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The Differences Between Hook-Up Sex, Marital Sex and Making Love in Today's Relationships

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One part of my overall theme in these posts -- about rethinking psychological health in today's tumultuous, interconnected world -- includes looking with a fresh eye at the kinds of intimate relationships people enter into, and the conflicts that result.

With respect to sexual relationships, in particular, I find that they generally take one of three forms in today's culture: "Hook-Up Sex," "Marital Sex," and the elusive -- and rare -- "Making Love." I think confusion about how they differ plays a major role in the sexual-romantic conflicts that men and women typically experience.

First, some clarification about what I mean by each term. "Hook-Up Sex" refers to just plain f**ing. That is, a purely physical encounter. "Marital Sex" is the kind of sex life that most committed couples tend to have -- married or not, straight or gay. And "Making Love" is a different kind of experience altogether, one that transcends both of the other two kinds.

That is, the three kinds of sexual relationships occur on different planes, different levels of integration between your physical, animal being, your relational and your spiritual being. The kind of sexual life you have -- and its conflicts -- are embedded in the overall relationship you learn and how you "practice" it with your partner. I've described some of these connections in my previous posts on our adolescent model of love and the positive power of "indifference." Most relationships limit one's capacity for "Making Love."

Hook-Up Sex
"You know how there's good sex, great sex, and then really great sex? That's what it was like with her!" With gleaming eyes, Ken was telling me about his latest sexual encounter. He was a 44 year-old trust fund guy who lived with his mother and had never married. He entered therapy because he wanted to learn why he hadn't been able to form a lasting relationship.

In Hook-Up Sex you and your partner use each other's bodies for your own pleasure. It can be extremely intense and arousing, especially when you feel lust towards a new partner. There's a place for this kind of sex, but it's also the most primitive, least evolved form of sex. It reflects the purely animal part of being human -- our physiological needs and impulses. We share those with other animal species. From a human standpoint, though, it's mostly void of relationship beyond the physical connection; a form of playing through using each other's bodies.

Aside from Ken's deeper emotional issues that he'd never faced or dealt with, another barrier to his forming a relationship was that he had turned sex into a technique-dominated sport. He saw himself as a great lover and, in fact, had become very proficient in Tantric sexual practices. Handsome and charming, he was able to find women eager to participate. Tantric and related practices are, in fact, part of "Making Love," but they can also be misused. Ken's mastery of them had become an end in itself, and they were entirely divorced from human connection, beyond pure sex.

He was like a character in Nobel laureate Doris Lessing's novel, The Four-Gated City, a man who had become a master of Tantric sex, but had devolved as a human being. He had no soul-to-soul connection with any of the women he drew into his serial sexual relationships.

Marital Sex
"Dr. LaBier," she said, "I read that women require an average of 14 minutes of sexual stimulation to reach orgasm. Maybe that's the problem -- that Tom's just not a good lover." 

Julie and her husband had descended into what I call a "functional relationship." They didn't have sex much anymore, and when they did it was pretty uninspired. They remained committed to each other, though, and wanted to improve their sex life. Their sex life was an example of what most long-term couples experience, as research and surveys have documented.

"Marital Sex" reflects a higher plane than "Hook-Up" sex because it includes some degree of emotional connection and intimacy. At least it does at the beginning of the relationship. But what tends to happen is what this couple experienced: Their sex life became entangled with the conflicts and disagreements that had accumulated over the years. They brought all of that into the bedroom with them.

For example, Julie didn't talk very openly with Tom about what she wanted, sexually. She carried the residue of shame about revealing her sexual desires, shame that originated in her relationship with her mother. She was dealing with that in therapy, but that shame had joined with a still-existing view in our culture that a woman who expresses herself sexually must be a slut/whore. Moreover, Julie and Tom had descended into the low-level, adversarial power-struggle so typical of the functional relationship. So, learning new sex techniques or acquiring new sexual knowledge wasn't going to elevate their sexual relationship beyond Marital Sex.

Sometimes Marital Sex includes a Hook-Up sexual experience -- perhaps when on a vacation, or aided by ingesting substances, legal or illegal. And it shares with Hook-Up sex what sex therapist Joseph Kramer calls "balloon sex:" Building up tension, followed by release, mostly focused on the genitals. Nevertheless, Marital Sex is further along the continuum because it includes some degree of emotional, relational connection, in addition to sex. Couples who have Marital Sex like something about each other as people. Or at least they did at one time, when they first got together.

That relational connection is both good and bad. The good part is that your relationship is more humanly evolved, and contains the possibility of evolving towards Making Love. The bad part is that all the feelings, conflicts, non-mutual behavior, hiding out and manipulation characteristic of the adolescent model of love can seep into your sex life like a growing virus. For example, withholding sex as punishment, or using it as leverage for manipulating your partner in some way. Or projecting and reenacting all sorts of unresolved family, parental, and sibling issues in your relationship. Michael Vincent Miller described much of this in Intimate Terrorism, about the sex lives of modern couples bound by struggles for possession and power over the other. All of that usually leads to diminished sexual connection over time.

