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What does sex feel like?

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Curious asks:

I have never had sex before, and before I do I want to really know what it is like from other people. I want to know what it feels like.

Heather Corinna replies:

We get asked this question a lot.

A whole lot.

The trouble is, there's just no way to give you and others the sort of answer I suspect you are looking for. But I certainly can tell you why I can't do that.

Sex -- of any kind, whether we're talking about intercourse, oral sex, manual sex, masturbation, or any other sex -- not only doesn't feel the same way for all people, it often doesn't even feel the same way for one person from day to day, partner to partner, or activity to activity.

Oral sex tends to feel different than vaginal or anal intercourse. Masturbation can tend to feel different than partnered sex, even when a partner is doing exactly what we do when we masturbate. Manual sex with this partner can feel very different from manual sex with a different partner. One kind of sex, with one given partner, can feel different for us on Tuesday than it did on Friday, or different when we're 18 than it does when we're 45. The sex that I might have -- even if you're doing the exact same thing as I am, even if you're doing it with the partner I did it with, no less -- can feel really different for you than it can for me, based on the differences in our personalities, levels of arousal and attraction, how we feel about that partner, how we feel about ourselves, the mood we're in, what our health is like at a given time, where we're at in our fertility cycles, how relaxed our bodies and muscles are, what our life experience has been in our bodies, how our bodies differ uniquely when it comes to areas of both physical, biochemical and emotional sensitivity, even in what physical place we're having sex, how much sleep we got the night before or what different things we ate in a given day.

In some ways, what you're asking me is akin to asking me to tell you how a piece of cake tastes. I can say it tastes sweet, that I taste vanilla, nutmeg, cardamom and perhaps a wee bit of carrot, that it has a moist texture, feels a little crumbly on my tongue, whatever, but when it all boils down to it, we all have different palates and are different people. So, even with my saying all that, you may put the same bite of cake in your mouth and have a totally different experience, or find that that cake I thought was so delicious tastes like total crap to you. You may have a bad memory of eating cake which colors all your present experiences while I may not, and that changes how we each experience the same thing. You or I may come to cake with different expectations, which changes how we experience things, too.

We can absolutely say that there is something unique about sexual experiences, period. Sex does tend to feel different -- how different varies -- than other things we do with our hearts, bodies and minds. However, it does have things in common with other experiences we have.

On a physical level, it can feel a like a really great workout (or not), a long, hot bath (or not), eating everything in your fridge when you just worked up the biggest appetite on the planet (or not), taking a well-deserved nap (or not), a great massage (or not), sitting seriously bored in class for too long (or not), scratching an itch (or not), like a big, bear hug that goes all through your body (or not) or like warming our hands on a fire (or not). Emotionally and psychologically it can be like one of those intense all-night conversations you can have with someone you really connect with (or not), like being put in a blender (or not), like seeing a movie that just grabs your guts and makes you laugh or cry so hard you worry you won't be able to stop (or not), like you're just going through the motions of something you thought you wanted to do, but then just didn't find all that interesting once you did it (or not), like being connected to someone else to the degree you can't figure out where you end and they start (or not), like being with someone else during something incredibly personal or important, like dying or birth (or not), like finding a long-lost friend you never thought you'd see again (or not) or like seeing yourself in a mirror (or not). Sex of any kind might feel like all, any or none of those things.

Bear in mind, too, that because of what's all going on in the whole of our bodies and selves during sex, it can sometimes be difficult to express what sex felt like -- other than, say, "great" or "so-so" -- right after we've had a sexual experience or even when we're smack-dab in the middle of one. The experience of sex, when we're seriously into it, can tend to feel a bit like being in a state of trace, where when we're present in those moments, we're just feeling how we feel without really thinking much about it, so afterward, it can be tough to describe or sum up with words. Like love, people have tried all through history to express that feeling with words, music, paint, movement, sculpture, theater, film and I think we can agree that despite thousands of years of those attempts, some by people who are the most accomplished artists of our time, we have yet to either find one expression of what it feels like that just takes all or that we can all agree on.

I like to talk to people about sex -- be it alone or with a partner -- as primarily being about free personal expression in the moment, just like the way we may tend to dance or experience dance is about free personal expression in the moment. What we do, the way we do it, how we feel about it, how it feels, what we like and dislike: all of these things are going to tend to vary based on the unique person we are at any given time, and how freely we are able to and do express ourselves (and when a partner is involved, how free that person is in their expression as well). In many ways, asking what sex feels like is like asking what life feels like. These are just incredibly diverse and unique experiences, partly because we're all such different people, and partly because there are so many parts of what sex and sexuality is: it's physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological, social, chemical and metaphysical. All those parts and all that diversity leaves a wide birth for variation.

