All these Sex Shop Series books rolling on in reminded me of a fun project I did in grad school as part of a mandatory sex therapy class. I pulled out this journal (still online and for sale on amazon) for a trip down memory lane. Here are just some of my thoughts on how SEX can tie right on into writing (because basically?) everything can....
Note: For the purposes of this article, the term “marriage” will extend beyond its traditional meaning to include domestic partners, same sex couples, polygamists, and others in less traditional living and committed relationships.
Why (Not) Sex Journaling?
People have been keeping diaries and journals for longer than pen and paper have existed. Egyptians believed that God could be contacted directly through the written word and that memories could be erased or deleted through the deletion of writing. People have believed in a marriage between writing and healing since Apollo was the god of both poetry and healing. And the Biblical David was soothed by the psalms of Saul. Sacred expressions of writing – both new and old - serve not only as a record of a person’s life and activities, but as an outlet for healing. Journaling can help a person get in touch with their deepest feelings, yearnings, and discomforts. Likewise, it can capture the joys and happier moments of a person’s life. Putting words to the page can also serve to organize the brain. Something as simple as writing a to-do list in a journal can open the brain for more clear thinking.
There are many types of diaries and journals, to include daily diaries, gratitude journals, dream diaries, food diaries, observance journals, travel logs, and memory journals. Journals and diaries also serve as a constant companion and confidant twenty four hours a day. “Diary keeping is especially common in youth at the time when, conscious of his uniqueness and his solitude, the young person feels that adults no longer understand him, that some friend of his early years has failed him, or that moral conflicts have become almost unbearable” (Allport, 1942, p. 96).
If this is the case, why not use journaling on the topic of sex as to promote intimacy, attachment and communication in couples? Journals would also have the impact of helping promote differentiation within couple dyads – another factor to help improve communication around sexual topics. That is, if journals are a way to help a person define his or her struggles and most intimate desires, why not bring that into the bedroom – and to the sex therapy office - where couples can use journals and diaries as a way to become closer and spice things up?
Here is where the Red (Sex) Diaries come in to “play.” While most Americans are familiar with Zalman King’s 1990s “Red Shoe Diaries” erotic drama series, not many have thought about taking that title to heart and into the bedroom. When considering the benefits of incorporating journaling and diary keeping into therapeutic treatment, why not bring it to couples as an intervention that would help them share their wants, needs, and desires and get to know themselves a little better?
More and more therapists are now looking toward incorporating journaling into their treatments plans because of its obvious benefits. These therapists believe in some basic beliefs about the writing process. First, they believe that reading poems and stories and writing personal reactions to literary and other forms of stimuli affect emotions, cognitions, and behavior. They believe that guided discussions with others on readings and writing experiences enhance the processes of healing and growth. They also believe that we can modify our feelings, attitudes and actions to attain healthier functioning. Lastly, these therapists believe each person is an expert in their own life story and that all people are capable of being creative. (Charvis, 2011). Most important, however, is the shared belief that participating in the writing process brings clients a better sense of self-worth, helps heal wounds, and brings fuller meaning to their lives. (Charvis, 2011). If journaling can do all this for a client in other areas, it’s fair to assume it can do the same for a couple with intimacy issues.
Forms of Expression
Like snowflakes, no two people are the same. This makes it easy to understand why every person has a different way they are most comfortable expressing themself. For some, sharing a story verbally is the easiest way to communicate. But for others, there is more freedom when the pen and written word come into play. For couples who best express themselves through writing, having a private journal which clients can choose to share or not to share with their therapist or one another is another tool to help a client express him or herself. For the client who says “I’m not good at saying things and do better with writing,” therapists might consider suggesting the client keep a regular journal of their thoughts, activities, and ponderings. This would work particularly well for a couple with trouble talking openly about sex and/or using sexual terms. Sometimes, people have trouble asking for what they want sexually or vocalizing fantasies out loud. A sex therapy journal might help partners to communicate their desires without actually having to vocalize them. And, journals are limitless when it comes to content and could include client artwork, poetry, and other forms of written expression.
