For so long, the health and supposed normalcy of a person’s sex life has been measured in terms of “how often do you…?” And the rule of thumb has been that more sex is better sex. Well, it’s high time for the question of “how much do you do it?” to undergo a qualitative rebranding, making it more along the lines of, “so, how good was it?”
First thing’s first: Let’s reimagine the definition of “sex”
“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,” 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.”
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.”
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.
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.