What if one of the largest problems facing human beings is something so simple and so subtle that it's looking us right in the face, sometimes 2 or 3 times a night?
Peace Between the Sheets author Marnia Robinson suggests that orgasm addiction might be the single largest problem plaguing intimate, romantic relationships.
When I first read Peace Between the Sheets I felt angry. Certainly orgasms are beautiful, natural and important to forging intimacy. How could they be the bane of my love life? I thought: this writer must be religious.
But as I read Marnia's book I was surprised to find that the science and the vast collection of mystical and ancient wisdom teachings surrounding the book's argument were very convincing. I also look around and see scary population rates, numbers that are rising exponentially each year, and a growing desire within my heart to have a healthy, long-lasting and monogamous relationship.
Marnia admits that she and her husband are not religious, both enjoy orgasms, and feel no sexual guilt. They simply feel very convicted about this one idea: orgasm addiction is an undercover problem, creating chaos between our sheets!
I decided to interview Marnia Robinson about her book for RealitySandwich.
AE: In your book, you talk a lot about why so many relationships struggle, and you are very specific. You think that orgasms are responsible, in large part, for our inability to truly, not just physically, "come together." Explain this. Aren't orgasms the best part of a sexual or romantic relationship? How could they be damaging?
Marnia: It's not the climax that causes friction. An orgasm feels great, and if it were the end of the story, lovers would be able to do what comes naturally in the bedroom and live happily ever after. The problem is that orgasm — especially orgasm leading to sexual satiation (a feeling of "I'm definitely done!") — isn't an isolated event. It's the peak of a much longer cycle.
Sex happens in the brain. It's a complex sequence of neurochemical events even more than it is a genital event. (Masters and Johnson were just looking at genitals when they came up with the "arousal-plateau-climax-resolution" model.) I say "brain" because you can stick an electrode in someone's brain, or spinal cord, and produce the sensation of orgasm without ever touching his or her genitals.
Instead of an electrode, your body uses a surge of a neurochemical called dopamine to trigger the sensation of orgasm in the reward circuitry of your brain. Unfortunately it takes as long as two weeks for this deep part of the brain to return to homeostasis after such intense stimulation. While the precise mechanisms are not yet understood, the central player in this natural programmed "hangover" appears to be dopamine.
It's clear that dopamine levels drop after orgasm, and that another neurochemical, prolactin, surges (a sexual satiation signal) to keep dopamine in check. Receptors for testosterone rapidly decline in the reward circuitry, further inhibiting dopamine release.
One can view the orgasm cycle as similar to a drug or alcohol cycle because it emanates from the same mechanism in the brain, using the same neurochemical, dopamine. When anything — whether a substance (cocaine, too much sugar) or an activity (gambling, orgasm) — over-stimulates your reward circuitry, it produces a high, followed by a period of recovery.
That recovery is, in a sense, a withdrawal. The difference between sex and drugs is that the orgasm "hangover" is so much a part of us, so natural and programmed, that it is hard to recognize — unless, of course, you escape the cycle entirely. It can make you feel uncharacteristically needy, irritable, anxious, depleted, or desperate for another orgasm.
To you it will seem that these traits are just part of your, or your partner's, normal personality. There is often a subconscious urge to do something to make yourself feel better. For example, you may reach for a drink, look at porn, curl up in front of a romantic movie with a tub of ice cream, or have an urge to feel your partner up. Your perception is subtly distorted, and it's natural for you to perceive each other as the source of your discomfort. "If only he would be more affectionate or supportive." "If only she would stop processing her feelings and just have sex."
