What female athletes need to know about sex, pleasure, and relationshipsNov 22, 2022
Happy relationships are linked to mental and physical health - and sports performance.
By Sara Gross, PhD
“A happy athlete is a fast athlete.” Those were some of the first words Olympian and Ironman Champion, Sarah True, gushed during the press conference at the Ironman World Championships. For some, this was a surprising statement in a sport that prizes suffering.
But this shouldn't be such a revelatory thing to say. We shouldn’t be surprised that a happy human will be able to mine the energy to go fast. But our cultural conversations around sport and performance are often tied to the opposite ideal. We tend to subscribe to the ethos that success means great sacrifice, brutal training, strict nutritional regimens, and taming emotional, even sexual needs to be better at our sport.
The “Ironman divorce” is something of an inside joke in endurance sport. Relationships can simply become collateral damage in our pursuit of perfection.
I call bullsh*t.
Yes, for some athletes, the sacrifices they make give them a sense that they deserve to win, which can create real-life winning. But how long is that sustainable before burnout sets in? Before we’re miserable when we’re not winning? And is it really impossible to be able to win while also not only having a life, but enjoying life? I believe you can.
Whether your goal is building a business, setting a PR, or being the best parent you can be, you must enjoy the process to find fulfillment. And that means finding joy, bliss, and contentment as a person as well as in your important relationships.
This week on the Feisty Women’s Performance podcast I interviewed Dr. Jess O’Reilly. Dr. Jess is a sex and relationships expert with a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality who has hosted several TV and radio shows and educated thousands of individuals and couples around the world.
“You are focused on fitness and that type of performance,” Dr. Jess said during our conversation, “but it intersects with [relationships and sex]. And when you are lacking in one area of your life, it affects the others… We know that when people have happy relationships, it is the most important determinant to overall mental health, physical health, and life satisfaction.”
Yet, in conversations about fitness, sports and physical performance, sex is often ignored, considered irrelevant at best, and a hindrance at worst. “We have to acknowledge that we are sexual beings, that sex is something that is relational, it's social, it's emotional, it's physical. For some people it's spiritual. It ties into identity for many people.
Let’s Talk About Sex
The biggest obstacles women face in finding sexual satisfaction are cultural shame and lack of frank instruction on the pleasure of sex. In school, sex ed is all about identifying body parts and learning to prevent pregnancy, says Dr. Jess. “But sex is far more complex than being able to label the ovaries on a diagram, or roll a condom onto a banana.”
She finds that women tend to struggle with feelings of shame related to pleasure and enjoying themselves, “I think the biggest thing that's been missing from sexual health education is a conversation around pleasure, and talking about what it means from the anatomy to the relational side to the experience itself. When we ignore pleasure, we create openings for not just dysfunction but harm.”
The dominant cultural narrative tends to center on the pleasure of straight men, which can be confusing for the rest of us. “We live with this dichotomy in straight relationships, where the pleasure is for men. And for women it’s secondary,” Dr. Jess says. “What does that say about consent? What are the messages we're receiving about how we use sex, how sex comes into play, in terms of power dynamics on both sides? The shame around pleasure is a theme that I've seen over the years, and we continue to work through it.”
From a practical standpoint, all this means learning to orgasm can be challenging for women, “People who have difficulty with orgasm, which can be tied to shame, is sometimes just a matter of learning about the body and learning what feels good,” Dr. Jess says.
So how do we do that? It starts with the clitoris. Most women know very little about the anatomy of the clitoris, that it’s not just the external organ we see, but also that it extends internally and it’s the primary source of pleasure. Your first step is learning more about this amazing part of your anatomy.
“[Only] around a quarter of people with vaginas consistently have an orgasm from penetrative sex alone,” Dr. Jess says. “That's a small minority, right? We have these expectations that one specific act should lead to this ultimate source of pleasure.” We need to change the focus to the clitoris, which, like the penis, gets erections and is the true source of sexual pleasure for many women.
