As humans, we may pride ourselves as having achieved a lot over the millennia, but when it comes to women’s sexuality, we are in many ways still pretty much stuck to where we were 10,000 years ago. The topic of sex, especially when it concerns women’s sexual desires and fantasies, remains taboo, and it often hinders women from making the most out of their intimate relationships. How do we break away from the fear, judgment, and silence that characterize our relationship with sex? Relationship therapist Dr. Alexandra Solomon talks about this in her book, Taking Sexy Back: How to Own Your Sexuality and Create the Relationships You Want. In this conversation with Alicia Dunams, Dr. Alexandra expresses the need for us to learn more about our sexuality, be more open about it, and break away from the judgment and fear over its full expression. We may have a long way to go before we can change societal perceptions of sex and sexuality, but taking our sexy back and learning to love bravely is something that we can do for ourselves, and it’s never too late to do that.
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Taking Sexy Back: Breaking Away From Stigma And Moving Towards Healthier Intimate Relationships With Dr. Alexandra Solomon
I have Dr. Alexandra Solomon. She’s on the faculty of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She’s a licensed Clinical Psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Alexandra is the author of Loving Bravely and also Taking Sexy Back: How To Own Your Sexuality And Create The Relationships You Want.
Alexandra, it’s great to have you.
It’s great to be with you, Alicia.
I always like to get started with asking the question, Alexandra, why did you write a book?
It was my version of a midlife crisis. I was at the couple decade mark in my career, and I have always loved being a woman on a bridge like bridging what we do in our therapy offices with the general public, bridging what we do in academia and the ivory tower to the general public. I’ve always loved that translational work and I’ve done that through media my whole career and presentations to the general public. This felt another vehicle or way for me to expand and explore how you take dense topics, scientific literature, clinical theory and make it applicable, digestible and usable in people’s lives. It was a very steep learning curve. I didn’t know a thing about the publishing industry, literary agents, publishing contracts. It was a steep learning curve but I have loved it. It has brought me to all kinds of fun places including our conversation right now.
You’re rightly so in terms of having hardcore academic content and research, it’s only as good as when it reaches the people. You being a bridge to that is very important.
As many authors do, I have these different courses of judgmental audience inside of my head, especially with the second book when I was writing about sexuality. I had all kinds of imagined worst-case scenarios. To be a self-help writer is not something that academia is cheering on. It is a different kind of writing because it is intended to be so digestible. I did not write an academic text. I was hearing all these chattering of what would the ivory tower think of this? It’s another way that all of that stuff plays out. I feel like I learned a tremendous amount about myself, how to stand in my truth and my power, honor and trust my passion rather than being bound in by, “Now, academia is not going to think I’m academic enough,” all of that chatter that travels with me everywhere.
I want to ask what do you want people to discover? What do you want them to learn? How do you want them to transform by reading your book?
With Taking Sexy Back, it’s an invitation to a journey inside of themselves. Even though the vast majority of my work happens in a relational space, I’m a couple’s therapist. I teach people how to love each other. These books, both Loving Bravely and Taking Sexy Back, are journeys into our own interior. The bottom line is our intimate partnerships can only be as strong as our relationships with ourselves, especially around this topic of sex and sexuality. This book is targeted towards female readers.
It is about who have you been told that you are as a sexual being? What have you been allowed to be and not be around your sexuality? How do you shift from all of the noise and voices you’ve internalized to cultivating from the inside out? A deep sense of what your relationship is to the erotic because that’s the place from which healthy sexual choices, wonderful pleasurable sexual experiences, healthy intimate partnerships comes from, from my deep sense of connection to myself. That’s what I want to offer readers is time and space to figure out what are the messages I’ve internalized, which ones serve me and which ones get in my way and do me harm.
Something that you mentioned in this book, and I thought it was fascinating, is human beings are happiest and healthiest when we occupy a shade of gray between rigidity and chaos. Speak into that because that is so applicable, not only to your book in terms of female sexuality, even from a broader perspective, it’s applicable. Speak into what that means for the reader and even a broader perspective.
This is an idea that I had originally heard from one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Dan Siegel, who is a neuropsychologist who does beautiful work around our brain, minds, bodies and relationships. He invites us to imagine what he calls the river of integration. It’s like we’re floating down this river. One bank of the river is rigidity and the other bank of the river is chaos. Our goals are we are happiest, healthiest and most connected when we’re finding a space between not too rigid and not too chaotic. Around the sexuality, rigidity shows up as very strict beliefs around when and how we are allowed to have sex, what position we’re allowed to have, how we’re allowed to sound, what we’re allowed to ask for and not allowed to ask for, how our bodies need to look in order to be beautiful, who is allowed to be beautiful, all of that stuff.
