It’s disappointing to have bad sex with a good person, confusing to have good sex with a bad person, and depressing to have bad sex with a bad person. Hookups are like french fries: delicious in the moment, but they often lead to remorse. The goal, of course, is to have good sex with a good person. So let’s start by analyzing your own sexual history. Break out the journal and answer the following:
1. When was the last time you had good sex?
2. Who was it with?
3. What were the circumstances?
4. Did you have an orgasm?
5. Did you see that person again?
Now, think back over your history of sexual encounters:
6. Have you ever had casual sex?
7. How often do you have it?
8. Do you have sex to figure out if you like someone?
9. Do you have sex drunk?
10. How often?
11. Do you regularly have orgasms?
I realize that some of these questions are intense to start off, but for all the white noise and cultural analysis around hooking up, an illusion persists that sex is casual. That it is no big deal. That everyone is having it, all the time. None of that is true. In fact, a 2016 study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found that millennials are more than twice as likely to be sexually inactive as Gen Xers.
One reason stated in the study was a focus on education and career. Another is all the confusion and anxiety around consent. Gail Dines, a Wheelock College academic who tours college campuses to talk about the impact of porn on relationships, says that her female students talk about the “emotional hangover” they have after hookup sex. “The students I talk to say they rarely get orgasms through hookups,” Dines says. “So I ask, why even do it?”
Sex is so confusing for so many women, especially those who are in their sexual prime in their mid-twenties, coincides with the huge emotional effort of embarking on a career. “The pressure on women to be successful complicates things,” says New York-based sex therapist Logan Levkoff. “It makes it seem like having an emotionally intimate relationship takes so much time that we need to postpone it for the future — when we get our lives together.”
Relationships do take energy and time, but so does hooking up. “Casual sex isn’t always casual,” Helen Fisher says. “It can trigger a host of powerful feelings, as any genital stimulation can cause an increase in dopamine and any tactile stimulation can cause an increase in oxytocin.” Both lead to romance and emotional attachment, and Fisher wonders if people engage in “hooking up” to unconsciously trigger those feelings.
I advocate acute consciousness when it comes to sex. It’s like a diet: mindless munching leads to empty calories, and unwanted pounds. Likewise — to paraphrase Gwyneth Paltrow slightly — unconscious coupling can also weigh us down and get in the way of our love goals. So before you climb into bed with someone new, pause for a moment and reflect honestly about what your expectations are.
If you want to hook up just for the pure fun of it and it feels liberating and you don’t need it to go any further, then great.
If your goal is to see him again, and you think that that’s his goal, too, and having sex marks the beginning of a mutual relationship, that is exciting as well.
But if your hope is that sex may lead to the start of something but you’re not sure, then you should allow for the possibility that you may be disappointed if they don’t text you until the next time they want a hookup.
I don’t want to sound as if all hookups are bad. Of course they’re not, and they can lead to something bigger. “We often think of casual sex as being in the domain of what men want and women go along with it,” says Justin Garcia, the author of a study published in “Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review.” His research has found that 63 percent of men who engage in hooking up say they would prefer a romantic relationship. “Many men think that they’re supposed to hook up,” he says. “But they really want a relationship as well.”
He also found, in a collaborative study he did with Helen Fisher for Match.com, that one in three people surveyed had a sexual hookup that turned into a romantic relationship. And to further debunk the myth that all men just want sex with no strings attached, Garcia cites another study he did on cuddling: “Over 50 percent of both men and women want to spend the night and cuddle after a hookup,” he says. “These are not the cultural rules of no-strings-attached casual sex.”
The data, he says, leads him to believe that some people are looking for — and actually getting — aspects of intimacy in their sexual hookups. And he argues that a hookup, or having sex early in a relationship, is a good way to gauge your sexual attraction to a person, which can actually change during sex.
“You’re invoking all senses when you have sex with someone,” says Ian Kerner, PhD, psychotherapist, sex counselor, and author of the wonderfully titled She Comes First and its companion He Comes Next. “So you’re getting all this biological information about this person and your own body is having a biological response. Do you like the smell? The taste? Do you like how it feels? Do you feel safe? Did you have an orgasm?” All this important information is explored during a sexual encounter. “You learn a whole lot about the person,” agrees Fisher. “You know instantly if it is going to go forward — if they don’t call you the next morning, you know it won’t work. And it’s better than spending eight months talking to the person and then having sex and then realizing it is not going to work.”
By pleasure, he is talking about the warm, hopefully fabulous feeling of having good sex, which is one of several basic ingredients of any healthy and long-lasting relationship. Hookup sex can be a mixed bag. A study led by Paula England, PhD, a professor of sociology at New York University, called “Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment in College Hookups and Relationships,” found that 11 percent of women had an orgasm during first-encounter casual sex. That number grew to 16 percent for second or third hookups with the same partner.
When I arrived at Cosmo — already married with two kids — I was amazed at how many women depended on the magazine for basic sex ed. The number one question we got from readers, other than how to negotiate a pay raise, was, “How do I have an orgasm?” In the US, that lesson is not on any curriculum for sex education in either middle or high schools. It’s why we made it an entire episode of “The Bold Type” — the show inspired by my experiences at Cosmo — on Freeform, where a writer is commissioned to craft a piece on orgasms only to fess up she hasn’t ever experienced one.
