Is Sex Important?
In this first part of the book, I’m introducing a different way to think about sex: What if we shelve the entire concept of desire and, in its place, prioritize pleasure and how we create it in our lives? If you enjoy the sex you’re having, you’re doing great, regardless of how much you crave sex (or don’t) and regardless of how often you have it (or don’t).
Great sex in a long-term relationship is not about how much you desire sex or how often you have to do it. It’s not about what you do, in which position, with whom or where or in what clothes, even how many orgasms you have. It’s whether or not you like the sex you are having.
Your task, as a partnership, is to explore ways to co-create a shared context—a shared life, a connection, a state of mind, a way of being together—that makes pleasure easy to access. It starts with understanding why sex matters in your relationship—if it matters, which it doesn’t always. It continues with considering when and why and how sex feels good—if it feels good, which it doesn’t always.So how important is sex?
Sex is really important to some people, in some relationships or in some specific contexts. But in terms of getting through our day-to-day lives, sex is generally no big deal. Nobody’s going to die or even get sick if they don’t have sex. Nobody is diseased or dysfunctional if sex seems like more trouble than it’s worth, just as nobody is diseased or dysfunctional if sex feels urgently important, day after day.
Regardless of whether sex seems important or not, there are only twenty-four hours in a day and seven days in a week. Nobody gets more, and we have a lot of things to do in that time. Maybe we have family to take care of, maybe we have a paycheck to earn, an academic degree to finish, chores to do, a puppy to house-train, a chronic illness to manage. We have to sleep, eat, bathe, maybe talk to friends who are not our sex partners, maybe even, god forbid, we just want to watch a little TV and take a nap.
When my own sex life evaporated, I had an advantage most people don’t: I knew that the couples who sustain a satisfying sexual connection are the couples who decide that sex matters enough for their relationship that they cordon off space, time, and energy specifically for sex. They stop doing all those other things they could be doing, they close the door on all those other responsibilities and enjoyments, and they turn toward each other’s sensual selves.
But why, when we have so many other things we could be doing, do we choose to have sex?Why Have Sex?
Let’s face it, sex is kind of silly. We dignified humans put our tongues in each other’s mouths, we put our mouths on each other’s genitals, we rub our skins together and wrestle like puppies, we let our bodies roll through orgasm even when there’s someone else there to witness it. We bounce and grunt and spasm and ooze. What in the world is happening in the midst of all that silliness that makes it worth stopping everything else just to do that?
For some of you, it’s a no-brainer. You can’t even understand why it’s a question. If you’re one of the people for whom sex is very, very important—and maybe just reading that “sex is only important sometimes to some people” makes you a little panicky—never fear. You are normal! But even you won’t die or be injured or get sick if you don’t do this silly, often delightful, sometimes not at all good, occasionally extremely important thing we humans can do.
For some of you, “Why have sex?” is a question you’ve been asking yourself privately for years. You may feel kind of relieved or even vindicated to read that sex doesn’t have to be very important. And you’re normal too!
Regardless of how you feel about the idea that sex doesn’t have to be a big deal, here’s a question that I want you to consider very seriously:What is it that you want when you want sex with a partner?
Hint: The answer is generally not “an orgasm.” If you want an orgasm, have an orgasm. You can do that on your own. But what is it that you want when you want to have sex with the partner with whom you plan to sustain a sexual connection for the foreseeable future?
Take your time with this and go deep. What is it about sex with this other person that motivates and inspires you? What is your partner giving you when they give you their attention? What do you receive when you receive their touch? And if some part of you is thinking, I just want sex, and this is the only person I’m supposed to be having it with sooooooo . . . consider what it is about sex with another person that matters. What changes when there’s someone else there for you to touch and be touched by?
Over the last several years, I’ve asked a few hundred people this question. At workshops, during online events, and in internet surveys, I’ve asked people to let me know their answers to this question, to give me a better sense of what images and priorities pop up in their minds.
In my informal surveys, the answers to the question “What do you want when you want sex with a partner?” usually came down to what I’ve started to call The Big Four: Connection, Shared Pleasure, Being Wanted, and Freedom.
1. Connection. Overwhelmingly, the most common thing people reported wanting is connection with their partner. What precisely do people mean by connection? I’ll leave that to you to define. But some of the responses I received show that “connection” can be physical and emotional and more than both—e.g.,
“I want to hold and be held and make out and explore each other’s bodies.”
“I want to feel listened to and taken care of.”
If “connection” is part of your own answer, you can ask yourself further questions like: What does connection feel like? Where in my body, mind, and/or spirit do I experience connection? What words or behaviors increase my sense of connection?
2. Shared Pleasure. Like orgasm, pleasure is something we can experience on our own, but that is not what people say they want when they want sex with a partner. Most often, it’s the pleasure of witnessing a partner’s pleasure, experiencing our partner’s enjoyment of our own pleasure, or sharing pleasure. People do not just want to enjoy the sensation of rubbing body parts against someone else; we want pleasure for everyone involved. People said things like:
“I want someone caring about my pleasure.”
“I want to focus on my partner’s body—her movements and tastes and sounds and smells.”
Our partners’ pleasure matters to us, and we want our own pleasure to matter to our partners.
3. Being Wanted. This was about as commonly mentioned as pleasure. What people want when they want sex is to be wanted by their partner; not just in response to pleasure we co-create, but in anticipation of the pleasure we can share:
“I want to feel like my partner loves and appreciates every aspect of my body and mind, even the flaws.”
“I want approval and acceptance.”
Others described it as wanting “to feel desirable” or “to feel sexy.” When I spoke with people for whom feeling desired or desirable was what they wanted, a lot of what they wanted, underneath the experience of being desired, was validation. Many of us are carrying around hurt parts of ourselves that are, on some level, convinced we are undesirable or even unlovable, and being desired soothes that part of ourselves.
A perimenopausal queer woman, reflecting on the casual sex of her twenties, put it this way: “There are parts of me that fundamentally believe I am unf***able and those are the parts of me that wanted to feel desired. There was a physical craving, and it was exciting, but [sex] met the needs of the parts of me that need to be desired.”
If something you want, when you want sex with a partner, is to feel sexy/desirable or to be or feel desired, try asking the further questions: What is it that I want when I want to feel sexy or desirable? Is there something different about “desirability” versus feeling or being desired?
4. Freedom. This is the feeling of being fully immersed in a sensual experience. People want a feeling of escape from the ordinary day-to-day of their lives and a sense that they can stop thinking about anything else and experience a moment full of pleasure. They want to disappear into lust—e.g.,
“I want to clear my head and stop thinking. To be so into my partner that the world falls away.”
“I want to relax and relinquish control and be completely present.”
The opposite emerged, too, when respondents described what they didn’t want or like. People don’t want or like sex when they feel distracted, their minds pulled in a million directions. They don’t want or like pressure to “perform.” They don’t want or like feeling obligated to have sex.
In short, when people want sex, often what they want is to be free from wanting anything else. They want to step away from stressors, suffering, dissatisfaction, and distress. They want to step into a space too full of pleasure for there to be room for anything else.