Often in my practice I see clients who may feel a combination of shame, guilt and confusion about their sexual interests and preferences. When working with such a client, I find it very helpful to use a very powerful model developed by psychologist Donald Mosher to describe the various types of sexual styles to my client. This model, which categorizes three main styles of sexual interactions, often helps clients to normalize and destigmatize their behavior.
In Mosher’s model, the first style of sexual interaction is called “Sexual Trance.” This refers to sex that is purely physical in nature. All (or most) emotions are removed and the sex doesn’t signify anything beyond pleasurable friction of genitals. Mosher refers to this as a trance because partners are mostly emotionally disconnected and preoccupied with their own pleasure.
The second style is “Role Play.” This style is actually what it sounds like. This type of sex involves a high degree of creativity and exploration. It involves an strong level of identity testing and formation and may often feel very psychologically intense for both partners, which often feels very intimate and bonding for both. This style of sex is a great example of the way in which sexuality and psychology can be fused. This style however may include less emotional involvement than the third stage because folks may often be working things out and so be more preoccupied with their self-needs within this style.
The third style is “Partner Engagement.” This is the kind of sensual love-making, pillow-talking and eye-gazing that people often think of when they talk about intimacy. This style usually involves the highest level of emotional engagement. Often couples engaged in this style feel that this kind of sex brings them very close emotionally as if serving the higher purpose of using physical pleasure in the service of emotional union. Good stuff. But…..
And this is a big but… most people engage in all of these styles at various times in their lives and often move fluidly from one stage to another and back again with the same partner and even within the same sexual encounter. And it’s all healthy in the appropriate context. There is no one right way to have sex. If anything, the trouble happens when individuals have difficulty shifting between the styles. Sometimes people just want the genital stimulation. And that’s ok. And sometimes they want to imagine themselves as a well-hung stud or as a gorgeous pin-up model. And that’s ok too. And yes, sometimes they just want to connect emotionally. All valid.
So when a client comes into my office concerned that their interest in having a no-strings-attached sexual encounter or in playing out some fantasy in superhero garb is wrong, I tell them about Mosher’s model. That there are various types of sex. And that they are all possibilities. All valid. And all healthy.