The 3 Types of Sex
Sex matters. A healthy sex life makes us feel good about ourselves and our relationship. Neurochemical changes occur in the brain when we hold hands, hug or kiss. While we may view these as affectionate or romantic gestures, they are acts of human bonding. Oxytocin the feel-good ‘bonding’ hormone is activated and released during bonding activity of any kind, whether sexual or not, and it plays a role in forming trust and building emotional safety. Oxytocin release increases in both men and women during arousal and sex. It is felt more strongly by women, due to being enhanced by oestrogen. Vasopressin is a male hormone released after sex that inspires a man to stay by his partner protectively. Subsequently it’s been dubbed as ‘the monogamy molecule’.
Because of the important roles played by oxytocin and vasopressin, it is no wonder that sex is important for us and our relationships. But all sex is not the same, and Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT), offers a model of three different types of sex that people can have.
Sealed-off sex: In ‘sealed-off sex’, you are focused only on your own sensations and feeling of sexual prowess or skill. In this type of sex, you value physical technique, not necessarily emotions, and pay little attention to your partner’s experience or the relationship. Sealed off sex is impersonal sex. It may be ok in one night stands but bad news in a long term relationship. Men are more able to participate in sealed-off sex, as they can move quickly from arousal to orgasm. When you are having primarily sealed-off sex, you may find that you need a continual boost through new partners to provide novelty or ‘newness’. Often there is also a need for other stimuli (pornography, sexual relief via sex workers, etc.) in order to keep sex interesting. Research shows that sealed-off sex tends to actually result in less frequent orgasms. Even if orgasm is not the problem, sexual satisfaction is not long lasting. The reason is that there is no reciprocity or positive feedback loop from your sexual partner which would extend sexual satisfaction. And because sealed off sex is largely lacking in emotional connection, sexual satisfaction is limited to bodily sensations.
This type of sex is most frequently sought by those who are uncomfortable with emotional intimacy, vulnerability or needing others. Because the focus here is mainly on self-gratification, so if in a relationship the other partner may, over time, feel unacknowledged, emotionally alone or even used.
Josephine and Peter came to see me for marriage counselling after their sex life stopped. Josephine turned to Peter and said, ‘When we are intimate, you go through the motions, almost mechanically, and sometimes you close your eyes. You don’t want to look at me and that frustrates me—I could be anyone. I just don’t feel special to you. I sometimes feel used when you finish and just roll over. Peter became upset and responded, ‘Well, after all the times you pushed me away, I’m afraid you would reject me again, so I don’t look at you, just in case you say no. But in the end I don’t really enjoy it either, even if I have an orgasm’.
As previously mentioned, sexual contact produces the bonding hormone called oxytocin that leads to emotional bonding/connection, but sealed-off sex works against that. When emotional connection is missing, partners become overwhelmed with feelings of insecurity, rejection, isolation, and deprivation. This shuts the door to eroticism. If 'sealed off sex' has become the norm in your relationship, desire will wane, boredom will creep in and it is time to question the lack of emotional connection.
Solace sex: The next type of sex is called ‘solace sex’ - sex that provides emotional engagement and reassurance. But the focus is mostly on seeking comfort and approval from our partner to avoid anxiety or fear around potential rejection and abandonment. You concentrate on affection at the expense of freely opening yourself up for love-making. Sex, or possibly just the physical intimacy of kissing or cuddling during sex, becomes a measuring device to indicate that you are wanted, valued and loved. Instead of sex being a tool to genuinely and emotionally connect with your partner, it becomes a way to acquire what you really want, which is emotional validation.
Lucy and Mark came to see me because of mismatch libidos. Lucy complained that over time, their sex life had become boring and unexciting. Lucy felt that Mark did not initiate sex and when he did it seemed tentative, making her feel like he was acting only out of obligation. Lucy further complained that all Mark seem to want to do was cuddle but was unwilling to try having sex other than in the bedroom. In tears, Lucy added, “we use to be freer with each other, less inhibited, more passionate and now everything seems regimented. Mark’s face turned red, flushed with embarrassment, he angrily said to Lucy, ‘All you do is think about you. It's not my fault. You have a high sex drive and you put me under pressure when you refuse to accept that sex is just not that important to me! It’s all fun and games for you, what you need, what you want…what about what I need….affection and love, not just sex all the time!." Both partners are stuck, caught in a unsatifying pursuer withdrawer cycle.
Synchrony sex: The third type of sex, the most satisfying, is what Dr. Johnson calls ‘synchrony sex’. Sex where partners can be confident, feel emotionally connected and safe to mutually be open, responsive, vulnerable, playful and explore eroticism. This is the type of sex that lasts, fulfills, satisfies. Sex in which partners are experiencing a close emotional bond and responding to each other’s cues during sex. This type of sex provides trust and safety that allows you to communicate your needs and experience greater pleasure through a passionate and spontaneous sexual connection. This is a space where eroticism can grow, and in moments when one partner is not ‘up to it’ the other partner does not feel emotionally disconnected, rejected or abandoned. To quote Lizzie after her birth of their third child, "I am so tired these days. Sometimes I just tell to Paul to hop on and hop off when he finishes", she said laughing. Paul in equal humour, "I find you extra desirable after baby, and you can't complain you were so horny when pregnant. Remember how we got pregnant this time? I think it was in Paris where we almost got caught!". Both Lizzie and Paul report having a satisfying and fulfilling marriage in and out of the bedroom. Couples who have synchrony sex tend to be emotionally responsive in all areas of their lives, not just during sex. Just like other aspects of a marriage or partner relationship, sexual relationships are a dance to which both partners must feel equally confident to participate and contribute. The most effective sexual partnerships are the ones in which both partners feel secure in themselves as individuals and secure as a partnership.
Do you talk about sex openly in your relationship? I mean really talk, not just passing jokes. Can you identify the type of sex you and your partner are having? Sex and intimacy problems will eventually affect partners and the quality of their relationship. Research shows couples than can talk openly to each other have more sex and better sex than reticient couples or new couples. If you are single, can you identify the type of sex you have?
If you are finding your sex life unfulfilling, having a deeper understanding of the underlying issues will help. Taking steps to explore the type of sex you have, by seeing a specialist relationship Psychotherapist or Counsellor makes sense. It is about getting to know yourself, and or your partner better to enjoy more of sex that connects, fulfills and satisfies. Give us a call or send us an email.