You read that right and this is an article all about sex! The hot, steamy, lusty, juicy, loud and noisy, toe-curling kind of sex, right? Wrong. I don't share my hard-won secrets of sexual satisfaction anymore, not that they were all that secretive. They just didn't lead to the kind of satisfaction that I and millions of other people seem to crave and can't seem to find or keep. Relationship book sales continue to rise right along with the divorce rate, which has quadrupled in this country over the past 40 years. The Census Bureau recently predicted that half of all marriages now occurring will end in divorce while the percentage of people who never marry is increasing rapidly despite the sexual revolution and a national obsession to produce more and better orgasms as a path to a better relationship.
During a luncheon conversation last fall with a recently divorced friend, I learned about a certain book with an interesting and catchy title which provided a coherent, rational, even scientific explanation for all the feelings of discomfort, suspicion, alienation and separation in her relationship, despite the presence of great sex. As a self-help book junkie, I had to take a peek at what she was reading. And another. And then I had to have my own copy of Marnia Robinson's Peace Between The Sheets: Healing with Sexual Relationships. Wow! Once I learned what was really going on behind our sex-crazed eyelids—in that primal reptilian brain of ours each time we exploded with passion—I wanted to demand warning labels tattooed on our butts that read: “Orgasm may be hazardous to your health.”
For several thousand years, ancient sacred texts from many cultures attempted to steer us away from what we call “conventional sex” or ejaculatory orgasm, and with good reasons: feeling emotionally detached following orgasm lies at the root of at least 40 percent of the divorce rate here in the U.S., according to Robinson. Strange things happen to our perceptions of each other once we're involved sexually. I've noticed it and others had too. But now some Westerner with blonde hair had melded ancient tantric methods, spiritual practice and modern research into brain chemistry, to define why this might be occurring, for women as well as men! I didn't appreciate her answer at the time, as it spelled out in graphic detail why so many of my own relationships had gone sour. The culprit? The brain chemistry of orgasms.
Biology has two basic goals for our relationships, according to Robinson, pregnancies (so more genes are passed on) and changing partners (more genetic variety, which is better for us as a species.) The way to meet this goal is by activating the pleasure/reward center in our primitive brain causing us to repeat certain activities, like procreation. The reward for orgasm (and a host of other addictive substances) is dopamine, the “craving chemical.” Unfortunately, this part of our biology puts stress on our abilities to relate, bond and connect with one another in order to meet its goals. Fidelity, trust and harmony may be lacking. We blame failed relationships on everything from lack of communication and clumsy foreplay to inharmonious planetary alignments. Robinson's research indicates the cause may be a roller coaster of neurochemical reactions in our brain much like that of a drug addict. In fact, a Dutch professor Gert Holstege has shown that the exact same parts of the brain are activated by orgasm and using heroin.
The answer? Finding a way to circumvent biology. But who wants to give up the “Big O?” This is exactly the question I posed to the author when I caught up with Marnia Robinson and her husband and research partner, Gary Wilson, at their home in Oregon last month.
Is life really worth living when we give up orgasm?
Yes, just as tantric, Taoist and even Orthodox Jewish texts have indicated for millennia, the answer is in learning to make love differently—without over-stimulating the pleasure/reward center or triggering the hangovers that lead to disharmony. Keeping the focus on activities that produce the neurochemistry of bonding, that is, lots of oxytocin, produces many benefits. You see your partner differently. You tend to remember all of the reasons you fell in love. The sense of struggle or need-to-negotiate disappears. You laugh a lot. You enjoy spoiling each other. Your spirits rise, you have fewer cravings. Oxytocin also increases the attraction between familiar partners (but not unfamiliar mates), so it's the key to authentic monogamy—just as excess dopamine is the key to our current promiscuity. Most of us are in a lot more pain than we realize, just as any addict will remain in denial about how their addiction affects them and their bodies and those around them. And we don't really know who we are until we're off the drug, in this case, dopamine.
We think orgasm is only about the high. But after the high, our brain chemistry radically changes, and the changes can linger for weeks. For a while we can ward off the hangovers with more hot sex (more dopamine), but eventually over-stimulation catches up with us. If we're feeling depleted, it seems like our partner is making unreasonable demands on us. If we're feeling needy, it seems like our partner is totally insensitive and selfish if he/she doesn't want to make us feel good.
As my husband says, the primitive part of our brain that's designed to react to snakes and predators is now activated by our partner. As I say, that's when it looks to my partner like I have live snakes for hair.
