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Are you sexually intelligent?
March 1st, 2012
10:46 AM ET

Are you sexually intelligent?

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex weekly on The Chart. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

What are the qualities that make a truly great lover?

Is it about being able to swing from chandeliers or knowing every page of the “Kama Sutra” by heart? Or are there deeper qualities to being “good in bed” that speak more to the spirit of our actions than their substance?

In his new book, “Sexual Intelligence," Marty Klein, Ph.D – a renowned sex therapist with more than 30 years of experience – challenges readers to think about their sex lives as though they suddenly woke up in Russia tomorrow, without any knowledge of the language and only a handful of rubles in their pockets.

“To figure out what to do, you’d need more than knowledge – you would need intelligence,” he writes. “You’d need the ability to figure out what questions to ask, how to find people who can help you, how to make decisions in a different culture, and so on.

“That’s what sexual intelligence is like – not the ability to be great in bed, or to function the way you did when you were 22. Rather, sexual intelligence is expressed in the ability to create and maintain desire in a situation that’s less than perfect or comfortable; the capacity to adapt to your changing body; curiosity and open-mindedness about the meaning of pleasure, closeness, and satisfaction; and the ability to adjust when things don’t go as expected.”

Klein builds on his premise of sexual intelligence by offering us a beguilingly simple equation: sexual intelligence = information + emotional skills + body awareness.

Accurate information is indeed crucial. Many of us get our sexual information from all the wrong sources.

Young men too often rely on porn and tall tales of the locker room, or on the responses of women who are all-too willing to fake it rather than put their true desires in the foreground; whereas women often rely on the sound bytes that proliferate talk shows.

In terms of emotional skills, as I discussed in last week’s column, being able to communicate empathetically and honestly with a sexual partner is paramount, but many of us resign ourselves to sex lives of quiet desperation.

And I agree with Klein’s calculus that only by adding body awareness – not just of your own body, but also of your partner’s – can you hope to become truly sexually intelligent.

In my experience as a sex counselor, one way of cultivating all three of these qualities at once with a partner is through the practice of sensate focus exercises.

Developed by sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, these exercises, as the name implies, emphasize the focus on physical sensations.

In sensate focus, sex is initially taken off the table for couples, and then gradually reintroduced, one aspect at time, through a gradual process of touching, connection, and awareness, during which each partner takes turns as giver and receiver.

The object of these exercises is for partners to develop a heightened sense of sexual self-awareness and a keener understanding of what feels good to their partner.

People change. Relationships change. Why shouldn’t sex? And yet it’s the natural changes of the sexual life cycle that so many couples in long-term relationships find bedeviling — and that’s another reason why sexual intelligence is so important.

In her international best-seller “Mating in Captivity,” therapist and intellectual provocateur Esther Perel encourages readers to cultivate “erotic intelligence” and reconcile the need for what’s safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious and awe-inspiring.

“We are born sensuous; we become erotic. To cultivate the erotic is also to engage with sexuality as a quality of aliveness and vitality that extend beyond a mere repertoire of sexual techniques. We learn to play, be curious, engage with our imagination, anticipate. Erotic intelligence is our ability to bring novelty to the enduring, mystery to the familiar, and surprise to the known.”

Both Klein and Perel have authored important works that are not only apt for people of all ages, but can remain relevant on our bookshelves (or digital readers) throughout our lives as we age and adapt.

“Sexual intelligence is useful in different ways at different times of our life,” writes Klein. “In our 20s, in exploring the sexual world; in our 30s, in bonding with a partner and establishing a sexual rhythm; in our 40s, in tolerating and adapting to change; in our 50s, in saying goodbye to youthful sex; in our 60s and beyond, in creating a new sexual style,” writes Klein.

Now that’s really smart.

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Filed under: Relationships • Sex

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.