‘In "Melancholy and Society" (Harvard University Press, 1992), Wolf Lepenies, a German scholar, quotes Kierkegaard's "Either/Or" on boredom's creative force:
The Gods were bored, and so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created. Thus boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then the population of the world increased, and the people were bored en masse. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens. This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand’.
As a psychosexual therapist, Hypoactive Sexual Desire [HSD] has always been of particular interest to me, probably because there seem to be so many possible causal factors that I have some difficulty in being reasonably sure of a positive diagnosis. Of particular interest is the concept of Sexual Boredom, on which this paper will focus. For me, this is an area of genuine concern that is both a challenge and an opportunity to expand my knowledge and understanding of sexuality and this particular psychosexual construct.
When consulting with clients who have presented with HSD problems, I am aware that I have, perhaps, tended not to give sufficient attention to the issue of sexual boredom as a possible major reason for the problems. This may be because sexual boredom is often regarded as being a symptom of HSD rather than a causal factor, and that, maybe, therapists in general are looking for a more complex diagnosis.
Therefore, in this assignment, I will attempt to give meaning to the terms ‘boredom’ and ‘sexual boredom’ and to analyse the construct of sexual boredom and its role as a causal factor for HSD. Also, I shall attempt to assess the impact of my findings on my own professional practice. In developing the subject matter, I have found particular inspiration from the research work undertaken at the Kansas State University, by John Watt and Jackie Ewing and reported in the Journal Of Sex Research (1996).
Loss of desire for sexual activity is the commonest presenting sexual dysfunction, particularly in women, and is often the hardest to diagnose accurately and treat, appropriately. Much research into sexual desire is being undertaken but there appears to be much to do before this complex area of study is more completely understood. We know that certain organic, clinical and psychological conditions affect sexual desire, for example: depressive illness, stress, fatigue, anger, sexual abuse, IVF treatment, revenge, loss of love, an affair, hormonal imbalance and surgery – indeed, the list is a long one.
‘Half of all clients are diagnosed as having problems with sexual desire. It is easier to admit that there is something wrong with one’s body than to admit that one feels little or no sexual desire or interest.’ Reinisch and Beasley (1990).
Many clients come into therapy complaining that they have lost their desire for sexual activity. Various methods may be used to treat HSD but it seems that, as yet, no single method or solution has proved more effective than the others, perhaps because the causes of low desire are many, complex and varied. As psychodynamic therapists, we will examine and explore, with our clients, the possible reasons for their distressing state but, perhaps, we look too deeply. The reason for their sexual dysfunction may, in fact, be something seemingly very
basic; so basic that we tend, perhaps, to overlook it – ‘Sexual Boredom’. Yet this apparently simplistic construct involves myriad social and psychological elements. Therefore, a greater understanding of the nature of boredom and sexual boredom is warranted and may well provide us with a powerful diagnostic tool. Greater knowledge and understanding of the causal factors of sexual boredom and their resultant impact on HSD will enhance the psychosexual therapeutic process in practice and so lessen the impact and, perhaps, resolve the distress to clients through their sexual dysfunction.
Defining sexual boredom and analysing its causes
Sexual boredom may be better clarified if it is developed as a construct from the general concept of boredom: the attributes that characterise boredom and the reasons that induce this state of mind. We've all suffered from it at one time or another. The feeling we're not getting anywhere... that everything we're doing now we've done a thousand times before... that there must be more to life than this. Although it seems commonplace to consider boredom as ‘having nothing to do’, this is an over- simplification and an erroneous one at that. In reality, being in a state of boredom results when none of the things a person can actually do appeals to that person; with such a mindset, that person is likely to be inactive and unhappy. Thus, boredom is seen as the outcome of having ‘nothing to do that one likes’; as such, it is associated, essentially, with life dissatisfaction.
In my experience, it seems that some people become bored very easily and seek, continually, new adventures, both generally and sexually; some may well be predisposed towards boredom. On the other hand, others find fun and excitement in almost everything they do and have neither the need nor the inclination to take risks. Clearly, these two polarised positions exist along a continuum of human behaviour. Tom Kunz (1999), in an article reported in the Associated Press, writes: ‘We are bored despite living in remarkable times’, concludes a recent annual survey of consumer attitudes, carried out by market researchers, Yankelovich
Partners(2000). The survey notes that, last year, 71% of some 2,500 respondents yearned for more novelty in their lives; up from 67% in the preceding year. The apparent paradox is entitled: ‘the boredom boom’. Just as a drug user develops tolerance and needs larger doses to achieve the same effect, so too have we developed a tolerance to amazing events.’
