Around this time every year, all the glossy magazines in your local supermarket start saying the exact same thing: Your sex life sucks! Your sex life is boring! And unless you’re putting a donut around your significant other’s ding-dong, your sex life is WRONG! Sad and wrong! The worst.
Does that kill you a little inside? That’s cool, because it’s meant to. How else are you going to sell magazines if you’re not going after people’s weaknesses? You’ve got to promise them that a sex life straight out of 50 Shades isn’t just possible but mandatory in today’s society. And if you’ve ever spent the $3.95 (or however much an issues of Men’s Health costs these days) and found yourself disappointed, it’s because none of the advice, right down to the nebulous command that you “communicate,” is ever fully explained.
That’s why we spoke to Vanessa Marin, a Berlin-based clinician who specializes in helping people have the sex lives they’ve always dreamed of. So breathe a sigh of relief, if you’re trying to get your groove on in the best way possible this year, you won’t need to visit your local donut shop. All you need is open communication — we promise we’ll explain that! — and some realistic expectations.
Put down your cell phone.
A few weeks ago, a CNN op-ed about scheduling sex made the rounds and readers responded in droves, either defending or decrying the idea of setting an alert for foreplay and intercourse (15 minutes) into their iCals. It may sound dorky and unappealing, but Marin says that the journey to a healthy sex life doesn’t begin with dirty talk and toys — it begins with quality time.
“I think that the number one thing couples, in particular, could be doing is prioritizing electronic-free time together,” Marin says. “I think it’s one of those things we all know we should be doing — like exercise — and then none of us do it.”
According to Marin, many people come to her asking how they can regain the passion that “just came naturally” during the first stages of their relationship. Her response? It’s not going to happen without work. You need to turn off your devices — 15 minutes won’t kill you, right? — focus on your partner and have a conversation. Does it have to be explicitly about sex? Nope. But if your TV is off and you’re forced to pay attention to each other, it helps create the circumstances that could lead to sex. Feel a little closer to your partner? Then you’re on your way to a healthier sex life.
Don’t wait to have sex until the end of the night
This one’s a little less intuitive. Most movies show us is that sex usually happens at the end of the day, after a glass of wine or two, and right before bed. That may work on The Good Wife, but it’s not going to work for you. Because, as we both know, by the end of the night all you want to do is get comfortable, close your eyes, and try to forget that you’ll be back at work in only a few short hours.
“You’re exhausted and you’re already thinking ‘what do I have to do tomorrow? Sh*t, I have to get up early,’” Marin says. “You’re doing that little dance of ‘if I fall asleep right at this instant I could have seven and a half hours of sleep.’ It’s just way too much.”
What should you do instead? Go into the bedroom as soon as you come home from work. Spend some time together and see what happens. Marin notes that this can’t be a one-off occurrence, either. Take about 10 minutes a day, she says, and you’re going to notice your level of closeness and relaxation grow in ways you hadn’t imagined. Sometimes sex will arise naturally, Marin adds, but even if it doesn’t, you’re doing important work to get your sex life back on track and you’ll soon find that when you do have sex, you’re more comfortable and (likely) much more satisfied.
“It’s very unsexy,” Marin says, “but very, very important. And it will make a huge difference.”
Stop pretending sex is effortless
The media tells us two things: One, that sex is reserved for the young and attractive; two, that in order for it to be “good” sex, that intercourse must feel easy and perfect and like fireworks are going off over the Eiffel Tower on New Year’s Eve. Otherwise, what’s the point?
“If you’re sitting around waiting for a spontaneous, effortless, perfect sex you’re just going to have a really sh*tty sex life,” Marin says.“Life is just too messy and gross and complicated for perfect, movie-style sex to happen every day.”
So what do you do to combat the media narrative? Create anticipation. Make Wednesday your special day. Or Saturday! That doesn’t mean you can’t knock boots any other day of the week, either. It’s just a way of saying “okay, this is our time. This is when my partner and I will connect.” And don’t feel bad if it doesn’t work every time. Not having the type of sex HBO sells (we’re not that far along with robots yet) doesn’t make you a loser. It just gives you something to aim for!
“It’s fine for us to have these fantasy fairytale wishes,” Marin says, “but we also have to be realistic about how life actually works. That doesn’t mean dampening down your expectations or settling for mediocrity, but spontaneous wild sex just doesn’t happen that way in real life.” Her suggestion? Schedule that quality time she mentioned earlier and see what…pops up. 10 minutes a day can do wonders.
