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Intercourse vs. Orgasm

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Not long ago, a Canadian research team discovered something surprising: In the recipe for great sex, orgasm is optional. Said the head researcher, "There is plenty of evidence that most people believe that the secret to sexual fulfillment is technical, that it's about better manual and oral stimulation techniques." In fact, "You could have terrible sex with orgasms and despite orgasms, but you could have optimal sexuality without orgasm."

So where did humans get the idea that sex must always lead to orgasm? At first I suspected our primitive mammalian mating program, which delivers a reinforcing "Yes!" with each climax. Turns out there's more to the story. Both the Church and the experts who compiled the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) have contributed to the belief that intercourse must be fertilization-driven (or orgasm-driven).

Church father Augustine of Hippo (b. 354 CE) is well known for his prayer, "Grant me chastity and continence...but not yet!" Less well known is his conclusion that because sex is a consequence of the "animal" in man--and animals have no interest in using sex to foster love or unity -- the proper use of sex in marriage is strictly for breeding. Whoa!

Actually, the infamous bonobo chimps, whose males sport supersize testicles to produce lots of competitive sperm, nevertheless engage in "rather casual and relaxed" sexual activity for social bonding, frequently without orgasm. And macaque male monkeys ejaculate in scarcely half of their copulations. That's probably more than the Church fathers would have wanted to know, but the point is that primate sex often serves goals other than fertilization or orgasm.

Augustine's error has been used to fend off some of sex's most uplifting gifts. In the last century, when Belgian and French Catholics discovered that gentle intercourse without orgasm was a "means of achieving a more perfect, more spiritual conjugal love," the pope condemned it. Some Church authorities actually declared "incomplete sexual acts" mortal sins.

When it comes to orgasm, Church authorities are not the only conservatives. Whenever I've asked experts about doing a few weeks of research comparing the stress levels or healing speeds of couples engaging in orgasm-based sex with couples practicing gentle intercourse without the goal of orgasm, I received the same advice: "That wouldn't get past our ethics committee because sex without orgasm is considered a paraphilia, or sexual disorder." (However, this pro-orgasm experiment passed: electrical devices were implanted in women's spines to see if they would produce climaxes via remote control.)

Now I have no doubt that people have sometimes avoided orgasm during sex for pathological reasons. But benefits from the practice of gentle intercourse without orgasm have been reported so often, and in so many cultures, that emotionally healthy people must have made this choice too.

In any event, are our codified convictions serving lovers? They create unnecessary distress and frustration in the less orgasmic or anorgasmic -- and their mates. They also indirectly bolster the assumption that pursuing sexual urges to exhaustion is a neutral, or even beneficial, practice. For instance, a man recently assured me that, "men ejaculate 1-3 times a day." Persuaded as he is that men are veritable semen fountains, he might be startled to learn that when subjects engaged in mere a "10-day depletion experience," ejaculating an average of 2.4 times per day, their sperm output remained below pre-depletion levels for more than five months.

What other not-so-welcome, subtle changes accompany this one, given the powerful influence of our delicate reward circuitry (the brain mechanism behind our drives) on equilibrium and mood?

I suspect that orgasm feels great not because it is an unqualified health or psychological benefit, but because our genes want us to expend our effort on their top priority: propelling them into the next generation.

The neurochemical "Yes!" of climax may not indicate that we're equipped to engage in orgasm-driven sex every time we feel sexual desire. Just as a love of fine chocolate doesn't mean that we'd be wise to eat an entire box. A 20-year old found this out the hard way:

We knew we weren't going to see each other for a while so we had sex 4 times in the night and once in the morning. The next day, I had weird feelings like I was pulling away from her or didn't want her or something, which cannot be because I know I love this girl. I feel very fatigued, light headed or zoned out, and depressed. This is not like me.

As I learn more about the effects of sex on the brain, I realize it makes sense to take into account how recently, or intensely, we have climaxed. It appears that frequent, or especially intense, orgasm can create tolerance (a need for increasing stimulation to achieve future orgasms). It can also lead to satiety and habituation, which may show up as subconscious irritation, out of sync libidos, performance demands and insecurities. And it may promote the use of risky sexual enhancement measures as lovers try to overcome their built-in biological brakes with force. Not to be alarmist, but Viagra, for example, has been associated with sudden, irreversible blindness and has been blamed for many deaths through heart attack and stroke. Perhaps we are pressuring ourselves to reach unrealistic benchmarks.

Meanwhile, gentle, relaxed intercourse without orgasm is "off limits" (for Catholics) and "dysfunctional" (for the rest of us). As a consequence, if couples don't know about, or have fallen out of the habit of, using other daily bonding behaviors to sustain the sparkle in their relationship, they are quite likely to rely only on sex with attempted orgasm(s) to keep their union strong.

What would bonobo life look like if one of the chimps' favorite social-bonding techniques, rubbing genitals, had to result in mutual climax--or produce disappointment and resentment? I think zoologists would see a lot of cranky chimps.

A more relaxed approach to sex may prove especially beneficial for pair-bonders like us. Our nervous system appears to reward us for both close, trusted companionship and the exchange of selfless, affection. In other pair-bonding species, "sexual behavior is neither especially frequent nor especially fervent." Many interactions between mates take the form of resting together, mutual grooming, and "hanging out." (The Myth of Monogamy)

Maybe our limitations exist to urge us toward less driven affection. Perhaps it's time to expand our lovemaking repertoire to include relaxed, non-goal-oriented sexual activity with the primary goals of closer bonds and increased contentment.

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