Episode 42

The Truth About Mismatched Libido & Desire with Cyndi Darnell

What our culture teaches us about sex isn’t very useful. Many of us have absorbed the message that sex is a means to some kind of end–orgasm, connection, a baby.  We’ve learned that there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.  We’ve even learned that sex is natural.  It’s no wonder then that when our libido doesn’t match our partner’s or our desires don’t match our politics, we assume there must be something wrong with us.  Here’s the real truth:  There is nothing wrong with you.  Or your partner.  So many of us have just been trying to conform to someone else’s narrow version of sexuality (often without even realizing it).  If we slow down and take the time, we can instead get to know the sexuality that is uniquely ours and the fulfillment we all deserve.

This week’s guest, Cyndi Darnell, says in her forthcoming book,  "The body has always belonged to either God or science. There has never been a time in Western history that the body truly belonged to the person who inhabits it."  She says we can begin to reclaim our bodies for ourselves by unlearning the things we’ve been taught about sex that aren’t serving us.  By rediscovering our libidos and desires.  By learning how to show ourselves to ourselves.  By being in our bodies.  Cyndi, clinical sexologist & sex & relationship therapist who works with clients all over the globe, is here to tell us how.

Learn more about Cyndi Darnell and her work at CyndiDarnell.com

You can preorder her book, Sex When You Don't Feel Like It: The Truth about Mismatched Libido and Rediscovering Desire at cyndidarnell.com/book

If you want to dive in deeper, consider joining our Relationship Bootcamp or exploring Rebecca's offerings to deepen your relational skills and expand your self-care.  Learn more at connectfulness.com

Also, please check out our sister podcast, Why Does My Partner

Transcript

Rebecca Wong:

So we are back today with a dear friend and colleague of mine. We're here with Cyndi Darnell. That's C-Y-N-D-I, Cyndi Darnell. Cyndi is a sex and relationship therapist, a sexologist here in New York. She's available for consultation worldwide, and has just written this fabulous new book that I got to read a little early. So excited about it. I can't wait to share this book, this conversation with all of you. The book comes out in June, right, Cyndi?

Cyndi Darnell:

That's right?

Rebecca Wong:

It's called, Sex When You Don't Feel Like It. And it is fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. I'm so excited to dive into this conversation with you today, Cyndi, welcome.

Cyndi Darnell:

Thank you.

Rebecca Wong:

Thank you.

Cyndi Darnell:

Thank you, thank you.

Rebecca Wong:

And you've been on the show before.

Cyndi Darnell:

I have, twice. Well, actually your other podcast, then this one.

Rebecca Wong:

My other podcast, yeah.

Cyndi Darnell:

So this is our third conversation.

Rebecca Wong:

versation on these [crosstalk:

Cyndi Darnell:

Yes.

Rebecca Wong:

So I am just so excited about this book, and for so many different reasons. When I was reading the book, one of the things that came up for me over and over again, was how much this is just about an inquiry about getting back into our bodies. And that feels like the essence of what you're teaching.

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah, and in so many ways, because most of us didn't learn about sex in useful ways. In meaningful ways. We were told, if we were told anything at all, we were told that sex is for reproduction. We were told that sex is for making babies. We were probably told that sex is for men in some way. And for most of us that's probably all we'll ever learned about sex.

Cyndi Darnell:

And then we get to our adolescent years, our adult years, and we go into intimate partnerships of whatever gender, and whatever orientation, with the only knowledge being sex for making babies. And for most of us, that is not why we have sex. Occasionally, we might have sex to make a baby. And that's a very specific kind of sex that occurs in a very specific kind of context.

Cyndi Darnell:

But the vast majority of us across genders and orientations, that's not what motivates us to have sex. So most of us have very little information about this enormous part of our lives. Whether it's sex with ourselves, or sex with other people. And when these conversations are absent from our education, when these conversations are absent from our day-to-day dynamics, it tricks us into thinking it doesn't matter. It tricks us into thinking it's not important. It tricks us into thinking everybody must have their shit together. So, "If I'm the only one struggling with this, I'm the problem." But that's not true. You are not the problem, Rebecca, neither am I. Neither are the people listening. This is a collective social issue.

Rebecca Wong:

And yet, that's the thing, because in your practice, in my practice, I think most people listening to this, it's the, "I'm the problem." That kind of shame-based stuckness that they're living inside of that they come into our offices with. "What's the matter with me?"

Cyndi Darnell:

People, we will in the absence of knowledge, in the absence of stories, we will internalize that absence, and deduce that we are the problem. We will internalize that lack of awareness, and presume that we are the defective ones. Or we will decide that our partners are the defective ones. Especially when it comes to a mismatching libido. It is very common for the higher desire partner in a relationship to determine that the lower desire partner is the problem. And that's not true. And people struggle with mismatches of desire in relationships because they don't have the tools to navigate it.

Rebecca Wong:

So we're back now to that absence of knowledge.

Cyndi Darnell:

It's so fundamentally the essence of the problem is ... To a degree, it's what we're told about sex is primarily lies. And then beyond that, when the information that we have is incorrect, or just flat out wrong, we are left then to fill the blanks with stuff that we make up. And then when we fill the blanks with stuff that we make up, we can't tell if ...

Cyndi Darnell:

We can't tell what we're doing, because we don't know where this information's coming from. If it's just this collective awareness, this social agreement that men want to have sex all the time, and that women don't really enjoy sex very much. And trans and non-binary people are just excluded entirely because they don't have sexualities.