Obviously, we don't all hit upon the same solution. Some people feel this withdrawal as a "needy hole" calling for comfort or attention. Some just feel it as a demanding urge for relief or temporary oblivion. Others are sure that they simply "need space." For some, the craving for another orgasm is stronger than ever — but it doesn't represent true libido. As the ancient Chinese Taoists observed, orgasm, and particularly
"Ejaculation, although depleting physical reserves, has the opposite effect on sexual desire. After an immediate postcoital letdown, there is a rapid psychological rebound and an intensification of erotic interest." [Art of the Bedchamber, by Douglas Wile, State University of New York Press (1992): p. 6]
In short, the way we currently manage our sexual energy could prove to be the common biological mechanism behind such diverse phenomena as the one-night stand, the sexless marriage, infidelity, and porn addiction. It contributes to the nearly universal experience that "the honeymoon never lasts longer than a year." It is why close friendships that bloom into love affairs so often turn sour. The culprit is the natural perception shifts that follow sexual satiation, and cause us to find each other less rewarding than before.
I believe this is a natural program, which affects all mammals in some form. Not one mammal or bird is completely sexually monogamous. Subconscious, neurochemical mating programs are the way Mother Nature pushes mammals apart. She wants you to fertilize in a passionate frenzy, bond temporarily, and then grow disillusioned and move onto your next partner.
To fool Mother Nature, you obviously have to do something different in the bedroom. This is why the Taoists, and others, recommended learning to make love in a way that doesn't trigger our subconscious mating program — or rather, triggers only the attachment part of it, not the move on part of it. We can make use of this natural attachment program, which bonds us to our children and parents, in our romances, too, by emphasizing generous affection, playfulness, gentle intercourse, and, of course, by avoiding orgasm. Results include greater harmony and wellbeing, and, remarkably, less sexual frustration.
Would you consider your view to be purely scientific, then, or spiritual, or both?
I believe that all great spiritual traditions call for seeing beyond our own projections of neediness or cravings, for overcoming unloving feelings, and for healing dual perception by perceiving our oneness with others. Therefore, this practice is ultimately a spiritual practice.
However, both my husband and I are not religious. We were fortunate to be raised by parents who believed sex was natural and guilt-free, and we loved orgasm. It wasn't until we had both experienced significant health and relationship benefits that my husband, who teaches anatomy and physiology, began digging up the science that helps to explain how managing sex differently can do just what the ancient Taoists and others discovered it can do: reduce cravings, heal, and promote harmony.
In what way is your research about orgasms different from tantric studies?
"Tantra" encompasses many different practices, some of which emphasize orgasm, others of which call for transcending it, so it's not possible to make this kind of comparison. What I'm proposing is definitely different from using each other to fire up sexual intensity to the point of altered awareness.
Here's a description from a friend describing the benefits from this gentler practice, which I think of as karezza (a name given it by Alice Bunker Stockham, MD a century ago), or controlled intercourse:
"Arousal is very much present, and we are both highly motivated to ride these wonderful waves of energy and to ride them as long as we can. We are finding that these are not the waves that either of us have experienced before. Very full heart, and big belly feelings. It is as if we have moved over some threshold. Cuddling and non-goal oriented touch raise me to a height where I have a dramatically new point of view. I feel like I have entered the flow."
When you talk about orgasms, are you talking about the release of semen? And if so, then isn't it ok for women to climax but not men?
Many esoteric sex texts speak in terms of "semen loss" as the problem with orgasm, but the real problem is over-stimulation of the reward circuitry of the brain. This is why orgasm can set off subsequent mood swings in women, too. The loss idea is right on target, however. After dopamine soars into the red zone in the brain, the body reacts by lowering it below baseline levels. Too little dopamine (or too few receptors for dopamine) feels like "something is missing," as if an essential ingredient for happiness is gone. You can easily feel depleted or needy, whether you're male or female. The chief difference between the sexes is that, often, women feel more intense effects during the second week after orgasm, while men feel more intense effects during the days immediately following orgasm.
Interestingly, the ancient Taoists recorded that orgasm, menstruation, and childbirth are all depleting to women. It is primarily the tantric lore that focuses on semen loss, because the Brahmins equated semen with "spiritual light."
If the best way to experience relational union is to withhold from orgasm, then why does it feel like our bodies are hardwired to go against what is in our best interest?
