By Jonathan Decker, Clinical Director, LMFT
This article contains a frank, but not crass, discussion of sex and is intended for mature readers.
CHASING AFTER MIRAGES
You see the headlines screaming at you from the magazine rack at the grocery store. They say things like “Rock His World Tonight,” and “101 Forbidden Positions to Spice Things Up!” If you check your junk mail you’ll likely find invitations to try supplements guaranteed to enhance your anatomy. Neither holds the key to sexual fulfillment.
Our culture has become obsessed with sex, as evidenced by the rampant popularity of internet pornography and erotic novels like 50 Shades of Grey. In our craze over kink and fixation over the size of body parts, we may think we’re breaking taboos and tapping into sexuality’s full pleasure potential, but it’s never enough. When things don’t satisfy like they used to, we go for something more extreme.
Some think that sexual confidence comes from having a movie star (or porn star) body and go to unhealthy lengths to get there. Others believe that the key to sexual satisfaction is learning more techniques than a kung fu master. People try to maximize their pleasure by “hooking up” with as many partners as they can, pursuing the novelty. Through it all, they try to quench their thirst for sexual satisfaction by chasing after mirages, but the overflowing fountain lies in a different direction.
|Image Credit: NowVision Photography.|
The key to sexual fulfillment has always been the relationship. It provides the soul and beauty of human sexuality. Take that away and sex doesn’t reach its full potential. Certainly there is a room for creativity and experimentation in the bedroom. There’s also plenty of evidence to support that physical fitness has sexual benefits. In some cases medical treatments are legitimate and helpful. But without the trust of commitment and the affection of intimacy, the sexual experience fails to meet its potential.
COMMITTED SEX IS BETTER SEX
Dr. Ian Kerner explains in his book, She Comes First: A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, that the quality of sexual experiences are dramatically improved in cases of fidelity over cases of casual encounters:
“[Sex] is ultimately about individual acts of knowing and giving. That’s not to say you can’t have a lot of fun casually, but such exploits are ultimately the pursuit of technique without a greater sense of purpose – pyrotechnics rather than real fireworks.
“[Great sex] requires trusting the rhythm of what happens and relaxing into a deeper, more instinctive zone of the self. It involves a mutual process of letting go and connecting to each other on every level. There’s no faking it. You need to be more than just a technician. You need to imbue technique with all of your senses and imagination. You need to be present, you need to be real; you need to be there in body, mind, and spirit.” (p.14)
“HOOKING UP” NOW CAN IMPAIR LIFELONG COMMITMENT LATER
In their book, Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting our Children, Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney and Dr. Freda McKissic Bush explain that sex naturally creates a strong emotional connection through the release of bonding hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin. These uniting effects of sex facilitate lifelong pairing. Combined with the release of the “pleasure” neurotransmitter dopamine, these bonding hormones create a sexual experience that is both physically and emotionally satisfying.
When a relationship dissolves (often because too-early physical intimacy has created an illusion of emotional intimacy which fades), the rupturing of these bonds can cause intense depression, much more so than if sex were never part of the relationship. As this cycle is repeated, with bonds made and broken time after time, the brain releases less and less of the bonding hormones in order to curb the emotional damage of breakup pain. Over time, therefore, a person associates sex less with commitment and emotional closeness and more with simple pleasure.
While sex without attachment may seem appealing in today’s hook-up culture, it’s actually second-rate sex. Scientifically speaking, you’re getting the effects of dopamine release without the full pleasure of emotional bonding. What’s more, down the road this process can impede a person’s ability to bond sexually with a long-term partner. Staying faithful can be difficult if the brain has come to associate sex with variety instead of intimacy, affection, and fidelity. Today’s fun lifestyle can be tomorrow’s relationship devastation.
The good news is that, with considerable effort, these associations can be reversed as persons enter into, and stay in, committed and healthy relationships. Oxytocin and vasopressin levels can gradually start to increase again and bonding may resume over time. If you’ve had numerous sexual partners and want to be in a healthy committed relationship, it’s time to make some changes. If your sexual experience is limited but a long-term relationship is your goal, you can take precautions for the future.
SEX IS LIKE…PIZZA? (QUALITY REQUIRES TIME AND CARE)
Odd as it may sound, physical intimacy is a lot like pizza. During my bachelor days I microwaved my share of pizzas. They always came out soggy. I contrast that to a date I had where we made our own pizza from scratch, rolling the dough, grating the cheese, chopping the ingredients, and cooking it in a brick oven. It took nearly an hour, partially because we were playing and flirting, but mostly because quality took time. It couldn’t be rushed. That was some of the best pizza I’ve ever tasted.
