what makes sex “great”?

The Canadian media is buzzing about a new bit of research by sex therapist and University of Ottawa psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz on what makes sex great. According to the article “The Components Of Optimal Sexuality: A Portrait Of Great Sex,” which was published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, the key ingredients to great sex are:

  • Being present
  • Connection
  • Deep sexual and erotic intimacy
  • Extraordinary communication
  • Interpersonal risk taking and exploration
  • Authenticity
  • Vulnerability
  • Transcendence

I think that it’s especially wonderful that the element cited the most of the participants in the study was “being present, focused and embodied.” That ties in nicely with something I wrote a while back about the positive effects of mindfulness practices on sex and it’s also consistent with Sensate Focus, a sex therapy technique developed by Masters & Johnson and refined by thousands of therapists since then.

One caveat is that the researchers worked with three groups: couples (presumably heterosexual) over the age of 60 who had been in relationships for 25 years or longer, sexual minorities, such as gay men or bisexual women, and professional sex therapists. So other groups might have different things to say. On the other hand, perhaps part of why the couples (which constituted the largest group studied) stayed together was that they understood the importance of communication and connection. I also wonder what 25-40 year old heterosexual folks who weren’t in long-term relationships would have said.

I think that there’s some exciting stuff here because it highlights that, at least for the people who participated in the study, there’s more to sex than technique. One of the challenges I face as a sex educator is that it’s much, much easier to teach a workshop or write a book on sexual techniques than it is to explain than communication skills. In my experience, communication is really taught best in a one-on-one setting, such as a relationship or with a therapist. There are some workshops for people who want to learn better communication skills and they can be quite helpful, too. But that takes a lot more time and effort than learning sexual techniques. Also, a lot of people who need to improve their communication skills think that they communicate just fine, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

It also seems to me that the ingredients listed above are quite consistent with Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, but on an interpersonal basis rather than an individual basis. According to his model, optimal experience is the result of overcoming challenges (among other things). If we’re not challenged, we get bored. If our challenges are beyond our capacity to manage, we feel frustrated. When we’re in the zone of being able to stretch our capacities and overcome challenges, we experience flow. Learning to be present and vulnerable with a partner, authenticity, and intimacy all have their risks and challenges and I have a sense that part of how they c
ontribute to great sex is by offering us opportunities to expand our skills ad sink into flow. Here’s a link for more info on flow, if you’re interested.

So when I look at it from that perspective, I suspect that while the results of the research didn’t include things like sexual technique, lack of effective technique (as self-defined) is probably a hindrance to great sex, or flow, or whatever. After all, if you’re not being pleasured in a way that works for you, that’s probably going to get in the way of letting go and finding transcendence. Of course, if you’ve got solid communication skills, you can talk with your partner about it and if they don’t know how to do what you want, you can get a book or a DVD. Good technique is a necessary, but insufficient component.

Nevertheless, this is exciting research because it shows that there’s much more to great sex than meets the eye. The interpersonal (and some might argue, transpersonal) aspects are really what makes it worthwhile.

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One Response so far.

  1. Alexa says:

    When I first read the list, I thought to myself, this came from a group of people who’d been in long-term relationships. And it turned out I was right. lol

    As for your question about the 25-40 non-committed people and what they might say, I don’t know that it’d be much different. I suspect, however, how those individuals might define those qualities (in terms of depth and breadth) might differ from how those in the study group defined them. For example, intimacy means something different to those of the older generations than it does to most young people today.

    And I absolutely agree with you about the importance of communication as it relates to sexual connectivity with another person. Even in my engagements with teenagers I stress this over and over – communication with your partner(s) is the key ingredient necessary to make the rest of it work.

    It’s a lot harder for young women to get to a point where this is easy for them. As you know, most women grow up without any really good explanations of how things work (from an A&P perspective, for sure, but even from the psychological perspective). Quite often they just don’t know how to verbalize what needs to be done to make the sexual experience better for them with when they’re with a partner (though it is a lot easier when you’re with another woman).

    Anyway, I, too, am glad to see sexuality being approached from a much more holistic perspective. I’d give anything to have this kind of information integrated into a well-rounded sex education class for teens and young people such that it could be taught in public schools. Of course, we know that will not happen any time soon.

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