What does it mean to be ‘technically excellent’ in bed?

Gwyneth Paltrow described Ben Affleck’s skills in bed as proficient, but...how should we interpret that? Can we talk about sex in the same way we talk about Michelin Star restaurants? Three experts share their perspectives on the topic

Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow together as a couple.
Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow together as a couple.

When Gwyneth Paltrow — the woman who coined the phrase “conscious uncoupling” and promoted vaginal steaming — appeared on the podcast Call Her Daddy, where host Alex Cooper gets the planet’s most famous celebrities to freely talk about sex, we knew she would delight us with more than one juicy headline. When Cooper asked Paltrow whether Brad Pitt or Ben Affleck was better in bed, her response didn’t disappoint. Gwyneth claimed that she and Brad had the sexual chemistry of true love, while Ben was “technically excellent” in bed. Unfortunately, the host didn’t dig further into what the hell she meant by that phrase.

We’ll leave the question of how we would have reacted had this comparative exercise been done with a heterosexual man aside and focus instead on Paltrow’s comments. There are those who believe that comparing sexual experiences is never a good thing. As Óscar Ferrani, a sex educator, specialist in sex toys and General Product and Service Coordinator at Amantis stores in Spain, explains, “comparing one sexual partner with another does not usually accomplish anything good, especially in stable and long-term relationships. It is better to use our past experiences to learn and take advantage of our own knowledge and awareness and that of our partner. Each person understands sexual experience differently and each unique encounter can respond to very different expectations, even within the same couple. Passion and emotionality don’t necessarily conflict with technical precision or knowledge of one’s partner’s sexual response (or one’s own),” he says.

In truth, Paltrow discussed Affleck’s sexual prowess in much the same way she would compliment a chef on an exquisite meal or appraise a work of art in a museum. “It’s like when you go to a restaurant thinking you’re going to have a wonderful pasta carbonara. It may be that when they serve it to you, it is generally perfect in terms of the pasta’s doneness, the amount of salt and spices, etc... So, you eat it and enjoy it, but you are still left feeling that, while there was nothing wrong with the execution of the dish, it was lacking something and failed to meet your expectations,” says Rosa Navarro, a sexologist at Diversual.

By talking about Affleck’s skill in bed that way, doesn’t it also suggest that, despite his mastery, there was clearly something missing from their relationship? “These days, the term ‘technical’ implies that someone…knows procedures and methods, that they’ve spent hours studying the rational aspects of an activity and…mastered them. But by enhancing this [intellectual] aspect, they’ve forgotten more intuitive ones, like improvisation and…anything that cannot be rationally calculated ahead of time. In short, despite that competency, they haven’t achieved genius status because they haven’t mastered the unexpected,” says Valérie Tasso, a sexologist and LELO ambassador. “In sexual matters, being ‘technically excellent’ often means that…a sexual interaction can be a bit standardized and procedural…The ‘technically gifted’ person masters an effective process for most lovers but does not excel at adapting to a particular lover’s specific needs,” she adds.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s phrase — which seems better suited to a LinkedIn profile than an intimate discussion —also raises the question of whether saying that someone is “technically excellent” at sex conveys the idea that said person can essentially have good sex with anyone, as if it were just one skill among many. Does that make sex with that person less special? “Everyone has a different conception of what good sex means. Physiologically speaking, sexual arousal and sexual desire are two completely distinct phases of the human sexual response. They can occur one after the other, alternate within the same encounter, or one can enter the sexual arousal phase without having experienced the desire phase. It is [a] good [idea] to learn to distinguish between them and be aware of how we value each sexual encounter,” explains Ferrani. He adds that someone who has great technical skill in bed can give their partner an incredible orgasm and still not be satisfied with the sexual encounter, while someone who lacks technical skill can generate great satisfaction with attention and full surrender during sex, even without having an orgasm. According to Ferrani, by taking a “coitocentric” approach to sex — obsession with the genitals and orgasms — one’s ultimate sexual satisfaction remains precarious.

Attraction and chemistry

In fact, when Gwyneth Paltrow and Alex Cooper played Fuck, Marry, Kill — the game in which a person says who they would sleep with, marry and kill from the options provided — the Oscar-winning actress answered that she would sleep with Pitt. Her answer made it clear that she values chemistry over her partners’ skills. Her response also suggested a difference between sex driven by attraction and connection and sex in which the techniques have simply been mastered to give one’s partner pleasure.

Why do we care so much about chemistry and emotion in sex? Valérie Tasso explains that “both…are necessary, and if one overpowers the other, the sex will suffer. If there is a lot of passion and emotional fireworks but the lovers do not have the slightest notion of how to capture it in their partner’s body or their own, desire, and consequently the fantasy that sustains the encounter, will inevitably lessen, and…we will not know how to do what we had in mind. On the other hand, if the encounter is intended to follow [a] recipe in which all the ingredients are measured and the cooking times are [precise] and sequenced, everything [is done in a] regulated process, the same thing will happen (desire will wane)…The final dish will be good but it won’t be anything new, because excessive regulation will have eliminated…the mystery and the improvisation….that the specific case requires,” she says.

“The rules of good sex are created between two [people] in each [sexual] encounter. Throughout our lives, they are dynamic and constantly changing. We have to revisit our beliefs and prejudices and fight misinformation to achieve the sexual fulfillment that we all want. Good sex makes us happy; it helps us grow and does not put our physical or emotional health at risk…,” Oscar Ferrani says.

In fact, some people advocate so-called mindful sex, defined as a lucid and awakened sexuality in which any thoughts unrelated to sexual practice, including the obsession with reaching orgasm, are excluded. “Mindful sex suggests shifting the sexual paradigm by aspiring to a full sexuality that stems from the intersection of science and pleasure. If you change the way you experience your sexuality, you will soon see how other areas of your life are revitalized as well. Sexual energy is very powerful because it can transform your existence from top to bottom…By using the internal resources that we all have, you can develop your affective maturity and your relationships and create a balance for yourself and your lovers, which will promote affection and harmony between [the two of] you,” Dr. Emma Ribas writes in Mindfulsex. Ribas also argues that, by practicing mindful sex, we can learn to create sexual chemistry.

Are good lovers born, or are they made?

The problem with talking about someone being good in bed is that sexual skills are not really quantifiable; each person has their own likes and dislikes. So, can we learn to be better in bed? Is learning to have good sex so different from learning how to speak a language, play golf or make art? “If [when we say] being good at sex, we mean being ‘technically excellent,’ we can be trained. Through experimentation, trial and error and, especially, listening to the other person, one can achieve greater mastery of a practice and also be able to adapt more easily to different preferences within that practice,” says Rosa Navarro.

“We need to have a good sexual education and knowledge of the physical-psychic mechanisms of pleasure and of the human sexual response, which lays the foundation for knowing what people like and what gives them pleasure. But, as we have said, that alone does not guarantee that one will be a great lover. It is essential to know how to read, interpret, decipher and find the nuances of that special someone and act accordingly; to do that, one needs a modicum of instruction.” After all, as Valérie Tasso says, “you’ll never be a good violinist if you don’t know something about the shape of a violin and how to get it to play a certain note.”

In the final analysis, it could well be that talking about sex in the same way one discusses a recipe is as cold as it is confusing; as in so many other aspects of life, the most important thing is to achieve a connection through intimacy and communication. But don’t panic. As Dr. Emma Ribas explains in her book, “changing the way you make love is an art and a learning process.”

So, who did Gwyneth ultimately decide to kill in the game Fuck, Marry, Kill? Ben Affleck. Apparently, technical mastery in bed isn’t everything.

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