The fundamentals of sex may not have changed much over the years but societal attitudes, relationship dynamics, and the means of meeting partners and communicating look very different than they did even in the not-too-distant past. The Reader surveyed four local experts to get a snapshot of what sex and relationships look like today:
DR. SOFIA JAWED-WESSEL Assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. “I teach in the area of sexual health and I also do research on sexuality,” she said.
NANCI KAVICH Co-founder of Profile Wingman. “I help people write their online dating profiles and to navigate the world of on- and offline dating in general. It’s so hard to make yourself three-dimensional and have your personality come through and attract the person you want to attract...that’s where we come in.”
KRISTEN LILLA MSW, LCSW, CST one of only four certified sex therapists in Nebraska. Lilla is in private practice at Omaha Sex Therapy (kristenlilla.com), where she provides therapy services to both individuals and couples.
GAIL RISCH Teaches in the department of theology at Creighton University, including the classes Christian Ethics and Theology of Christian Marriage. From 1995 until its closure in 2009, Risch was a researcher with the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton. She has a particular expertise in sexuality and its place within marriage and marital stability.
What books or websites would you recommend to people interested in cultivating healthy relationships and intimacy?
Risch: If I had to boil it down to one, The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee.
Lilla: Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel; It’s basically about how you keep the intimacy alive in a long-term relationship, and I think that’s something that a lot of relationships struggle with. Rekindling Desire by Barry McCarthy and Emily McCarthy. It’s along the same lines. Intimacy and Desire by David Schnarch. This is a little more wordy and a little more theory-based than some of the others, a bit more intellectual. The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman. I think there is a lot of good advice in his book even though it’s not sexual in nature. Sex Smart by Aline Goldbrod. It’s a really simplistic, to-the-point book about sexuality, but she traces it back to childhood and how the things we grew up with influence how we are as adults.
Jawed-Wessel: One of my mentors runs a blog called My Sex Professor (mysexprofessor.com)...It’s tailored toward students somewhat and it’s not just one voice; Dr. Debby Herbenick (Indiana University) has a lot of different contributors. People like advice and I tend to enjoy Dan Savage’s Savage Love (thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove) I don’t always agree with what he has to say but he always has an interesting perspective and I like the diversity as far as the topics and the types of people and relationships he addresses. When someone comes to me with specific concerns or questions, I’m happy to recommend different kinds of books or websites, but it’s hard for me to say ‘This is a website that is good for everybody.’
Kavich: “There’s not one book or one website to help everybody. But there is a website out there called Elite Daily (elitedaily.com) that does a lot of blogs about relationships and mostly relating to twenty-somethings. I’m a huge fan of TED Talks (ted.com), and there’s an app for that.
What are the top things people should know about healthy relationships and intimacy?
Kavich: The first thing is, you need to establish a goal for yourself. What is it you’re hoping for yourself, relationship-wise? Number two: you need to be happy with yourself, you need to be well-adjusted with yourself. If you’re not happy with yourself, if you’re insecure or whatever it is, how do you expect someone to like you and treat you right? The third thing is to be honest who you are and show your true self.
Lilla: Number one is communication. It’s so much easier said than done. Second: Use it or lose it. People come up with excuses and when your sex life suffers then you get in this rut where you have such a low libido, or you’re in a nonsexual relationship because you’re not putting the effort into it. The third thing is being present and actively partaking in your relationship. A fourth one: Have common interests and date night and adult conversations.
Jawed-Wessel: Pretty much every sex therapist and sex educator emphasizes communication, and it cannot be stated enough.
Risch: Healthy relationships always involve communication skills, the ability to resolve conflicts, and commitment to the relationship/marriage.
What are the top misconceptions about relationships and intimacy?
Risch: A misconception is that you can change your partner. That one is alive and well out there, especially among women: ‘He’ll change after marriage or over time, I’ll get him to change.’
Another misconception is that extended family doesn’t matter: ‘I don’t care what his parents say’ or ‘I don’t care what the siblings say.’ It does definitely matter. Another misconception is: ‘My own satisfaction is the thing that is most important here.’
Lilla: Number one, that it’s easy. I think people get excited and they rush into things and they kind of have that high, but it doesn’t sustain itself and that’s not realistic for the long-term. Number two is a big one and I think people don’t view it this way, but it’s a misconception that you can control your partner. One more thing, and this is actually more sex-related: People come in and they talk about, they focus everything on, orgasm...we discredit all of the other things intimacy is all about.
Kavich: Opposites attract: That’s a common one you hear, but really, people are looking for someone similar to them. Another: Age matters. You can learn from each other and as long as it goes with your goal, age doesn’t really matter. The third: You need chemistry right away. A lot of times when the chemistry and the sex is the thing that stands out the most, you miss the other side.
Jawed-Wessel: There’s so much pressure on ourselves and our partners that every sexual act needs to be the most mind-blowing experience and if it’s not, that means we don’t love each other as much as we potentially could somebody else.
What do you tell teenagers about sex?
Jawed-Wessel: I do recommend that as a society we be more frank with our young adults in general, be honest about issues related to sexuality instead of just focusing on those terrible things, the STIs and unwanted pregnancies that might happen if you have sex. We use these things to scare them out of wanting to have sex, more often than not.
It’s worth talking to your child about sex, it’s worth talking to teenagers in an open and frank way. It’s not promoting sex, but promoting an open dialogue about sex, without judgment.