A Spicy Side Effect
Most everyone likes a good story. And while writing is often seen as a solitary activity, the impact of writing in journals, diaries, and even in letter form can be vastly underestimated when these written expressions are shared. That is, a letter or journal sharing between partners can often have lasting impact of great significance to both the writer and recipient. This sort of communication can ultimately change a couple. A spicy side effect for couples suffering from a lack of sexual desire toward one another may be that partners become aroused reading about one another’s fantasies and desires.
Studies have shown that both men and women respond to erotica. In a study conducted in 2011, it was concluded that couples who use erotica together see an increased openness and communication in their relationships and sexual experiences. (Cortez). For women in particular, arousal often comes with material aimed at romance and emotional intimacy (Osborn) which is something a sex journal would intrinsically help provide to the couple when framed as an extended love letter.
An Extended Love Letter
For couples who stick to shared journaling, this gift they give to one another could ultimately be viewed as a passionate and love letter; something that could be brought back out when things get stale or the couple is looking for new ideas or experiences.
A shared journal experience can be viewed not only as an extended love letter, but also a gift of trust and self-definition. Studies have also shown that “being more differentiated allows for more satisfactory sexual communication” (Timm, 216). A tool like a journal the couple can share to talk about their fantasies and their own needs as a sexual being would help in promoting differentiation because it helps them define themselves as sexual people. This would have the inevitable effect of helping them amplify a secure attachment; also important to sexual satisfaction. “A secure attachment style is paramount in sexual satisfaction,” (Timm, 216).
A therapist who is able to frame such a journal as a gift of love and trust is not only helping the couple with intimacy and attachment issues, but also increasing the likelihood the couple will increase their sexual activity. Studies have shown that couples who talk and think about sex are more likely to have it. They also feel more closely connected (Vaughn). While couple attachment is the second predictor of a happy sex life, frequency of sex is an important factor as well (Vaughn). On the flip side, couples who don’t talk about sex or communicate about it are less likely to have it, be securely attached, and to be differentiated. They experience anxiety because of their avoidance of communicating about sex (Butzer). The cycle looks like this:
Avoidance and anxiety = Less sex/intimacy = Less happiness together =
A therapist who can get a couple to communicate about sex through journaling may have an impact of changing the cycle to look like this:
Journaling communication = More sex/intimacy = Happier couple =
Prompts and Exercises: Suggestions for Clinicians
Although spontaneous letter writing or journal entries are one way people use to express feelings, sometimes even daily journal writers need help getting started. Writers suffering from writers block often use prompts and exercises to jog their creativity. This could be particularly true for couples who are complaining their sex life has become boring. Here, the use of clustering exercises could be a trick to get things back on track. In clustering, the left brain, the logical and analytical side, is temporarily shelved. This allows for the more creative side of the brain to take over. This will give a client a new perspective on any situation and open up space for brainstorming and unconscious reactions or fantasies to surface.
While cluster exercises could be done in the privacy of a couple’s bedroom, it might be helpful for a therapist to offer psycho education to a couple during an in session exercise. To begin such a cluster exercise, clients are asked to pick a word that is sexually charged for them. Examples of words might be love, fantasy, lust, lover, or attraction. The clients then write the word in the center of separate journal pages and draw circles around them. The clients should be instructed to close their eyes and meditate for a moment, not focused on the word written at the center of the page. When ready, the clients should be instructed to draw a line coming out of the circle around the word and write the first word that comes to his or her mind. If there is a second word related to the original word, clients should write that one down too and connect it to the original word as done in the first step. The client should repeat this process until they have run out of words or reached the end of the page. At this point, the client should have several words on the page and be able to see how their word associations took place. For example, for a client with the word lust, a cluster for a heterosexual male might include words such as girls, mouth, fun, tits, blow job, control. For a heterosexual female, it may include words like chest, muscles, sweat, love, friendship, sex. Then, the couple can choose to share their word association chains. With these word association chains, the therapist and clients are able to get a better perspective on how each person in the couple defines the word lust. The therapist could point out similarities between the world lists and the couple could discuss the differences in their lists. This would point out common factors for the couple and also bring them to discussing things they may not have thought of before when it comes to their own and each other’s sexuality. At the same time, it would point out differences in how each person experiences lust.
