Author of ‘Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships’
August 31, 2009
There’s nothing new about hooking up. As a sexual-revolutionary, I practically lived on the Relationship Roller Coaster. Little did I know that biology was arranging every ride. Like many, I believed I just hadn’t found “Mr. Right,” even after I married and divorced. As it turned out, the issue wasn’t so much who as how.
I started to connect the dots in my thirties, when I experimented with a little known sacred sex technique — and learned something unexpected. The technique calls for generous affection and relaxed intercourse. Instead of climaxing, lovers keep melting into a sort of sexual meditation until they feel completely satisfied. Over thousands of years, people have rediscovered this approach, so it goes by various names: angelic dual cultivation, le jazer (cortezia), karezza, the reserved embrace (amplexus reservatus), and so forth. (More in future posts.)
The “avoid orgasm” element seemed peculiar, but as much as I loved orgasm, I was ready to try anything that promised greater harmony. I was expending far too much time and energy angsting over my love life.
Early results were mixed. As long as a lover and I stayed with the practice, we experienced growing harmony and deeper intimacy. But it was really easy to drop back into hot foreplay and orgasm. At first, the resulting pattern was almost too subtle to identify, but after a while it became exasperatingly predictable. During the days and weeks after a passion bout, the spark faded. Arguments arose. So did a need for space. Both the drive to “fix” the tension with more hot sex, and the drive to “fix” each other, reached gale force. I thought, “If only he would….” He saw me differently, too. Eventually the relationship would crater, and I would start anew with increased determination.
Very slowly I learned the wisdom of steering around orgasm during intercourse. The benefits? Some showed up in the bedroom, but many showed up elsewhere. We looked cuter — at least to each other. We stopped bickering over nonsense. We both felt sexually satisfied, with no sexual performance issues. We lost our need for “space.” Arguments about “not doing enough” or “not giving enough” stopped. Communication struggles evaporated. We wanted to be together even after our honeymoon neurochemistry wore off.
At some point during this learning curve, my husband joined the quest. We’ve been playing with this approach to lovemaking for eight years now. It’s different, but lighthearted and affectionate. We laugh a lot. We find each other adorable. In fact, we’re so hooked on harmony that we actually resent it a bit when orgasm does sneak up on us.
So how can sex affect lovers’ outlooks? Esoteric talk about conserving sexual energy didn’t satisfy my physiology-teaching husband, who delved into the dark corners of scientific journals. The evidence pointed to a primitive program related to an ancient part of the brain common to all mammals (limbic brain). Chemical messengers produce an “I’m done!” feeling after a night of passionate sex. The result is a strong, yet subconscious, signal. It says, “Mission accomplished!” And, often, “Who’s next?”
Comedian Bill Maher summed it up:
Forget breast implants. It’s never about big or little, or short or tall, or blonde or brunette. It’s only about “old” and “new.” Hugh Grant had Elizabeth Hurley at home, and he wanted Marvin Hagler in a wig.
Like it or not, sexual satiety leads to declining attraction–and the tendency to find novel mates especially alluring. Scientists call this the Coolidge Effect. Consider this experiment. Researchers took a group of monkeys and fixed the females so that they were always in the mood (with daily hormones). Monkey heaven, right?
Not so much. Over the next 3.5 years the males copulated with declining frequency and enthusiasm. Scientists then replaced the females with different females (also on hormones). The males snapped right back to their initial zest and frequency…at least for a bit. Mother Nature doesn’t like unfertilized females.
The Coolidge Effect has shown up in all the mammals tested for it, even in females. It’s hard to spot at the beginning of a relationship, thanks to the effects of powerful, alas temporary, honeymoon neurochemistry. But it lurks there, creating tension with our romantic inclinations.
While it may seem cruel, there’s a kind of biological logic to this tension between mating impulses and pair-bonding longings; it ensures that we bond (on average) for long enough to fall in love with our child (who benefits from two caregivers)–before becoming restless. This arrangement serves our genes’ objectives of more offspring with more diversity among them.
It may not serve us, however. Affectionate touch and close trusted companionship are excellent health insurance. Not only that, when researchers look at which factors statistically predict human happiness, “harmonious pair-bond” tops the list.
Perhaps this is why we earthlings keep rediscoving this practice of frequent, gentle intercourse which side-steps sexual satiety. It’s like learning to diet by eating smarter, rather than struggling to eat less. As my husband says, “my limbic brain stays enchanted because I don’t attempt to fertilize you.”
We’ve replaced biology’s spell with our own.
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