Live chat with social psychologist Petra Boynton

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Hello and welcome to our 26th live chat, with Dr Petra Boynton, “Britain’s first scientific evidence-based agony aunt!”. Petra is a social psychologist who researches sex and relationships’ health and she has kindly given us an evening of her time to answer many of our questions. This write-up will look more like a conversation than the usual Q+A, as every chat member was contributing to it and guiding the chat forward sharing their different observations and experiences.

We also sent Petra a number of anonymous questions people asked her through Facebook. Petra said she will reply to them individually, so if you enjoy this post remember to look back here soon for the follow-up Q+A.

Q: Hi Petra and welcome! When did you become interested in this topic?
Petra: I got interested in this topic as I assumed that as a supposed ‘expert’ in this area, I’d be fine during pregnancy, birth and beyond. And if I wasn’t, there’d be loads of help there for me. Turns out I was wrong on all of that, so I’ve been working with parents to be and parents since I had my first son to find ways to improve sex/relationship’s information at a time when nobody talks about it! A fair number of the questions already submitted are about sex – are you doing it enough? Mismatched desires? Tensions over a lack of sex. And worries about pain. So one thing that might be really helpful as it’s going to underpin all these questions, is to start with a bit of social science. Can you tell me – ‘what is sex?’
@Petra: I’ll be brave and answer wrong. Well to me sex is two things: 1) A beautiful way to express love and desire between two people or 2) a rather more exciting version of masturbation. Depending on who, what, when.
@Petra: it is an intimate exchange, not necessarily penetration.
Petra: Thanks for getting us started. It’s not a trick question and there is a good reason for asking. If you ask people in research if they’ve ‘had sex’ they usually answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But ‘sex’ to them may be some of the things you’ve described. If you ask them to self-define ‘sex’ they may include masturbation, kissing, oral sex, enacting fantasies and loads more. In most studies, particularly more survey based ones, we’ll usually list a whole range of things people *might* do, then let them pick. Some problematic studies (and much of the media and many medics) still view ‘sex’ as penis in vagina intercourse.

@Petra: The problem is, all of those things take time and energy. We have become masters of the ‘quickie’.
@Petra: There’s no question parenthood changes your relationship.
@Petra: Personally, having a baby hasn’t really changed our sex life at all, we had a great sex life both before the little man arrived and after.

Petra: Good points. The time/energy issue (see also privacy and opportunity) remain constant barriers for enjoying sex. I’m going to ask you another sex science question now. Why do we have sex?

@Petra: Pleasure, intimacy, to reproduce.
@Petra: Lots of reasons: relieve the urge, passion, it’s the done thing, peer pressure, all sorts!
@Petra: Before having kids it was a leisure activity. Now there is no time for leisure activities.
@Petra: Sometimes to please a partner.
@Petra: Because you’re due on in two days and haven’t done it all month.
@Petra: Because it’s been a while.
@Petra: That ‘oh my god, has it been a MONTH?!’ feeling!
@Petra: For two years – to attempt to get pregnant and since then, because I feel like I ought to.

Petra: All great answers. Although we’re falling far short of the 237+ reasons researchers have collated 😉 Although limited as on college students, researchers asked people all the reasons why they had sex. The answers were varied to say the least.

@Petra: I’ve always felt like there’s a pressure from media etc, for people to have sex more often than most people do.

Petra: You’re right. There’s enormous pressure, plus misleading ‘statistics’ mostly gleaned from a quick Google search and from a commercially funded poll to promote some product or other. While we’re on the subject, anyone want to guess how often the average person has sex per week?

@Petra: Once a week
@Petra: Prior to this evening, I’d have said once a week. I’m thinking less now.
@Petra: I’ll guess at 0.5 times

Petra: You lot are far too smart to be caught out. You’re right, it’s less than once per week. But here’s the interesting thing, when we’re doing sex research we’re really not that bothered about *how much* you do it. What we’re more interested in is *what* you were doing and *whether you liked it*. ‘Quality over quantity’. Many people believe they ought to be doing it several times per week or more and assume because they aren’t there’s something wrong with them. Which brings us to the point many of you have already made. You’ve talked about having to have sex to get pregnant and how difficult that can be. And feeling under huge pressure to provide/perform sex. Plus guilt that it’s been weeks/months and you’ve not done it. So if we look back over what we’ve already shared tonight. How does what you’ve talked about match up with the idea that sexual desire is spontaneous?