There is little doubt, in my mind, that our media-driven culture, continually and instantaneously exposing us to all manner of events, has a desensitising effect that, in turn, induces a state of both general and sexual boredom. Yet, there is more to it than this: Exposure may well induce unreasonable expectations for our own behaviour and the behaviour of those close to us. A possible outcome of this is that behaviour, including sexual behaviour, previously experienced without anxiety, becomes ‘boring’. The glossy lifestyle becomes the desire, alongside which current experiences pale into monotonous boredom.
Many expert commentators seem to agree that boredom is a convenient excuse for the negative contribution towards societal problems. It is possible that boredom is an attribute of minor personality flaws, such as a lack of creativity, commitment or motivation. Dr. Hohnbaum (2001) observes that: ‘boredom is an excuse that relieves people of responsibility so that they do not have to own their actions. Activity and gumption require one to initiate and arouse while boredom merely requires one to do, regardless of the costs.’ However, she is careful to acknowledge that boredom, for some people, has a clinical basis. Medical and psychological disorders, including personality disorder, delirium, apathy [not caring], anhedonia [not feeling], and chronic fatigue syndrome, are among many behavioural conditions symptomatic with boredom and lethargy. Clearly, in such cases, diagnosis and treatment is beyond the remit of the psychosexual counsellor. We are more able to help clients in those cases where boredom and lethargy are induced by ‘lack of imagination and variety; adventure or opportunities,’ Nicolle Ford Research: “Sex” at Gabout.
In summary, therefore, we can accept the concept of boredom and, implicitly, as an underpinning element of sexual boredom,
‘An aversion for repetitive experience of any kind, for routine work or dull and boring people, and extreme restlessness under conditions when escape from constancy is impossible.’ Zuckerman (1979, P103). Such a defining concept leads almost naturally to the concept of sexual boredom, as defined by Mikulas and Vodanovich (1993, P3) as:
‘A state of relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction, which is attributed to an inadequately stimulating situation’.
Sexual boredom may also be viewed as: ‘a state of mind induced as a result of disliked experiences’. This concept is consistent with research that shows that individuals are capable of distinguishing dislike from boredom. Hill and Perkins (1985).
A recently released University of Chicago survey suggests that: ‘ Sex is among the last things on the minds of too many American couples. The study concluded that 31% of men and 43% of women regularly have no interest in sex, with sexual boredom ranking as the leading cause. Medical conditions as a cause for sexual dysfunction aside, why have so many Americans reported that they are bored with sex? That they receive no pleasure from it; that they have no interest in it; that orgasms are non-existent, or not worthwhile or even that sex hurts. Larry Salzman (2000). It is likely that the explanation lies in a complex of socio-economic factors and cultural influences. Many, perhaps most, adults experience internal conflict or general dissatisfaction with their sex lives; this may be because there is a conflict between one’s socially-induced sexual fear, guilt and shame and the sexual energy and urges one really feels. Fear, shame and guilt seem, often, to be major components in the minds and actions of sexually-bored people and, together, constitute a common theme in sexual boredom. How likely is it that people’s deep-
rooted ideas and beliefs about sex, whether puritan or libertine, lie at the heart of sexual dysfunction? There are those who tell us that the body is vulgar and that purity consists in denying earthly pleasures; that real love is spiritual and sex, other than for procreation, is ‘dirty’. People, whose sexual relationships are governed by such dictates, will suppress their sexual desires and may well lead frustrated and unfulfilled lives. If they succumb to their desires, then they are likely to face a lifetime of guilt.
‘With all the confusing messages about sex, should we still wonder why people do not enjoy it? Should we be shocked by the sexual boredom of those who think that sexual pleasure is perverted? Should we be surprised that those who advocate a non-spiritual, animalistic approach find that, in the end, they are no more stimulated by sex than by chocolate bars, roller coasters or other sensory delights?’ Larry Salzman (20000)
However, on an optimistic note and, therefore, encouraging to psychosexual therapists, the observations of some experts in the field of psychic development suggest that boredom is a perquisite to attaining heightened levels of perception; that to be bored is to be on the verge of being, startled awake.