Ultimately, it's just one of those things where you are going to have some vague idea of what to expect walking in, and often may find yourself surprised, and not just the first time, either. I've been with my current partner for over three years now, and to some degree, while we have had many kinds of sex many times at this point, I could not honestly say that I can predict what sex is going to feel like for me the next time we have a sexual experience together.

It's impossible to be perfectly prepared for what sex -- any kind of sex, at any time, with any given person -- is going to feel like for you, and that element of surprise or discovery tends to be one of the things that makes sex so compelling to so many people. I know that it can feel really precarious to consider going into something not really knowing what's in store in some ways, and that's one of the reasons we provide material here like our Sex Readiness Checklist to help prepare people in terms of the kinds of things many people find they need to have sex be both physically, emotionally and interpersonally safest for them as well as enjoyable.

If you are interested in seriously considering or having sex, I'd encourage you to take a look at that checklist. You can also take a look through the index for this area or at our message boards to get a sense of some people's personal experiences with sex. You'll see a whole lot of diversity, but you'll also see some common threads. I'd also suggest taking a look at our piece on the human sexual response cycle to get a good idea about what the process of people becoming sexually aroused and then having sex can tend to feel like.

By all means, your own masturbation can also tell you a whole lot about what sex feels like. That is sex, in and of itself, and even though a sexual partner certainly adds some things to the mix -- physically and absolutely emotionally and socially -- which make partnered sex different, you can get a pretty good idea about what sex essentially feels like all by yourself with your own two hands. I encourage young people to experiment with their own masturbation first before taking sex on the orad with partners for a host of reasons, and this is one of them. Some other experiences may give you a pretty good idea about what sex can feel like: a professional massage or other kinds of deep bodywork can illuminate some of this, as well. Sleeping (the kind where you're not awake) with someone else can give you some ideas about what to expect, and even just things that don't seem like sex to some, like a long kissing session, tell you a lot about what sex is like.

If you've masturbated and enjoy those feelings and activities, and are considering sex with a partner, then you have some other things to consider which are also mentioned in the checklist I linked you to. Do you want to explore feeling that way with someone else? Do they with you? Do you want to be very intimate, vulnerable and close with that person? Do you feel able, with that person, to talk pretty openly together about sex and everything around it, and to feel comfortable in your own skin? Are you okay with experimenting with that person, knowing that there will be surprises and discoveries, some great, some ho-hum, some maybe even not-so-great at all? Can you deal with not knowing 100% what to expect? Looking at that checklist, did you feel like you had most of what was on it?

I'd say that so long as you're prepared with the practical and other basic issues you and someone else need to deal with to manage the risks sex presents, you don't need to know exactly what sex feels like to know if it's something you want to do or try, and that even when you do have an idea about what it can feel like, that, in and of itself, is not going to be something you wholly base your sexual decisions on. I have a pretty good idea at my age and level of sexual experience about what all kinds of sex feel like, but that still doesn't tell me all I need to know about whether or not I want to have sex with someone else. I have to ask myself things like if I want to deal with the risks and have what I need in order to do that, how I feel about the person I'm considering for a partner, how they're feeling, how I feel about myself at the time, if I even have time for sex, or if that's really the thing I even want at the time (maybe I just want a snuggle, maybe I really want to talk, maybe I just need some sleep, maybe I would prefer to masturbate).

But I have to tell you that personally, I really have always loved and embraced that element of surprise that tends to come with any kind of sex. For sure, in order to feel okay about that and enjoy it, I have to have other things taken care of first -- like a desire to have sex in the first place, the privacy and time to enjoy it, trust in my partner and myself, comfort with my body, to have needed birth control and safer sex taken care of and negotiated -- but when all my basic ducks are in a row with my general preparedness for sex, that surprise tends to be an adventure, an often unexpected discovery, much like taking a vacation somewhere familiar, but discovering a new street or hidden beach I never noticed or found before.

So, while I can assure you that I am absolutely not, right now, withholding any information from you because sex really just is that unique and that surprising, I've got to tell you that even if I somehow could tell you exactly what sex would feel like for you, I'd be pretty reluctant to do so. Taking those discoveries and those surprises away from someone would, in my mind, rob them of some of what can make sex so wonderful, enjoyable and compelling, and that's never something I'd want to cheat anyone of.

And that's about all I can tell you about what sex feels like. But I can also leave you with some additional links I think you might find useful:

written 12 Nov 2008 . updated 21 Jan 2009

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