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Let's Talk Lasting Sexual Connections with Emily Nagoski

Let's Talk Lasting Sexual Connections with Emily Nagoski

by Team Champ - January 16, 2024

Champ is proud to be partnering with Emily Nagoski, New York Times bestselling author of Come As You Are, on the launch of her newest book Come Together, an illuminating exploration of how to maintain a happy sex life in a long-term relationship.

Emily, a Kinsey Institute trained PhD has answered several questions posed by readers of our blog, The Huddle. Read her responses below, and check out Come Together, published by Ballantine Books, available on January 30, in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. You can get a copy anywhere you buy books. And follow Emily on social media on Instagram and Facebook.

Question 1: What are some common sex myths that should be dispelled for couples that have been in long term relationships?

Oh gosh, so many. I think the most destructive myth is the idea that sex in a long-term relationship “should” be like sex in a short-term relationship. There is no “should” in sexuality; as we sex educators like to say, “stop ‘shoulding’ on yourself.” But we all have an image in our heads of what a lasting sexual connection looks like, and I’m here to tell you that that image is wrong.

Here’s an example of the wrong image a lot of us have in our minds: We think that a great sexual relationship starts out with lots of hot-and-heavy, can’t-wait-to-get-my-hands-on-you “spark” of spontaneous desire, and that this is the right, normal, best kind of desire. We think that that spark can’t really last very long, and yet we should do everything we can to try to “keep that spark alive,” to make our long-term sexual connection the same as that short-term sexual connection.

When we look at the research on people who have great sex and people who have great sex in the long-term, they do not talk about spark. Desire barely squeaks onto the list of the ten most important characteristics of great sex.

There’s a metaphor I use for this in both Come As You Are and Come Together: Imagine that your sexuality is a garden. On the day we’re born, we each get a little plot of rich and fertile soil that is the sexual response system in our brains. Immediately our families of origin and our cultures begin to plant ideas about bodies and sex and gender and love and safety and touch, and these ideas grow as we get older. By the time we get to adulthood, our sexuality are these fully grown gardens. Some of us get lucky, with gardens full of ideas we want to cultivate and harvest … but most of us get stuck with some pretty toxic crap that actually makes it really difficult to experience sex we really enjoy. When that’s the case, we can go row by row through the garden, considering each of these ideas and deciding which ones we want to keep and which we want to pull and throw on the compost heap to rot. It’s not fair that we have to do this work – after all, we didn’t get to choose what got planted in our garden to begin with – but it is an opportunity to create an erotic self that truly reflects who we are, rather than who we were taught we “should” be.

Early in a relationship, partners visit each other’s gardens and see what it’s like to play in those spaces. But eventually, you begin to cultivate a shared garden. You bring your favorite plants from your garden; your partner brings their favorites from theirs … and you hope these plants don’t strangle each other! This is the difference between sex in a long-term connection versus a short-term connection. Are you just visiting each other’s gardens? Or are you cultivating something new together?

Our long-term erotic connection is a shared hobby, something we prioritize in our relationship because it matters to us, not because we’re so horny we can’t help it.

Here’s a couple questions to get partners started on thinking and talking about sex in a way similar to people who have extraordinary sex think and talk about sex:

  • What is it that you want, when you want sex with your partner? (Hint: It’s not orgasm. You can probably do that on your own, and if you can’t there are whole books to help you with that.)
  • And what is it that you don’t want, when you don’t want sex?

These questions replace, “Why won’t you have sex with me?” or “Why did we lose the spark?”

Question 2: Why do couples in-long term relationships lose their spark? And what can be done to maintain it?

Honestly, if I could eliminate one phrase from the English language, it would be “keep the spark alive.” The research on couples who sustain strong sexual connections over the long term, especially the people who self-identify as having extraordinary sex, tells us that these folks do not talk about desire or “spark” or novelty.

What people are actually saying when they say they’ve lost “spark” is not that they’ve lost desire, it’s that they’ve lost pleasure. There’s two ways this can show up:

First, let’s think of a couple that goes to sex therapy and Partner A says to the therapist, “I’m sorry if this hurts my partner’s feelings but, even though I used to want sex, I’d be fine if we never had sex again.”

If the couple is lucky enough to have Peggy Kleinplatz, Canadian sex therapist and researcher, as their therapist, she might offer this important prompt: “Tell me more about this sex you don’t want.”