@Petra: It is not always convenient to be spontaneous.
@Petra: I’d say in our house, there’s very very little chance to be spontaneous.
@Petra: I lost my sex drive while I was pregnant and it hasn’t really returned.
@Petra: Same. My husband has to actually get me in the mood these days rather than assuming I will be!
@Petra: I feel awful as I just can’t bear the thought of being touched let alone getting down to it.

Petra: Contemporary Western culture presents sexual desire is something that “just happens, it’s an urge”. It is something you just feel. And when you feel it, you then want to have sex. If you don’t feel that desire, that urge or that longing, then you may well believe there is something wrong with you. Something research has traded off, classifying women who don’t experience desire as ‘dysfunctional’. Setting up one form of ‘desire’ as ‘normal’ is dangerous. Sometimes we may experience spontaneous desire. But increasingly research suggests desire is not spontaneous. It is responsive. Before we start trying to resolve the points you’ve been making in more depth, I wanted to ask if this kind of conversation is one you often have with others?

@Petra No one else ever!
@Petra: I have a tight-knit group of friends, but sex is always talked about in a jokey manner. I don’t like to talk about any problems I might be having in my relationship, as I’m worried about things being taken the wrong way.
@Petra: Nope, not something I would talk to others about.
@Petra: I used to talk about relationship stuff with my friends much more before we all had kids. Again, you have less time now.

Petra: One of the most helpful things I find in having space to talk like this is noting we all have quite similar fears, anxieties, hopes and experiences but we may assume it’s just us with a ‘problem’. This chat will be archived, so it would be really helpful to read back through it and see areas where you’ve got things in common with others. It seems many of you are either not having much sex or not having the kind of sex you’d like. You are exhausted. Or don’t want your body touched. Three things to start unpacking here – we can do this together now and think about it later.
1. For those of you who don’t feel like having sex now, what would happen if you just didn’t have sex?
2. If you aren’t having sex much or aren’t enjoying it, what might you do to change this?
3. We are focusing a lot about sex, but are other areas of your relationship also affected (e.g. would you like more chances to be close, kind, loving, romantic, have fun, be affectionate)?

@Petra: [even though we have lots of sex] I would love my boyfriend to be more romantic. Or even the slightest bit romantic would be nice! I think we would all like more chances to be all the things you mentioned but when you have children it’s difficult to find the time to do these things.
@Petra: We seem to struggle with romance and affection. I think a date night would do us good, but childcare is an issue.
@Petra: My boyfriend will be romantic, but what I want is for him to remember to put the laundry on.
@All, Haha, I think we all share that one!

Petra: You’re right, it’s much more difficult to do this when you have children – especially young ones (and also teens who selfishly barge in when you’re trying to have a snog). You’ve also made a really important point about date nights, which I have a love/hate relationship with. They’re always suggested as a solution to post-baby relationships, but are dependent on you having the time, money and energy to do them. If you don’t have family to help or cash for a babysitter you’re stuck. You’ve also hit the nail on the head about laundry. If you read sex/relationship advice books aimed at people with babies/kids, it’s all about spicing up your sex life and trying new things for sexytime. Which ignores if your partner’s not taken the bins out and *still doesn’t know where the ***** baby clothes are kept*. You’re not going to be feeling relaxed, or sexy, or happy or desiring someone who’s making your life harder than it needs be. Although you’re all tired and don’t have a lot of free time, one thing people find is useful is to take a ‘life inventory’. By that they note all the areas of their life that are going well. And all the ones that are causing them stress. If we just fix the ‘not having sex’ by making ourselves ‘have more sex’ it can work, but very often it just becomes another chore on the list. If you look outside the bedroom (or wherever it is you do it) you may find addressing things like shared leisure time, more time to rest/sleep, having support with childcare, and sorting housework tasks can make a bigger difference than scented candles and a new pair of panties.

@Petra: I have to ignore all the things I wish my boyfriend would do or I would’ve buried him under the patio by now, he does nothing in our house other than make it messier
@Petra: My husband will do anything but I have to ask. He won’t just notice that something needs doing. Not sure how to get around that really.
@Petra: That’s it exactly. What annoys me is all the mental energy I spend on remembering when the bins go out and when the baby last slept/pooed/ate, that my partner doesn’t do. It’s exhausting.

