by Amy Alkon
Q: I just broke up with my girlfriend of seven months. We fought constantly, but the sex was amazing. Reviewing my relationships, it seems I have the best sex in the volatile ones—those where we argue all the time and really don’t get along. I’m wondering whether there’s a connection between anger and sex.—Just Curious
A: Sex can be a form of peacekeeping, since your girlfriend can’t be screaming that you loaded the dishwasher wrong if she’s screaming, “OHGOD! OHGOD! OHGOD!”
But is there a thin line between longing and longing to throttle someone? Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at The Kinsey Institute, told me that “in general, relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction seem to correlate.” In other words, when your love life is in the toilet, your sex life is quick to join it for a swim.
That said, Garcia says there’s some evidence for a “subgroup of people who can have very volatile relationships but very passionate sexual lives together.” This seems to have something to do with the body’s response to stress. (Researchers call this stress response “arousal”—which is cute, because it’s erotic on the level of having a condominium placed on your chest.)
Sex researcher Cindy Meston and evolutionary psychologist David Buss explain in Why Women Have Sex that a stressful situation activates a “fight or flight” reaction in the sympathetic nervous system, making your heart race and your blood pressure zoom, and leading your brain to release norepinephrine, a brain chemical that, molecularly, is the first cousin of speed.
This helps explain why prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system—as in, prolonged stress or anxiety with no physical outlet—can be physically unbearable. Many who regularly experience this sort of stress-athon take anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax to calm down. But in Meston’s research on female arousal, some women found sex to be a substitute chill pill (and, depending on the partner, far less tedious than climbing six tall buildings on the StairMaster). Some women even reported that stress makes them feel turned on. Which makes stress sound like it has its sexy points—that is, unless you’re a man, because sympathetic nervous system over-arousal is the body’s little erection-killer.
Seeing as this doesn’t seem to be a problem for you, when you’re in one of those boringly healthy relationships, sure, you could pick fights and hope that this leads to more exciting sex and not less sex, no sex, or no more girlfriend. Or … you could opt for a more positively energizing activity, like paintball, Super Soaker tag, or an intense pillow fight. Aerobic exercise and competition both boost testosterone—a libido picker-upper in both men and women. They also increase energy and arousal—and probably more so if you add a little playful goading and teasing to the mix. But, as Meston and Buss point out, what you should definitely avoid is the advice of many self-help books to “romance” a woman with soothing music, a bubble bath or a massage. Remember, you’re trying to get a woman in the mood, not put her in a coma: “Oh, baby, you make me so—wait … are you snoring?”
Q: My boyfriend of six months lives an hour away. We’ve had weekend overnights, but now he wants to come visit for an entire week. I’m super-excited but—don’t laugh—worried about his seeing me in my shower cap. (My hair takes 45 minutes to blow-dry, so I wash it only once a week.) My ex-husband used to make fun of me for wearing it, telling me how unsexy and stupid-looking it was. How do I introduce my boyfriend to this thing?—Embarrassed
A: Introducing your boyfriend to your plastic shower hat? Easy: “Hi, meet the end of your erections.”
Consider that there are lots of hot sex scenes in movies that take place in showers. Note that no woman in any of them is wearing a shower cap. This is not an accident or omission on the part of countless movie directors. Male sexuality evolved to be visually driven—and no, not by the sort of visuals that scare a man into thinking that he’s walked in on Aunt Bea. (And—nice try, shower cap manufacturers! Calling it “Bath Diva” or making it in an animal print doesn’t change that.)
Yeah, I know, it’s what’s on the inside that counts—but not if a guy doesn’t want to have sex with what’s on the outside. And by the way, it’s hard enough to find a romantic partner attractive over time. Do you really want to give your boyfriend a visual obstacle course? Instead, be open about your deepest hopes, fears and dreams—right before you lock yourself in the bathroom with the elasticized stepsister of the plastic grocery sack.