Sex Tips: Finding Your Sexual Flow

Emily Jamea, Ph.D., is a sex therapist, author and podcast host. You can find her here each month to share her latest thoughts about sex.

Serena and Jake returned for a check-in session. It had been two months since we rounded out our therapy together, but — like most clients — they wanted an “accountability” session to make sure they were still on the right track.

They initially sought me out for help working through desire issues. They’d been married for 15 years and found themselves in a rut. Jake struggled to get in the mood because of stress at work and the fatigue that comes with getting older. Serena found herself tapped out after running the children back and forth to their countless activities, wanting nothing more than an hour alone at the end of the day to unwind.

I helped them find ways to reconnect, and they happily reported that things were still going well since they’d last seen me. But I sensed a “but.”

“But,” Jake said, “we want more.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Serena jumped in. “Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “we are so thankful for all we’ve achieved with you. We were like two ships passing in the night before therapy. We are leaps and bounds better than that, but I feel like there’s still room for improvement. It’s hard for me to articulate what exactly we’re wanting.”

“The best way I can describe it,” Jake said, “is that sex feels a little robotic. I want sex to feel like it appears to feel in the movies — effortless. I want more passion. I want to get lost in the moment. That isn’t happening yet.”

If Jake and Serena had seen me five years ago, I would have told them what all sex therapists are trained to say when couples say they want Hollywood-style sex. I would have reminded them that sex is more scripted than ever when it happens on screen and that those are actors paid to pretend like they’re getting lost in the moment. I would have popped their fantasy for sex like that, adjusted their expectations and sent them on their merry way.

I noticed, however, that more and more of my clients were expressing that they wanted more. I could easily help them overcome things like low desire, inability to orgasm or erectile dysfunction, but I struggled to give them actionable tools to have not just good sex but exceptional sex.

I contemplated ways to help them. I thought about the words they used to describe the sex they wanted — sex that I thought only happened in the honeymoon stage. Like Jake, they wanted to feel lost in the experience, totally absorbed, a feeling of merger. They wanted spiritual sex, even if they weren’t religious.

And then I had a lightbulb moment. They wanted to experience a state of flow during sex. A state of flow happens when you’re engaged in an activity that makes it seem like time speeds up or slows down. There is a sense of effortlessness despite feeling in control. The activity has 100% of your attention and focus. Think of a surfer who describes being at one with a wave or an artist who gets lost in a painting.

Flow is a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He spent decades researching flow all around the world and discovered that it’s universal. Surgeons, factory workers, jazz ensembles, athletes, artists — everybody is capable of flow. He identified eight core characteristics:

  • Complete concentration
  • Transformation of time
  • Merger of action and awareness
  • Balance of challenge and skills
  • Clear goals and immediate feedback
  • A feeling of control over the task
  • Intrinsic reward
  • A sense of effortlessness

It’s not necessary to experience all eight of these characteristics at the same time, but most people experience at least a few when they’re in a state of flow.

I turned my attention to the academic research to see what I could find about the relationship between flow and sex, but came up blank. I was shocked. A state of flow is what my clients would love to feel when they make love. The closest research I could find was a series of studies done by Peggy Kleinplatz. She sourced people who experienced “optimal sex,” and interviewed them to find out what set those experiences apart. They used similar language to flow. For example, many of them described sex that was transcendent and gave them a feeling of merger, but there were also some differences.

I set out to get some answers and initiated my own research study. I studied 100 individuals who were in long-term monogamous relationships. I didn’t include couples who might still be having “honeymoon” sex. I hoped to debunk the myth that great sex only happens in the early days of a relationship or is only reserved for the young and able-bodied. I administered two questionnaires — one that assessed sexual satisfaction and one that assessed whether couples were experiencing a state of flow during sex. In support of my hypothesis, I discovered that there was a positive correlation between flow and sexual satisfaction, and that experiencing a state of flow predicted greater satisfaction.

You may be wondering what the secrets are. Researchers have identified several flow triggers. Venturing slightly outside your normal comfort zone, minimizing distraction so you can fully focus, having a “yes, and …” attitude when collaborating on things to try with your partner, and being more fully present in your body all help trigger a state of flow. J

I decided to teach Jake and Serena some ways they could experience a state of flow during sex. Lo and behold, it worked! They were finally able to experience the feeling they’d been longing.

Anyone can learn to experience a state of flow during sex. Follow me for more flow guidance and stay tuned for the release of my upcoming book, which takes a deep dive into flow and sex.

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