Starter Sex

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by Randall S. Frederick

Q: Have you written that article on starter sex yet? Sex in the beginning isn’t usually mind blowing. That usually comes with more trust, communication, and deeper emotional connection. So you get through the awkward beginning when you’re getting to know someone.

A: Thanks for reminding me! I know we talked about this a few weeks ago, but some things have been getting set on the backburner with the new year and a few life transitions taking place.

For me, starter sex or having sex with a new partner usually means a few pretty common experiences. You might have to talk about what you like, you will either accidentally call them by the name of a former lover, one of you will stay over a little too long, sleeping patterns will be thrown off, or their unique interests will seem weird. It will be awkward, but also exciting because it feels new and because, practically speaking, your body is overwhelmed by chemicals and hormones, trying to reach a new equilibrium. When people tell me they are “addicted to love,” I believe that may very well be true. Like any drug, your body is responding to “love” with a very pleasant rush.

Scientists point out that a few things happen when we first fall in love. Three main neurotransmitters are involved in the initial stage of attraction: adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin.

The initial stage of meeting and developing feelings for someone activates a stress response, increasing the flow of adrenaline (actually, norepinephrine) and cortisol (a steroid hormone that helps reduce stress) in the blood. Your start to sweat, your heart races, you feel flushed, your mouth goes dry and other signs of stress. This is why many guys swear that taking a woman out to a scary movie helps him make a good impression – their heart rates are accelerated, they feel stressed, and of course they are in proximity to one another. This experience “tricks” the brain towards feeling more connected with a partner than you actually are.

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher in her book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (2004), details a study where she and her colleagues examined the human brain and found that new couples had higher levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical known to stimulate the “desire and reward” part of the brain with an intense rush of pleasure. Bluntly, dopamine has the same effect as cocaine and it’s little wonder that couples talk about feeling “high” when they are with their partner because – quite literally – they are. Fisher notes that “couples often show the signs of surging dopamine: increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention, and exquisite delight in the smallest details of this novel relationship.” There’s only one flaw to this experience: it’s not always correct. It reads events and experiences in light of “desire and reward.”

Finally, serotonin is one of love’s most important chemicals. It is a neurotransmitter that is biologically derived from tryptophan, which can cause blood vessels to constrict and alter mood. More than the “rush” of adrenaline and the “high” of dopamine, serotonin causes you to experience well-being and happiness. But there is also a down side. The absence of serotonin causes dramatic swings towards depression. Lovers will say they feel “crazy” or “lovesick”, even jealousy and paranoia; this is believed to be the result of a drop in serotonin (or that loss of well-being and stability in the relationship). Serotonin, by its very nature, causes a fixation of sorts and “keeps” an idea present – whether happy or otherwise. You are able to feel very fixated on, or “connected with” your partner if there is a higher level of serotonin present. Dr. Donatella Marazziti, a psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, conducted a study similar to Fishers, this time with twenty couples she studied who were “in love” for six months or less. She concluded that the serotonin levels of new lovers were similar to the levels found in patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Lovers were inclined to idealize their partner by magnifying virtues and dismissing or explaining away flaws. This was confirmed by a study conducted by Ellen Berscheid, a researcher who has directed her work towards the psychology of love. Berscheid said that couples don’t just exalt their partner, they feel better about themselves and believe “they have a relationship that’s closer and more special than anyone else’s.”

Continuing this survey of the “love hormones” as we move from the initial Attraction stage of a relationship to the Attachment stage, scientists believe once the rush of adrenaline resumes a normalized state and that initial thrill begins to level out, the body remains swamped with hormones and chemicals, namely oxytocin and vasopressin, that create the feeling of a “bond” between partners.

Oxytocin is a very powerful hormone released during orgasm that deepens the feelings of attachment. Studies also show that women who recently gave birth are flooded with oxytocin, especially while nursing. A woman who does not experience this is immediately diagnosed with “postpartum depression” because the female body “should” be flooded with the hormone to bond with her newborn. A woman’s breast typically releases milk at the sight or sound of her baby, and scientists believe this is an evolutionary development, again, meant to establish and cement the bond between child and mother. Diane Witt, assistant professor of psychology from New York has showed that if you block the release of oxytocin in mammals like sheep and rats, they will reject their own young. Additionally, injecting oxytocin into female rats who have never had sex will cause them to fawn over another female’s young, nuzzling the pups and protecting them as if they were their own.

However, during sex and intimacy between sexual partners, the release of oxytocin makes couples feel much closer to one another after they have had sex. The theory goes that the more sex a couple has, the deeper and stronger the bond becomes. We might even go so far as to say that a woman will naturally begin to “mother” a sexual partner and will become excited or aroused by sensual engagement (sight, sound, smell, etc.) of a sexual partner, so when people say they think women are more emotionally invested in a relationship, there’s actually science to back that claim up. However, I want to emphasize that men also experience a release of oxytocin during orgasm and feel similarly towards their sexual partner.

Vasopressin is another hormone present in coupled individuals at the Attachment stage. Like oxytocin, it is released after sex and is an anti-diuretic that works with your kidneys to control thirst. In studies with prairie voles (mammals which, like humans, form fairly stable pair bonds), it was determined that the absence of vasopressin caused the prairie voles to immediately lose devotion and failed to protect their partner from new suitors. Studies on humans who experience compersion are currently undergoing trials, so currently the conclusion is that higher levels of vasopressin produce protective and bonding sentiment between partners.

