The recipe for great sex: orgasm optional, research finds

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playful couplePut away your vacuum pump, heavy-duty auto booster cables and edible latex Brad Pitt face mask-and-abs combo. According to a study released Thursday, such items are simply litter along the road to great sex. The study, titled The Components of Optimal Sexuality: A Portrait of 'Great Sex', suggests that sexual fulfilment has far less to do with technique and perfect bodies -- elements most often ascribed great significance by popular culture -- and more to do with such factors as presence, connection and erotic intimacy.

"Unfortunately, popular culture tells people that great sex is about varying your routines, trying new positions, buying new sex toys," says Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz, lead author of the study. "All you have to do is stand in line at any check-out counter and you see magazines that are blaring these headlines -- 'We have the secret!'

"Many people have bought into the message that if your sex life seems kind of dull, just spice it up." This sort of marketing, says Kleinplatz, a sex therapist and psychologist with the University of Ottawa's faculty of medicine whose work has focused on eroticism for two decades, succeeds only in making people feel insecure about their sexuality and uneducated about sexual technique.

"There is plenty of evidence that most people believe that the secret to sexual fulfilment is technical," she says, "that it's about better manual and oral stimulation techniques."

Kleinplatz's ongoing five-year study, however, was the first to look at what specific factors constitute great sex, and came up with some unexpected findings. "No one had bothered to investigate empirically what makes for memorable, fulfilling, optimal sexuality," she says. "There's been a lot of speculation, and in the absence of any empirical investigation, the messages put out by the media have been able to flourish -- there was a vacuum of information.

"So my research team set out to find out what really does stand out in people's experience and their memories of what makes sex exceptional, rather than merely functional. "Most people," she adds, "want the stuff that dreams are made of."

Significantly and surprisingly, says Kleinplatz, the study found two areas on which participants placed extremely little importance: intense physical sensation and orgasm, and lust, desire, chemistry and attraction. "What's interesting about the two minor components is that they're minor," she says.

"So we now have empirical evidence that what most people think of as the major components are all but irrelevant." In fact, when participants were asked about the role that orgasm played in great sex, more said it was not terribly important. "You could have terrible sex with orgasms and despite orgasms," says Kleinplatz, "but you could have optimal sexuality without orgasm."

These findings are significant, she says, because knowing what constitutes great sex is the first step in getting there. "I'm already applying these findings in my own clinical work," she says.

"For me, one of the most remarkable things about this study is the finding that there were many people who are elderly, and chronically ill or disabled, and continuing to experience optimal sexuality. "That seems like an encouraging finding." For the study, Kleinplatz and colleague Dana Ménard interviewed 64 people -- from all over the world but most from the U.S. -- who had experienced great sex. Twenty-five of those were 60 or older -- recruited specifically for their age and experience in long-term relationships.

"Who better to learn from than the experts?" she says. "People who have managed to make optimal sexuality last a lifetime." A further 19 of the study's volunteers identified themselves with sexual minority groups, such as gays and bisexuals. That the findings from these two groups were so similar Kleinplatz describes as one of the more surprising results of their research. "They were identical," she says. "Regardless of differences in socio-economic background, educational background and life experience, anyone who had experienced optimal sexuality described it in close to identical terms." The remaining 20 participants were sex therapists. In all, 34 men and 30 women took part, ranging in age from 23 to 82.

The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality is published by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada.

Eight Elements of Great Sex

Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz research identified eight components that significantly contribute to excellent sex:

1. Being present, focused and embodied According to the study, being fully and completely present during sexual experiences was the first and most frequently mentioned factor contributing to great sex. As one woman described, 'You are not a person in a situation. You are it. You are the situation.' 'It's being fully alive,' says Kleinplatz, 'in one's skin, engaged with the partner -- emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually -- in the moment.'

2. Connection, alignment, merger, being in sync The report, printed Thursday in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, notes that 'the depth of the connection between partners was one of the most critical elements of the experience regardless of duration of the relationship.'

3. Deep sexual and erotic intimacy Kleinplatz describes this as the foundation of a relationship in which optimal sexuality becomes a possibility. It involves deep mutual respect, caring, genuine acceptance and admiration. As Kleinplatz notes, 'you can't trust just anyone.'

4. Extraordinary communication, heightened empathy While marital counsellors are trained in teaching communications skills to clients, Kleinplatz describes the study's participants as having 'black belts' in communications. 'These weren't people who learned all about the other sex's genitalia and then just applied the technique,' she says. 'These were people who were so engaged in and with their partners' bodies that they could read their partners' responses, not only touching them, but feeling them."

5. Authenticity, being genuine, uninhibited, transparency 'This is pretty much the opposite of self-consciousness,' says Kleinplatz. 'It's allowing oneself to be emotionally naked while being seen by a partner.' One of the study's subjects noted 'I don't know that I'm capable of having great sex anymore without caring about a partner.'

6. Transcendence, bliss, peace, transformation, healing Participants in the study often reported a sense of timelessness or the infinite during great sex. 'There was often a moment of aliveness beyond anything they'd experienced before,' says Kleinplatz. 'Their experience often really was exalted, and (the subjects) would use language borrowed from religion to describe it, because there are no words in the vocabulary of sexology to describe it.'

7. Exploration, interpersonal risk-taking, fun This, says Kleinplatz, is where participants describe sex as an adventure. She uses a line from The Who song Bargain: 'I'm looking for a free ride to me. I'm looking for you.' 'I've always thought it was one of the most erotic lines I've heard,' she adds. 'This is about being on a journey of self-discovery, with sex as the pathway. 'And it's also a lot of fun.'

8. Vulnerability and surrender 'If authenticity is about what's happening within and choosing to be emotionally naked,' Kleinplatz explains, 'vulnerability is more about the willingness to be seen naked. It's an awareness that I'm letting you inside of me, penetrating one another's souls.

Link to underlying research