Merely out of curiosity, Shelly Meyers*, 31, of Austin, Texas, bought a book of erotic stories shortly before she got married. After having a steamy read, she suggested that her fiancé, Craig, read the book, too.
Let’s just say they’re into reading before bed these days: In the five years they’ve been married, the couple have indulged in other erotic tales, and bought an instructional video about improving intimacy. Sharing these experiences, says Shelly, has made them much more comfortable talking about sex.
"My husband is very shy," says Shelly. "The books and videos provide a springboard that comes from a safe place. We’re able to say ‘Wow, that was an interesting fantasy…’ then see where that leads us."
Learning to make love to someone in a way that is sensitive, satisfying and fulfilling certainly seems like something that should come naturally, which probably explains why many of us presume that it does—and why we can become confused or frustrated when it doesn’t. Many couples assume that a fabulous sex life naturally follows once we find the right person. But the reality is that developing a mutually satisfying, exciting sexual relationship takes time, effort—and education, says Sandra Scantling, a certified sex therapist and the director of intimacy education at the Sinclair Intimacy Institute, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "We’re not born great lovers," she says. "We tend to think sex education is just for kids, but really it’s not—it’s for adults."
But I’m Already a Great Lover!
Now, if you’re smugly reading this, thinking, "I’m quite happy with the frequency and quality of our lovemaking," wipe that smirk off your face, because you can always learn something. Maybe it’s a position that you’ve never thought of before, or an oral-sex technique that will drive your husband wild. Experimenting with different types of sexual expression can be tremendously illuminating, says Marianna Beck, Ph.D., co-author of The Ecstatic Moment (Dell, 1997) and founder and co-publisher of the erotic journal Libido.
"There's this expectation that the only kind of satisfying sex is straight intercourse, penis/vagina sex. If couples start to think about how they can get to an excited state without penetration, it's quite amazing the fun they can have," she says. "For example, mutual masturbation can be extremely exciting and sensual to share because it's an extraordinarily intimate act."
Learning more about sex can also keep you from getting into a rut. "People get stuck on routines," says Beck. "They get locked into the time and the place and the position in which they make love. That can really be a sex killer. Yet if you change any part of that, you automatically add spice. Do you always have to make love on a bed or even in the bedroom? Why not the sofa in the living room? You introduce a huge erotic element when you remove sex from its traditional venue and take it to other places."
Couples are also guilty of making assumptions about sex, including how long it should last, what it should include and who should reach orgasm first. But if you take these unspoken beliefs for granted, they can prevent you from exploring your sexuality more fully. "Throw those assumptions out the window!" suggests Beck. "Open yourself up to the more creative end of sex; for example, bring in a video or a vibrator, relocate to another room, consider taking a workshop."
Most importantly, by learning more about sex, the two of you learn more about each other. "It's another form of show and tell," explains Scantling. "Say ‘let me show you how I like it' and kiss him in the way that you like to be kissed. Not everybody appreciates the same kind of kiss—in the same way that we all don't like our food seasoned the same way; it's not intuitive. He won't naturally know how you want your breasts touched; nor will you know just what pushes his buttons. Teaching is as much a part of being a good lover as listening is."
Making a Good Thing Even Better
It's well worth putting in the time to educate yourselves about sex because whatever you learn doesn't occur in a vacuum. What that means: The strength and closeness you gain in your sexual relationship will have positive repercussions on your day-to-day relationship.
"When couples think of or experience sex as something that happens just below the waist, they miss the bigger picture," says Scantling. "Sex is one of the ways couples communicate," and when they get better at it, all forms of communication improve. For sex to be good not only at the beginning but throughout the life of your relationship, you have to keep in mind that it's an ongoing process.
Beverly Richards* admits that she was surprised when her husband, a computer technician, brought home sex-education computer software. "At first I thought it was a little strange—it's not like you normally learn about sex on a computer," says Beverly, 38. "But it was interesting—and certainly better than I had expected."
