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Playful sex a healthy treat
by Kate Zimmerman for Chatelaine Magazine

Melanie and her husband Joe could tell they were both thinking about the same thing.

Driving home from a vacation with relatives, they knew without speaking that they both had more on their minds than the condition of the highway. So they decided to treat their children to a half-hour in the candy store. The couple parked in an out-of-the-way spot, gave their 12- and 9-year-old each a few bucks, sent them down the street together to the familiar shop,  and told them not to hurry back. Then they settled in for a quickie in the mini-van.

“The kids were astounded by this unexpected treat,” says Melanie, who describes herself jokingly as “a 39-year-old vixen with the moral code of a mink.” “We were, too.”

Here’s a bonus: she and Joe would get full marks from just about any expert in human sexuality. Those kinds of spontaneous acts by consenting adults are the sign of a thriving relationship between healthy individuals.

That’s because, as London, Ontario’s Dr. Beryl Chernick says, a healthy person is a sexual person. Chernick, whose specialty is sexual medicine, co-wrote a book called In Touch: The Ladder to Sexual Satisfaction with her husband, gynecologist Dr. Noam Chernick. She doesn’t like the term “sex life” because she considers sexuality to be a necessity that is integral to our existence as humans, rather than a mere accessory.

According to Chernick, in order to be healthy sexual beings, we need to understand two things. First, she points out, throughout our life we always have our self as a sexual “partner.” Second, our physiological need for orgasmic release is our own responsibility, not our mate’s. “If that (release) happens in an intimate relationship and can be shared with a partner, that can be very nice and very positive for the individuals involved,” says Chernick in a surprisingly detached tone. But, she stresses, it’s crucial to our sexual satisfaction that we are able to please ourselves. Never mind what your granny and the church told you, in other words — hairy palms and/or blindness are a small price to pay. “The sexual need is an appetite, and we don’t look to other people to satisfy our needs,” says Chernick, adding that if your partner were away for a week, you wouldn’t put off eating until they returned — you would make sure you got fed. Sex (by oneself or with others) is just as important a need. “Look on it as taking care of yourself, nurturing yourself.”

That’s something that Shannon, 46, understands — this “girl’s” gotta have it. A divorced Calgary mother who is also a busy lawyer, Shannon still finds time to spice up her long-term romance. She’ll phone her lover’s voice-mail and leave erotic messages, telling him what she’s planning to do to him the next time they meet. She’ll send gifts to him at work — items like sexy women’s underwear sprayed with her perfume — and enclose a card telling him she can’t wait to put them on so he can take them off. The two of them occasionally arrange for Friday afternoon rendezvous at his place, where they lounge in his Jacuzzi for hours drinking wine and nibbling on delicious foods; then, they repair to the bedroom. “My favorite (strategy for great sex) is to make sure you take frequent holidays away with your lover ... and leave your kids with your husband at home,” Shannon says, laughing. Of course, um, she means her ex-husband.

The importance of sex to well-being is backed up by the (American) National Health and Social Life Survey, a poll of more than 3,100 people ages 18 to 60 that was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. That poll suggested that sexually active people were happier than those who were not sexually active. (Stop the presses!) Of the survey respondents who claimed to be extremely happy, 72 per-cent said they had had sex at least once a week over the course of the previous year. On the other hand, 73 per-cent of those who described themselves as unhappy most of the time said they hadn’t had sex on a weekly basis. Certainly Melanie and Shannon seem pretty darn cheerful. Besides that, their acne has cleared up.

Another happy camper is Naomi, an author who lives in rural Ontario. She has been married for over two decades, but says for about ten years she and her husband were only having sex about three times annually. “We were like room-mates,” she says ruefully. Four years ago, Naomi went out of town on a business trip, got drunk and was surprised when an attractive colleague made a serious pass at her. The fact that she was tempted scared her silly. On the plane home, she realized how much she valued her marriage. She decided to get fit and wound up losing 25 pounds. Suddenly — possibly due to exercise-related adrenaline, possibly to a boosted self-image — her enthusiasm for love-making was back. As a result, so was her husband’s. These days, she says about sex, “Every single time it’s fun, it’s fabulous.” For the last four years the pair has been making “the beast with two backs” (to quote Othello) at least twice a week. They are so riotous about it that their 16- and nine-year-old kids joke that they are going to have to set money aside for psychiatric help for the emotional scars caused by their parents’ interludes. “I guess the bed is making too much noise,” Naomi says, without an ounce of regret.

Naomi and her spouse obviously hadn’t lost their original spark, although it seemed that way for a while. Maybe they had kept those much-vaunted “lines of communication” open. There are two keys to a healthy sexual partnership, Chernick says: communication and chemistry. It’s difficult to explain or control chemistry, which is mysterious and ephemeral: it can be there from the start or it can develop over a period of time, as it sometimes does in arranged marriages. Explosive chemistry can also fizzle, smothered by other relationship issues.

Communication, though, is something you work at, and it can improve over the years. Chernick says when it comes to sex, it’s important to be clear with your partner about what pleases you. She’ll get no argument from Sheila MacNeil and E. Sandra Byers of the University of New Brunswick. The women released a study in 1997 in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality on “The Relationship Between Sexual Problems, Communication, and Sexual Satisfaction,” posing questions to 53 women and 34 men in long-term heterosexual relationships. The study found that even respondents who were experiencing physical sexual problems or had emotional concerns about sex were more sexually satisfied when they communicated their likes and dislikes to their partners than when they did not.

“There’s no such thing as psychic sex,” says Lou Paget, the Calgary-born, L.A.-based author of How to be a Great Lover (Broadway Books). “The big thing is communication — by touch, by attitude and by talking.” After all, lovers can’t read each other’s minds.

