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Unlocking her orgasm — lots of great data from a study of Finnish women… who finish. Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.
Classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) refers to a learning procedure in which a biologically potent stimulus (e.g. food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell). It also refers to the learning process that results from this pairing, through which the neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response (e.g. salivation) that is usually similar to the one elicited by the potent stimulus.
For our purposes, we’re going to talk about how to train yourself and your spouse by pairing a sexualbiologically potent stimulus with a neutral stimulus so that we can elicit sexual arousal by activating the neutral stimulus. A concrete example, from the link above:
Sexy Corte has Pavlov’ed me to get turned on whenever I see her put her hair up. When we’re getting into sexy time, especially Old Faithful, pulling her hair up is usually the final bit of preparation. No matter if we’re alone or in public it really gets me going, especially when she catches my eye in the process. It isn’t just seeing her hair up that does it, it’s seeing her in the act of putting her hair up that turns me on.
When her hair goes up, she goes down — the two events are linked in my brain so that I get turned on merely by watching her put up her hair. I know we’re not the only couple with this conditioning, because there’s an internet meme about it.
So what exactly is classical conditioning? Here’s some terminology to get started:
Unconditioned stimulus: Pavlov called the biological stimulus — the one that doesn’t need to be trained — the unconditioned stimulus. This is the stimulus that naturally, biologically, leads to the response you’re trying to elicit. For example, kissing, genital stimulation, and dirty talk naturally lead to arousal (the unconditioned response) because of human biology. These stimuli don’t need to be conditioned to get the right response, they just work.
Unconditioned response: The unconditioned response is an unlearned, biological, reflexive response to the unconditioned stimulus. This is the natural response to the unconditioned stimulus that you’re going to train yourself to pair with a neutral stimulus. For example, when your spouse kisses you (unconditioned stimulus) you get aroused (unconditioned response).
Conditioned stimulus: This is what you’re working to create! The conditioned stimulus isn’t naturally (biologically) paired with your desired response. This is a neutral stimulus that you want to link to the desired response by using classical conditioning. For our purposes, just about anything non-sexual can be a conditioned stimulus: non-sexual touch, non-sexual speech, non-sexual clothing, a sound, a look, etc.
Conditioned response: The conditioned response is a replica of the unconditioned response, but excited by the conditioned stimulus.
The goal of classical conditioning is to pair the conditioned stimulus with the unconditioned response, so that when the subject experiences the conditioned stimulus he or she will reflexively exhibit a conditioned response that replicates the unconditioned response. For example:
Unconditioned stimulus: Sexy Corte (puts her hair in a ponytail and) performs oral sex on me. (The italic part is the conditioned stimulus embedded in the unconditioned stimulus for training purposes.)
Unconditioned response: I get an erection.
Conditioned stimulus: Sexy Corte puts her hair in a ponytail.
Conditioned response: I get an erection.
Classical conditioning is amazing for several reasons:
Classical conditioning works even if you know it’s being done to you. Classical conditioning doesn’t need to be done secretly or through trickery. You and your spouse can talk about conditioning each other and then make it happen. There’s some evidence that it works better if you know you’re being conditioned.
Classical conditioning works on everyone. Whether you have a high or low sex drive, varying love languages, or difficulty talking about sex, you can train yourselves with classical conditioning. You don’t have to believe in it for it to work. It’s biological, and it works on everyone.
You can condition yourself. By triggering unconditioned responses in yourself you can modify your own behavior — for example, to cultivate a taste for coffee, vegetables, or that sex act your spouse is always asking for.
(Note: operant conditioning is a bit different — it’s about training a subject by rewarding or punishing voluntary behavior, whereas classical conditioning is about linking biological involuntary responses to neutral stimuli.)
Let’s get to it: how can you condition yourself and your spouse to enhance your sexual experience?
Pick an unconditioned response you want to trigger and the unconditioned stimulus that naturally elicits it. For discussion purposes here, we’re going to assume that you want to trigger sexual arousal. The unconditioned stimulus is anything that naturally leads to the desired unconditioned response — so anything sexual that naturally creates sexual arousal.
