The One Word Path to Healthier Sex

When it comes to sex, there’s a one-word piece of advice that applies just as much to me today as it would have five, 10, 15 or more years ago.


Sex is important: our romantic relationships can be dependent on the physical, psychological and emotional bonding it creates.

Sex is a big deal: not just when you first start having it, but each and every time. It is among the most intimate, if not the most intimate, act one can engage in, and the one that makes you the most physically (and emotionally) vulnerable.

It is raw and carnal, tied to the natural urges and needs intertwined within our bodies and psyches. It is a source of intense pleasure so that our cravings for it goes beyond desire but into need.

Because of what it means to our relationships, and because sexual pleasure is such an integral part of our adult lives, there is a great deal of importance attached to sex, both the quality of it and the frequency of it.

Which is as it should be, up until the point and unless…the pressure of sex becomes greater than a couple’s ability to enjoy it.

I’m a serious person. I think a lot, I read a lot, I write a lot…I spend a lot of time (too much, probably) in my head. One time in bed, my partner started tickling me. I flinched and moved out of the way, and she started doing it more, and I got annoyed. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Just trying to have a little fun. It’s OK to laugh in bed, you know,” she said. “It’s OK to be a little playful.”

The irony is not lost on me that I spent a lot of time thinking about this, too, but she was right. All she was trying to do was imbue into our physical connection some play, joy and laughter.

I had gotten so accustomed to focusing on getting things right in bed that I lost sight of what was most important: relaxing, enjoying the moment, and yeah, having fun.

There’s plenty of fun to be had in sex. It’s not a race to get to an orgasmic finish line nor must it come with a checklist or agenda. While it can be heated and intense, if it’s not fun, if you are just trying to force pleasure, if you are so focused on achieving orgasm, either for yourself or for your partner, you risk missing out on all the pleasure involved from start to finish.

Relax. Take a deep breath or two. Slow down. Be present at the moment.

That last one is a cliché but it’s true: I had put so much pressure on myself for me and my partner to have good sex that I lost touch with what was so good about it. The touching Exploration. The opportunity to step out of my head and just be, to get in touch with what made me and my partner feel good, physically and emotionally.

One of the most common themes I’ve seen in my reading about sex is the burden we place on ourselves, men and women alike, to be good at it, to ensure our sexual performance is at should be.

Being concerned with and attentive to your partner’s pleasure is preferable to being selfish in bed.

But we each can take it too far. I know I have. While it’s critical to recognize and be cognizant of your partner’s needs and desires if you remain so focused on the other person, so focused on doing all the right things, you can get lost. The act of sex then gets weighted with too much pressure and anxiety…I’ll get to that.

We also can get so caught up in our insecurities that we can’t relax.

We all have hang-ups about our physical appearance — what does my partner really think about this one (or more) aspect of my body I don’t like? How will she perceive me physically, especially those things that make me uncomfortable about myself?

Single and not yet dating again, I already dread the experience of talking through the biggest hang-up I have of my own physical insecurities. I’ve had this conversation before, and it always goes fine. It has been treated in return with nothing but care and tenderness and respect. I cannot put into words how appreciative I am of that, and how much that has inspired me to be caring and respectful to my partner’s own physical hang-ups. To be reassuring, and complimentary and sincere. Yet I fear it and know it will be in my mind whenever and with whomever I am with next.

Then there is the act itself. Is she enjoying this? Am I going too fast, or too slow? Should I keep doing what I’m doing, or try something else? In those moments, I am in my head, not my body, and that is not what physical intimacy is about.

This is where communication comes in: if we are going to be good sexual partners, we must be good communicators about not just our wants and desires, but our fears and anxieties.

This is not always easy. Sometimes talking about sex can be harder than sex itself.

But this communication is not just about tactics and sexual logistics. The communication, through honesty and vulnerability, can help us relax. It’s incredibly nerve-wracking at first, but the payoff, in the hands of the right partner, is well worth it.

It can ease our minds, slow down the thoughts racing through our heads. Expressing our feelings openly can help break down the bridges in our psyches so that we can mentally cross them and finally, finally, calm down and be in the moment.

I think of the times after I’ve talked about my physical insecurities. What a relief it is, how much of a burden it removes from me and allows me to worry less and move forward. The thing is, I should be breaking down these barriers more often.

Different people will tell you different things about when to discuss matters of sexual anxiety: some will say to address them right then and there, in the moment, as they arise. Others advise finding a time and situation less fraught with anxiety than when in the act, in various states of being clothed, sometime when you can discuss your issues without implication for the right now. I could argue the benefits and drawbacks to both and think it’s something particular to each person and couple.