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There are rigid beliefs that we, through no fault of our own, internalize through cultural messages. Then the other bank, some of us get stuck there which is chaotic, which is when we are putting ourselves in sexual situations where our pleasure isn’t centered, our partners aren’t able to meet us in a generous, collaborative, respectful place or we aren’t tending to our sexual health for example. Those are the kinds of things I want the reader to identify, “Where am I at risk of landing here? What are the consequences and how do I find that delicious shade of gray where I’m grounded within myself and I’m connected to my partner?”
When I was looking at it and I was thinking about this rigidity versus chaos, rigidity is holding your breath and chaos is hyperventilating. I’m more in the middle, beautiful meditative breath.
There’s both, the inhale and the exhale. They’re both aspects, the yin and the yang. All of that idea of flow. I don’t know how these lands for you but when I think about my own sexual journey, who I was as a sexual being in my twenties is different than now in my 40s, as a mother of teenagers. All of the changes and shifts physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually that happened at midlife. Whatever we think we figured out about our sexuality at point A, we get to work it and rework it as our relational context changes, as we change, all of that. It’s not something we can decide like, “This is who I am. This is what I like. This is what I don’t like.” It gets to be this constant discovery.
That’s what we’re here to do on this planet. We’re constantly discovering. You speak into being sexualized is different than being sexual. That spoke to me as well. Being sexualized is it’s happening to you and being sexual is when I see it as you being sourced and you creating it.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was giving a talk one time and a woman in the audience said, “How do I know if I’m doing the sexual act with a male partner?” Especially because of heterosexual scripts or the particularly problematic nature of heterosexual pornography, this stuff tends to get even more heightened when women and men are making love to each other. Her question was about, “How do I know when I’m being sexual if I’m doing it to turn myself on or if I’m doing it to my partner on like performative versus expressive?”
It was such a great question. It makes so much sense, that’s a challenge for many women. When you think about the cultural messages, we use women’s bodies and sexuality to sell everything from cheeseburgers to eye shadow. Female sexuality has been used in many different ways. We’ve been sexualized in many different ways that it makes sense that it doesn’t feel the idea that, “My sexuality is mine.” It can end up feeling subversive versus, “My sexuality is a reflection of my family, church, government, race or culture.” It is very radical shift to locating your sexuality inside of yourself, which is what being sexual is.
How can people express their sexuality in a safe way in the world now? Is it something that should be reserved for inside the home or is it something that gets to be shared on social media? How do we walk that road?
That’s a complicated question. One thing I know to be true was that this book was published the day after J.Lo and Shakira’s Super Bowl halftime show, which was very sexually alive, sexually empowered, provocative, evocative, the whole thing. I was asked questions during that week about what I thought of that because that was the pushback. This is a family show. These men on the field are getting concussions. They were saying that violence is a family show, but midlife women celebrating their sexuality and culture is not a family show which was confronting around what we get to put our judgments on. I do think that when we find ourselves judging especially a woman’s sexuality, it is a big invitation back into our own selves and beliefs.
Why am I judging her, her expression, manifestation, display and choices? What story lives within me? What belief system lives within me that is leading me to be critical and judgmental? There’s always an opportunity available to us. It is the more courageous road. It’s easy to stand with our arms crossed and be like, “That one is slutty, prudish and ridiculous. You shouldn’t be wearing that.” That’s the easy thing to do. The more courageous thing to do is to notice the judgment because we all have them and then go, “Whose voice is that? What does that remind me of? How does that live within me? Does that belief constrain my ability to source pleasure or does that belief facilitate my ability with source pleasure?”
It is so easy to wag our fingers at people. For some reason, the wagging of the finger feels like it bolsters people’s feelings of, “I’m better than.” When you need to do that to feel better than, you have deep underneath some feeling of inadequacy, limiting beliefs you’re speaking into, or however you were raised indoctrinated through whether your church, school, society or what have you, whatever beliefs that are in you. Rather than deal with them, they judge everything that doesn’t look like what you believe.