Pick a conditioned stimulus you want to link to that unconditioned response. For Sexy Corte, I use a light touch on the upper-middle of her back as the conditioned stimulus. This stimulus isn’t sexual on its own, but I want it to arouse her (unconditioned response).
Condition acquisition: Execute the conditioning by performing the unconditioned stimulus at the same time as the conditioned stimulus. It doesn’t matter too much which you do first, but you want to do them as close to the same time as possible. For Sexy Corte, I rub her upper back in a circular motion when she has an orgasm. All the sexual stimulation is the unconditioned stimulus, and the orgasm is the unconditioned response; by performing the conditioned stimulus (back rub) at the same time, I create a linkage between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned response (arousal and orgasm). The more frequently you execute the acquisition behavior, the stronger the conditioning will be.
Conditioned stimulation: After the subject has acquired the conditioning, you can trigger the conditioned response by performing the conditioned stimulus. For Sexy Corte, she gets aroused and starts to purr when I rub her upper back, often without her even noticing. In addition, when she is close to orgasm I can often push her over the edge by rubbing a small circle on her upper back.
Condition extinction: When the conditioned stimulus is used to excite the (un)conditioned response in the absence of the unconditioned stimulus the conditioning will eventually degrade and become extinct — the link between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned response breaks down. For Sexy Corte, if I rubbed her back all the time without direct sexual stimulation, eventually the conditioning would break and it wouldn’t turn her on anymore. This extinction process means that it’s important to repeat the acquisition behavior of the conditioning frequently, to keep the conditioned stimulus tightly linked to the unconditioned response. However, even when conditioning becomes extinct it is generally easy to reacquire or renew it simply by repeating the acquisition behavior again.
Here are some examples of unconditioned stimuli you could easily link to sex. Simply use one of these consistently before or during your sexual encounter, and your spouse will get aroused when you exhibit it again. They key is that while training you should only the selected stimulus when you’re going to quickly initiate sex — once the conditioning takes hold you can space things out a little more, but keep an eye out for signs of extinction. If you use the stimulus and then don’t follow through you will frustrate and upset your spouse, so don’t do that, it’s mean.
Sight: Wearing certain piece of jewelry; wearing no panties; putting your hair up in a ponytail; a special wink; bending over a certain way
Sound: A bell (that’s what Pavlov used!); a few special code words; a certain song or playlist; a growl or purr; a command (“go get in bed and take off your clothes”); a request (“please sir”)
Smell: A certain perfume or soap; incense you burn during sex
Taste: Have your spouse lick your neck or finger; a certain candy
So what are some things you can do with your conditioned spouse?
Conditioned arousal. As described in the examples above, you can condition yourself or your spouse to become sexually aroused by non-sexual stimuli — a ponytail, a touch on the back, etc. However, conditioned arousal can be especially useful if you or your spouse struggle with being attracted to each other in general! We get lots of email from people who want to be more attracted to their spouse than they are, and we often suggest that they condition themselves to be aroused by their spouse. How? Link sexual stimulation and arousal to the presence and touch of your spouse. If you don’t allow yourself any sexual stimulation without your spouse’s participation your body and mind will quickly learn just how attractive your spouse is!
Why is sex so good? Kinda like asking, “why is water wet?” But still, if we understand what makes sex good then maybe we can make it even better!
One of the main questions in life is: Why is sex so good? According to a new review paper, it’s because sex — like dance, yoga, and other body-based pleasures — is rhythmic, and that rhythm has a way of uniting and heightening the senses.