Petra: There was an interesting study I read recently about housework. It said several things. One is that women on maternity leave or working part time are there to care for children. Housework is an additional job. The second thing was that if you split chores that may help, but what’s more crucial is sharing chores based on what you like. Meaning if you really hate washing up you’ll feel like you do far more than your fair share because you hate what you’re doing. Of course there will always be chores you don’t like. But if you’re doing more of the chores that also make you miserable, lo and behold it’ll impact on your happiness, wellbeing and contribute to greater levels of relationship dissatisfaction. If this still works it’s quite enlightening to do.

@Petra: My partner is pretty good and does help with housework but I feel guilty that I should do more than I manage to.
@Petra: I do feel like i should be able to get more done at home but most days I’m just pleased me and the baby made it through the day in one piece.

Petra: I wanted to say at this point how much the things you’re sharing also resonates with my experience. The whole guilt thing is a real kicker. One thing research teaches us, which may (or may not) be reassuring, is that this time in our life is relatively short (baby days) and in time things will change. People fear that because their lives have changed so much, now their relationship will be damaged. Or they must frantically try and keep their relationship like it was before they had kids. Perfect home, love life, working outside the home etc. Noting that this will pass, there are really good reasons why sex/relationships are interrupted right now, and considering ways to enjoy being together accounting for these understandable changes can be better than pretending they aren’t there. I had some very good advice on that the other day from a colleague. They said that they know what it is like to have a life similar to their partner because they’ve had a job and gone out to work every day. But their partner has never spent all day, every day, alone and unsupported with a young baby. They have done the odd day, those days may well have been set up for them (with clothes, food, nappies etc laid out). The relentlessness of it, the grind, the loneliness and boredom, the keeping of so many mental balls and people’s diaries and lists in your head is EXHAUSTING.

@Petra: I got annoyed tonight as my partner is off work this week and I have done a couple of extra days at work and tonight I got home and he hadn’t even started cooking dinner for the hungry baby who didn’t get dinner until 6:45, who then needed bathing and milk for bedtime. This means I didn’t sit down until 8:30 and I am knackered, but he will still like to have sexytime when we go to bed. He doesn’t understand why I wouldn’t be in the mood!
Petra: Thanks for sharing that. It’s a good example of what many women talk about and some of you have alluded to already, that there are pent up resentments that mean you don’t feel like having sex, but also feel unreasonable for not doing it. I mentioned earlier the ‘why would I fancy you if you’re making my life harder than it has to be?’ I hear from many women who complain of their low desire as if they’re somehow faulty, but when you explore it they are reacting to understandable real life pressures. Interestingly partners do often think they are helping but it may be that help is either misdirected, has to be asked for, or isn’t enough.

@Petra: That’s so true! My husband had a sulk and told me I was bossy regarding how we do things with our daughter and it opened the floodgates of how unhelpful he was. It was massively cleansing (eventually).

Petra: There are countless books on how to talk to your baby or how to communicate with your baby and parent/baby interaction tools, but nothing really to help parents connect. And the relationship dynamic shifts so very often that women feel they’re a mum to their baby – and their partner. Understandably that causes all manner of tensions. Barriers to sorting this is feeling unreasonable for mentioning problems, feeling you are mentioning what is wrong but that isn’t heard (or acted on), being met with silence or accusations of moaning/nagging (or internally thinking that’s what you’re doing). Also if you’re tired, stressed and in a new situation then you’re already in a weaker position when it comes to explaining yourself.

@Petra: I feel better for knowing that I’m not the only person that feels like this.

Petra: You’re not! This is where I get infuriated with therapy, self-help and research: it can reflect our situation back to us, but what happens when we need workable solutions to apply to our lives? Not all conversations on sex/relationships and pregnancy/parenthood go the way this chat has. But many I’ve been involved with do. We may start with talking about ‘doing it’ but it quickly moves to talking about all kinds of things – and often much more about basic relationship issues than sex/pleasure. That’s not to say these things are not important. But there’s a big disconnect in both research and particularly self-help that focuses on ‘getting back in the saddle’ after having a baby, but not about your wider relationship.

Q: I do wonder whether anyone can actually tell someone else the best way to improve their sex life or relationship because people and their circumstances are just so different.
Petra: Good point. I don’t think anyone can (or should) tell others how to improve their sex lives for the reasons you state. We’re all different (this chat shows that) and one-size-fits all ideas exclude more than they include. There’s also the problem of advice givers/experts telling others what to do based on their experiences/preferences which may not suit others. The best approach in my opinion is to either try and accommodate as many people/outcomes/experiences/needs as you can or to find out more about the individual and their circumstances.