In short, couples that have Marital Sex play out in the bedroom everything unspoken and unresolved from outside the bedroom. Julie may have learned how long it takes to reach an orgasm, but she didn't know much about what she and Tom need to do along the way to build a heightened, fulfilling and energized sexual relationship.

Making Love
For most people, their "normal" development into adult relationships cripples their capacity for moving beyond Marital Sex. But integrating what I call Radical Transparency and Words-Into-Actions with specific sexual practices can heighten energy, connection and excitement between partners on all levels of their relationship. Doing that is the path to the most evolved, integrated mind-body-spirit relationship: Making Love.

You might think of this as "spiritual sex," but I think that term is too easily equated -- mistakenly -- with only ecstatic physical experience. And some recent research indicates that seeking just the experience of transcendent, physical sex can also increase the likelihood of unprotected sex. Instead, envision two partners whose sex life is interwoven with heightened mind, body, and spiritual connection.

That is, Tantric and similar Eastern practices like Qi gong will enhance conscious energy flow between partners and that "ego-less" state that people often long for. But your sexual relationship elevates to that higher plane only when you join that energy to the energy that comes from open communication and equality in your daily behavior with your partner. This integration focuses you and your partner on your shared journey through life on this planet, including larger issues about your sense of meaning and purpose in the world. As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, "Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life is meaningless."

The physical practices that are part of Making Love are aimed at building, increasing, and exchanging the sexual energy of your and your partner's body. They are important pathways to elevating and steadily expanding pleasure throughout your entire body. In contrast to "balloon sex," this form of sex broadens, deepens, expands and sustains arousal and positive tension between you and your partner. Orgasm is no longer the end-state to hurry towards. In fact, Making Love doesn't even have to include genital intercourse. Couples who are unable to or who don't have genital sex are still able to evolve towards the heightened mind-body-spiritual state of Making Love.

Most of the sexual techniques share a common core of meditative, breathing, and physical movement exercises with your partner, combined with extended foreplay. They help you let go of your ego-needs -- for example, simply wanting to be given pleasure, or wanting to make your partner experience pleasure.

While sexual techniques build and increase energy exchange and flow, the quality and level of arousal and pleasure your and your partner experience sexually depends on the extent to which you're doing building connection and arousal in the other parts of your relationship.

That is, when you treat each other as equal human beings within your daily relationship, and you're transparent about your inner life and emotions, you automatically feel more stimulation and excitement with each other. When you feel connected as equals and yet engage each other as separate, distinct individuals as well, that generates new energy and it enhances the sexual energy between the two of you.

There are many good sources of information and guidance for building heightened sexual engagement, equality and openness in your relationship -- through books, videos and workshops. Some of the most substantial and useful include Margo Anand's guides to Tantric practices; Kenneth Cohen's detailed description of Qi gong sexuality; and Pepper Schwartz's works, including building equality in relationships.

I think one of the best descriptions of Making Love is a passage in another of Doris Lessing's works, the allegorical novel The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. There, she describes the power of heightened sexual connection when it's equal and reciprocal between two partners. In the story, the man was required to be apart from his new wife, during which time he became "ready" to learn equality and sensuality. Now, they meet again:

He had remembered something entirely blotted from his mind during that enervating month. The light, glancing, inflaming kisses that he had not known how to answer, had gone from his mind. The invitation, the answer and question, the mutual response and counter-response -- none of this had been within the provision of the courtesan Elys, since she had never in her life enjoyed an equal relation with anyone, man or woman.

(His wife) came to him, and began to teach him how to be equal and ready in love. It was quite shocking for him, because it laid him open to pleasures he had certainly not imagined with Elys. There was no possible comparison between the heavily sensualities of that, and the changes and answerings of these rhythms. He was laid open not only to physical responses he had not imagined, but worse, to emotions he had no desire at all to feel. He was engulfed in tenderness, in passion, in the wildest intensities that he did not know whether to call pain or delight... and this on and on, while she, completely at ease, at home in her country, took him further and further every moment, a determined, but quiet companion.

He could not of course sustain it for long. Equality is not learned in a lesson or two... But even as far as he could stand it, he had been introduced to his potentialities beyond anything he had believed possible. And when they desisted, and he was half relieved and half sorry that the intensitites were over, she did not allow him to sink back again away from the plane of sensitivity they had both achieved. They made love all that night, and all the following day, and they did not stop at all for food, though they did ask for a little wine, and when they had been entirely and thoroughly wedded, so that they could no longer tell through touch where one began and the other ended, and had to look, with their eyes, to find it, they fell into a deep sleep...

Striving for the Making Love type of sexual partnership keeps your relationship alive and growing. Couples who build such a relationship feel enduring connection and sustained passion. Their relationship becomes resilient through all of the changes and challenges that people face along the path of life. And it becomes a portal into continues spiritual evolution, individually and as a couple.

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