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 contribute 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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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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