Wellness·6 min read

How To Have a Healthy Sex Life: Orgasms, Safety, and Your Brain

How To Have a Healthy Sex Life: What To Know About Orgasms, Safety, and Your Brain
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Unsplash
February 22, 2021

There’s a lot more to sex than...just sex.

Are we about to have “the talk”? Sort of. We’re here to remind you that sex doesn’t just impact your physical body but your brain and emotions, too. Meaning healthy sex actually can be good for you. 

Ok, let’s talk about sex, baby.One more thing: We’re not medical professionals. You should always consult a therapist or physician to talk about your specific sexual health needs. And FYI: Many sex studies we reference are focused on cisgender women, but the findings could apply to all people with vulvas.

Sex...what is it good for?Turns out, a lot of things. Let’s get it on...

  • Physical touch has been proven to reduce stress…Sex aside, hugging alone is healthy. Even just snuggling and massaging releases oxytocin, aka the “cuddle hormone.” Why that’s good: Higher oxytocin levels may be linked to lower blood pressure, lower heart rates, and lower levels of cortisol (the primary anxiety hormone). Touching is also a crucial part of good old-fashioned foreplay. In one study of hetero married couples: More than 20 minutes of petting (sorry, had to) before sex led to 60% of women hitting an O during sex. But more on that later. 

  • Sex can be a brain boosterStudies show that it’s linked to better brain function among older adults. That’s because, according to the Journal of Sexual Medicine, several parts of the brain, including the limbic system (a lot like the brain’s emotional and memory center), are activated when a woman peaks.  

  • It may help cramps...Sexual stimulation reduces pain, according to research. That’s because endorphins released during sex are like natural painkillers. PMS? More like Please More Sex. 

  • Sex could help you snooze...Ever feel sleepy after sex? That’s thanks to an orgasmic surge in hormones like prolactin, which help you drift off. One study found that people who had sex — whether partnered or solo — before bed, felt it gave them more zzz’s. 

  • It may boost your immune system...We’re not making this stuff up. Benefits include better heart health, a stronger immune system, and more emotional intimacy with your partner.

  • It can make you a better performer...On stage. In one study, people who recently did it were better at dealing with the stress from things like public speaking than those who didn’t fool around. 

What’s icing sex out?Here’s what could be keeping it from being (s)exceptional. 

  • There’s the pandemic factor... International studies show that being stuck inside with a partner during a global pandemic means less sexytime. In one survey, more than 50% of women said they were having sex two or more times a week before COVID-19 was widespread. And in lockdown, only about 35% of them reported doing it that often. FWIW: Guys also saw a decline in sex, and a huge drop in drive. 

  • There’s a gender ‘orgasm gap’...An Archives of Sexual Behavior study estimated that 95% of heterosexual men usually or always orgasm during sex, and lesbian women do 86% of the time. But bisexual and heterosexual women only did around 65% of the time. 

How to put the ‘O’ in ‘oh baby’? 

  • Get to know yourself…Typically, women require more than vaginal penetration to reach an orgasm. According to one survey, only about 18% of women said they could get there from just intercourse. Everyone else preferred some additional attention. So if you don’t already, make time to get to know your clitoris — It has twice as many nerve endings as a penis. 

  • Take it into your own hands…It’s science. The more you explore your body and understand how to climax on your own, the more effectively you can guide your partner up the mountain with you. And you’re not the only one who’s faked an orgasm (shoutout to Sally Albright). Almost 59% of women who participated in an Archives of Sexual Behavior study (and a whopping 87% of people who participated in another study) admitted to pretending to climax. What might help you truly finish: kissing, receiving oral sex, trying new positions, encouraging your partner to use their hands, considering toys, and asking for what you want (which you can do very nicely). And you can learn what you like by flying solo every once in a while. 

  • Time it right…Let’s face it: You’re not always in the mood (And birth control may be hurting your sex drive.). But you can anticipate when you’ll be most down by paying attention to your period. Women tend to perk up in the days leading up to ovulation, which is about halfway through your menstrual cycle. Warning: Naturally, this is also the time when you have the highest chance of getting pregnant. Thanks, biology. And although it doesn’t sound all that romantic: Schedule sex. Just like you plan for other things you prioritize in life. It can actually help get you in the mood. As for how long you should make love, of course that’s a personal choice. But an international study shows that it takes just about five and a half minutes for a guy to finish during hetero sex. 

What else do I need to know?The less sexy part of sex: Staying safe.

  • Remember these FYIs on STIs...You are your safest sex partner. STIs are real. According to the CDC, an estimated one in five people in the US has one at any given time. The most common one is HPV, which about 80% of women will get at some point in their lifetime through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. It typically has no symptoms but some types can cause genital warts or cervical cancer. In order to avoid dealing with that or any other infection: Get tested, make sure your partner is tested, and consider using condoms.

  • Protect yourself from unwanted pregnancy...Again, let’s revisit condoms. They’re relatively inexpensive and readily available. And there are plenty of other birth control options if you’re looking to fool around but not yet have a kid around. 

  • Know that consensual sex is the one you deserve...Consent remains a huge international issue. Data from the CDC shows that nearly 1 in 5 women has experienced completed or attempted rape during her lifetime. And research shows that experiencing sexual assault can lead to long-term physical and mental impacts, and even a higher risk of developing brain damage. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), visit the online hotline at hotline.rainn.org/online, or find your local rape crisis center at www.centers.rainn.org. Here is a map of where you can have a sexual assault forensic exam conducted — which is not provided at every hospital — in your state.

theSkimmA healthy sex life is about more than just doing it. By communicating your needs, getting to know yourself, and making time for it, you’ll kick your sex life up a notch and reap some serious health benefits too.   

theSkimm consulted with Dr. Staci Tanouye for this guide.

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