Jeff Herman, 22, says he is young in age but old in spirit. He’s a recent Brandeis grad now in Somerville, getting into behavioral health research. He also likes teaching about sex and pleasure.
A fellow educator at The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health first introduced the idea of pleasure-focused sex to me using her sexual version of “Candy Land.” You heard right—sexual “Candy Land.” The game had spaces like any board game, but at certain stops were sexual acts. The board, however, had twists and turns, occasionally told you to go back several spaces, and had no clear end-point. In this game, that was a good thing—you can go back and kiss some more, or have oral sex and then take a snack break, then go back at it! I thought it was clever but never gave it much more consideration.
A few months later, I was with a partner who kept apologizing about how long they were taking to reach an orgasm. All I could think about—as someone who intellectualizes sex to the nerdiest degree—was sexual “Candy Land.” “This should be fun, but I just feel bad because my partner feels bad,” I thought to myself. I quite literally pulled out my mini copy of sexual “Candy Land” and explained the concept of pleasure-focused sex to my partner. “Are you having fun?” I asked. “If the answer is yes, I’m happy.” They smiled and laughed, pretty much the response I would expect from someone pulling out a sexual board game. But that laughter diffused the anxiety and let them know it was OK to be imperfect. It isn’t an instant change; deep-rooted stigma and shame about sexuality take time to overcome. The next time we had sex, the same pressures ran through their mind, but we had certainly taken a step toward a more open and comfortable dialogue. There’s something to this simple idea—sex should be fun!
As a sex educator, the most commonly asked question I get is: “How do I have good sex?” People expect a concrete answer—a magic list of steps to follow. Twist here, spin there and repeat three times and you will have the best sex of your life. To their dismay, any good educator would tell them it’s all about communication and fun. There’s no magic list of steps. (Sorry not sorry.)
Most of my sexuality education experience took place at a liberal, prestigious, achievement-oriented university where the typical culture is extremely goal-oriented: Get all As (or, better yet, make it an A+). Be the best, smartest and most successful. And make the most money. Within this context I found a lot of people having “goal-oriented” sex: trying to have the best sex and working toward a specific goal—usually an orgasm. I’m sorry to tell you, but “good sex” is not always about trying to go from one space to the next with a clear goal in mind. Chances are, focusing on achieving orgasm rather than the overall experience will result in less-than-stellar sex.
Many people feel like failures if they can’t bring their partner(s) to orgasm and end up with more anxiety than pleasure. Sometimes it’s not as easy as reassuring your partner that you’re enjoying yourself. This is where pleasure-focused sex comes in—pleasure-focused sex means focusing on having fun throughout the process. Sex, after all, should be pleasurable! When individuals or couples come to me and say they want to have “better sex,” I assign them homework: Play with each other for a few minutes at a scheduled point in the day. The only rules are:
- No “sex” (however you define it)
- No orgasms
- Pay attention to the sensations
- Tell your partner(s) how it feels
- Give supportive/constructive feedback
Sex often falls into a routine because we are busy and stressed. Taking a few minutes a day exploring what’s pleasurable with your partner is a great way to break a goal-oriented cycle.
Also—communicate! More than any technique or activity, communication makes for pleasure-focused sex. Talking about sex can be hard, whether it’s with a hookup or a long-term partner:
- What do you like?
- What do you want to try?
- What is a definite no for you?
It may be easier to have this conversation sometime other than during sex—it takes some of the pressure off and can be challenging to discuss when naked, vulnerable or feeling under pressure. Communicating also means giving feedback. Tell your partner how something feels verbally or non-verbally. Ask open-ended questions, like, “How does this feel?” rather than yes-or-no questions, like, “Does this feel good?” Don’t worry about being perfect; chances are if you’re enthusiastically playing with a sexual partner, they’ll be pretty psyched.
Sex and relationships can be complicated, imperfect and unpredictable. Just like in “Candy Land,” you can be sent back a few spaces or lose a turn, but trying to take a more pleasure-focused and communicative approach can make these setbacks less uncomfortable and open the way for fun.