Authored by Northwestern University researcher Adam Safron and published in Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology, the paper argues that intercourse can be such a magical experience because of “entrainment,” which is a fancy way of saying that it gets your brain, sensory, and bodily systems all rowing in the same sexy direction. What happens in the run-up to orgasm, he argues, is what goes on in most ecstatic experiences (consider how a “beat drops” in your favorite new disco anthem). Rhythmic perception and action lead you to attend more to the stimuli that’s turning you on, leading to greater enjoyment, and greater attendance, making for “further enhancing entrainment, thus creating a positive feedback cycle of deepening sexual absorption,” he writes.
It’s not enough to call this increased arousal or pleasure: A better way to understand the way people can lose their sense of selves during the act of sex is with trance, the same way that you might feel a sense of absorption on a particularly good night of dancing, a particularly strenuous yoga session, a particularly deep meditation, or a particularly satisfying run. “Intensely focusing on immediate sensations — such as those produced by rhythmic stimulation — is likely to reduce the amount of mental capacity available for other things,” Safron writes, like ruminative self-narratives, wondering about what could have been, or generally having your mind someplace other than where you currently are. “Such an experience of sensate focusing and altered self-processing may be most appropriately referred to as a kind of trance state,” he writes. “If this trance occurs in the context of another individual who is similarly absorbed, then it could potentially contribute to feelings of connectedness along with the expansion of self-other boundaries.”
I bolded the part that jumped out at me, and it matches my experience. Sex is best when you are “intensely focusing on immediate sensations” — which is closely related to our posts about the importance of enthusiasm and responsiveness. There’s a feedback loop: in order to have great sex you need to pull your mind away from the mundane considerations of life, and the act of pulling away is self-reinforcing, leading to enhanced focus and even better sex!
So how can you use this information to improve sex with your spouse? In addition to the posts I’ve linked to above, here are a few ways you can focus more intensely during sex:
Sound. Put on some sensual music, something with a beat! Like the article says above, a good rhythm helps synchronize your bodies and senses. Turn off the baby monitors, silence your phones. Replace the batteries in the #&%&(#@% smoke detector. In my post about sexual responsiveness I talk about how important it is to use words and sounds during sex, so go read that whole post. Moan and groan, cry out, say your spouse’s name, beg for an orgasm.
Smell and taste. Using food in your sexy time can be fun, but it may also be a distraction. If you want to focus intensely on the sexual experience, engage with the taste and smell of your spouse. Bury your face in your spouse’s hair or neck. Kiss deeply. Lick your spouse all over. Use oral sex not only to stimulate your spouse, but also to engage your own senses! During oral sex the attention is usually on the receiver, but try flipping that around: when you’re giving oral sex, focus on absorbing all the sensations that come from being close to your spouse’s sexuality. (Husbands especially: hygiene is important if you want your wife to enjoy your taste and smell.)
Touch. Sex obviously involves a lot of touching, but the touching can often be very goal-oriented: orgasm. However, sex with your spouse isn’t (usually) a race — you can focus your sense of touch more intensely if you just slow down. Revel in touching and being touched all over your bodies. An average human has twenty square feet of skin, so don’t just use your fingers: lips and tongues are obvious, but you can touch anything to anything else. (Check out Body Part Twister for some ideas (automated spinner).) Touch, tickle, massage, tease, and you can learn to build your spouse up to some huge orgasms.
Restraint. One of the reasons that light bondage is fun is that the person being restrained (the receiver) is free to focus completely on his or her sensations. While restrained, the receiver doesn’t need to think about giving pleasure, only receiving it. Being tied up is permission to be the center of attention, even your own attention. The receiver doesn’t have to do anything, just be.
Trust and vulnerability. In order to really lose yourself in a sexual experience you have to trust your spouse enough to let yourself be vulnerable. Your relationship needs to be past the point where you worry about looking right, acting right, or moving right. If you’re worried about impressing or disappointing your spouse, or being awkward, you’re not going to be able to focus on your senses. You each need to be comfortable with your own bodies and sexuality, and you need to respect and cherish each other.
“Losing yourself” doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but I think we can take some intentional steps to eliminate distractions during sex and really focus on the sensations we’re creating with our spouses. If you have any tips to share, please leave a comment!