Cyndi Darnell:

These things become self-perpetuating prophecies that we end up just absorbing. And so if we don't meet these expectations within ourselves, or in our relationships, or we don't see other stories of this kind in our communities, we have nowhere else to go, except think that, "I'm the problem. You're the problem." Rather than, "Could it be that we've all been duped." It's unfathomable to consider that there is an entire population of humans who have been duped. We can't possibly comprehend that this might have happened.

Rebecca Wong:

Can we slow down right there? And that duping, I think maybe our listeners might need us to spell out for them. How have they been duped? What is the duping? What has happened? What have they been told? What are the lies?

Cyndi Darnell:

I think the biggest one is that sex is natural. It's not, it's learned. The instinct to explore sexuality, I think that is natural. The feelings of arousal and horniness that may emerge at different stages through our lives, that I think is natural. But how to be with those sensations, how to interpret the signals of those sensations, how to share those sensations with another person, that is not natural, that is learned. That is very, very culturally scripted. That is scripted in so far as if you have been brought up as a girl, growing into a woman, you have been told certain things about your body and its functions, and its expectations.

Rebecca Wong:

Or not told anything.

Cyndi Darnell:

absorb it through [crosstalk:

Rebecca Wong:

Advertising, through media, through Hollywood, through ...

Cyndi Darnell:

So many different places. So then it's the absence of explicit sex education. I don't mean explicit as in porn, but explicit as in direct sex education in the same way that we learn math in English. That was a thing, like we learn what a comma is, and we learn what a semicolon is, but we don't learn about what a clitoris is.

Rebecca Wong:

Right, and sex ed is not just about, "This is how babies are made."

Cyndi Darnell:

No.

Rebecca Wong:

And it's not just about, "This is what your menses is," or, "This is what an orgasm is." It's also about, or it should also be about, knowing how to discover your body. Learning how to be in your body. Figuring out what feels pleasurable to you.

Cyndi Darnell:

Exactly.

Rebecca Wong:

And consent.

Cyndi Darnell:

Right. And also, I think now consent has become this thing that, certainly we're talking about it more, and that is definitely a step forward. And the conversations around consent, to me, they are still way too reductive. Because it's gone from the absence of consent, it just didn't matter, to now, it's something that one gives and receives through a series of yes/no questions.

Cyndi Darnell:

And I think that, that is not even enough. It has to be far more nuanced. And again, the root of that comes down to the degree to which we can be real with ourselves. The degree to which we can be honest with ourselves. A degree to which we are willing to admit to ourselves, "This is what I'm feeling. This is what I'm noticing." You may not like what you feel and notice. This is where sex therapy, sex counseling, sex coaching, whatever you want to call it. This is where erotic self-inquiry starts to get a little curly. Because we will discover things about ourselves that we may not approve of.

Rebecca Wong:

And this is the nuance, and the depth that you go into in the book around this, is beautiful for someone like me. And it might be a new space for a lot of other people. What I find, is that your inquiries are very guided by somatics, very guided by what's happening in your body. What are the belief systems that are tied to those things? There's this ... It's like we're going on an exploration as we go through this book. We're going on this adventure, this exploration of, "Who am I, sexually? Have I ever had a chance to learn that?"

Rebecca Wong:

And I'm not talking about where is what part of me? Like, my nose is on my face, and my toes are on my feet. We're not talking about that. But it's like, "Who am I? What beliefs do I have? And how have those beliefs or those values shaped how I approach my own body, and my partner's?"

Cyndi Darnell:

Exactly, and these beliefs and values, at a cognitive level, are one part of the story. And then, the other part of the story, there's an emotional part of the story. How you feel emotionally about something. So as an example, you might think. You might think that marriage is a good idea, but emotionally you find it very difficult to show up day, after day, after day in marriage because it's ... Marriage is not for wimps. And it's a very demanding role to be married, emotionally. Because you have to keep showing up all the time.

Cyndi Darnell:

So cognitively you think, "Yeah, marriage is a great idea." Emotionally like, "Whoa, this is hard." And then, somatically, it might be, "I physically need to get a little bit of space from you." Or somatically, "I need to move physically closer to you." And then there's the erotic piece. What turns you on at a mental level, and at a physical level. That might be different again.

Cyndi Darnell:

So we've got lots of different moving parts happening at the same time. But because culturally, especially in Western culture, we have squished romantic love and sex together into the same category. I don't necessarily think they're very well suited. I think they can be, but to expect that they go together like a hand and a glove is one of the other lies that we've been told. It's not true.

Rebecca Wong:

And there were some beautiful questions you ask in the book. You say, "How would you describe love, and how would you describe desire?" My partner and I sat with that question and for a while. And we were going, we both thought into it, and then we were talking back and forth about it. And it was just such an interesting inquiry, to sit with and be like, "Oh wait, what is love? And what is desire? And where are they the same, and where are they totally different, and actually have nothing to do with each other?" And where does actually, my love, actually make my desire harder to access?

Rebecca Wong:

Like the ways in which I'm committed, and the things I have to do to keep this relationship going. They strip me from the adventure, and the excitement, and the ... There's something about some of these things. The way that love and desire work. They might be cousins, but they're not the same.

Cyndi Darnell:

And in that way, I think in the book I describe them as chocolate and red wine. They can be compliments to each other, but you can enjoy them separately.

Rebecca Wong:

That's right.

