When it comes to sex, everyone seems to struggle, says Cyndi Darnell, a clinical sexologist, sex therapist and relationship coach based in Manhattan.
“No one receives sex and relationship education,” she said, “so people have confused sex education with reproduction. We’re also told sex is natural, and therefore, we don’t need to teach it. If it were natural, no one would struggle with it.”
In her new book “Sex When You Don’t Feel Like It: The Truth about Mismatched Libido and Rediscovering Desire,” Ms. Darnell, 51, an Australian native, invites couples to reflect on why sex matters to them.
“I wrote the book because sex is profoundly misunderstood in our culture,” she said.
She works with both couples and individuals virtually in her practice, which includes “arousal, erotic experience and personal reflection regarding how your body feels,” said Ms. Darnell of her education and therapeutic based work. She charges $250 for a 45-minute session for an individual, and $500 for a 90-minute couples session.
“I teach people how their bodies work from a pleasure perspective, and how to identify what makes sex meaningful for them,” she said. “Then I give them the skills they need to navigate the difficulties they face while creating a richer sex life that’s fulfilling so they can experience more pleasure and joy.”
Her services include everything from a one-question email option, which costs $190; online courses that start at $27; to a private couples retreat weekend, which usually takes place at a yoga or dance studio, for $8,000.
How are you different from a couple’s counselor or a therapist?
This is not meeting two or three times a week for years, looking into your childhood or your past. This is a virtual coaching experience that is usually 10 to 20 sessions, focusing on your present and your sexual future. We talk about their history of sex, what’s been good, what are they struggling with, how they would identify the challenges and help them see they are not broken. Together we strive to increase their eroticism with each other and their embodied experience of sex.
How do your sessions work?
Through talking and teaching people how to touch each other in a way that is meaningful to them — usually illustrating that with the use of puppets — they learn to connect with their own sensations and how to communicate that with their partner. I give them homework and activities to try by themselves or with each other, from breathing practices to erotic massage techniques that they would then practice on each other.
I also introduce skills that put them in touch with what their bodies are craving. Once they have a solid understanding of how their bodies respond to pleasure, I invite them to practice privately, asking them to notice what pleasure feels like in their bodies physiologically and what their internal narrative is like. Usually it’s negative: “I shouldn’t be feeling like this,” or “I’m taking too long.” This derails people’s capacity to hold pleasure because it produces panic or anxiety.
A lot of the practice is around remaining mindful and connected to their own pleasure and what feels good to them while being attentive to what’s going on, and what they’re experiencing. That takes practice.
You offer a one-question email option. Why?
Sometimes people want an answer to a specific problem or issue like, Why do I have trouble orgasming? or Why don’t I connected to my partner during sex? I answer that in a five- or six-page response that includes suggestions to links, podcasts, books, videos, resources, and exercises or activities to try. What they are really asking is, Am I normal? That’s the theme.
What do your weekend retreats entail?
These are for couples I’ve worked with before who hire me for private retreats. Over the past decade I’ve done this with 40 to 50 couples. Everyone is vetted, there’s an application form. And couples have to like each other. It’s not relationship therapy, it’s intimacy and sexuality coaching for couples that want an experience, a place inside themselves in the presence of their partner that they will remember for the rest of their lives.
Over the next 48 hours couples are introduced to a variety of techniques that awaken and inspire erotic connection. These include breath work, erotic massage and sensation play. We also expand the possibilities of what sex can be for that couple, which involves teaching arousal and connectivity for their entire bodies.
Clothing remains on, unless they are working on their homework in the privacy of their weekend living quarters.
How do you define intimacy, and how is it created?
Intimacy is not sex — they are very separate things. Intimacy is a profound dance of self inquiry, a willingness to see and be seen, to expose yourself to yourself, and then accept who you are. Doing that with another person comes second. Most people can’t do that. It’s a high-risk activity. And it doesn’t mean your partner is going to do it back, which is why there’s so much uncertainty.
These are different qualities that we bring to sex. We can have both, but we can also have one and not the other. Not everyone wants sex with intimacy or intimacy with sex.
What are some other misconceptions about intimacy and sex?
That good sex is spontaneous, simultaneous, and mutually orgasmic — that’s a lie. That sex is intercourse — also a lie. That desire is essential to have good sex. It’s not. And that men and women are profoundly different, not true. That’s a narrative that derails heterosexuals.
When working with clients, what are some things that still surprise you?
That most people have never experienced meaningful touch and don’t know what that is. That they do not know what produces satisfaction for them. And they can’t tell you what makes sex feel good or memorable. People want to feel a particular, physical, emotional way that is unique to them — say big and powerful, special or safe, seen and understood, validated and valued. These are the reasons people have partnered sex.
What advice can you offer to couples who might be struggling?
Getting comfortable asking for what you want helps tremendously, because when we can speak our truth to a lover, we have a greater chance of finding the satisfaction we seek from sex. You might not get what you want, but the practice of asking is revolutionary for people.
Be attentive to who’s benefiting from whatever it is you’re doing. If I’m pretending that it’s for you when it’s actually for me, then the sex is going to be terrible, as it creates a creepy power dynamic.
Slow sex is really useful. If you rush, you’re feeding your anxiety. If you can slow it down, your body has time to respond to your nervous system, and your brain has time to sync up with your sensations. Don’t make sex goal oriented, rather give yourself permission to feel good.