by Lauren Strapagiel
For the first six months of her sex life with Greg, Sarah* only orgasmed twice.
It’s not that he wasn’t trying to make her cum. When Greg felt himself getting close he would switch it up and go down on her, trying to make sure they both got a chance to climax.
But then she would stop him.
“She didn’t want me to waste my time or something stupid like that, but I loved doing it,” says Greg. “I just wanted her to feel good.”
Sarah became fixated on getting off every single time from penetration. She resented Greg when she didn’t finish, to the point where, “Her day was ruined, absolutely ruined, if she did not [orgasm].”
Sarah would spend the day silently fuming.
She bottled up her resentment, then felt worse when the guilt of being upset with Greg set in. She didn’t blame him personally for it, and didn’t want him to feel bad about it, so she would stop herself from talking about how she felt. She wasn’t saying a word, but Greg knew she was upset. He didn’t blame himself either, but he also didn’t want to feel like he couldn’t get her off. “It made me feel like I wasn’t necessarily doing what was right for her.” And he admits that at the time, he got quiet about his feelings too.
That silence isn’t exactly a precursor for intimacy, which requires communication to work. Getting there can be tough, but the payoff is worth it. Intimacy means a closer connection between partners. And that translates to better, hotter sex.
“That’s what intimacy is, being able to say ‘I have no clue what the hell I’m doing’ as opposed to ‘I’m going to do what I think I’m supposed to do,” says Carlyle Jansen, owner of Good For Her, a feminist sex toy shop in Toronto. She says when a relationship lacks intimacy, asking a partner to do something differently just becomes a threat to their sexual prowess. Asking for a little more touching here, a little more licking there, just gets interpreted as “you’re a bad lover.”
To Jansen, intimacy is a deep, emotional connection with another. But achieving intimacy isn’t easy. Jansen says it can be downright terrifying. “It’s a really scary thing to be intimate.
It’s about being vulnerable and that’s not valued in our culture. “It’s about allowing someone to see you and trusting they’re still going to love you. That they’re gonna still be hot for you and they’re not going to drop you there and tell everybody your secrets.”
Greg never had that sense of security. “I just always had this feeling of doubt, like I could get dropped off at the edge of a cliff at any second.”
Both in their third year at Ryerson, they met in first-year residence, but had known of each other by a friend-of-a-friend connection.
They quickly grew close, and Sarah found herself going in and out of “massive crushes” on her new best friend. By summer they were dating. Right away, Sarah’s friends warned Greg: don’t get too comfortable, she doesn’t like being tied down.
The first break-up lasted 15 minutes. She surprised him with a ticket to see indie rock band Bruce Peninsula, and just before the show they had a fight, and arrived at the venue pissed off. Sarah looked Greg straight in the eyes and yelled, “we should just break up.”
“What?” He couldn’t hear over the music.
“WE SHOULD JUST BREAK UP!”
Sarah felt liberated. Greg was crushed. They found a quieter spot and talked it out. Neither of them really wanted to break up, she just wanted some space.
That break-up, albeit short, set a precedent for the rest of the relationship.
The breaking up and making-up continued. The constant ups and downs made Greg feel like he was never 100 per cent into the relationship, and the disconnect showed itself when it came to sex.
“As soon as we were actually intimate and really close, whenever we felt connected as people, the sex was great,” says Sarah. “But as soon as we weren’t, then it was bad.”
Being physically close, touching one another, having sex — it can sound like intimacy, but James Cunningham says this is a misuse of the word.
“If we have sexual contact but there is no emotional connection made at all, then we might as well be masturbating.” Cunningham has been teaching PHL 606, Philosophy of Love and Sex at Ryerson for nine years.
“We confuse physical contact with physical intimacy. I can imagine circumstances where sexual contact makes no connection, and we’ll still call that intimacy. And I think that’s wrong.”
To find that connection, couples need to work on their intimacy when they’re not between the sheets. And it’s all about communication — but a very particular kind of communication.
Jansen says people assume their partners know why and how much they’re loved, but they still need to hear it. Couples need to actively communicate their appreciation of one another.
“It’s not about being really clear when somebody pisses you off or being honest about everything, although those are really important too,” says Jansen. “It’s about the things we all like to hear and we think the other person already knows.”
Even “I love you” can lose meaning when said out of habit, so it’s important to be more specific. Jansen runs intimacy workshops out of Good For Her, and she gets couples to finish sentences like “I love it when you…” and “It really gets me hot when you…”
She uses physical intimacy exercises to bring couples together. In one, someone lays down and tells their partner exactly how to touch them. The giver’s only job is to follow instructions with no assumptions, no interpretations. As the directions continue they should always offer a positive and a new suggestion: “I like where you’re touching me, but do it more softly.” Keep it up for 20 to 30 minutes, then switch roles. Jansen says this teaches couples how to communicate what they want.
Sarah and Greg tried this out, and in Sarah’s words, “it was epic.”
It was late, and they were both tired and heading to bed. Sarah suggested they try out the exercise, just for 10 minutes. Then it turned into 15. Then it turned into an hour. Then it turned into sex. Twice.
“We had sex once and were like ‘woah that was so amazing, we loved it,’” says Sarah.
“We felt really intimate and close.”
They both felt more in the moment. “There wasn’t pressure. I just took time to feel everything and enjoy and savour,” says Sarah. “It made me feel everything so much more intensely.”
Sarah even had an orgasm. Before she would get too wrapped up in how Greg felt and didn’t concentrate on her own pleasure. But with the exercise she focused on every touch. And where before she would wait for Greg to do something to her — to turn her on, to make that first move — this time she took a more active role. “I realized that it was my responsibility to get myself into the mood too.”
A recent study in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality explored what made for “great sex.” The researchers found eight key things: “being present, connection, deep sexual and erotic intimacy, extraordinary communication, interpersonal risk-taking and exploration, authenticity, vulnerability and transcendence.” In a word: intimacy.
Note that technical expertise didn’t make the list. Physical sensation and orgasming were only minor components and study participants said they weren’t even required for a good romp. Satisfying sex doesn’t come from orgasming every time, and it can’t be found by trying to spice things up with kink.
“That’s how people think they’re going to find intimacy,” says Jansen. She says kinky relationships can have intimacy, but it’s because that bond was formed first. Otherwise it’s just roller coaster — it’s a rush, but there’s no substance.
“It’s fun and it’s in the moment. It’s wild. It’s exciting. And then when you’re done, it’s done,” she says. “If you’re looking for something a little more sustainable and something a little deeper that can incorporate an endorphin rush, then what you’re looking for is intimacy.”
*names have been changed