Unscripting Sex For More Connection and Pleasure

You may have heard me use the term “scripted sex” or “linear model of sex” before. By “scripted” or “linear” I mean a concept of sex that follows a widely-accepted progression: first base, second base, third base, home.

You could add more bases, but, according to the model of scripted sex, if you are having a “good” sexual interaction, you’re moving forward from one base to another. What I mean when I say scripted sex is what most people think of as just “sex.” But in my opinion, the model of scripted sex creates a lot of mischief and bad feelings.

The scripted model of sex labels most sexual activities “foreplay,” and accepts only PIV (penis in vagina penetration) as “sex.” This means that a lot of people feel really bad or broken if they can’t have PIV or don’t want to have PIV–even though there are a whole lot of sexual activities, besides PIV, that generate pleasure and connection between partners and have the potential to lead to orgasm.

These words and ways of thinking about sex are very linear and very restrictive. They don’t leave any room for unique experiences, varying function, and perfectly normal differences between people.

What if all pleasurable sexual activities ranked the same? You could make a mutual decision in the moment about what activity you want to participate in. You could feel free to shift between activities according to what you each want or would find pleasurable in each unique moment. No meaning would be made about how things unfolded. “No PIV? Fine! What shall we do instead?”

This improvisational way of experiencing sex is more workable than the linear way in about a million ways. But it does still present some challenges. It requires some kind of verbal or non-verbal communication of desires and preferences in the moment. It also requires an ability to be flexible about expectations, and not make negative meaning about how things unfold.

For example, the scripted model creates problems when one partner wants to go from “third base” to “first base” (which is what I call downshifting). According to the scripted model, you’re supposed to go “forward”, not “backward,”–which means that people often experience a lot of negative emotions and meaning-making when their partners ask for a downshift.

“Did I do something wrong?” “Does my partner still find me attractive?” “Am I bad at (whatever activity you were just doing)?” “Am I taking too long?” These are just a few examples of very common fears that tend to rear their ugly heads when we have expectations about what sex “should” involve and how it “should” progress.

Does this ring true with your experience? Can you think of a moment when your partner asked for a downshift? What meaning did you make of it in the moment? Can you think of a moment when you asked for a downshift, and your partner made negative meaning out of the moment?

For many people, the possibility of a negative reaction to downshifting means that they hold back from expressing their preferences in the moment, for fear of hurting their partner’s feelings. But hiding your real feelings and desires during sex is a recipe for disconnection, and over time can result in diminished sexual desire overall.

A better solution is to recognize that downshifting isn’t going backwards; it is just a change of subject. If you embrace flexibility and subject changes as ways of exploring what feels best for you and your partner in the moment, rather than seeing it as a sign of failure, it can mean more connection and more pleasure, not less.

Good Sex Over A Lifetime

Our bodies are diverse in shape, size, color, and ability, among other things. Every body is unique. One thing, however, binds us all together. We all age, and as we age, our bodies change.

One of the things that is likely to change over the lifespan is sexual function. Over a lifespan, hormone levels shift, as well as muscle tone and flexibility, and vascular function. Bodies experience illnesses, pregnancies, and health/lifestyle shifts for the better and worse. All these things have an effect on how the body responds to arousal and how pleasure is experienced.

Many people have the best sex of their lives later in life. However, if body changes in midlife make it more difficult to have familiar and well-practiced kinds of sex, the changes can be painful and distressing particularly when negative meanings are made of the changes.

Lifestyle choices, like eating a healthy diet, reducing and managing stress, and incorporating regular exercise into your routine, can make a big difference, so consult with your doctor. However, one of the most productive changes is to think about change differently, and respond more skillfully.

A sexual repertoire for a lifetime must include multiple activities that do not depend on any particular body part, function, or experience. If we define sex as “penis-in-vagina penetration”, or “orgasm,” or any other particular experience, I can guarantee at some point things won’t go as planned. However if we define sex as “activities that are pleasurable,” or “anything sexy,” or “connection plus pleasure,” the likelihood of creating a satisfying sexual encounter skyrockets.

I’m a strong advocate for making this shift in thinking early. When a young couple comes to me to work with a particular sexual challenge, they often feel quite broken, because everything is “supposed to be easy” sexually. But I always feel very optimistic about their long-term sexual connection. This is because we can learn this shift of perspective early in life, later in life, or never. The earlier we get good at this, the more good sex we have. Simple as that.

What are we learning in order to support a lifetime of good sex?

  • Improvisation. There is no script, and the more you follow a script, the more things go “wrong”. The more improvisation, the more fun you discover.
  • Encourage your sexy, creative brain. That’s the part of you that comes up with ideas, tries them out, shares curiosity with a partner, and makes sex playful.
  • Control your naughty brain. I’m referring to your meaning-making brain. The part of your brain that says: “I’m not sexy because I…..”. “This wouldn’t be going like this if my partner were still into me”. Any thought that makes you feel bad about yourself or your partner during a sexual interaction is not helpful if pleasure OR connection are your goals.
  • Recognize that things not going as planned is just part of the landscape. Everyone experiences it and HOW you respond is the key to good sex.

Here’s an example: If your partner loses his erection, will it be more fun and productive to
a) begin to make meaning about not being attractive, or even comfort your partner with “nobody’s perfect” messages, or
b) tell him how hot he is, that you love his erection but don’t need it, and initiate an activity that you both enjoy and that doesn’t require an erection?

What Makes Good Sex Good?

What makes a sexual encounter good? It’s all in the meaning we make of it.

Good sex isn’t the result of a particular sequence of events. Good sex is all about how the participants interpret that sequence of events. What might be a distressing and bad encounter for one person could be perfectly enjoyable for another, depending on how they attach meaning to the experience.

Imagine a sexual encounter in which neither partner achieves orgasm, but rather just wind down as they get tired. For one person, this might be seen as a failure. What’s wrong with us? Am I bad at sex? Does my partner not care about my pleasure?  For another, this might be a perfectly satisfactory and enjoyable experience. They could enjoy the sensation of being close to their partner, physically and emotionally, enjoying the shared intimacy of the moment.

Or imagine a very short sexual encounter. One person might think, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I last longer? That was so embarrassing, while another might think, What a fun quickie. There are infinite possible variations of this idea. Think of anything that could “go wrong” in a sexual encounter, and you’ll see how much depends on how the participants interpret it.

Being attached to an overly rigid model of how a sexual interaction should unfold almost always becomes a problem sooner or later in a relationship, because our bodies are complicated and don’t always behave in the way we want. For that reason, if your measure of success for a sexual encounter is some particular activity, like penis-in-vagina (PIV) penetration to orgasm, at some point you will probably be disappointed. What meaning will you make out of that moment? If you’ve had this experience before, what meaning did you make then?

Consider this: what do you really want to get out of sex? Is it a particular kind of activity? Or is that activity a symbol for something more important–intimacy with your partner, trust, love, pleasure? How can you get what you REALLY want out of the interaction, and release attachment to a particular sequence of events?