8 Vital Keys to a Truly Great Sex Life
Themes of optimal sexual experiences are uncovered via interviews with experts.
Posted Apr 10, 2018
Many years ago, my father received a plaque for a birthday gift that read, “Sex is like golf; you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy it.” He dad laughed and said, “Thank god that is true — on both accounts!”
My dad’s comment raises an interesting point: What does make for great sexual experiences? There are, of course, endless guides to hot sex or earth-shattering orgasms in the supermarket tabloids, pills that increase blood flow to our sex organs, and many recommendations regarding the mechanics of sex play. But are these the things that make for truly optimal sexual encounters? Interviews with experts point to a different story. Psychologist and sex researcher Peggy Kleinplatz and her colleagues have been engaged in a fascinating program of research, exploring what makes for truly great sexual experiences and using that knowledge to help individuals and couples who are struggling with low desire and poor sexual satisfaction. I have found her work very stimulating (pun intended), and I plan on blogging about key aspects of it in a number of posts.
This blog recounts Kleinplatz and colleagues' research from 2005-2009, which explored the phenomenology of great sex via detailed, semi-structured interviews with 75 individuals. (In terms of methods, 55 individuals responded to announcements for a research project exploring “great” sex; 20 were sex therapists.) Their answers were recorded and then transcribed and categorized via a systematic process. The following describes the eight key ingredients that were found to be consistently described across all of these interviews. Sample quotations are used to provide examples of the concepts.
1. Being fully present and absorbed in the moment, feeling embodied.
Much more than “mindfulness,” this refers to being wholly present. It was associated with feeling fully alive and having an intensely focused absorption in the moment. As one participant stated:
"The difference is when I can really just let go and completely focus and be in the moment and not have that, you know, running commentary going through my head about anything else."
Some participants described this as a sense of complete immersion, or feeling fully conscious of all their senses. Such descriptions seemed to line up with Csíkszentmihályi's (1990) characterizations of the state of "flow."
2. Being deeply synchronized or "in sync" (i.e., merging with the other to become one).
Another feature of optimal sexual experiences was a deep sense of alignment or of fundamentally being “in sync” with one’s partner. One woman characterized it as involving "at least one moment, the snap of the fingers, the length of a heartbeat, a breath where I can't tell where I stop and they start."
It was common for the participants to borrow from the language of physics and describe the synchronicity in terms of shared energy, or electricity or conductivity between people. For example, one said:
"It's the energy between people that wraps itself around them like a blanket to the point where you notice the creation of the body between them more than you notice either one of the individuals involved."
3. Being deeply intimate with one’s partner (in relational, erotic, and sexual ways).
Almost every participant identified a deep and penetrating sense of trust as characteristic of the intimacy that was part of an optimal sexual experience for them. Similarly, participants valued and respected the partners with whom they had had such an erotic connection at very deep and high levels. Many participants viewed this trust and intimacy as a prerequisite. As one participant explained, "It's part of the way you act with each other long before you're actually engaged in any kind of, you know, technical sex."
A deep sense of mutual caring was a major theme here. One woman explained that during great sex, she felt "loved and wanted, accepted and cherished" by her partner. Trust, safety, and a deep respect were all themes here.
4. Having extraordinary communication, coupled with deep empathy.
The capacity to communicate freely, both verbally and via touch, was crucial for optimal sexual experience. This means communication without judgment, involving a sense of deep empathy or understanding of where the other person was coming from. Rather than stressing the technical aspects of communication (e.g., the importance of using "I" language, paraphrasing their partners' statements, etc.), participants emphasized that the ability to “listen, to respond, to organize information, to recognize, what, when, even if you're not told, that one kind of touch elicits a certain response in your partner and another does not" was crucial. They emphasized the importance of sensitivity, "real listening," and "paying attention to little things." Many participants who were members of sexual minority groups believed that the negotiation skills gleaned from education within the SM community were especially helpful in an optimal sexual experience.
Nonverbal communication was often emphasized; touch itself was treasured as a special, direct, and erotic form of communication. Many emphasized the ability to read a partner's responses via one's own body, specifically via touch. Heightened empathy was believed to be a crucial skill so as to "feel into their space" and "play off of the other." The focus was on living in a shared, common experience, enhanced by moment-by-moment awareness of how the partner was responding.
Sex therapists often deal with clients who are reluctant to express their wishes verbally and choose nonverbal communication as the safer, default option. Generally most participants prized both direct verbal and touch communication. Touch was essential for reading the subtle cues and getting in sync, whereas a number of participants talked about how "speaking erotically" and "taking risks verbally" could move the encounter "into forbidden territory but with a sense of safety."
