Year after year, patients tell me they want sex to be “natural and spontaneous.” They want it to be easy and enjoyable, a source of pleasure, comfort, and connection.
And yet year after year, these same perfectly nice people construct sex so that it’s complicated, frustrating, and anxiety-provoking. They’re afraid of failing, because they’ve made sex about success. And they’re afraid they might have or develop a “dysfunction,” because they don’t understand the role of emotion in sexual function.
A lot of it comes down to what you believe about sex. Here are some examples of what people believe that makes enjoying sex much more difficult than necessary.
- Foreplay is a chore
When I was in high school, some of the older boys taught us young’uns about “foreplay:” it’s stuff you do that gets a girl in the mood for sex. We all wanted to know the secrets to unlocking female desire, but we were too young to understand why certain things might have better outcomes than others.
And we certainly had no idea that “foreplay” could actually be enjoyable.
As a therapist today, I have a completely different perspective.
First, I discourage people from using the word “foreplay.” That’s because “foreplay” implies preparation for something bigger and more important. Which trivializes wonderful activities like kissing, hugging, whispering, caressing, teasing, and undressing.
The real reason to do things called “foreplay” is because two people enjoy them, not because they’re a ticket to the good stuff. When Joe says Maria “needs too much foreplay,” I know Joe’s not enjoying it. No one complains about “too much ice cream” or “too much beautiful scenery.”
If Joe is bored with the process of revving up Maria so that they can have sex, he will of course be resentful and rush her a bit. She’ll feel rushed and self-conscious and eventually resentful, too.
Like all couples, Joe and Maria need to find erotic things they both enjoy, so that they don’t care if those sexy moments go on and on. This is completely different than Joe being a service provider and Maria being a customer—which of course is a mechanical, non-intimate arrangement no matter how generous Joe intends to be.
- Both partners have to orgasm every time we have sex
Everyone who likes sex likes orgasms.
But orgasm is not the most important part of sex. After all, it only last 4 or 5 seconds, right? Or 15 or 20 seconds if you’re a woman who won the genetic lottery. “Sex,” of course, last from the time you look at each other and say “I’ll meet you in bed after I pee” until the time you check your email afterwards–at least 10 minutes, and hopefully more.
So putting too much emphasis on a few seconds out of 10, 20, 30 minutes or more seems foolish. And although orgasms feel good, we often lose touch with our partner during them—kind of a sad cost for a glorious moment. Conversely, some people put so much effort into having an orgasm (especially if they’re getting the ‘Let’s wrap it up, please, I wanna go to sleep’ vibe from their mate) that they don’t enjoy the sex much starting at that point.
Just as an orgasm doesn’t guarantee enjoyable sex, enjoyable sex doesn’t require an orgasm. So making two orgasms an absolute requirement every time you have sex can turn things into an Olympic performance. And make quickies impossible. And turn pleasure into failure, but measuring the wrong thing.
We need a National “It’s OK that I didn’t come, I enjoyed the sex a lot anyway” Day. And while it’s great for couples to talk about their sexual experience together, and to problem-solve things they want to improve, not every non-orgasmic experience needs to be dissected or understood. Authentic sexual pleasure is perfect just as it is, and doesn’t need to be validated with a reading on the Richter Scale.
- We have to be squeaky clean for sex
Everyone has conditions for enjoyable sex, of course. For example, some people value privacy more than others; some people want a freshly made bed and tidy bedroom; some people want candlelight and romantic music (Sinatra? Lady Gaga? Hip-hop? Hopefully, both people can agree on what’s “romantic”); some people want to be in love before having sex; and there are many, many others.
Some conditions are easier to create than others, and some people are more flexible about their conditions than other people.
One condition for enjoyable sex that isn’t always practical is the desire to be squeaky clean. That’s fine as a preference, but when it’s a requirement, it narrows our sexual options dramatically. It means sex is unlikely any time other than early morning or early evening, or right after people finish their work day (before they’re exhausted late at night), or after people have been cooking, grocery shopping, or doing childcare. And, let’s face it, it means sex is unlikely an hour or two after you just had sex.
One version of this situation I hear about a lot is women who discourage cunnilingus because they don’t feel fresh enough. These women are afraid they smell or taste objectionable because it’s been more than 90 seconds since their last shower (I rarely hear men discouraging fellatio because they fear they smell or taste bad).
Of course, not everyone likes to go down on a woman, whether for physical, emotional, or cultural reasons. But people who do enjoy it rarely lie about it. If someone tells you they genuinely like to go down on you, believe them. You don’t have to accept, but assume they’re telling the truth.
And for women who fear they smell or taste bad no matter what their partner says? If you’re concerned, then just don’t lick yourself.
- Using lube means that someone’s a failure
Mouths generate moisture virtually all the time. Hands rarely do (and never when we’re relaxed). Anuses never do. Vaginas sometimes do. Therefore, kissing and oral sex don’t require lube. Sex with hands, anuses, and vaginas do.
It’s as simple as any other principle in physics: water boils faster if you cover the pot. We stay warmer if we wear a hat. Adam Sandler is never funny. You know, scientific facts.
Some men masturbate without lube, which baffles me. A little lube can make that hand-penis interface so nice and slippery. And some couples have intercourse without lube, because they think they shouldn’t “need” it. Anal sex without lube? Unless you’re trying to damage the penis and hurt the anus, it makes no sense at all. Anal sex without lube is like morning without orange juice. Actually, it’s more like morning without washing your face or checking your email, but deliberately closing the refrigerator door on your hand. Theoretically you could do it, but why?
Lubricants are inexpensive, easy to store, and easy to use. They’re especially helpful when using condoms, which transmit heat and pressure better when they’re covered with lube (a drop on the inside gives extra stimulation for both partners).
How much lube should you use for hand jobs, intercourse, or anal sex? The answer is the same for all three activities. When you think you’re using enough, add 20% more. And if the lube isn’t getting all over the place, add more.
Sex is more than an activity—it’s an idea. The sexual experiences we create are about more than just our bodies—they’re a direct function of the ideas we have about sex.