When I was a little infant sexologist, my first mentor was Professor Dr. Marilyn Volker, sexuality educator extraordinaire. I remember her emphasizing that sex was not solely about genital friction or the variety of erotic activities in which one could engage. She stressed that sex was about anatomy, health and reproduction; hormones, chromosomes and body image; sexual orientation, gender expression and gender roles; our feelings, fears and fantasies; our wants, desires, values and beliefs; selfpleasure, shared pleasure and relationships; and of course, intimacy.
You’d think she’d have caught my attention with fantasy or pleasure. But it was “intimacy” that got me. Volker recounted a story about working with women in a sexual abuse recovery group. These women had been acting by using only their sexuality to create connections with others. Once they started to heal and grow, they began to explore how to cultivate other types of intimacy that did not include sex. Volker and her women’s group together developed a framework for eight types of intimate connections: affectional, emotional, social, intellectual, physical, aesthetical, sexual and spiritual.
Aesthetic intimacy refers to sharing something beautiful together — strolling through a botanical garden, listening to a live band on the lawn or watching a lightning storm from the patio.
Affectional intimacy embodies sharing affection like holding hands in the park or sharing smooches and cuddles on the couch.
Emotional intimacy involves opening up to deeper authentic feelings by sharing emotions verbally or nonverbally.
Intellectual intimacy is a cerebral connection often obtained through thoughtful conversations on subjects such as politics, philosophy, religion or education.
Physical intimacy means doing physical activities together — hiking, biking, playing tennis or shaking your groove thing on Friday night at Tahona.
Social intimacy denotes doing social activities together such as seeing Ironman 2, taking partnered salsa lessons or meeting for lunch at Chipotle. Spiritual intimacy entails sharing a spiritual or religious connection. Think Shambala, Congregation Har Hashem, First Presbyterian Church of Boulder or the top of Bear Mountain.
Sexual intimacy consists of exploring and sharing sexuality together — sharing fantasies, foreplay, role-play, mutual masturbation, or non-genital, sensual touch.
While sexual intimacy is not to be confused with physical intimacy, the spheres do overlap and intersect. Sex can be both very physical and emotional.
We often think about being intimate with only a romantic partner. However, intimacy in its other various forms can be cultivated and shared with friends, family, kids, professional colleagues and self. And thank goodness! It would be excessive to expect one person to fulfill all our needs.
The question couples need to ask themselves is which of the eight spheres are most essential for them. A man and woman may have met at a church event. Needing to be equally yoked, spiritual intimacy might rank highest for this partnership. One twosome may have met another twosome at a function for swingers. The foursome may have developed a strong social and intellectual connection over the years, but because of the nature of their relationship, sexual intimacy may be most important. Michelle and Barack may consider emotional, sexual and affectional intimacy crucial to their marriage, while Hillary and Bill Clinton might consider intellectual and social intimacy to be the most important elements to their political relationship. However, few couples want only a business-based marriage where both partners are essentially sexless roommates.
Whether in a romantic relationship or not, it’s beneficial to explore who fulfills which spheres of intimacy and how. If in a relationship, you can use the sexual metaphor exercise to measure the quality of your connections. “Absent” means very little to no intimacy in that sphere. “Intercourse” denotes a solid and meaningful connection. “Orgasm” equals electrifying.
If you have one person bearing the burden of most spheres, you may want to consider sharing the load with others. Or if you are weak in essential areas, you may want to brainstorm how to build stronger connections. Walk the dogs together. Drive up to NCAR to watch the sunrise, or schedule a sensual massage date with your loved one. Have fun. Intimacy nourishes the soul.
Jenni Skyler, PhD, is a sex therapist and board-certified sexologist. She runs The Intimacy Institute in Boulder, www.theintimacyinstitute.org.