The research work and findings of John Watt and Jackie Ewing
There are a number of theoretical approaches to the causes of sexual boredom. Clinically, it is usually considered as being symptomatic of more severe problems in inter-personal relationships, especially in its potential for negative impact on a
couple’s sexual and, indeed, general relationship. Boredom, like depression, may come and go; what bored you yesterday may totally engross you today. Why should this be so? Apart from biochemical factors, the answer appears to have much to do with motivation. It is not what we do so much as why we do it. Instead of openly communication with each other about their sexual needs, desires and fantasies, we go into denial, with feelings, probably of fear and guilt, about our sexuality. Sexual boredom may lie at the root of why so many men and women choose to have extra-marital affairs and why so many people develop secret lives, that sometimes include such experiences as visits to pornography shops, web sites, peep shows strip clubs, and prostitutes. In this context, De Chenne and Moody (1988) commented that: ‘marital partners become bored primarily because they have exhausted their skills for generating novel stimulation.’
The research work of Watt and Ewing (1996) is a major contribution to the debate on the nature of sexual boredom, in that it develops and validates a statistical analysis of this aspect of sexual dysfunction and takes a non-clinical standpoint in the sense that it has a motivational base. The analyses use the results of three
empirical studies designed to develop and evaluate a self-reporting measure of sexual boredom and individual differences in experiencing it. The concepts and measurement systems used for their sexual boredom scale reflect the views of Zuckerman (1979) and Vodanovich (1993). The findings of the research work are validated by positive correlations with a number of other testing measures and procedures. The principal findings show clearly that sexually bored individuals
experience varying degrees of affect, such as sexual depression and sexual and life dissatisfaction; such a negative correlation between sexual boredom and life satisfaction is very important and highly relevant. Individuals experiencing this tend to engage in activities intended to increase their arousal level and stimulation through, for example, being engaged in sexual fantasizing and novel sexual experiences. They react negatively to relationships that are characterised by sexual monotony, routine and constraint. It seems, also, that sexually bored individuals may have more liberal attitudes towards engaging in sexual activity without commitment. Interestingly, the results show that sexual boredom is not necessarily age related and has no necessary correlation with sexual esteem, thrill, adventure seeking and social desirability.
Working therapeutically with sexually bored clients
Experience and research indicate clearly that most men and women in couple relationships, who are experiencing sexual dysfunction with symptoms clearly related to sexual boredom, do not communicate openly with their spouse or sexual partner about their sexual desires, needs and fantasies. As psychosexual therapists, what can we do to help our clients, to take the boredom out of their sex lives? There are countless ways to express love and intimacy, clients’ deciding to create a more exciting sex life is the first step, and using their imagination is the second. Therapists will encourage clients to talk to each other; share ideas on new things to
try; new positions, foreplay techniques, creating a more romantic atmosphere, maybe even adding sex toys to their repertoire. We need to encourage them to talk to each other about their likes and dislikes, their hopes and expectations, and to gain acceptance for the idea that ‘you never know until you have tried’. In my own practice, I cannot recall an instance of any client putting into words: ‘My problem is that I am sexually bored.’ However, it is clear to me, particularly as a result of the work I have undertaken to compile this paper that the client is describing a state of being and a state of mind that is directly symptomatic of being sexually bored. I appreciate that it is difficult for partners to say to each other that they are bored with sex because, for to do so, may suggest that they are generally bored with each other and this may be a seemingly intractable and irredeemable problem. Thus, the thrust will be to blame HSD on more tangible and easy to manage issues such as time limitations, general tiredness or penile problems. The couple may be genuinely perplexed about why there is a loss of sexual desire and think that the secondary issues are culpable and will so present when seeking help from the psychosexual therapist. The real problem for the therapist, therefore, is how to diagnose sexual boredom, through the behavioural characteristics that identify it, and then how to put this hypothesis to the clients themselves.
