Do you follow a sex script?

In his new book, Coral advisor Dr. Ian Kerner wants you to think about the last time you had sex

At Coral, we’re always looking for fresh, new ways of answering fundamental questions about sex such as, "What makes great sex and how can it be even better?" and "What do couples need to really connect?" In his latest book, So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex: Laying Bare and Learning to Repair Our Love Lives Coral advisor Dr. Ian Kerner shares his strategies for analyzing and constructing erotic “sex scripts” to keep the spark alive. 

Please note: The following excerpt has been lightly edited and condensed; you’ll need to order the book for the full monty.

During a first session with a new patient or couple, I always ask: “So, tell me about the last time you had sex...”

Every sexual event tells a story and leaves its own unique fingerprint: an impression of what happened and what didn’t happen; what was said or left unsaid; of pleasure taken and pleasure neglected. A single sexual event is rich with clues, and over the years, I’ve refined the art of the “sex-script analysis;” a way of looking at sex in action.

Prompted by my questions, patients will describe a recent sexual event to me in step-by-step detail.

How did they decide to have sex? Who initiated? When and where did the event occur? How did they generate sexual excitement; with their bodies? Their minds? How did they amplify and intensify the arousal? What behaviors did they engage in? What behaviors didn’t they engage in? What was of-limits and why? Who had orgasms? Who didn’t? What was the emotional and psychological impact of the experience? Did the sex leave them motivated to have more? If not, at what point did things get stalled? In the end, did the sex script work? Was it a success? Or was it a bust?

To a fly on the wall, the sex script is the progression of actions: clothes coming off, mouths finding each other, hands exploring, body parts joining and unjoining, muscles tensing and releasing. But beneath the surface of the sex script is an emotional underground; the mental space between bodies: sometimes sex is a bridge, other times it reveals a chasm. When the sex script works, we lose ourselves in arousal. Sex becomes a familiar dance, and we don’t think twice about the choreography. But when the sex script fails, it’s all we can do not to ruminate over the details.

As in any great work of drama, there’s a structure to the process of a sexual event: a journey that encompasses a beginning, middle and end with each element taking its natural place in the overall sequence of events. What Aristotle wrote of great drama is what I personally believe is true of great sex: “Most important of all is the structure of the incidents… if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed.”

Displaced. Disjointed. Disturbed. That’s what sex has become for many: something to avoid rather than anticipate; something to fake rather than feel; something to resent rather than appreciate. When the structure of a sexual event is disjointed, sex becomes a chore, rather than a joy. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Over the years I’ve worked with thousands of people in countless ways to help them overcome sexual problems and inhibitions; to normalize what they’re going through so they don’t feel so alone; to bridge incompatibilities, discrepancies, and impasses with partners; to express their sexuality authentically; to push their way through trauma; to wrestle with self-control of their sexual thoughts, urges, and behaviors; to continue to expand their sexual horizons as an essential aspect of human growth and realize their sexual potential.

And so much comes down to the sex script.

I know that, to some, thinking about sex as a scripted event, with various elements that unfold in a sequence, may sound rigid, overly clinical, and of-putting, the opposite of spontaneity, which is what sex is “supposed” to be, right: spontaneous. I’m going to challenge that notion throughout my book, but first let me say that I liken my overall approach to playing jazz. Sure, you want to improvise and really cut loose, but in order to do that, you and your partner need to know what song you’re playing, the genre, the key and chord progressions, the tempo, and so on. The legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter said of playing in the iconic Miles Davis Quintet from 1963 to 1968: “We were looking at every night going to a laboratory, Miles was the head chemist. Our job was to mix these components, these changes, this tempo, into something that explodes safely every night with a bit of danger.”

That sounds like good sex to me—exploding safely, with a bit of danger—and to do that you have to know all the components you’re mixing.

Throughout the book, we’ll look at what’s working in your current sex script, what’s not, where you might be missing or missequencing elements, and how to get the most out of each phase. In addition to bringing you my own clinical insights, I’ll also be including quotes from other therapists, educators, and researchers whom I consider to be the smartest and most informed voices in the field of human sexuality. You’ll encounter tips and tools, as well as homework assignments (both written and experiential), and, of course, case studies from my practice.

While in many ways the book falls into the category of a traditional sex advice guide, I’m hoping it speaks to people of various gender and sexual identities regardless of whether they are in traditional or non-traditional relationships. No book can appeal to everyone, but I genuinely believe that the principles and practices you’ll encounter can be generalized to anyone.

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