Musings of a Sex Scientist
We were sat in a crowded restaurant in East London drinking beer and eating pho. He was the first guy I had gone out with in awhile, I’d been taking some to myself after a pretty hectic start to the year. We had already covered the typical conversations topics — climate change, Brexit, Wes Anderson. The night was winding down and we were starting to get to the more interesting stuff, you know, the stuff you don’t put on your Bumble profile.
‘So you’re a researcher and an entrepreneur?’ He asked whilst squeezing another hit of Sriracha into his bowl.
‘I am.’ I answered. Ah, here we go. I recognised the familiar moment where I would have to judge my audience to get a sense of how I should frame the next sentence.
Taking a sip of his beer, he continued, ‘What do you research?’
As a scientist, I’ve always found honesty to be a powerful equalizer when speaking to people. It’s one of those things that immediately reminds us that we are all human, that we all have vulnerabilities, and that — despite what often comes across as a perfectly curated life on Instagram and Snapchat — we all have our own story.
Over the past 9 months, I have literally had hundreds of conversations about sex. From a stranger on the tube who asked me about the book I was reading on Urban Tantra to a young woman at the climbing wall who wanted to know more about orgasms to a 68 year old man who spoke with me about becoming polyamorous after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. People have gifted me with their stories. They have shared fears of being abnormal (whatever being normal actually means), guilty pleasures like listening to their neighbours having sex, and experiences ‘coming out’ (some even before sharing with their families).
I have heard hilarious stories of malfunctioning toilets, emergency bowel movements and one-night stands, and I have heard beautiful stories of intimacy, connection, and discovering oneself whilst discovering another. I have been angry after hearing stories of sexual harassment and I have been inspired after hearing stories of survivors of sexual violence reclaiming their sexuality. Indeed, the researcher in me has had, and continues to have, the privilege — as well as the responsibility — to hear them all.
I read an article recently called ‘The Power of Pleasure: Practical Implementation of Pleasure in Sex Education Classrooms’. The author challenged that we need to revisit our definition of pleasure when thinking about sex. She suggested, that instead of focusing on purely physical sensations (e.g. climax), that we broaden our understanding of pleasure to include our mental states. She argued:
Pleasure is the combination of satisfying stimulation of the body, accompanied by psychological feelings of enjoyment.
Psychological feelings of enjoyment. Psychological feelings of enjoyment?
In hearing the stories of others, I began to research my own. As of late, and I suppose in the spirit of honesty, my sex life has been absolutely phenomenal. This has definitely not always been the case. I have been with some really sh*t partners. And what made them sh*t was not the physical side of sex, but more so, its mental and emotional sides. In other words, my psychological feelings of enjoyment. Seems so simple really. Those were the times where I felt used, rejected, and/or obligated. Where I was there, but I wasn’t really there. Where I worried about whether I was going to be labelled ‘too frigid’ or ‘too slutty’. Where I was worried about whether I should eat the hummus and risk getting bloated, whether I was wearing my period knickers, or whether leaving afterwards made me ‘too robotic’ whereas staying over made me ‘too keen’. Those were the times where I thought sex would bring us closer, when really it just reinforced the distance made by an already empty space.
Then, there were the amazing times. In fact, amazing doesn’t even quite describe them. Transcendent maybe? The times where I was fundamentally present. Where I moved and breathed and felt with someone as if we were a single entity. Where I would become a sort of ‘higher’ self. These were the times where I felt strong and autonomous, sort of like I was Beyoncé.
Where I wasn’t worried at all. From a single kiss to breakfast the next day, I was energized, excited, euphoric. I ate the hummus, wore my period knickers and did whatever the f*ck I wanted to afterwards (respectfully of course). These were the times where sex did bring us closer — however informal or formal it was — but more importantly, these were the times where sex brought me closer to me.
I continued on my hunt through the literature on sex and pleasure, consuming everything from scientific papers to government reports to educational podcasts. I found an interview with one of my favourite academic researchers, Dr. Emily Nagoski. She explained:
‘When we really want to understand how sexuality works for everybody — but in particular when we talk about women’s sexuality — sex is not separate from the rest of our lives. It is profoundly influenced by everything else that’s happening in our lives. And sex influences everything else that’s happening in our lives. They are not separable.
So we can only understand how to maximize our sexual well-being if we understand the ways the other stuff in our lives is interfering. Because usually when something is happening that we don’t enjoy about our sexuality, the solution has nothing to do with our sex lives — the solution lies outside our bed.’
Ok, so maybe there is something to this ‘pleasure as psychological feelings of enjoyment’ thing…
‘I’ve never spoken to someone so much about sex before actually having it with them’. We were sitting along the canal, bikes resting against the fence. He was eating a Magnum ice cream and the chocolate kept melting off the bottom.
‘Oh?’ I answered, watching some guys spray painting a silver mist of graffiti across the river.
‘Yeah. I mean, doesn’t it sort of… I don’t know, ruin it? The mystery and the discovery bit?’
‘Ha!’ I laughed, ‘you tell me.’ He paused for a moment, ice cream dripping down his fingers. One of the things I really liked about him was his criticality. He never accepted information at face value and always challenged me.
‘It was a bit intimidating at first.’ He mused. ‘I was worried that you expected me to be able to do certain things and have a certain amount of confidence. I guess maybe I kind of had a bit of performance anxiety. I don’t know. Sometimes I just sort of get in my head.’ He stopped to lick the ice cream of his hand and continued, ‘but I guess that’s just my story.’
I tilted my head to the side and looked up at him. Smiling, I answered, ‘do you want to share it?’
Anna is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Leika, an app focused on improving one’s relationship to sex through transforming adult sex education.