Erotic Play. Nuances of Sexual Pleasure
Erotic Play with Sexual Excitement
An extended period of erotic play may or may not lead to something more. One example of this is making out to music. Kissing and caressing each other with mellow music in the background is a time-honored ritual, for good reason. It brings two bodies into a sensuous rhythm with each other. You’re sharing your biochemistry, breathing in each other’s pheromones, and caressing sensitive nerve endings on the skin to playfully awaken each other’s bodies to pleasure. It’s even better when you light a few candles.
Some partners also enjoy taking a hot bath in candlelight, soaking quietly while listening to soft music. They may give each other foot rubs or soap each other up on different parts of their bodies. Taking into account the constraints of the tub, they may be able to find different ways to sit or lie together in the water, bodies pressed up against each other.
Up to now, I’ve been using the terms desire, lust, and libido interchangeably, but they’re really not synonymous. What is more accurate is to see them as phases, ranging from mild to most intense, of sexual excitement and abandonment. In effect, the entire erotic spectrum represents all aspects of libido, the sex drive.
Without a sex drive, it is still possible to enjoy physical contact and the ability to please a partner. But to truly enjoy emotionally gratifying sexual pleasure, libido is an essential motivator, and as such it’s an important aspect of sexual health. Just as cooking a good meal takes skill and reading an inspirational menu at a restaurant can make you hungrier, erotic skills and an expanded erotic menu can enhance libido.
The Erotic Spectrum. Erotic Play.
What is erotic is anything that arouses and intensifies sexual feelings. The spectrum begins with sexual interest, which with more sensual and erotic stimulation becomes desire, which with more imagination becomes lust, which with greater abandon gives way to passion, orgasm, and occasionally ecstasy.
A woman I know once confided candidly that she didn’t miss sex. What she missed was missing sex. Desire is a turn-on.
Sexual desire is an appetite or a hunger for sex—a pleasurable craving that grows more urgent as it builds. Arousal is the physiological response to erotic stimulation. It involves erection in a male and vaginal wetness and swelling of the vulva, clitoris, and labia in a female.
It’s commonly assumed that you have to feel desire to become aroused. But if you think about it, you’ll see that it’s usually the other way around. First you get turned on, and then you begin to feel desire.
People in a relationship who wait until they feel desire to be sexually playful are missing the point: you have to be sexually playful to get turned on. Then, the more turned on you are, the more your appetite grows.
Just as eyeing a favorite cupcake, hearing the sizzle of a steak on the grill, or smelling the aroma of a freshly baked pie can make you suddenly salivate, what whets your sexual appetite has a lot to do with your senses. Desire requires some focused attention. Interest and appetite build as you focus on sexy sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches, especially when you relax into the sensuality of the experience. Everything depends on your ability to stay present and be attentive to the sensuous experience.
Another crucial aspect of enabling desire to build is hanging out with it. It takes time to tune in visually to your partner’s sexiness, to attend to the sounds of his or her breath, to taste your kisses and breathe in the scent of his or her body. Taking deep breaths in close physical proximity also confers the added benefit of breathing in each other’s pheromones: hormones released in the sweat glands of one person that can affect sexual desire in someone close by.
To touch and be touched is, of course, the sexual sense par excellence. When else can we be held so close, be caressed in places not ordinarily touched, squeeze and be squeezed, and feel silky skin upon skin?
Again, the critical element is taking in the experience and staying focused on the pleasures of the present moment.
Erotic Play. Lust
Lust has a bad reputation. One of Christianity’s seven deadly sins, lust by definition is immoderate and possibly dangerous. It’s often thought of as a realm visited by people who push the limits sexually, who engage in fetishistic sex play, or who may be sexually compulsive, needing a constant sexual outlet. That may very well be true.
Fantasy and imaginative sex play feed lustful feelings. There’s no doubt that violating moral codes, such as in exhibitionism or engaging in an extramarital affair, can ratchet up the lust factor. Lust can become so driven that there is an absence of love, of empathy for the other, or of good judgment. Yet none of that has to be the case. Taking a wider perspective, we can find aspects of lust to admire.
We appreciate people who have a lust for life or a lusty quality. My dictionary defines lusty as (1) in extremely good physical health, possessing great stamina and strength, (2) full of energy, vitality, and enthusiasm, and (3) strongly desiring sex. Synonyms for lusty include hearty, healthy, vigorous, forceful, robust, and strong. The antonym is feeble. Who wouldn’t want this kind of lust?
Sexologist Jack Morin sided with this view of lust. He suggested that “our erotic health requires that we make room for lust, for it provides much of the zest that makes sex fun and self-affirming.” He also acknowledged, however, that what arouses lust is to objectify the other and to use the other for your own gratification.
