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Let’s Talk about Sex

photography by Jeff Kirk

Long-lasting, happy relationships are key contributors to overall health and well-being,” says Amy Muise, an associate professor in York University’s Department of Psychology who studies the maintenance of sexual desire and relationship satisfaction in ongoing romantic relationships. 

“But sexuality is something that is often difficult for a lot of people to talk about openly. As a general topic of conversation, it’s pretty fringe, and for years not a lot of work has been done on sexuality, making it hard for people to value as a real science.” 

Helping to pave the way, York recently made Muise, 37, a Research Chair in Relationships and Sexuality. This is a relatively new area of study for the University but one quickly gaining widespread attention, not to mention respect, because of the work being done by Muise at the romantic relationships and sexuality lab she founded at the Keele Campus soon after arriving at York in 2016.  

No, the lab isn’t furnished with beds and two-way mirrors. 

But it does involve real people – up to 150 couples at a time (mainly thirtysomethings found through ads the lab posts on Craigslist and Kijiji) who volunteer to be part of Muise’s ongoing investigations into what makes romantic partners stay and have sex together over the long run. 

“There’s a lot of sexual information out there,” Muise says, “but not a lot is grounded in research.”

To obtain credible information on sex, Muise guides couples who attend her lab to document their daily experiences in a journal over a three-week period. To get at the specifics of their relationship, Muise asks subjects to answer questions about their sexual experiences on days when they report sexual activity.

When couples involved in the survey have sex, Muise not only wants to know about it – she wants to understand the spark that got it going. The discoveries are not as titillating as you might think. 

Research shows that focusing on “we time” without neglecting the needs of the self is what it takes for couples to remain blissfully sexually active over time. 

“One finding is that self-expansion sparks desire even in long-term relationships and that introducing novelty and excitement into a sexual relationship does not have to entail a major event,” Muise says. 

“Couples who were able to have novel experiences in the context of their daily lives – going on walks together in different neighbourhoods or baking a cherry pie together for the first time – reported experiencing higher desire for each other and feeling more satisfied in their relationship. On the days when they did indulge in new and exciting shared activities – however small – they were more likely to have sex.”

But it’s not all fun and games. Sexual satisfaction, the study confirms, takes work. Couples in long-term relationships must be motivated to meet each other’s needs; they need to be willing to take their partners’ perspectives when examining their sexual differences, but without neglecting their own needs in the process. 

“Sex is what makes their relationship unique,” Muise says, “which is why, for many couples, keeping their sexual spark alive can help them maintain more satisfying relationships over time.”  

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