Dr Karen is our fabulous sex expert and Clinical Psychologist and Psychosexologist. She is also a Director at The Havelock Clinic. This week we interviewed her to get a bit of a run down in terms of why she got into her field, what questions she gets asked the most and her best hack for improving sex in a relationship. She also tells us about the time she almost went for tea with sex God himself Lionel Ritchie (is he a sex God? Okay maybe not)...
So Dr Karen, what made you get into your line of work? has it always been your passion?
I saw a video of someone doing therapy when I was 17 and I was sold on clinical psychology, but in terms of spending my whole career working on sex, that happened quite by accident! I did a specialist placement in my final year of training and I was blown away by how much I loved it. Both in my NHS job and for The Havelock Clinic I do a really wide variety of stuff, it’s all sex related but you’d be surprised how varied it can be. I’ve been doing it for about 14 years and become more and more specialised and I never feel tired of it. It’s so satisfying to work with people on things that are both really important to them but also really hard to talk about. There’s often a political angle to the work also in some shape or form and that feels really important to me.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing modern couples? Are they the same things that have always been a challenge? (say comparing to our parents generation)
This one is a bit of a paradox actually. In some ways sex should be easier for modern couples than ever before, with some positive changes in gender politics, greater acceptance of sexual and gender diversity in all forms and the fact that sex is seen as a recreation in its own right, not about procreation or whatever else, at least in some parts of society. Also our society is more sex focused than it’s ever been, porn is easily accessible, a huge number of women are consumers of porn, sex toys and taking change of and enjoying their sexuality which is great, but it does create a kind of ‘you should be a sexual athlete’ kind of idea.
But on the other hand, we know from research that we are having less sex than we were a decade ago, and the decade before that, so the amount of sex that we are having on average is less than our parents’ generation despite all these changes. The simple answer to why is probably our digital lives, as we get faster, less effortful, dopamine hits from other areas of our life, and we are more distracted than we’ve ever been so the opportunities for sexual intimacy are less and less. Our lives are busier and there’s always something to be doing instead of sex. This is the biggest challenge for the modern couple.
It's interesting that despite sex being everywhere, we're actually doing it far less...and what is the most common problem that people talk to you about or ask for help with?
Worries about desire, without a doubt. Or more generally, couples that have just let sex slide a little bit, and things have become a bit routine, a bit predictable and they are finding it hard to turn that around and worrying about what this means for the future.
What is your best tip or hack in terms of improving a sexual relationship?
Dramatically increasing the levels of ‘sexual currency’ between you without having sex. Something I get couples to try to have a couple of weeks with no sexual intimacy, but in the meantime to flood their relationship with as much sexual currency as they can manage. Passionate kissing, compliments, flirtation, suggestion, really going to town with it. These are the things that people do lots of in the beginning but tend to do less of over time, and they’re really important in the transition from being able to move from doing the weekly shop to having really hot sex. They’re like the stepping stone that makes that transition easier if you see what I mean?
Also couples that report the highest levels of sexual satisfaction are not couples that have the most sex, but the ones that have highest levels of sexual currency outside of major sexual intimacy.
So we need to be more seductive towards one another and not get so hung up on actually having sex perhaps.. One thing Lisa, Cherry and I talk a lot about is whether it's possible to sustain a good sex life in a long term relationship. What do you think? Is it possible?
It’s absolutely possible! I feel strongly that this is within reach for everyone, but equally there’s also a lot that can get in the way. This means that for the majority of couples this doesn’t happen without some effort and yes in some ways compromise. Media messages, busy lives, kids, not being happy with your body, not keeping the relationship generally strong, finding it hard to talk to each other, social media, all kinds of things! Part of the problem is that not investing your time and energy into sex can lead to it getting less and less satisfactory over the years. It’s the equivalent of not eating healthy or doing any exercise for a period of time then feeling disappointed that your body isn’t how you’d like it to look. We can’t expect our sex lives in a long-term relationship to be great if we’re not making any investment in it. A lot of couples are not enjoying their full sexual potential but also for most people it can feel tricky to know where to start.
Also, I think it’s fair to say that not all couples are starting from the same place in terms of sexual compatibility, and you have to take that into account in terms of what’s possible in the long run and how much compromise or effort might be required. Sex often happens easily for most couples in the first year or two, but after that when that first flush of infatuation turns into something more ordinary, if you have different sexual tastes, or one of you values sex much more highly than the other it can be a challenge that might require compromise. The other side of the coin is that I’ve also met many couples who have had a hot sex life for decades with minimal effort or compromise and feel that the initial passion they had has never worn off. It’s possible!
It's so great to hear that it's possible as I think so many people tend to give up and just throw in the towel. Okay...give us one fun fact about yourself that we don't know?
Lionel Ritchie once invited me round to his Beverly Hills house for coffee. It never happened but I wheel that story out at every available opportunity. It could have been a beautiful friendship!