When the sex positivity movement reached the internet in the mid-aughts, it upended mainstream conversations about sex. Suddenly, health experts and sex educators had a platform to fill the massive gaps in knowledge left by abstinence education and culturally held stigmas.
Fast-forward to now and the popular opinion is unequivocal: Sex is a good thing that everyone should be doing.
At some point, mainstream media’s giddy embrace created a flurry of interest in the health benefits of sex. These articles cite a jumble of research — on topics such as sleep, immunity, and migraines — to make the oversimplified point that having sex, no matter the quality, automatically makes you healthier.
“Sex is fun, sex is a beautiful bonding experience, sex is sweaty and smelly and full of laughing and moaning — it is not a vitamin,” says sex educator Hannah De Priest. “If you want a health plan, meet with a dietitian or sign up for a yoga class.”
The idea that the more sex we have, the healthier we will be is rooted in the idea that all sex is created equal. But if the sex you’re having causes strife or mental turmoil, it’s not worth the physical benefits — and it might actually do more harm than good.
Consider this commonly cited 2004 study, which suggests that frequent sex supports immunity. The study found that couples who had sex at least twice a week had more IgA (a protein important for immune function) in their saliva than the couples who had sex less than once a week.
But the couples who had sex more than three times a week actually had less IgA. The authors hypothesized that despite having the most sex, these couples were also the most stressed, which led to weaker immune systems.
On the other hand, a 2017 study suggests that pleasurable sex is the key to a happy marriage. The researchers examined the relationship between sex and marital satisfaction in 105 couples over a 14-year period. The results suggest that “a satisfying sex life and a warm interpersonal climate” matter more than having sex frequently.
“When we talk about the health benefits of sex, we talk about the health benefits of orgasm, or maybe kissing, but we don’t talk about all of the other ways that intimacy can be built with another person that just feels good,” says Sierra.
Here are some tips for having emotionally healthy sex.
Communicate your wants and needs
This is your biggest asset in having sex that makes you feel safe, secure, and excited. But it’s also not easy. Here’s Sierra’s advice:
- First, communicate with yourself. “First, try to figure out why you want to have sex with someone else. That can help put you in the mindset of achieving what you want to achieve,” Sierra says.
- Tell the other person what you want. Kissing, orgasms, or physical closeness — whatever it may be, let them know. “[I] make sure that I’m laying out what I want to experience, but I’m open to all of the fun things in between,” Sierra says.
- If communication is hard for you, let them know that too. Talking about sex is hard for most people — chances are your partner feels the same way! Being honest with one another will make you feel closer.
Have more sex with yourself
Solo sex is a great way to get in touch with your unique emotional needs.
“Try for a good orgasm or to experience pleasure in a new way — I suggest incorporating a new toy or a part of the body you may not be giving attention to as often. Making a goal for your sexual session can be very fulfilling,” says De Priest.
Bored with your vibrator? Try a clit suction toy.
Don’t focus on orgasm
“I hope the media stops making [orgasm] seem so common and achievable,” says De Priest. “Many people feel broken or damaged when they can’t orgasm/make a partner or partners orgasm from penetration alone.”
Instead, try to be present. It can help to use your senses to stay in the moment. What do you smell, taste, hear, and feel when you’re having sex?
Make time for aftercare
Common in BDSM spaces, aftercare is the practice of making your partner feel cared for as you wind down from sex. This might look like cuddling, talking, watching a movie, or making food for the other person.
Aftercare can increase security and foster intimacy within a relationship.
Use barrier methods
Sex is tricky. It can feel great while it’s happening but can make you feel sick with worry hours later. One way to cut down on those post-sex worries is to use a condom or another barrier method.
It’s also a good practice to talk with your partner about STIs. And because we know this conversation isn’t easy, we made a talk template to help it go more smoothly.
Prioritize your mental and emotional health
Mental health and sexual health are two sides of the same coin. The vulnerable nature of sex makes it a daunting task for many folks, especially those who have a history of trauma or mental illness. And sex can even trigger past traumas.
Working with a mental health professional can make all the difference. If you’re new to therapy, check out our guide to finding a therapist. We also have this list of resources for sexual and domestic abuse survivors.
When the media portrays “good sex,” it usually involves penetration, orgasm(s), being out of breath, moaning, and quite a bit of sweat. This trope of mind-blowing, vigorous sex is not only ableist and heteronormative but also perpetuates the idea that there’s an objectively good or right way to have sex.
“We often see [in] visual media that people kind of just jump into bed with each other or they want sex at the same time,” says Sierra. “But obviously in real relationships and partnerships, people do have differences in desires to want to have sex.”
Good sex is up to each individual to define. And the definition can change depending on the day. Sometimes the best sex is quick and efficient, while other times you want to spend hours kissing and snuggling.
The key is to be honest with yourself. Whenever you’re in a sexual situation, ask yourself what exactly you need in that moment to feel safe, supported, and fulfilled.