Sexuality and embodiment in relationships

Barker, Meg and Langdridge, Darren (2013). Sexuality and embodiment in relationships. In: Iacovou, Susan and Van Deurzen, Emmy eds. Existential Perspectives on Relationship Therapy. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 54–67.



In general what sets 'a relationship' (of the kind this book, and relationship therapy more broadly, focuses on) apart from other kinds of relationships (friendships, collegiate relationships, family relationships and so forth) is often taken to be the fact that it is 'sexual'. The phrases 'romantic relationship', 'intimate relationship' and 'sexual relationship' tend to be used interchangeably. Indeed, in popular magazines, television programmes and self-help books, the quantity and quality of sex within such a relationship is often taken to be a barometer of its success, or of the connection or love between the people involved (e.g. Gray, 2003; Star, 2004). This focus on sex in relationships has increased in recent years as part of what has been termed the 'sexualisation' of culture (Attwood, 2004), and with it levels of anxiety around sex: The 2000 UK national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles (NATSAL) found that 35% of men and 54% of women reported some kind of sexual ‘dysfunction’ (Mercer et al., 2005).

Clearly, therefore, it is important that an existential form of relationship therapy considers issues of sex and sexuality within an existential framework. It is also important to begin to detail what an existential sex therapy would look like in practice, and how this might be similar to – and different from – current forms of psychosexual therapy. To date, there has been relatively little written on sexuality within existential therapy (see Smith-Pickard & Swynnerton, 2005; Pearce, 2011), and even less on existential forms of sex therapy (papers which touch on this include Barker, 2011a; Kleinplatz, 1998, 2004; Adams, Harper, Johnson & Cobia, 2006).

Historically, relationship therapy has been intertwined with sex therapy within organisational contexts. In the UK, for example, the main organisation accrediting therapists in this area is the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT, 2011). In the National Health Service, the secondary care available to those with relationship difficulties takes the form of 'sexual and relationship therapy' clinics. The key international journals in this area are the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy and Sexual and Relationship Therapy.

This chapter begins by presenting the dominant, medicalised, understandings of ‘sexual problems’ within psychosexual therapy. This is then contrasted with an existential understanding of sexuality and embodiment, drawing primarily on the work of Merleau-Ponty but also incorporating more recent feminist and queer scholars such as Elizabeth Grosz, who have built on and also challenged this foundation. The chapter then goes on to examine the multiple potential meanings of sexual experiences and practices, and the potential within existential therapy for sexual issues to reveal clients’ wider world views as well as relational dynamics. Specific examples are given of the multiple meanings of erectile difficulties, and of the relationship between vaginismus and the existential challenge of being-for-oneself versus being-for-others.

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