And remember this, too: If you’re taking your cues from adult entertainment — where all the performers are professionals — or that one episode of Westworld with the massive robot orgy, you’re in for a bad time. Movies (of any type) don’t accurately depict the actual machinations of sex. That includes things like noises and slippage, which are just normal things that happen during the course of even the best romps.
A porno you paid money for won’t show you people sliding out of each other mid-thrust, but in real life it happens more often than you think. And if you’ve been worried that it’s just you, Marin says you can breathe easy; it happens to everyone, regardless of their sexual prowess or proficiency.
“Sex is freaking weird and awkward,” Marin says. That’s an expert opinion!
Don’t compete with your peers!
We all have that friend who has more sex than seems humanly possible — especially if you have to go to work at some point. How do they do it? Why do they do it? The world may never know! But what we do know — because we’ve all done it — is that comparing ourselves to said friend will only lead to feelings of pain and inadequacy in the end. So it’s time to stop reading the studies about how much sex everyone else is having and ask yourself an important question: Are you happy with your sex life?
If the answer is a clear yes, then pat yourself on the back and celebrate by having sex the next time you feel like it (and have a willing and consensual partner ready to reciprocate your feelings)!
If the answer is more murky, then you need to sit down and have a think about what it is you really want. Are you more sexual than your partner? Is it time to have a talk? Or are you just trying to keep up with the people you know are doing it more than you, even if you don’t necessarily crave it?
“A lot of people get really freaked out about how much sex is normal, how much sex drive you’re having,” Marin says. “They want a specific, exact, perfect number. We all feel really nervous about this, but each individual couple really has to figure out what feels good and right for them while also recognizing that it’s going to fluctuate throughout the course of the relationship.”
Marin says that’s something she’s seen fairly regularly in her practice. On the one hand, she’s got people contacting her because they want to have sex seven times a week while their partner can only do it six times; on the other, she’s got people who are happy having sex just once a month.
“That works for them,” she says. “They get to build up that sense of anticipation and that’s their one awesome day of the month. There really isn’t any magic number that all couples have to live up to, it’s just trying to figure out what feels right for you.”
This advice also goes for singles. Yeah, it feels like you should be doing it almost as often as you’re swiping on Tinder, but if you’re not one of those people who needs sex all the time, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. And it doesn’t matter what your friends say, either.
You decide what sex is
Think about this for a second: What is sex? What does it mean to you? Is it oral? Anal? Is penetration mandatory or does mutual masturbation also count? And if so, where exactly do you put that on the scorecard?
Marin says this goes right along with the above sentiments about having sex “the right amount of times.” The reality is that sex is what you make it, and if that means you only engage in oral copulation (sorry, it’s just a good word) you shouldn’t feel weird or bad about it. You did what you wanted to and that’s all that really matters.
The most important thing, Marin says, is communicating with your partner. Are you making an effort? Are you doing what you’re enjoying? Then, you know what? You’re fine.
“In couples that I’ve worked with,” Marin says, “the people who have wider definitions of what sex means to them seem to be happier and more sexually satisfied than the couples who think it’s just intercourse only.”
Exploration is important
Speaking of “wider definitions of sex,” Marin says it’s important to explore if both you and your partner want to. The reality is that no matter how much you’re into your partner or how attractive they are, sex will likely get a little boring after a while. That’s when it’s time to start thinking about things you’d like to try.
“There’s so much to explore,” Marin says. “There are so many different things you can do with your body and with another person, so why would you want to limit yourself to one narrow definition of what you’ve been taught sex is supposed to be?”
Of course, exploration — whether you’re single or have been in a relationship a long time — has to come with a good healthy dose of communication. So before you buy nipple clamps, bed restraints, and a ball gag shaped like a hamburger, you’ve got to sit down and talk about it for a few minutes.
Communication is key!
One of the most annoying things about sex advice columns is that the first thing you’re told is to “communicate” and then sent out into the wilds of your bedroom to figure out exactly what communication means without the slightest idea of how to actually do it. Because how do you really tell your partner “hey, I don’t think we’re having sex enough” or “I’m just going to lay it right out here: I’d like to bring diapers into the bedroom” without starting a thorny discussion that could lead to hurt feelings or a fight.
“I think overall the point is that sex is something you should be talking about openly and frequently,” Marin says. “A lot of people think we’re supposed to just have some communication powwow. We need to sit down for an hour and just talk about every aspect. That’s definitely not what you should be aiming for. It’s going to be way too overwhelming and just way too difficult.”
“I like to tell people to have smaller conversations more often,” she continues. “A rough guideline you could aim for is to try to talk about sex in one way or another twice a week. It doesn’t even have to be about your sex life. Let’s say you come across some article on sex you liked. Bring it up to your partner and ask ‘What do you think of this?’”
