Dr. Nan Wise is not your average sexuality professional. A sex therapist turned cognitive neuroscientist, she uses research to support her clients and address gaps in the scientific literature regarding the neural basis of human sexuality. Her approach to creating a more intimate, exciting, and fulfilling sex life blends a variety of therapeutic modalities, including yoga, Gestalt therapy, and Eriksonian Hypnotherapy, among others, with answering basic scientific questions about sex that have gone ignored for far too long. Dr. Wise distilled the results of her research and therapy into Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life.
I chatted with Dr. Wise about the importance of prioritizing pleasure (especially during a pandemic), creating foundations of an amazing sex life the lasts, and how the heck to do both without twisting yourself into a pretzel or spending hours a day on activities (you’ve got enough competing interests as it is).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
People always ask for tips, toys, and positions to “fix” their sex lives. One thing I really liked about your book was that your Good Sex Tools focus on foundational strategies. How do you navigate this tension between what people want and need in your work?
When it comes down to what people want and what they need—and the tension between the two—I always think it’s helpful to have people take a step back and understand their unique erotic fingerprint, the combination of biology, learning, and experience that shapes our sexual appetites.
Some people have higher spontaneous sex drives than others. Some people have a need for more athletic sex. Some people need more intensity. Some people are more naturally explorers and that shows up in their sexuality. Some people like very gentle lovemaking. They need lots and lots of connection in touch. Some people get the most joy in the pleasure of providing pleasures to others. And some people tend to be needy. It might be that there a little bit more anxious than the average bear so sex becomes a way of soothing.
Then they need to understand where they are in terms of the desire curve—how our spontaneous and responsive sex drives ebb and flow over the course of our lives and over the course of our relationships. Add into this that our own unique erotic fingerprint might not be meshing well with our partners. I outlined this on my website when I discuss what happens with mismatched libidos.
Do we really need to understand what’s going on in our brains and bodies—below the surface if you will—to make long-lasting change?
I do believe that in order to make long-lasting changes we need to be very knowledgeable about the nature of sexual desire, how to update our maps of ourselves and our partners and be savvy operators of our wired-in core emotional systems.
Something I’ve found that many folx crave is a sense of shared reality. Right now this need feels even more heightened. How does being seen support people’s sex lives and pleasure?
People do like a sense of shared reality. It gives us a sense of safety and security.
One of the things that we can take away from our current situation with the coronavirus is the understanding that we’re all in this together. Having access to finding pleasure is even more important when dealing with intense stress.
As we are all being affected [by the coronavirus], we are simultaneously dealing with a need to manage stress and find pleasure. Sex can help us cope with stress and can be a source of healthy pleasures. But more importantly, we can prioritize connection with others as a great source of soothing and pleasures. We can see this as an opportunity to support one another’s wellbeing.
Increasingly, my clients tell me about a lack of social support for themselves and/or their partners. It seems that we’re in an epidemic of loneliness. Can you speak to how this impacts sex?
One of the reasons people have been feeling lonelier and worse, in general, is that prior to the pandemic, we were experiencing a pleasure crisis as evidenced by increased rates of anxiety and depression and less overall sex.
This pleasure crisis and sex recession was compounded by the fact that we have less satisfying connections with other people. Everybody is so distracted with their devices that we’re not really connecting, even when we could prior to social distancing.
What can people do about this—both in our current situation and also once social distancing ends?
Even in the current situation, we can focus on having better quality connections with each other. That could look like simply giving good eye contact even if we’re meeting virtually with people. Really listening and diving deeply into someone’s experience. We can share what’s on our minds, what’s going on in our bodies, and what is happening in our emotional weather. This can help us get better attention to each other and ourselves. I share examples of how we can practice our connection skills and survive and thrive with the current challenges on my blog.
How can people use your Good Sex Tools when aches, pains, and other restrictions get in the way?
People who can breathe can do these exercises. Even if people can’t follow directions to do Mula Bandha, they can use their imaginations to think about their genitals and use the breath to connect to their own sensations.
[Another] thing to keep in mind is that sexual stimulation can actually be a potent pain reliever. When we’re feeling lousy, or having aches and pains, genital stimulation can release our own natural pain relievers—which our bodies manufacture—which can get the feel-good juices flowing. Reminding ourselves that sexual activity can relieve pain, boost immunity, and lift our moods can help us rally our enthusiasm to use the Good Sex Tools.
It’s common to respond to a problem such as low desire or lack of sex, and then stop when things feel better. For example, someone might be great about using Good Sex Tools at first, but then they taper off as they see improvements. How do you address this very human phenomenon?
When it comes to maintaining any progress we make in addressing our issues, it is important to practice relapse prevention. What that means is, learning that going off the path is in fact part of the path. So, when we forget to prioritize our pleasure or our sexuality, we can take notice of that and head back to the practices that return us to the path.
What is the number one thing you want people to know about sex and pleasure?
Pleasure is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Finding some kind of pleasure—particularly healthy hedonistic ones that feel good and are good for us, like being outside in the sunlight (using sunscreen), taking walks, and spending quality time with people we like—is key to promoting a well-functioning emotional brain in which you are able to get your needs met and experience a general sense of wellbeing. And that gives us a good reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Sex can be an extremely potent place of healthy pleasure. But even if we don’t want to have sex, we can prioritize finding other kinds of pleasure. Pleasure makes us healthier and happier people. We can actually be kinder to others and be more motivated to contribute to the wellbeing of others when our own capacity for pleasure is enhanced.