Beyond Sexual Stereotypes: Revealing Group Similarities and Differences in Optimal Sexuality

Article excerpt

The original goal of this research was to develop an empirically based, conceptual model of optimal sexuality. To that end, semistructured, phenomenologically oriented interviews were conducted with 76 key informants. The three participant groups consisted of men and women over the age of 60 who had been married for over 25 years, self-identified members of sexual minority groups, and sex therapists. Strikingly, the descriptions of optimal sexuality were nearly universally identical among the first two participant groups; that is, across men and women, older married people, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) or "kinky" participants; however, the sex therapists were conspicuous outliers. Even though five raters in the research team were blind as to the demographic characteristics of the participants, raters consistently and accurately detected the sex therapists' transcripts and conceptions as undeniably and markedly different. The repercussions of these findings for clinical work are explored. Most notably, assumptions about sexuality (e.g., male-female sexual differences) at the dysfunctional to "normal" ends of the spectrum may not hold true at the high end of the continuum. Sex therapists may benefit from rethinking sexual potential to help in improving clients' sex lives.

Keywords: optimal sexuality, sex therapy, sexual minorities, gender differences, aging

How do various groups differ from or resemble one another in terms of optimal sexuality? Our research team did not set out to investigate whether group differences exist in optimal sexual experiences. These unexpected findings emerged serendipitously. Since 2005, we have been studying optimal sexual experiences (Kleinplatz & Ménard, 2007; Kleinplatz, Ménard et al., 2009a; Kleinplatz, Ménard, et al., 2009b) in the hope of improving the sex lives of "ordinary" lovers or those with sexual difficulties (Kleinplatz, 2010a, 2010b). The research methods we employed were not intended to detect similarities or differences between groups; therefore, it seemed noteworthy when these findings appeared so conspicuously nonetheless.

Originally, this study was designed to investigate the nature and components of optimal sexual experiences and to learn what elements facilitated or contributed to wonderful, memorable sex. Although there is an extensive literature on unfulfilling and dysfunctional sex, there was a dearth of empirical data on especially desirable sex and how to attain it. Pop culture is replete with images of effortless "mind-blowing" sex, with all manner of tips, tricks, and techniques, toys, and positions that allegedly make "great sex" easy. We wondered what constituted magnificent sexual experiences and how they actually came about.

Given that we had set out to explore and describe in detail the lived experience of a particular phenomenon, the most appropriate method was phenomenological research (Moustakas, 1994). The focus of phenomenological research is on elucidating the experiences themselves rather than the people who have them. The method entails conducting extensive, in-depth, semistructured interviews with key informants; that is, individuals who might have knowledge or expertise to share on the subject (Polkinghorne, 1989, 1994).

To the extent that those whose sexuality has been marginalized have been forced to think outside the box and to create new, personalized visions of sexuality, the insights of such individuals seemed especially valuable. As such, we sought out individuals both mainstream and forgotten; that is, old, married couples who self-identified as having "great sex" to glean their insights after a lifetime together. To broaden this empirical model, we also interviewed a wide variety of sexual minority group members to learn what seemed optimal for them, given that they had already transgressed beyond the bounds of traditional conceptions of sex per se. Finally, in order to flesh out the model under development of optimal sexuality and how to facilitate it, sex therapists were interviewed. …