There's a common-sense belief that if you do what your body evolved to do, it will lead to wellbeing and happiness. For example, most people would be healthier if they returned to a Paleolithic diet of whole foods and protein, without refined starches and sugars. By the same logic, if you're designed to pursue orgasm and multiple partners, shouldn't you be happiest if you manage your intimate life accordingly? Perhaps the man-made ideal of committed relationships is the problem.
This logic assumes that you're designed for your own benefit. In fact, evolution has hardwired you not for your individual welfare, but for your genes' success. What serves your genes? Lots of fertilization attempts and lots of different parents for your (more diverse) offspring. What serves you best? Close trusted companionship (an authentic bond) and lots of affectionate, generous touch. For example, HIV-positive patients survive longer when in relationship. Wounds heal twice as fast with companionship, as compared with isolation. In primates, the care-giving parent, male or female, lives longer. I could go on and on.
The bottom line is that our innate sexual appetite is not a reliable guide to greater wellbeing because sexual impulsiveness naturally leads in the direction of satiation — and even excess — followed by emotional alienation, and the erosion of emotional bonds. As my husband says, our subconscious mating program is working brilliantly; it just doesn't have our individual wellbeing at heart.
Do you think that polyamory is in any way a misguided response to the difficulties of orgasm addiction?
I think polyamory is a very logical solution to the fact that mammals are not monogamous. Hunter-gatherer societies are polyamorous. I also admire the efforts of many polyamorists to master compassionate communication and similar techniques to cope, as lovingly as possible, with the emotional fallout from sexual satiation. In addition, I am attracted to the "group hug," brother-sister feeling of all heart-based communities.
Personally, I still think close trusted companionship has more to offer. One reason is that it is easier to find a comfortable equilibrium for this other approach to sex within a stable partnership. New partners have to contend with a lot of thrilling, but unstable, honeymoon neurochemicals designed to lure those sperm to their fertile targets.
As for orgasm addiction, no, polyamory certainly doesn't offer a cure. Multiple partners and lots of orgasm can make sexual urges more demanding than ever because greater sexual satiation causes more intense cravings during the withdrawal period that follows. Unwittingly, someone with a sexual compulsion is using orgasm to self-medicate during the lows of the cycle — and setting off another cycle at the same time. The image of a hamster in a hamster wheel comes to mind.
A close friend who was very active in polyamory circles said he once thought polyamory offered a solution because he was too needy for any one partner. He figured the solution was to spread himself among many in hopes of meeting his needs. It didn't work, in part because it didn't address the compulsion that was fueling his neediness.
Compulsions aren't "bad," but they decrease your freedom and cloud your judgment, so as a spiritual matter they slow your evolution. Unfortunately, anyone who decides to move beyond a sexual compulsion has to go through an uncomfortable withdrawal period. The people with porn addiction who visit my website find that it takes a good six weeks of abstinence from orgasm to do this. Those with partners willing to engage in lots of affectionate, selfless contact during that time have a much easier time of it. At the end of that transition, people discover their true libido. They realize that their compulsive pattern was not their natural rhythm for orgasm.
You say that we should refrain from orgasm, but you also say that things like "Schedules" are a good idea. Give us an example of a sex-schedule. Why is the "sex schedule" a good idea, and doesn't this take the spontaneity away from a healthy sex life? Isn't it good, once in a while to be hot and heavy?
My husband and I found that making love every night, even without orgasm, caused an uncomfortable build-up of sexual tension. As he said, he felt like a car engine revving its motor all the time. By the same token, if we didn't know for sure if we would be having intercourse or not on a given night, he also tended to rev his engine…just in case.
The solution turned out to be surprisingly simple: spend a night or two between intercourse nights engaging in non-goal-oriented lovemaking, and schedule when we would have intercourse. On no-intercourse nights we wallow in lots of eye-gazing and selfless, comforting nurturing of each other.
