Curious about why a pope condemned karezza, I recently waded through the late Archbishop Exner's The Amplexus Reservatus (The Reserved Embrace). It traced some eye-opening Catholic doctrine about the purpose of marriage, much of which dates back to Church father Augustine of Hippo (b. 354 CE). He's well known for his prayer, "Grant me chastity and continence...but not yet!"
Less well known is the fact that he (and his intellectual progeny) concluded that because sex is a consequence of the "animal" in man—and animals have no interest in using sex to foster love or unity—the proper use of sex in marriage is strictly for breeding. Whoa!
Actually, the infamous bonobo chimps, whose males sport supersize testicles, nevertheless engage in "rather casual and relaxed" sexual activity for social bonding, frequently without orgasm. And macaque male monkeys ejaculate in scarcely half of their copulations. That's probably more than the Church fathers would have wanted to know, but the point is that primate sex often serves goals other than fertilization or orgasm. Why are we so single-minded?
Augustine's flawed analysis has been used to ward off some of sex's most uplifting gifts. In the last century, when Belgian and French Catholics discovered that gentle intercourse without orgasm was a "means of achieving a more perfect, more spiritual conjugal love," the pope condemned it. In fact, some Church authorities had actually declared such "incomplete sexual acts" mortal sins. Citing Augustine, they rigidly refused to consider that marital sex might serve emotional and spiritual goals. Even the more permissive Church authorities still tend to carve out very narrow exceptions to the animal/procreative purpose of sex in marriage—such as "avoiding incontinence," that is, preventing the random dumping of semen.
When it comes to orgasm, Church authorities are not the only conservatives. Whenever I've asked experts about doing a few weeks of research comparing the stress levels or healing speeds of couples engaging in orgasm-based sex with couples practicing karezza, I received the same advice: "That wouldn't get past our ethics committee because sex without orgasm is considered a paraphilia, or sexual disorder." (However, this pro-orgasm experiment passed: electrical devices were implanted in women's spines to see if they would produce climaxes via remote control.)
Now I'm sure that people have sometimes avoided orgasm during sex for pathological reasons. But benefits from the practice of gentle intercourse without orgasm have been reported so often, and in so many cultures, that emotionally healthy people must have made this choice too. I'm curious whether their recorded results can be duplicated.
I'm also starting to ask myself whether the codified conviction that the only healthy sex is sex with orgasm is serving lovers. It creates unnecessary distress and frustration in the less orgasmic or anorgasmic—and their mates. It also indirectly bolsters the assumption that pursuing sexual urges to exhaustion is a neutral, or even beneficial, practice.
For example, a man commenting on a post here recently assured me that, "men ejaculate 1-3 times a day." Persuaded as he is that men are boundless semen fountains, he might be startled to learn that when subjects engaged in mere a "10-day depletion experience," ejaculating an average of 2.4 times per day, their sperm output remained below pre-depletion levels for more than five months. What other not-so-welcome, subtle changes accompany this one, given the powerful influence of our delicate reward circuitry (the brain mechanism behind our drives) on equilibrium and mood?
I suspect that orgasm feels great not because it is an unqualified health or psychological benefit, but because our genes want us to expend our effort on their top priority: propelling them into the next generation.
The neurochemical "Yes!" of climax may not necessarily indicate that we're equipped to engage in orgasm-driven sex every time we feel sexual desire. (Just as a love of fine chocolate doesn't mean that we'd be wise to eat the entire box, even considering cocoa's antioxidants.) As I learn more about the effects of sex on the brain, I can't help thinking it makes sense to take into account how recently, or intensely, we have climaxed.
In humans it appears that frequent, or especially intense, orgasm can create tolerance (a need for increasing stimulation to achieve future orgasms). It can also lead to satiety and habituation, which may show up as subconscious irritation, out-of-sync libidos, performance demands and insecurities. Moreover, inflated performance expectations may promote the use of risky sexual enhancement measures as lovers try to overcome their built-in biological brakes with force. Not to be alarmist, but Viagra, for example, has been associated with sudden, irreversible blindness and has been blamed for deaths through heart attack and stroke. Perhaps such outcomes are signals that we have our foot down a bit too hard on the old orgasm accelerator.
For as long as we ignore the inherent, possibly even beneficial, limitations of lovers, gentle, relaxed intercourse without orgasm will remain "off limits" for Catholics, and "dysfunctional" for the rest of us. As a consequence, if couples don't know about, or have fallen out of the habit of, using other daily bonding behaviors to sustain the sparkle in their relationship, they are quite likely to rely only on sex with attempted orgasm(s) to keep their union strong.
What would bonobo life look like if one of the chimps' favorite social-bonding techniques, rubbing genitals, had to result in mutual climax-or produce disappointment and resentment? I think zoologists would see a lot of cranky chimps.
Could the authentic bonobo lifestyle perhaps inspire us new primates to relearn an old trick: tapping the benefits of relaxed, non-goal-oriented sexual activity, with the primary goals of closer bonds and increased contentment? For pair-bonders like us, such a change may prove especially beneficial. Our nervous system appears to reward us for both close, trusted companionship and the exchange of selfless affection. Interestingly, in other pair-bonding mammals, “sexual behavior is neither especially frequent nor especially fervent.” Many interactions between mates take the form of resting together, mutual grooming, and “hanging out.” (Barash and Lipton, The Myth of Monogamy)
For science buffs: Growing evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (links to studies)