Risch: I have been involved in some studies about sexuality education in high school. Here’s my gut, based on research as well: you provide comprehensive sexuality education which includes everything from abstinence to all information about relationships and learning to date and contraception, etc. Comprehensive education.
Kavich: I have two daughters and I’ve always told them, ‘Don’t do anything you’ll regret. Always make it your decision, don’t let anyone talk you into anything because at the end of the day, you have to live with your own actions.’... You should be treated the way you want to be treated and not expect anything less.
Lilla: We always talk about anatomy and we always talk about contraceptive and STDs, but I firmly believe sexuality education should not be shame-based and that it should be sex-positive. So what do I tell teenagers about sex? Two words: the truth. One thing that I really emphasize, that is a really important thing to me, is consent. I do some activist work in the community with Slutwalk (slutwalkomaha.weebly.com) and I organized Vagina Monologues in Omaha). Both of those are about stopping violence against women and girls and bringing awareness to rape culture.
What do you think is the most romantic music?
Kavich: It’s whatever moves you. A lot of music will bring you back to a time—almost like a sense—that brings you back to a memory, romantic times or times when you felt wonderful.
Lilla: My answer is sort of cheesy: your partner’s breathing or heartbeat. I know it’s cliché, but it goes back to being present rather than having that distraction in the background, really being in tune with your partner.
Jawed-Wessel: I think music, especially music with words, can be very distracting and can cover up the actual sex noises. I like sex noises. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would completely disagree with that...I study and talk about sex all the time so it makes sense that I would not be turned off by sexual noises where somebody else might be.
You know when your relationship and intimacy are healthy when ___________?
Kavich: I think it’s when you’re confident in the trust and honesty in the relationship. And you really care about and respect this person.
Lilla: When people have a good sex life, their relationship is usually pretty healthy, they’re communicating and they’re spending time together and they’re prioritizing.
Risch: There’s mutual trust, mutual respect and you have a sense of being a team. The word ‘mutual’ is very important.
How has communication changed regarding dating, relationships and sex from past to present?
Risch: I would complain that it’s too casual and is not thoughtful communication these days. Somebody years ago had to sit down and write out a letter, and they had to put a great deal of thought into that and choose their words carefully. Now, with texting, it’s using phrases—not even whole sentences—it’s very casual and I think that’s to the detriment of true communication. Too casual, too quick. I’m not a fan.
Lilla: Absolutely there are pros and cons...For couples, it can be a really good things because they can keep things interesting, send those flirty text messages or pictures or whatever. On the contrary, as far as dating there are almost and too many outlets, so many different dating websites, and then you have things like Tinder out there now. It accentuates this hooking-up culture rather than genuine interaction, so I think it can be difficult for people looking for a relationship who are trying to utilize and navigate the online world.
Kavich: The whole online world is all so curated and all so what you want to show people and not necessarily what is actually the reality. As much as I think you have to have a good online profile, I think that you need to get offline as soon as possible and meet this person in person.
How do legal and privacy issues affect the way people approach modern relationships?
Kavich: It’s just so strange that everything has become so public...now there’s almost too much and there are people who are oversharing with sexting and sending nude photos and the sex videos...Nothing’s sacred anymore.
Lilla: There are so many aspects where it does catch up with people, like revenge porn or even with celebrities’ naked photos leaking...I think that’s deserving of a bigger conversation, on privacy and legal rights and where the line is drawn. The other side of that is ‘just don’t take those kinds of photos’, but I think that’s blaming-the-victim mentality.
Are alternative lifestyles more accepted or more challenging today?
Lilla: There needs to be more discussion and education, so I’d say (alternative lifestyles) are extremely challenging...When we’re talking about open relationships or swinging or whatever, that’s fine if it’s not for you—don’t do it! But I think we can respect that other people are different from you.
Risch: Multiple partners? No. Here in the Midwest, everybody’s opposed—young people and old people are into fidelity. To be betrayed by the person with whom you think you have a faithful relationship; that is horrible.
Kavich: I think it’s more okay to be discussed. I think that people aren’t as judgmental, because with the Internet so much is shared and there’s not as much stigma as there used to be because we realize it is more common than we think.
Are LGBTQ relationships more accepted or more challenging today?
Lilla: I’ll share some statistics, and some of them are so scary and staggering: 49 percent of transgender people attempt suicide and one in 12 transgender people in America is murdered. I think we accept LGBTQ relationships more than ever before, but we certainly have a lot more work to do, especially in the transgender community.
Jawed-Wessel: They are both more accepted and more challenging. The reason they’re more accepted is because more and more couples are demanding to have equal rights and to be visible in their relationships and not have to hide their sexuality. But because of that, you are going to have more people challenging that; they go hand in hand.
I often use the word ‘partner’, but it’s coming to the place where we can say ‘spouse’ and that’s where we are crossing the boundaries of same-sex and heterosexual marriage. Young people all are for it and very supportive. Many of them see it as a justice issue; they ‘get it’ that you’re born—you don’t make a choice about—your orientation...That’s very different from their parents and grandparents.
Kavich: People—more now than ever—are realizing that ‘your lifestyle doesn’t affect me, so why should I care about your lifestyle?’ People are out now and it is being talked about and I think that’s a healthy lesson for us and to get us to the place we need to be eventually. ,
For the full text of the interviews, please see each "sexperts" post on thi site.