It’s a pointed question, isn’t it? Imagine being asked this question by an ex who called you up, years after a break up. What about if it was a current partner asking immediately after an intimate moment? What if it was your doctor asking, or your best friend?
Your answer would likely change depending on who is asking, and how long they give you to respond. Would the first think you say be different than what you would say after an hour of mulling it over?
You may think that the change in response reflects some “true” answer to the question that you are just more or less willing to reveal. But if you think this question is a simple one, or one that can be answered by filling in a multiple choice box, you’re wrong.
Our sexuality isn’t some isolated part of our lives, bodies, or experience, and our definition of sexual satisfaction isn’t separate from what makes us satisfied in our lives in general. Your sexual satisfaction has as much to do with who you are and what you expect out of life as it does with the kind of sex you’re having.
How Do You Define Sexual Satisfaction?
Sex researchers have spent a lot of time trying to do this. There are tools, with acronyms like GMSEX (Global Measure of Sexual Satisfaction) and NSSS (New Sexual Satisfaction Scale). They ask questions about how much sex you have, how often you orgasm, what kind of sex you have, and whether or not you and your partner think that you are pleasing the other. It’s a noble effort, and they have to start somewhere, but can something so subjective be meaningfully measured with an “objective” test?
If you’re trying to figure this out for yourself, or if you’re in a relationship and you want to talk about satisfaction together, instead of ticking off boxes on a questionnaire, try talking through some of these aspects of satisfaction to arrive at your own answers.
Does the amount of sex matter to you? Is more always better? Is there a number that feels too low? Is there a number that’s too high? And when it comes to our sexual numbers in a relationship, how do you do a joint calculation that accounts for both of your answers?
No one agrees on what we mean by sex in the first place. Which means that if I want to know if you’re sexually satisfied I need to know what activities you count as sex. When you think of your sexual satisfaction do you only think about the sex that includes penetration? Is it only sex that ended in someone having an orgasm? Or only sex that lasted a certain period of time (some people say “quickies” don’t count…other people only want quickies).
Pardon the half-pun, but one way people think through sexual satisfaction has to do with what it is they want out of sex. Orgasm, general release of tension and stress, an opportunity to escape, the feeling of intimacy and closeness, the chance to learn about your body.
There are so many things we get from sex, and sometimes these things seem to be in conflict. For example times when we have sex we tell ourselves we probably shouldn’t have, but do it anyway, and both enjoy it in the moment and regret it later. Defining satisfaction only on performance or outcome is a fools game, but thinking about what you want to get from sex and how often you get it is a worth while exercise.
This is a biggie. When you consider your sexual satisfaction, are you only thinking about sex with a partner? Where does masturbation fit into your assessment? Masturbation isn’t the same thing as having sex with someone else, but it IS a form of sex. And if you aren’t satisfied with your sex life, including your masturbation, who do you blame for that?
Beyond the question of solo or partnered sex, how much does your assessment of sexual satisfaction have to do with the partner(s) you have now and the ones you’ve had in the past? Does sexual satisfaction become a stand in for sexual comparisons?
Where’s the Balance?
We don’t all like to give and receive in equal amounts. Some of us get pleasure by giving pleasure. Some of us can receive and receive and receive some more. Some of us don’t feel comfortable unless there is a particular balance of giving and receiving. But that balance is not the same for each of us. Sexual satisfaction doesn’t mean everything that happens in your relationship must be a 50/50 split. It does mean that you need to have a sense of what your balance is and be able to check in with yourself about how much that looks like what is actually happening in your relationship.
In long term relationships there’s another variable, which is time. It’s never possible for everyone to get what they want all the time. So at any given moment you may feel like you aren’t satisfied and there isn’t balance. But how did you feel last week or last year? Making a long term relationship work means being able to think (at least some of the time) long term.
Many of us will think about sexual satisfaction by asking ourselves if we are getting our basic needs met. When our basic needs are about food or housing this is an easier assessment to make (although even then, not simple). But when it comes to sexual satisfaction there’s a problem. Being able to say whether or not your sexual needs are being met assumes that you know what you need sexually. This is something few of us are ever encouraged to think about.
We talk about sex as a basic need and tie that to reproduction, but that’s on a population level. On an individual level none of literally need to procreate in order to survive. So what qualifies as a sexual need? Beyond knowing what our needs are, there’s the problem that many of us are bad at thinking of our own needs. We might know we’re unhappy or unsatisfied, but without prompting and permission we may never attach those feelings to the fact that our sexual needs aren’t being met.
In some ways sexual satisfaction is a good example of everything that is wrong with how we talk about sex in public (at least in the West). It’s a marketing ploy, it’s a badge of honor, it’s a tool used to shame others. And yet it’s a term that isn’t ever really unpacked in public. Everyone talks about it but no one knows exactly what it is they’re saying.
Sexual satisfaction can be important, both for individual sexual encounters and for your sex life as a whole. But we are the only ones who can make it personally meaningful for ourselves, and we can only do that by thinking about what it means in the first place.