“The root of the problem is that no one teaches girls about pleasure in the context of sex education,” says Marina Khidekel, founder of the newsletter Undrrated and now senior deputy editor of Women’s Health, who edited Cosmo‘s love and sex pages brilliantly for four years. “It’s really about mechanics. This is what goes where. You learn about sperm and egg and condoms. You learn, ‘Don’t get an STD.’ But then you are left on your own to figure out everything else.” So we dedicated a lot of pages to just that: how to masturbate, fantasize, orgasm, and more. And we did it for the benefit of both sexes. “Whenever there was a story about blow jobs,” Khidekel says, “there was another story about oral sex for women as well.”
Of course it is awkward! And it can be humiliating and frightening as well as ecstatic and awesome. The only way to solve it is to talk with the other person, which is more awkward still when you don’t know them. “Instead of dealing with these uncomfortable spaces, we tend to rush to the end,” says Levkoff. From the women’s angle, that often ends with a faked orgasm-fast-forwarding to close a disappointing experience. But what is the point of pretending to have fun? No one wins at that game. “There is something really powerful about owning that awkward space, and saying, ‘Look, I’m a little bit uncomfortable saying this, but I like when you do this . . .'” Levkoff says. “If you don’t say what turns you on, then you don’t really have the opportunity to get what you want in the end.”
We also have to do away with what Khidekel calls the Disneyfication of the perfect partner: someone who will intuitively know what turns you on. “This feeling that when the right guy comes along, he will just know how to please me,” she explains. “To leave that in their partner’s hands-and not even know how to explore their own bodies and pleasure first-in this day and age, where women are so empowered in so many other areas of their life, shocked me.”
Before you begin instructing your partner what feels good, you have to know it yourself. Men have their first orgasms between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Women run the gamut. “Some women may have had their first accidental orgasm at that age by rubbing up against a friend,” Kerner says. “But most say, ‘Oh, I didn’t really have my first orgasm until I was twenty, twenty-five, or even later in life.'”
Figuring out what turns you on and gets you off is basic nutrition for anyone. So instead of getting out your journal, run a bath or climb in bed or lie down on the couch and experiment with getting to know yourself. While Levkoff is a fan of vibrators and other sex toys, she thinks it is important to start with your own hand. “Ask yourself, ‘Are you comfortable enough with your own body to touch yourself?'” she says. “If not, then there are some bigger self-esteem body issues going on.”
Exploring your own body is the only way to figure out what brings you pleasure. And that is the key to climaxing. “Being able to experience pleasure is very important to being able to experience desire,” Kerner says. “Which is key to having meaningful sexual experiences that result hopefully in gratification and orgasm and leave you feeling connected and loved and tended to by your partner and also leave you wanting to have more sex.”
This is the exercise portion of your love diet, akin to doing squats, stomach crunches, and plank poses (but way more fun). Add to this workout “psychogenic arousal,” which Kerner defines as the ability to “fantasize and conjure up arousing, erotic scenarios, being open to erotic stimuli — which includes erotic literature or films.” Kerner and Levkoff are both fans of what they call “ethical porn.” “Fantasy raises your levels of arousal, which can be louder than the anxiety that many women feel around sex,” Kerner explains. “So for a woman who is worried ‘How does my body look?’ or ‘Are my roommates going to walk through the door?’ being able to fantasize is going to be very helpful to generate the arousal and lower the volume on that noise.”
Knowing how to prime your own pump is the pathway to pleasure. “Unlike male desire, pleasure really precedes desire for women,” Kerner adds. “Whereas a guy can have a sexual thought, see or remember something sexy, and it can trigger the arousal platform. That’s called spontaneous desire.” Knowing that helps control the outcome as well because it is much easier for a guy to get off than a woman. This is not about how to please your guy in bed; it’s about how to make the most of the fact that he is more likely to get aroused more quickly than you. On that note, we don’t give men enough credit; most do want to please you in bed. But how will they know what that entails if you don’t tell them? “They have no interest in someone faking it,” Levkoff says. “They want to learn, and have as much trouble speaking up as we have trouble asking.”
If you are too embarrassed to say, “I would really love it if you did this,” then just show them. “Move his hand, or your body,” Levkoff says. The way he responds is a good litmus test for a quality partner. If someone doesn’t care, then they’re not worth having in the first place. Why waste your time?
And so, before committing to have sex with anyone, ask yourself a few questions:
12. Why are you sleeping with this particular person?
13. Do you just want to have sex?
14. Are you sleeping with him because you want him to like you and you think the act of sex will achieve that goal?
15. Do you think it will be a good experience?
Once you identify your expectations, I suggest another speed bump (and potential buzzkill) in the form of a few more questions:
16. What is the potential upside?
17. The downside?
18. Is the equation worth it?
If this person has passed these first hurdles-and you may already be undressed and making out-this is where you can look for important cues:
19. Does he make you feel comfortable and safe?
20. Is he sensitive to the boundaries of consent?
21. Can you talk about sexual protection?
P.S.: Protected sex is a prerequisite to experiencing pleasure. As Kerner says, “Very few women who have unprotected sex feel pleasure because they have some level of anxiety about the sex that they’re having.” Once you feel safe, then you can take it further. Tell him what feels good or what you like. And do you care about making him feel good, too?
Read more at Cosmopolitan.com