These conversations can lead to a more frank and open discussion of sex. Once you’ve gotten the hang of how to talk about sex without blushing — and that’s normal! How many of us were taught to speak about sex openly? — you can make it more personal. Marin says you could try incorporating feedback, talking about what you want, and generally being open about your sex life.
“One good recommendation I like to give people,” Marin says, “is to talk about sex after you’ve had sex. Talk about that specific sexual interaction that you just had and do a little recap session. ‘I really liked when you did that thing with your hand or that position you tried was awesome.’”
You can even go meta: “If you and your partner have never talked about sex before and you’re feeling really nervous about it,” Marin says, “one thing you can do is just talk about talking. You can tell your partner, ‘Hey, I know that we’ve never really talked about this before and I feel super nervous. I’m really embarrassed talking about it but I feel like I keep hearing that this is a healthy part of your sex life. What do you think?’”
This takes the pressure off both you and your partner. You’re not talking about your sex life, specifically, but you are sharing your feelings.
“Your partner is going to be much more empathetic and open to you if you’re telling them, ‘I’m really nervous, this is really hard for me to talk about,’” Marin says. So If you’re hearing the voices of your parents telling you that what you’re doing is gross and sinful, you can communicate that. It’ll help your partner be more empathetic and it will demystify sex for the both (or more) of you.
One more important note: Start small. If you go right from “we’re doing great” to “but I’d really like to try fisting,” anyone’s going to be overwhelmed, even if they’re not opposed to the idea. So float the idea by them, gauge their interest, and then negotiate whether that’s something you can try in the bedroom.
Marin says that one couple she’s seen actually has an Excel spreadsheet (talk about sexy!) just for these sorts of occasions. They drop in ideas to spice up their sex life into the document, look them over together, and then decide what they’d like to try. That eliminates shame and embarrassment and creates the feeling of anticipation that’s so important to a healthy sex life.
It’s totally cool to have any kind of fantasy you want, Marin asserts, but you’ve got to do your research. If your fantasies involve bondage, sadism, or being assaulted, you shouldn’t feel ashamed about acting them out in a safe space. But introducing any of these things into your sexual repertoire takes conversation and negotiation. You don’t want to be knee-deep in a burglar fantasy and not have a safe word.
Know your body
Have you ever thought, “running a mile should be pretty easy? I’ve had my body for this long and know what it can handle,” only to tap out after two blocks and swear off exercise for good? That applies to sex, too.
Marin says that one of the most common questions she gets — in fact, it was the most common response to a question she sent out about sexual resolutions — is how to have an orgasm. Women want to know how to have them and men want to help women achieve them. The women, Marin says, were especially embarrassed that they didn’t know their own bodies. According to Marin, it’s never too late to learn. Start doing research, figure out what you might like, and then start experimenting. For men, Marin recommends fine-tuning masturbation, using it to “complement the type of sex you want to have with your partners.”
You should still masturbate, though
If you’re in a committed relationship, you may have wondered whether watching porn or masturbation was still okay. In fact, in some relationships, people consider either of these acts as a form of cheating. But masturbation, outside of its many health positives also helps you know your body and your sexual interests better. And if you’re doing it mindfully, it can be an important adjunct to a healthy sex life.
Marin says that a problem arises when, on a daily basis, you discover you’d rather masturbate than have sex with your partner. Otherwise, you don’t need to worry. But you should consider how you utilize pornography in your life. Because if you’re just focused on orgasming to a specific image — some people hunt for hours — rather than enjoying the process, you’re going to have a harder time connecting to another human being.
“What a lot of people are doing now is getting really specific about wanting to have that perfect image that you come to. You’re cycling through all these different things as you’re masturbating,” Marin says. “You’re totally losing your connection with your body because you’re so focused on trying to find this exact right image or clip or person.”
“I think porn is great,” she continues. “I think it’s very easy to scapegoat and call it the root of all of our evils. Porn in and of itself is not the problem and it can absolutely be a healthy part of anybody’s sex life. But you have to be really thoughtful about how you use porn in your individual life and how it’s going to affect your sex life with another partner.”
The solution to this may make pleasuring yourself a little harder, but it’s going to pay off in the long run. Marin says that you need to be more focused on your body rather than the image. Otherwise, you won’t recognize the “rise and fall of your arousal levels,” nor will you enjoy the orgasm because you’re so focused on the images rather than your own body. And that’s going to be hard to deal with when you bring an actual living person into the equation. A little more mindfulness, though — and a loosening of the grip, if you’re male — could help you achieve the sex life you’ve always wanted. (Not to be confused with the one you’re always being sold by the movies.)