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'Comfort Sex': Is It A Bad Thing?

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COMFORT SEX
alamy

Have you ever gotten that craving for sex, but not for the usual reasons? After a particularly rotten date, a silly fight with one of my best friends, or maybe just one of those days when nothing seems to go my way, I tend to call a certain "acquaintance" who is more than happy to have me over for a few hours between the sheets. This guy isn't someone I'd date, or even consider a friend, but he does have a knack for taking me from forlorn to very content faster than any other remedy I've tried.

Here's the strange part, though: These aren't wild, amazing, did-it-on-every-surface-of-the-apartment liaisons. The sex is good, but it's not life-changing. And even stranger, that's why I like it. Every time it goes pretty much the way I expect, no more, no less. Our encounters don't rock my world -- but they do leave me full of endorphins and also that warm, safe feeling you get from simply being held. Exactly what I needed.

This is not how I've ever heard that single women approach. When you haven't been sleeping with the same person for years and aren't subject to the sexual monotony that often accompanies monogamy, aren't you supposed to be going for the hair-pulling, multi-orgasmic, passionate throw-down every time?

There are times when I even feel guilty about regularly seeking something that isn't quite that. And what is this something, exactly? Not friends with benefits -- as previously stated, my occasional partner and I are not friends. It's not casual sex because it's about more than sex -- I'm looking to soothe myself emotionally as much as sexually.

Finally, I asked an expert. '"People have sex for a lot of different reasons, and one of them is to be soothed and comforted," Chicago sex therapist Michael Seiler, Ph.D. told me, which sounded entirely too obvious and like it didn't really answer my question. But then I realized: I've always thought of soothing and comfort as part of sex, sure, but a side effect, not the main reason you seek it out.

Here's what I've decided: Sometimes, single people want sex like we want fried chicken or ice cream or a box of Entenmann's chocolate covered doughnuts. It's a quick fix -- you don't expect it to sustain you, and you know it probably wouldn't be good for you to indulge in too, too often. It's what you want right now, though, and right now, that's okay.

And if it's okay, then I figure it's probably okay to share a few things I've learned about comfort sex over the course of having a fair amount of it:

Comfort sex doesn't have to be shady. Part of what makes it comfortable, at least in my experience, is that you do it with someone you know. There's a good reason for that: according to experts, women often don't have orgasms right off the bat with new partners. No orgasm means not so comforting. For me, it takes a while with someone before I build the trust I need to reach climax, and friends I've talked to feel the same way. Cathy (all names have been changed) says she only orgasms if a man goes down on her first. "And to me, that's more intimate than intercourse, so I won't do that with someone until we've been to bed a couple times." Angelina reiterates the point, "I know how to make myself come like clockwork, but that's because I tell my partner exactly what to do. For most guys, this is a total turn-on." But, she adds, "It's physically, not to mention emotionally, more stimulating to be with someone I'm comfortable with."

Comfort sex happens inside and outside of relationships. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows, comfort sex is relatively common, even if you've never thought of it in those terms. There are times when you have sex to soothe yourself or each other emotionally through sex. So seeking it when you're single isn't that strange. Why would being single cause your appetite for comfort sex to vanish?

Predictable pleasure isn't a bad thing. Although we live in a "couples culture," we're also inundated with the message that we should constantly be seeking variety. From positions to roleplaying to multiple partners, we're constantly encouraged to try something new and fresh, especially when it comes to sex. But, argues sex counselor, Ian Kerner, Ph.D., "The virtues of comfort sex are vastly underrated. [It's] like ordering takeout from your favorite Chinese restaurant: Sure, you know what you're getting and there's no need to ponder the menu, but the meal hits the spot."

In my last relationship, after a month of living with my partner, I'd orgasm pretty much every time we had sex in the six years we were together. I'd also enjoy the moments afterwards, when he and I would share an authentic connection, one that was elusive in many other aspects of the relationship. Comfort sex may have been routine, and not as Cirque-du-Soleil as in the showmanship stages of our courtship, but on a lousy day, it made me feel good.

Comfort sex doesn't have to be with an actual person. In case this is news to anyone, women watch porn. Lots of it. And in that strange, not-sustaining-but-what-I-want-now way, porn can be comforting. My friend Kyle, who also happens to be a women's health advocate, enjoys porn on a regular basis. "What I like in porn isn't necessarily what I like in sex. It's mindless, and along with a glass of wine and battery-operated device, provides a very relaxing evening."

If porn isn't your thing, there's a variety of social networking sites where you can safely, discretely, and from the comfort of your own bed, chat until you get off. I never thought of myself as a sex-chatter, until one night I tried it with an old high school buddy. At first we were just catching up on Facebook, but after an hour or two, things started getting a little steamy. I fell asleep afterward completely at ease, satisfied without putting forth all that much effort. Who knew?

Be careful of comfort sex with an ex. Although comfort sex might be the most tempting with an ex, for me, this has been a slippery slope. Sex with an ex is loaded with all kinds of other issues -- anger or disappointment over the break-up, longing for a return to a something that obviously didn't work in the first place, and of course, memories that can trigger distress rather than comfort.

My friend Amelia, who'd regularly indulge in ex comfort sex says she did it "because he felt familiar," not because she wanted to get back together with him, but the nostalgia rationale is problematic, too. It might feel good in the moment, but if you make it a habit, it can keep you from actively looking for a new partner, someone with whom you don't share a broken history. Amelia eventually had to quit him. "Sometimes the sex would leave me feeling sad afterwards," she told me, "so it just wasn't worth it."

That's a lot to consider when you were looking for sex that you don't have to think about that much, but figuring out what that yearning was about helped me, at least, feel more in control of my choices. It's fun to be impulsive, but that impulsivity can be a lot more fun -- and, well, comforting -- if somewhere in your mind you've considered all of the options, and possible outcomes. The ultimate litmus test I've found for comfort sex is this: When I feel that familiar yen, I ask myself the same basic question I would with a box of Entenmann's in hand: Is this going to make me feel better or worse in the morning?

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