The European: Ms Henning, you have written two sex education books; one for young readers and one for adults. Do adults really need to be “educated“ about sex?
Henning: Many people ask, “what do adults not know about sex?“ But I wrote the book because I know through my work that many adults have very little knowledge about it. They don’t understanding sexual arousal and their own bodies, and then they run into problems.
The European: What’s the reason for this lack of knowledge?
Henning: Many believe that we’re born with our sexuality and don’t have to make an effort to educate ourselves about it.
The European: Because time and practice will suffice?
Henning: We are born with some aspects of sexuality, like the arousal reflex. Even small children like to discover and touch themselves. It gives them a nice tickle. But then we grow older and start to think about intercourse. How we enjoy sex, whether it hurts, or whether we climax during sex isn’t innately determined. Some people have great sex from the beginning – but many others don’t.
The European: So we’re not as educated as we think?
Henning: Exactly. Many people know about swinger clubs, about brothels and about S/M. But they don’t know basic things about having good sex: It’s not about performance but about connecting with one’s own body.
The European: What role do social roles and constraints play?
Henning: My first book “Sex & Lovers: A Practical Guide” was recently published in Great Britain, and it elicited several media responses. Large newspapers wrote about the book, but they avoided all details and didn’t publish any photos. Sex is still a social taboo in the UK. In Germany, by contrast, the book was discussed quite openly because it’s about adolescent sexuality. But my second book “Make More Love” (German title) is about adults, and it was seen as a taboo in Germany as well. TV shows canceled my appearances because other guests didn’t feel comfortable.
The European: Why?
Henning: Let me give you one example: A Danish TV station is currently filming a series about Germany. They started with a simple provocative question: “Isn’t it better to be German?” They’re interviewing opinion pollsters and politicians, and they also talked to me about sex. In Denmark, they think that Germans love lace and leather and celebrate bondage and free love. But we also know that Germans watch more online pornography than people from any other European country. They sit in front of the computer instead of having real sex, and they are unwilling to speak about their sexual problems. When they have issues “down there”, most Germans never see a doctor.
The European: Wait a second: If everyone watches porn, and if sex is such a big TV topic, how can it also be a social taboo?
Henning: With a few exceptions, it’s a global taboo. Religions play a big role – not because they would prohibit sexual acts per se, but because some groups use religion to control others. Just think of all the prohibitions, sins, and medical concerns related to intercourse.
“Up to a third of all women cannot orgasm at all.”
The European: The sexual revolution happened more than fifty years ago. Children are no longer taught that masturbation will make them blind. What’s the reason for our continuing sense of shame?
Henning: The Victorian age ended not too long ago – a mere three generations separate us from their sexual norms. My mother was born in 1943, and she still grew up in a world in which husbands could terminate their wives’ employment and in which “hysterical” women could be forced to have their uterus removed. But there has been progress: TV stations broadcast educational material, serious newspapers write about sex, talk shows discuss it, and universities offer relevant degrees.
The European: Yet Freud also has an enduring legacy: Stereotypes continue to exist, especially in relation to female sexuality. What has changed in that regard?
Henning: Many women believe that they can openly express their sexuality. But many women also don’t know about vaginal arousal and think that they can only orgasm when their clitoris is stimulated. But 80 to 90 percent of women cannot orgasm from penetration alone. No wonder if women have less interest in intercourse! Once a man penetrates them, they can barely feel anything.
The European: Really?
Henning: They can feel pressure and movement, but it’s not always sufficient to stimulate them sexually. And up to a third of all women cannot orgasm at all.
The European: In other words: We still have a long way and a lot of education ahead of us?
Henning: Let me give you my favorite example. One of my clients was a biology teacher who believed that she didn’t require any education. She simply wanted to know how to orgasm. I asked her, “do you know your vagina and its anatomical-physiological features?” She said that she did. And then I asked her how big her clitoris was. She started to describe it and wondered whether it was pea-sized or maybe bigger, perhaps like a hazelnut. She required basic education, especially since she is teaching young boys and girls about their sexuality.
The European: You mentioned internet porn. What sexual expectations does it raise of men?
Henning: I want to say to men, “you poor buggers!” Since a man’s penis is immediately visible and touchable, and since young men have such high testosterone levels, many things happen automatically for them, especially at a young age. Men can orgasm with ease – but perhaps that’s a problem. If men aren’t educated about their bodies and about sexual arousal, they’ll run into problems during their andropause. They want to adhere to cultural expectations about male virility, but it gets harder. Many men struggle with that.
The European: You write: “The question isn’t whether men will experience erectile dysfunction, but when.”
