Last week I gave a weekend retreat for a dozen couples in Chicago. The people came from a wide range of backgrounds and relationships: some couples were in 30-year marriages, one was cohabiting young professionals, with the rest somewhere in between.
The topic was Real Sex in a Virtual World: Enhancing Love, Sex, and Intimacy. The men and women were a charming mix of nervous, excited, and earnest—just what you want in a workshop like this. Although they seemed pleased to be there, most were wondering what they’d gotten themselves into.
To support people before they even got there, I sent everyone a brief questionnaire about their workshop goals, their intimacy habits, what they and their partner knew about each other’s sexuality, and what inhibited them from discovering more.
Their private responses went pretty much like the responses I get from workshops across the country. One of the most common interests: tricks to liven things up in the bedroom.
Yes, after years of Oprah, thousands of self-help books, billions of dollars in sex toy sales, and “sexpert” blogs and podcasts and websites, people still want to know bedroom tricks. And they expected some from me.
The first half of the workshop was spent building trust between partners, and between the group and me. That went well—some humor, a bit of my own self-disclosure, and periodic snacks helped—setting the stage for the more challenging stuff.
That’s when I told them I wouldn’t be discussing bedroom tricks.
“But we’re here to make sex better, aren’t we?” frowned one participant.
I always get this response (I get it in sex therapy, too), which is perfect. It gave me the chance to say “Yes. We’re learning how to create more enjoyable sexual experiences. And that has very little to do with bedroom technique.”
So what does “more enjoyable sexual experiences” involve, if not bedroom technique?
~ Relaxation and being present
And that’s what we talked about.
Creating sexual pleasure and closeness requires us to accept our bodies (most of us are not going to wake up tomorrow younger or more fit); to relax and let go of performance pressure; to be present rather than distracting ourselves with thoughts of chores, problems, or children (note that these things don’t distract us; we distract ourselves); and to communicate what we like, don’t like, want, and don’t want.
But—aw, that’s not what people want to hear.
So I usually sprinkle a few bedroom tips into a workshop. Things like putting a drop of lube inside the condom to help transmit warmth and sensation (and help keep it on); when inserting a penis into a vagina, to go verrry slowly, and keep it still in there for a few moments before starting to thrust; to kiss or caress your partner before involving anyone’s genitalia; and to keep the lube in the night-table instead of the bathroom (unless, of course, you have sex in the bathroom).
To pee before sex whether you have to or not. To breathe through your nose when you kiss. If you have oral sex, to start in a position that’s comfortable for both people—so someone doesn’t have to interrupt to rescue their neck, arm, or back.
The Chicago couples appreciated stuff like that, and wanted more, but there’s always a few people who want something exotic—a new position, encouragement to wear fishnet stockings, a few new porn titles. These days someone’s always asking about trying tantra, BDSM, or swing clubs.
No. Folks, I always say, that’s not what most people need. In fact, enhancing sexual satisfaction is both more complicated and less complicated than tips and positions and gear.
Most “tips” that actually work are about communication. For example,
~ Look at your partner’s genitalia in the light, when you’re not in the middle of sex. Have him or her give you a little tour about what’s sensitive (in both positive and negative ways);
~ Be honest about what activities and words you or your partner want to take off the sexual menu for the next 3 years—and then honor that by forgetting about those things;
~ When you like or dislike something, say so; after sex, say what it is that thing that you like or dislike;
~ If you don’t like the way your partner smells, say “let’s shower first” or “let’s brush our teeth first”;
~ Make sure your questions and your partner’s answers are specific enough. For example, if you ask “should I play with your nipples,” the answer “yes” doesn’t help much. Pull, pinch, or twist? Gentle, medium, or red-hot? Teeth? If the answer is simply “no,” say “no.” If the true answer is “well, only if you do it really carefully and pay attention to my breathing,” say so.
In fact, the answer to many of the questions people asked me in Chicago—and everywhere else I go—is “ask her” or “ask him.” People often want something easier—a special insight about “men,” the perfect verbal expression, a simple way to overcome self-consciousness.
The desire for such things fuels the self-help industry, which perpetuates the same stale myths about desire, and publishes ineffective substitutes for self-acceptance, relaxation, and communication.
One Chicago participant was an older woman who had a tremendous insight Sunday morning: that her inhibitions were not the fault of sex or her body, but were understandable (albeit self-limiting) choices that she actually could change. As we wrapped up the weekend, she raised her hand and asked me to suggest her next step after the workshop.
“The same step we all need to take,” I told the group as warmly as I could. “Whether we’re 35, 45, or 75, we all need to grieve the loss of the beautiful bodies we had in our 20s, and begin to welcome the bodies we now have—rather than resent them.” I paused to let that sink in. “And don’t delay,” I added. “You won’t have today’s body very long either, and in five years you’ll miss it.”