Cyndi Darnell:

And it's just, olive oil and balsamic vinegar is another comparison. Again, they're very, very tasty on their own. And together, when they blend well, they make a delicious dressing. But they also repel each other. And that's just the nature of how they are. So our quest with working, with discovering who we are sexually, and the content of the book, the title of the book is, Sex When You Don't Feel Like It.

Cyndi Darnell:

So it does work through the notion of how to come back to center when you've lost your mojo, as it were. But it's also a book for people who want to take a quest, who want a guided tour through erotic self discovery. Whether you have a libido or not. Whether you're dating somebody, or married to somebody who has a libido or not. I think all kinds of people, including people who identify as asexual, will benefit from the practices and the inquiry that the book offer, because it's not about three easy steps to hot sex.

Rebecca Wong:

It's not a, "How to," book.

Cyndi Darnell:

No, I can't stand those kinds of books. I just think they're terrible. Because it's based on a cookie cutter assumption of everybody wants to feel like this. Everybody wants to do ... No, they don't.

Rebecca Wong:

But this is different, because this book that you have written, it's not the cookie cutter. It's the, "Okay, wait, what's something that's turned you on? Where have you felt like ..." It's looking, it's going through the inquiry of ... I love this. You say that one of the single most powerful questions in your toolbox as a sex therapist is the question of, why do you have sex? Just that. Why do you have sex?

Cyndi Darnell:

And it's such a thing. Because when I ask my clients that question, and they look at me like I've got five heads. And then I just wait. And then they shift in the chair, and they get uncomfortable, and I just wait. And then maybe they'll ask a clarifying question. "What do you mean?" "What you think I mean?" And then, it is that thing, and a lot of people have never asked themselves why. And then they'll say, "Well, what do you mean by sex?"

Cyndi Darnell:

And I say, "Well, what do you mean by sex?" Because again, if we default to penis in vagina, and that doesn't bring you any joy, well, then I would say, then don't do it. Find something that does bring you joy, and talk about that. We have so many ways to approach this. And that we can't even as a society even agree on what sex is. We don't really know how to talk about it. Again, collectively we tend to default to penis and vagina, but that really doesn't apply to everybody.

Rebecca Wong:

It doesn't. And I love in the book, you also talk about foreplay. It felt to me while I was reading, and maybe this is because I know you as well as I do, but I felt like I could hear your giggles occasionally, as you were writing. While you were talking about this concept, this idea of foreplay, which is everything that comes before penis and vagina, Like it's ... Or everything that comes before orgasm. It's the stuff that's also sex. It's not just foreplay. There was this quote from the book. It's a short one, but I ... I don't know, it really caught me.

Rebecca Wong:

You said "Having a deeper understanding of why we have sex reduces our need to have goal-oriented sex, or it certainly decenters it. Goal-oriented sex is where the focus is on the outcome, and not on the experience or the process." I think that speaks right to the heart of this. We don't know about sex. We haven't been taught as a culture about sex without a goal.

Cyndi Darnell:

Yes, and the goal for so many of us, again, we've been one of the lies that we believe, is that if it's not to have a baby, then it's to have an orgasm. And a lot of people, again, across genders and orientations, don't always have orgasms from partner sex. Most of us are more likely to have an orgasm in solo sex. But again, culturally, socially, solo sex is not considered real sex. Weird. Mixed messaging. This is the world we live in.

Rebecca Wong:

And weird messages too, about is it naughty? Is it bad? Is it dirty to masturbate, have solo sex, to ... So the inquiry of getting to know ourselves, of figuring out what feels good for our selves, there's often a shame-based shutdown. And that's something else that you talk about a lot in the book, you talk about this shutting down. I think you refer to it as the brake and the accelerator. One of the questions you asked is, "What would help you get your foot off the brake? What would help you learn how to relax?"

Cyndi Darnell:

And that is a much bigger question that, again, the science has shown us more about the impact of this brake and accelerator model that is rooted in science.

Rebecca Wong:

In biology.

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah And it, and [inaudible:

Cyndi Darnell:

However, what we know now is that it's not about slamming your foot down on the gas pedal. Because simultaneously you might be doing something that you think is nice, or you like it, or is in some way good, and/or affirming. But it's not bringing you the joy and/or the high, or the connection that you're hoping for.

Cyndi Darnell:

And so what that tells us is that something else is going on, and that something else, in this model, is referred to as the brakes. And that means you are hesitant to move toward the thing. You are hesitating in some way. And that's not a conscious decision. This is a somatic process. This is something that's happening in your nervous system. And it's not simply a case of mind over matter. "Oh, just relax, you'll be okay. Just have a glass of wine. Don't worry about it."

Cyndi Darnell:

No, that doesn't work. It has to be a greater level of initially safety with yourself, and then ultimately safety with a partner, or whoever you're with. To understand what would help me take my foot off the brake. What would I need in order to be able to allow myself permission to take the foot off the brake, to move it, move toward the thing that I think I might want. And for different people that can be really different things, and this is not necessarily something that we will know cognitively.

Cyndi Darnell:

It might be something that we have to discover over time, through practice, solo practice, through sensation practice. It might be something as simple as, "I need more time for my body to warm up," quite literally. It might be, "I need to know that the door is locked, and the kids aren't going to come bursting through the door any second." It could be something like that. It doesn't necessarily have to be some deep, complex childhood wound. It can also be that.

Rebecca Wong:

Yeah, it can also be that. And it could also be like, "I need to know that we could just explore each other, and that there's no need for us to arrive at a certain ..." Right? That we don't have to orgasm. We don't have to make a baby. We don't need that kind of ... We can just be here, and figure out what presence feels like together.