Or can they?

Early on in Naomi’s marriage, she and her husband went out for a walk in the woods together, pushing their four-month-old son in his plastic-covered pram in the rain. “All of a sudden I looked at (my husband), he looked at me, and we were screwing in the mud.” This is one of her fondest memories — although, living in small-town Quebec at the time, they probably occasioned some gossip as they walked through the streets afterward, coated head-to-toe in sludge.

To those of us who weren’t there, that coupling doesn’t sound romantic, exactly, or even comfortable. What it mostly sounds is funny. But according to Paget, sex between partners, wherever it takes place, is the most sensual and vulnerable form of communication. “It creates life and it creates love.”

Like most sex counselors, Paget encourages open and playful sexuality; her book is a graphic guide that includes both general and specific advice. Alex Comfort, the guru of healthy sex who wrote the 1970s bestseller The Joy of Sex says in his preface to The New Joy of Sex that “sex is a deeply rewarding form of play.” 

“Children are not encouraged to be embarrassed about their play: adults often have been and are still,” says Comfort. “So long as play is not hostile, cruel, unhappy or limiting, they need not be.”

Another sex expert concurs. “The most important thing is to see the adventure in your sexual relationship and to have fun with it,” says Lonnie Barbach, Ph.D. in Turn Ons: Pleasing Yourself While You Please Your Lover.

Chernick is with them. She says it’s also important to “continue the courtship behavior.” By this, she means putting love notes under a pillow or in a lunch-pail, taking turns setting up “dates,” playing footsie under the table, even patting the other person affectionately in passing. Not all of these will be preludes to passion, but they are ongoing gestures of love.

Many of us are like Naomi, though — thoroughly embarrassed at the thought of donning leather Merry Widows, installing bungee harnesses in the bedroom to experience “weightless sex” or getting up to any of the other kinds of self-conscious hijinks that experts seem to endorse. Paget, who is also the internationally-known originator of Sexuality Seminars, says “Playfulness has different colours to it.”

She scoffs that far too many sex guides consider the height of romance to be lighting a couple of candles and opening a bottle of wine. Paget says one of the easiest ways to excite a partner is simply to not do what is expected. In one of her book’s “Secrets from Lou’s Archives,” she says “Be more like a new lover where he/she can’t anticipate your moves.”

“Marybeth,” a Vancouverite, frequently found herself in that situation with one of her old paramours, who was shy about any kind of physical contact in public — even holding hands. As a result of his standoffishness, the two of them were always reticent when it came to the bedtime preamble. There was no mutual undressing or any of that movie-style impassioned fumbling on the way to the bedroom; they even turned away from each other while getting naked. But once they hit the sheets, there were no holds barred. Unlike some of Marybeth’s other partners, this man was extremely enthusiastic about performing oral sex. “Lots of guys say they do but he didn’t — just went for it,” she recalls. “Everything ended up thrashing and sweaty, very indecorous.” The emphasis was not on intercourse alone. As a result, says Marybeth, “When I was with him, there was this crackle of sexual tension, yet we were both bound by this unspoken physical shyness. I have no idea why. But when the checkered flag dropped, we both were already revving high.” She remembers this past relationship as the most sexually satisfying she has ever had.

Of course, who knows how long that passion might have lasted if Marybeth had married the man? There are times when what one wants from a spouse isn’t thrashing and sweat, but tenderness and affection, whether the couple is tangled between the faded sheets of the marital bed or crushed up against the old Burger King bags in the back seat of the mini-van.

Paget says the key to keeping things thrilling is variety. “We do want to have comfort food sometimes,” she says, meaning a couple’s tried-and-true sexual routine. “But we also want to try something different.”

Chernick says that’s even more important once two people are married. The energy they put into seducing one another while they were dating can quickly evaporate — especially with the prospect of Junior stumbling into the bedroom and being traumatized for life. “You have (your spouse) contractually nailed down to you. That’s the time you start taking the person for granted,” she says. “You have to make your relationship a priority .... It needs to be nurtured and it needs to be renewed or refreshed.”

She suggests that each partner take turns providing the “sexual meal,” by which she means setting the stage for love-making. That should include the practical considerations as well as the romantic ones — he/she who is in charge should arrange for the baby-sitter, or for the kids to be out for a certain time.

Chernick has no objection to sex toys, although she is skeptical of a recent assertion by Adam & Eve, an American adult mail-order catalogue company, that one in four sexually active adults has used sex toys as part of his/her sexual activity. Adam & Eve, which recently commissioned Yankelovich Partners to do a telephone survey of 1,014 adults aged 25 to 49, claims that Americans aged 40 to 49 were most likely to use the toys. Chernick isn’t totally convinced.

“My guess would be that (sex toys) are more available (than they used to be) and some people are more open to using them.” But, she says, they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Her view is that they’re like using fresh herbs in a recipe — they may brighten the flavor but the essential personality of the dish is still there. That’s why it’s crucial that “the dish” be more  satisfying than, say, No-Name macaroni-and-cheese.

A nationwide Angus Reid poll taken in 1998 said Canadians have sex an average of six times a month — considerably more often than they eat Canadian bacon. But a healthy sexuality, like a healthy appetite, doesn’t depend on meeting a quota, according to Chernick. “I don’t think anybody has done any studies showing that having a certain number of orgasms a week is necessary to one’s health — or having any.” Rather, Chernick says, the key to good health is “having one’s sexuality integrated into the rest of one’s functioning. That’s very individual. So some people might feel very satisfied with no sexual aspect to their lives, while some people might want it once a day.”

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