In this case, a therapist might use the information to initiate a conversation about the clients’ wants and needs. For the male client, lust and sex are related to power, control, and fun. For the female, more attachment words are used like love and friendship. This could be a great place for a therapist to bring in Integrative Couples Therapy (ICT) or Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) to help the couple talk about ways to bring their lists closer together. It could also be reframed to say, “It looks like you have different ideas on this word. It seems like these differences could make for a lot of variety in your sexual experiences as a couple. What could those look like?”
Another journal writing exercise that could be of benefit to clients who are a bit more experimental would be to make role playing inventories. Here, clients could be encouraged to journal on various role play games they might like to enact as a couple. Because we all play many roles in our everyday lives, people often enjoy putting on a different hat when it comes to sex; particularly people who are not comfortable with certain sex acts unless they are in a different “mode.” For these clients, it could be helpful to ask them to write extensive lists of the roles they have played in their lives and the roles they would like to play in the bedroom. Because every experience of our past plays a part in the person we are today, it is often helpful to take inventory of those experiences. A client may have a role inventory list such as daughter, sister, female, granddaughter, niece, cousin, toddler, student, friend, dreamer, girl scout, coin collector, quilter, musician, librarian, babysitter, teenager, honor roll student, bible school teacher, girlfriend, field hockey player, teammate, night owl, writer, journalist, fiancé, bride, wife, lover, mother, caretaker, foster parent, etc. In identifying each of these roles, a client is able to open up memories and experiences; helping to shape the narrative experience. This, when shared with a partner, helps with intimacy. Also, such an inventory helps with self-definition. But the benefits to the exercise do not stop there when sexual role play lists are created and shared. This same client may add school principal, naughty nurse, and dominatrix to the list; causing her partner to take another look.
Studies have shown that intimacy and how well differentiated a couple is are not the only factors that come into play when it comes to the frequency of sex and sexual satisfaction. Married couples under the age of 60 have sex an average of 1.6 times a week. And only 37 percent of couples over the age of 60 have sex once a week (Vaughn). Factors such as the length of the relationship, ages, life stage, and overall health also come into play. Gehring used the Basson Model to look at intimacy and other factors leading to sexual satisfaction. She discovered that a woman’s sexual arousal and desire levels are often primarily dictated by her environment and direct interactions with her partner on any given day. (Gehring). That is, if a woman is distracted by kids and chores or work issues, she is less likely to want to be intimate or sexual with her partner. Likewise, if a woman has a negative interaction with her partner, she is less likely to want to be sexual; where men are not as affected by these factors. (Gehring). This information leads well to including exercises in journals that ask couples to define their favorite times of day to have sex, locations for intimacy, and other environmental factors that might set up a sexual encounter. Questions like “What is your favorite time of day to have sex?” and “In an ideal world, how often would you have sex with your partner?” could help to begin negotiations on these factors for couples.
Other sex journal writing exercises are much more straight-forward. For clients who enjoy expressing themselves through prose or poetry, a list of writing prompts might be in order. These prompts are manifested as simple questions that trigger memories, short stories, and even erotica. Examples are: journal about your first kiss, write about a fantasy you’d like to realize within six months, what does sexual creativity mean to you?, and write about what it means to feel loved. While some questions are simple, others are more thought provoking and can lead to confessional style writing. Ellen Baker suggests journal prompts such as “What degree of control do you have in your life? Does it seem adequate? Does your need for control intensify with stress? Have you been tempted to forfeit control in a maladaptive way when you have felt overwhelmed? What were the consequences of that? What seems helpful in maintaining an optimal level of control in your life? What kind of pacing-personally and professionally-generally works best for you over time? What external and internal influences can get in the way of your optimal level of pacing? Are you satisfied, or not, with the quality and quantity of your organization in your personal and professional lives? … and what factors help you get and stay organized enough?” to pull out deeper writings (Baker, 2003, p. 67). These questions around the theme of control might be good ones for the male client who listed control as a word he associates with lust.
