Why Sex Is So Great But So Unsatisfying

by Emily Chu

This goes out to all my Generation-Yers that have dabbled in the sexual realm long enough to realize that, even though sex has gotten progressively more enjoyable, it's still strangely...unsatisfying, sometimes.

You might identify with one or more of the following scenarios: 1) you have a fantastic night but when you wake up the next morning, you are somehow upset; 2) you have a fantastic night and morning, you got what you want, yet, you still feel unsatisfied for some reason;
3) you were unsatisfied last night and you are still unsatisfied this morning. Worst of all, you are unsatisfied with yourself for feeling so unsatisfied in all three of these scenarios.

If you're unattached, you might think this happens because you're not in a relationship. You might feel like the lack of emotional attachment is what's subconsciously fueling this dissatisfaction. If you are attached, you might reason it's either because 1) there's only so much you can do with the same person, and/or 2) great sex doesn't make up for the fact that he or she said that annoying thing yesterday. In both cases, you might accidentally wonder to yourself, "Is there something wrong with me? Why can't I just get over myself? Is it time for me to Google how to have satisfying sex?"

While, yes, your reasoning might be spot-on or at least partially correct (who am I to say you're not a serial dater or neurotic fault-finder), there's another possibility I want to address: the possibility that you are simply not familiar with how your brain responds to sex and pleasure. You unknowingly attribute the wrong causes to your bodily reactions.

Since you think the wrong things are causing your dissatisfaction, the steps you take to solve this problem does not actually solve the problem. You continue to feel unsatisfied and think that maybe the only way to solve this problem is to ignore it. Meanwhile, the real reason escapes you and festers.

This is not a measure of your intelligence and we make this mistake in many ways every day. I'm going to tell you a story to illustrate my point…

Once upon a time, some psychologists found out that they could make men think that a girl was more attractive by having her approach them on a high-suspension bridge, instead of while they were resting on solid ground.

Men that met the girl while on the bridge were significantly more likely to ask for her number and call her after. To us, it's obvious why the gentlemen on the bridge were more attracted to her: they thought they were excited to see her when they were just excited to get off the bridge. But, when the bridge men were asked why they called her, none of them said, "Because my high adrenaline levels and sweaty palms tricked my brain into thinking that I thought this girl was super hot." No, they all said something along the lines of, "I don't know. I just found her very attractive." This happens because our mind enjoys being a hard-core minimalist. It normally likes to give simple answers to simple problems and move on.

I bring this up because I want to show that the same thing happens with sex. We can shrug our Neanderthal shoulders and say, "I don't know why I feel unsatisfied; I just do." Or, we can try and dig deeper into the mysteries of our brain to find out why we really feel unsatisfied. We can choose to use that information to empower us, to find out what that tells us about what we really need from sex and the people that we have sex with.

While sex is a deeply personal experience and varies with each individual, there are some things I can assume. If you're reading this, I can assume that you're a human being; you're either a 20- or 30-something; you are sexually active, and you tend to enjoy both the act and thought of sex. This means that there are certain things I can assume about how your brain works and why you like what you like.

So, why is sex really so great but so unsatisfying sometimes?

1. Because you are an Essentialist

This means that you are obsessed with originality. You are obsessed with originality because all humans are obsessed with originality. We are born obsessed with it, and people from all cultures and geographic regions are obsessed with it. It is a major reason why we seek out what we seek out and receive pleasure from it. This is why knock-offs are cheap. This is why we are so annoyed by fake people. This is why we are so hard on people who try too hard to be someone they're not.

What does this mean? This means that we are obsessed with what something really is. This obsession is so strong that our brains will experience significant pleasure from a mediocre thing just because you believe it is great. For example, pretend you crawled into an fMRI machine and looked at a picture of a cupcake. If I told you a couple minutes in that your boyfriend or girlfriend made the cupcake, your reward system would light up dramatically because your mind now has all these ideas about how great the cupcake is. You will experience real physical pleasure. The idea is imagined, but the pleasure you feel is very real.

The flipside to this is that your brain will also throw a major temper tantrum if something turns out to be different from what you thought it was. Let's go back to the fMRI. This time, I tell you that I'm kidding and that Ted Bundy actually made this cupcake to celebrate his first successful murder rape. Your brain will now cause you to physically feel an intense and very real disgust. Yes, it's your imagination in a sense. It's still the same cupcake, but your brain creates your reality. If you tell yourself you're not disturbed, you really are lying to yourself.

This is important when it comes to sex because this obsession is even more pronounced when we're not just admiring an object or putting it on our shelf. We're rolling around naked with it and our personal spaces are coming into contact with it. If we wake up the next morning and that somebody was not who we thought they were for various reasons, we will experience, perhaps not total disgust, but at least a very real dissatisfaction.

As casual as sex has become, it's still an intimate investment. It's like if I had you eat the cupcake before telling you Ted Bundy made it. If it was just a picture, you might feel a bit grossed out. If you ate it, you'd probably throw up and feel bothered for days, if not the rest of your life. Your friend wouldn't tell you, "Just get over it.” No, they'd probably be horrified and tell you to go see a therapist to figure that sh*t out.

Here's my point: yes, I know we get ourselves into situations where we're going to have wrong impressions of the person we're hopping into bed with. Whether that's because of the occasional foreign substance, or the lack of fluorescent nightclubs, we're only human. It happens. Even in relationships, people turn out not to be who you thought they were. After all, we're in a stage of our lives when we're changing not just year by year, but day by day.

