Friday, October 4, 2013

Tantra and the Chemistry of Sex

Sexual stimulation triggers the release of a cocktail of chemicals in the brain and body, including dopamine, testosterone, adrenaline, phenethylamine, endorphins, endocannabinoids, and oxytocin. At the risk of drastic oversimplification, here are some of the effects of each:
  • Dopamine and testosterone directly increase sexual arousal.
  • Dopamine focuses attention, increases motivation, and amplifies the mental effect of rewarding behavior.
  • Testosterone also increases optimism, aggression, and stamina.
  • Adrenaline increases the heart rate, prepares muscles for stronger contractions, increases fear, reduces trust, blocks pleasure and pain, and narrows the focus of our attention.
  • Phenethylamine, endorphins, and endocannabinoids block pain and increase pleasure; they’re literally intoxicating – when they flood the brain, we get high.
  • Oxytocin creates feelings of trust, empathy, pleasure, and emotional bonding.
The Tantric ritual is deliberately designed to minimize adrenaline while maximizing the production of dopamine, phenethylamine, endorphins, and oxytocin.

Thrills vs. Pleasure

I’ll come back to this whole discussion of chemistry later, but right now, we need to talk about the bad boy on this list, adrenaline. The amount of adrenaline released during sexual arousal is highest when the risk levels are highest. Whenever there is high novelty or high risk of interruption, failure, rejection, ridicule, shame, or physical danger, adrenaline will surge.

Almost by definition, our first sexual experiences will involve a lot of adrenaline, and many young people come to associate sex with that scary, edgy, adrenaline high. The extreme case might be violent sex or rape, but adrenaline will go up whenever a person is involved with unfamiliar or risky sexual activities, sex with a stranger, or sex in a dangerous or unfamiliar area.

High-adrenaline sex is fast, intense, rough, and according to most reports, driven primarily by lust, power, risk-taking, and excitement and almost entirely devoid of sensual pleasure. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun! Many people have fond memories of pulse-pounding, scary, thrilling, high-adrenaline sex. But it’s an entirely different kind of fun.

It’s the difference between going skydiving and spending a perfect lazy day on a tropical beach with your partner. A novice skydiver is far too revved up on adrenaline to feel any kind of sensual pleasure. In fact, in addition to making our hearts race and our muscles stronger, adrenaline focuses our attention so much that it blocks out both pain and pleasure. That’s why wounded soldiers often don’t realize they’ve been hit until after the fight is over. It’s what lets a gymnast finish a routine on a badly sprained ankle, but only in the heat of competition, never in practice.

Many of us enjoy both excitement and sensual pleasure. We like roller coasters and bungee jumping and we like lazing in a hot tub or lingering over a perfect meal with friends. But you can’t have both at the same time. Adrenaline is necessary for excitement, but it shuts sensuality down completely.

The problem comes when we associate sex only with thrill-seeking. Pretty much everyone experiences adrenaline sex early in a relationship. Any time you have sex with someone new, there’s an element of risk, of adventure, of jumping off into the unknown. But one thing that has changed about modern life is that far more people are experiencing only that kind of sex, often for a decade or more, so they come to define good sex as high adrenaline sex. When they are with one partner long enough for that thrill to go away, they get bored and break up, because they don’t know how to have great sex any other way.

Although we usually associate the pursuit of high-adrenaline sex with men, women also pursue it by seeking out high-risk encounters with strangers, often in public or unsafe areas. Getting drunk at a bar and going home with a man you know nothing about is a way of chasing after adrenaline sex. Although scary, a lot of people also find it intensely exciting and become addicted to it. Even people who would not actually seek it out often fantasize about it.

What do these things have in common?
  • Hooking up with strangers
  • Frequent short-term affairs
  • Swinging/swapping/group sex
  • Bondage
  • Acting out fantasies (rape, incest, pedophilia, stranger sex, etc.)
  • Dom/sub
  • S&M
  • Rough sex/choking/asphyxiation
  • Masturbation parties
  • Having sex in risky or public places (parks, airplanes, sex shops, etc.)
  • The corny routines that supposed "sex experts" like to recommend for surprising your spouse and spicing up a dull marriage
The answer is that all of these are ways to pursue adrenaline sex, to create some excitement once normal sex has become boring.

The key point: Adrenaline sex is sex for thrills, NOT sex for pleasure.