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You scratch the surface a bit on our judgments. Oftentimes, our judgments have a lot of envy in them. I’m imagining women who are watching Shakira and J.Lo who are so athletically gifted, ridiculously gorgeous and moves that I could only dream of being able to. The envy then becomes a constraint because what might be your pathway to feeling that full of your own erotic energy? What might happen in your own life and relationship if you don’t learn to pole dance? Although that might be a pathway to learn to pole dance, but how might you inhabit your erotic energy? Even if it doesn’t look like Shakira’s erotic energy or J.Lo, what does your erotic self long to say to you and your partner? There’s something tremendously vulnerable about that. We’ve got 10,000 years of women treating sex as a duty and a responsibility to their partners. To start to imagine, what would a sexual experience that is founded in my desires, yearnings and turn-ons, that’s some vulnerable work. If it’s like, “This thing I do for my partner,” it’s safe. It doesn’t feel great but it doesn’t rock the boat the way that allowing yourself to follow your fantasies, sensations or desires. That’s getting a little bit raw, tender and risky.
It’s very vulnerable and to be able to vocalize that and share that with people, whether it is your partner or spouse. I’m thinking in this dynamic we’re having right here, how far would I go in this conversation? Would I express my sexual yearnings? As a woman in her mid-40s, I feel very sexually liberated in terms of how I show up in terms of my sexuality. As you said in the book, it doesn’t have to be penis entering the vagina type of sexuality. It’s sexuality and it’s an essence, essentially. I feel it’s important in terms of settling into your body. I teach a lot of leadership training and also speaking. You can tell when someone’s head is separated from their body, where they cannot settle in and feel what’s going on and what’s opening up, understanding the physical sensations and being confident. Part of confidence is owning your sexuality.
I gave a TED Talk and it was such a moment of reckoning for me to be aware of how much I rely on my physicality as a source of my power. I had a particular Beyoncé song. I was backstage in the green room with my headphones on with this song on repeat moving my body. It was locating and generating my power. It wasn’t turning myself on or trying to be sexy for the audience. It wasn’t like that. It’s exactly what you’re saying, making sure that I wasn’t a floating head because I had a script in my head and I didn’t want to miss this line and I had this. It was so much cognitive work, I wanted it to live in my body. I will never forget the feeling on the stage. I felt like this space couldn’t contain me. My energy was so expansive like I will blow the roof on this place. I felt so there and I have always used music and my body to have that. I know that I teach better, do therapy better and be a better partner when I’m accessing my body in that way.
We do everything better when we access our body. That’s the only way that we can fully heal is in our body. It’s the cognitive work and the somatic work, and you can tell when people are disassociated when it’s not fully integrated. The integration work is important. Every woman who is a leader get to do work in sexuality. They get to do work in terms of expressing themselves sexually. You have the book on it and there are a lot of women who do that type of work. That’s an important part of it.
I find it complicated. Around the time the book came out, I was brought into Women’s Leadership Summit, and there was a lot of fear on the Women’s Leadership team. When you go to my website, there’s content about leadership and relationships, but there’s content about sex as well. These women who are themselves are some of the first founding leading edge around women in power, there was a lot of fear about like, “What am I going to bring into that space? Can we be in a corporate building talking about sex?” The way we talk about sex and work is sexual harassment. That’s the unfortunate way that sex and work would intersect. I’m curious how you navigate that with leadership work because it’s complicated and risky. In some ways, the fact that neither men nor women have healthy ways to ground their sexual energy, put boundaries around it, use it for inspiration and creativity, but in a very boundary way. That’s part of the problem that our sexual selves are running roughshod or are splintered off. If anything has splintered off is at risk of being acted out on.
I was doing sexual harassment prevention work around the #MeToo Movement. What you were saying is that’s the only conversation in the corporate world and it’s very fear-based. I do a lot of JEDI, Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion work in sexual harassment leadership work. It’s all under the umbrella of emotional intelligence at the end of the day. I woke up and I said, “I don’t care about what people think about me. I show up as me. If someone doesn’t want to hire me, it wasn’t meant to happen.” I’ve had my own business for years. I conduct myself always in a professional way. I’m very connected. Some of my come-froms is compassion. My values are non-judgment. I have had all types of friends.
I’ve had friends who are sex workers. One of my best friends is a born-again Christian, everyone under the sun. I come from a place of, “Do you and be mindful of not harming anyone else.” It’s complicated and I show up. If I’m not someone’s cup of tea, then that’s not where I’m supposed to be. At this stage of my life is living with a fearlessness, not even that, it’s being me and being mindful of the context. Contexts are important. Are you going to talk about sexuality in front of kindergarteners? No. It’s not the time and place. Our kids are seeing everything on social media, so these things get to be discussed. The context creates the content always. I woke up and I’m like, “I’m going to do me, I’ve always done me.” I was a lot of fearful in my twenties.
It goes better. You do your work better when you show up as you, versus the you that you imagined the people in the space are wanting, needing or expecting you to be, which it does not mean free for all as you were saying. There’s some clarity about what the work is and what the work isn’t but I feel the same way. If I feel like I have to cut these parts of me out in order to belong in this space. You’re not going to get what you’re paying for. You’re not going to get the best version of me.