By engaging in non-goal-oriented affection, you signal your subconscious that you want to deepen your mutual bond, by tapping into your attachment, or bonding, programming. Such encounters have the added benefit of making intercourse itself more fulfilling and less goal-oriented. You can just be with each other. You don't have to perform. This makes sex a very caring, yet carefree experience. Erections come and go, and you can continue for as long as you like.
As for "hot and heavy," you should have orgasmic sex as often as you want to feel a sense of alienation from your lover during the two weeks following. Remember that the greater the build-up, the more intense the feeling of satiation afterward…and the more powerful the subconscious signal you deliver to yourself that it is time to move on to a new lover. Once you are back in balance, intercourse alone can meet your true needs for connection; orgasm is actually superfluous. This is a key tenet of the mystery of sacred sexuality; one that Mother Nature doesn't want you to know.
That being said, anyone who practices karezza discovers that orgasm occasionally happens, either while you're making love or sleeping. We trust that our bodies have their reasons. What still intrigues us is the power of these inadvertent orgasms to kick off the separation program, albeit in somewhat milder forms. Having observed ourselves for seven years, we're really clear that we aren't interested in "going for" orgasm. We like the harmony, the easy, relaxed communication and the profound sense of trust between us.
Each couple have to find their own way. Our one suggestion is to try a solid three weeks of non-goal-oriented affection, with some gentle, karezza in the third week, and then return to conventional orgasm — all with the same partner. Only in this way can you really make a sound choice about whether or not karezza has rewards. If you aren't consistent for a couple of weeks, the hangover from prior orgasms is still muddying your perception of your partner, so you won't see all the benefits.
Peace Between the Sheets: Healing with Sexual Relationships has a three-week program in it called the "Ecstatic Exchanges." We found it made the experiment easier to have suggested activities. Otherwise it is too easy to drift back into traditional heat-em-up foreplay. The disadvantage of conventional foreplay is that it creates intense longings rather than feelings of wholeness.
Do you see any correlations or analogies between addictive sexuality and other habits or behaviors in western cultures?
Dutch scientist Gert Holstege, who said that his brain scans of men ejaculating look like brain scans of people shooting heroin, once remarked that we are all addicted to sex. Orgasm is the most powerful (legal) buzz available to us. I believe that when we consciously move from compulsion to equilibrium in our sex lives, we strengthen our sense of inner wholeness. This decreases our vulnerability to all addictive activities and substances. Without the feelings of lack, uneasiness and neediness that mysteriously show up after sexual satiation, we simply aren't as susceptible to manipulation of any kind, whether by advertisers, governments or porn producers.
Within four months after my husband and I began this practice, his twelve-year addiction to alcohol was under his control. Within a year he was off of Prozac and his chronic depression had lifted. I think our sexual cravings have a very powerful effect on our inner compass, our reward circuitry. With a working compass, we can steer in our true best interests. This may be why sexual mastery was considered a powerful spiritual path by the Taoists, the earliest Christians, and others throughout human history.
What are you working on right now, and how do you see the future of your work?
At the moment I'm working furiously on a re-release of Peace Between the Sheets, to appear in the summer of 2009. It will feature updated science and a closer look at the many explorers from the past who stumbled upon the gifts that lie in careful union.
I'm also working on a booklet for young guys, age 11, called Things You Didn't Know about Porn. I'm convinced that youngsters should not be turned loose on planet Earth without a reliable instruction manual for how to cope with the reward circuitry of the brain. After all, its impulses serve Mother Nature before they serve us. It's important that we learn to distinguish her agenda from our true best interests.
Our reward circuitry evolved over millions of years in environments that were poor in both sugary foods and erotica. Given today's floods of junk food and intense sexual stimulation, you might say that we're guinea pigs in a planet-wide experiment. How do you think it's going?
It's certainly a lot to think about. You make some excellent points. I'm sure your arguments will generate some healthy conversation. Thanks for taking the time to talk.
Thanks for having me!
Marnia's Website can be found here: Reuniting, Healing with Sexual Relationships