Monday, March 27, 2017

Bad, good, and magnificent sex

This is another in a collection of pieces that I've written elsewhere and wanted to include in this blog. I wrote it in answer to a deceptively simple sounding question:

What is the difference between bad sex, good sex, and great sex?

Bad sex is easy. It's sex that leaves one or both people feeling bad: bored, uninvolved, hurt, used, abused, violated, shamed, humiliated, neglected, ignored, and/or unsatisfied.

Describing good or great sex is a lot harder, and it might be a good idea to divide it into two kinds, because they use different biochemical pathways in the body and brain and they feel so different:

Great adrenaline sex is like a mega-sized roller coaster. It is fast, intense, scary, and exciting. Your heart is pounding the whole way and you feel almost out of control at every step. It thrives on risk and the unknown, and when it goes off the rails it can be a horrible wreck, but when it all works out right it is simply amazing. It's center court at Wimbledon, except that every great serve and volley is a win for BOTH of you. It's two near-strangers going out on stage and doing flawless improv for 20 minutes to thunderous applause.

Great oxytocin sex is the complete opposite. It's like playing a beloved Stradivarius well, instead of firing a machine gun for the first time. It is slower, more sensual, more playful, more generous, and more joyful. The ending is passionate and intense, but the buildup is leisurely and the journey and the anticipation are at least as important as the destination.

It depends for its success on love, safety, and a deep, intimate knowledge of your partner. And the sharing of pleasure is crucial. The enjoyment you get from giving your partner's pleasure is at least as great as the direct sensory pleasure you receive. At the end, when everything goes right, you end up holding onto each other, completely wiped out by love.

Sustainable sex: We all start with adrenaline sex, because first times are scary, intense, and exciting. So are the early encounters with new partners we care about. And, unfortunately, embarrassing failures of one kind or another are always a possibility, so these encounters are seldom perfect.

Still, we sometimes come close, and when an intense encounter with a new lover goes flawlessly, the rush is incredible. Anyone who has experienced that, or even come close, is going to remember it as a peak experience forever, perhaps even gilding it a bit in memory. There are many people for whom adrenaline sex IS sex, and anything else is a pale imitation.

Unfortunately, adrenaline sex is rarely, if ever, sustainable in a long, monogamous relationship. Living with one person, getting to know all their quirks and foibles, having sex with them hundreds of times, takes all the mystery and uncertainty and risk out of sex, making it impossible to recapture those early peaks. Soon, the thrill is gone, the adrenaline stops pumping, and libido declines.

Many couples try to postpone that point by seeking novelty, flirting with physical and emotional danger, and trying different kinds of transgressive behavior. But what was new and risky soon becomes commonplace and tame, and newer, riskier kinks constantly need to be explored.

Oxytocin sex, on the other hand, thrives on exactly the kind of safety and familiarity that makes adrenaline sex impossible, and this makes it far more sustainable. Unfortunately, most couples never figure out how to make the transition. As far as I've been able to tell, only about 25-30% of first-time married couples are still having good, frequent, passionate sex 20-30 years later. The rest have either split up (about 40%) or have dwindled into "dead bedroom" companionate marriages (about 30-35%).

Those aren't great odds. On the other hand, 25-30% isn't zero either, so it's wrong for the "experts" on sexuality to ignore the couples who do succeed in making that transition. Unfortunately, ignoring them is all too common.

Real sustainable sex is hardly ever discussed or portrayed in our shared stories, so people don't know much about it. Movies, plays, and novels focus almost entirely on adrenaline sex. It's tense, exciting, tempestuous, and dramatic, so of course it is much more interesting from a storyteller's point of view.

So romances end with the peak point of falling in love, and leave the supposedly-inevitable "happy ever after" to the imagination. And mainstream "grim realist" stories tell of the supposedly-inevitable "unhappy ever after," the collapse of love and passion after the big romantic beginning.

But who describes the 25-30% who experience the real "happy ever after" stories? Hardly anyone, because those stories lack drama and excitement.  They're boring to everyone except the people living them!

Magnificent Sex:  Still, you can get a glimpse of what's really happening from research that has been done on long-term couples who are still having good, passionate sex after many years together. "Maxxters," the Reddit moderator who wrote a lot of the r/sex FAQ, wrote an excellent article called "The Components of Magnificent Sex" which is a summary of some outstanding research done by Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz and her colleagues. And the fascinating thing about that research is that each couple thought they were unusual or unique, that "every couple is different," yet their descriptions of magnificent sex matched one another on point after point.

It turns out, rather unexpectedly, that what the people who experience it call "magnificent sex" is clearly identifiable, with eight quite strong distinguishing characteristics:
  • Being present, focused and embodied
  • Connection, alignment, merger, being in synch
  • Deep sexual and erotic intimacy
  • Extraordinary communication, heightened empathy
  • Authenticity, being genuine, uninhibited, transparency
  • Transcendence, bliss, peace, transformation, healing
  • Exploration, risk-taking, fun
  • Vulnerability and surrender
What's more, they found that what made this kind of sex "magnificent" also made it sustainable, even in the face of aging and adversity:
Interestingly, the researchers found that magnificent sex has very little to do with sexual functioning (maintaining an erection, being able to get wet enough, or being able to reach orgasm), and that the sexual acts and positions were much less important than the mindset and intent of the people involved. In general, the study showed that for these participants, sex got better and better as they got older, even in the face of illness and disease. As one participant put it, “thinking sex has to stop just because of illness or old age is a disability of the imagination.”
I'll leave you to read the rest of Maxxters' article and the original research for yourself – which I strongly recommend – but what the researchers are calling "magnificent sex" is essentially great oxytocin sex taken to the next highest level. It's what we're striving for here in terms of tantric sex.

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I've written before about the roles of oxytocin and adrenaline and their effects on sex and relationships. If you want to explore it further, Oxytocin and Emotional Bonding is a good starting point.

And this is the original research behind Maxxter's article: The components of optimal sexuality: a portrait of "great sex"; The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, March 22, 2009; Peggy J. Kleinplatz, A. Dana Menard, Marie-Pierre Paquet , Nicolas Paradis, Meghan Campbell, Dino Zuccarino, Lisa Mehak

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