Having open discussions can empower you, enlighten you, and maybe even help you get back your mojo, according to sex and relationship coach Pam Costa.
This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
In many ways, Pam Costa and her husband, Paul, had a wonderful life. They loved each other, and they had great kids and good jobs as engineers in Silicon Valley. But as the years went by, she says in a TEDxPaloAlto talk, “Every six to to twelve months, my husband would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘We need to talk.’ We’d sit down, and he would look at me with a sense of rejection on his face and say, ‘I want more sex.’ I’d look back with this sense of guilt and say, ‘I don’t, and I don’t know why.’”
They’d make an effort, and things would be better for a while — until they weren’t. Then he’d tap her on the shoulder, and they’d have the same conversation. After a number of these re-sets, she realized their relationship was nearing a crisis point. They went to see a sex coach, and that’s when Costa realized the power to be found in talking about sex.
In their (fully-clothed) sessions with the coach, Costa was prompted to open up and discuss her earliest ideas about sex. Growing up, she’d gotten mostly negative messages — that sex was always about the other person’s pleasure, not hers; sex was fraught with danger and led to disease or pregnancy; and if a girl or women liked sex, she must be a slut.
She had an epiphany: “How could I suppress the sexual side of myself for so long after receiving all these messages, and then just expect to turn it back on again?” Over several months, Costa focused on re-discovering her sensual side. “I learned to connect to my body through focusing on little things throughout my day that bring me physical pleasure — for instance, a hot shower, a soft sweater, the feeling of sunshine on my face,” she says. “I learned how to connect those feelings of pleasure to those feelings of pleasure.” Through this process and their counselling sessions, she and Paul gradually found their mojo again as a couple.
Costa wondered: Could other women benefit from talking about sex and sharing their stories? Nervous, she reached out to some friends to see if they were interested and she received an enthusiastic response. She arranged for a group of women to meet one Sunday at a local park. That first gathering was a success — full of laughter and tears. “It felt so profound that we decided to get together monthly,” says Costa.
Months later, when she looked at the women in the group, “many were experiencing better sex and better relationships just from talking about sex,” says Costa. She grew interested in the larger subject of women’s sexual wellbeing and realized there were many other people facing similar challenges — it’s estimated that 40 percent of women at any one point in time are struggling with some aspect of sexual function. She decided to back to school and is now a sex and relationship coach.
Costa continues to believe in the impact of having honest, small-group discussions about sex. She conducted one short, small-scale study in which roughly 100 women in 20 groups got together for weekly meetings (they received topics, prompts and general parameters from Costa), and after a month, the results were promising.
“Overall sexual function increased 20 percent, and distress about sexuality decreased 28 percent,” she reports. What was especially exciting about these findings is that the discussions didn’t require a therapist or counselor — “all it takes is women being brave enough to sit down together and talk about sex,” adds Costa.
Interested in starting a group of your own? Costa shares some suggestions.
Recruit a group
Four to eight participants is a good number. In Costa’s original group, all of the women knew her but they didn’t all know each other. However, she’s since worked with all kinds of groups — ranging from ones made up of complete strangers to ones made up of old friends who held online meetings — and says they all worked. (Costa has primarily worked with groups of women, but as she points out, “men need these conversations, too.”)
Set ground rules
Costa’s group had four main guidelines, which the members repeated at the start of every meeting.
- No judgment
- 100 percent confidentiality
- Stick to sharing your honest experiences, not your best friend’s or your sister’s
- Don’t give advice
Guideline #4 represents a major way in which these groups are different from many conversations with friends. It’s simply a fact of human nature that people like to give advice, but advice can sometimes make others — consciously or unconsciously — feel criticized, patronized, interrupted, or not heard.
“It isn’t necessarily about solving the problem or trying to solve the problem; sharing experiences is often healing in and of itself,” says Costa. In her study, she notes, “when women just share their experiences, not only do they feel normalized but they also feel inspired and empowered to explore their own sexuality.”
Have a transition period before and after the discussion
Costa recommends two hours for a meeting. However, your discussion will most likely not fill up that entire time. At the beginning, people usually need a little while to show up, grab a drink or snack, and settle in; after they’ve done that, it can be effective to ask people for updates on their sex lives and to talk about what they hope to get out of the meeting. At the end, allow for the conversation to gradually wind down and reach a natural conclusion.
Tackle one topic per session
For her study, Costa set the topics for the participants’ four meetings. They were:
Meeting #1: Debunking myths: social messages around sexuality;
Meeting #2: Cultivating desire: embodiment, turns-ons and masturbation;
Meeting #3: Exploring fantasy: stories that evoke feelings;
Meeting #4: Embracing passion: censorship in the bedroom
Tackling these subjects in this order helps establish where everyone’s coming from — in terms of their histories, preconceptions and experiences. Choosing one topic per meeting gives your discussion with a focus and keeps it from becoming too wide-ranging and sprawling.
In Costa’s first group, the members were very open about their lives. Costa says, “We’d get pretty detailed, like if you were a fly on the wall in the bedroom. But that candor was tempered with realism and empathy. “Everyone has their feelings about how much they want to divulge or which topics they feel comfortable talking about, so we were very respectful and honoring of that,” she says. “You should only share what you are comfortable sharing.”
Candor is one of the most important ingredients of peer-support groups; equally critical is the variety of perspectives. Depending on the topics, “you’re going to have some people with more positive experiences in a group [but also] some people with less positive experiences and some people with neutral or no experience,” says Costa. “I think there’s value in the differences and the similarities. That’s why, for me, having this as a group conversation is so much more powerful than a one-on-one conversation with a friend. There’s richness in the fact that we all have different experiences.”
Place limits on speaking
In her group, to prevent any participant from dominating, Costa used two basic tools: a talking stick and a timer. When a person had the talking stick, they could speak and no one could interrupt them, and a timer held each person to a 10-minute limit whenever they spoke.
Discuss the messages you’ve received on a topic — and try to identify where they came from
“I do this exercise a lot with clients where they write down on note cards all of the messages they got,” says Costa. Many will probably sound familiar: “masturbation is a sin”; “you’ll figure it [sex] out”; “my partner should just know what we like or don’t like”; “you should do it with only someone you love”; “sex is transactional”; “sex in a long-term relationship is boring.”
“The reality is, we’re told a lot of myths about sex,” says Costa. “Maybe they come to us from our schools and our families, but more often than not, they come from culture, religion and media and they are largely negative messages.” Think about where your ideas came from and what they were; this could lead you to understand what hinders or excites you.
Know when to get extra help
Being in a group like this can bring unexpected benefits — for instance, Costa says, “the most exciting thing that I found in my research was that women with children reported being able to talk to their kids about sex for the first time” — but it also might not solve all of your problems.
“Sometimes getting peer support and feeling not alone is enough, but I absolutely encourage people to reach out and seek additional support if they need it,” she says. “I like to think of it as having a great sex team. Talking to peers is one aspect; another aspect could be a coach, a therapist or a medical doctor or online classes and books. [Editor’s note: Costa has a vetted list of the latter on her website]. Yes, peer support is great, but peer support plus other support depending what you need is even better.”
Watch her TEDxPaloAlto talk now: