Thursday, April 22, 2021

4. Great Sex = Safety + Agency + Discovery

Talking with people around the world about sex and pleasure has been one of the greatest rewards of my personal and professional career. It is also so different from the world I grew up in where people did not talk about sex openly or casually.  I knew whatever Doug and Julie were doing under the covers on Days Or Our Lives looked like fun, I just didn't understand what it was. Yes, I learned about reproduction and "birds and bees" but not about connection and gratification.  Yes, my high school played a video with Whoopi Goldberg telling us to use condoms to prevent AIDS but no one actually talked about enhancing pleasure or intimacy.  Gay men love to share explicit pictures and porn but rarely ever communicate how they'd like to be touched or held.  Much of my Work is about changing the paradigms of fear and shame that keep sex depersonalized and separated from joyful aging.  I have been doing that in recent years by focusing on the model: Great Sex = Safety + Agency + Discovery .   I will explain each  below. 

SAFETY - This means having an experience of protection from imminent risk.   It is an understanding that sex, like every physically playful activity on earth, involves negotiating a modicum of harm-reduction and risk reduction.  This operates on several different levels:
Physical:  In order to enjoy sex we must believe that our partners are not going to physically harm or do something gravely painful to our bodies.  We must have reason to believe we will not be traumatized or permanently injured during this encounter. 
Medical:  This is the confidence that sexual pleasure won’t result in a life-changing medical event.  I never had sex completely free of fear of HIV until I started using PrEP at forty-years-old.  The science of U=U has since proven that someone who is living with HIV and undetectable cannot sexually transmit HIV to their partner.  Put these together and we have two significant ways of improving safety in sexual connections.  However, in spite of these biomedical advancements, people may still hold back from experiencing pleasure if they remain consumed by fear, and/or still struggling with trauma, as described in Lesson 50. 
Emotional:  In order to enjoy sex we need to know our partners will not willingly nor maliciously try to harm our emotional or mental health.  Feelings by their very nature can sometimes result in pain and loss.  But we have to also believe our partner is not intending to cause harm or damage, or seeking to use sex to cause mental pain or exploitation.  

None of this is to be confused with consensual risk or danger.  Many people are stimulated by intentionally creating a scenario that involves a level of physical pain, emotional exploitation, legal jeopardy. But again, that is an entirely different experience from the risks of being physically, medically, or emotionally in peril without agreement or negotiation.  

AGENCY - I define "agency" as the feeling that you can make things happen.  It means that on many or most occasions, if you’re interested in having sex, then you will have sex.  Whether that is with a primary partner, multiple people in your pod, or completely random hook-ups, you are aware that with genuine effort, the odds are in your favor.

With agency you have the ability to practice essentials like consent and communication. If you know that sex is available and abundant for you, then it’s much easier to say “yes” when your answer is yes, say “no” when your answer is no, and “maybe” when your answer is maybe.  It’s much easier with a sense of agency to clearly communicate your boundaries, consent, and what you prefer sexually.  It’s knowing you’ll have plenty of options to enjoy sex in your lifetime, so you need not shame people, coerce them, or react viciously, when you hear “no."


Essential in the process of agency is knowing and loving your true self (Lesson 43). If your sense of self-worth or identity comes from another person, then you are limiting yourself to relationships that are transactional.  In this context, other people's attention and affection are a means to an end instead of an end to themselves.  If you think you are beautiful and sexy only when another person sexually desires you, then it will be difficult to say "no" or set healthy boundaries.  Sex will be much less enjoyable if you feel you "need" it or using it to feel confident or worthwhile.  

Without agency, people often become angered, rageful, and even violent.  The term “incel” has been typically used to describe younger white heterosexual men who perceive themselves as sexless (involuntarily celebate) for reasons beyond their control, and then expel hateful violent rhetoric and actions against the women whom they feel rejected them.

