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The book includes the latest information and exercises on achieving mutual arousal and orgasm, including advanced lovemaking techniques such as shifting focus, peaking and plateauing. The exercises in the book can be used by people of any sexual orientation, and by those who have physical limitations, or who are just learning about their sexuality.
This new edition focuses more than ever on pleasure, contains two new chapters (one on oral sex, one on intercourse) and 20 new exercises. The text has a flowing reader-friendly approach. See Publishing History for further details of this revision.
Relaxation is the first foundation of sexual pleasure. To learn how to relax-or to activate what is often called the relaxation response-you need to know a little bit about the nervous system. I'll try not to make my explanation too technical, but bear with me; this is important information.
The nervous system is the system in your body that allows all of the other systems to communicate with each other. The nervous system has two major divisions-the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system (see Figure 1 below). The central nervous system is composed of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system includes all of the nerves that go from your spinal cord to your limbs and internal organs. The nerves in the sex organs and the nerves that travel from the spinal cord to the sex organs are part of the peripheral nervous system.
The peripheral nervous system has two divisions-the skeletal nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. (I've lost you, haven't I? I just saw your eyesglaze over.) The skeletal nervous system provides nerves to limbs like your arms and legs that you can control voluntarily. The autonomic nervous system provides nerves to internal organs like the diaphragm, heart, and intestines, which we don't normally think of as being under our voluntary control.
Still with me? The autonomic nervous system has two divisions-the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for expending energy, and the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for conserving energy. If you are faced with some immediate danger, the sympathetic nervous system springs into action and helps your body mobilize the energy you need to either fight or run away. When this happens, your eyes dilate, your heart rate speeds up, and your breathing and blood pressure increase dramatically. Another important effect is that blood flows immediately to your limbs. This complex response developed through evolution because certain parts of your body needed extra resources to deal with the danger. The sympathetic nervous system is activated very rapidly. It only takes seconds for the blood to flow away from the center of your body and out to your arms and legs.
If you think about the direction of the blood flow during this "fight or flight" response, it should become clear how anxiety can interfere with your sexual response. Essentially, when you are anxious, blood flows away from the center of your body, meaning it flows away from the genitals. For arousal, blood needs to flow into the genitals and other erogenous zones. So the quick-response sympathetic system is useful if you are in some kind of real danger. But for those times that are full of stress but not much real danger, most of our sympathetic nervous systems are a little too active. As a result, many of us experience that sympathetic nervous system adrenalin surge when we have to take a test, speak in public, or even have sex!
The parasympathetic nervous system, the other branch of the autonomic nervous system, is responsible for slowing your body down so that you can conserve energy for use at a later time. This system is active when your body is taking care of its life-sustaining processes like digestion. When the parasympathetic nervous system is "on," you feel deeply relaxed. The beginning stages of sexual arousal are a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. To put it simply, it's easier to start becoming aroused and feeling pleasure if you are in a relaxed state, which enhances the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Although the sympathetic nervous system response happens almost instantaneously, the relaxation response is rather slow. These two systems do not normally operate simultaneously, except during orgasm. As we know, we cannot feel anxious and relaxed at the same time.
Because of how these two parts of the nervous system function, it is impossible to turn off the sympathetic nervous system by trying to turn it off. If you try to turn it off, you will become more anxious rather than less anxious. The only way to turn off the anxiety is to consciously activate the parasympathetic, or relaxation, system. The sensate-focus exercises that you will learn in this book will provide you with one way of doing this.
Activating Your Relaxation Response
With practice, you can learn to consciously activate your relaxation response within about five minutes. One great way to do this is to close your eyes, lie quietly without moving, and take several slow, deep breaths. Realize that it may take several minutes of doing this for your whole body to relax.
This deeply relaxed state has been described very well by Dr. Herbert Benson in his book The Relaxation Response. According to Dr. Benson, there are four things necessary to reach a relaxed state:
1. A quiet environment
2. A mental device (like a favorite prayer or phrase you repeat to yourself again and again, or a number you focus on)
3. A comfortable physical position
4. A receptive or passive attitude
I would like to add a fifth item to Dr. Benson's list: a predictable activity.