Using the software together gave Beverly and her husband a chance to talk more freely about their sexual desires and expectations. "In some ways, going through the training thing together gave us the opportunity to communicate," she explains. "It may not have been specifically because we learned new techniques or anything, but because we talked about it and figured out what the other was thinking. A lot of us grow up with preconceived notions of what all women want or what all men want and we don't discuss it with each other. We just tend to do those things whether our partner actually wants them or not."
Learning about sex doesn't have to be serious business either. Shelly and Craig enjoyed experimenting with a number of sex toys she received at her bachelorette party. "Toys helped us realize that sex doesn't always have to be the waves crashing against the shore or deep meaningful conversation through touching," says Shelly. "I mean, they're toys; it's fun. The ‘accessories' give you permission—or inspiration—to let yourself go. Say you get handcuffs and you're not a handcuff kind of girl, just twirling them around can get you talking and thinking and laughing together—and that's good because you're still sharing that laugh over it as you make love."
Your sexual happiness with each other spills over into other areas of your lives as well, says Linda Banner, a certified sex therapist in Los Gatos, California. "Sex and self-esteem are intertwined. As we develop more confidence with our sexual functioning, we increase our confidence in ourselves and our ability to communicate and to relate with other people," she explains. "The techniques help but really it's a synergistic process. The communication, the relationship, the intimacy—it all works together."
Tools, Techniques and Toys
If you want to learn more about sex, you can hit the books (literally!)—or just about anything else. There's an endless variety of tools available including books, magazine articles, videos, software programs, workshops, retreats and sex therapists. Books like Anne Hooper's Kama Sutra (DK Publishing, 1994) or The New Joy of Sex (Pocket Books, 1992) provide illustrations and text about dozens of positions and techniques that you can try. In fact, just checking out the sex-book section of the bookstore can be an erotic experience to share! Watching videotapes or reading erotica can give the two of you ideas to experiment with as well.
"Erotic videos are a great way to get comfortable and explore ideas about sex and positions," says Beck. "Some, like Candida Royale's Femme productions, are a very gentle and sensual approach to lovemaking; they aren't the often crude porno that you tend to find in video stores."
"It's the old saying, a picture is worth a thousand words," agrees Banner, who has appeared in videos produced by the Sinclair Intimacy Institute and uses them in her practice. "Everyone who has watched these videos has said these are fantastic and they really help." Banner recently treated a couple who came to her because the husband was having rapid ejaculation and erection problems. "After watching the videos, they were able to practice some of the things they saw. He says he feels much more confident and relaxed now," says Banner. "Videos are great because you're in the privacy of your own home. You can stop and start the tape, rewind—or just turn it off and practice."
Other options include weekend retreats and workshops that offer couples a chance to explore their sexuality in greater depth. Workshops that offer instruction in tantric sex—lovemaking that focuses on reaching higher spiritual levels as well as sexual ecstasy—are growing in popularity. If you're interested in attending such an event, ask for references from people who've been there to suss out what the workshop entails—they can vary substantially in structure and format. For example, some suggest complete nudity during group activities; others are more sedate.
If you and your partner have been unable to address sexual issues in your relationship, you may want to consider professional help. Sex therapists and counselors work with individuals and couples to help resolve sexual problems. Check your telephone book for a therapist near you, or contact the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists for a referral (aasect.org or send a fax to 319-895-6203).
While the combustion of your initial sexual passion may diminish over time, your sex life need not become mediocre or routine. Willingness to explore your sexuality with your partner—while learning more about each other in the process—will keep your marriage strong and exciting in the years to come. It's definitely time well spent!
Says Shelly: "I think that putting time and effort into it has made Craig and me more confident and less inhibited with each other. Even though we're no longer in the first rush of excitement for each other, sex still remains a constantly re-invented experience five years on. We don't want to fall into a routine and we're willing to work to make sure that we don't."
*These names have been changed to protect privacy.