Do It Better

What Is “Sexual Currency”?

| 12/04/2020

sexual currency Illustration by Yadi Liu

As human beings, we long for touch. We’re naturally social creatures who thrive off of skin-to-skin contact. Studies have shown that when we receive touch, our brains release oxytocin and other positive neurochemicals, making us feel calm, happy, and at peace. Likewise, when people don’t receive touch, they begin to wither away, feel extremely despondent and depressed. Psychologists and researchers have found that receiving physical affection is absolutely essential for babies and small children to become well-adjusted adults. 

All of this is to say that the importance of physical touch cannot be emphasized enough.

When it comes to romantic relationships, touch takes on an erotic meaning. We’re not just talking about sex here. While sex is a part of romantic relationships, it is not the only kind of sexually charged touch we need to feel safe, happy, and erotically satiated. Dr. Karen Gurney, a clinical psychologist, psychosexologist, and author of Mind The Gap: the truth about desire and how to futureproof your sex life coined the term “sexual currency” to describe the way non-genital stimulating touch within romantic relationships helps us relate to our partners as sexual beings—a crucial component of overall relationship satisfaction. 

Sexual currency also goes beyond touch: It’s about all the ways we relate to someone as a sexual partner. So let’s dig a bit deeper into sexual currency, why it’s so important, and how romantic and sexual relationships suffer without it.

What Is Sexual Currency?

Anytime we hug, kiss, rub, squeeze, and nuzzle into a romantic partner, there is an erotic charge. This comes from the sexual relationship that exists between couples. This type of touch doesn’t involve the touching of genitals, but is sexually based in that it allows us “to meet the needs of sex, [such as] feeling desired, expressing desire, and connecting in a way unique to us as sexual partners,” says Gurney. It allows us to “engage in being sexual with our bodies without having sex.”

Sexual currency is a little different from physical affection. It is sexually charged touch that has erotic meaning. Physical affection is something you can have with relatives and friends. It’s warm and loving, but it’s not sexually based. With sexual currency, the intentions are “attraction and desire,” Gurney says.

Sexual currency is a building block that allows you to sexually relate more easily to each other, leading to more actual sex.

What’s more, sexual currency does not just involve touch. It involves all sexually charged interactions. This can include sending a suggestive text, exchanging a look of love and desire with a partner, or telling a partner sweet nothings (or sexy somethings, like a fantasy).

While sexual currency isn’t “sex,” it is sexual at its core. 

Sexual Currency Is a Part of Your Sex Life

Now, don’t get it twisted. Sexual currency isn’t full on sex, but it is a part of your sex life. “In a relationship, many people often think of their ‘sex lives’ as the relatively infrequent moments of the week/month/year when they are having some form of sex with a partner,” Gurney says. “But in conceptualizing their sex lives in this way, they are losing out on the quality of the rest of their sexual connection happening outside of this narrow window.”

Anything that happens between you and a romantic partner that sends a message of love, desire, and attraction is a part of the network of sexual currency. That makes it an essential piece of the overall puzzle. “A good sex life does not happen in isolation, and having low levels of sexual currency can present some challenges to longterm sexual satisfaction,” Gurney says. “I often describe to clients that people with higher levels of sexual currency in their relationships often have more ‘scaffolding’ to allow them to move easily from a non-sexual place (such as doing the washing up or housework together) to initiating and having sex.” 

Basically, sexual currency is a building block that allows you to sexually relate more easily to each other, leading to more actual sex.

Sexual Currency Meets Our Needs That Go Beyond Orgasms

There are many reasons to have sex. It’s not just about pleasure, though this is a big part of it. We often have sex because we want to feel close to our partner, to feel connected, and to feel like we’re sexually desired. 

Sexual currency is a bedrock of relationships because it allows us to meet these needs without the pressure of having full-on sex. “Having some level of sexual currency between us takes the pressure off sex” needing to happen in order for us “to feel connected, excited, alive or desired,” Gurney says. “This can be really useful in inevitable times where sex is off the agenda for a while, such as when a couple has a new baby.”

Keeping Sexual Currency Alive in Longterm Relationships

At the beginning of a relationship, there is usually a LOT of sexual currency. Think about when you first started dating your partner. Did you passionately kiss for hours? Did you send a ton of sexts? Were you all over each other like chocolate sauce on a sundae? All of these actions are fueled by New Relationship Energy. This is when your brain is soaked in feel-good chemicals when you first fall for someone. 

As we get to know someone and become more comfortable, these levels of sexual currency usually begin to decline. We stop making out multiple times a day, don’t flirt with each other, and begin to give less erotic touch. The problem is that the less we engage with our shared sexual currency, the harder it becomes to engage with it in the future. It’s a vicious cycle. This is how partners begin to drift away from each other and start to feel lonely even when they are in relationships. 

This will impact your experiences in the bedroom, because how could it not? This is the stuff that, sorry to be dramatic, can lead to sexless relationships. “Once this happens, it can be a threat to our experience of desire, or our initiation of sex, as every move we make feels either too obvious, too loaded, or too pressured,” Gurney says.

“So many of us expect that our desire should just be there, but this is simply not backed up by sex research. Desire needs context and triggers.”

When you don’t have the cushioning of sexual currency, the gap between not having sex and having sex begins to widen, making one feel like it can’t be broached. When we nurture it, sexual currency becomes the special sauce that keeps our erotic cup full.

Sexual Currency Can “Trigger” Desire

Most of us (especially women and those raised female) require a “trigger” in order to feel sexual desire. We have this backward notion (thanks, patriarchy!) that we should just want sex spontanously and not have to build up anything beforehand. This is just not how it works. 

Enter: your sexual currency, the trigger we need! 

Sexual currency is an “important part of buffering against a drop in desire in long term relationships,” Gurney says. “So many of us expect that our desire should just be there, especially if we love our partner, but this is simply not backed up by sex research. Desire needs context and triggers.” High levels of sexual currency helps us get over this hurdle.

When couples show up in Gurney’s therapy room with issues around low libido, she has them start by building up their sexual currency. This helps them begin to relate to each other as sexual beings again so that sex can start to become more easily accessible. 

“A problem with desire is usually named [when] one person feels that their needs aren’t being met,” she says. “Their needs are usually not about the amount of sex they are actually having, or even having an orgasm, but usually about feeling wanted, having fun, being flirted with, or to feel there’s something special between them and their partner that only they have. Sexual currency does all this.”

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