The sensate-focus exercises that you will learn in this book satisfy each of these conditions. You always do them in a quiet room. Focusing on your sensations and on the exact point of skin contact provides the mental device to keep your mind occupied, so that you are less likely to get caught up in anxious thoughts. As you do the exercises, you and your partner will take the steps needed to make yourselves physically comfortable. You will each take turns being passive during the exercises, during which time your only concern is to focus on sensations. Finally, if you do each exercise as described, you will know exactly what is going to happen (the predictable activity), which will further relax you.
The Brain, Relaxation, and Arousal
Your mind functions differently when you are relaxed than it does when you are anxious. Your brain constantly produces mild electrical activity, usually called brain waves. When you are in a state of alert wakefulness, your brain produces fast waves called beta waves. Waves characteristic of a more relaxed state are slower and are called alpha waves. The best way to induce alpha waves is to lie down, close your eyes, relax all of your muscles, slow your breathing, and let your mind drift without focusing on anything in particular.
During some of the exercises described in this book, you may find that you relax so much that you actually reach a very advanced state of relaxation called an alpha state. In this state you may feel as if you are floating or drifting. It is a wonderful feeling, but you do not need to be in this deeply relaxed state to do the exercises.
When you begin any exercise, you may relax right into an alpha state. At this phase the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. Then, if the exercise includes genital contact, chances are you will start to become aroused. As you reach higher and higher levels of arousal, the sympathetic nervous system starts to come into play, and more and more blood flows to your genitals and more and more tension accumulates in your muscles, especially in the pelvic area. At the point of orgasm, the sympathetic nervous system is fully activated, and all that energy that has accumulated in your pelvis is discharged. Other body changes at that point include heavy breathing and elevated heart-rate and blood-pressure levels, resulting in an intense feeling of release.
Sexual activity is one of the very few experiences a person can have in which the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system work together. Sexual arousal and orgasm depend on a delicate interplay and balance between these two systems. But none of it will work unless you start out in a relaxed state. That is why so many of the exercises in this book emphasize the importance of relaxation.
There is another change that takes place in your body when you reach extremely high levels of sexual arousal and stay there for a while. The combination of controlled intense physical activity, heavy breathing, and sexual arousal produces the release of endorphins in the brain. You may have heard of endorphins in the context of sports like marathon running. They are produced during intense physical activity and can dull or even eliminate pain. The receptor sites in our brain that endorphins "latch on to" are the same sites that interact with opioid drugs such as heroin and others. That's why these drugs induce the feelings and euphoria they do. Endorphins are also responsible for the sensations of pleasure we experience when we are sexually aroused. In fact, the endorphin release during extreme sexual arousal and orgasm can bring about such intense feelings of pleasure that you may experience an altered or even a transcendent state of consciousness.
Relaxation and Touching
Certain types of touch activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and other types of touch activate the sympathetic nervous system. The type of touching you will learn to do in the sensate-focus exercises described in this book activates the parasympathetic nervous system-your relaxation response.
In the beginning stages, sensate-focus touching is slow, light, and soothing. It starts on the arms and legs and moves to the genitals. Touching or being touched in this caressing style will activate the relaxation response for you and your partner. As you become more aroused during some of the advanced sensate-focus exercises, it is okay to touch your partner more deeply.
On the other hand, being touched in a threatening, unpredictable, mechanical, or heavy way makes us anxious. Being touched in an intimate body area also makes us anxious if the touch is sudden or inappropriate. When you do the exercises in this book, take care to touch your partner in a way that will trigger relaxation rather than anxiety. If you are passive during an exercise and your partner's touch is so heavy that it triggers anxiety, tell your partner.
Your thoughts can also activate either the sympathetic nervous system or the parasympathetic nervous system. Fearful or worried thoughts are the mental component of anxiety, whereas slowing down your thoughts contributes to relaxation. There are several thought patterns that can contribute to anxiety during sex and thus short-circuit the relaxation response and your sexual pleasure. The most common of these thought patterns are spectatoring, racing thoughts, and performance thoughts.
Spectatoring is a term coined by Masters and Johnson. It refers to a habit of mentally watching yourself and evaluating or grading your performance during sexual activity. A person who is spectatoring is constantly monitoring and making mental notes about sexual arousal instead of experiencing sexual arousal. For example, a man might find himself thinking, "She's touching my penis. It's starting to feel a little hard. What if she-oh, no, I'm losing my erection." Spectatoring often takes on an obsessive quality; that is, a person feels compelled to consciously monitor what is going on.
