Is love something you need for great sex?
Before you answer, think about all your sexual experiences, and you pull out the ones that you would call great. Did every one of them happen with someone you loved?
If we’re being honest I think the answer to the question has to be no. Or at least, that not everyone needs love for great sex. Does it help? Does love make great sex better? Does being in love increase the chances that the sex you’re having will be great?
To this some people would say yes, and some would say no.
What we know about love and sex, our expectations and feelings about whether or not they should go together, begins with what we’re taught as children. Either explicitly or through osmosis, most kids are taught that sex is something that happens between two people who are in love.
This isn’t wrong of course. Lots of people who are in love have sex. But if every sexual encounter only happened between people in love there would either be a lot less sex happening in the world or a lot more love being felt.
Love Is a Many Sided Thing…
Love is a word we use to describe many different experiences. We can see this even in the language we use around love: you love someone, you’re in love with someone, you feel love for someone, or some thing. Love changes over time. The love you feel for your partner 30 years into a marriage is different from the love you felt for them the first time you thought to yourself, “I love this person.”
If love has an effect on sex, do different kinds of love have different kinds of effects? And what about after love is gone? Is sex with someone you once loved better or worse than sex with someone you never loved?
When experts talk about the science of love and sex these aren’t the questions they are usually attending to. They sometimes distinguish a few kinds of love (for example compassionate vs passionate love) but what gets lost are the details of how love and sex actually intersect in our lives.
…And So Is Sex
Great sex, or sex that isn’t even very good, is a complicated event. It’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s psychological, it can be spiritual. And of course when we talk about the sex we had, we are always filtering the experience through memory. Researchers haven’t figured out a way to survey people’s experience of sex while they are having it (although they do this with masturbation sometimes).
So it’s worth asking ourselves, when we say that sex was great because of love, what exactly is making the sex great? If it’s an emotional connection, then is it fair to credit love with the sexual boost? We can have deep emotional connections and not be in love. So is it not love but the feeling of connection? Or commitment? Or is it the comfort that (can) come from being in a loving relationship?
A group of researchers who have been studying what they call optimal sexuality noted that in interviews with people who have great sex, even though participants describe almost every aspect of love, they rarely use the word love to explain what makes great sex great. This doesn’t mean that love isn’t important to great sex, only that the relationship is likely more complicated than the one we tell ourselves.
How Love and Commitment Can Get In the Way of Great Sex
In 2007 couples therapist Esther Perel hit an erotic nerve with her best selling book Mating in Captivity. The thesis of her book, which was based on her years of working with couples, was simple but for many surprising: that healthy, happy, committed, long term relationships paradoxically can lead to a lack of erotic charge in a relationship and a lack of sexual desire and sexual activity.
Perel wasn’t the first to suggest this, but she eloquently and accessibly explains how being close, knowing everything there is to know about your partner, seeing them day in and day out, can erode the sexual energy that comes from the unknown, from the desire to discover something new about another person’s body or inner workings.
In a simplistic way Perel’s book could be seen as explaining how sometimes love doesn’t lead to great sex, it actually gets in the way.
For many of us there is an undeniable relationship between sex and love. We feel it in our lives. But love and sex are multi-layered experiences. What they are in our lives depends on who we are, how and where we were raised, who we choose to make our lives and families with now, our personal and political values and beliefs, and more. With all these variables it’s unlikely that the relationship between love and sex will ever be a simple or static one.