You know you’ve done something either terribly right or terribly wrong if you’ve made your girlfriend cry in bed.
Just a moment before, things were going quite well, it seemed. And by things, I mean sex. After a morning spent cleaning the apartment and going for a run together, we nestled into the couch with the goal of watching a movie, but soon we were holding hands and rubbing arms. We’d started having sex slowly and increased speed until we ended (and by ended, I mean climaxed) facing each other, lips and hips locked and eyes open. We had both broken a sweat. It felt like we’d been dancing. And then, she started to cry.
Until this point, our fresh relationship had been full of frequent, heart-pounding, loud sex. We were making up, passionately, for lost time. It could have been a coincidence that we met each other in the same place in life, after we’d both suffered through years of near-sexless former relationships. But it didn’t feel like coincidence—it felt like fate. And for both of us, to be wanted again was incredible.
When we were together, we were usually in bed. And by in bed, I mean having sex; but sex didn’t always take place in a bed. When we couldn’t be together, we exchanged late-night texts and calls that lasted for hours. We Facebook-stalked each other, so deep ran our desire to be together. But she had never cried before.
When I asked her what it meant, she told me: She felt close to me at that moment, like we were really connected and committed. I felt exactly the same way. And I’d decided that this relationship was the one—that I wanted her not just for sex or even as a girlfriend, but as a partner. Somehow, something I’d done had let her know that.
Once I knew that the crying was a sign of not just good sex but great sex—that she felt deeply satisfied both physically and emotionally—it became my goal. The trouble would be figuring out just what it was I had done. The bar had been set high. From then on, I was going for that deep connection every time. I was looking for tears.
SOON WE HAD MOVED past that initial stage of the relationship and settled into a routine. She had a new job and a new apartment, and the time we’d spent fawning over each other had become filled with normal chores. Sex seemed less frequent and certainly more forced. Somehow I thought that if we had more sex, we’d find that connection again. Instead she felt pressured when I’d grab her between showering and leaving for work. And when I say grab her, I mean try to have sex. And when I say on her way to work, I mean just that; she needed to go to work.
It all came to a head one night when we were out to dinner with close friends. The subject of how often we all had sex came up, and the other couple claimed they had a rendezvous daily. Back home, I told her it had made me envious. We’d had good sex twice that week and she wanted to know why that couldn’t have been enough. She felt pressured. I didn’t know what to do. It was time to call in a consultant.
Over lunch with an editor of this magazine, I gingerly asked for help. Men’s Health has a resident sex doctor; a bona fide sexpert, if you will. Maybe I could pick her brain? I did, and here we are: a commissioned article with a view, dear reader, on how you too can have the kind of sex that makes your girlfriend or wife weep with happiness.
Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a sex researcher, columnist, and author of many books, including Sex Made Easy and Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva, the very territory I was trying to navigate. The good doctor asked me how long my wife and I had been together—10 months. “Oh, good,” she replied, “enough time to settle in.” Well, I thought, that’s exactly the problem.
Herbenick sent me a list of suggestions. I had hoped for some wild proposals, like “Try some anal” or “Have sex several times a day.” But her list seemed tame. Exercise together? Sure, we’d done that on the day of epic sex. And there were a few ideas we hadn’t explored, like using lube or a vibrator with each other, but most of the activities were things we did occasionally anyway. And I wondered how doing more chores would translate into soul-melding sex. I didn’t even know what “mindfulness” during sex meant.
That is how I found myself feeling rather creepy at the local Barnes & Noble. If you ever need to go shopping for sex books, avoid the hour between 3 and 4 p.m., when high school kids tend to use the store as a study hall. I tried to be discreet as I thumbed through volumes on tantric positions and blow job techniques while at my feet a pair of 16-year-olds discussed Of Mice and Men.
I settled on two books: Herbenick’s Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction and Barbara Carrellas’s Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century. The woman at the checkout asked if I wanted a bag. “Yes, please.”
At home, I began reading Herbenick’s book. It has some detailed chapters about female anatomy, but what really struck me was her overall theme: Take the pressure off, relax, and have more meaningful sex—even if that means the sex is less frequent. Most of the book is not about creating a better sex life directly. It is focused on building a better relationship. The theory is, if you can become more comfortable, communicative, and relaxed with your other half, good sex will follow.
Certainly I had been making some of Herbenick’s classic errors. I had put pressure on our sex life, and it was causing strain. We had been fighting more often and nitpicking at each other. Herbenick’s advice—take the pressure off the bedroom and enjoy your partner—seemed more than sound.
She recommended things like spending more time cuddling, kissing, and touching throughout the week, even (especially, in fact) when we were not having sex. Doing something new together. like taking a class or trying a new sport, seemed like a baby step, but it was worth a shot. We signed up for a dance class. I made a point to rub her head (something she loves) while we watched TV, without expecting it to escalate to sex. We divided and conquered the laundry and dishes.
And did it lead to better sex? No, not right away. But when we made a point to try her suggestions, we felt closer to each other. Maybe it was working, but it was too soon to tell. It was time to take the research to the next level. It was time to go sex-toy shopping.
WHEN WE MET that evening after work, we were a little nervous. As we walked into Babeland—a New York-based sex-toy chain—neither of us knew what to expect. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some fear that she’d choose an enormous dildo that would put my package to shame. We stood side by side, staring at the wall of brightly colored, mostly phallic machines, neither of us knowing where to start. And there was something nice about that. We were in it together, even if “it” was a state of slightly uncomfortable naivete.
