Humans search far and wide for the key to a healthy, satisfying sex life. There are bloggers, writers, podcast hosts, scientists, doctors and psychologist who participate regularly in—and even devote their lives to— the everlasting dialogue surrounding sexual satisfaction and pleasure.
The fact of the matter is that there is no single way to have a good sex life. Some people need toys, some people need to be dominated, some people need to start sleeping with a different gender, some people need to move out of Texas and others just need to start masturbating more.
We are all complex, fascinating sexual beings and the only way to understand and enjoy each other sexually is to have empathy–the ability to understand and share the feelings of another– toward the people we choose to share our bodies with. It makes a lot of sense, considering sex is supposed to be mutually pleasurable and satisfying; however, it seems far too rare that we truly invest ourselves in the emotional, physical and mental well-being of the people with whom we engage in such a highly intimate act.
On a recent episode of the Savage Lovecast, advice columnist and talk show host Dan Savage answered a question from a woman who had experienced pain and bleeding during a particularly rough session of sex from behind. When she told her partner that the sex was so hard that it had made her bleed, her boyfriend’s response was, “oops.” Dan’s advice: “Never fuck him again.”
Dan’s advice was wise because the woman’s boyfriend lacked empathy. In the heat of the moment he was so overwhelmed with and consumed by his own pleasure that he forgot to consider the woman who was sharing her body with him. Once the sex was over, he failed to show either compassion or concern toward the person who had provided him with pleasure that was not returned.
It seems that in many instances, people enter into sexual relationships with hopes of the sex being good right away. Unfortunately, sex can’t become good without communication and understanding, both of which require some level of emotional intimacy with our sexual partners. Even if communication happens the very first time, the simple fact that a discussion happened means you have become more intimate with that person than you have with most people in your life.
Nine times out of ten, our partners are going to have some sort of emotional hang-up, a position that is uncomfortable, a past sexual experience that is inhibiting them or a preference that they are too embarrassed to share. We’re all complicated. We’re all human. To assume that a certain level of emotional vulnerability doesn’t precede good sex is an assumption that will set you up for disappointment and failure.
In order to receive honest information from our sexual partners, we need to be empathetic. We have to consider our own hesitations and insecurities about sex and do our partners the absolutely wonderful gesture of asking. We have to ask each other what we want, what feels good and what doesn’t, because without empathy, reciprocity is nearly impossible to achieve.
We can’t just ask, though. We have to actually care about the information we receive. We have to care that sex feels good for our partners, rather than painful. We have to care about our partners having orgasms. We have to understand if our partners aren’t in the mood. We have to stop being so ignorant that we’d hope to have sex with people who don’t bring any baggage with them to the bedroom.
Even during a fleeting sexual encounter with a stranger, having empathy toward your partner awards you the opportunity to become more experienced and understand more about how a person’s body works. You get to walk away feeling good about what you participated in because you gave pleasure, received pleasure and opened your mind up to learning about the preferences of a person other than yourself.
Ultimately, empathy is the reason why we yearn to have sex with actual, live human beings. Empathy is the reason why porn, vibrating dildos, phone sex, strip clubs and other substitutes just don’t do the trick for most people. The more empathy that is involved in a sexual encounter, the better the sex will be for both parties. Having empathy toward your partner means you get to not only experience your own pleasure, but the pleasure of another real human being.