Isn’t that something we actually want with the person we love and who loves us: to be seen as a sex object and to be a source of his or her gratification, as he or she is for us? Morin solved the problem saying that lust can be a positive experience “when lusty objectification is balanced by your capacities to empathize and respect others.”
Cambridge University philosophy professor Simon Blackburn found great value in lust after making a thorough incursion into its cultural and philosophical aspects, examining everything from ancient Greek culture to religious thought, biology, science, and art.
Lustful feelings may not be everybody’s cup of tea, and they are certainly a challenge to maintain with one person for the rest of your life. But if both people are on board—and I emphasize both—new explorations can have an invigorating effect on a relationship.
To get into it, you would most likely focus on some of the playful aspects of lust, like playing dress-up and doing some role playing. Some people hone their lust by narrowing their attention and affection to a particular body part. Others may push their erotic envelope by trying something new—and maybe even a little naughty.
We can be passionate about anything: passionately in love, passionately in a rage. It is an expression of intensity. The “passion of the Christ” refers to the intense suffering of Jesus. Sexual passion is all about being swept up uncontrollably, physiologically, in the power of the moment. Feelings of love, anger, guilt, shame, and suffering may add rather than detract, as long as they don’t compete with the eroticism.
Erotic Play. Orgasm
The Big O, for a lot of men and women, is the major attraction of sex, and the sooner they get there, the happier they are. But it’s like everything else: the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.
An orgasm typically lasts about six seconds, involves three or four intense contractions of the muscles in the genitals, and can include the entire pelvic floor, the anal sphincter, and, in women, the uterus.
With some added attention, orgasms can become even more satisfying. With continued stimulation, some women and men are capable of multiple orgasms: a series of orgasms occurring within seconds that can grow more and more intense. Multiple orgasms may be spontaneously discovered or develop as a learned skill.
There are also blended orgasms. In a man, that might involve stimulation of the anus and the prostate as well as the penis. In a woman, intense orgasms may be triggered from simultaneous stimulation of the clitoris and the vagina, or deep penetration of the vagina and brushing the cervix, or including the anus in the sex play.
According to sex researcher Barry Komisaruk and his colleagues, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is critical for achieving orgasm. They report that the bonding hormone oxytocin plays a major role for both women and men during sexual excitement and orgasm. Secreted into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland, oxytocin surges just prior to and during orgasm. This hormone acts as a PNS neurotransmitter, triggering the contraction of smooth muscles in the genital area, including in the uterus. These contractions increase the perceived intensity of the orgasm and the subjective experience of pleasure.
Studies also show that this release of oxytocin, along with the release of vasopressin in men, accounts for the feelings of contentment and affection after sex and contributes to feeling emotionally bonded with your partner. In chapter 9, we’ll take a more in-depth view of orgasm and the skills that can be practiced to enhance and evolve the orgasm.
Ecstatic sex is not an everyday occurrence. Occasionally, the conditions are just right. You and your lover are feeling particularly close. Maybe you’ve shared a celebration together and each of you is more in touch with feeling blessed to have the other. Maybe you haven’t seen each other in a while and you’ve missed each other.
You start to make love, and your kisses are more tender than usual; your body movements are more rhythmically in sync. You feel like you’re in a fluid sensual dance together. After the first orgasm, you may find yourselves fl owing from orgasm to orgasm. You may reach a point where you feel merged into one body, soaring through space.
Ecstatic sex is a transcendent experience that lifts you out of ordinary reality. Spiritual traditions for thousands of years have celebrated sexuality as a vehicle for personal transformation.
In Western religions, sexuality is dealt with cautiously and with many restrictions. Yogic scholar Georg Feuerstein, however, describes a wide range of spiritual disciplines, including Tantrism, Hinduism, Chinese Taoism, and even some forms of Jewish and Christian mysticism that teach erotic practices as a gateway to the spiritual dimension. All of these practices share a focus on developing the ability to achieve relaxed excitement: staying serene as you reach and maintain high states of sexual arousal.
As we have seen, the process of play is generating a great deal of interest among neuroscientists as a major factor in fostering resilience, flexibility, new learning, and positive emotions in people. To Bowling Green neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, the best place to look for happiness is in play. He observed that play triggers a flood of dopamine, making you feel engaged, happy, and optimistic. Playful activity affects the neural circuitry of the brain, reducing negative thoughts and feelings and enhancing neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to become rewired and evolve. Just as romance is a playful way of expressing your love, eroticism is a playful way to arouse desire and sexual pleasure.
