I can’t get no satisfaction.
Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones
As a marriage and family therapist, I have had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of people about how they define “good sex.” These discussions have taught me that defining and understanding satisfying sex is not easy. My clients’ answers cover a broad spectrum of physical and emotional factors that work together to determine the quality of a sexual experience.
Research mirrors my clients’ complex definitions of sexual satisfaction. For example, Brody and Weiss (2010) found that orgasm and sexual satisfaction were associated with greater life, relationship, and mental health satisfaction. Studies like this one reveal how interconnected sex is with other aspects of life.
There are also differences in how men and women rate the importance of the various factors that lead to sexual satisfaction (see Schwartz & Young, 2009 for a review). For example, men attribute greater significance to sexual frequency than women do (although a majority of both sexes report wanting sex at least twice per week). For women, relationship factors such as emotional connection and commitment are more strongly associated with sexual satisfaction than they are for men (but men still identify them as important).
Sexual satisfaction is not only defined by how well bodies fit together. It is also a product of a healthy mind and strong relationship.
Human emotion plays an important role in determining sexual satisfaction. Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) explains how humans develop emotional bonds with one another and decades of research has shown that emotional attachment styles are linked to a myriad of outcomes including sexual satisfaction. The various attachment styles are distinguished by the degree to which we perceive ourselves as worthy of being loved. A secure attachment style fosters love and connection and is formed in relationships where we receive and give consistent and sensitive care. When securely attached partners have sex, they are more sensitive to one another’s needs and engage in sex as a way of expressing how much they value one another. Unsurprisingly, this attachment style is associated with the highest levels of sexual satisfaction (Peloquin et al., 2013). An anxious attachment style is defined by an excessive fear of rejection and abandonment and is reinforced by personal insecurities and relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable. Given the strong association between anxiety and sexual dysfunction (McCabe et al., 2010), it is not hard to understand why an anxious attachment style can lead to less satisfying sex. An avoidant attachment style is characterized by discomfort with emotional intimacy and is often a consequence of broken promises and mistrust in our relationships. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to be less sensitive to the needs of their partner during sex and their motivations for sex are often unemotional and selfish, leading to a dissatisfying sex life overall (Peloquin et al., 2013).
Having a working knowledge of the human body and the mechanics of sex helps us overcome insecurities and learn how to have satisfying sex. For example, men who wish they had a larger penis (the average erect penis is just over 5 inches in length) may be comforted to learn that 85% of women are satisfied with their partner’s penis (Lever et al., 2006). This is unsurprising because a larger than average penis is longer than the average woman’s vagina and can cause discomfort and pain during sex. Women frustrated by orgasm difficulty during sex should know that research shows this problem is often temporary and that many learn to reach orgasm more consistently during sex through masturbation and improved communication (see Graham, 2009 for a review). Because it dispels myths and improves technique, sex education plays an important role in increasing sexual satisfaction.
Good sex is multidimensional: more than just arousal and orgasm, it is an offshoot of relationship quality, emotional well-being, and mental health. With so many ingredients included in the recipe for sexual satisfaction, we tend to rate sex like we would a five-course meal. Some of us will prefer the entrée while others will favor the appetizer or dessert. Fortunately, partners don’t have to agree on their favorite course in order to be mutually satisfied with the meal as a whole.