The other day I was asked by a sex researcher to participate in a new research endeavor. The study is setting out to answer the question "what is great sex?" In talking about why she was embarking on this research, she explained that almost all of the writing on sex therapy, and most of the research on human sexuality in general, is focused on either sexual dysfunction or treatment. This makes some sense. We have sex problems, we rely on "experts" to study the problems and come up with ways to deal with these problems. It’s a medical model that for better or worse, we’re comfortable with.
But what does is mean when most of the so-called experts are only looking at what makes sex bad not what makes it good, or great?
Participating in her research involved spending about an hour on the phone with two researchers, answering their questions about when I had great sex, what made it great, how I would describe it, etc...
Before the interview began, I mentioned in passing that I hoped they didn’t end up with results that were all spiritual clichés and emotion. Having read way too many books about supposedly great sex, I’m wary of theories of great sex that never get to the "dirty" parts.
Sure great sex might be all about connection, transcendence, and oneness. But shouldn’t it also be about bodies flailing and juices flowing? Shouldn’t we hear about tongues and thighs, and buttons so tender even the mildest caress will send you reeling? All too often, when we talk about great sex (particularly sex educators and sex researchers) the sex part gets sanitized. I think this is one of the things I’m always hoping for in porn, representation of great sex that’s completely messy.
Then I started answering their questions about my own, very private, sex life. Putting myself under the microscope, with pressure to be a good research subject (and also to be entertaining, as my neuroses requires) brought me to several thoughts I hadn’t had before the interview began, most of which have changed the way I think about great sex.
Great Sex Is in the PastTo answer any of their questions, I realized that first I had to think back to sex I thought was great. The tricky part is that in the moment of doing this, in recalling for them a moment of great sex, I am instantly relying on a matrix of internal evaluations of great sex which I may not ever be able to fully articulate. They were asking me to describe great sex I had, but I was more interested in why the sex I was thinking of was the sex I chose to recall as great.
In order to get a less filtered picture of what great sex is, I’d have to be having it while answering their questions. Even then, there would be filters.
Great Sex Changes, With Time, Experience, and GrowthI also realized that the sex I think of now as great sex, is not always sex I thought of in the moment as great. Some sexual encounters, which at the time seemed good, but not outstanding, in retrospect, through the lens of both time and the variety of sexual fantasies that I’ve built up around the actual sex that happened, seems great. Because we are constantly changing and growing, and how we approach each sexual encounter may change with us, the great sex we had March 21, 1983 may seem insignificant and bland now. On the other hand, that time when we first had an orgasm and started crying, which at the time may have been strange and embarrassing, may now be considered a key point in our sexual development, and land the title of great sex.
Great Sex is Greater than the Sum of its PartsBefore the interview began I complained that most of the time when I read about great sex it all seems very esoteric and spiritual. But as I started trying to describe the great sex I had, or what made it great, I realized that the problem was not so much that I was avoiding using bawdy language, the problem was that the language didn’t do the trick.
If they had asked me to describe the greatest oral sex I had ever received (or given), the hottest handjob, or the most perfect kiss, that would be much easier. But great sex is something more than the individual acts. Great sex, or an experience that hours, months, or years later that we think of as great, likely encompasses something more than a well maneuvered sexual act. And then before I knew it, I was using words like transcendent, and connection, and intimacy (I managed to avoid oneness).
Defining Great Sex Requires Many VoicesI ended up feeling frustrated by the end of the interview. Each time I tried to describe an aspect of what made sex great for me I felt closed in by the words I was using. After the interview I realized that great sex is likely something that I can never describe in one sitting.
I don’t know if I could ever describe it by myself. I feel like describing great sex, much like having great sex is more of a collaborative effort. If it were art, it would be a collage, if it were an amusement park attraction, it would be bumper cars. Either way, it’s something that for me defies description, but that I’ll continue to try and experience in the hopes of getting it down one of these days.