What is Tantric Sex?

To begin with, we need to distinguish between "modern tantric sex" (aka "neotantra") as it is practiced in the West in a non-mystical way, and "Tantra," a type of magic and religious practice found in many forms in a number of Eastern religions and in "New Age" spirituality. This answer only addresses the former, the earthy, sensual, purely physical kind of sex.

Modern tantric sex is a type of sexual activity based on a very old set of discoveries about the human body and mind:

The "Tantric High"

The first discovery is something many people are vaguely aware of if they've had marathon sexual encounters:   If you are deeply relaxed and remain sexually aroused for an extended period of time, you begin to experience a sense of euphoria.

I call this the "tantric high," because it's similar to the "runner's high" and has a similar underlying cause (a buildup of endorphins and endocannabinoids, plus PEA in the case of sexual arousal).  You could also call it the "honeymoon effect," since it describes the blissful goofiness experienced by many newlyweds back when people didn't live together before the wedding and many honeymoons turned into sexual marathons.

When this first starts to kick in, you're already experiencing a lot of pleasure anyway, so distinguishing between the two can be hard, but most people start to feel that euphoric sensation after around 30 minutes of intense arousal, and it grows stronger over time until it eventually hits a saturation point.  By the end of a three-hour tantric ritual, it can be pretty intense.  I've had people who use grass and hash tell me it's similar to both of those, but mellower.

Prolonged Arousal

The second discovery is also no surprise to people who have experimented with "edging" and other forms of extended sex:  the longer the arousal period, the longer and stronger the orgasm or series of orgasms (other things being equal).  We're not talking about comparing two different people here, but rather one person having a quickie versus the same person having an intentionally prolonged period of intense arousal before reaching orgasm.

Expanded Arousal

The third discovery uses techniques shared with Kundalini yoga:  through disciplined control of your attention to regions of your own body, you can spread the normally localized sensations of sexual arousal beyond the genital area to the rest of the trunk and beyond. Given enough time, skill, and concentration, the orgasm that finally occurs seems to come from the whole body at once, making it much broader and more powerful than any ordinary orgasm.

Sex for Thrills vs Sex for Pleasure

The fourth discovery is more complicated.  Humans seem to have (at least) two different pleasure systems keyed to sex.  One involves excitement, based on sex with an element of risk, tension, anxiety, even a bit of fear.  Pretty much everyone experiences this type of sex first, because our first times are almost always at least somewhat tense and scary.  Any time you don't know your partner extremely well, there's some tension, some element of risk, some chance of failure or rejection.  When it's successful, it's exhilarating, like sky diving or riding a roller coaster.

In a culture in which young people form many short-term relationships, this is what they learn to expect from sex.  When they are with one partner too long, they start feeling vaguely dissatisfied.  Desire fades.  The thrill is gone.  And they interpret this as "falling out of love," so they decide that it's time to break up and go looking for another partner.  Over time, it gets harder to recapture the excitement and the intensity, so they start exploring rough sex, sex with strangers, sex in dangerous places, and so on.  This is sex for thrills, not sensual pleasure.  As a shorthand, I call this adrenaline sex.

The other way to experience intense pleasure from sex is based on the exact opposite approach.  Instead of being fast, rough, tense, risky, and thrilling, it is based on slow, safe, gentle, sensual immersion.

Start with a safe, familiar setting and a partner who loves you and trusts you as much as you love and trust them.   Make sure you have no time pressures and there will be no interruptions.  Begin with a long relaxing bath or shower in which you wash and dry each other.  Follow that with meditation and long, sensual, full-body massages.  There should not be a shred of tension left at the start of sexual activities, just deep relaxation and enjoyment of the pure sensual pleasure you give each other.

Because all of these elements tend to trigger the release of oxytocin and tend to promote pair-bonding, I call this oxytocin sex or pair-bonding sex.  It's not necessarily better than adrenaline sex, but it is at least AS enjoyable, and – very importantly – it is sustainable. Unlike adrenaline sex, the thrill doesn't fade with familiarity.  Indeed, it requires familiarity. It's great sex that depends heavily on knowing, loving, and trusting each other.

Tantric sex is sex designed to minimize stress, tension, and adrenaline and to maximize the pure sensual pleasure and intense pair-bonding effect of oxytocin sex.

Transcendental Experiences

The fifth discovery is the reason that tantric sex got so entangled with religion: an extended and successful tantric ritual can trigger a powerful transcendental experience for many people.

This usually comes in one of two forms.  The first is an intense and very convincing sense of merging with one's partner in body, mind, and spirit, and of experiencing everything both of you are feeling from both sides at the same time.  I won't argue about whether this "really" happens on some spiritual level – I'm pretty sure it doesn't – but it does feel completely real.  It's also an absolutely amazing experience!

This feeling of union is quite common among veteran tantric couples, but the other form of transcendental experience is much less so.  This is a full-scale, transcendental, oneness-with-the-cosmos experience in which a person loses all sense of physical boundaries. The descriptions of this experience are very similar to the typical descriptions of both ecstatic religious enlightenment and good LSD experiences.

Understanding Modern Tantric Sexuality

The modern tantric sexual ritual is designed around five keys:
  • Extended Time – usually around 2-4 hours
  • Deep Relaxation – using meditation and other techniques to minimize cortisol and adrenaline levels
  • Prolonged Arousal – aka edging/delayed orgasm
  • Controlled Attention – using meditation techniques to spread the area of arousal within the body
  • Intimate Knowledge – of your partner's body and sexual responses
There are many variations on the basic ritual, but all successful tantric couples that I've talked to practice tantra in ways that incorporate those keys.

