Pleasure Mechanics: As Editrix of The Sex Diaries Project, you witnessed over 1500 people keep a sex diary for one week. What are some of the benefits or outcomes you see from the practice of keeping a sex diary?
Arianne Cohen: There are too many to list! The simple answer is that it’s a free chance to think about your relationships and sex life, and do some self-healing–making the improvements that need to be made. Just the simple act of writing everything down that happens, and then looking back on it, really gives diarists an “Ah-ha!” moment, as if they’re seeing what they actually do for the first time–perhaps they realize that in a whole week they haven’t really talked to their partner, or that they’re watching porn 32 times a week, or that actually, everything’s pretty great.
A lot of Diarists also tend to have huge revelations around day 3 or 4 about the path that they’re on. They can suddenly see how their choices affect their direction, and react accordingly. It’s really a personalized experience. People get out of it what they bring to it.
You say the unhappiest of all your diarists are those who don’t know what they want. Can you tell us how you noticed this pattern in the diaries? What does that mean about the importance of desire?
AC: I noticed it because it was a little counterintuitive, and kept popping up: The happiest diarists were not the ones for whom everything was going well. The happiest are the ones who (1) know, generally speaking, what they want, and (2) feel that they’re on a path toward getting it. So perhaps it’s a single woman who has just moved to a new town, and she’s signed herself up for a whole bunch of activities. She’s on the right path. Or perhaps it’s a person in an unhappy marriage who has committed to 6 months of couples therapy. It’s the diarists who aren’t sure what they want who tend to be unhappy and generally angsty, and also to blame their partners for their lack of happiness.
With your unique insight into thousands of sex diaries, what were some of the surprises for you?
Well, I learned that monogamy is much less common than I had believed. Around 80% of the diarists ultimately intend monogamy, but during any one week, roughly half are practicing a non-monogamous life, through dating or cheating or playing the field. And most of them really don’t have the vocabulary or outlook to discuss that with partners healthfully.
Also, it was a little surprising to me how the relationships people want can change radically over their lifetimes. The same diarist that wants nothing more than family life at one point can, a decade later, be craving open seas. And the reason is because people’s needs change. People themselves–their personalities–are really quite predictable and, barring trauma and accidents, are fairly consistent. But their needs vacillate widely, and accordingly, so do the relationships that fit those needs.
You emphasize that our language often falls short of the complex realities of our lived experience of sexuality and relationships. What kinds of new language do you think needs to be coined to reflect the diversity in SDP?
Ooooh, I like this question. SDP really demonstrates that what a relationship is really differs so strongly from couple to couple that it’s barely the same thing–“relationship” is not really a stable term. So I spent a lot of time analyzing thousands of relationships, and finding three main types of relationships, each of which operate really differently. That was mind-blowing to me. I gave them names (lover/aspirer/partner), but beyond that, really went out of my way to avoid coining new language, because nothing hampers discussion more than a room full of experts, each of which with their own freshly-coined phrases.
How can reading SDP be an educational experience?
How can it not be?! There’s so much that can be learned from reading others’ experiences, especially in other peoples’ bedrooms, a place that we can’t see. Our society’s structure makes it impossible to see how others run their relationships, and how they communicate, and how they have sex. Which is fine–my doe eyes are comfortable with that state of affairs. But because of that, the learning curve is huge, whether it’s learning a smart way to respond to a partner in a bad mood, or a new sex move. In terms of sex, reading others’ experiences gives us permission to try it ourselves. It opens up the possibility, and makes it okay.
We believe participating in The Sex Diaries Project – by reading and talking about diaries or keeping your own – can be a transformational experience. This book is a precious opportunity to witness the authentic sex lives of other folks, and find permisison and inspiration in the unlikeliest of places.