We aren’t experiencing as much sexual pleasure as we used to. What can we do to fix that?
Nan Wise, Ph.D., a certified sex therapist and cognitive neuroscientist who studies the science of orgasm, has the answers. Wise just published a fabulous new book titled Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life, which explores the “pleasure crisis” we’re experiencing—and how we can reclaim more pleasure-filled sex lives.
I recently interviewed Wise about her book for the Sex and Psychology podcast. Below is an excerpt from our discussion that has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dr. Lehmiller: In your book, you talk about the long and complicated relationship we have with pleasure and how we're actually experiencing less pleasure today than we used to. What can you tell us about this? Why are we experiencing less pleasure?
Dr. Wise: The simplest way to describe it is that our attention is so divided. Our attention is so hijacked across so many different things that we're not able to be present. And when we're not able to be present, we're not regulating emotions as well. The short answer is that we're overstimulated.
Lehmiller: What can we do to fix that? How do we become less stimulated so that we can experience more pleasure? What kind of advice or recommendations do you give to people in this regard?
Wise: First, I think we need to recognize how the core emotional systems are wired and how easily hijacked the seeking system can be. When the seeking system is hijacked and we're getting all these little dopamine bumps from our social media pings and all of that, that affects our capacity to really feel satisfying pleasure. If we understand how that gets hijacked, we can be a little more intentional.
I use social media. I use devices—and I notice sometimes when people are on those and paying attention to that, it kind of pulls you in. And you want more and more. It’s important to learn to be a mindful consumer of your social media, a mindful consumer of your recreational drugs, your foodstuffs, all of that. Whatever you do, be mindful and prioritize pleasure.
And when I say prioritize your pleasure, it’s really learning how to be attuned to the sensations in your body.
Lehmiller: What you're saying reminds me of some research I've read on orgasms where people talk about how they can have good orgasms and not-as-good orgasms. I mean, yes, they're all orgasms, and generally speaking, orgasms tend to feel good. But maybe we could be having even better orgasms and more pleasure and better sex if we were more attuned and in the moment. I think your advice is really kind of how we can go from having good sex or acceptable sex, to really having great sex.
Wise: It's funny that you say that. I think in some ways, yes, we could have even better sex when we're present. But you know, sometimes the great enemy of good sex is when our mind is evaluating and trying to get the best sex, the most orgasms. That can take us out of the moment. Good sex is about being connected.
I talk about this in the book. It's about being present. It's about being playful. It's learning to see sex as the playground. Maybe the metric is less about how long the sex lasts or how hard the penis is, or how many orgasms we have. It's about being present and connected to the self and other and take it back to the body.
If I had a dime for every time I asked one of my clients “what's going on in your body?” and then they look at me like I'm crazy. Being attuned to our core emotions and how we're feeling, that's where sex becomes sensational. And when it's sensational and we're connected, that's another kind of sex. It's more of that energy exchange where you really enjoy connecting.
We've forgotten to slow down and savor. Satisfying is a different story.
Lehmiller: Right. And that gets back to the definition of sex, and the importance of expanding it. It's not going into sex with this goal-oriented mindset of there's just this one narrow thing being sex. It's taking an expansive view, exploring, playing, having fun—but really being present and being in the moment is the key to a pleasure-filled sex life.
Facebook image: Dmytro Kapitonenko/Shutterstock
Wise, N. (20202). Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. HMH Books.