I often hear orgasm referred to as a “great stress reliever” yet you propose that it is actually a stress inducer.
Orgasm is an intense over-stimulation of the pleasure/reward center in the primitive part of the brain. It's not as beneficial as it feels like it is—because it triggers a subsequent, protective, neurochemical shutdown by the body. That's why so many men roll over and start snoring afterward. The shutdown doesn't affect everyone the same way, though. Some people feel the shift as irritability, low libido, or depression that can linger for days or weeks.
So orgasm can lead to a nasty high/low cycle, inexplicable anxiety, and painful disharmony between partners. These feelings are seriously stressful—and unhealthy. In fact, a Swedish study found that for women heart patients, disharmonious relationships affected recovery rates significantly more than work stress.
Now, loving sex of any kind is a stress reliever because loving feelings release oxytocin, a neurochemical that counters the effects of stress. The biological fertilization model tends to create increasing disharmony between partners, so there's less and less love, and more and more resentment. Resentful sex is not a stress reliever.
How does this spill over (pardon the pun) into everyday interactions between partners?
Orgasm sets off unwelcome fluctuations in brain chemicals. These shifts cause cravings (leading to behaviors like addictions, reckless spending, obsession with the thrills from watching sports, or surfing the Internet). They also cause emotional overreactions—nagging, tears, feeling victimized. Even headaches. Gary researched the neurochemical prolactin, which increases rapidly after orgasm. It appears to be a sexual satiation mechanism ... an “off switch.” The symptoms of high levels of prolactin include: low libido, depression, chronic fatigue, weight gain, and headaches. So that “proverbial headache” that women often complained of was probably real, a product of their brain chemistry changes.
Men's constant cravings for sex were real, too. Forcing dopamine levels up by engaging in hot sex, is a way to get past the prolactin barrier. But when you do that, you're using your partner as a fix, to avoid the pain of withdrawal. So the sex swiftly—and quite innocently—becomes sex without cuddly feelings. And that type of lovemaking doesn't truly nourish either partner. It just temporarily stops the pain of the down cycle, and sets off a new one.
What about us single folks? Why in the world would we be interested in giving up the one legal pleasure left to us we can do without a partner?
If you're referring to do-it-yourself sex, I think single folk would want to know that they're more likely to attract a partner if they keep their sexual desire up. Think about it. You flirt more when you're brimming with life force energy than when you're suffering from a post-orgasmic hangover! Keeping your magnet on attracts partners. And loving union is far better for your health than a roller coaster of highs and lows.
Gary, what do you have to say about living this path of non-orgasmic sex?
My life is better now than it ever has been. The thought that not having an orgasm is a big deal is wrong; orgasm is just a few seconds long. It's more about what's so good about my life now that I make love differently balanced emotions, no more depressions or addictions. I feel completely loved and supported by my partner. In other words, I'm not missing anything. It's now been three years; and for the first time in my life I don't feel the urge to get away from my partner. In fact, we are able to be together 24/7.
Most of the men who write to me say they never thought they'd hear a woman say what's in the book, but, then, I had a ghost co-author, my husband, Gary. So the book is written by a man, too.
Do you see any differences in attitudes between the gay/lesbian and straight populations regarding non-orgasmic sex?
Gay friends who have read the book have certainly noticed the same pattern in their relationships: hot sex followed by alienation between partners. Many of my gay friends are extremely spiritual people and are drawn to the idea of using their sexual energy for a higher purpose. It's tough to change though, because many are also very sexual people, and have given free rein to their urges. Heterosexuals have the same challenge, of course.
OK, why would people not want to read this book?
First, people get the idea that this calls for avoiding intercourse altogether. It's actually about making intercourse more nurturing for both partners. It's a balanced approach to sex that strengthens romantic attraction while offering surprising health benefits. The critical element is a two-week transition period I've labeled Ecstatic Exchanges which is used to reprogram the addictive response to sexual arousal.
Second, if people don't read the book, and simply hear something about it, they immediately form all sorts of entertaining misconceptions about me. I've heard that I'm “obviously a Catholic who feels guilty about sex, that I'm clearly a former member of the homosexual community, and that I'm homophobic. None of those conclusions happen to be true, by the way. It's the kind of book that both partners must have read and digested before you can begin experimenting. But couples who have tried the ideas have had a very playful and heart-opening experience.