If you ask most people what they want from sex, they’ll say some combination of pleasure and closeness.
And yet people’s decisions around sex are clearly about other things. The way men and women select partners; choose to initiate or decline sex; relate to their preferences or fantasies; obsess on how they look, sound, or smell; and remain present or check out during sex—all of these decisions make it clear that for many people, their sexual agendas go way beyond pleasure or closeness.
In fact, pleasure and closeness may be quite far from what people are really going after in sex . Instead, the big payoff of sex for many people may involve feeling powerful; feeling competent; feeling attractive; feeling desired; feeling important to someone; feeling normal; satisfying curiosity; having something to brag about; or feeling naughty or avant-garde.
Some people do feel pleasure while feeling one or more of these other things; but many people use sex to create some of these feelings while experiencing little or no actual physical pleasure.
For example, I have worked with young men who like getting blowjobs from casual hookups. They don’t necessarily find them enjoyable, but they feel like successful alpha-males. Some guys report thinking during oral sex “if only my high school buddies could see me now,” while the physical experience itself is of only limited importance. Some young women tell me, “yeah, I have sex every week or two, but it’s mostly to fit in, or to avoid the hassle of saying no, or to prevent being labelled a prude—but do I enjoy it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
Here’s one powerful but simple question that tells me a lot about the sex that people have: Do you kiss or hug during sex? The main reason adults do those things for more than a second or two is for the pleasure. When people say they don’t do those things before, during, or after sex, I figure the primary sexual story is about something other than pleasure. Of course, I follow up with lots of other questions.
Performance anxiety can certainly undermine pleasure. Erections, vaginal lubrication, and orgasm should not be ends in themselves, but rather a means to something else—experiences like enjoyment, satisfaction, pleasure, gratification, or intimacy. When people focus too much on their “performance,” it’s hard to relax and enjoy sex.
To someone wound up about “performing” well, the best that sex can get is “Well, I delivered the goods that time,” or “Well, I didn’t mess that up, did I?” Not only is that a pretty thin outcome, it actually increases the chance of the dreaded sexual “dysfunction.”
That’s why I don’t aim therapy toward resolving someone’s dysfunction; I aim at increasing their enjoyment.
And so I never assume that pleasure is what motivates people’s sexual decisions, and I never assume that sex is mostly pleasurable for people, even when they have great orgasms. I do assume, of course, that if people do something, they’re getting some payoff or other. I just don’t assume I know what it is.
Some people play golf because they like fresh air. Some play because they like to compete. Some play because they like mastering a skill. Some play because it makes them feel close to their (dead) father. And some play because they like having an excuse to wear funny clothes.
It’s the same with sex—we don’t know why someone else likes what they like, or does what they do (say, oral sex, or vibrators, or the Pirate Game). Memo to therapists: the only way to find out is to ask. Memo to lovers: the only way to find out is to ask.