Why Every Couple Needs To Examine Their “Sex Script”

Renowned sex therapist and author Ian Kerner explains how some light investigative research — and self-awareness — can transform your sex life for the better.

Originally Published: 
Happy couple laying on their stomachs in bed smiling and talking

Sex tells a story. In asking questions about the last time a couple got busy, a lot can be learned. When did it take place? Where? How was it initiated? What was the progression? How did arousal increase? What sex positions were used? Who had an orgasm? Who didn’t? If the mattress could tell you what it felt, what would it say?

These are just some of the questions renowned sex therapist Dr. Ian Kerner asks his patients. He begins with the prompt, “So, tell me about the last time you had sex…” and continues from there. Eventually, he gains a clear idea of a sex script — a detailed look at an encounter that can be analyzed, understood, and, if necessary, improved upon. And he wants all partners to consider making one.

“Examining the script is about tuning into your sense of sexuality — what you want, and where you want to go — and then having that conversation with your partner,” he says.

In So, Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex: Laying Bare and Learning to Repair our Love Lives, Dr. Kerner, author of several books on relationships and sexuality, including the bestseller She Comes First, offers an in-depth look at his process and provides couples the tools to investigate and enliven their personal scripts.

Fatherly spoke to Dr. Kerner about sex scripts, opening a dialogue with your partner, and why “rigidity is the enemy of arousal.”

Having open conversations about your sex life is important. Your book makes this clear. But it can be difficult for couples or individuals to start conversations about this with each other, let alone a therapist like yourself.

We’re all almost born vulnerable to shame around sex. If you think about it, most of us are born into either sex-negative homes or homes where sex may be considered prohibitive, where sex may be shamed, where there may be very specific rules around sex, and so on. Many of us, too, grow up in sex-avoidant homes, where, while sex might not be discussed negatively, it’s not discussed at all. This makes us all very vulnerable to the media and cultural stereotypes and myths about sex.

Growing up in the absence of healthy modeling around sexuality, I think most of us launch into our adult sexual lives with a degree of intimidation and shame around sex. Most of the time, what that leads us to do is to self-silence and hide and kind of develop a wall of anxiety that almost fits between us and our actual sexual experiences.

So, there’s a lot of bottling up that occurs. And my book is about helping people get on the other side of their problems. I try and lead people into the conversation, gently and with good science and information.

One of the key points you discuss is the notion of a sex script. Why does a sex script matter?

When patients come in and tell me about their sex problems, I always ask them to tell me about the last time they had sex. I’m asking them to describe a sexual event that recently happened because I want to understand not just their problem but how their problem occurs in action. I want to understand what sex looks like in action for them and where the problem is occurring in that action.

I believe that every sexual event tells a story with a beginning middle and end and that there’s a sequence of interactions that occur over that process. Those interactions are physical, they’re psychological, they’re emotional. That series of interactions constitute the sex script.

When first discussing a sex script, what’s a good place to begin?

One place would be the initiation or call to action. That’s what we might call expressing desire. And I think that can be a confusing phase for a lot of people — who’s going to initiate? Who has desire? Who doesn’t?

Very often, we have a discrepant desire, or we don’t feel desire at the same time. So, this would be about understanding how to create a shared desire framework. Mutually generated desire is an important area that I spend a lot of time focusing on.

I think the percolation of arousal is also important. A sex script is often so intercourse-driven that a lot of the kinds of activities that might precede intercourse end up being the briefest of prologues or end up getting neglected.

That makes sense.

Another that I’ve noticed is that many couples are using physical behaviors to generate arousal. They’re touching. They’re engaging in intercourse. The vocabulary for generating arousal is physically based, and I think so much of good sex is about mind-based arousal. We know that women can fantasize their way to orgasm without touching themselves and that men can get hands-free erections and that’s all the power of mind-based or psychogenic stimulation that creates arousal in the body. So why are we not doing more of that with each other?

Often sex scripts become routine and predictable. They become just a series of behaviors as opposed to being infused with that mind-based arousal — the stuff that we fantasize about, the stuff that we think about, all the stuff that if we weren’t experiencing all that shame and shyness, we’d be more likely to share.

What should couples do if their sex script feels routine?

Well, first I would ask, is the script working? Are you satisfied with it? Are you connected?

I’ve worked with couples who have and, speaking personally, I would say that my wife and I have a default sex script. This is not to say they’re not erotically exciting or that we don’t bring mind-based stimulation to them. The sex sort of resembles itself from one experience to the next. But it works. And if you have a sex script that’s working? Great. Don’t trouble trouble unless trouble troubles you, you know?