Using Journaling to Externalize the Problem
In narrative theory, “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem,” (Gehart & Tuttle, 2033, p. 215). What better way could there be to separate a problem from a person than by having clients journal directly to the problem? For example, a client might be able to view the “problem” of sexual dissatisfaction as separate from them if they wrote journal entries in letter form beginning with the salutation “Dear Sexual Dissatisfaction…” The following is an example of what this might look like:
Dear Sexual Dissatisfaction,
For six years now, we’ve allowed you into our life. You’ve stolen so much joy from us. It wasn’t yours to take. There was the time you ruined our anniversary and didn’t allow me to show my love for my partner.
The good news is that you can’t do that to us anymore. You do not define us and you are not welcome into our lives, spirits, or souls. We are strong and are committed to finding the satisfaction we once enjoyed as a couple. We don’t need your company any longer. We are moving into a new life where we will use our strengths to reconnect and find each other again.
We are now saying goodbye.
John and Bob
This type of journal entry could also be written in session or given as a homework suggestion. The therapist could serve as witness and even respond with a follow up entry or letter to the clients commending them on their new beginning and wishing them luck on the exciting journey ahead.
One of the beauties of journal writing is that there are no rules. Clients who are artistically gifted should be encouraged to draw pictures in their journals to illustrate emotions, fantasies, or anything that strikes their mood. These pictures can often be as revealing as the prose and allow clients to express another side of their creative self that could help in self-definition and be taken into the bedroom. Furthermore, clients should be encouraged to write in whatever format they are most comfortable. Some clients will enjoy writing in the first person, while others will prefer to tell their stories in the third person. Many clients will enjoy writing free verse poetry while others will write lyrics and short, first person snippets. There is no “must” in journaling, including that it needs to be done every day. Instead, clients should feel free to use their journals as much or little as they wish to explore themselves or simply put words to the page. Likewise, couples should reserve the right to share and not share their journals with one another as they see appropriate. It would be wise for the therapist to help navigate “rules” around this between each partner before the shared journaling experience begins. Rules here could look something like they would in break out groups in group therapy. The following is a table of those types of rules (Yalom, 2005), altered for this discussion:
Example of Sex Journal Rules:
Maintain attitude of respect and dignity
• Politely acknowledge efforts of your partner. Don’t criticize.
• Respect each other’s privacy by only reading what is shared.
Use language and body responsibly
• Avoid words that attack or blame your partner.
• Refrain from using language that would make the other feel uncomfortable while sharing.
• Calmly ask for explanation of any confusion, disagreement, conflict or concern.
• Seek opportunities to join your partner in his or her exploration by offering support and feedback, resist urges to correct, embarrass, or undermine.
• Treat each other with respect regardless of personal feelings on a particular topic. We don’t all think the same. Journaling together is an opportunity to celebrate differences.
Honestly give best effort
• Be true to yourself when sharing feelings and writing or creating in your journal.
• Use active listening when your partner is sharing.
• Use humor responsibly. Share responsibly. Journaling together is aimed at bringing you together and sharing intimate wants and needs. Journals are not places meant for attacks and/or to alienate your partner.
Red (Sex) Diaries
The following is a chart of questions and language in the “Red (Sex) Diaries” tool to give therapists ideas for prompts. One of the joys to journaling is that there really are no rules. Prose can take on many forms and even exclude words at all – substituting with art. The Red (Sex) Diaries sample questions are aimed at working with many different theoretical models so that therapists are able to be flexible and it can be used in many ways. A common factor here is that there is a psycho education piece to all of this; therapists are introducing their clients to another way of communicating on a topic that is sometimes difficult. The chart shows what each question was aimed at helping the couple with and gives a better idea of how journaling could be useful in this type of therapy:
Congratulations on taking your first step toward more intimacy in your relationship. Here, in the Red (Sex) Diaries, there are no rules. Use these pages as a launching pad for self-reflection and discovery. Share what you chose to share and keep the rest private. It’s really up to you. The idea here is to open discussions and spark ideas that will bring new passion into your sex life.