Cyndi Darnell:

Right, we don't need to put on a show for each other. We don't need to practice all the positions. We don't need to be swinging from the chandeliers. We don't need to be comparing ourselves to our neighbors, or versions of us that existed 30 years ago, because our bodies don't function like that anymore.

Rebecca Wong:

There's a few ... I'm having so many ... kind of thoughts right now because ... That are coming from the book. But one of the things that I'm thinking about is this idea of, that we don't really know how to manage discomfort, so we disengage. And how that numbing affects us. Because when we start numbing one sensation, and we start blocking from feeling something that doesn't feel good, or that makes us feel awkward, or uncomfortable, then we also block desire.

Cyndi Darnell:

Because when we start getting into the habit of keeping ourselves safe by blocking out sensation, we don't get to control which sensations have a green light, and which sensations have a red light. If we block sensation, then they all get a red light. Whether we want them to or not.

Cyndi Darnell:

You can survive like that, I guess, but that's a pretty tough way to live. You become, to me, it's like taking the world from technicolor into black and white. And then it's very hard to have fulfilling, nourishing sex, from a black and white world. We have to be able to tolerate a variety of sensations in our bodies, and emotionally. Emotional sensations, and visceral sensations, which can feed into and off of each other. In contrast with our thoughts, which are an extra layer. Again, the goal, the intention, the practice is not to have them all in alignment, but it is to be able to practice making room for them without privileging or prioritizing more one of for another.

Rebecca Wong:

That's right.

Cyndi Darnell:

And that's not necessarily an easy feat. But I think people who are able to practice being with mind, body, and heart in the presence of arousal, erotic arousal, that's really a practice. And that's not a practice that many of us are even taught is an option. Most of us are taught to just tow the line, and be a good girl, or be a good boy, and don't ask too many questions.

Rebecca Wong:

There was something that you had written, there's a ... Let me just find it. There's this quote that, it riveted me. "The body has always belonged to either God or science. There has never been a time in Western history, that the body truly belonged to the person who inhabits it."

Cyndi Darnell:

I know, it's amazing. When I wrote that sentence, I had to lie down afterwards. That was just like ... It's almost like I channeled that sentence. It just came to me. And I thought, in context, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about this stuff. And it's so true, and you see this in the therapeutic literature. You see this in medical literature. You see this in religious literature.

Cyndi Darnell:

And everybody's fighting about what sex is, and who it's for, and what it ... And no one ever asks the person who's doing the sexy thing, "How do you feel about it?" And everybody's trying to look for patterns and commonalities. And I understand the motivation to look for patterns and commonalities is to be able to identify some version of normal, but normal sex ...

Rebecca Wong:

I'm waiting for what you're going to say next.

Cyndi Darnell:

Normal sex doesn't exist. It just doesn't. There is no such thing as normal sex. Because our inclination toward exploring eroticism is as unique as our fingerprints. We've all got fingers, and we can all identify-

Rebecca Wong:

And we all have fingerprints, but none of them are the same.

Cyndi Darnell:

Right, and then on each different finger, the fingerprint is slightly different. And this is the thing with sex and our sexual appetites, is it will change as we change, as we learn more about ourselves, it will change. And then also, as we go through our lives, we would maybe change partners a handful of times. And then our partners will bring out different parts of ourselves.

Rebecca Wong:

And I was talking to you before we even started the recording for the podcast, and saying I'm noticing that there's a different time of day that I'm interested in feeling sexual these days. As I grow as a human, as I mature, there are shifts and changes. And if I'm not always in inquiry about what feels right, then I'm going to even just by my own standard of what felt right five, 10 years ago, I'm going to be missing the mark today.

Cyndi Darnell:

Exactly. And this is where it becomes another layer of inquiry, again, for couples. Especially if they're going through couples' therapy, to think, to have a formula for how sex is going to be great for us. That if we can just work out between us how to have great sex, then everything's going to be fine. And again, you'll work out a formula that'll work maybe for a few-

Rebecca Wong:

For a while.

Cyndi Darnell:

... weeks, or a few months.

Rebecca Wong:

Maybe even a year or two.

Cyndi Darnell:

Maybe even. But that is eventually going to change, and shift, and that is normal. And I think that, that is one of the things about sex that makes people uncomfortable, is it's like trying to hold water. It's very, very hard, because it's going to always just be slippery, and slip between the cracks, and ...

Rebecca Wong:

Without a container.

Cyndi Darnell:

Without a container, yeah.

Rebecca Wong:

And that's, I think, what you're offering here, is you're offering a container. The container is the self-inquiry, and the conversation that follows, right?

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah.

Rebecca Wong:

The container that we keep coming back to. The container holds the water. The container in this case, the self-inquiry and the conversation holds how we are sexual. And how that evolves and changes. There's a few things I'm thinking of, that maybe we should talk about define. Things like what desire is, what arousal is, and how risk plays into all of that.

Cyndi Darnell:

So the working definition of desire that I have in the book is ... Okay, let me say, the subheading of the book is, The Truth about Mismatched Libido, and Rediscovering Desire. And people will say, "What's the difference between libido and desire?" To my interpretation, and this is not a clinical definition. This is just the working usage that I came up with.

Cyndi Darnell:

To me, libido is the visceral elements of horniness or lust. It is that rising sensation of friskiness that makes you feel like, "I'm feeling horny," and we can identify horny as a very specific kind of sensation. That's what I mean by libido.

