Smooth sex

Everything you've always wanted to know about lubrication but were afraid to ask. First of two parts.

Published January 31, 2001 8:26PM (EST)

They had been lovers for 15 years and married for seven. She was a nurse; he was a partner in a small business. They were in their late 30s and were erotically very comfortable with each other.

He knew that she loved to be caressed lightly all over with just his fingertips, loved to have him nibble on her earlobes while whispering sexy intentions, loved his lips and tongue playing first with one nipple, then the other, and particularly loved his tongue swirling on her clitoris, around her vulva and inside her.

She knew that he loved the noises she made when aroused, loved it when she ran her fingernails from the top of his head down his neck and back and over his butt, loved the way she climbed on him when he lay on his back and sat on his penis, and particularly loved the way she sucked its head while stroking the shaft with one hand and cupping his balls in the other.

He always waited until she was good and wet to enter her and, during intercourse, they both enjoyed a slow, sensual rhythm, alternating fucking with tongue play until they alternated orgasms.

But sometimes, especially when their sex lasted longer than one CD, she felt sore the next morning. As much as he loved feeling engulfed inside her, he offered to go with more tongue play and less fucking. But she enjoyed the special closeness of holding him inside her and didn't want any less intercourse, even if it meant occasional soreness.

This went on for some months. Then, at a party, he happened to be introduced to a sex therapist. He took her aside and mentioned his wife's soreness.

"Do you use a lubricant?" the therapist asked.

"No," he replied. "She has no problem getting wet, and I give her lots of head."

"That's a good start," the therapist replied, "but I bet a lubricant would help."

The man called his wife over and related the therapist's recommendation.

"No thanks," she said. "My gynecologist uses it for pelvics, and I can't stand the stuff."

"Your gynecologist probably uses K-Y jelly," the therapist replied. "It smells medicinal and tastes terrible. Try Astroglide, or Probe. I bet you'll like them."

"But I thought lubricants were only for women who don't get wet," she said.

"Not at all," the therapist replied. "I never have sex without lube. Try it on your vulva and inside your vagina and on his penis. I bet it relieves your soreness."

It did. Not only that, the commercial sexual lubricant enhanced their lovemaking in general. A few months later, as they enjoyed a languid afterglow in each other's arms, she said, "I can't believe we did it all those years without lube."

"Me, too," he replied, drawing her close. "Who knew?"

Commercial lubricants are the slippery secret of sensational sex. Unfortunately, says Palo Alto, Calif., sex therapist Marty Klein (author of "Ask Me Anything" and operator of the Ask Me Anything Web site), only a fraction of lovers use them. "Most sex books and many so-called sex experts present lubes only as a quasi-medical treatment for a condition that's been medicalized into a problem -- insufficient vaginal self-lubrication," he says. "But vaginal dryness isn't a medical problem. It's just an inconvenience, a very common inconvenience -- one that lubricants eliminate quickly and completely. And even among women who self-lubricate well, lubes enhance sex. I consider them the greatest invention since refrigeration. I just don't understand how people can think they're having good sex without using a lubricant."

Sexual lubricants have never been a focus of sex research, but all available evidence suggests that not many lovers use them. In the landmark 1994 "Sex in America" survey, the first to use a reasonably representative sample of Americans, University of Chicago researchers asked the women participants if lack of sufficient vaginal lubrication had been a problem for them during the previous year. Almost 20 percent said yes.

New York sex educator Betty Dodson spent much of the 1980s teaching women's sexual self-awareness workshops, and always recommended lubricants. "Half the women in my workshops," she estimates, "complained that they did not produce enough natural lubrication to really enjoy sex. But very few had ever tried a commercial lubricant. Lubes were a revelation to them. They couldn't thank me enough."

In 1995, as part of its "Toys in the Sheets" customer survey, Xandria, the nation's largest marketer of sex toys, asked 1,000 buyers how often they use lubricants with their toys. Many sex-toy instruction sheets recommend lubricants. So does the video "The Complete Guide to Sex Toys and Devices." Yet only 26 percent of Xandria respondents said they used lubricants routinely, and only 41 percent said they used them during more than half of their sexual interludes.

When customers bought insertable sex toys at Good Vibrations, the woman-owned sex shop in San Francisco, employees Cathy Winks and Anne Semans, coauthors of "The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex," routinely asked, "Do you have some lubricant to go with that?" The typical response was a blank look. "Of all people," Winks and Semans say, "you'd think sex-toy buyers would understand the value -- the necessity -- of good lubrication. But no."

"Sexual lubricants are cheap and widely available, and definitely enhance sex," sex therapist Klein says. "It's a total mystery to me why more people don't use them."

One reason is bad associations with gynecological exams, says Louanne Cole Weston, a sex therapist in Fair Oaks, Calif. "Gynecologists spread K-Y jelly on vaginal speculums before inserting them. Many women wind up associating lubricants with internal exams, which are decidedly nonerotic experiences. Beyond that, in my opinion, K-Y is probably the worst lube. It's gloppy and it smells medicinal. My husband and I use lube every time we make love, but never K-Y. We like Probe."

Another reason for the general lubelessness is that many people believe that "normal" sex involves only the body and nothing else. They consider lubricants unnatural. "Nonsense," says San Francisco sexologist Sandor Gardos, the sexuality advisor for "Lubricants are as natural as any other sex enhancer not of the body: candlelight, soft music, lingerie, a glass of wine or a sexy video."

Some lovers consider lubricants messy. If that's how you feel, Winks and Semans advise using just a little dab: "Most people who give lubes a chance gladly accept a little extra messiness for all the added comfort and pleasure they provide."

Then there's the objection that lubricants taste bad, which interferes with oral sex. Different lubes do, indeed, taste different. Winks and Semans suggest making an evening of taste-testing several brands. You might also try safe, edible Lube-a-Licious lubricants. They come in four flavors: cherry, piña colada, strawberry and watermelon.

Other lovers view lubes as an interruption. "Sure, it takes a moment to squeeze some lubricant onto your hand and then apply it," Gardos explains, "but when one lover reaches for the lube, the other knows that something very pleasurable is about to happen. Far from being an interruption, that moment of erotic anticipation can get you even hotter."

Heterosexual men have generally been left out of the lube loop. Gay men who engage in anal play routinely use lubricants, but in heterosexual relationships, lubes are considered a woman's thing. Wrong. Men can apply them to their lovers, and use them on their penises. "I use lube myself every time I have sex," Klein says. "On trips, I don't leave home without it."

Part 2: Masters and Johnson got it wrong.

By Michael Castleman

Michael Castleman is the author of "Sexual Solutions: For Men and the Women Who Love Them."

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