How to get over the fear of emotional and physical intimacy with your partner
Sexual health experts highlighted sexuality and intimacy issues women deal with in a recent panel discussion at T:>Works’ Festival of Women NOW 2021.
Do you feel confident about how you look? How do you see yourself sexually? Are you avoiding difficult conversations with your partner because you’re afraid of being judged?
These were some questions that the speakers of The ‘F’ Word: On Intimacy And Relationships addressed during an online talk on Jul 21.
The discussion was the second instalment of the ‘F’ Word series and part of the Festival of Women NOW 2021 – Not Ordinary Work – organised by creative and theatre company T:>Works Singapore, that aimed to delve into the topic of sexuality.
Said relationship counsellor and clinical sexologist of Eros Coaching, Dr Martha Lee, during the session: “When we are not able to talk about things associated with sexuality openly, it has a detrimental effect on people.”
Dr Lee was joined by Dr Jessherin Sidhu, the founder of InSync Medical in the panel discussion, which was moderated by sexual wellness advocate Janice Lee.
The three women offered insights into the fears that people have when it comes to physical and emotional intimacy. Here’s what we learnt.
SEXUALITY IS MORE THAN JUST SEX
According to Dr Lee, sexuality can also be defined as the way you think and feel about yourself as a sexual person. “When I think of the word ‘sexuality’, I always think of something that is innate in us, whether or not we choose to think about it consciously or otherwise,” she said.
But the term sexuality has not only been “misconstrued” and “inappropriately used”, said Dr Sidhu, it is also commonly mistaken as gender orientation or sexual preferences.
“Sexuality is such a broad term that it’s really about how we express and how we experience ourselves sexually,” said Dr Sidhu. It can range from tangible attributes like the way you dress, look and carry yourself, to intangibles like the emotions you feel about yourself sexually.
She gave the example of how being body positive could be a healthy reflection of sexuality in women. “There was a woman who did not have your typical movie star body. She was a bigger-sized woman who posed in her bikini for a wefie with her friend. Yet she exuded that confidence without bothering about the number of people around her,” she said.
Dr Lee added that embracing yourself to live life to the fullest could inspire others to do the same.
“I think we only hear about the ugly side of sexuality and associate it as something that is dangerous and scary. But when someone is at peace within themselves, it is an inspiration to the people around them, and this is how we can heal one another from sexual wounds or messages that don’t serve us.”
UNHEALTHY ASSOCIATIONS LEAD TO A FEAR OF INTIMACY
Dr Lee cited the “lack of sexuality education” as well as a lack of “positive role modelling” as some of the reasons behind this fear.
“Right now we are actually seeing the horrible side of sexuality coming out in all its manifestations, with Telegram chats exchanging photographs and upskirt videos of girls,” she said, explaining that the shame, cultural and religious taboos around the topic are also contributing factors.
Dr Sidhu, who focuses on intimacy, sexual health and genital aesthetics, attributes the fear of intimacy to society’s conservative views towards sex and the way we were brought up.
She shared the story of a 28-year-old patient who had a build-up of smegma, a curd-like substance made up of dead skin cells and oil, at her genitals.
The woman had not thoroughly washed the area for many years and told Dr Sidhu that touching the inner parts of her vulva gave her peculiar sensations which she thought were “sinful”. As a child, her parents had told her not to touch the area, without properly explaining why.
YOU CAN OVERCOME THESE FEARS
“For many people, we view sex as something physical. They don’t realise that it has a lot to do with emotional intimacy, too,” said sexual wellness advocate Ms Lee.
Both Ms Lee and Dr Sidhu said that women should not view sex as something that is linear and goal-oriented. Creating the flow for something more intimate, such as a back massage after a tiring day of work, would help as well, said Dr Sidhu.
The mother of two also suggested having “protected time” with your partner where you remove yourself from the constant grind of life around your children. Her reminder: Children are independent beings, too, so try not to succumb to mum guilt.
Getting enough rest, scheduling intimate time, and speaking up about your needs are crucial in creating physical and emotional intimacy.
Dr Lee revealed that some of her patients were increasingly stressed and tired due to the long hours at work, caregiving commitments and a lack of personal rest. “Tired people don’t feel like having sex,” she said. “These are also people who want to have children but they don’t have the sex drive.”
Meanwhile, Ms Lee added that many couples who want to have children view sex with the sole focus of being “efficient” in procreation.
“Having sex once a month is definitely not enough if you are trying to have children,” she said, adding that people who want to get pregnant tend to forget about physical and emotional intimacy in the relationship.
It’s also important to be able to talk about anything under the sun with your partner, including adding very intimate questions into your conversations, said Dr Sidhu.
“Sometimes my husband and I will ask each other things like: Tell me three things that you like about me? Or three things that you like about the way I touch you?”
Dr Lee added: “One of the biggest struggles for partners is the fear of speaking up, being rejected, and being told that you are weird.” She encouraged people to be courageous in speaking up about their sexual preferences to their partners, especially in the time of a pandemic where we’re evaluating what’s really important more closely.
Putting yourself at the forefront of your priorities is also critical. “Neglecting yourself is a form of self sabotage or self abuse”, Dr Lee added. “When you are happy, you attract better things that come into your life.”
But even couples in long-term relationships may find it uncomfortable and difficult to express their needs and wants to their partners.
Ms Lee said: “I’ve had many couples (especially those in heterosexual relationships) confessing to me that it’s difficult to express to their partners that sex is getting boring, and wanting to explore the possibility of introducing sex toys and a non-monogamous relationship.”
Keeping quiet about it would affect both emotional and physical intimacy, she said.
Dr Sidhu’s advice when it comes to approaching a difficult conversation: Remove “deadly assumptions” that break down communication.
“I often tell myself and my patients that when you speak to someone about something that you’re concerned about, speak only from your perspective, speaking for yourself with feelings.”
By that, she means addressing your feelings first, for example, letting your partner know that you want to introduce a sex toy into foreplay without assuming that he would be “too macho” for it.
TECHNOLOGY CAN HELP YOU GET INTO THE MOOD MORE EASILY
According to Ms Lee, sales of sex toys are skyrocketing and are likely to increase even more during Singapore’s current Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), which ends on Aug 18.
“Sex is not supposed to be work or a chore, and if that’s what it is to you, the question is: What is your alternative, and how do you make it feel less like that?” said Dr Sidhu.
Just like how we’ve used earphones, electric toothbrushes or mobile phones to make other aspects of our lives simpler, she encouraged using sex toys to help with intimacy.
Although, Ms Lee also cautioned that these are simply aids and the option of experiencing something different, and not a replacement for a partner’s touch. “In heterosexual relationships, the males often expressed feelings like being not good enough,” she said.
If you are feeling bored and want change, introducing sex toys to your partner is not a bad thing, Ms Lee said. It’s just different.
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