Cyndi Darnell:

Desire, however, can incorporate libido, or lust, or horniness. But desire to my definition is a much more textured blend of the mental, the physical, the emotional, the contextual, the circumstantial, the relational, the cultural, the social. That to me, is what desire is.

Cyndi Darnell:

And so, mismatched desire, or mismatched libido is about being able to dig into the machinations of sex, and belonging, and wanting, and be able to discover, "Well, what is it that I really want? How do I want to feel? What parts of that do I want to share with you, partner? What parts of that are just for me to know? What parts of that am I willing to accept about myself? What parts of that do I need to do a little bit of extra work on to accept about myself?

Cyndi Darnell:

Because perhaps there are things about myself in that regard that are challenging for me, that I don't like, that I wish were different." As opposed to trying to hide those parts entirely, and say, "Well, I can never tell anybody that I feel like this, or that I actually desire that, because of the meaning that I place on it. I decide that if I like this thing, or if I like that thing, it means this."

Cyndi Darnell:

All of us are meaning making creatures. So this is what I'm talking about when I'm talking about desire. It's not simply a matter of, are you in the mood or are you not in the mood? I think that's way reductive for the sorts of things that I like to think and talk about. Arousal, I talk about arousal in the book. What I mean by arousal is the physiological ... It's a physiological process. It has to do primarily with blood flow through the body.

Cyndi Darnell:

It will show itself as erections. It will show itself as engorgement of the vulva. It will show itself as lubrication of the vagina. It will show itself as a flushing around the chest, around the cheeks, these kinds of things. It will usually create a difference in temperature. You'll get warmer. Simply with the presence of blood flow. That's what I mean by arousal.

Cyndi Darnell:

And arousal can happen with or without desire. Interestingly enough. Sometimes you can have arousal, you can have an erection, or you can have a swollen vulva, and be completely not interested mentally and emotionally. Or you can be interested mentally and emotionally, and have no response physiologically, just cold chicken down there.

Cyndi Darnell:

And that is also a thing that can happen. So we have to make that distinction between libido, desire, and arousal. And they're the segments that I use to describe it. And I talk about all of that in the first chapter so we're all on the same page about where we're going.

Rebecca Wong:

Right. I just thought it would be good to orient our listeners so that they are grounded with us.

Cyndi Darnell:

Absolutely, yes.

Rebecca Wong:

Because so much of the conversation is about noticing that. And then, also noticing, one doesn't have to come first.

Cyndi Darnell:

Yes, exactly.

Rebecca Wong:

There not a one way that this has to go.

Cyndi Darnell:

Exactly, and I think, again, the traditional model of understanding sex is that you feel horny, and then you have sex, which for a lot of people that is not how they experience sex. It's how they think they experience sex. But if they slow down long enough to be with themselves, many people discover that, that's not how they experience sex at all.

Cyndi Darnell:

And that for a lot of us, the impetus to want to engage sexually comes from some other incentive that often has very little to do with sex, and a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves in the moment, or the time of day, or the ... Again, the context in which the opportunity arises, or it doesn't arise. Or-

Rebecca Wong:

Going back to that question you ask. Why do you have sex? Because when I sit with that question, that informs so much of why I might stay with the process. When I really look at that, there are so many different reasons why I might have sex.

Rebecca Wong:

And those reasons are where I want to ... Those are the things that matter to me. That's where I give meaning to. And that's the stuff that is going to inform how I show up moment to moment.

Cyndi Darnell:

Exactly. And in the absence of knowing that we have a choice moment-to-moment, and the absence of realizing that not being in the mood is completely normal. And that if we rely only on horniness as the indicator of whether or not we're interested in sex, we could be waiting forever for horniness to descend, and it just doesn't.

Cyndi Darnell:

And in the book I used the analogy of waiting at a bus stop for a bus that never comes. And you're trying to get to the destination. So the destination is sex of some kind, let's say partnered sex. That's your destination. So you're at the bus, stop waiting for the bus that's going to take you to partnered sex land.

Cyndi Darnell:

And you're standing there, and you're waiting, and you're waiting, and hour passes, two hours pass. And everybody else who's going to sex land is going past in cars, and taxis, and skate boards, and bicycles.

Rebecca Wong:

And you're still waiting for your bus.

Cyndi Darnell:

Roller skates, and everybody else, and you're just standing there waiting for the bus. And then your friends are saying to you, "Hey, come on jump on the back of my bike. I'll give you a ride." And you're like, "No, no, no, I'm fine. Thanks. I'm just going to wait here for the bus." Because you insist that the only way you will get to sex land is on the bus. And then that bus doesn't come. And then you're stranded, forever. It's terrible.

Rebecca Wong:

It's terrible.

Cyndi Darnell:

So many people think that, that's what being in the mood is. Is that they're stuck at the bus stop waiting for a bus that never comes. It's like, "I never feel horny. What am I going to do?" Get there another way. You don't need to be horny to get there. Just start heading in that direction, and see what happens. "You mean I can?" "Yes, of course you can. Just start walking." If this were any other context in life, if you were trying to get to a party, and it really mattered to you that you went to the party, and the bus wasn't coming, you wouldn't just stay at the bus stop collecting dust. You would walk if you had to.

Rebecca Wong:

One of the things you wrote in the book, one sentence was that, "Sometimes the most direct way back to the body is to use it, and reduce the amount of time spent over analyzing in the head."

Cyndi Darnell:

Yes, stop thinking.

Rebecca Wong:

Stop thinking.

