Late last year, a piece in The Atlantic sent the internet buzzing because it concluded that in general, we're just not getting it on as often as we used to. Evidence backs up the claim: A 2017 paper's analysis of the General Social Survey found that Americans were having sex nine times less in the early 2000s than they were in the late 1990s, largely due to more individuals opting out of commitment and devoted couples abstaining from the act. The huge elephant in the bedroom though? Could having less sex open the opportunity to have better sex? Or, at least to rethink what we want to get out of naked time with someone (or multiple someones)?
Could having less sex open the opportunity to have better sex?
"It just varies from partnership to partnership, and there is no ‘normal,’ there is no ‘should.’ Sex can serve a lot of different functions in a relationship," says Emily Nagoski, PhD, author of Come As You Are. "There are some couples that can go decades not engaging sexually with each other, and that’s fine. And there are other couples who, if they don’t have sex multiple times a week or even every day, they feel like there’s something missing in the relationship."
For Dr. Nagoski, "right now" is always an opportunity to redefine what sex adds to your life and your sense of self. And regarding that definition, there are no rules within the bounds of consent.
"Sex for the sake of sex is not necessarily as popular a thing anymore as it used to be, because why would you settle for mediocre when you have a whole array of fantastic ways to get yourself off?," sex-positive psychologist Liz Powell, PsyD, tells me. When we stop understanding sex as a quota to fill, Dr. Powell and Dr. Nagoski say we have the opportunity to turn on—pun intended—sexuality in ways that pop culture hasn't yet caught up with.
Intrigued? Below, experts dig deep to explain why what happens before, during, and after sex is way more important than how many sessions you squeeze into a week.
Say goodbye to having sex "x" times a week. Here's why quality matters way more—and how to improve yours.
First thing's first: Let's reimagine the definition of "sex"
Go ahead, define "sex." If you're anything like me, your answer conjured mental images making the whole process look pretty narrow. That shouldn't be, says Dr. Powell.
"If you ask a lot of people, 'Have you had sex recently?,' they’ll say 'no'—even if they had just finished giving someone some hand sex," she says, noting that it's a fallacy when people consider heterosexual vaginal penetration as the gold standard of sex. Really, it's just one expression of many. "Any activity that we do with a partner that’s about experiencing our arousal and about sharing our arousal can be sex," she says.
I know, I know: It's a whole new world, right? Now all you have to do is discover your own understanding of what sex means—you might even be having more of it than you realize. "There are all kinds of ways that you can enjoy sexuality alone, or with a partner, or with multiple partners—as long as you're willing to expand your definition of what that means," Dr. Powell adds.
Quality control: Knowing what you don't like is just as important as knowing what you do
Consider tattooing this rhyme on your body (or okay, at least adopting it as a mantra): "Pleasure is the measure," says Dr. Nagoski. "It’s not how much you want to have sex. It’s not what you do, or who you do it with, or where you do it, or in what position, or even how many orgasms you have. It’s whether or not you like the sex you're having," she elaborates.
Think about what belongs in your sex life (and what's not so ideal) as two opposing forces: accelerators and breaks. Scientifically speaking, the model is called "The Dual Control Model," and Dr. Nagoski says it's (sex) life-changing.
"You have a sexual accelerator, which responds to all the sexually relevant information in the environment. So everything you see, and hear, and smell, and imagine sends the signal that says 'turn on'," she says. Brakes, on the other hand, are all the things that make you feel anything but sexy—with the top three perpetrators being stress at work, relationship issues, and kids.
You know what's coming next, right? Self-love is downright crucial for A+ lovemaking.
Thus, on those nights when you and your partner's libidos feel way out of sync, it's not necessarily because your partner's not doing their part in making you all hot and bothered. Rather, it could be that deadlines, and conflict, and screaming children, and any other brakes in your life drowning out the accelerants. "When people struggle with pleasure, desire, and arousal, it’s very rarely because there’s not enough stimulation to the accelerator. It’s mostly because there’s too much stuff hitting the breaks," Dr. Nagoski says.
You know what's coming next, right? Self-love is downright crucial for A+ lovemaking. "So, maximizing sexual well-being is really about maximizing overall well-being and learning to leave as much as you can on the other side of the bedroom door," she says.
It all starts with sitting down, preferably with your S.O., and making a physical list of what belongs in your "brakes" category (ex: dirty dishes) and what belongs in your "accelerator" category (ex: "when you [insert something dirty here]"). Then, you can work as a team to manipulate all those variables for, well, fireworks.
Compassion goes hand in hand with maximizing pleasure quality
Even if you and your lover draw up a To All the Boys I've Loved Before-style contract about what does and doesn't fly in your arrangement, mistakes and misunderstandings are bound to ensue. Learning to be okay when things don't turn out as expected plays two major roles, according to the experts.
First, it requires learning to be compassionate for what happens along the way during your self-imposed pleasure quest. "We can't be expected to have all the answers, because that assumes we've had access to all the information about our bodies and sexuality since we were born," says Goddess Cecilia, a sexuality and pleasure expert with O.School, an online sexuality resource. "We have to give ourselves space to want to keep learning more about ourselves and our pleasure."
And second, having said compassion to fall back on provides the courage to "play" with the boundaries of your sexuality. "Humans in general need play in order to be healthy and happy. For some people, sex is a stress relief. For some, it’s to help themselves get ready for bed. There are a lot of different ways that sex can function," says Dr. Powell. To riff off the old adage: If you never f*ck, then you'll never know. So, get to experimenting.
"Masturbation is a wonderful tool for helping you understand your sexual needs and desires, which can be shared with your partners. There is also the concept of having different love languages, which include acts of service, quality time, physical contact, words of affirmation, and receiving gifts," says Cecilia. In other words, it takes some courage to test drive the techniques and tools that might land a spot on your "accelerator" list.
The payoff is worth the work—it's better than an orgasm. It's about self-discovery. It's about realizing that your pleasure, however often you access it, is just as complex as the rest of you. Quality, you guys, not quantity, is the name of the game.
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