The sex the couple describes is, predictably, “dismal and disappointing.” Maybe it’s sex where Partner A doesn’t feel like their needs are being met. Maybe they’ve only been doing it out of a sense of obligation or because they feel like it will hurt their partner’s feelings if they don’t. Maybe they have fantasies they long to experiment with but they’ve never been able to bring themselves to talk about it, and so they’ve just been going along with business as usual. Maybe they’re too tired, too unhappy in their relationship, too stressed by life, too touched-out by kids to care about sex. Maybe they’ve felt like their partner has never listened to what they want or like, not in all these years, and so they’ve given up on the idea that their own pleasure might matter.

This couple does not have a desire problem; Partner A is not dysfunctional. Here’s the wild yet completely obvious truth:


This couple’s solution is to find out, as Peggy Kleinplatz puts it in her book Magnificent Sex, what kind of sex is worth wanting. There are now dozens of therapists trained in the evidence-based couples’ group sex therapy based on this research.

But there’s another way that “low desire” or lack of “spark” can show up. What if Partner A, the “low desire” partner knows that the sex would be great… if only they could get themselves started. But they just … can’t. They’re stuck; they feel a million miles away from their erotic selves and the idea of finding their way to a sexy state of mind just seems exhausting.

This was my own experience. The stress of writing my first book was so great that, even though I was thinking and reading and writing and talking about sex all the time, I had zero interest in actually having any sex. For months, nothing!

And my solution takes two whole chapters to explain in the book, but here is the ultra-short version, to get you started if this is your situation:

The brain mechanism that controls sexual response is called the “dual control model.” It has two main parts: an accelerator and brakes. The accelerator responds to all the sex-related stimulation it receives, which includes everything you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste, as well as everything you think, believe, or imagine and all of your internal body sensations. In response to any sex-related stimulus, it sends a “turn on” signal. At the same time, in parallel, your brakes are noticing all the good reasons not to be turned on right now – everything you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste, along with everything you think, believe, or imagine and all your body sensations that your brain interprets as a potential threat. These brakes send a “turn off” signal in response to any stimulus it interprets as a potential threat. Arousal, then, is a dual process of turning on the “on’s” and turning off the “off’s.”

And it turns out that, well, sometimes people struggle with arousal, desire, orgasm, or pleasure because there’s not enough stimulation to the accelerator – i.e., not enough sex-related stimulation – but much more often, people struggle because there’s too much stimulation to the brakes! Stress, depression, anxiety, relationship issues, exhaustion, illness, body image issues, and trauma are just a few of the very common things that keep the brakes on.

The upshot of this is that our brains are only capable of experiencing pleasure – and thus “sex worth wanting” - in contexts where the brakes are freed up.

A simple place to start is making a list of things you already know activate the accelerator and things that hit your brakes. Each partner can write a list – it can also be illuminating to try to write lists of what you each think are on the other partner’s lists! How well do you know what activates the accelerator and what hits the brakes? Hint: A lot of the things will have nothing to do with sex itself and everything to do with the larger context! Think about the external circumstances of your relationship and lives and about the internal states of mood, stress, and self-image.

That’s plenty to make a good start, for lots of people. It wasn’t enough for me, when I was stuck in a mental place where I couldn’t access my erotic self. If it’s not enough for you, look for the Emotional Floorplan in Come Together.

tl;dr: What characterizes great sex? Not desire, but pleasure. Do you like the sex you’re having? Great! If not, no wonder you don’t want it!

Forget about “spark” and the idea of spontaneously, out-of-the-blue wanting sex. Instead, think about pleasure. In what contexts – external circumstances and internal mental/emotional states – is it easy for you and your partner to experience pleasure? What can you each do to make it easier for you both to experience pleasure? When we put pleasure at the center of our definition of sexual well-being, all the other pieces will fall into place, including desire.

What if we lived in a world where we only ever had sex we enjoyed? And – get this! – what if we didn’t even feel bad about not having sex we don’t enjoy?

Question 3: If the passion has left a long-term relationship, can introducing new experiences or toys / lube renew the passion? What do you recommend?

Everyone – every person who reads this! yes, you! – should experiment with lube until they find something that’s right for them. Lube isn’t just about passion or novelty or sexiness, it’s about the health of our delicate genital tissues. It’s particularly important when penetration is involved, but even for external stimulation, friction can cause irritation and even tearing. That irritation and tearing are not just painful; they can actually increase the risk of infection, by creating direct little pathways into the bloodstream. By reducing friction and increasing “slip,” lube protects our genitals from that irritation and that increased risk of infection.