What’s a sign that it might need to change?

If you want something different, if there is a discrepancy, if you’re craving more, if you’re feeling that sense of boredom.

Working with couples who are parents, I get complaints on both sides. I get a lot of complaints about frequency and just wanting more sex and then if they could only have more, it would be great because once they get going sex works for them.

And then sometimes I hear about couples who want to change both the frequency and the quality of the sex. And so that means that we do need to look at the sex script and what’s happening and what’s not. We must look at who’s getting turned on, who’s getting left behind. That is a reason to cultivate a new sex script.

I’d say also at different points in life we need to think about our sex scripts. At first maybe sex was really about fun and wildness. Maybe we want something more intimate or more relational. Or maybe it’s the exact opposite — maybe sex has always been about lovemaking and relationality and one or both are craving something that’s more adventurous.

Examining the script is about tuning into your sense of sexuality — what you want, and where you want to go — and then having that conversation with your partner.

What advice do you have about having that conversation?

It’s important to not just present your partner with a problem, like “I’m bored,” or “We’re not going anywhere,” or, “we’re not evolving sexually. Sex is always the same.” Think a little harder and imagine what the solution could be. Consider what sex would look like if it wasn’t creating that problem. That way, you go from thinking about a problem to thinking about a solution. And, then think about, can you make that solution sexy? Can you talk about the sex that you’d like to be having in a sexy way? And can you present that to your partner as a conversation? Could you say, “Oh, I’ve been having some daydreams or some sexual fantasies about us and what we could be doing?” That’s a sexy invitation.

In looking at the scripts of so many patients over the years, what are some of the recurring issues you see?

Well, I often see a lack of communication which in turn creates a lot of anxiety. Anxiety really shuts down arousal. Men have problems gaining and maintaining erections because anxiety is creating panic and panic is releasing adrenaline, which is redirecting blood flow away from the genitals. And in women, it prevents them from getting fully absorbed in the sex that they’re having and to remain sort of at a distance or dissociated. So, anxiety is certainly one.

Another theme that I often see is people not being able to get absorbed enough in the sex they’re having in a way that allows them to push out stressors that are coming in. A big part of good sex is not only turning on psychologically but also allowing parts of your brain to turn off and to go into a kind of a flow state. Lots of studies show that as people, especially women, are getting more aroused and closer to orgasm, parts of the brain associated with stress are turning off and that parts of the brain that are associated with sexual sensation are turning on.

So, many couples want to be able to know each other and dance a dance that is familiar in a good way, that is a dance that we don’t have to think about and can just be present in.

I’d really encourage people to challenge the cultural sex scripts that they might be thinking about and be willing to play and to deconstruct and reconstruct.

And that is, I imagine, one of the benefits of having a sex script that works.

It is. A sex script doesn’t rigidly define you. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be variation. But it gives you a sense of a structure that you can drop into, that you don’t have to worry about, that you don’t have to think about. It’s like a nice drive that you know how to take. You’re not sitting in traffic navigating every little move you have to make — stopping and starting and pivoting and turning. That’s not relaxing.

If there’s one takeaway that you’d like people to have after reading your book, what would it be?

I would like people to understand that sex scripts consist of many different components and that you should feel comfortable creating a script that works for you, even if it challenges the narrative or the norms, or the cultural norms of what you think a sex script, or what you think sex is supposed to look like.

So many people just go into sex, thinking, This is how it’s supposed to look based on what I’ve seen or heard. We’re not really developing our own unique sex scripts. We’re just sort of trying to internalize and integrate these cultural scripts.

I’d really encourage people to challenge the cultural sex scripts that they might be thinking about and be willing to play and to deconstruct and reconstruct.

That’s such an important point: People play the roles that they think they should versus what works for them.

It’s also important to be open. There are so many paths to pleasure. So often, I have couples coming in and one person says, “I only get aroused in this way.”

And the truth is there are lots of ways to get aroused. There are many paths to pleasure. I’m not telling somebody to do something that they don’t want to do. But you don’t also need to be rigid in how you think sex should look, how you think it should feel, or what it should be. You should be willing to deconstruct your own ideas about sex, especially if there’s somewhat rigid. Again, I work with a lot of couples where there’s so much anxiety around intercourse for a guy. Am I going to gain and maintain an erection? And for women, it may be, am I going to have an orgasm? Am I going to have to fake an orgasm?

I think that kind of rigidity is the enemy of arousal. I really want people to bring flexibility to their scripts. With that comes a lot of opportunities to connect and find pleasure.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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