Finally, we need to learn what works for us. Just like the same training technique or sports nutrition doesn’t work the same for all athletes, the same sexual techniques won’t bring the same satisfaction to all women. And that’s okay, Dr. Jess says.
“[Women tell me], I can only orgasm in this one way. What's wrong with me? And nothing at all is necessarily wrong with you. If you've figured out what works in your body, then go ahead and embrace it. Human variation is infinite.”
Increasing intimacy and pleasure
Once you’re comfortable with your own body, you’ve set the stage for increasing intimacy and pleasure in your relationships. But, let’s face it, it can be hard to have these conversations. Dr. Jess suggests that we start with knowing our sexual values.
“I think it's hugely beneficial to adults to explore what your sexual values are, what does sex mean to you?” she says, “What were your early messages around sex? How do you feel about those now? What were the sources of those messages? Do you really value that source as a source of sex education? Were they a religious leader? Or were they a mathematician? Did they know a lot about sex?”
We should be wary of messages that are hindering or harmful, she says, because these often intersect with our identities - gender identity, race, and the other roles that we play, like mother, partner, wife, etc… and we should ask ourselves how those messages make us feel about our bodies, about how we feel physically as we move through the world.
The next step is to rewrite some of these messages by asking ourselves what are the emotional, practical, relational and physical elements of sex that matter to us. “If you can start there, it can be easier to make decisions around sex, whether you're 15 or 55,” Dr. Jess says.
She recommends starting with a simple relationship check-in, “People think it's all about sex. But really, you have to lay the groundwork so that you can have fun with the sex.” This means asking your partner things like; How are you feeling in the relationship? What can I do to support you? Is there anything you want me to know?
Jess suggests starting the conversation with positives like, “Oh, you know, a few weeks ago, when we did that thing, it felt so good.” Then make space for inquiry, “Has anything been on your mind? Are you into anything?” And then make your request, “I listened to this podcast and she was talking about this couple's vibrator. Is that something you'd want to shop with me for?”
From experience, Dr. Jess knows that if you can start with a positive, make space for inquiry, and then make a request, it can be a good formula to follow until these conversations become natural. As time goes on, it doesn't have to sound formulaic or clinical.
Good news for athletes
As we know, understanding ourselves, our values, and our emotions can lead to the accomplishment of great things, whether in the bedroom, on the race course, or in the boardroom. As an athlete, you may already have some of the tools needed to achieve your goals whatever the arena.
“We know that frequency of sex is tied to frequency of exercise,” Jess tells us, “and we know that when you exercise you feel more comfortable and more confident in your body, and those things are tied to pleasure and orgasm. We know that physical activity makes you feel more connected, more grounded.”
The connection between exercising and sex is physiological as well, “When you're exercising for the pleasure of it, we know that there are chemical responses that align between sexual response and exercise [such as] release of endorphins, and the flood of adrenaline and norepinephrine. We know that the high you can get from oxytocin, we experience also during sex. Oxytocin levels double right before orgasm, and it can have this palliative relaxing effect on the body. There are so many parallels between movement, exercise, fitness, sex, and pleasure.”
There is also research showing that couples who workout together may be happier and more satisfied in their relationships. Dr. Jess also told me that athletes tend to be more comfortable with discomfort which could mean an increased willingness to have uncomfortable conversations, “pushing your comfort zone goes such a long way in relationships, the willingness to have uncomfortable conversations, to talk about topics that make you squirm a little…. [like talking about] the fact that maybe you're not having as much sex as you would like instead of allowing it to be the elephant in the room.”
Taking our whole selves to the next level
Dr. Jess was full of wisdom and advice and I encourage everyone to listen to the episode to dive deeper and learn more.
If our goal is to find success and fulfillment through creating meaningful goals and truly performing our best in life, then we need to distance ourselves from Draconian interpretations of sex and how it functions in our lives as we start to actively choose joy and pleasure.
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