Erotic Play versus Married Sex
So far we’ve looked at a vast number of issues that can interfere with maintaining desire and becoming aroused in the context of an intimate love relationship. Now we are going to tackle one of the biggest issues to overcome: the tendency to give up sexual playfulness. A big contributor to the loss of desire in a committed relationship is what I call “married sex.”
You don’t have to be married to have married sex. You just have to be living together and following what sex researcher Shere Hite identified as “formula sex”: foreplay, penetration, male ejaculation, and occasional female orgasm.
It’s not just how sex is performed, but where and when. Typically, married sex occurs in bed just before going to sleep at night. If both people are into it, I’m not knocking it—on an occasional basis. But if that’s the only way two people make love, it’s understandable that one or both will lose interest. I think of this kind of sex as the last weary act of a long weary day.
The other aspect of married sex is that it’s all or none. There’s no time for real play. When people live together, they typically get into a pattern in which they are not sexually playful with each other except when they are available for intercourse. Then they engage in foreplay, a brief scripted pattern that occurs once they’ve agreed to intercourse. The contract is for an orgasm for at least one of them. The goal is to get it on, get it off, and get to sleep.
As a result, such a couple is likely to have no reserve of sexual energy. At the point at which the partners agree to “have sex,” they are likely to have intercourse before they’re fully aroused.
Erotic play involves acting in lighthearted ways that maintain a sexual aliveness in the relationship. The time invested may be very brief, perhaps only a few seconds when a quick good-bye kiss becomes one partner’s inspiration for a longer, wetter kiss and a smile. Ten seconds here or ten minutes there is like money in a special bank—one that actually builds interest.
Erotic Play and Arousal
Arousal is the number one requirement for great sex. Oddly, I’ve heard both women and men say that they’re waiting for the feeling of desire to motivate them to be sexually playful. To me that’s putting the cart before the horse.
Sexy is as sexy does. Erotic play evokes feelings of desire and not the other way around. It takes a long time to warm a cold engine. It makes more sense to run the motor once in a while.
After adolescence, most people require regular stimulation to keep up sexual interest. Even the most fleeting erotic play contributes energy toward staying sexually motivated.
Being a Sex Object
I know some people have a knee-jerk reaction to being objectified, as though it means your partner doesn’t appreciate your many good qualities and wants you only for sex. But if you want to feel sexy, then that’s not the time to be appreciated for your mind or for all the good you do in the world. It’s only about feeling good in your body. If you and your partner love and respect each other, it’s not a debasement to be a sex object for him or her. It’s a tribute.
A major hindrance to allowing oneself to be a sex object is a negative body image, also known as body dysphoria. Thanks to a multitude of cultural factors—magazines, television, movies, and the fashion, cosmetic, and diet industries, women in particular are barraged with unrealistic images of what they’re supposed to look like to be sexually attractive.
One survey led by Pennsylvania State University professor Patricia Barthalow Koch found that the emphasis in American culture on being young and thin has a more damaging influence than menopause on sexual functioning and satisfaction. Almost a fourth of the survey respondents reported feeling dissatisfied with their bodies, in particular their belly, hips, and thighs.
In some studies, a woman’s weight gain after marriage was shown to result in a decrease in sexual interest in the woman by her husband. But that could also be an effect of how weight gain changed the woman’s behavior toward her husband.
Sexologist and sex coach Patti Britton considers body dysphoria to be the greatest block to sexual self-acceptance and fulfillment, particularly for women, suggesting that a woman who does not see herself as desirable is very likely to lose her desire for sex. She reports that many women she has worked with have a misguided image not only of the female body but also of female genitalia, thinking that their clitoris is too small or their labia too big. That has been my clinical experience as well.
Men are also affected by negative body image, with their discomfort typically focused on the size of their genitals. Men with body dysphoria may think of themselves as scrawny or out of proportion and, like body-dysphoric women, are typically very critical of their mirror image. Gay men are subject to anxieties about remaining physically buff to keep their partners attracted.
In my experience, some of the most attractive people are the most insecure about their appearance. Good-looking people don’t necessarily enjoy sex any more than plain-looking people do. Rita Hayworth, the stunning Hollywood star and sex symbol of the 1940s, became very discouraged by her lovers. She was reported to have lamented that they went to bed with Gilda—the sultry erotic dancer in the film of the same name—but they woke up to just Rita.
Body image is just that: an image. If you have a rigid standard, like a template by which you measure yourself, and a fierce inner judge, you are going to hide your body and shrink inside, no matter how you really look.
Highly self-critical people are missing the point. It’s not how you look that counts, but how it feels to be with you. It’s your personality, liveliness, and dynamism that make your imperfect body attractive and sexy. Your enthusiasm in the moment is your best quality.
