I was recently in Amsterdam for the 7th European Conference on Positive Psychology and had a great time, meeting like minds, talking with far-flung colleagues and listening to fascinating and passionate speakers.
Our hotel was, however, on the edge of the red light district and we passed through it several times. I have never seen such an array of Plastic Penises in so many shop windows – in every colour under the sun but with a preponderance of shocking pink, many of them meeting fantasy proportions. It made me wonder what on earth people did in times past to spice up their sex lives – strange shaped vegetables probably. Though as my companions pointed out, most people – apart from the aristocracy – were probably far too busy eking out a living to have more than a quick roll in the hay.
On the one hand it is mildly amusing. On the other it is another indication of the obsession with a certain sort of sexual encounter that has little to do with healthy relationships. This view of sex often denigrates women – as much on-line pornography does. I did not find the pictures, books and occasional rubber doll in the sex shops reassuring. And this was the week Rolf Harris was imprisoned for abusing young girls. Where did he get the idea that this was OK?
Having been soaked in the Positive Psychology vibe for four days I wondered how a PP approach might inform good sex? Using the New Economics Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing I came up with this brief account of what it might look and feel like. My apologies to all those who work in the field – especially researchers and therapists. I am aware that this is a somewhat light-hearted, whistle-stop tour of a complex area.
Connect: The best sex is undoubtedly a reciprocal encounter with the person you want to have it with. Maybe this is why some people enjoy their solitary adventures the most! It’s hard to connect well with a partner if your thoughts are taken up by wishing you were somewhere else. Real connection is of course not only a wide variety of touching in delicious skin-to-skin experiences but also engages the heart and mind. Talking and laughing really do matter. When people find the same thing hilariously funny it raises their oxytocin levels and they share a moment of being in the same psychological space. Laughing together with a potential partner is one of the sexiest things you can do. Foreplay par excellence!
There seem to be some people whose minds empty of words at the height (or even the beginning) of passion apart from perhaps one or other version of ‘oh yes!’ A positive connection can be made early on in the encounter if partners simply comment on something they love or like about each other. When you say I love you, you are talking about you and your feelings – when you turn this into I love you for … you are stating what you value about your partner – it is about them. It is also helpful to talk about what you are doing, or would like to do! I love the way … I like it when … Simple strengths-based language can apply in multiple situations – including between the sheets. Checking things out can be critical by the way, especially with someone you don’t know so well.
Self-confidence (but not arrogance) makes it easier to connect authentically. Not feeling anxious or needing reassurance enables you to focus on the other person. When you really enjoy your own physicality you are more likely to enjoy someone else’s. This gives out vibes that you are having a good time with them. As we have mirroring neurons in our brains this can be contagious – and erotic!
Be active: Well, that speaks for itself! But good sex is not only swinging from the chandeliers when the mood is right. It can be even better when it moves from the very slow to the more energetic. What is important is that the pace is shared by both partners. Sometimes it is obvious that the passion is overwhelming and you both just want to get stuck in (!). Other times the whole encounter begins with a smouldering glance over a glass of wine and then builds breath by breath. Timing matters, go too slowly for your partner and he or she might decide to watch the footie instead, go too fast and you might lose the power of the moment. Tuning into each other matters (see above). What messages are being given, not just by words, but by a shift in movement or expression. Being active in your life in general has many benefits – not only for your overall wellbeing but also in your sexual and romantic liaisons. It’s all linked.
Notice: It is hard to notice much if things are moving too quickly. Noticing here means savouring the moments – being fully aware of each touch, each sound, each glance, every heartbeat, the shine on your partner’s hair, the smell of their skin, lingering over the smallest detail. Being aware of how the tension is building and relishing each stage before it gets even stronger. If you are in the mood you could set up a sensual experience with candles, music, aromas, textures and perhaps food and drink (but not so much you become too full or too drunk to perform!). One of the sexiest film scenes ever is in the 1963 movie Tom Jones. The footage was of two people eating a meal. How they were doing that and the way they were looking at each other built sexual tension that was almost tangible. The dynamic between Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice is another example (I’m thinking Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle here!). Few words, no touching – just a hell of a lot of electricity – all powered by noticing.
Keep learning: A friend of my mum’s once told me that until she divorced her husband and found herself with another lover she thought that sex was always flat on your back for between 5 and 10 minutes while he got on with it! She was astonished and thrilled when she discovered it need not be like that! Good sex can be trying out new things with someone you trust and with whom you feel safe. Don’t do what you know you don’t like but be prepared to have the occasional adventure. You never know, there might be a time and place for the Plastic Penises! Those in a long-term successful partnership will know what pleases their partner and what works for you both. But learning never stops – there is always a new context, a different situation, an unfamiliar location, growth and change.
Give: Good sex can never be just about one person’s satisfaction. It is tuning in to your partner and also making them feel good. What does this mean in practice? It means giving your time – not squeezing in a squeeze between meetings. Some people make regular dates with their partners – even though they have been together for years. This ensures the relationship gets regular nurturing by setting aside the time to do this. It means giving your partner your full attention, not taking a call just as things are warming up. Respect is critical in any good relationship so being distracted while you are engaged in a sexual encounter gives the message that other things are more important. This is not only disrespectful – if it happens regularly it can be damaging to longer-term outcomes.
Being prepared to not just take off your clothes but divest yourself of any constructed image means you are giving a little of yourself. Being real and authentic is more interesting and more attractive than posing. Giving also means showing gratitude to your partner for who they are, your experiences together and the enjoyment they have brought into your life – however small or great that is. It is being genuinely interested in and showing care for them. The zeitgeist is that giving makes you feel good so you will also be giving yourself a boost. Giving also relates to what happens afterwards, especially showing affection and warmth. And if the encounter is not going to lead anywhere else then be honest about your intentions with all the kindness you can muster. Make sure your partner is left with their self-esteem intact.