5. Being authentic, genuine, uninhibited, and transparent.
The capacity to be genuine or free or unfiltered was a common theme. Rather than worrying about judgment or tact, many participants voiced the value of being relentlessly honest with themselves and totally transparent with their sexual partners. An older woman defined her optimal sexual experiences as: "Sex where you can say anything and be anything." Participants described feeling completely uninhibited and largely free from self-consciousness during optimal sexual experiences, and often framed it in terms of giving themselves permission to experience pleasure and enjoy as completely as possible. One stated:
"Being able to be selfish, impulsive, free of cares, unguarded, unplanned, in the moment, emotionally available, emotionally uncontrolled."
Participants reveled in the freedom and liberation to be completely emotionally naked with another person. The emotional power of being genuine, being seen and known authentically, was described repeatedly as a gift.
6. Being adventurous, exploring, and taking risks while playing and having fun.
Optimal sexual experiences were often framed in terms of being fun, playful, or adventurous. Risk-taking and exploration emerged as important components. Many participants likened optimal sexual experiences to an ongoing "discovery process," an exploration or journey where it was necessary to continually push and expand one's personal sexual boundaries. As one woman explained, "I'm an explorer, I'm an experimenter. I'm willing to say let's try this and see what happens."
A sense of humor, laughter, and playfulness were vital and served as a safe complement to the exploration and interpersonal risk-taking. A female participant explained why she believed a sense of humor was essential for great sex:
"When people actually get right down to it, it looks funny as hell. We're in these contorted, awkward positions grunting like animals, folding ourselves up into a sexual origami that hardly resembles anything as elegant as a crane [laughing]... It's absolutely one of the most hilarious things that human beings are capable of."
7. Being vulnerable, and surrendering to one’s desire.
The power of vulnerability is a common concept these days, and it is one that emerged in this study. A number of participants believed that letting oneself be vulnerable and surrendering to a partner were keys to optimal sexual experiences. The meaning in this context is interpersonal more than intrapsychic. The focus here was on "being able to put your entire being in somebody else's hands." An older male participant believed that this degree of vulnerability helped to distinguish between good and great sex:
"In normal good sex or good relationships, I think there's always some maybe small but detectable barriers, some things held back. In great sex, I think those for me disappear and so that one is quite transparent to the other person and therefore quite vulnerable but it feels, it goes with an intensely erotic and a good feeling rather than a scary feeling."
Several participants independently compared the act of being vulnerable during optimal sexual experiences and surrendering completely to one's partner with jumping off a cliff or taking a leap of faith. It was showing one’s self and one’s desire, and having it be held and responded to.
8. Experiencing transcendence, blissful peace, and transformational healing.
A sense of transcendence or spiritual bliss or personal transformation were present for many individuals, and for some were the hallmarks of an extraordinary sexual experience. Some believed that during optimal sexual experiences, it was possible to experience a "high" akin to that achieved during meditation. Similarly, some participants reported a sense of timelessness or connection to the infinite. Consistent with the lack of vocabulary to otherwise describe such experiences, many participants used religious language to describe their best sexual experiences.
In a related vein, participants emphasized the transformative, growth-enhancing, and healing qualities of optimal sexual experiences. The narratives of both the transformative and healing themes suggested a description of a combination of heightened, altered mental, emotional, physical, and relational states occurring in unison. Such descriptions were quite reminiscent of what Maslow referred to as peak experiences.
It is worth noting that there were two minor themes in the reports of the participants — that is, they were mentioned only rarely and, when asked, were identified as inconsequential. One involved the intensity or nature of physical sensations. Another minor theme was lustful desire—the craving for sexual activity or release. These, of course, make good sense. But what perhaps is particularly notable is that they were minor themes. If one were to take a survey of the supermarket checkout line, great sensations and lustful desire would likely rank right up at the top as the presumed keys to great sex.
But they were not the primary focus of the participants, and not seen as the central ingredients. Rather, it seemed the general message of the participants was that the key to optimal sexual experiences was to unlearn many of the conventional scripts that society imposes on sexual behavior and instead find a way to connect authentically and with courage, genuinely share those feelings with an intimate other who could honor them, get in sync with them, and then reciprocate the gift-giving rise to an electrical conductivity that was nothing short of transformative.
Kleinplatz, P. J., Ménard, A. D, Paquet, M., Paradis,N., Campbell, M., Zuccarino, D., & Mehak, L. (2009). The components of optimal sexuality: A portrait of “great sex”. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Vol. 18, pp. 1-13