In terms of modern biochemistry, the core idea is to create:
  • an extended sexual experience
  • that minimizes stress hormone levels in the body and brain
  • and maximizes oxytocin, PEA, endorphin, and endocannabinoid levels in the brain.
Most often, "an extended sexual experience" means sex that lasts around 2-4 hours.  I hasten to add that that does not mean vaginal penetration and thrusting for anything like that long!  Instead, most of that time goes into extended sensual massage.

This describes a fairly common basic sequence that most straight couples who practice tantric sex would recognize, even if they usually do it differently:
  • Preparation and set up
  • Deep relaxation (usually including bathing and meditation)
  • Lingam massage: a full-body massage for the male partner that ends with prolonged oral/manual edging and eventually an orgasm (or more than one, if he can)
  • Yoni massage: a full-body massage for the female partner that ends with oral/manual edging and eventually at least one orgasm (and often many)
  • Break (optional – usually for a quick snack and beverage)
  • Yab-yum:  A period of stillness, genital connection, and couple meditation
  • Maithuna:  Normal penetrative sex, often starting with the woman on top
When my partner and I follow that basic schedule, each massage takes close to an hour and we generally take 3 to 3.5 hours for the whole ritual.

The version that most modern tantric practitioners do probably isn't what was practiced in India 2,500 years ago.  The first written descriptions didn't begin to appear until around 1500 years ago, and they are cryptic and heavily influenced by the many non-sexual tantric religious rituals that flourished within Hinduism and Buddhism after around 400 CE.

But the archeological record strongly suggests that tantric sex is much older.  It appears to have persisted for thousands of years, often within religious communities, even though it was usually suppressed or strongly discouraged.  It survived because it was primarily an esoteric tradition, taught directly from one person to another, and if people deviated too far from what worked, they quickly realized that they weren't getting the effects they expected. This kept innovation and accumulated errors within fairly strict limits.

Repeated attempts were made to desex or "spiritualize" tantra, but they never succeeded in replacing real sex with "virtual" or imaginary sex.  (Yes, they tried.  Read about "red" vs "white" tantra some time if you are curious.)

This continues today.  Google "tantra" and you can find hundreds of websites that tell you that tantric sex is only a tiny part of "true tantric spirituality."

(Translation:  if you want incredible sex, you have to join our cult!)

Don't believe it.  Anyone can learn tantric sex.  All it takes is a loving partner, a safe warm nest, the ability to meditate, and some time.  Most couples say it takes a few months to learn the basics and several years to get good at it.

One caution:  Tantra is often pitched to sexual thrill seekers.  In my experience, it is actually most suitable for established couples who are unhappy with the direction their sex lives are trending.  If you and your partner have a strong, loving relationship, but you're wondering if the sex is going to be all downhill from here, with less passion every year, the good news is that it doesn't have to be.

Learning tantric sex with a partner is also particularly helpful for women who have trouble reaching orgasm during sex.

If you want to learn tantric sex in a non-religious way, or just want to learn more about it, this is a free, non-commercial guide:

Tantric Sex in Context

None of the characteristic effects of tantric sex – the euphoria, the intense orgasms, the deep bonding, or the transcendental experiences – happen exclusively during tantric sex. They are all natural phenomena that depend on quirks in the human brain and nervous system.  Other people have discovered each of them before, in many different times and places.  All of them have been documented before in other societies.

The euphoria that can occur during marathon sex is so common that getting drunk or getting high on sex is a cliche.  The union of partners and sharing of bodies is somewhat less common, but still widely known.  It is alluded to in Genesis, the Koran, Persian poetry, and many other literary traditions and cultures, and is common enough to have become a poetic metaphor for intensely passionate sex.

The complete "cosmic union" experience is much more rare, and descriptions of it have usually been dismissed as poetic excess, but they can also be found in many cultures and literary traditions.  Jenny Wade has documented many cases of that and other transcendental experiences during sex, without use of drugs, tantra, or spiritual disciplines, in her book Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil.

Curiously, the ability for prolonged sex to build and maintain strong emotional bonds between partners is perhaps the least documented in other sources.  Perhaps this is because, at least until the last few centuries, spending much longer on sex and mutual pleasure was more normal for married couples, so people took its effects for granted.  What else was there to do during long dark nights?

What makes tantric sex special is that it is a safe, legal, reliable, relatively straightforward, and very enjoyable way to achieve all of these effects.  And, of course, the sex is simply awesome!

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for this article! Very nice!

    I have to share a link for anyone who gives tantra massages as a living and has been affected by the new FOSTA law. Go to Goddess Haven - Sensual Massage, and Tantra Directory to advertise on a clean platform that doesn't allow all the nasty side of working in the field of sensual healing. My girlfriends are all affected and they do serious therapeutic Tantric work!

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  2. Very good piece....we teach amazing tantric massage at our London studio where we discuss a lot of the points made above with clients

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  3. Hi! Really enjoyed reading your article, however I found this statement a little funny:

    'One caution: Tantra is often pitched to sexual thrill seekers. In my experience, it is actually most suitable for established couples who are unhappy with the direction their sex lives are trending. If you and your partner have a strong, loving relationship, but you're wondering if the sex is going to be all downhill from here, with less passion every year, the good news is that it doesn't have to be.'

    What if a couple does have a strong bond with great sex and wants to further explore sex with tantra?

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