As you do the sensate-focus exercises, you will learn to focus on and feel what is happening sensually and sexually instead of worrying about it. You'll become more accustomed to experiencing what is happening instead of thinking about it. Gradually, spectatoring will cease to occur.
If you have racing thoughts, it means your mind is working very fast and jumping from thought to thought rather than staying on any one topic or idea. Many people have this tendency, but I see it most frequently in highly intelligent people who have cultivated the ability to switch quickly from topic to topic. Although this ability is advantageous in the work arena, it can get in the way of enjoying sex.
Fortunately, this is one of the easiest types of anxiety-related thoughts to deal with. As you start to do some of the caressing exercises described in this book, the pace at which you do the caress will actually slow your thoughts down. And when you are the passive partner in an exercise and are most susceptible to racing thoughts, your partner's slow touch will set the speed for your thoughts.
Performance thoughts, in which you think of sex as an achievement or as a performance, can also interfere with your sexual pleasure. Have you ever caught yourself thinking, "Darn, I was unable to perform," or, "Great-I achieved an orgasm"? Thinking of sex in these terms keeps you in your head rather than in your body. You become so focused on orgasm as a goal that you hardly pay attention to the sensuous feelings throughout your body and you lose track of pleasure.
Probably the most damaging type of anxious thoughts are the performance fears that lead to what sex therapists call "performance anxiety." These are thoughts that cause you to worry that someone is watching you or that something other than pleasure depends on the outcome of a sexual encounter. I have worked with people whose entire self-esteem was based on their sexual performance. If an encounter was not perfect, they were devastated. Others depended on sexual performance to build an image as a good lover or to keep a marriage together. You can imagine how much tension this can add to sex.
Performance thoughts also occur when you start to wonder if your partner is enjoying himself or herself, or wonder what he or she is thinking. Other typical performance thoughts include "Is he watching me?" "Am I doing a good job?" "Why don't I have an erection yet?" "Why isn't she coming?" or "Was his previous lover better than I am?"
These kinds of thoughts have the power to shut down pleasure. Many sex therapists believe that performance anxiety is either directly or indirectly responsible for the majority of sexual problems.
If sex has been a work or performance activity all your life, do not expect to change those feelings overnight. It will take some practice to view sex as a pleasure activity rather than a situation in which you have to achieve. But try to remember that sex is for your pleasure. The rules that apply in achievement situations-"If I try hard, I will succeed," or, "If I move faster, I will succeed"-do not apply here. In fact, they're usually counterproductive.
To enjoy the exercises in this book, you need to go as slowly as you can. You need to stop "trying." Working at an exercise instead of experiencing it won't allow you to enjoy the exercise.
If you do the exercises regularly, you will find that they actually help you decrease your performance-oriented thoughts. They do this by teaching you how to focus on your own enjoyment before you have any activity with a partner. They also do this by having you focus on your sensations, which occupies your mind and forces out those intrusive thoughts. They also do this by showing you how to interpret your partner's responses so that you have no questions or doubts about your partner's enjoyment.
But What If the Pressure Is Real?
Not all causes of anxiety and performance pressure are "in your head." What if the reason you are feeling performance pressure is because the pressure is really there? What if your partner really is putting pressure on you, rather than you putting it on yourself?
People can pressure each other sexually in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, not all of which are verbal. Verbal pressure is usually very easy to recognize. It can take the form of questions such as, "Do you have an erection yet?" or, "Are you going to come pretty soon?" or even, "Did you come?"
Nonverbal pressure is more subtle. Your sexual partner cannot read your mind. However, he or she can most likely tell if you are thinking about something else or wishing you were somewhere else. A facial expression or even a sigh can convey that you are bored with an activity or that you are somehow disappointed in your own response or your partner's response.
Excerpted from Sexual Pleasure by Barbara Keesling Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Keesling, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 19, 2002
After 13 years of marriage and 2 kids, we still don't talk about sex. It's great when we do it, but we never really discuss what we like/want from each other, or whether sex is important to our marriage. We've always been close, but not always physical. I left Keesling's book, and a long note, where my wife could find it and have some private time to react. She's now very open to talking frankly about sex, and we've "scheduled" time in the bedroom (or wherever!) for sex, as Keesling suggests. And before you ask, taking the spontenity away doesn't ruin it, it removes the anxiety, which was one of the problems. This book will help men last longer, too. And that's a good thing! It isn't a cookbook of positions, if that's what you're looking for, but it will work wonders for putting sensuality back in your sex.
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