Cyndi Darnell:

Stop thinking. And this is, I think is where the version of sex therapy that I have invented over the years, has a lot less to do with traditional psychotherapy, and has a lot more to do with an art class. Because if I say-

Rebecca Wong:

An art class that's not about perfectionism.

Cyndi Darnell:

Right, you have a bunch of kids who are going to just play with finger paint, and you plop down all the paints in front of them, and give them big pieces of paper, and you say, "Okay, let's go." And they roll up their sleeves, and dip their fingers into the paint, and they start painting. And there's no, "Is mine better than yours? Is this right? Is this good? Is this ..." It's just, "How does the paint feel between your fingers? What are the colors that you're most drawn to today? How much paint can you smear on the paper? Oh, whoops. You knocked over one of the pots of paint. Oh, well, nevermind. We've got another one." We don't give ourselves permission to approach sex in the same way that we approach finger painting.

Rebecca Wong:

No, we don't. Not at all.

Cyndi Darnell:

Why not? Why not? We don't stop to think with finger painting, "Am I in the mood for it?" We just get in there and do it. And then if we are halfway through, and we decide, "Actually, I'm not really enjoying this," then we stop. It's the same with sex. If you're halfway through, and you're not really into it. And you're like, "Gosh, I've been it for half an hour, this isn't working for me today." That's okay, stop. Come back to it next week.

Rebecca Wong:

control behavior. [crosstalk:

Rebecca Wong:

The idea of risk in that frame. And then you shared Barbara Carrellas' quote in the book. Barbara says, "Without risk, there is no growth or energy. However, without support, risk becomes recklessness. In the territory between, we can grow, thrive and find pleasure." This is like a whole ... I think for many people who are going to read this book, for our listeners, maybe here today, that there's a whole new definition here about what risk taking is. Especially when we're talking about taking risks in getting back into our bodies, and being present sexually with our partners.

Cyndi Darnell:

And this is the thing. When I was researching the risk chapter, I was looking for science. I was looking for data to, just to find stuff about conversations about risk. And there was a lot of literature about sexual risk, and all of it was just terrifying, and terrible. And it was all about what happens if you take sexual risks. You're going to get all these illnesses, and these terrible things are going to happen to you. And you're going to upset people. And there was no, there was no literature on taking erotic risks as an affirming, self-inquiry practice, nothing.

Rebecca Wong:

Even just the risk of like, "I'm not really in the mood for penetrative intercourse today. I want to tell my partner that what I'd like instead is ..." That's a risk.

Cyndi Darnell:

That's a risk. Absolutely.

Rebecca Wong:

But there's nothing that teaches us. We're back to the education piece. There's nothing that teaches us that, that's part of how we grow sexually, is tuning into what is it that feels okay for me today? And how do I share that? Then, following that train of thought, and following the direction that the book goes to right there, then we're back to talking about shame, and how that shame becomes the brakes.

Cyndi Darnell:

And that can be the strongest piece that we have to face, is the shame of showing ourselves to ourselves as sexual beings. And that even though shame queen Brené Brown, who is fantastic, and I love and appreciate everything that she does, but even she doesn't talk about sex. I'm guessing maybe because it's just too icky. It's just too uncomfortable. Like it's the last frontier of the shame work, to be able to connect with what stops us from showing up sexually to ourselves at a minimum, at a minimum to show up to ourselves. That is where my work, I think, really comes into its own. That has been my jam for the last 20 years.

Rebecca Wong:

It's been your jam for as long as I've known you.

Cyndi Darnell:

It's what I do. I like to create permission for people to show themselves to themselves, and in the presence of a compassionate witness, have that be okay.

Rebecca Wong:

That's right.

Cyndi Darnell:

And when we can do that. And the compassionate witness can just be oneself. It doesn't even have to be me necessarily, or your partner. It doesn't have to. Just to show yourself to yourself. Once you have been able to sit with that challenge and take that risk, the rest starts to flow from there.

Rebecca Wong:

I think maybe something that is also worth talking about is awkwardness. Because how do we practice taking risks without also making space for, we don't know how this is going to go.

Cyndi Darnell:

the same sandwich. [crosstalk:

Rebecca Wong:

There's nothing about sex that's not awkward, right?

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah, the more we can get used to that, then guess what, "Hey, presto, the less awkward it becomes." We just got to acclimate to it. And we acclimate with repetition.

Rebecca Wong:

That's right, with practice. Over and over again.

Cyndi Darnell:

Over, and over, and over again. But it doesn't have to be heavy. It can be, but it can also just be giggly, silliness.

Rebecca Wong:

Playful.

Cyndi Darnell:

Silliness.

Rebecca Wong:

You also say in the book that, "A playful risk is something that feels expansive."

Cyndi Darnell:

Yes. I make a distinction in the book between playful risks and dangerous risks. Because risk is a word that tends to make people stop breathing. And obviously there are dangerous risks. There are risks that are not wise to take. So again, I'm not ... Nowhere in the book do I take any moral high ground around what people should or should not be doing, even through a legal lens. I don't take a moral high ground. Because what's legal in one country is not legal in another country.

Cyndi Darnell:

And there's religious laws, and all this various things. So I'm not taking any moral position about what we should or shouldn't do. What I do say about dangerous risk and playful risk is how it lands on you. And the example that I give is when I think about something I want to do. Or I think about something I don't want to do. I've noticed how it feels to me physiologically. And for me, if something feels exciting, it makes me feel, for me, I feel it in the top half of my body.

