Finding the Doorbell



Perplexed about sex?

New books examine sex, monogamy in marriage, erectile dysfunction, lack of intimacy and sexploration.

By Susan Salter Reynolds

Los Angeles Times

Cindy Pierce and Edie Thys Morgan are middle-aged women — wives and moms. Pierce's kids are 9 1/2 , 8 and 6. She and her husband, Bruce, run a country inn in New England. Morgan is a freelance writer and former U.S. Olympic ski racer. She and her husband, Chan, have two kids, ages 8 and 6.

Morgan grew up in a puritanical family that never talked about sex. Pierce had three older brothers and three older sisters and sex was discussed all the time. (Her older sister Winston — the wild one — became a topless dancer and was a great source of information.) Pierce and Morgan got to be friends in a women's book club that evolved into a weekly conversation about intimacy. Both were astonished by how little communication about sex took place among their married friends.

Pierce — who was trained as an actress — developed a one-woman show about her sexual awakening. The show inspired audience members to tell her their stories. Eventually, she and Morgan decided to write a book about sex for people in monogamous relationships. "We just wanted to help people feel normal," Pierce says. "We're not particularly threatening, so people of all ages felt comfortable telling us their stories. You could just see people relaxing once they were able to put a name on what they were feeling."

"So often," Morgan adds, "sex isn't talked about. It becomes a wedge in a relationship."

Pierce and Morgan's book, "Finding the Doorbell: Sexual Satisfaction for the Long Haul" (Nomad Press: 182 pp., $14.95 paper) is an understated, funny bright spot in what appears to be an ongoing tsunami of self-help books on sex and sexual satisfaction. More than a dozen new titles will appear this month alone, dealing with topics as diverse as tantra, Christian sex, the epidemic of erectile dysfunction and the many uses of pornography.

Why? Fifteen percent to 20% of couples in the United States have sex fewer than 10 times a year, write Bob Berkowitz and Susan Yager-Berkowitz in "He's Just Not Up for It Anymore: Why Men Stop Having Sex, and What You Can Do About It" (William Morrow: 236 pp., $24.95). "[L]ack of desire is recognized as the most common sexual problem in America, affecting approximately 20 percent of the adult male, and 33 percent of the adult female population." Obesity, depression and a preference for porn emerge as central causes. Not surprisingly, the authors find that declining sex in marriage leads to extramarital affairs.

The relative importance of sex in marriage (or any romantic relationship, for that matter) is a topic of some debate, as is the value of communication as a way to solve sexual problems. "Sex is, after all, the primary reason you're married in the first place," Scott Haltzman and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo write in "The Secrets of Happily Married Women" (Wiley: 224 pp., $22.95). Because of this, Haltzman and DiGeronimo suggest, less communication could be a good thing: "[C]ut back on the talking, withholding and wooing. . . . Most species of the animal kingdom don't sit over candlelight talking for hours before engaging in sex."

Dr. John Townsend, author of "Loving People: How to Love & Be Loved" (Thomas Nelson: 202 pp., $22.95), disagrees. "One of the worst things a couple can do is try to feel more romantic while deeper issues are unresolved," he argues. "Sex is, in its best sense, a product of intimacy, not an avenue of it."

And lack of intimacy cuts many ways, influencing the dynamic of the entire family. In "Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples" (Holt: 338 pp., $15 paper), which has just come out in a new 20th anniversary edition, Harville Hendrix writes about the effects on children of growing up with sexually repressed or frustrated parents. "[T]he child puts to sleep some of those forbidden parts of himself — in Freudian terms, he represses them," he observes. "The ultimate price of his obedience is a loss of wholeness."

Of course, some authors believe that marriage is going the way of the dinosaurs anyway and that its implicit constraints on sex may help lead to its extinction. In one of the most surprising of the new intimacy books, "Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire" (Harvard University Press: 330 pp., $27.95), Lisa M. Diamond writes that "despite significant advances in the science of sexuality over the past twenty years, we still don't know much about female sexual orientation."

According to Diamond, male and female sexuality are very different, in both obvious and subtle ways. "As scientists have begun investigating female and male sexual orientation as distinct phenomena instead of two sides of the same coin," she writes, "consensus is gradually building on why women appear so different from men. . . . [O]ne of the fundamental, defining features of female sexual orientation is fluidity."

In other words, Diamond argues, women are more likely than men to move between heterosexual and homosexual relationships over the course of their lives. Not only that, but because there are ever more models for family configurations beyond the traditional nuclear one, women are increasingly disinclined to put up with sexless marriages. According to a groundbreaking 2004 study by the AARP on divorce at midlife and beyond, based on surveys of 1,147 men and women ages 40 to 79, more women are initiating divorce in midlife and experiencing "reinvigorated sex lives" post-divorce.

This notion of reinvigorated sex lives motivates the raciest, and most obnoxious, of the latest books on sex — consider it the polar opposite of the highly sociological "Sexual Fluidity" — "America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction" by Brian Alexander (Harmony: 306 pp., $23.95). Alexander, the "sexploration columnist" for, began his research with the suspicion that "average people . . . were quietly altering their own sexual lives and the sex life of the nation." As you might expect, part of his inquiry involvebook! A book is something you can curl up with in the privacy of your own home and read stories from other people like yourself.

Throughout "Finding the Doorbell," Pierce and Morgan push the idea of "tribes," friends and family members (especially elders) who offer a safe haven to talk about sex. They are also sympathetic to the sometimes overwhelming difficulty men face in understanding not just female anatomy but also female sexuality. Most important, they are big-picture thinkers, addressing the way that seemingly unrelated issues, such as insensitivity and low self-esteem, can affect desire and sexual function, not to mention how we think about ourselves. "Men," they write, "you may not be responsible for creating this natural hazard, and you certainly can't be responsible for getting rid of it, but you don't have to contribute to its growth."

This is the kind of relaxed, often amusing tone that sets "Finding the Doorbell" apart. And being relaxed, as we all know, is critical to sex. In many ways, "Finding the Doorbell" falls squarely in the middle of a stylistic spectrum ranging from unreadable academic language to the kind of gonzo journalism employed by Alexander in "Unzipped."

"You have to pick your niche," Morgan says when asked about the decision to focus on sex in marriage. "And marriage is what we know. I grew up thinking monogamy happened when you met your soul mate. Monogamy is tough — it takes away a lot of options. You want people to go into it with their eyes open."

She and Pierce hope that their book encourages more easygoing talk about sex and that it will help men and women be "kinder to themselves."

"Ideal frequency of sex seems to break down more like homeland security codes than hard and fast numbers," the authors note. "At any given moment, we are in a zone, and for many couples — even those where both partners aspire to having sex several times per week — the border between green and orange hovers somewhere around a week."

Bottom line: Sex is a good thing, and worth fighting for. "Sex is variously credited with creating physiological changes that relieve anxiety, mask pain, aid sleep, reduce stress, foster fitness, boost immune systems, stave off heart attacks, and possibly promote longevity," Pierce and Morgan write. "We don't need studies to tell us it's just plain good for your soul."

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

Los Angeles Times — February 17, 2008

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