Write about how you and your partner first met.
Journal about your first impressions of your mate. What attracted you to him/her?
List the first 20 words that come to mind when you hear the word “sexy”.
Write about a sexual experience you would like to have with your partner. Why would u enjoy?
Why do you enjoy being intimate with your partner?
List 10 things you enjoy about spending time with your partner.
In what ways is your partner a good lover?
What messages did your caregivers give you about sex as a child? Which would you like to take with you and which do you reject?
What props would you consider taking to bed with you and your partner?
Are there any sex toys you would like to incorporate into your sex life?
What is your most tame sexual fantasy?
What is your wildest sexual fantasy?
What movie star or entertainer do you find the sexiest and why?
What are the sexiest qualities you admire in a mate?
Recount the best sexual experience you ever had with your partner. Why was it so good?
What could be improved about your sex life?
When you think love, you think (fill in the blank).
What does romance mean to you?
What turns you on the most about your partner?
What is your favorite time of day or night to make love? Why?
List 10 words that come to mind when you think of a romantic evening with your partner.
What words do you associate with the word “satisfaction?”
In what ways do you trust your partner sexually?
How could you and your partner improve your sex life?
Is there something you and your partner used to do together that you don’t do anymore and miss? What is it? How could you start doing it again?
How important is love when it comes to sex?
Name the first 20 words that come to mind when you think of “relationship.”
What prevents you and your partner from having the best sex possible?
How has sex changed over time for you and your partner? What would you like to bring back? What would you like to leave in the past?
If you could give your partner a sexy name for the night, what would it be? Write about what that night would be like. Have you had nights like this before?
What is sexy about your bedroom? Are there ways you could set a more romantic atmosphere?
What is your favorite feature on your partner?
What is the most exciting place for you to be intimate with your partner? Write about it.
What do you like most about your own body?
Why do you like this body part?
What do you think your partner thinks is sexiest about you? Write about it and why.
If you could make love anywhere in the world without consequences where would you do it? What prevents you from doing this? How could you find ways to get close to it?
Introduction to give couples a laid back, hopeful attitude about the journey they are about to embark upon.
ICT – promoting acceptance within the couple; reminder of happier and closer times
Bowen – self-definition, Narrative
EFT - attachment/intimacy
EFT – attachment; self esteem
Bowen – self-definition/regulation; Narrative – rewriting; Gottman
EFT – attachment/intimacy, Narrative, Bowen
Bowen – self-definition/boundaries; Gottman – shared dreams
Narrative, EFT, Bowen, ICT, Gottman – shared dreams/meanings
BCT, Gottman – shared dreams/meanings; changing behaviors
EFT, ICT, BCT, Bowen, Gottman – rebuilding marital house
Bowen, EFT, ICT
Narrative, Bowen, Gottman
Narrative – rewriting/unique outcomes, Gottman
Bowen, Narrative, EFT
Bowen – would make space for “environmental concerns” as described in critique below, Gottman
A Nod to Gottman
John Gottman, the father of Gottman Theory, has been using love maps, salsa cards and other interventions similar to the Red (Sex) Diaries and interventions described above for many years. These types of interventions help couples create shared meanings and honor mutual dreams. “Every marriage needs to honor the life dreams of the individuals in the partnership.” (Gottman, 170). By asking couples to write about their fantasies, ideal environments and forms of sexual encounters, a therapist is also helping a couple to find its shared dream and create shared meanings. “Each family is a unique culture and has a unique way of creating meaning, complete with its own symbols, metaphors, and narratives. Most important for marital outcomes is the way the marriage enables both people to feel the relationship supports their life dreams.” (Gottman, 260). Clearly, sex and sexuality are part of any couple’s shared meanings and dreams. In using interventions like the Red (Sex) Diaries, clinicians can help a couple connect on these levels; strengthening the walls of a sound marital house. (Gottman).
