Is Sex Work or Play?
Playful sex requires work before, during, and after, but it's worth it.
Posted May 29, 2018
We’ve probably all heard the saying that relationships are work, but isn’t sex supposed to just be fun? Or is sex a serious thing that we need to work at? Is sex work or play?
On the one hand, we have handjobs and blowjobs which sound like work, but we also have sex toys which suggests that sex is play.
When you get down to it, sex is like the rest of relationships—it takes some effort to have a good time. This is especially true when it’s repeated sex with a romantic partner—hook-ups often involve less effort which probably goes a long way towards explaining why they are too often not as satisfying as one or both people would hope. To make those one-timers (or first-timers) more interesting requires a lot of clear communication and negotiation so both partners are getting their needs met, since you don’t have the advantage of history to know what this person likes sexually.
Hollywood, romance novels, and porn all portray the fantasy that amazing sex just happens. Throw two (or more) people together and the chemistry just ignites. As soon as the clothes start coming off, the participants psychically determine the other person’s preferences—harder or softer? Faster or slower? What before what? What’s a total turn-on and what’s not even an option? Or perhaps they just do the same thing to every sexual partner and assume that it will be received well—even a waitress at a so-so restaurant will ask how you want your burger cooked, but sex is supposed to be one size fits all?
Sexual Effort is Rewarded
Sex can be amazingly fun and may be one of the few places that adults allow themselves to play, let their imaginations roam, and cut loose from the shackles of responsibility. So let’s talk about how to do the work to make your sex more playful. Most of this will focus on sex within a relationship, but the same lessons apply to hook-ups, although there are definite differences.
Great sex requires effort beforehand to maintain good feelings between you and your partner so that you are both interested in having sex together. This involves lots of non-sexual matters—being a jerk or leaving a mess in the kitchen may tamp down the fires of passion. Not that any of us can be expected to be perfect, but good behavior outside of bed tends to get you more action in bed. Or another way of putting it is that foreplay begins when the last sexual encounter ends. So if you are interested in having more sex with your partner, you may want to make a good effort in keeping them generally happy, or at least happy with you.
It’s also worth having some direct conversations about what sorts of things turn each of you on or off. What hits the gas and what hits the brakes? Sometimes we need to focus on doing more of the things that turn our partner on, like doing some small nice gesture like bringing a cup of coffee in the morning. Sometimes we are better off reducing some of the turn-offs, like emptying and loading the dishwasher so a messy kitchen doesn’t feel like an end of the night chore. It’s a lot easier to get our partner in the mood if we know exactly what will do the trick. And, of course, if we want to get ourselves in the mood, we can also intentionally create those circumstances. If sex is important to you, then your actions should look like it is—our priorities are not what we say, they are what we do.
Some of the pre-sex work may also involve some honest discussions about how to make it a great experience for each of you when you do have sex. A surprising number of couples don’t have these conversations, turning sex into shooting in the dark, both figuratively and literally. Since sexuality can be such a sensitive subject, these can be difficult conversations to have if we are worried about our partner’s response. I have written about this in previous posts, including Ask Better Questions about Sex. If necessary, put in the effort to make these into productive conversations.
The work doesn’t necessarily end when the clothes start coming off. We need to do the work to communicate well during sex. We need to be clear about what we want and what we don’t. We need to give feedback as needed—and nicely. And we need to make an effort to read our partner well and to ask for feedback when unsure, and to be sure to take it well without feeling criticized. We need to not personalize or throw blame around for any problems that can develop in the imperfect, real world that we live in—for example, a bout of erectile difficulties can send the guy mentally reeling into self-flagellation about his manliness and his partner into self-doubt about his or her hotness or technique.
If you want someone to want to have sex with you again, you need to put in the effort to give them a good time, since it’s hard to get repeat business with lazy or selfish sex. However, if you make it a performance test where you measure your sexual prowess by how long you can go at it, how quickly or how many times your partner orgasms, or some other performance metric, then it becomes more about stoking or assuaging your ego than providing a positive experience for your partner. Good sex is personalized to the moment—if your partner isn’t interested in having an orgasm (or whatever) but is otherwise enjoying herself or himself, then don’t push them to make the experience into something more. Low pressure will make them more likely to give you another crack at it next time.
Some people find the work too hard or don’t know what they are supposed to do, and instead avoid sex with their partner. Or perhaps they don’t bring themselves fully to it, making the sex only OK. Some of these people may just gradually turn away from sexual behaviors, whereas others will use solo sex as a substitute–as a path of least resistance–rather than doing the harder work with their partner to keep things hot between them. This is unfortunate, since both partners then miss out on all of the individual and relationship benefits of a great sex life.
We need to work so we can play, even in the bedroom. But that effort can be repaid in spectacular ways if you and your partner can keep sex playful.