In my work as a psychology teacher, and particularly in my practice as a psychologist, I've been witness to far too much suffering about sex. For something as potentially joyous, affirming and even spiritual as sexuality can be, it seems tragic to me how conflicted some of us are about this essentially human behavior. Occasionally I think about what I'd change about how things are in the world, especially about sexuality, given a magic wand. It comes down to this: It is my belief that we'll be where we need to be as a society when nobody ever has sex they regret.
By far, most of the regretful sex individuals have told me about was non-consensual. Some was substance-fueled poor decision-making. A small number were unsuccessful efforts to bolster fragile self-concepts. I've been moved by hearing people tearfully reflecting a new awareness that they were responsible for hurting others in the past. How different, I wonder, would these people feel about themselves if their sex histories were full of enthusiastically consensual encounters rather than ugly ones? At the risk of beginning this column-writing adventure on a somber note, I've decided the potential benefit of healthy, gorgeous sex makes it worth that chance.
Asking oneself about the conditions required for a joyous sexual experience is a great starting place. What sort of relationship structure (or not) might enhance your lovemaking? I am admittedly open-minded about this aspect of sexuality, and find myself protective of others' right to create the sort of affirming connection with a sexual partner or partners that makes that person feel best. While I might personally cherish my relatively tame, middle-aged, married, monogamous life, I celebrate the different choices others might make. Ask yourself, what qualities in a partner might lead you to want to give enthusiastic consent? What elements of relationship are important for you?
Smarter people than me, notably John and Julie Gottman, authors of Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, might start by saying that good intimate relationships can be identified by what they lack. Really happy sex is unlikely to result from a relationship characterized by frequent contempt, emotional stonewalling or defensiveness. Perhaps feeling respected, and feeling respect toward our partners, is part of most of our "good sex tool kits."
For just over three-quarters of Americans, good relationships are an important part of what makes for good sex. If you're wondering about the other quarter, their views and desires tend toward the recreational. In any event, people who are unabashedly and fully invested in the sexual experience generally enjoy it. A lot. Besides the relationships, what else do you need?
Think about what things you do and don't like about your sex life. Maybe you love the intensity of it, or maybe the comfort and familiarity. Maybe it's the sensations you enjoy. If you aren't sure, attending more mindfully to the experience while you're in it could help you understand more about your good sex requirements. When working with clients and students who are exploring these ideas for themselves, I've found it can help to encourage people to expand their experience to include all of their senses. Sometimes limiting one sense to enhance the others can highlight the enjoyment of it all. Blindfolds are probably most obvious here, but that's just a starting place.
Sometimes, and really sadly in my opinion, people get caught up in bad feelings about themselves and their bodies in a way that negatively affects their sexual experiences. If you're reading this, you've got a body. I'd bet it's capable of experiencing lovely things if you let it. Sure, if you surround yourself with media that perpetuates the stereotype that youth, beauty, and typically-abled bodies are required to deserve good sex, you might begin to internalize that viewpoint. It's really absurd if you think about it.
What amazing things might change if we all started with the premise that we're just fine, exactly as we are? What if we knew to our cores that we deserve great sex? What if, tonight in the wee hours, magic happens, a miracle occurs, and nobody ever has regretful sex again? If we all found our enthusiastic "yes" and our "no," and we all respected that about each other, think how much energy we'd have left over to deal with the other major issues facing our species.
If you're reading this, you've got a body. I'd bet it's capable of experiencing lovely things if you let it.
Got a question, sexually speaking? Maybe, you know, for a friend? Email it to email@example.com. You're probably not the only one who's wondering.
Dr. Myers is a Humboldt State University psychology lecturer, owner of Good Relations in Eureka and a clinical psychologist practicing in Arcata. Information presented here is not intended to provide specific treatment advice. Consult ncamhp.org to find a licensed clinician who can help with individual concerns.