You’re 37 years old and you look 22! How have you managed stay so youthful?
(Laughs) Well, sex is good for your health, actually. There are all kinds of health benefits to sex. Cardio-vascular benefits, immune-system benefits, mood, self-esteem, relationships. So perhaps!
So what leads a person to specializing in sex — to becoming a ‘sexpert,’ as you’ve been termed?
It’s kind of hard to navigate those waters of becoming an adult and sexual relationships. So I really wanted to study sexuality, and my goal was to learn things that would be able to help other young women as they come of age and discover their sexuality, and to help them be healthy, happy, satisfied sexual beings.
You’re on a list of people who colleges and universities can hire you to visit and make presentations, and that’s why you were here in Brandon, right?
Yes. I’m very excited — I’ve been given Sue Johanson’s endorsement. I met Sue Johanson when I was working at the Wigamog Inn, a resort in Northern Ontario. I was probably 19 or 20 years old. She was giving a presentation at a convention at this resort and I walked up to her on the dock and I said, ‘Hello. My name is Robin Milhausen, and one day I want your job.’ And now I see really how arrogant that sounds! But she was lovely — lovely! And she gave me a signed copy of her book, and every few years I would stay in touch with her that was during my undergraduate days. And then when I was getting my Masters in sexuality, I would send her a little note and say, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ When I went to Indiana to do my Ph.D. at the Kinsey Institute, which is the world-renowned place for sex research, I let her know. I just stayed in touch with her. And then a few years ago, I was driving on the major highway in Ontario, the 401, and my cell phone rang. And on the phone was Sue Johanson. And she said, ‘You met me on the docks of the Wigamog Inn 20 years ago, and you said one day you wanted my job. Is that still true?’
I almost crashed the car! And of course it was true! So she signed me up with her speakers’ bureau. And she took me on a sort of mini tour of universities and colleges in Ontario, and she introduced me as the person she would like to succeed her. Which is unbelievably generous — there are thousands of people across Canada who would like to have that kind of a job — talking about sexuality, travelling around the country. So I was extremely fortunate to have her support.
Sue Johanson has done a lot to make sex a less threatening topic for people to discuss, but what’s been your experience. Is sex still a taboo subject?
Certainly on college and university campuses across Canada, it’s a very open topic. Most of the Wellness Centres and student activities’ coordinators — people who are involved with programming for students — are very open-minded and progressive, realizing that sexuality is a part of overall health. So most universities and colleges across Canada do some form of sexuality programming. And it seems like there’s a real trend toward sex toy bingo. You collect prizes like condoms and vibrators for making lines on your bingo card.
I’m sure it’s different from era to era, age to age, male to female, but what are some of the common questions that you get? What do people want to know?
People typically want to know how to have better sex. And men, often, because there is still this great performance script, men feel like they have to be the BEST lovers and know the BEST moves. Often men would like to have more sex in their lives that they are currently having.
And that’s not true for women?
No, it is not typically true for women. The research for decades suggests that men want to have more sex, with more partners, than women do. There could be some socially desirable response biases there, but I don’t get too many women asking me how they can have more sex. Women are still the gatekeepers for sex.
Men are always asking me, ‘What’s the ONE move I can do? What’s the ONE thing that’s going to drive my partner wild with desire?’ When I teach my second-year sexuality class — there’s 450 students — I make them chant, with their hands in the air and they’re mostly women — ‘No one can give you an orgasm.’ It puts WAY too much pressure on men to think they need to be the ones to GIVE women an orgasm — in heterosexual relationships, of course.
My own research is on factors that inhibit and enhance sexual arousal for men and women, and it has shown quite clearly that there’s no one move that going to do it for a woman. It’s almost like all the planets have to be aligned correctly — she has to feel safe and secure in her relationship, she has to feel comfortable with her body image. If the room is too cold or too messy, and the sheets are dirty, if she’s worried about an assignment the next day, or a work project, or the kids walking in, or the dishwasher getting loaded — there are many things that get in the way of women having incredible sex. So men are often disappointed when they’re looking for that one move. Really, the one move that, say, husbands can do is unload the dishwasher and give the kids a bath. They don’t want to hear that, though. They want it to be something that involves orifices or penetration.
My own dissertation research suggests there are more than 300 things that can impact a person’s arousal at any given time. So it really is quite complicated.
What are some of the misconceptions — pardon the pun — we might have about sex?
I think the idea that sex occurs naturally and it should be spontaneous. We get these ideas from the movies, where people come home from work and they throw each other up against the wall. And you start to think, ‘Boy — what’s wrong with me and my relationship?’ if that’s not what sex looks like for you.
You can plan sex. You can build anticipation for sex. It takes work to have a good sex life. Clearing that up is important for a lot of couples. And also the fact that we want this passion to stay for decades and decades and decades in our relationship. The research suggests that somewhere between six and 30 months in long-term relationships, we switch from passionate, burning flames kind of sex and relationship life, to something that’s more companionate and intimate and secure and loving. We see a lot of relationships breaking up around three years because you think, ‘Where’s the spark? Something’s gone, something’s broken.’ But actually it’s just a natural progression for most couples. And so another one of my interests is how DO we keep a spark alive? If we’re going to be with the same partner for the next 50 years, what do we need to do so we can both be satisfied?
Society has come up with the rules it has essentially to create order. But do we set ourselves up for disappointment? When we say, ‘Until death do us part,’ aren’t we putting too much pressure on ourselves? If the cycle is three, five, 10 years, maybe we should be embracing the notion of moving on.
I think either we’re setting our standards too high — that we should be happy and satisfied all the time in our relationships, and the passion should be intense all the time. So either we’re wrong about that, because that’s not possible, or we’re wrong that we can be in monogamous relationships forever. I think one of those things has got to give for most people.
I’m sure I would ask you different questions than a young person would ask. What sort of things do they want to know?
Often women want to know how to have orgasms. And women want to know about how to have their partners last longer. They also have questions about birth control, and effectiveness and side effects and what to do if they miss a pill. Young people are typically more concerned about pregnancy protection than sexually transmitted infection prevention.
Is there something that you really want young people to know?
I’d like ADULTS to know, actually, that exploring sexuality is a natural developmental process for adolescents and young adults. So we can’t really expect young people to be abstinent all the way through high school, college, university, and then at 30, get married and be comfortable, confident sexual beings who are capable of experiencing pleasure, giving pleasure, negotiating safety.
Our sexuality develops as a process from when we are very young to when we are very old. So we should be encouraging our young people to explore their sexuality in safe ways, starting with masturbation. We don’t give our daughters good messages about exploring their bodies, and now we have women who have really sad genital self-image — like body image problems with their genitals — and women are having all these different vulva surgeries to adjust the size of their labia or to dye the colour of their skin. So I think we are doing our young women a disservice by not encouraging them to explore their own sexuality, to give themselves pleasure. Doing that will help them grow into happy, confident adults.