This is actually one of the more interesting parts of sexual studies because, as you might imagine, there are all kinds of questions about the release of these hormones during self-stimulation and the sexual fixation that can take place. Many therapists (incorrectly) believe that you can “rewire” sexual response by flooding the body with oxytocin during orgasm to pornographic materials outside of the individual’s natural predilection. There are some early studies that would confirm this – the “imprinting” of foot fetishes, for example, in government studies during the 40’s and 50’s, but virtually every attempt to change preferences (i.e. “reparative therapy”, which attempts to make a gay person become straight) has minimal, limited to no success. In other words, exposure to sexual materials or pornography can expand the sexual horizon but cannot “redirect” it.

Now, this is all well and good but how does it apply to those first experiences of sex with a new partner? It’s my belief that, as should be obvious, the flux of these chemicals and hormones will affect your sex life and the way you experience a relationship – at least the degree of trust and emotional connection you mentioned earlier.

I’m hesitant to say “love is really just a collection of chemicals and hormones in the human body” or that there is no such thing as emotional or mental connection with another human. I do not look forward to the day when we reduce the human experience to science. However, as it relates to those first encounters with a new partner, I think it’s important to keep in mind that your mind is tricked out to believe things will always be magical, and when a partner does not live up to the “high” expectations that the cocktail or hormones has convinced us they are able to produce, then… well… maybe we need to give them another chance. Then another. And prepare ourselves to be more realistic.

I like what the character Brooke said in an episode of That ’70s Show. In the sixth season, one of the characters discovers that the library loans out Playboy magazine. He goes to the library, gets a stack of the magazines, and tries to check them out. But the librarian Brooke won’t let him have them. She knows he has a girlfriend and proceeds to tell him, “Go buy Donna some flowers and thank God that an actual, live woman lets you touch her.” As much as we might idealize a sexual partner, lust after them, fantasize about them, and imagine them in all kinds of gymnastic poses meant to curl our toes and roll our eyes to the back of our heads, the fact is, you’re only going to enjoy sex the more you practice it. Every penis is different, every vagina is different, and everyone wants (or expects) different things. Personally, I think the initial awkwardness is amazing – it proves the diversity of the sexual experience. Sure, sex can be bad initially but with a good amount of humor and a willingness to keep trying, things can get much better.

There are some pretty general ideas about how to get over this problem, even ones I’ve already named. Communicate more. Keep trying. Lower expectations and learn to enjoy what is new and unique about this partner. But sometimes that’s very vague and, really, stuff you already know to do.

What I like to do – this is me, my own preferences, so if it doesn’t feel right for you, don’t sweat it – is focus on what is working. I don’t feel a need to rush things. When I have a new sexual partner, I try to remain mindful of a few things.

  1. When I am present in the current moment, and not looking for or expecting something, I am better able to focus on this moment rather than compare this moment to something else. “Let this be this, that be that,” is the mantra when I feel anxious.
  2. Even “so-so” sex is better than most of the other stuff I could be doing right now. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s true. I would rather be having sex, or feel the body of another human with me, than watch another rerun of Big Bang Theory or Seinfeld.
  3. I’m not going to rush this. If something isn’t working, I’m okay staying at a level where things are working and feel good for both of us. When I was younger, I felt like sex as all about the orgasm. I wanted to get to the orgasm as fast as possible. But sex isn’t about that for me anymore, it’s about enjoying what we’re doing.
  4. Stick with what works, talk about it (later!) if it doesn’t. Talking about what’s “wrong” in the moment doesn’t help things. If something is too much (or not enough) for me, I will redirect what we are doing and address it later, when we’re not in an aroused state. In the meantime, stick with what works. Slow down, speed up, do whatever you need to do – but if it works? Do that.
  5. I can always stop. Again, that might sound overly simple but if sex with a new partner is just bad – just terrible – then I can always stop what we’re doing.
  6. If sex is awkward for me, it’s not my partner’s responsibility to “fix it.” It’s mine. I am responsible for my own sexual activities. Yes, we can talk. We should be talking. But if I’m bothered and I’m bringing that to the bedroom, then really I’m the one who is causing the problem. Being angry, frustrated, or disappointed only makes things worse, so I need to do what I can to address the awkwardness.
  7. Have fun! My god, people can get so uptight about sex! Laugh about it and lighten up. Don’t be so serious that it makes sex an unpleasant or confusing experience for either of you. Once, a woman asked me to
  8. Name the awkwardness. Being vague or, worse, quietly enduring sex doesn’t make it better. If things are awkward, just call it out. There have been times when I haven’t been able to get a full erection, and my partner will ask, “Hey. You okay?” and I’ll say, “I’m really tired. But I’m enjoying what we’re doing. Is that okay for tonight?” and once we’ve named it, addressed it, and offered an alternative, it usually works out. Another time, a woman I was seeing was very uncomfortable, and I asked her what was wrong. She said she had to go to the bathroom and – kid you not – she asked if I would drive her home. I did. And no sooner did I get back to my driveway then she called me back, asked me to come over, and we picked up where we left off. It’s only “awkward” if you don’t have a name for it.

Hope this starts to get at what you were asking! As always, feel free to redirect the question or give some of your own insights in the comment section.

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