Far from what films and TV shows might tell us, truly magnificent sex has very little to do with daring feats of seduction or screaming orgasms. In fact, according to the latest research, erotic intimacy is more a state of mind than a physical act.
In a recent study, Magnificent Sex, psychologist and sex therapist Dr Peggy J Kleinplatz and her colleagues at Ottawa University in Canada realised that, while whole library sections were dedicated to bad sex (and how to make it better), there was almost no literature dedicated to great sex. What did it feel like? Who was having it? And what made it so great?
To answer some of these questions, the researchers recruited people from around the world across the age, gender and sexuality spectrum – who self-reported having had, at some point in their lives, truly mindblowing sex.
Through a series of interviews, researchers began to build up a picture of what “the best sex ever” looks, feels and sounds like. “One of the first surprising findings,” write the study authors, “was the … uncanny similarity in descriptions. [This] helped us to become reasonably certain that everyone was talking about the same experience.” Despite the different ways each participant actually had sex, at the very peaks of the experience, everyone was feeling the same kinds of things: total absorption in the moment, deep connection with their partner, and openness and a willingness to take a few emotional risks.
“For the magnificent lovers [in the study],” says sex educator Emily Nagoski, the author of Come As You Are: the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, “sex became a way to know themselves and their partners more fully. It was a way to play and explore together – to become vulnerable with one another. To go on an adventure.” And for many, she points out, it led “to feeling more at peace with who they are and more satisfied in their lives generally. It’s really powerful stuff.”
Taking this groundbreaking study as a starting point, we ask its authors and other experts how everyone can have better sex.
Be completely present
As anyone who’s tried to meditate might know, being completely undistracted by the endless pinging, buzzing, chattering ephemera of modern life is easier said than done (in fact, according to a study from researchers at the University of Virginia, one in 10 people admitted to checking their phone during sex).
But there are ways that we can get better at being present. “What’s helped me to feel more present and embodied within my sexual experiences,” says sex educator Ruby Rare, “is training myself to feel more present and embodied throughout the day.
So, taking a moment to note the texture of the ground that I’m walking on, the feel of the air on my skin, or the particular hue of the sky. Really trying to tap into the sensations in my body – sight, sound, smell, taste. If you take time to train that aptitude, it’s much easier to then bring it into the sexual environment with you.”
Broaden your definition of sex
As Rare says: “If we can let go of our traditional notions of what does and doesn’t ‘count’ as sex we might discover something altogether more fulfilling. I like to grab parts of a partner’s body, to really worship the texture and feel of a leg or a stomach. That’s an erotic experience that sits outside traditional ‘scripts’ but it’s one I find deeply satisfying. If you let go of the idea that you’re ‘meant to’ kiss, then do foreplay, then have sex and an orgasm, you’re suddenly open to playing and exploring; to being more present with someone’s body and really seeing how you can interact with it in a way that might excite you even more.”
Nagoski agrees. “The problem is, pop culture’s script for how good sex should go and what it should look like is incredibly narrow,” she says. “We are told that it is the product of spontaneous, out-of-the-blue horniness. There are lots of positions, perhaps some foreplay, definitely penetration, then orgasms – the end.” In actuality, “none of that is true”, she says. Sex could be anything: “Just kissing; having a long, erotically charged conversation; touching; bathing with a partner. As long as you’ve got consent, and no unwanted pain, you can roll around like puppies.”
In her study, Kleinplatz has often seen this in action with her patients. As she explains: “The people having the greatest sexual fulfilment were people who had, for one reason or another, discarded the entire package of paint-by-numbers ideas about sexuality. Because these people had then gone on to create something that fit better for them.”
Engage with your deepest desires
Of course, just because anything can be sex, it doesn’t mean that everything will turn us on. Psychotherapist Ian Kerner, author of So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex: Laying Bare and Learning to Repair Our Love Lives, believes the key to the best sex of our lives is to spend time engaging with our deepest erotic fantasies.
He argues that each of us has one or more “core erotic themes” – sexual scenarios that “contain a lot of heat for us”. But, he says: “If you ask most people what their ultimate erotic fantasy or biggest turn-on is, they probably would struggle to tell you.” Becoming really aware of what these are will inevitably help us to have more satisfying sex, he says. “These are things that get us feeling the most turned on, the most fired up. The thing that, when you let your mind wander to it, will get you thinking, ‘Yeah, this is hot, I want more of this.’ – But a lot of people simply don’t know what their core erotic themes are.”
To discover yours, Kerner suggests “a tasting menu” approach – taking some time on your own to sample sexual content from different creators, whether that’s magazines, erotic fiction, films such as director Erika Lust’s X, or podcasts such as Dipsea or Dirty Diana, the erotica fiction series produced by (and starring) Demi Moore. “We’re living through a golden age of sexual content,” says Kerner, “use it to your benefit.”
Once you’ve read, watched or listened widely on your own, Kerner says, “think about which erotic themes are really drawing you in. Or which come up over and over again.” It’s likely that we’re drawn to certain power dynamics, so even if the content is all very different, it may still be possible to pick out one constant theme running through. From there, we can begin to communicate these to others and build sexual experiences which tap into these themes.
… but develop self-compassion
Admittedly, most of us have fantasies which we would struggle to articulate for fear of being rejected. And yet, wondrous new depths of sexual fulfilment, self-awareness and connection may await if we do. Nagoski argues that the first step to opening up is to develop self-compassion. “You turn toward the parts of yourself that you are worried about, with kindness, accepting that while they may seem scary they are also true.” Inviting someone we trust into that truth, she says, can be an incredibly liberating experience.
Now, be honest …
Being radically honest about what lights you up in the bedroom can be uncomfortable, particularly if your desires sit outside “the norm”. But, Nagoski says: “If you never say it, you may never get to experience the satisfaction of doing it.”
Rare recommends approaching such conversations with “a technique I’ve borrowed from the sex educator Allison Moon: first tell the person you want to talk to them about something, then explain it’s something you feel embarrassed or nervous about, and why. Perhaps others have reacted badly in the past and you’re worried this person will reject you, too. Then you can launch into what you have to say having already let them know what emotions are attached to the conversation for you.”
Play mind games
As well as helping us create a clearer idea about what engages us on an erotic level, discovering our desires also helps us employ our intellect and imaginations. “I think that there’s a real dearth of mind-based arousal nowadays,” says Kerner. “We depend on the newness of a relationship or encounter to provide that kind of psychological stimuli.”
Instead of just relying on certain physical acts to get us in the mood, sex can begin as a fantasy played out in the mind, over a whole day. “We often lose our ability to ‘make-believe’ as adults,” says Kerner. “So it’s about redeveloping that.” This could mean fantasising about yourself as the main character in a scenario, or just daydreaming at work about the kind of sex you plan to have that night. “It’s called psychogenic arousal – the arousal which is triggered by sexual thoughts rather than physical stimulation.”
Communicate from the start
“If you can develop open communication around sex from the beginning of a relationship, it’s incredibly helpful,” says Kerner. This means offering and being open to feedback, and being compassionate with a partner if they become embarrassed or defensive. For example, you might say: “I’d find it really hot if we did this or you touched me like this.
“If you can visualise the sex you want to have,” he says, “you’re really halfway there. It will help you be clear with someone else about what you want.”
It might seem like an oxymoron – it is surely at its best when it’s spontaneous – but putting sex in the diary may well be the key to creating space for the hot and spontaneous to happen.
“Sex requires intentionality,” says Kleinplatz. “It requires saying, ‘I’m willing to make being with you a priority in my life.’ If you’re doing it right, it will take effort – it shouldn’t feel like work, but certainly will take time and energy.”