I expand the use of “incel” to also include people who violently lash out against those of us who are openly teaching about sexuality and expanding possibilities for human connections.  When I began talking about PrEP the intensity of the rage (and threats) weren’t just about past trauma.  In most cases they were coming from gay men who were involuntary sexless, perceiving themselves as physically unattractive and unable to find sexual companionship.  I was an annoyance to them because they did not believe they had the agency to go out and have sex themselves if they opted to do so.  My colleague Bruce Richman who started the global U=U movement experienced much of the same anger and aggression.  Their basic message is “If I’m miserable and sexless then you should be too.”

Sadly these men experience a majority of rejection because of their attitude, not their physical appearance.  They present as volatile, irrational, and unsafe, then get agitated when other men don't want to enter into a physically vulnerable situation with them.  In order to prevent this cycle, and improve agency, I encourage people to: (1) practice rationality in the fact there is no universal consensus of sexy, (2) learn ways to participate in self-care as an energetic “tree” instead of an emotional “leaf,” and  (3) actively seek out ways to recognize their role in lonely self-fulfilling prophesies.  

DISCOVERY - When we are young, most of us are encouraged to play with other children.  In that realm there are no clear goals, no expectations, no worries about the future, no discussions of “where this is going.” Just two or more kids connecting, discovering, and creating something fun.
As adults we seem to be conditioned to do exact opposite sexually.  Many approach sex from a place of rigid roles, expectations, goals, and shoulds.  There is a “right” way to fuck, and a “wrong” way to fuck, there is a script we have to follow, there is a "top" or a "bottom."  Most of what people learn about sex comes from porn which never illustrates sexual negotiation, verbal collaboration, nor playful creation.

One of the reasons people often experience an adrenaline rush from having sex with a new partner is to experience the joys of learning about an unknown body.  There is inherently a sense of discovery and exploration in which our senses our heightened.  People are more attuned to breaths, touch, sounds, and smells of a new partner than with a person who is familiar and predictable.

Meanwhile, desire for our primary partners tend to cease over time.  This is not a criticism or condemnation, this is a universal phenomenon that my colleague Esther Perel has observed across culture, regions, ages, sexual orientations.  Most people in the world lose that gotta-have-it feeling with the person who offers them the most stability and security.  There is nothing inherently “wrong” with this, but I do find it sad that so many feel shame and embarrassment about it.  Instead of accepting this as universal, many seek ways to blame themselves or blame their partner for reduced sexual drive.     
The good news is that a sense of curiosity, discovering, and learning need not terminate with a familiar sexual partner.  Sexual gratification may not always be about getting what you want, it's wanting what you have.  We can create renewed hunger and interest in a steady relationship by reclaiming our own state of curiosity and interest in another person's touch, sight, smell, breath.  This might take more mental effort than seeking the adrenaline rush of a new partner, but can be similarly gratifying. 

When couples aren't sure how to go about this, I first suggest they schedule time.  That may sound "unromantic," but scheduling time for physical intimacy is exactly what people must do in the early stages of a relationship when they don't live together or automatically run into each other naked at home.  There must be intention and effort made to be together.  People who have been partnered under the same roof often make the mistake of not scheduling a separate time/place to prioritize one another, and then wonder months and years later why they haven't had any intimate touch or sexual contact with each other. 

During that priority time I encourage couples to engage in exercises that re-establish intimate touch, re-establishing trust between nerve connections, associating another body with a sensation of safety and pleasure.  There are many ways of doing this.  Every couple is different, but the intention is to mentally re-establish a place of discovery and interest in you and your partner's gratification.  You can utilize your mind to remember when you first met your partner and objectified them as desirable.  I stated recently in a CNN feature:  our society normally considers objectification of another person's body to be professionally and morally wrong.  But when it comes to re-creating desire in a long-term relationship, objectification is your friend.

When we put together safety (relaxation), agency (empowerment), and discovery (learning), we have the tools to create and sustain sexual delight with one or more partners.  For some reason we seem to neglect these issues in America, especially when it comes to people over fifty-years-old.  But with effort and intention we can continue to grow into becoming our most relevant sexiest selves ever.  This is indeed the "pleasure" part of growing older, and the intention behind creating abundant play, touch, and fun throughout the lifespan. 

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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