Whatever you choose, talking about your sexual anxiety, and not just anxiety but desire (again, this is about having more fun, right?) is critical.

What are the things you want to explore? What are the ways you need help to feel more comfortable? What are the hang-ups that you think are causing you to enjoy the moment? Here, having an agenda or checklist for discussion might actually be helpful.

Hey, it’s a hell of a lot more fun than putting together a grocery list.

I’ve been guilty of letting perceptions (and realities) of anxiety around my sexual performance get the better of me. It leads to less enjoyable sex, and worse, over the long term, to less sex, because sex becomes weighted, fraught with nerves, something to fear rather than something to embrace.

Sex can become something you move away from rather than running to. It’s not only sad when this happens, but poses a danger to your relationship because it’s so difficult to reverse.

When men are stricken with this kind of sexual anxiety, there are physical manifestations. Yes, those kinds of manifestations, the ones (the one) that strike a sledgehammer to your physical identity as a man, the one that can ball up your confidence and self-esteem like flimsy tissue paper.

Then opens up a new source of anxiety and fear. It can take a lot of work to rebound from that and to learn to feel comfortable again. It can make you fear to get intimate again. It can change your perception of yourself — and if there’s one thing you need to be a good sexual partner, it’s being comfortable with yourself.

What I think a lot of men don’t realize is that women also have their share of anxieties. I’ve been reading Moan: Anonymous Essays on Female Orgasm. Some of it is titillating, highly detailed specifics on what women most enjoy in bed. But a lot of it revolves around the concept of feeling comfortable with their partner, of finding the balance between wanting to please and be pleased, of having the right amount of trust that their partner wants them.

Without this feeling, without being relaxed and truly at ease, many women write, they cannot reach orgasm. And it’s humbling how difficult it can be for so many to feel at ease mentally or psychologically in order to feel great physically.

For men, it seems, part of the role of the sexual partner is to help create or imbue that level of comfort, confidence and relaxation. This goes way beyond the manuals of physical technique, the benefits of slow sex and the idea of elevating overall pleasure as a goal over the attainment of orgasm. It calls for a true mental and emotional bond to be created, not in the moment, but over time. It must be curated and tended to.

I wouldn’t say that I need that level of comfort to climax, but I do need it to be at my best, and to enjoy the moment in bed as much as possible. My experiences with performance anxiety (and their repercussions) originate from being too nervous, too much in my head, too worried about getting things right. If my mind is not centered, my body knows it.

That feeling of trust, of knowing I am wanted, of the experience being about mutual pleasure in all its forms regardless of the end result, emphasizing play and pleasure rather than climax…that is what would me relax. And it seems many others, too.

It’s critical to consider, though, the seriousness and difficulty of the challenge to relax.

Many people have physical ailments that make reaching a state of relaxation during physical intimacy very difficult.

Likewise, for those who have experienced sexual assault, abuse or trauma, the advice to “just relax” in bed can seem like a pithy, demeaning, naïve and childish insult. People can spend a lifetime trying to reach a point where they are comfortable enough just engaging in the act, much less enjoying it. It takes time, respect, patience, reassurance, tenderness. And yes, love.

This is a challenge for all of us. It’s not easy. If it was so simple to chill the fuck out and enjoy yourself we all would. But society, and our histories, and our expectations, and the complicated inner-workings of our relationships, can turn the sexual playfield into a landmine.

It’s my hope that in writing this and talking about it that it can make things easier for me…and for you. What I strive for is that feeling of bonding and joy that sex can provide, and that can only occur under the right circumstances, when I feel truly myself with my partner, reassured, trusted, wanted.

The irony, of course, is that in feeling those things I feel the same in return towards another. Feeling trusted and wanted makes me want my partner more, makes me feel more confident in bed. Able to explore different ways of being sexual, from the slow and tender, to the fast and aggressive.

It’s a skill, isn’t it, to be able to clear the mind and relax? It’s not something, in our fast-paced world, that we can easily shift into, like changing gears in a manual transmission. When sex becomes another task, we create the risk of losing some of its magic.

Trying harder to relax sounds like an oxymoron. And like sex itself, it’s one thing to do it alone, quite another with someone else.

Ideally, that’s what our partners are for, to help us feel better, to help us relax, to help us feel more confident about ourselves. From there comes the path to joy, fulfillment and fun.

And the capacity, hopefully, to finally be at ease.

Previously published on

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