Henning: Yes. Men who don’t understand their bodies and simply thrust mechanically will one day run into problems. As they age, they compensate by rubbing and thrusting harder and more quickly. They literally fight for their erection and their arousal. Unless the woman knows how to use her pelvic muscles, they might not climax at all. We have adopted sexual practices that are detrimental to the sexuality of both partners.
“Men and women struggle equally with aging”
The European: You once said that it’s downhill after 50. Now you published a book about sex at old age. How does our sexuality change over time?
Henning: That’s hard to say. Basically, we can distinguish two groups: First, couples who notice that they have a problem, slow down, read a few books and begin to think: “What else can I do?” Some consult a therapist and manage to develop their sexuality anew, and sometimes even take it to new heights. Second, couples who are ashamed and stop having sex.
The European: What happens next?
Henning: They often become unfaithful. Statistical data shows that men and women betray their respective partners with similar frequencies. Others simply stop having sex. I don’t want to criticize those who agree not to have sex, but it becomes a problem if one partner starts to feel dissatisfied.
The European: Maybe a little affair can reduce sexual frustration and save the relationship?
Henning: In some cases, sexual intercourse becomes impossible – for example, if one partner has cancer of develops Alzheimer’s. In those cases, the other person should take care of her or his sexual needs nonetheless, sometimes at the encouragement of their partner. One can be a devoted partner while finding sexual fulfillment elsewhere. But I don’t think that people should resort to affairs and cheating because they are afraid to discuss sexual problems.
The European: As we age, our hormones change. What consequences can we expect?
Henning: Men and women struggle equally with aging. The media likes to portray women as the primary victims of old age, but many report that they actually feel better after their menopause. They have gotten to know their bodies, they are less ashamed, and they have more energy and sexual drive.
The European: Sounds great.
Henning: Yes, but their vaginal lubrication often decreases. They might require extra time to get wet. If that doesn’t work, the modern woman uses lubricant gel.
The European: And men?
Henning: After puberty, male testosterone levels continue to decline for natural and environmental reasons. The balance between estrogen and testosterone changes, partially because our drinking water now includes all kinds of hormones, including estrogen. Thirty years ago, a 70-year old man had the same testosterone levels as a 40-year old today. Most men begin to notice changes around the age of fifty, some don’t notice anything until they’re seventy. Their sexual stamina and sexual drive decline.
The European: You write that the brain fulfills a central function for sexual arousal. How does it change with age?
Henning: Everything slows down a little. After several rounds of intercourse, we might need a longer break. Time to orgasm increases. But we also know from neuroscience that some brain functions peak between the ages of forty and sixty. We’re not mentally “old”, but smarter – and a bit slower. The brain is a very flexible organ and quite capable of processing new experiences. So it’s possible to change and to continue to learn.
The European: That sounds hopeful.
Henning: Yes, especially since it affects me as well. I had a great time as a teenager and a young adult, without sexual problems. But I’m having better sex now. In my youth, I simply did not know many things. Did I have to know them? Not necessarily, because I still had a good time. But I sometimes have clients who are 25 and cannot orgasm. Or young men who suffer because they orgasm so quickly that they can’t really have sex. They are keen to understand their bodies and to change.
“Sex also happens in the heart”
The European: Why do some people not want to know about their sexuality?
Henning: Good question. It takes hard work. And we’re often under the impression that sexuality should function almost automatically.
The European: Finally, we want to fact-check three pieces of folk knowledge with you. First, “sex is better when two people love each other”.
Henning: It depends on what they want to get out of sex. Simply having sex or having a one-night stand can be very nice. Personally, as I get older, I value relationships more than simply fucking. It is important to me that the other person is authentically present, that I can feel them and don’t simply think about sex as a performance. It’s about intimate contact with others.
The European: Second, “good sex happens in the brain.”
Henning: Every movement happens in the brain, so the statement is true in a sense. Sex also happens in the heart. But without the synapses, there’s no pleasure. Sexuality and the sentiments it arouses are learned. We know that from studies of people who have been sexually abused. When someone has learned at an early age that sex hurts or that it involves being taken advantage of – by one’s father, uncle, grandfather, or mother –, then sex becomes associated with negative emotions like fear and grief.
The European: Third: “Good sex can be learned.”
Henning: Absolutely. If we know our own bodies and have learned to connect erotically with another body, we’ve created the perfect conditions for good sex. The rest involves non-verbal communication with the other person.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with T.C. Boyle: “All writers are egomaniacal, manic depressive, drug-addicted alcoholics”