Evolving an Erotic Body Image
To fully allow yourself to be somebody’s sex object, you have to be willing to be playful and to get over how you look. Here’s my prescription for making peace with physical imperfection and embracing an erotic spirit. I have used it myself throughout the years.
Take a good look at yourself naked in the mirror—the living and vibrant creature that you are—and focus your attention on what you do like about your body. Savor your good points. Then look honestly at the rest of it and practice shrugging off whatever you don’t particularly like. Depending on your mood, tell yourself, “Looking go-o-od!” or “So what! This is it—get over it!” Those are the only two choices. It has worked for me.
For clients with unrealistic images about real female and male bodies, I like to show them drawings by erotic artist and sex educator Betty Dodson. Her portraits of female and male genitalia show the beauty to be seen in the great variety of shapes and sizes of the vulva, clitoris, and inner labia of different women and of the penis and testicles of different men.
I also appreciate television series like HBO’s Real Sex or some of the shows on Showtime that challenge people’s images of who and what is sexy. In a Variety.com review, Real Sex was described as “exploring the modern sexual world and its fetishes in a provocative, entertaining and informative manner, without ever becoming sleazy. . . . Segments highlight individuals and groups whose occupations and leisure activities revolve around sexual adventures.”
Whatever these randy explorers are up to, whether they are sitting naked in a class on how to masturbate or how to give oral sex or are in costume attending the Erotic Masquerade Ball, they are all having a nonjudgmental good time acting sexy. There are thin people and heavy people, people in their twenties and older folks. It’s quirky and silly and depicts some activities that to me look decidedly unappealing. But it challenges old images about sex, and for that it’s illuminating.
For people ill at ease in their bodies, one suggestion I make for enhancing bodily self-acceptance is to practice walking or dancing around the house naked when no one else is home.
Your Partner as an Object of Desire
Thinking of your partner as a sex object is the other half of the sexual equation. That may be really easy for people whose partners are attractive to them but more challenging for those whose sweeties are not in great shape.
To get more turned on to your partner, you may have to become more forgiving, probably toward both of you. You also want to enjoy your partner not just for looks but also for his or her manner, playful personality, warmth, smell, sensitivity, and especially enthusiasm for you.
I once saw a T-shirt that read “I may not be perfect but parts of me are excellent.” I found it inspirational. It’s certainly less daunting to think in terms of perfecting parts rather than achieving perfection, particularly as you get older. The body does change with the years, and that’s the reality of the situation.
No-Strings Erotic Play
If lovers get away from the notion that sexual activity, once begun, should proceed straightaway to a finish, then they can really develop their creativity. I suggest to the couples I work with that a good guiding principle is to be erotically playful, especially when they aren’t available for intercourse.
I think of it as having sex more often than having intercourse. That way, when partners do have the time and inclination to devote to fully making love, they’re starting up warm.
Before we look at how lovers can intensify their sexual experience, let’s look at just a sampling of the different kinds of erotic play and anticipation two people can get into. Each of these can be pleasurable in itself without it having to lead to anything more.
Developing Your Erotic Personality
Some people have a way of dressing or a way of acting that makes them feel sexy. It’s like having an erotic alter ego. For a woman it might be wearing dangling earrings or spike heels that she wouldn’t wear outside the house. For a man, feeling sexy may entail putting on silk Lycra bikini briefs, or a revealing thong or just unbuttoning his shirt and showing some chest.
I’ve heard women complain that their partners are too eager and that it doesn’t give them an opportunity to get into their alluring temptress persona. One woman told me that she even asked her husband to please hold back when she started to come on to him because it turned her on to seduce him.
Distractibility is the enemy of sexual passion. To get into your playful erotic personality, you have to hone your ability to be attentive to the moment.
For most of us busy people who do five things at once, a big part of that skill depends on learning to compartmentalize. To tap into the body’s natural sexual reservoir of energy, you can do only this one thing: pay attention to your lover. This means that barring emergencies, you put aside all other concerns so you can be present with him or her in the spirit of the moment.
Getting sexy, even for just a few minutes, is a playful time-out. Whether you get into it for a moment, the next ten minutes, or the next hour, you are nowhere else but right here. Sexual pleasure is a great way to learn how to focus and be attentive to an ongoing experience.
A Sexy Come-On An often overlooked element of the lovemaking experience is the come-on. The best come-ons are simply a declaration of appreciation of the other’s fine qualities without demands or expectations.
