Since I'm the editor of Salon's Sex site, I was asked to write about success and failure in sex. But I prefer hearing what other people think, so I asked several men and women of varying ages to talk about what makes sex good and, well, not so good for them. This is what they said.
A single woman in her early 40s:
Failure: Thinking about what color to paint the ceiling while having sex; thinking if he moved his head a little to the right I could still watch "Letterman"; thinking about the scene in "Klute" -- Jane Fonda fakes an orgasm while looking at her watch.
Success: Sleeping in the wet spot and not caring; feeling like there's no way you could have more sex that night; waking up in the morning and your thighs are sore; waking up in the morning and your throat is sore from all the moaning.
A single woman in her mid-20s:
Sex is a success if the guy knows how to give a gal an orgasm without excruciatingly detailed instruction ... If you both end up sweaty and panting, and are turned on enough to feel uninhibited.
A married man in his 40s with two children:
Having sex is success; not having it is failure. Everything else is just foreplay.
A divorced woman in her 40s with a boyfriend:
Successful sex is about intimacy. It's really knowing them and caring about them. But the most important thing is playfulness. It doesn't matter if you have 12 orgasms if you can really be yourself and be playful. It's soul-enriching if it's real. If it's not, it's just exhausting. In the real world we're competing, we have road rage, we have PMS, we have Bush as president. There are a lot of reasons to be really cranky. If you can lose yourself with someone and really play, it's revivifying. Failure? If you don't have anything to talk about.
A man in his early 50s who has never been married:
Successful sex is when you and your sweetheart are able to strip away as much of your memory of past unsuccessful sexual experiences as you can, as well as any other emotional or material distraction (past, present or future) and just flat-out wail. In doing this, you will be treading in some very vulnerable territory because I am describing a delicate and rarefied, possibly esoteric, balance of elements that creates a condition which furnishes you both with a euphoric power. This state, however, can easily arc over into a negative and unsuccessful experience if those memories or distractions are able to creep back in and taint what had been positive. Sex with someone you are attracted to is one of the most glorious things on earth. Why fight it?
A single woman in her early 40s:
It's a slow hand. It's a man who knows that sex is different with every woman. It's willing to be patient. A man has to be totally confident and honest.
A single man in his mid-20s:
Successful sex is equal sex, two people joining together for reasons that are understood and appreciated. If it's a one-night stand or something casual, both people -- whether it's spoken or unspoken -- ought to know that they're tearing up the sheets, not making future plans for dinner and a movie. Within a serious relationship, successful sex takes on a more minute give-and-take: It's unselfishness serving selfishness, a matter of I'll do X because I love you and know that you'll do Y or at least want to do it. It's knowing each other while also being willing to create something that is shared, and new. It's being open to anything, reveling in the possibilities -- and finding someone who's just as willing to learn, grow, serve and enjoy what you've created.
Failed sex, for me, occurs when I'm feeling self-conscious, insecure or just plain uncomfortable. It also occurs, on a purely physical level, when the woman you're sleeping with seems bored or disinterested. There's nothing worse than sexual indifference.
A woman in her late 30s, divorced and not in a relationship:
When you have an orgasm.
A man in his mid-40s, divorced and living with his girlfriend:
Well, it certainly has nothing to do with orgasms.