Alexandra, what are some things that you want to leave our readers with?
In terms of Taking Sexy Back, a takeaway would be that it’s never too late. I love when I get an email from an 18, 19, 20-year-old who has found this book, whose mama has gotten her this book oftentimes as the way that it goes. I love when I get to hear from her and that I get to hear a story of moms and daughters sitting on the couch together reading this book. That’s such a beautiful chance for intergenerational conversation and healing. The thing I know for sure is that not a single one of us enters adulthood with the kind of sexual education preparation wholehearted approach to our sexualities that we need and deserve. That was one of the things that I researched with this book is the state of sex education in our country particularly and it’s quite pathetic. It’s gotten politicized and very few young people have what they need, especially in the era when porn is so readily available and then becomes the substitute.
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I’m excited to get the message out that you need and deserve to be a lifelong learner about your sexuality. It doesn’t have to be any particular way. It doesn’t have to be, “I’ll learn about that once I’m married or once I’m single.” It’s not about your relationship context, it’s about your relationship with you. That’s what is important. Sex and love are different aspects of the same phenomenon. I have found in my own field that the couple’s therapists are over here and the sex therapists are over here. There’s so much to be learned across those conversations. It’s been fun for me to feel like I have a foot in both of those worlds and helping people imagine and understand how love and sex fit together for them, how healthy communication in a relationship opens the door to great sex. Great sex opens the doors to deeper communication, more emotional safety and intimacy. That arrow goes in both directions.
That’s fascinating that there are two separate types of therapy: marriage therapy and sex therapy. As Chris Rock says in one of his comedy, “If you’re married, you need to have a lot of sex and travel a lot.” That’s what he was saying to keep a marriage going. I would think that they’re so integral that those conversations should be had together. As you mentioned, you being the bridge between those two worlds. Do you know Sex with Emily? Have you been on her show?
I have not yet.
Something that Emily Morse says, who’s a good friend of mine, “Communication is lubrication.”
I have a new couple come to therapy with me. I want to hear about their presenting problem. What are they coming in for? Very early on, I’m asking about their sexual connection with each other. Oftentimes, it has atrophied for years and years, and that breaks my heart. That feels like a mutual decision and both people have lots of ways to feel connected and close without erotic connection. That’s fine, but oftentimes it’s that they have suffered under patterns of misunderstanding, mismatched libidos, mismatched interest with no way to talk about it. Sexual problems are completely run of the mill.
It’s hard to imagine being in a long-term intimate partnership and not hitting some sexual problems or challenges. What happens though is because the topic is taboo, we don’t have the skills we need, there’s so much silence, shame and blame that takes over and then they harden in this stance where there’s a lot of fear, judgment and silence around sex. It is quite heartbreaking. I want people to feel like they can early and often raise their hand, reach out and have some support for their relationship, emotional connection and sexual connection. Every couple deserves that.
It’s always a work in progress. Alexandra, thank you so much for being here. Can you share with us how people can find out more about you on social media, website, etc.?
I am active on Instagram, @Dr.Alexandra.Solomon. My website, DrAlexandraSolomon.com, has lots of resources, a newsletter with upcoming events and things that are happening. Those are the best ways.
Thank you so much, Alexandra. It’s been such a pleasure to speak and to connect with you.
It’s been great to be with you. Thank you so much for having me on.
- Loving Bravely
- Taking Sexy Back: How To Own Your Sexuality And Create The Relationships You Want
- Alexandra Solomon
- TED Talk – Alexandra Solomon
- Sex with Emily
- @Dr.Alexandra.Solomon – Instagram
About Dr. Alexandra Solomon
Dr. Alexandra H. Solomon is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University and a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. In addition to writing articles and chapters for leading academic journals and books in the field of marriage and family, she is the author of the book Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want (New Harbinger, 2017). Her second book, about sexual self-awareness, Taking Sexy Back: How to Own Your Sexuality and Create the Relationship You Want, will be published in February 2020.
Dr. Solomon maintains a psychotherapy practice for individual adults and couples, teaches and trains marriage and family therapy graduate students, and teaches the internationally renowned undergraduate course, “Building Loving and Lasting Relationships: Marriage 101.” Dr. Solomon is a highly sought-after speaker who works with groups like United States Military Academy at West Point, Microsoft, and The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and she is frequently asked to talk about love, sex, and marriage with media outlets like The Today Show, O Magazine, The Atlantic, Vogue, and Scientific American.
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