People try to microwave their relationships so they can get to sex as soon as possible, but the best kind of physical intimacy is the kind that comes after a relationship has slow-cooked in the oven. In his book How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk, Dr. John Van Epp explains that waiting in dating can improve sex in a committed relationship later on. It takes time to really get to know another person, to build trust, and to truly commit.
This process is distorted by early sexual involvement because the bonding hormones create a false sense of intimacy. This means that having sex (or engaging in passionate sexual foreplay) early in the relationship can make you think you’re more in love than you actually are. It can cause you to trust someone more than you should or think you know them more than you actually do. Dr. Van Epp explains that saving sexual involvement until levels of knowledge, trust, reliance, and commitment are high minimizes the emotional risks of sex and maximizes a relationship’s potential to endure.
“JUST A KISS GOODNIGHT…”
Sex can be one of life’s greatest experiences, so why not do it right? Taking time to develop a committed relationship of trust, friendship, and respect before getting sexually involved isn’t about being prudish, it’s about being smart. This mentality is slowly making a comeback in pop culture, as evidenced by Lady Antebellum’s hit song “Just a Kiss.” Consider these selected lyrics in light of the current topic:
So hard to hold back when I’m holding you in my arms
We don’t need to rush this
Let’s just take it slow
I know that if we give this a little time
It’ll only bring us closer to the love we wanna find
It’s never felt so real
No it’s never felt so right
Just a kiss on your lips in the moonlight
Just a touch of the fire burning so bright
No, I don’t wanna mess this thing up
I don’t wanna push too far
Just a shot in the dark that you just might
Be the one I’ve been waiting for my whole life
So baby I’m alright
With just a kiss goodnight
No I don’t want to say goodnight
I know it’s time to leave, but you’ll be in my dreams
OVERCOMING SEXUAL PERFORMANCE ANXIETY
With media often portraying sex as a toe-curling, earth-moving experience between hot young people with perfect bodies, those wanting to replicate that (or even believing it to be ‘expected’) may feel inadequate when reality happens instead. There seems to be a standard of amazing sex that some of us chase after, resulting in a type of performance anxiety. Like speaking in public or interviewing for a job, the more nervous we get about our sexual performance, the more likely we’ll have a frustrating experience and feel embarrassed about it.
I was fortunate once to attend a seminar by noted sex therapist Dr. Barry McCarthy, who introduced me to the idea of “good-enough sex.” His research shows that couples who focus on emotional intimacy, the pleasure of physical touch, and feeling happy together are able to relax and enjoy sex whether everything “goes right” or not. They know that sex doesn’t have to be amazing to be satisfying. It can be “good-enough.” Here’s the kicker, though: couples who focus on affectionately enjoying each other, with “good-enough sex” as the standard, end up having amazing sex more often than the couples whose main concern is having amazing sex! (“Good-Enough Sex” model for couple sexual satisfaction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy; August 2007; Volume 22 No. 3 Pages 351-362)
The fact is, the human body is an imperfect organism. It’s not going to work perfectly every time you have sex (or do anything, for that matter). It’s nothing to be ashamed of, yet so many feel shame when it happens. Difficulty getting aroused, staying aroused, or achieving orgasm happens to everyone at some time or another. Acknowledging this, and even expecting it from time to time, normalizes socially what is quite normal physiologically, which in turn minimizes shame and “performance anxiety.”
Being in a relationship where trust, reliance, and commitment have developed over time, where friendship is paramount and affection is unconditional, diminishes the shame of a less-than-stellar sexual experience. There’s no fear of losing your partner because you didn’t “rock their world this time.” There’s less anxiety over trying again, which makes sexual satisfaction much more likely in the future. What’s more, couples who can communicate openly and honestly are more able to give (and apply) loving feedback about sexual needs.
CONCLUSION: “THE WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART”
To be clear, once again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive for healthier bodies. I’m not saying “don’t try new things or get creative with your partner.” I’m not advocating against medical intervention when necessary. What I am saying is that without the level of trust that comes with strong commitment, without the type of comfort that comes from unconditional affection, we rob ourselves of sex at its most satisfying. If we rush sexual involvement we’re likely to develop emotional bonds that end painfully and risk our ability maintain lasting romantic relationships.
Taking the time to develop a deep love and abiding commitment before intense physical intimacy allows us to grow closer with confidence. Tom Petty famously sang that “the waiting is the hardest part.” That’s true, but it also yields the greatest rewards.
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