"You're not going to believe this when I tell you, but it's the truth. Frank and I have been married for 16 years, and we adore each other, but we have never, ever, consummated our marriage," Gina, a 39-year-old secretary, says. "And it's not that we don't want to. But we have never had intercourse, and we've never talked about it, either."
Born in Italy, Gina moved to the United States when she was 9, but inside the house, she recalls, "It was still the old country. My parents were very, very strict."
Brought up to believe that sex outside marriage was a sin, she vowed to save herself for her husband. But even though she's happily married to a loving man, the old fears linger.
"Before we married, I wouldn't let Frank touch me. But now, I don't know why we always stop right before we do it," Gina continues. She's reached a point of desperation: "I want a baby. I want to be normal, to make love like everyone else."
"How do you think I feel, the guy who has never scored, not even with his wife?" says Frank, 40. "I can't remember what I heard about sex as a kid . . . My parents were pretty Old World strict, too."
Frank, too, has no idea why they stop just before intercourse. "I get scared," he says, "that same old anxiety that strikes me at work, like I might mess up and lose my job. My brothers are all very successful. I want to provide for Gina the way they do for their wives." But he knows that if he and Gina don't get help now, he'll lose her forever.
Raised in strict, traditional homes, the babies of their families, Gina and Frank brought fears and misconceptions from childhood into their marriage, notes Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist.
Gina had been given the message early on that sex was dirty, something a woman does for a man and certainly not something from which she should derive any pleasure. Frank's legacy from childhood was his overwhelming lack of self-esteem. Convinced of his unworthiness and paralyzed by the fear that he would never measure up to his successful brothers, he's drowning in an ocean of fears.
This couple must face the psychological impediments to lovemaking, which can be done in counseling. And they must be given physical exercises to diminish embarrassment and fear during the sexual act.
This "sensate focus" technique, pioneered by sex therapists Masters and Johnson, helps to center thoughts on the individual senses:
* Pick a time when you both feel unrushed and unhassled. Unplug the phone, put on music you both enjoy.
* Take turns giving each other a massage -- exclusive of sexual organs. Feel the caress and talk about your feelings at each point. What are you afraid of? What feels good? What feels too rough or too fast?
* When you both feel comfortable and confident, expand your touching and massage to include the sexual organs. Finally -- and, like many couples, Gina and Frank were already so excited they didn't need to be told this -- include intercourse in your lovemaking.