Reducing friction also reduces risk of pain and increases pleasure! Unwanted pain with sex is never normal; often, a combination of (1) spending more time becoming aroused before you touch the genitals and (2) using a lube you love can be enough to eliminate pain. (If it is not, find a great medical provider to help you. Unwanted pain is never normal, and the longer you “tolerate” the pain, the more your brain learns that sex hurts; and the more your brain learns that sex hurts, the more difficult it will become to be interested in having sex. Again: it is normal not to want sex you do not like!)

Instead of thinking about renewing “passion,” I think about it as renewing pleasure.

Anyone using barriers like condoms or dams and anyone whose genitals are impacted by the hormone changes of aging (I’m 46 and already have significant changes to my vaginal walls! It starts earlier than we think!), should definitely try some kind of lube every time they engage in direct contact with their genitals. 

There are three broad categories of lube: water-based, silicone-based, and oil-based. Which is right for you? It depends on what barriers you’re using, what your sensitivities are, and what your sensory preferences are.

WATER. These are the default lubes. Look for short ingredient lists and, if you have any sensitivities at all, avoid features like heating, cooling, or flavors. Those are for people whose bodies don’t get irritated by fragrances and things. Water-based lubes are safe to use with any kind of barrier and with any toy, which is what makes them such an easy choice. Their only drawback is that they dry out – of course they do! Friction is heat, and heat plus water equals evaporation. So you’ll need to use more water-based lube than other types. Also, as the water evaporates, you’re sometimes left with a kind of tacky-feeling, sticky goo that doesn’t always feel super-sexy.

OIL. Someone once asked me “What’s the sexiest thing in your kitchen?” and I answered, “Coconut oil!” Especially for any kind of anal play (whether external or internal), oil makes a great lubricant. (Think about it – it’s food! Our butts are built to deal with food!) Oils that are solid at room temp, like coconut oil or shea butter, will melt at body temperature, so there’s an opportunity for fun temperature play, pulling a jar straight from the fridge and gently circling the chilled oil over a sensitive body part, letting it melt into skin.

The main reason not to choose a lube with oil in it is if you’re using a latex barrier like a condom or dam.

SILICONE. I am a silicone lube evangelist. Some people feel that silicone is less “natural” than oil- or water-based lubes, but they (1) are waterproof, (2) unlike oil-based lubes, are safe to use with all barriers, including barrier forms of birth control; (3) unlike water-based lubes and many oil-based lubes, last longer than you do, probably, and (4) dry to a soft powder-like finish, rather than the sticky, gummy mess you might experience with water-based lubes. Plus, if you get a high-quality lube with a short ingredient list, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll have an adverse reaction. In 20 years of traveling around the world talking about silicone lube, I have met one single person who had an adverse skin reaction to a silicone lube.

The main reason not to use silicone lube is if you’re using some types of silicone toys. I’ve heard horror stories of lube bottles spilling in a nightstand drawer and an expensive silicone toy melting in the puddle. Not all lubes and not all toys react this way, but silicone toys do tend to be on the spendier side, so to protect your investment, stick with water- or oil-based lubes with those.

USE LUBE, even if it’s just you and your hand. And your genitals deserve better than regular hand lotion.

Toys! Toys are great for two reasons. First, vibration offers an intensity of stimulation that no organic stimulation can match, so if a person struggles with orgasm, a vibrator can be an amazing assist, adding stimulation to the accelerator in a way no body part can.  

Second, they are toys and sex, at its best, is playful. Biologically, play is any activity we engage in for its own sake, with nothing at stake, and playfulness is the mammalian emotion of friendship. We play together for fun, for laughter, for joy. Nobody’s being tested, the relationship isn’t at risk, everybody is glad to be there and free to leave with no unwanted consequences (including no emotional consequences like guilt!). Maybe we fumble, but because there’s nothing at stake, we can say, “Oops sorry!” and keep playing. Toys are a great way to add playfulness, experimentation, joy, and stakes-free trying of something new, finding out what sensations our bodies can experience, what stories we can invent together, what games we can play, whether we’re competing against each other or playing on the same team.

The idea of eroticism as play is particularly important for men, because so many guys are raised to believe that the stakes are life-or-death high when it comes to sex, as if a dude’s whole self-worth can be determined by whether or when or how often or what kind of sex happens in their lives. It can shatter a guy’s identity if his genitals don’t behave the way he wants them to or if his partner doesn’t respond the way he thinks they’re “supposed to.” In reality, high-stakes sex is the exception in great long-term sexual connections, and joyful, playful, laughing sex is more the rule.

As Dorothy Sayers wrote back in 1935, “The only sin that passion can commit is to be joyless. It must lie down with laughter or make its bed in hell – there can be no middle way.”