The employees at Babeland are trained for this. They quickly picked up on our trepidation and offered friendly, unassuming advice. “Well, this is made to tickle the perineum,” the manager said. My girlfriend and I looked at each other, both wondering just what a perineum was. It turns out it’s the sensitive space between the holes on a woman or the testicles and the hole on a man. I’d heard of it, but it was called the “taint,” as in, ‘taint this hole or that one but in between. In any case, “perineum” sounded more sophisticated.
We wandered over to the lube section and got the lowdown on the difference between water-based and silicone-based. We had never used lube before and weren’t sure we needed to, but in the name of science and learning, we bought three different kinds.
SLOWLY BUT SURELY we put each of Herbenick’s suggestions to the test. Sometimes we followed just one of them (like the explorative, which meant incorporating at least four or five sexual acts in one session: oral on her, oral on me, vaginal, breast touching, toy play, genital touching, and so on). And some days we would unconsciously follow several tips, like doing an activity together along with nonsexual touching and chores. Still, there was no profound connection, no tears.
But something had changed in me. I wasn’t going for tears anymore. With the idea of taking the pressure off, I had made a point of relinquishing expectations, including any lofty, teary goals. It is notable that we were indeed having less sex. But if no one was counting, then neither one of us cared.
Sometimes we would just roll around and laugh. Sometimes we would rub each other’s backs. By setting the goal of a superintense emotional experience every time, I had set us up for failure. She told me once, “Sometimes, I want it to be just a rollicking good time…”
Point taken. From then on there was a new goal: to have fun (in bed or otherwise) with the person we loved. After all, that is exactly what a healthy relationship is supposed to be: fun.
And did it work? I’ll tell you.
But first, let me expound on the wonders of lube. Of all the suggestions, personal lubricant had the most surprising outcome. We each felt it was unnecessary—we’re only in our mid-30s!—and I suppose for us it is. But many of the best things in life are unnecessary. Lube changes the way sex feels, and in a very good way.
Of the three types we’ve tried, we each have a favorite. I like the friction-less feel of silicone-based lube, while she prefers the water-based lubricant, which feels more natural. Neither of us really cares for the “natural stimulating lubricant” that is supposed to heighten sensitivity, but it was fun to try. My advice: Buy any and all lube that intrigues you, and make a night of it. Some will work for you and others might not, but slipping and sliding around with someone you care for is never a bad move.
Not every suggestion worked. The coital alignment technique, for instance—a version of the missionary position in which the man shifts his body upward to make the base of his penis align with her clitoris—felt awkward and not pleasurable for either of us. The vibrator seemed like it would be a fun experiment—and it was. But ultimately it did not bring increased pleasure. It felt too artificial and mechanical.
But it was important that we tried, because in trying we found what succeeded for us. And the very act of experimenting with each other was fun and brought us closer. Sexperiments are quite possibly the key to better sex.
SO, THEN, did it work?
One evening after a long day, we met back at our apartment. She had just been out for a run around the park (that’s 1 behavior), and I was making dinner. We told each other about the funny things that had happened during our respective days and the articles we’d read and liked. We cleaned up the kitchen and did the dishes (a little 8), not together exactly, but with the same goal: some time to relax with each other. We had no other plans and no pressure. We moved slowly. I touched her. She touched me. There was no rush, just the two of us enjoying being together. It had a bit of a 4 feel to it. We played around with one kind of lube (good old 3) and then another. After some time, we were hurtling along the sex slip ‘n’ slide.
It would have been great sex whether it was a rollicking good time or a serious, meditative, profound experience. It would have been great sex whether it was a long, slow marathon or an intense sprint. In fact, it was a little of all those things. When we finished, we were sitting facing each other. I had one hand on her back, and she had one hand on mine. We stared at each other for only a second before she fell backward onto the mattress—and started crying. But she wasn’t just crying; she was laughing too.
This time I knew what I had done. We had set aside time for us—not just a night, but everyday time. We had removed expectations of frequent, raucous sex and replaced them with intentions of making the other person happy. We had begun to build a solid foundation for our relationship. All of these things are ingredients for a better sex life.
That said, a little lube always helps. (Fun fact: Lube also has a surprising—and beneficial—effect on your erection. Click here to learn what it is.)
No. 1 Exercise together
University of Texas researchers found that vigorous exercise activates a woman’s sympathetic nervous system, which is also activated during sexual arousal. So both her body and her brain are in the mood.
No. 2 Use a vibrator
In her 2009 study Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., M.P.H., found that vibrators are linked to positive sexual function, such as desire and ease of orgasm. Intimidated? Don’t be. Here’s our tutorial on how to use a vibrator.
No. 3 Use lube
A 2011 study from Indiana University linked lube use with greater sexual pleasure and comfort.
No. 4 Mindfulness
Women are more likely than men to be distracted while having sex. Canadian research found that by focusing on the sights, sounds, and feelings of sex, women have greater desire and arousal.
No. 5 Coital Alignment Technique
This position—the man shifts forward to press the base of his penis against her clitoris—can make it easier for her to have an orgasm.
No. 6 Cuddle, kiss, touch
But don’t have sex. According to Kinsey Institute research, women often think kissing means he’s looking for sex. Removing that pressure leads to greater relationship satisfaction for men.
No. 7 Do something new together
Novelty sparks hormones in the brain similar to those released when you were falling in love, concluded a study at SUNY-Stony Brook.
No. 8 Do chores together
Women bear the brunt of household chores. And in study after study, women have said that they find it a turn-on when their partner pitches in to help.
No. 9 Multitask in bed
A national survey from Indiana University found that doing at least four or five sexual acts at each session was a strong predictor of orgasm. That could mean they just spent more time having sex—or that variety is exciting. Our opinion: Do your own research.