I have learned, through researching for this paper, to explore with my clients, carefully and sensitively, through the Initial Assessment and History-taking sessions, the possibility that sexual boredom, as indicated by their particular symptomatic behavioural patterns, may be the cause of their anxiety; that there is the probability that their HSD is a result of sexual boredom. I shall be very aware and sensitive to the possibility that my clients may wish to reject this diagnosis for fear of potentially ‘shaking’ their relationship.
Recently I have worked with clients, whose presenting problem was that the female had lost her desire for sex with her partner and feared that she had lost her feelings. It was identified during the Initial Intake and History-taking sessions that their sexual knowledge and repertoire was very limited and as a consequence, they had endured a very repetitious sexual relationship, which resulting in her withdrawal of sex. Sexual boredom was implicit but not overtly identified at the time, however, it did become apparent. From ‘Self’ and ‘Sensate Focus’ to experimenting with different intimate positions and venues, and the use of books and videos, (something that they had not experienced before), the outcome was a great success. They had learned the essential skills of communication: honesty, trust and complete openness. Through therapy, knowledge and experience were gained. By allowing themselves to explore their sexuality openly, in a confidential and congenial setting and without fear, lovingly and without guilt, joyously and without shame, they were able to celebrate an integral aspect of their humanity. They evolved in their ability to give and receive sexual pleasure, with love nurturing, and intuition as well as emotional and sensual depth. The monotony of ‘sameness’ had been shattered and they had their ‘bag of toys’ to keep them fresh and stimulated. They had been introduced to a whole new ‘sexual playground’.
Summary and conclusion
From the research that I have carried out, it is evident that the subject of sexual boredom is attracting a curious amount of interest. It appears that America, in particular, is being ‘startled awake’ by the large number of people who are ‘yawning in the bedroom’. Researchers would have us believe that sexual dysfunction has become a public menace of epidemic proportion. One-third, they say, of the entire adult population, has been struck by this mysterious malady and this number closely parallels divorce rates, which hover stubbornly around 50 percent of the population. These are the grim findings researchers recently uncovered about our sex lives. Is this a coincidence?
There are many theories about the causes of sexual boredom and it seems to me, that one of the biggest causes is attitudinal, imposed on us by society, but of course attitudes change with time. The current trend encourages adults to stimulate children’s minds but pays little attention to encouraging them to know how to entertain or stimulate their own imaginations. It seems that the more we give them the more they develop a dependency to be stimulated by others. They simply do not have the skills to be creative themselves, which may, in adulthood, result in ‘bedroom boredom’ where creativity is essential. I do believe, however, that some people are more gifted than others with an active imagination and ‘proneness to boredom’ can also have an influence.
Unlike modern attitudes, the ones that were taught prior to the sixties, to women in particular, were that sex was to be endured rather than enjoyed. The puritanical indoctrination of our forefathers often resulted in people feeling guilt, shame, fear, resentment and ultimately a disastrous sexual relationship. Because ‘IT’ was never talked about, problems were suppressedso resolution was almost impossible to achieve.
Perhaps it is high time to take a serious look at enhancing our sex lives. Therefore, therapist and people in general, need to mobilize all efforts to share resources in order to combat this dilemma that seems to be engulfing us. Jump-starting your sex life means changing old patterns and ideasandlike any major change in life, it can be daunting at first.
I feel that avoiding, denying and repressing our sexual yearnings and opportunities for sexual exploration become obstacles in our personal and emotional growth and inhibit our process of spiritual evolution. Through guidance in therapy and by encouraging our clients to indulge in sexual adventures, with love, communication, playfulness and passion, we can help our clients to experience a most precious gift of human experience.
As unpleasant as the emptiness of boredom may be, it is a normal feature in the lives of most people. Indeed, it may have some value for those who desire to end the unpleasantness by motivating them to initiate new experiences.
- De Chenne and Moody (1988) .Boredom: Theory & Therapy. The Psychotherapy Patient 3. 17-29
- Hill & Perkins, 1985). Towards a Model of Boredom. British Journal of Psychology 76. 235-240
- Dr. Hohnbaum (2001). Boredom more that nothing to do. www.dcsd/boredom.com. (Internet)
- Tom Kuntz (1999) Writes in The Associated Press: Internet Article
- Lepenies,W.(1992) ‘In "Melancholy and Society"(Harvard University Press,1999) German scholar, quotes Kierkegaard's
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