But shared journaling interventions are not the only way to help clients tune their marital home. And, as with most interventions used for couples, therapists should always be cautious before determining whether to suggest a shared journaling experience to clients. For this reason, it is recommended that this intervention be used with couples who are well connected in other areas and have good communication skills. Problems could arise from human tendencies to journal about painful or uncomfortable situations more often than enjoyable ones and for this reason the intervention should be offered with a directive hand by the therapist. “The confessional diary, the type of greatest interest to the psychologist, specializes in "personality-making" situations, but, like the autobiography, is prone to neglect the calm and happy periods of life so important for the stabilizing and socializing of personality. While spreading the emotions of distress or unusual elation upon his journal, the writer may not think to record the basic elements of security, trust, and happiness that knit his life to that of his family and community,” (Allport, 1942, p. 97).
As Allport suggests, there are pros and cons to writing our innermost feelings; particularly on a sensitive topic like sexuality. By putting bad memories or situations on the page, the client is forced to take a closer look at raw pain. However, in having these feelings in ink, they become tangible ideas that are easier to reshape into a more positive narrative about love and the power of intimacy and sharing. After all, the ability to share a private journal entry is a very loud nonverbal signal of trust in and of itself.
While sex journaling will serve the effects of helping a couple define itself, increasing communication around the topic of sex, improve trust and intimacy, and likely result in more frequent and satisfying sexual encounters, it is only a launching pad. Clearly, any therapist who threw a sex journal at a couple and told them to “go for it” would be doing the couple a great disservice. Likewise, a journal experience should not be rushed and should be something the couple is receptive to. Some couples won’t enjoy this type of intervention tool and will either not use it or the therapist will lose credibility in assigning it to them. Therefore, it is important to the therapeutic relationship that the therapist has a good sense of if this tool would be right for the couple or not.
Good therapy never happens with one tool or intervention. The use of the journal must be incorporated into sessions and other content that the couple is working on in order to maximize its benefits. If a therapist is not prepared to use the journal as an aid in therapy, they should not use it as it will not be of benefit to a couple who isn’t highly motivated by the idea (as two writer clients who are regular journalers prior to therapy might be).
The actual content of the “Red (Sex) Diaries” produced to accompany this article and seen in the chart above includes questions that help clients to define themselves and open communication in very basic ways. In this sense, the tool is limited because it would not work for couples who already have communicated on these issues. For couples with higher levels of communication around the topic of sexuality, other questions might be a better substitute. An example might be questions from the sexual history questionnaire taken from the Innovations in Clinical Practice text book (VandeCreek, 2007, pp. 308–315). Or, journal prompts could be client and/or therapist driven based on the couple.
Another limitation of this tool is that it does not address many issues associated with a lack of sexual desire. Sexual dysfunction, age of the couple, SES factors, and other things are not explored in the proposed journal. However, a therapist could use journaling prompts with that address these issues specifically. Really, the possibilities of content are limitless when using blank notebooks for journaling purposes in sex therapy with couples.
Lastly, this tool would not work well with couples who don’t have positive regard for one another and are dealing with the four horsemen. For couples stuck in those relationship dynamics, this tool might aggravate already stressful interactions. Those clients would be better treated with other types of therapy and interventions.
Review of Focused Literature and Social Justice
Nearly all literature focused on sexual intimacy between married couples is addressing heterosexual couples who are legally married. The terms “men and women” and “husband and wife” are used throughout literature on this topic. Studies on this topic seem to leave out same sex couples, couples who live together in long term relationships, and transgender couples. Because of this, it was difficult to research how a same sex couple might respond to a journaling intervention as part of couples or sex therapy. While such an activity would easily work with same sex, transgendered or domestic partnership couples, it might be important to address issues specific to these dyads in particular. For example, a therapist might want to help the couple explore through journaling the messages they have received from their smaller and larger systems about the nature of their relationships and how to differentiate their own beliefs as a couple. Furthermore, because of the cultural values that often come with a couple into the bedroom either consciously and unconsciously, it will be important for a therapist to take into consideration a couple’s culture before developing questions suitable to them. Being mindful of these types of themes will enable a therapist to help a couple enhance their shared sexual experiences as well as facilitate increased trust in the therapeutic relationship.
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