerie, etc).


Rachel Smith

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Board Certified Sex Therapist

You deserve to feel safe within your intimacy, and I'm specially trained to do that.

As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Certified Sex Therapist, my main mission is to help you foster true intimacy within yourself by guiding you through the therapeutic healing journey.

I offer complimentary consultations at 954-488-2234 to answer any questions you may have.


Imagine having a healed relationship and a fully open heart that can give and receive the love you've been craving. Join me next February for four days and three nights of One-on-one sessions, Reconnection Workshops, Holistic Healing, Beachfront Couple's Yoga, and more...

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