There is nothing inherently wrong with adrenaline sex.  It is exciting, and many of us have good memories of that kind of sex.  But it is not sustainable.  All of the things on that list get old.  When we are perpetually chasing novelty, we quickly get jaded.  Then we have to move on to something new or take what we’re doing to greater and greater extremes in order to recapture the thrill, the excitement.  Eventually it all starts feeling empty and pointless.

What people on the adrenaline treadmill don't know, and often find hard to believe, is that there are other kinds of sexual experiences that are at least as enjoyable as adrenaline sex, and can be potentially much more so. Furthermore, these other kinds of sex are sustainable because they don't depend on novelty.

The popular myth is that all couples lose interest in sex after a few years, but this just isn’t true. Most do, but roughly 35 to 45% of long-term married couples in the U.S. say they are still "very intensely in love" with each other, and are still enjoying sex after one or more decades together.

There are many ways to do this, and most couples have to fumble their way through the early marriage doldrums and figure it out for themselves, but Tantra has proven to be one of the most refined and successful ways to sustain that kind of long-term passion in an enduring relationship.

Tantra is Low-Adrenaline Sex

Tantra works because it is the exact opposite of adrenaline sex. Understanding this point explains a lot about the nature of the Tantric experience. Once you realize that one of our major goals is to maximize sensual and sexual pleasure by minimizing the amount of adrenaline involved, it’s obvious why we put so much emphasis on creating a familiar setting and ritual, maximizing feelings of safety and privacy, creating closeness and intimacy with a loved and trusted partner, relaxing mental and physical tension, slowing the pace, and distracting the mind from its intense focus on immediate gratification.

Experienced Tantrics will all tell you the same thing: you can perform all of the sexual parts of the Tantric ritual – lingam and yoni massage, the “quiet coupling” of yab-yum, and extended vaginal sex – but you won’t experience the profound and often exotic effects of Tantra if you are rushed, tense, distracted, or anxious.

This is why Tantra starts with rituals of deep relaxation: a warm bath or shower, meditation, and a long, sensuous massage. This is also why Tantra takes time. It takes time to let go of tension. It takes time to get the last adrenaline (and other stress hormones) out of the body.

This is also why most experienced Tantric couples prefer to do Tantra in the morning whenever they can. It is hard to shed the tensions of a rough day, or even an active busy day. It is so much easier to be deeply relaxed if you sleep late and wake up fully rested, with nothing on your agenda for the whole morning but a leisurely breakfast and some slow, intense, passionate, wonderful sex!


  1. Incredible article. It explained something I was busy with for the last 8 months while letting go adrenaline excitement. Thank you so much! <3

  2. How do you handle the situation where the idea/anticipation/prospect of tantric sexuality itself is a source of "adrenal excitation"?

    1. Good question. I still get a tingle of excitement as we get ready, thinking about what's coming. But that's one of the reasons we deliberately slow things down.

      We shower and then meditate before we actually begin the tantric massages. That extra 30+ minutes at the start lets the adrenaline level drop. And then the massages themselves are both relaxing and arousing.

      Yes, that sounds contradictory, and it definitely takes some practice to go into a meditative state and stay in it throughout a long erotic massage. But that combination of relaxation and arousal is really the secret sauce that makes tantric massages so special. It's worth the effort to learn how to do it because of the intensity of the experience.

  3. Great article though I would not count BDSM and the likes as adrenaline sex. Feeling safe and in touch with your partner is a prerequisite for bdsm and a lot of the good hormones also play a part in it. Tantra high is actually very close to what submissive people call 'flying' (also similar to runners high) and andrenalin is also very counterproductive in s&m.

    1. That's interesting and good to know. I have heard before that "sub space" is very similar to the tantra high. Both occur after an extended period of erotic arousal in a close, intimate, trusting connection, so it's quite possible that they are just different flavors of the same thing.

      However, what I was referring to was novelty seekers experimenting with BDSM in pursuit of that adrenaline rush, and I think there the element of risk is quite strong. It's unlikely that they would ever find themselves 'flying' in the way you describe, because once the adrenaline rush goes away, they aren't interested anymore.

      One thing I've learned from on-line discussions in the 4+ years since I wrote this is that there are many kinds of "wild tantra" – extended sex that depends heavily on sensuality and trust. They all hit the keys of deep relaxation, low adrenaline, and intentionally prolonged arousal, and they all get to some version of the tantric high, or whatever they call that euphoric state.