We admire Dr. Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, for her spicy, smart commentary about relationships and sexuality. She sat down with us to share her thoughts about sexual wellbeing.
How do you define sexual wellbeing?
Pepper: I define sexual wellbeing as being comfortable with your body, being comfortable with your fantasies, feeling sexually desirable, being capable of sexual desire, and being able to talk about your sexual questions and/or issues with your partner or someone you trust and respect (a professional or a friend or family member). You don’t have to be sexually active with another person to be in this zone, but you would be able to experience pleasure (by yourself or with someone else) without guilt or shame. You would be confident and knowledgeable about how to protect your health and the health of anyone you would interact with in a sexual encounter.
What inspired you to work in this field?
Pepper: I was at Yale in graduate school during the renewal of the women’s movement, and one of the issues on the table was the impact of unequal power and privilege in sexual relations. Sex—who you have it with, under what circumstances, how you do it, and a host of other questions—had political as well as personal implications. “The personal is political” was one of the key mantras of that period, and understanding sex—and giving that information to others—was empowering to women who had never thought about redefining what was and was not permissible, in their own terms, before. I decided there was too much we didn’t know about female (and male) sexuality, and so I shifted some of my professional attention in that direction.
In your view, how is sexual wellbeing related to overall health and happiness?
Pepper: Kissing, touching, intercourse, orgasm: are all written into our DNA. We are a complex system of hormones and body parts designed for sexual pleasure and linked to positive emotions. We are designed to be sexual, and many of our positive emotional states are linked to sexual interaction. Orgasm itself produces oxytocin, which is a hormone that underlines and produces bliss, bonding, and pleasure. These states of being are directly linked to happiness. The interaction is complex, however. Feelings of shame or guilt can overshadow a momentary feeling of extreme pleasure (orgasm) if the individual doesn’t understand that sexuality is natural and good, rather than discrediting. So it is not sex, but rather sexual wellbeing, that is so essential to overall health and happiness.
What do you find is the most common misconception about sexuality or sexual wellbeing?
Pepper: That it is only related to intercourse or orgasm. Sexual wellbeing is about a state of mind, and also about a person’s entire feeling about their sexual self. It is about the context of sexual life (happily single or in a rewarding, rather than punishing, relationship) and not just the performance of any given act. Sexual wellbeing is as much about what’s inside of your head as it is about what you do with your body.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to make sexual wellbeing a higher priority?
Pepper: Make a checklist and see how you feel about your body, your thoughts, your sexual life, your sexual response, and your sexual choices. If any of these are not what you want them to be, address the issue, and either go to a qualified therapist or counselor to talk about it, or buy some good self-help books and get solid information about the areas of your sexuality that trouble you.
What global issue relating to sexuality or sexual wellbeing would you most like to see addressed?
Pepper: I would like to see the liberation of women’s sexuality across the world. Terrible things are done to women because men want to own women’s sexuality and sexual choices. Women are murdered every day for trumped-up assumptions about “honor.” Women are mutilated (by genital incision) every day so they cannot feel sexual arousal. Women are molested and raped because men use women’s bodies to enact rage and warfare. If I could extinguish all of this, I would.
About Pepper Schwartz
Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is the author of 16 books, including The Normal Bar of Relationships, Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years ; The Great Sex Weekend ; and Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong. Her latest book, Perfect Places for Passion at Any Age, will be released in Fall 2013.
Dr. Schwartz has received many distinguished awards for her teaching and scholarship, and she lectures nationally and internationally on relationship topics, sexuality, women’s issues, communication, and personal and family wellbeing. She lives in Snoqualmie, Washington on a horse ranch and has two children, Cooper and Ryder.