“Dr Meades asks Daphne how she can help.
‘It’s rather personal dear.’
Dr Meades smiles encouragingly, …
‘You see I’m about to embark on a love affair. It hasn’t quite begun yet, but
it will be … well, frankly, quite a passionate business.’
Dr Meades’s face retained its amiable smile. Only her eyes widened to
take in Daphne’s information.
‘An affair? I see … well how can I …?’
In Jenny Diski’s 1991 novel, “Happily Ever After”, Daphne Drummond is 68, an eccentric lady novelist who hasn’t published recently and a tenant living in the attic of a house owned by Liam. Liam is anthropologist obsessed with sex and young voluptuous female bodies. He has given up his family and his academic job to marry one of his students, Grace. Fairly quickly his sexual obsession and desperate love-making becomes tedious and Grace takes younger lovers. Liam spends his time drinking whiskey, daydreaming about sex and sinking into self- pity. He is irritated and disgusted by Daphne.
Daphne loves Liam and she has plans. She campaigns to convince him of the possible pleasures he might enjoy with her aging body. Her aim is to erode his disgust and make him curious. Their first sexual encounter happens when after a heavy drinking session, dehydrated and miserable, he wakes up to find Daphne has tied him to the bed and is gently exploring his body. Touching parts of his body at the same time as touching her own; sniffing, licking and making appreciative noises. At first he keeps telling her to stop but gradually he finds he is becoming aroused.
Arousal versus desire
Although she focuses on women’s sexual experience, in her 2020 book “Mind the Gap”, Dr Karen Gurney makes a distinction between arousal and desire. She cites Basson’s 2000 circular model of arousal and desire for women where arousal comes before desire. Gurney’s point is that sexual arousal may not be related to a partner but may well be a response to someone or something in the world, something heard, touched, seen, read or imagined including erotic art or literature. Experiencing sexual or sensual stimuli is the first step towards arousal. This may be in the company of a sexual partner, dinner in a beautiful restaurant or a hot night in a club, or it might be alone, reading and sunbathing or noticing an attractive stranger on a train. Think of all the pleasurable sensations and fantasies that can be enjoyed.
Distraction affects sexual arousal, so whilst spontaneous sex is seen as something good, planning does matter. There are environmental distractions like noise and interruptions. I’m sure anyone who has been interrupted by a small voice calling out Mummy or Daddy knows how off putting this can be. Distraction can also come from concerns about body image and performance perhaps fuelled by comparisons with depictions on social media. There are also concerns about whether the other person is really enjoying it, will you have an orgasm and is this kind of sex ok. Gurney notes research that suggests actively focussing on arousal, thinking about how good it feels and how into the other person you are turns up the sexual response and is more likely to lead to satisfying sex.
Diski’s description of Liam’s transformation from disgust to arousal turns on him seeing his bondage and Daphne’s pleasure from a position of a voyeur rather than a participant, “He began to feel the appropriate responses of a consumer enjoying a pantomime of lust designed to inflame the passive observer’s sexual temperature.” (Diski, 1991:133) Liam is then begging her to not to stop. He is finally overcome with desire for her in a way he has never desired anyone before. When she unties him he makes an investigation of her body, finding pleasure in the present and past life that is written there, “It was more sensual than anything he had ever imagined.” (ibid., 139). Helped by the lubrication Dr Meades has prescribed, Liam finds a new kind of lovemaking with Daphne.
Gurney’s advice to the women who come to her with ‘low’ desire is to ask them to notice when they are aroused and to try and build on that to create desire and anticipation. For some women making plans to enjoy sex may go against their beliefs and culture however desire doesn’t just come out of nowhere; as Gurney points out if you wait for spontaneous desire to arrive it may be a long wait. Of course Gurney also makes it clear that the psychological and emotional context is significant, in her book she discusses relationship issues along with aspects of cultural and religious shame. Putting these aside, Gurney’s message is encouraging. It liberates us from the myth that spontaneous desire indicates a ‘good’ sexual relationship. By explaining that desire follows arousal and emphasising the importance of fanning arousal, by addressing the elements Gurney is helping women and their partners to revive the benefits and pleasures of an active sex life.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch. Online therapy is available.
Basson, R. The Female Sexual Response: A Different Model. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 26, 51-65 (2000)
Diski, J. (1991) Happily Ever After. Hamish Hamilton. London.
Gurney, K. (2020) Mind the Gap: The truth about desire and how to future proof your sex life. Headline Home. London.