Pleasure vs. Validation
How two functions of sex are often conflated, and what to do about it
You and Alex are on your third date. Things are going really well and the mood is sublime. Later in the evening, you invite Alex home.
At your place, everything is going perfectly. You’re touching arms, you’re laughing at each other’s jokes, and the atmosphere is playful and flirty. Soon, you and Alex are kissing on the couch.
Alex would love to see your bedroom, and once there, you start talking about all the things you want to do with each other. Moments later, you’re in the throws of ecstasy, tangled in Alex’s body.
In your post-orgasmic bliss, you feel fantastic.
Do you feel fantastic because you’ve just experienced a rush of pleasurable sensations and you can feel the serotonin and dopamine flooding your brain?
Or do you feel fantastic because Alex wanted you, and you feel validated by their desire?
Hours before you had sex, you didn’t know for sure if this person you were dating was really into you. Sure, they sent you nice texts, they took you on three great dates so far, and they sent lots of signals during your time together that demonstrated their affection.
But now, after the sex, you have some pretty solid evidence to suggest that they do, in fact, like you.
That’s a great feeling! Congratulations! Someone likes you! Woohoo! 🎉
Here’s the thing, though: the feeling of validation that sex provides, while fantastic, isn’t everlasting
True, in the first few weeks or months of a relationship, the feeling of validation is new and exciting. You may be having sex many times per week (or even many times per day 😜) and it can feel so amazing to have a new person in your life who continually reaffirms that you are desirable, sexy, and attractive.
But the positive feeling of validation may divert your attention from the more durable positive aspects of sex: the feeling of sexual pleasure itself.
For such a simple bodily function, sex is sometimes extremely complex. Sex can be weaponized or withheld, it can be used as a bargaining chip or as a point of leverage, it can be a holy rite of consummation or a base act of possessiveness. Even in its simplest form between two lovers, sex is almost always accompanied by a whole host of other feelings. These feelings are yolked to the act of sex — and they’re seemingly inescapable — but they are all manifestations of the ways we have been socialized.
Many of us view sex with another person as something very special in a way that drinking tea with another person or riding the subway together is not. Across cultures, the mere thought of sex will conjure up different feelings for different people, and on the level of the individual, we’ve all been raised and informed by our experiences in such a way as to make our attitudes toward sex completely distinct. Sex becomes wrapped in a swirling concoction of multiple feelings and emotions, and that blend is unique for all of us.
We can discuss whether we believe this socialization is a benefit or a detriment to society — I once had a partner who insisted that all the world’s problems are because sex is seen as such a big deal — but for better or worse, sex is a pretty big deal for most of us.
This can lead to some confusion: are we having sex purely for the intrinsic pleasure, or are we having sex for the extrinsic feelings that accompany the act?
If we treat sex as something instrumental (“I need to have sex in order to feel safe” or “I want to have sex in order to feel young”), we risk conflating the innate joys of sex with the confounding variable of the secondary emotions that come with it.
Imagine a continuation of the story above.
After your fabulous third date, you and Alex continue seeing each other. Months later, you’ve said “I love you” to each other more times than you can count and you’ve moved in together. You feel closer to Alex than ever, and you think you may have found your life partner. You’ve even adopted a cat!
And yet something strange has happened — rather than having sex more often, you’ve started having sex less often.
This kind of scenario is all too common: we see it play out in the media tropes and stereotypes of the sexless marriage and the couple that’s looking to rekindle their “lost spark.” Granted, there could be several factors at play in these relationships. Some might attribute the less frequent sex to sheer boredom; others might say that once we know that something is abundant, we psychologically don’t value that thing as highly.
I suspect, however, that this decrease can often be attributed to the fact that the secondary emotions that accompany sex are no longer satisfying or necessary.
If you and Alex were having sex because you craved the feeling of validation, then once you moved in together and adopted a cat, you became certain of Alex’s desire, and so the feeling that was formerly provided by sex is redundant and unnecessary.
When we no longer require the feeling of validation — when the craving is satisfied and we’re sure of our partner’s desire for us — we may paradoxically start having sex less often.
Even worse, we may seek to gratify the longing for validation in other partners. If our desire to feel desired isn’t being realized, then some of us might feel spurred to infidelity. There may be nothing wrong with this in a polyamorous relationship, but for monogamous couples, this could be a huge breach of trust.
Sex is tricky because we often conflate pleasure with validation, and so the sensations become difficult to decouple in our minds.
So what is the antidote to this conflation? How can we ensure that we aren’t associating one feeling with another?
For starters, there’s nothing inherently wrong with feeling multiple emotions at a time during sex. Sex can and should make us feel close, connected, present, grounded, and yes, desired. However, it is important to realize that these emotions are bundled, and they may be as tangled together in our minds as our limbs are in our bodies. Being mindful and introspective can help by encouraging us to ask ourselves why we feel a particular way. Recognizing the multiple emotions at play is the first step towards untangling them.
Second, raise this conversation with your partner. Ask them why they feel the way they do after sex, and listen to their responses with open-minded curiosity. They may tell you that they like having sex for a reason that you hadn’t even considered.
Finally, in a relationship where sex is no longer needed to provide the feeling of validation, try to focus purely on the delights of the body. Revel in the sensations of your flesh and cast an inward eye towards unlocking the depths of your own pleasure, then cast that eye outward and endeavor to be the most generous lover you can be. Enjoy the pure, naked feelings of physical communion, and ask yourself “Is this not enough?”
I truly believe that when we focus exclusively on the pleasures of sex, we realize that we don’t require anything more.
Now go out there and get it on with Alex! 😉