Cyndi Darnell:

ve to analyze why. [crosstalk:

Rebecca Wong:

And these somatic responses, just to offer some clarity for our folks listening, they're like whooshes, they're kind of quick.

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah, they're very quick. They don't require loads of analysis and justifying. They just are what they are, and they can shift and change. But in the initial stages, as we develop our practice, we just go with it. Some people call it a gut feeling. It's the same sort of thing. And so, for me-

Rebecca Wong:

Yeah, and we're just looking to tune into it, to listen to it, to notice it.

Cyndi Darnell:

Exactly. A dangerous risk for me. Again, I feel it in my throat. It feels like it's closing in. It makes me pull back a little bit. It makes me feel like my shoulders drop down when I think about it, even my eyes will drop down when I think about it. That to me is an indication that, "I think I don't want to do this." And it's not forever, necessarily, but it's certainly, it's a no for now. And that is okay. And when we can give ourselves permission to move through those different kinds of risks. That's how we start getting in our somatic reps.

Rebecca Wong:

Can I pause you there for a minute?

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah.

Rebecca Wong:

Because you just really beautifully illustrated your knowings about what it feels like in your body. And it's going to feel different in other people's bodies. Like, in my body, in our listeners' bodies, they're going to learn. We're all going to learn what those knowings feel like. And they might change and evolve over time. But what you're sharing is that as you get to know, what does a playful risk feel like, and what does a dangerous risk feel like? What does the yes feel like? What does the no feel like?

Rebecca Wong:

As you get to know that, in the moment, you can feel that and go, "Oh yeah, I'm not cool about that." Or, "Oh, I'd like to try that out." So there's these different ways of, now, you are in conversation with you. Which then opens you to being able to be in conversation with whomever you're with.

Cyndi Darnell:

Exactly. And that's the thing, even with the playful risk, as you feel yourself leaning toward it, or whatever version of, "Yes," shows up for you. It doesn't even have to be a 100%. It can be a 70%. And if you decide that a 70%, "Yes," is enough for you to decide to take the risk, then take it. And then you may need to put some caveats around it and say, "Well, yes, I'm willing to do this. As long as this, this, and this also happens," or whatever it is.

Cyndi Darnell:

And again, that makes it sound like it's a really big deal. And the example you gave before of saying it could be as simple as saying, "I don't feel like having penetrative sex today. What I would really like is a massage, and just a make-out session." That could be a risk. It doesn't need to be trying going to a swinger party. It doesn't have to be that.

Rebecca Wong:

Right, it doesn't have to be that.

Cyndi Darnell:

It can be something very-

Rebecca Wong:

The risk is in asking for what you want.

Cyndi Darnell:

Exactly, [crosstalk:

Rebecca Wong:

The risk lies, not inside of whatever the behavior or activity is, but inside of taking the risk of saying, "This is what would feel good to me, this is what I want. Would you meet me here?"

Cyndi Darnell:

Exactly. And so that's where showing ourselves to ourselves, being your own compassionate witness is the first step in making the changes that will allow your body to feel safe enough to consider taking your foot off the brake.

Rebecca Wong:

That's right. I'm going to jump ahead a bit. In the book, you later start talking more about fantasy. And there's something you said about fantasy. I don't want to go into all the details. Because I think it's such a rich conversation, and the book can hold a lot more of that than we could here on the podcast. But there's this one really important piece, that it feels like it goes along with this conversation around risk. And you offer this, "If anybody knew this about me, if anybody knew I was having these fantasies, they'd dumped me. They wouldn't want to be with me."

Rebecca Wong:

So then you say, "So instead, we abandon ourselves, and we vow never to engage with that part of ourself. We bury it really deep, deep down. And I'm thinking along the lines of risk. I think we abandon ourself there too. I think throughout all of this, throughout everything that we're talking about here today, I think so much of what it means to be sexual, is about coming back home into your body.

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah, it is. That is the place where everything starts and ends. And when we look to our partners to be those things for us, we miss out on so much. And we set ourselves up for loneliness and disappointment, because as much as we want to be able to share these parts of ourselves with our partners, we have to be willing at the outset to share those parts of ourselves with ourselves first.

Rebecca Wong:

That's right.

Cyndi Darnell:

And so, if for some of us our fantasies are a source of discomfort, or shame, or embarrassment, or awkwardness, or fear, or anything that we deem to be less than pleasant, that is not necessarily an indicator that something about them is bad.

Cyndi Darnell:

In fact, it's probably not. And also, too, fantasies are not always literal in the same way that dreams, like sleep dreams, are not always literal. We might have sleep dreams about all kinds of stuff that we wake up in the morning, and think, "My goodness. Well, what was that?" It's not literal.

Rebecca Wong:

Not literal.

Cyndi Darnell:

Sexual fantasies are not always literal. Sometimes they are, but often they're not. Often they are symbolic. They are metaphors. And it's not necessarily something that we want to do, but they can show us parts of ourselves that give us information about what we want, or what we don't want, what we're craving. And again, in the book I talk about that. We don't necessarily have to share fantasies with our partners in order to be close.

Cyndi Darnell:

And that's not to say that we withhold and keep secrets, but there are things about the nature of erotic fantasies that are wildly misunderstood. That we assume, "Because I'm thinking about this thing, then therefore I want to do it." And I know for certain, from having spoken with thousands of people over the years, when people have brought all kind of fantasies to me, fantasies that they have found, let's say, abhorrent. In 70%, 80% of those cases, those people have not wanted to act on them.

