When William Masters and Virginia Johnson published their findings about human sexual response, the reactions ranged from celebration to death threats. Such is the nature of talking openly about sex. What they did was both revolutionary and incredibly basic: charting physiological data about what happens to a human body during sexual activity.
From the data, they developed the Human Sexual Response Cycle. It describes how people become increasingly aroused, hover at a plateau phase, climax, and then resolve back to a normal state. Later sexologists acknowledged there is more complexity to the cycle. Helen Singer Kaplan added a phase at the beginning about the precursors that affect desire, Beverly Whipple and Karen Brash-McGreer talked about how the processing that happens after a sexual experience affects our future interest. If it was satisfying, they pointed out, we're more likely to want to do it again than if it was lackluster or even unpleasant.
These models of arousal are really useful in understanding what happens when we're stimulated and also how things can get out of kilter. It's important to know how the machinery of a body works, if nothing else.
But there are downsides to thinking about sex in this way.
When we approach erotic experiences with the intention of following a specific path and arriving at a particular end point, the negative consequences are innumerable. Goal-oriented sex can not only lead to dissatisfaction, but even kill the drive to get it on all together.
What's so bad about handling sex like a sport?
We want to be GOOD at sex. We want to feel skilled and may measure our success by our partners' reactions. Since there aren't a lot of ways to quantify nookie acumen, we often to look to getting someone off as the sign we did a good job. The speed, frequency and number of orgasms can be treated like points scored in a game.
But that game gets old, eventually. We find a single method that is certain to work and end up doing it to death. We know that this one move, this particular sequence, this specific position is guaranteed to "work," so we use it all the time. That takes all the mystery and excitement of sex and tosses it right in the trash.
It's no longer a collaborative experience of exploration then, but a chore, with the expectation that everyone needs to put in an equitable share of the labor. We can become accustomed to only responding to one type of stimulation, too, which can be really frustrating if it doesn't work one day, or if a partner wants to try something new.
At that point, when the purpose of sex is just getting across the finish line, rather than enjoying the run there, many people say to themselves, "well, I could have just done that more efficiently on my own." That's not to say there's anything wrong with self-love, simply that sexual activity has the potential to be much more meaningful than cost-effectively cleaning the pipes… especially in a relationship.
From their model, Masters and Johnson were able to develop treatments for people who had sexual dysfunctions. The clients would explain what was going on in their love lives, usually talking about the inability to get turned on or difficulty reaching orgasm. Masters and Johnson would look at the expected response cycle and pinpoint where the obstacle was for this person, and come up with a treatment to put them back on track.
But their model isn't necessarily meant to be prescriptive – to tell people how they should behave. It's just a charting of how bodies commonly act. There's no correct amount of time it should take to become aroused or to orgasm, there's nothing wrong with ebbs and flows during a single session, and it's absolutely not necessary for every sexual situation to involve rounding first, second, third and home plate.
It's very limiting to approach sex as a checklist, and wastes a lot of opportunities for creative, exploratory play and intimacy-building.
When we take that view, that there is a correct order of operations, we can become frustrated and stressed when things "don't go right," even if we're having a meaningful and pleasurable experience. Fearful that we won't be able to perform "correctly," we stress ourselves out, which makes it even harder to be present, much less aroused. This can be painful for an individual and have serious spillover into a relationship.
There are other ways to approach sex. Philadelphia-based sex educator Al Vernacchio likens it to pizza. We can order it almost whenever we want to, in a nearly endless number of ways and come up with a mixture of ingredients that meets the desires expressed by everyone partaking. There's no success or failure, just whether or not it was satisfying.
Toronto sex educator Karen BK Chan compares sex to a jam session between musicians.
Only through continuous communication and collaboration can a jam session thrive. Jamming is inherently improvised, even though we can call on our existing knowledge and previous encounters. Value is in the experience, rather than looking for a productive outcome.
Endless other metaphors abound that place the emphasis on being present, vulnerable and cooperative with partners during sex, rather than focusing on accomplishing a task. Ultimately, it depends on what you want to get out of sex.
Do you want to feel closer to another person, to explore the possibilities of what bodies can do and immerse yourself entirely in an moment? Or do you want to rack up numbers? There's nothing wrong with that, but no matter how well you do, it won't land your face on a Wheaties box.
Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure.