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Rebooting the Pleasure Brain: Why Good Sex Still Matters

Our ability to experience pleasure promotes well-being in times of stress.

Key points

  • In the midst of the continuing coronavirus crunch, our political divide, and all things stressful, our capacity for healthy hedonism can heal.
  • Our relationship with our sexuality gives us a window into our relationship with pleasure, and the state of our emotional brain.
  • Sexual desire comes in different forms; we can have active desire and responsive desire. We need to understand this to manage our sexual selves.
  • Beyond active and responsive desire, there's another important factor that shapes our libidos: our unique erotic love style.

Why pleasure still matters.

I've been dealing with sexual issues since I first became a psychotherapist in the 1980s because I've always felt that having the capacity for sexual pleasure is an important contributor to our overall well-being. In the midst of our collective trauma between the continuing coronavirus crunch, our political divide, and all things stressful, our sex lives might not seem terribly important. But perhaps it is time to think again.

Our relationship with our sexuality gives us a window into our relationship with pleasure and, beneath that, keen insights into the state of our emotional brain. People who can access their ability to experience healthy pleasures—both in and out of the bedroom—tend to be happier campers. And happier campers might just be healthier campers and better copers across the board.

I became a certified sex therapist in 2008, and then, when I realized that there were big gaps in the literature about sex and the brain, I went off to become a sex neuroscientist conducting the world's first study of how the brain responds to orgasm stimulated by the self, compared to orgasm induced by stimulation by a partner.

What tends to stall our sex lives?

As a sex therapist, I've observed that the biggest issue that stalls a sex life after the honeymoon glow of new relationship energy (NRE) wears off boils down to one basic problem: The individuals' libidos or sexual love styles simply don't match.

What I mean by libido is way more complicated than a high or low sex drive. Sexual desire comes in different forms. We can have active desire when we feel "horny'" and have the urge to merge. There's also responsive desire that lurks below the surface and can be jumpstarted by romantic wooing or physical stimulation.

How to harness more active desire can be a simple as whipping out the vibrator and tuning into arousal. Bear in mind that NRE increases active desire as souped-up brain chemicals supercharge lust. Understanding this can help us better navigate the ups and downs of our sexual appetites.

Beyond libido: Erotic love styles

Beyond active and responsive desire, there's another important factor that shapes our libidos. I call this our unique erotic love style, which includes both what turns us on and how we like to have sex. This is so important that I created a quiz to help us understand how our own libido love style may interact with that of our partners.

New Relationship Energy (NRE)

Often, when people get first together, the excitement of New Relationship Energy stokes the active desire of both partners such that sex works pretty well at first. This lust chemistry builds bridges between different libido types sufficiently to "get the party started." As we become more accustomed to each other and the chemistry of a new relationship begins to fall off, couples can experience a sense of loss as the active desire or lust lessens. This is when the general difference between men and women in terms of access to active sexual desire can become evident.

As I have detailed in my book, men generally have more active sexual desire than women. Due to differences in how the brain develops prenatally, males have more sex on the mind. This cross-cultural finding is clear. Men just think about sex more than women do.

But do not despair! Women have an incredible capacity for sexual pleasure. It just takes a bit of navigating the ins and outs of the way desire works.

NRE versus Baseline Sexual Desire

As NRE settles down, we tend to forget about our original baseline desire (the lust level experienced before the start of a new relationship). We then erroneously compare peak NRE-infused desire (chockfull of active horniness) to what's left after NRE resolves, rather than comparing our post-NRE level with our original desire baseline. The results? We feel the loss. We feel a lack.

Partners who enjoyed being pursued feel abandoned. Women can feel deficient if they're no longer so intensely motivated to have sex. Even men can feel that their sexuality is somehow diminished as they return to baseline and are no longer fueled by the ramped-up lust of NRE.

What is the desire curveTM?

The desire curve is the natural path your sexual desire takes, from the lower point at baseline—to the big juicy peak of NRE—followed by the inevitable and slippery slide down into post-NRE. Whether you start off with a relatively high or a relatively low level of sexual desire at baseline, NRE is going to drive up your sexual energy. This is what fuels us to feel the post-NRE crash so acutely.

How to ride the waves of the desire curve?

By recalling your original desire set point and comparing it to the post-NRE level, rather than to peak NRE lust, you'll do much to counter the illusion that your sex life has crashed and burned.

Start by sorting out where you are on the desire curve. Enjoy the peaks, and don't sweat the valleys.

Identify your erotic love style, which includes what turns you on and how you like to have sex. Next, see if you can identify that of your partner. A big issue that can squash sex post-NRE is when partners' libidos, lacking the ramped-up sex drive of the honeymoon period, no longer mesh well. For example, someone who needs a soulful connection to access their sexual energy might have trouble with a rough-and-tumble lover who's more interested in athletic sex than eye-gazing after the big NRE buzz wears off.

Most importantly, don't panic. Mismatched libidos can provide an opportunity to explore and expand your own erotic repertoire. Soulful lovers can learn to enjoy sporting sex, and rough-and-tumble lovers can find the fun in more touchy-feely forms of connection. Use the bedroom as a playground to get inventive with your sexual styles.

Learn to stoke your own responsive desire.

When NRE and its copious amounts of active sexual desire wanes, we can kindle our responsive desire into lust by taking responsibility for jumpstarting the engine of arousal. Remember what came naturally during courtship? Flirting! Dressing up! Seduction!

Be the lover you want to have. Show intense interest in your partner. And don't be afraid to take matters into your own hands and get the juices flowing by giving your partner and yourself a jumpstart with some physical strokes as well.

Take risks to ask for what you want in the bedroom.

This is the way to keep your sex life alive. Stop relying on your habitual sexual relationship and start relating in the present time. Cultivate the courage to get bolder in conversations in and out of the bedroom. If you aren't comfortable with taking risks, all the more reason to do so. And if you lack ideas, ask your partner what he or she really, really wants. That's taking a risk, too.

Address any lingering resentments that might be dampening your desire for your partner.

There's nothing as dulling to a sex life as some long-standing, low-boiling upsets or frustrations. Do what effective couples do. Make sure to spring clean the basement of your relationship by having regular and productive active listening sessions (the number-one tool I teach couples), so you can get mad and get over it!

Learn to turn yourself on.

People who cultivate lifelong sexual potential are those who are erotically engaged in living. They pursue their passions for learning and experience as human beings. When we cultivate ourselves as separate individuals, we can be both part of and apart from our relationships in ways that enliven. Go out and fall in love with life and bring that home to your partner.

References

Wise, N. (2020). Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-filled Life. Houghton Mifflin.

Wise, N. J., Frangos, E., & Komisaruk, B. R. (2017). Brain activity unique to orgasm in women: An fMRI analysis. The journal of sexual medicine, 14(11), 1380-1391.

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