Cyndi Darnell:

They would say, "I would never do that in real life, but why am I thinking about it?" It opens a portal to something within us that is worth exploring, but it doesn't mean anything bad. It doesn't mean that we have to do anything, and act on these fantasies. This can be a huge source of us slamming our foot on the brakes, feeling like, "Because I fantasize about this, that, and the other-"

Rebecca Wong:

Something's wrong with me.

Cyndi Darnell:

"... something's wrong with me," and it's not. It has no more bearing on who we are, and what we long for erotically, than our sleep dreams necessarily.

Rebecca Wong:

That's right. So as we start to wrap up this conversation, there's one more quote from your book I want to share. "Misunderstandings about sex, desire, our expectations of each other, and how sex is supposed to be, often form the core of sexual problems in relationships. The problem is not usually sex, but communication about sex and its offshoots, emotions, power, and turn taking." Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Rebecca Wong:

It's, there's nothing wrong with you. There's nothing wrong with your partner. There's nothing wrong with your relationship. It's just what you don't understand, and what you're not able ... Because you don't understand it, you can't communicate it.

Cyndi Darnell:

And that's the thing. And because so many people suffer unnecessarily by keeping these things in a vault, keeping these subterranean elements away from the light of day. Because they dare not admit to themselves that it's happening. They dare not share it, and communication. I talked about this in the book, too. Communication is not just saying your peace. It's also hearing what's happening for your partner. Listening is such a huge piece of communication. So sometimes you may think, "Well, I'm pretty middle of the road. There's nothing going on for me. But your partner may have all this stuff that they want to share with you, but they are reluctant to, because they're concerned about your capacity to hear what they've got to say.

Rebecca Wong:

Very much.

Cyndi Darnell:

So this is the communication piece also, not just what you want to say. But are you able to hold space, and hear what's going on for your partner? It could be that they have some wild fantasies. It could be that they just want a shoulder massage.

Rebecca Wong:

And that's risk taking too, just to show up and listen. To really hear that space. That's a risk.

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah, exactly.

Rebecca Wong:

There's one other really significant piece that you pointed out in the book, that I've been playing with in my own work with my clients, and exploring just personally, also. And that's this idea about giving and receiving, and how, you know what, you can't really do both at the same time. Or at least not well.

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah, not well.

Rebecca Wong:

You can't be present. Like with my clients, I'll often have them ... And you've talked through this in the book too. Just with one hand, touch their forearm, and experience what it feels like to be touching, and what it feels like to be touched. When I do that to myself, I notice, I feel either the touching or the touch, but I can't feel them both at the same time. My consciousness can't perceive both, together.

Cyndi Darnell:

Yeah, it's too much.

Rebecca Wong:

So, when we parlay that into sex, I think that also shows up with like, "How do we do sex acts?" Someone is giving, someone is receiving. If we're both trying to give and receive at the same time, that interferes with our pleasure. With our ability to be present.

Cyndi Darnell:

Again, one of the narratives that sit on the back of, "Sex is natural," is that for sex to be fulfilling, it has to be mutually, simultaneously beneficial.

Rebecca Wong:

It's not.

Cyndi Darnell:

I don't think I've ever had mutually, simultaneously beneficial sex. And I've had a lot of sex over the years, of many different stripes. And when I think about my top, my peak sexual experiences, my all time favorites, they have been where either I have been absolutely the recipient of the touch, and it has been exactly how I wanted it on my terms. Or where I have offered that to somebody else, and I've been doing the touching, and offering a gift to them.

Cyndi Darnell:

To be able to have, again, this really comes from this notion that real sex is penis in the vagina sex, and everybody has simultaneous orgasms, and it's all blissfully fabulous. And I don't want to say that, that doesn't happen. I guess it happens sometimes. But if that is the only thing that is going to satisfy your soul, if that is the only way that you're willing to extend yourself sexually is to replay a script of simultaneous orgasm based sex. You can do that, but at some point you are going to, even your body is going to find that a little bit boring.

Cyndi Darnell:

It's going to find that to be a lot of pressure. And getting into the practice, or the habit even of allowing sex to be for the benefit of one person at a time can be a very, very, very liberating way to start exploring the essence of pleasure. Rather than trying to perform sex in a certain way, because you think it's how it's supposed to be. Even if it doesn't necessarily feel especially good, or the risk of failure leaves you feeling less than.

Cyndi Darnell:

To me, it just leaves such an empty shell where a full heart could be. And we can change that script by deciding, coming back to our, "Why?" "Why Do we have sex? What do we want to feel? Why are we doing this? What is the intention? What is the purpose behind this?" If your why is to fulfill a social script, okay, then go for it, knock yourself out. But if your why is something more textured, "Go with that." That is where you're going to find erotic fulfillment.

Rebecca Wong:

,:

Rebecca Wong:

,:

Rebecca Wong:

ll be back next month in June:

About the Podcast

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Connectfulness Practice
Deep conversations about the roots of our disconnects and how to restore relationship with Self, others, and the world.

About your host

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rebecca wong

Rebecca Wong LCSWR, has been practicing as a psychotherapist for almost 20 years. Her work blends modalities for relational trauma healing. She maintains a private practice in New Paltz, NY on unceeded Lenapehoking land where she resides with her husband, their teens, and a handful of four-legged furry mischief-makers. Rebecca works virtually with people in the states of New York, Colorado, and Massachusetts. She also offers experiential workshops and hosts podcast which centers on the relational healing journey. Learn more about Rebecca’s work and podcasts at connectfulness.com