When the recipient of a come-on responds warmly and moves forward, the two people are engaged in erotic play. But even then the erotic energy may simply be a brief pleasurable connection that is delightful in its own right. It could be a kiss that lingers, a deep gaze into each other’s eyes, a sensuous hug, a cute comment uttered in a soft tone of voice, or an invitation to dance. A playful come-on is a shot of erotic energy.
Pleasurable come-ons draw your partner to you. The responsive partner picks up on the sensuous connection and adds his or her own playful seductiveness.
Erotic Touching and Massage
Another possibility for an extended period of erotic play is erotic massage. One of the great joys of lovemaking is the touching: being squeezed, hugged, fondled, and caressed. Taking turns gently kneading the tense muscles in each other’s back and butt can be highly erotic, especially when accompanied by kisses, little licks, or nibbles in different places on each other’s body.
Not everybody likes to keep things gentle. One woman who had lost interest in having sex told me that she would enjoy her husband spanking her but that he refused because he considered spanking abusive. When they came in together as a couple, we talked about how spanking could be an act of playfulness rather than punishment. Furthermore, for people who carry tension in the butt, some sweet slaps on the rear can release holding in the entire pelvic area. He finally got it. She became more turned on to him, not just because of the butt slaps that loosened up her pelvis but also because he listened to her.
Notable Sexual Manuals
The Kama Sutra, first published in English in 1883, is an ancient Hindu text that is considered the classic work on how to make love. It is believed to have been written in the second century as a guide to kama, love. According to Hindu teaching, kama, dharma (right conduct), artha (wealth), and moksha (liberation, or salvation) are the four main goals and critical achievements of life. The book is best known for its detailed descriptions of sexual positions.
Most sex manuals today continue to emphasize sexual positions or behaviors. Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex is probably the most notable manual of modern times for its influence during the sexual revolution of the seventies. It was the fi rst illustrated sex manual to be published in the United States and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for two years between 1972 and 1974.
The Joy of Sex was illustrated with Asian erotica and pencil drawings of a modern couple engaging in a variety of practices, including oral sex, decidedly nonmissionary positions, and ways to enjoy sexual bondage. In doing so, it sought to allay feelings of sexual shame and to promote the notion that sex was fun.
Since that time, there have been numerous sex manuals on how to make love. Some of the most recent and best include The Great Sex Weekend by Pepper Schwartz and Janet Lever, The Great Lover Playbook by Lou Paget, and Loving Sex by Laura Berman.
Unlike a sex manual, step eight in our program aims to expand your erotic repertoire without emphasizing techniques for pleasing a lover.
Step Eight: Erotic Play
Objectives: To widen your range of erotic pleasures with your lover and to experiment with new ways of doing familiar activities
A body-mind approach to emotionally gratifying sexual pleasure is not so much about positions or what you’re doing, but more about how present you are in your body as you’re doing it. In essence, it’s about how mindful and tuned in you are to yourself and to your lover.
Erotic play is completely dependent on your ability to play. If sex is serious business to you and something to get to right away, you won’t be expanding your repertoire. You’ll be impatient to get on with it, and it will be the same old it.
Romantic play is the precursor to erotic play. You can’t expect your partner to be able to make the switch from friend, roommate, or parent to lover on a dime. Erotic play is something you cozy up to, and romantic play is the intro.
What works best is to weave romantic, sensuous, and erotic play into the fabric of your everyday life. An appreciative comment, a warm appreciative look and a smile, a lingering kiss, and a full body hug all keep two people physically attuned to each other.
A few minutes of erotic play here and there when your partner is available or can be enticed can build up a store of sexual energy, especially if you walk away from each other while you’re turned on. It keeps the engine warm and the battery charged.
Make a Date for Erotic Play
Some couples have a date night to make love, but they don’t leave much time for erotic play, and that keeps their sexual repertoire very limited. They may end up making love at the low end of the erotic spectrum, at sexual interest, and never get to desire or passion.
Set aside some time with your partner to have an erotic date that doesn’t necessarily have to end in intercourse. You might start briefly in the morning if you have to leave each other for the day.
See how many of the elements of eroticism detailed below you can include when you and your lover have set aside time to play:
- Come on to your lover. Play at being sexy. Talk sexy and act sexy. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Just do it for fun.
- Show your erotic personality. How does your erotic self dress and play?
- Make out to music. Dim the lights, cuddle, kiss, fondle, and stroke each other.
- Touch and massage each other sensuously. Give pleasure.
- Play dress-up. If you both like role-playing games, see if you can expand your repertoire of roles to entice each other.
- Stay erotically and empathically attuned. Breathe fully, kiss deeply, make sweet talk, and take turns giving each other pleasure.
The Heart of Desire
Keys to the Pleasures of Love
STELLA RESNICK, PHD
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