Picture the scene: a woman goes to see a sex therapist because she finds it hard to orgasm. Although she still loves her partner, for some reason, they’ve lost that connection and are no longer in tune with one another. Whenever he wants sex, she isn’t in the mood, and when she tries to be affectionate to him he is evasive or turns away. She lacks that instinctive ability to know what she enjoys and how to ask for it.
At the end of the session, the therapist gives the following analysis: ‘I think if you were smarter, your sexual satisfaction would improve.’
An outrageous scenario and a pretty brutal opinion, but there certainly appears to be some evidence that intelligence or – more accurately – emotional intelligence is at the root of truly enjoyable sex.
According to a study of more than 2,000 female twins by academics at King’s College London, the greater a woman’s emotional intelligence (EI), the greater her ability to climax. These women were also more aware of their own feelings and emotions, as well as other people’s – which is crucial, say the researchers. Conversely, women on the lowest quarter of the EI scale had a noticeably diminished chance of attaining orgasm.
There is also evidence that regular sex – which is more likely if it’s satisfying – can improve a woman’s intelligence. The link is oestrogen, believe some scientists. According to Dr Daniel Amen at the University of California, ‘Enhancing oestrogen levels through regular sexual activity increases overall brain activity.’ I wasn’t too startled by these results.
As editor of The Erotic Review magazine for eight years, I had noticed that smart women often seemed well equipped to enjoy rewarding sex, particularly the academics who wrote regularly for me. The fact that they were intellectually adventurous led them to be sexually daring, too. A good education is, of course, a form of liberation and the best kind of sex generally involves a corresponding sense of abandonment, as well as a sophisticated imagination.
Psychotherapist and sex therapist Martin Lloyd-Elliott agrees. ‘The brain is key, ranging from the pituitary gland, which can significantly affect your libido, to your imagination,’ he says. ‘And the quality of your imagination is a crucial element in being able to achieve satisfactory orgasms.’
The link between the brain and good sex was brought home to me dramatically some years back when I curated a small display of historic erotic art at the Oxford Union. I asked the female librarian whether she would be bothered by images of penetration, orgies and flagellation. She replied calmly, ‘I’m a classicist, so nothing shocks me.’ Quite so – if you’ve spent hours reading about the debauchery of the Roman emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, then you’re likely to be pretty broad-minded.
There are other reasons women with a high EI may enjoy better sex. They are likely to be articulate, good communicators who know how to tell their partner what turns them on. Many women’s inability to orgasm is not because their body somehow fails them, but because they are too embarrassed or fearful to issue instructions to their lover – or to experiment with new sexual positions that may better facilitate a climax.
As Lloyd-Elliott says, ‘To say that greater EI automatically leads to better sex is over-simplistic. But people who are emotionally intelligent are more likely to have faculties that will serve them well sexually. Really satisfying sex relies so much on understanding your partner. A woman who has a highly developed sense of self, an emotional sensitivity and ability to read others is more likely to truly be in sync with their partner physically.’
It could also be that emotionally intelligent women are less likely to fall back on faking orgasms, because it’s rarely to your long-term advantage to let a man believe he’s turned you on when he hasn’t – far better to work together towards finding the right triggers and making sexual pleasure a two-way process.
Psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose and author of No More Silly Love Songs (Portobello Books, £8.99), points out that emotional intelligence is as much about the ability to give as take. She says it’s about, ‘knowing how to give people what they want at the same time as getting what you want. If you can do that, you’ll go far – in and out of bed.’ It’s true, as there’s no reason why someone should spend time and effort attending to your sexual pleasure if you won’t devote yourself to theirs.
But one of the main reasons that imaginative women experience more orgasms is that they are adept at fantasising. Any researcher in the field of human sexuality will tell you that the female climax is more complex than the male one and often doesn’t arise from physical stimuli alone. Emotional and mental factors play a huge part in bringing women to orgasm. Women’s fantasies don’t tend to be as straightforward as many men’s but involve layers of storytelling and context.
A novelist I know once told me that her key sexual fantasy involved her being a teenage girl on a trans-Siberian train in the nineteenth century, travelling with her nanny and being forced to watch as Cossack soldiers seduced her. No man I have ever met has confessed to thinking something that detailed while in bed with a lover.
Clearly one shouldn’t be too fixed about linking the brain with satisfying sex – as author and philosopher Dr Maria Alvarez points out, many clever women have inhibiting neuroses. It’s true – we all know uncomplicated, non-intellectual types who benefit from their lack of hang-ups in the bedroom. And, clearly, you can be emotionally intelligent without having a Mensa score off the scale.
Having said that, there has to be a pretty good reason why so many sexologists agree that a woman’s largest erogenous zone is her brain.