However, we need to start realizing that we have certain standards, and that's okay, if not fantastic. We all have certain elitist preferences, but we have them for a reason. If smeared makeup makes your blood curl, stop going up to girls with tons of the stuff on just because they're wearing yoga pants. If you're disturbed by people who don't take care of themselves, date people who take that sh*t seriously. If the idea of sleeping with a guy who probably slept with a couple other girls in the same week makes you want to take a five-hour shower, stop going home with the guy who started feeling you up on the second dance. If you resent waking up next to half-baked versions of your ex, well then...I'm not even going there. You should know better.

Above all, start realizing that you care and that it matters. Who cares if you come off shallow? Who cares if your friends seem like they're having more fun than you are? In my opinion, it's a small price to pay for peace of mind and a tiny shred of sanity. It's also a hell of a lot more liberating to stop resisting the way you were designed and start working with what you've got.

Method #1 to more satisfying sex: don't ignore the times you feel unsatisfied after sex. Don't tell yourself to "get over it.” Ask yourself what it was about that person or circumstance that might've repulsed you in any way. Next time, make sure you avoid that. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Remember: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Okay, moving on to the next reason why you might be having unsatisfying sex.

2. Because you aren't really after the sex.

"What do you mean? Of course I'm after the sex!"

If this is what you're thinking, keep reading. Don't be like the bridge men; hear me out:

When you have successful sex that leads to an orgasm (I say "successful" because it doesn't even need to be good, necessarily), your brain overflows with a natural drug called oxytocin. You love oxytocin because it makes you feel like you rule the world. You love sex because it gives you a ridiculous dose of oxytocin; it makes you feel like everything's in line and well.

It makes the world easier to take on. It also makes you look at the face in front of you that caused this reaction and think to yourself, "Damn, I must be crazy but I think I really could love and care about this person!" It makes you trust them more. Women typically have more oxytocin receptors than men, which means that they experience this reaction more strongly.

Problem is, even if you're gettin' it left and right, sex only increases your oxytocin levels, for five minutes. They do not increase your normal baseline for oxytocin. It's like taking cocaine. Just because you're spiking your brain to feel happiness temporarily, cocaine does not increase how happy you are normally.

We love how sex makes us feel beyond the physical stuff. We love feeling invincible. We love feeling loved. Chances are, you love it even more if you normally have a low oxytocin baseline. This is you if you are indifferent to the idea of love, you don't really feel loved, or you don't really trust people. You love sex because you get to feel like a goddamn Olympian, even if it’s just for a split second. Thing is, sex doesn't change anything about how you normally feel, which is what we're all really going after.

This is the second reason why you might be feeling unsatisfied after sex: you enjoy that feeling immediately following sex, but you don't know why it goes away so easily. Among other reasons, one of them is probably because you have a low oxytocin baseline. If this is you, ironically, the better the sex, the more unsatisfied you might feel after.

That's because it’s like flashing a million-watt light bulb in a dark room. For a second, you're like, "Hallelujah, I can see!" but when it goes away, you realize, "Damn, this room is real dark."  You caught a glimpse of the light, but it only made reality more annoying than usual.

The only way to raise your baseline is by consistently doing things that release steady levels of oxytocin over time. This includes other ways to touch people (yes, they exist) like hugging, holding hands, high-fives, napping together, being okay with the person on the subway resting on your elbow. Hanging out and talking about life with someone also helps. Nothing will change if you engage in the high oxytocin activities exclusively. It's like building muscle tone. You don't start lifting 500 pounds right off the bat and refuse to do anything else. You can, but you're probably going to remain skinny and fragile like me for the rest of your life.

Method #2 for more satisfying sex: recognize that if you don't work on increasing your oxytocin baseline normally, you will continue to feel a big drop-off after sex. Close this gap by touching another living being regularly. It doesn't have to be romantically. I think it's important to be able to re-learn how to remove touch from the world of sex, no matter how awesome that world is. Hug your friends, your roommate, your bartender, that hippie in Times Square offering free hugs.

High-five every stranger on your way to work. Let people sit closer to you without acting like they're going to whip out a knife and stab you at any second. For God's sake, stop sitting in front of your laptop or checking your cellphone and instead spend time with a living, breathing someone. Snuggle with your Rottweiler…I don't know; you get the point. Don't think this can really improve your sex life satisfaction? Try it. I dare you.

3. The final takeaway

I could go on forever, but this is getting long so I'm wrapping it up (like you should, if you consider this an invitation to experiment). Here's the final takeaway: sex is unsatisfying when we ignore the standards we have. Sex is unsatisfying when we think we aren't able to feel that great any other way, at any other time. Sex is unsatisfying when we don't think improving ourselves outside the bedroom affects our performance.

Sex will continue to remain unsatisfying if we don't figure out what the hell is really going on with ourselves. Learning how our mind and body work together is one way we can do this. Getting to know the science behind why we do and feel certain things doesn't complicate things; it simplifies them. Realizing that there's a rhyme and reason to why we feel what we feel makes us understand that we have a right to our feelings.

We don't have to pretend that something is "not a big deal" when it actually is. We can figure out what it is that we really want. Best of all, by understanding what's going on in those crazy heads of ours, we can actually take steps to make a real change in our lives.

Stay sexy; be real; ask questions.