I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately from people who are struggling with sex in a wide variety of ways:
My partner wants to have sex but I’m not sure I’m ready, but I also feel bad about the fact that I’m not ready.
I look back at all the sex I’ve had and I realize that I was only having it because I felt like I was supposed to, and now I realize I don’t even know what sex is supposed to feel like.
My partner and I love each other but have different levels of desire. We’ve tried everything and we both still have different levels of desire, and we each feel terrible about wanting different amounts of sex.
How do I forgive my partner who, it turns out, has been lying to me about their sexuality for the last decade?
A solution to all of these problems, I think, is one very simple – though not easy – rule:
Only have sex YOU LIKE.
Let’s take a minute to define a couple of terms:
SEX = any sensual touching you experience, with or without a partner.
LIKE = enjoy. Pleasure.
Now, pleasure is not simple, for at least two big, important reasons:
1. The perception of pleasure depends on the context. We all know this from tickling: when you’re feeling flirty and sexy and your certain special someone tickles you, that can feel fun and lead to further sexytimes, right? But if that same certain special someone tries to tickle you when you’re pissed at them… you want to punch them in the face.
Pleasure is complicated because a sensation that felt good yesterday might feel not-so-good today. The solution is to focus on what sensations feel like, right now. Pay attention to sensations with curiosity, patience, and openheartedness. Do the things that make your body feel warm and connected with the world and your partner.
2. This is an analogy I heard from Dr Christine Hyde: Imagine that a good friend invites you to her party, and you accept the invitation because she’s your good friend. The closer you get to the night of the party, the more you’re like, “Ugh, there’s going to be traffic, I have to get a baby sitter…” and even the night of the party you’re thinking, “Ugh, I have to put on real clothes and wear make up, this is such a hassle!” But you go, because you said you would, and she’s your good friend.
And then you get to the party… and you have a great time! That’s responsive desire. It’s normal.
Pleasure is complicated because the thing you like doing might require you to navigate some hassles and frustrations. You have to create a context that works for you, you have to decide that spending time skin-to-skin with your partner is more important than the dishes or that work project or watching Game of Thrones or spending time with all the other people you love.
So pleasure isn’t simple.
But it is the single best measure of sexual wellbeing we’ve got.
Repeat after me:
Pleasure is the measure.
Pleasure is the measure of sexual wellbeing. Not desire. Not frequency of sex or type of sex or number of partners or anything else. Pleasure.
If you’re struggling with sexual desire, arousal, orgasm… the answer is to do what feels good to you.
If you feel pressured by your partner, that’s a context that will hit the brakes and thus reduce pleasure. If you’re experiencing physical pain, psychological shame, relationship stress, or life distress, that will all interfere with pleasure. Judging yourself for not experiencing sexual pleasure, desire, arousal, orgasm, etc when and how you want or expect to experience them will definitely interfere with pleasure. That’s okay. Do what does feel good, and don’t do the things that don’t feel good, and let go of all the judgments and expectations about what’s “supposed” to feel good. In the context of mutual respect and consent, you can’t go wrong if your goal is simply pleasure.
Pleasure is the measure. Focus on sensation, and do more of what feels good, less of what doesn’t feel good, and practice separating what things actually feel like from what you’ve been taught they’re “supposed: to feel like.
Because the bigger, deeper secret is that pleasure begets pleasure.
If and when you can allow bits and pieces of pleasure into your life, it creates space in your brain for more pleasure of all kinds.