Moving along with my review of key talks from the most recent Society for Sex Therapy and Research (SSTAR) conference, I will focus this particular article on the fascinating research on peak sexual experiences by Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz, from the University of Ottawa. In my previous review, I summarized the groundbreaking work of Doug Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito in creating a competing model to the sex addiction model in treating out of control sexual behaviors.
But before diving in, let’s first take care of some housekeeping. As many of you know, we just wrapped up the 1st Annual AltSex NYC Conference, which I created and co-produced with my colleague, Dulcinea Pitagora. It was a smashing success, in which over 150 attendees participated in a day long conversation around sexuality topics that are rarely discussed anywhere else. We had numerous media in attendance. New York Magazine just posted a nice summation, and additional reviews will be forthcoming in other media outlets. Feel free to continuously check the media page for additional updates.
Also, I am proud to announce that I am now blogging for Psychology Today, with my new blog entitled Standard Deviations. There is no content up there yet, as I am just getting started, and have been busy finishing up other matters, but feel free to subscribe there as well, as I will be posting a few articles to that blog in the next few weeks. I will still be blogging here, but my articles here will be more focused on clinical issues relevant to clients, while my writing for Psychology Today will be more big picture stuff, both sociological and research-based in nature. Heck, subscribe to both blogs, and get the best of both worlds!
Now, let’s get back to Dr. Kleinplatz’s research. But first let’s take a look at some troubling statistics, as it appears that many people out there are not having good sex. According to Kleinplatz, 10% of couples who have been together for at least 5 yrs have had no sex in the past year. That number jumps to 20% for couples who have been together for 10 yrs or more. So, about 1/5 of long-term couples just aren’t having any kind of sex. At all. This leads to a relationship “death spiral,” as the lack of sex both negatively affects the relationship and becomes self-reinforcing, as it becomes harder to even initiate sex again after such a long drought. However, for Kleinplatz, all is not yet lost, as for her, frequency is simply a red herring. Indeed, she explains the reason behind such a lack of sex is that the sex has just become bad. Really bad. So instead of anticipation, the prospect of sex is filled with dread. And it is this process which must be reversed. But not by focusing on quantity. No, it is the quality that must be prioritized.
But how do we define quality sex? How do we even know what it is and how do we know when we have it? To find out, Dr. Kleinplatz has studied thousands of couples over a number of years and has found eight key components to “optimal sexuality”:
- Being present
- An intense emotional connection
- Sexual & erotic intimacy
- Extraordinary communication
- Exploration, play, and interpersonal risk taking
- Vulnerability & surrender
One of the first things that jumps out in this list is that none of these criteria have anything to do with physical body parts, stamina, technique, or skill level. It appears that great sex has little to nothing to do with the physical and everything to do with the mental and emotional. Most remarkably, Kleinplatz found that her cohort of long-term couples experienced greater sexual satisfaction because they were able to build so much trust and connection within their relationship. The median age for respondents identifying as having great sex was 55! Yes, 55– take that Millennials! The point is that the idea that sex has to deteriorate with age and familiarity is just a myth. It’s bogus. And harmful. And many people subscribe to it because of what they hear from others and are told in the media, but Kleinplatz’s research shows that sex actually becomes better with age!
The question then isn’t how do we help people get firmer erections and more lubricated vaginas, but how do we help them be more present? According to Kleinplatz, the following relationship factors proved to be most important: empathy, goodwill, fluidity, intentionality, intensity, consent, and mutuality. Sounds like a good mix to me. Because I have written so much about these topics in the past, I will just link to previous articles addressing the subject, and you can access them by clicking on the specific words that act as links within this post.
Interestingly enough, and I will end this brief synopsis on this point, when sex therapists were questioned about what they thought lead to optimal sexuality, they often were guilty of subscribing to the same urban legends and myths as the general public, believing that sex got worse with age and familiarity, and generally taking on a more mechanistic, physical approach to improving sex. Which leads to the natural question, are sex therapists having enough good sex? Yes, this particular question elicited many laughs in the conference room. But before, everyone gets too stressed out about making sure that their sexual encounters are always great, let me leave you with one last reminder. Even for those partners who said their sexual lives were optimal, about 15% of their sexual encounters really weren’t up to snuff. In other words, sex isn’t always good. And that’s just not a realistic goal. Instead of creating unnecessary performance pressure, focus on the relational factors listed above, and your sexual experiences will be sure to feel more optimal. Most of the time.