What Are Your Conditions?
Do you know what you need, as an individual, to enjoy sex? I’m not just talking about a certain hand motion or a special angle. I’m thinking about the bigger picture; the emotional state you need to be in, the kind of connection you need to have with your partner, and the conversations you want to have before you get involved. It’s great knowledge to have.
I first heard this notion articulated in the classic text The New Male Sexuality by Bernie Zilbergeld. The author discusses the importance of figuring out the conditions under which sex feels safe, happy, and pleasurable for you.
Maybe you need to feel a certain bond with your partner. Maybe you need to establish ahead of time that certain activities are not going to happen in sex, or to agree to let go of attachment to outcomes like orgasm or putting on some kind of performance. Maybe you’d benefit from a certain kind of encouragement or reassurance.
The point is not to assign value judgements to one’s needs, just to know that they exist and to work with them to create an atmosphere where great sex can happen.
The author was directing his comments at men, because so often males are expected to be able to perform and enjoy sex any time, anywhere, and this can lead to all sorts of problems when the myth gets unceremoniously busted in someone’s private life.
A friend called me a few years ago and told me he thought he might be gay. Surprised, I asked why he thought so. He told me he’d been at a party at another college, got tipsy, met a girl, and in the middle of hooking up he realized he didn’t feel any connection to what was going on, and he felt repulsion; not at her as a person but at the situation.
Being young, he wondered what his lack of engagement meant; was he even attracted to women?! I asked if he felt attracted to men. He didn’t. What I suspect is that it was less of an issue of orientation than it was one of unexpressed, unrealized conditions not being met.
This man is not someone who can hookup with zero emotion and feel good about it. But he had been raised by the culture to believe, on some level, that at 20 he was a sex machine and that he could, and should, be able to enjoy sex at the drop of a dime, regardless of who it was with. Experiencing something very different left him jarred and looking for answers.
It wasn’t his partner’s responsibility to create conditions where he could enjoy sex, it was his own, but he didn’t realize he needed something more until he realized how empty the situation felt. For someone else, a semi-anonymous hookup might feel just fine, but this man discovered that he wanted to feel a sense of connection and intimacy. Now he’s happily occupied with a long-term girlfriend whom he adores, but that conversation has stayed with me.
I believe self-knowledge is key to a happy sex life, regardless of gender, and I think a certain sense of entitlement can be helpful, too. If you know what you want and need but aren’t convinced you deserve it, it’s going to be difficult to ensure it happens.
Not that you’ve got to be 100% rock-solid in your convictions to have a good sex life. One of my own conditions for happy sex, which is that my partner and I get tested for HIV before getting intimate, often serves as a good litmus test. If I don’t feel comfortable broaching the subject with a new partner, or I’m nervous about it because I suspect that they wouldn’t respond well, I take that as an indicator that it’s probably not in my best interests to take that relationship to the next physical level yet. Because another one of my conditions is that I want to feel a sense of respect and love for my partner, and if I can’t talk about sex with someone, I’m probably not ready to do it with them. I allow for some ambiguity, but I generally ultimately defer to what I know is deeply important to me. And if I choose to ignore my conditions, at least I know what I’m doing.
Ultimately, I think sexual self-knowledge and a sense of deservingness make people better lovers. Because if you take responsibility for yourself, nobody else has to tiptoe around, guessing what your conditions might be and hoping they don’t violate them. If you know who you’re dealing with, you can make better choices, and a culture of clear communication and respect can be created. For me, once I can relax, knowing my most important conditions have been met, that’s when I have the most to offer in bed.