Do we need both intimacy and pleasure to have good sex?

Do we need both intimacy and pleasure to have good sex?

May 22, 2023Team NORMAL

Many of us assume that when it comes to sex, intimacy and pleasure go hand-in-hand.

Often, they do—pleasurable sex can feel even better when we’re having it with someone we have an intimate relationship with. And an intimate relationship can become even deeper when we share sexual pleasure.

But intimacy and pleasure aren’t always connected, and it might surprise you to learn about how well an intimate relationship can function without pleasure, or how well a relationship based on pleasure can function without intimacy.

Today we’re going to take a deep dive into these concepts and find out what exactly we mean when we talk about intimacy and pleasure. We’ll define the terms, explore what they mean, and then look at how they connect—and what our sex lives can look like when we only have one or the other.


So, what exactly do we mean when we talk about intimacy and pleasure?

Everyone has their own personal definition of the words, but when we talk about intimacy we’re talking about a sense of emotional closeness between two or more people. When we talk about pleasure, we’re talking about things that feel good—in this context these things are physical and sexual, but they don’t always have to be. (A really excellent joke or a stirring song can be pleasurable without being sexual, for example, and a good hug can be physical and pleasurable without being sexual).

Often, with regards to sex and dating, these two concepts intertwine and we can have a relationship that’s both intimate and pleasurable. Having sex with a partner you care deeply about, and who cares about you, is an example of this.

We can also experience pleasure without intimacy, like when we have a steamy hook-up with a stranger who we don’t expect to see again. And we can experience intimacy without physical pleasure, like when we spend time with a close family member or friend.

But what’s the ideal mixture of intimacy and pleasure? Should every relationship have generous helpings of both? And what happens if we think our relationship is lacking in one or the other?

To find out, we turned to the work of our favourite psychotherapist and author, Esther Perel. We’ve discussed her work here before—we truly are massive fans! In her 2016 article The Mystery of Eroticism, Perel outlines the relationship between pleasure and intimacy.

“Good intimacy doesn’t guarantee good sex,” she writes, explaining that even couples who are deeply intimate with each other don’t always experience pleasure together—because the missing ingredient, she believes, can be eroticism.

“For some, love and desire are inseparable; but for others, they’re sometimes irretrievably disconnected. The care, worry, protection, and responsibility that nurture love can be antithetical to what ignites desire. In fact, for many people, sexual excitement flows from not feeling responsible or emotionally beholden. That unburdened experience is precisely what allows them to feel sexually free.”

Perel writes that some people feel such responsibility and care for their partners that it’s difficult for them to focus on feeling pleasure with them—their relationship is an intimate and loving one, but not necessarily a sexual one. Other people can feel more uninhibited when they’re with someone they don’t have a strong intimate relationship with.

Sometimes this might be due to gender-based socialisation we’ve received around sex, Perel suggests—women are often expected to care for the needs of others above their own, and they may found it difficult to relax and truly ‘let go’ so they can experience pleasure with their partner. Some people also find it difficult to break free of the roles they occupy in their relationship; someone who has always been “a husband” or “a mother” may find it difficult to suddenly be their full, sexual self.

Writing in Psychology Today, sex therapist Lisa Thomas introduced us to the other side of the debate. Thomas believes that intimacy exists on a continuum, and that on one side of the continuum is us showing up as our most open self: connected with our partner, positive about our interaction with them, and desiring of them. On the other end is our most closed self, shut off to the possibility of intimacy. 

Thomas focuses on a similar issue to Perel: that of her readers feeling uncertain about being their full, sexual selves. She encourages people to let go of any feelings of guilt or shame around sex, and to embrace their desires, noting that it’s also important to feel as though you deserve sex and intimacy. Lastly, Thomas suggests that it’s important to orgasm during sex—we should note that while we definitely think orgasms can be wonderful, there are many people who have difficulty orgasming during sex so it’s important to not put all expectations of intimacy on this one act!

We’ve presented two conflicting views on intimacy and pleasure here because we honestly believe that there’s no single, right answer to the question of, ‘Do we need intimacy and pleasure to have good sex?’.

For some people, intimacy and pleasure might be absolute prerequisites. For others, they might be a bonus. What matters more than finding a ‘winner’ out of these two views is finding ways to make sure that everyone in a relationship is fulfilled and satisfied, in whatever way that looks to them.

So we’ve come up with a few suggestions for how to increase intimacy and pleasure in your relationship. Take some suggestions from both categories, or from only one—whatever feels right. And, because we think Esther Perel might be on to something when she says that eroticism is missing from many relationships, we’ve come up with some ideas to increase that too.


How to increase intimacy in your relationship:


  • Create an environment of trust. This might mean keeping your word when you tell your partner you’ll do something, respecting their wishes when they share information about themselves, or being accountable for your actions and words. When your partner knows they can rely on you—and vice-versa—you become a person they can trust, and trust is a key ingredient in intimacy.

  • Find time to have conversations. Beyond just, ‘Did you pick up milk?’ and ‘Are you coming to lunch at mum’s this weekend?’. Speaking about your dreams, hopes, fears, and desires can create a deeper sense of emotional and mental intimacy.

  • Enjoy non-sexual touching. If you and your partner only touch each other when you’re having sex, it’s time to change that! Even a quick hug, hand-hold, or back rub can make a big difference to their day and mood; and intimacy can increase when two people feel physically comfortable and in-tune with each other.


    How to increase pleasure in your relationship:


  • Take sex off the cards. We know it sounds counterintuitive, but if you’ve been having sex and skipping foreplay, oral, and outercourse, it’s time to change that. Focus on everything but sex to see if you and your partner can find pleasure in other activities. Doing this can take the pressure to have sex off both of you—and it can also result in you both wanting to have sex because you’ve been trying to abstain from it!

  • Explore non-sexual pleasure. What else feels good for you and your partner? Do you like giving and receiving massages? Doing a DIY manicure session? Going for a run or doing some yoga together? Cooking a tasty meal? Engage all five of your senses and find some non-sexual things that feel good.

  • Get some good sexual healthcare. Sometimes we don’t seek out pleasure because we know that pleasure can be unpleasant. Whether it’s pain during sex, erectile dysfunction, vaginismus, or premature ejaculation, there are many common issues that can keep us from living our best lives in the bedroom. Get in touch with a good GP for a referral so you can get on top of any issues you might have.

  • How to increase eroticism in your relationship:


  • Enjoy foreplay. Sometimes the most exciting thing about sex is the anticipation of it, and it can be seriously erotic to spend the day wondering about what you and your partner will do when you’re alone together. Foreplay doesn’t have to start in the bedroom: it can start in the afternoon, with a sneaky, ‘I’ve got a surprise for you tonight…’ text or surprise gift left out for your partner to find.

  • Talk about your desires. Spend some time figuring out what turns you and your partner on. You can sit down and have a conversation about this, write a list together, or take an online quiz. However you do it, do it with the intention of finding new and different ways to bring each other pleasure.

  • Get back to basics. Instead of trying to plan out a wild night of wall-rattling, chandelier-swinging sex, focus on the little things. Our sex coach, Georgia Grace, provided an Awakening Hands exercise in our recent Modern Guide to Sex course, and we reckon this is a great place to start. Otherwise, spend some time sensually touching your partner in a way that they enjoy, or kissing them—get the little things right before you move on to the bigger stuff.

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