Q: Countless threads on ‘breastfeeding older babies and beyond’ have reassured me that I’m not the only one with a low sex drive. So although I don’t get to talk to my friends as much as I might like, I have found some reassurance and support virtually. Do you think Internet forums help with this stuff? Or do they make us less likely to talk in real life?
Petra: I think the internet can be hugely helpful (for those who have access). It’s a space to ask for things you might not share elsewhere and you can definitely find out you’re not alone. It’s especially comforting for things like pregnancy loss, although the downside is you can get a lot of politics at play (specially around parenting choices, feeding etc) and potentially some competitive behaviour that can make people feel more anxious. I’d like to see better training on sex/relationship for healthcare providers (that accounts for diversity regarding sex/relationships/sexualities/genders etc) and for the public.

Q: How much is the loss of desire due to hormonal changes such as pregnancy and breastfeeding?
Petra: The loss of desire and breastfeeding is interesting as it’s usually multifaceted. You’re tired, you’re depleted, there are the hormones to consider, you may have more vaginal dryness/discomfort. You’re having a lot of contact with the baby that can mean you’re fulfilled by that closeness or simply don’t want to be touched any more than you already are being through feeding. Regarding pregnancy desire drops, again this may be due to hormones, pain, aggravating existing disabilities, mobility problems, feeling self-conscious about your changing body, worries about hurting the baby (especially if there is a history of pregnancy loss), morning sickness etc. There’s a myth that all women feel no desire in the first trimester, become sex maniacs in the second and are still randy but too fat for sex in the last. We’re all different and some women have increased desire, some don’t change and some lose it.
@Petra: I have little desire, but think I am avoiding as we have children that don’t sleep well, I would rather avoid than have to stop in the middle.
Petra: I completely relate to the rather not bother than having to stop.
There’s a lot of pressure to have sex and fit it in whenever you can or that you’re obligated to finish. You can subvert that by either doing as you wish – to avoid rather than start. Or you could start but accept you may not finish (that’s allowed, but can feel frustrating).
I asked earlier if people had talked this frankly with others previously. I also wondered if you’ve shared some of this with partners? For example the comment about rather avoiding than having to stop is very common, but often women don’t vocalise with partners how/why they feel this. Opening up about your feelings is stressful if you’re already feeling guilty and anxious and not good enough. But partners aren’t mind readers and you may find that if you share how you feel, they might feel the same, or can see your point, or you can talk together about ways to do things differently or live with how things are knowing it isn’t forever.
@Petra: Actually no, I haven’t shared any of this with my partner and this chat has just made me realise what I have unconsciously been doing.

Petra: A US therapist friend gave me a good tip about how to talk to a partner. Use the phrase ‘help me out here’ – it’s an invitation for you both to recognise something needs sorting together (appreciate if you’re not getting on well this isn’t so useful). Earlier someone talked about their changed body and we’ve not mentioned that much. Skin tags, saggy bits, stretch marks, uneven boobs, overhanging tummies, scars, vaginas that won’t behave – all very common. Some people aren’t bothered. Some really are. There’s some truly terrible sex advice out there about how you have to just get on with sex in spite of body image hang ups by wrapping yourself in a sheet, backlighting with candles or flinging your legs over your head so they look smoother. It is important to note our bodies can change significantly and that can cause enormous distress that many midwives, doctors, health visitors etc ignore. And the media makes far worse with its fixation on celebrities back in shape 10 mins after the birth.

*And last thing just before going, Petra also wanted to recommend some books and further reading for those who would like to know or learn more*
Petra: These are some books people might find useful. Rewriting the Rules by Meg Barker invites you to rethink what you’ve been told about relationships. I also recommend this a lot by Gary Wood about confidence building (it’s a workbook).  Both Gary and MegJohn are interesting as they’re psychologists who have studied self help and gone on to practice as life coaches/therapis ts as well as writing self help books themselves. There are some resources for understanding sex like Cory Silverberg’s. Bish. Scarleteen. The last two are more for a younger audience but have so much useful stuff in them they’re worth bookmarking and browsing.

@Petra: Thanks so much Petra, it’s been a great chat. And thanks for staying so late!
Petra: No worries – it’s been a great conversation and I appreciate people being so willing to talk about things we don’t often share. I hope it’s been reassuring. Night everyone and thanks again for inviting me to your chat. It’s been really helpful in shaping the work I’m doing and I hope was useful to you as well. If you want to ask anything privately as a follow up to this chat, feel free.

napppppy

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