What makes for stellar sex is user-defined, but science is showing we may need what we like. Dr. Jim Pfaus of Concordia University— whose work Naomi Wolf relies on in her latest book, Vagina: A New Biography—is pioneering studies that explain why we shouldn’t settle for subpar sessions.
1. No sex is better than bad sex
In a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Pfaus injected a group of female rats with a hormonal primer to stimulate ovulation. He then injected half of those rats with another chemical that prevented them from experiencing any sexual pleasure. The ovulating rats still able to enjoy sex exhibited signs of wanting to mate, while those ovulating but primed to not experience pleasure didn’t want to have intercourse at all. This finding—which Pfaus calls “probably the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in my lab”—suggests that while hormones motivate us to have sex, the potential of bad sex can override this impulse.
2. Sex drive = Life drive
Seeking out—and having— good sex is a self-perpetuating cycle. The neurotransmitter dopamine—which “focuses your attention on something you really want to go after,” explains Pfaus—gives us the confidence to approach mates we think will provide the most pleasure, while good sex releases opioids, which further stoke the fire. Bonus: Other research (not conducted by Pfaus) shows sexually derived dopamine can motivate us in other areas of life.
3. We can’t fall in love without it
After amazing sex, dopamine levels spike the next time we see our partner because our brains are anticipating getting more of the same. (Even a photo can do the trick: Another of Pfaus’s studies—this one published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine—found that levels of the neurotransmitter surged when subjects were shown pictures of their partners, even more than when they were shown pornographic images!) “When you look at desire in the brain, it occupies a certain space in the cortex and sub-cortical area,” he explains. “Romantic love occupies a different space, but there is significant overlap—which means you can’t really be in love with someone without desiring them sexually.” On the flip side, when dopamine levels fizzle—indicating flagging desire—so too can your love connection.
4. It’s an all-natural fix for low desire
While Viagra’s artificially induced erection can snap a man out of a sexual rut, it doesn’t have the same effect on us. “Women are way more likely to experience the increase in [blood flow to the vagina] as an increase in sexual arousal when they’re ovulating than when they’re not,” explains Pfaus. To create a drug that turns a woman on, researchers need to either combine testosterone— a by-product of ovulation that makes our brains feel desire—with Viagra, or create a pill that can calibrate the full spectrum of brain chemicals (testosterone and dopamine, among others) that make us feel like having sex. We’re at least three years away from seeing either of these options on the market, according to Pfaus—but don’t despair. “All these drugs do is prime the brain,” he explains, “which a patient lover [read: someone who does what you need] can easily do.” As for how to proceed if you’ve fallen into a pattern of ho-hum sex with your partner? Switch times, locations, clothes, positions or language to stir your desire—dopa-mine thrives on the unpredictable.
Read Jessica Johnson’s take on Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography in the October issue of FLARE