What's so great about sex?
Why on earth would a gorgeous actor such as Sharon Stone pay $1000 to have sex with a stranger? Many male reviewers clearly can't get their heads around the central premise at the heart of John Turturro's delightful movie Fading Gigolo.
And not only Sharon Stone but also the curvaceous Colombian bombshell Sofia Vergara dig deep to pay for a roll in the hay with the ageing part-time gigolo and florist Fioravante.
''Now if one wanted to be a stickler, one might observe that if women like Stone and Vergara really wanted to find some willing, random anonymous partner, they could probably find one in less time than it takes to walk from the front door to the mailbox,'' grumbles reviewer Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Silly man. We're not talking here about mediocre sex with some random stranger. The tantalising promise that bewitches Fioravante's well-heeled customers involves enjoying sex with a man who knows exactly what he's doing. Isn't that worth paying for? Paying a lot for?
Years ago I received an email from a woman who wrote about her rare experience with a man who had The Gift - a rare talent she described as ''the uncanny, intuitive ability to handle the woman's body in ways it liked''.
Many women spend much of their lives longing for a man with The Gift. Whenever the topic of male escorts comes up, particularly high-end men offering the ultimate in such services, you hear women chatting about whether these men would really offer anything special. ''I wonder what they are really like,'' they murmur wistfully.
What does it take to make sex more than merely functional or even satisfying but truly memorable and extraordinary? That's the question Canadian psychology professor Peggy Kleinplatz has spent the past decade trying to answer.
Together with students from the University of Ottawa, she's conducted a series of studies featuring long interviews with volunteers who referred to themselves as experienced in great sex in order to describe in an empirical way the components of what she calls ''optimal sexuality.''
Her 64 participants included many older people - 60 plus - recruited for the knowledge they acquired in long-term relationships, as well as gay and bisexual volunteers and a group of sex therapists. The result was that eight components were identified as contributing to optimum sexual experiences:
■ Being present, focused, and embodied - staying totally absorbed in the moment.
■ Connection, alignment, merger, being in synch - two becomes one.
■ Deep sexual and erotic intimacy - mutual respect and trust.
■ Extraordinary communication, heightened empathy - being tuned into each other's feelings, needs and responses.
■ Authenticity, transparency, being genuine, uninhibited - stripped bare, emotionally and physically.
■ Transcendence, bliss, peace, transformation, healing - a unique ''high''.
■ Exploration, interpersonal risk-taking, fun - great sex involves laughter.
■ Vulnerability and surrender - one's entire being in someone else's hands.
What surprised the researchers was the uniformity of responses. ''The participants differed enormously from each other in terms of sexual orientation, age, relationship status, level of physical ability and sexual functioning but their conceptualisations of great sex were far more similar than they were different,'' say the authors.
Indeed, great sex turned out to have very little to do with sexual techniques, orgasms, erections or physical prowess.
People uniformly report they know when it happens. And often they're dying to tell someone all about it - I've frequently been on the receiving end of incredibly detailed descriptions of transformative sexual events in someone's life. Some years ago I received an email from an older woman, a university professor, describing a new relationship with a man who introduced her to a totally new level of sexual experience.
''He has brought out a part of me I never knew. And this comes at 55 when I thought it was all over. It's been so unexpected,'' wrote the woman commenting she'd had satisfying sex before this but that paled in comparison with her new profound experience. ''When I have this sort of sex I feel like the most beautiful woman ever - I feel magnificent, loved, beautiful. Every part of my body is sizzling and the bliss lasts, leaving a desire for more that is almost painful.''
Her lover sometimes has trouble sustaining erections yet she reports everything he does is a turn on. ''He reads my body like a musical instrument. It is about the body, but also heart and soul. We are not just talking about f---ing here, as we have some very erotic experiences that don't involve penetration.
''It's done by creating mood, spending time peeling away layers, creating intimacy, building vulnerability, breaking down barriers and creating a safe environment. You have to leave the bullshit and clothes at the door.'' Three years later the passion is still sizzling.
Sydney sex therapist Gia Ravazzotti suggests it's too simplistic to assume the professor had found a man with The Gift - she also had to be emotionally open to the experience offered.
''Many people who have had this type of sex think they've been lucky enough to meet a great lover but it doesn't just happen. It comes from within. People need to be present to themselves, to have the ability to be vulnerable with someone, to trust and release inhibitions to achieve this type of expansive and rewarding sex.''
So it's possible that John Turturro's fading gigolo, Fioravante, could have had the skills, emotional openness and sensitivity to offer total delight to his customers. But he'd have to pick his clients with care to guarantee the right results.
Great sex with a stranger is certainly possible. Peggy Kleinplatz queries the assumption made by the sex therapists involved in her research that the best sexual experiences always occur in the context of monogamous, long-term relationships. Her volunteers reported optimal experiences with friends, new lovers and even strangers, as well as long-term partners.
She quotes one woman who was well aware of her talent at spreading this type of joy. ''I think that one of the beauties of having sex with me is because I always let go so much that I think it kind of gave permission to people to be more uninhibited ... diving right in and I think that's why I've probably had a lot of great sex.''
There's an intriguing scene in the recent TV series Masters of Sex about the famous sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Johnson's ex-husband is describing to Masters what makes her so special as a lover.
''She's not shy,'' he says with a laugh. ''She'll tell me how fast to go, how long to stay in a certain spot. She knows herself. She knows what feels good and she'll tell you. And she wants you to tell her what you want her to do to you ... what your fantasy is. I'm telling you Doctor, this woman is magic.''
The man's description resonates with many of the phrases used by Kleinplatz and her colleagues to describe optimal sexuality: Taking responsibility for one's own self-knowledge. Being comfortable in one's skin. Being authentically present and involved in the moment. Revealing oneself and taking a leap of faith with a lover.
All of which tends to become easier as people grow older, as one of Kleinplatz's older female volunteers explains: ''As you continue to get older, you're acquiring more experience, you're becoming a deeper, richer, more complex person, your skills improve, your empathy improves and you can dance the dance a whole lot better.''
Many people also manage to rid themselves of negativity about sex. ''That takes work ... understanding what your hang-ups are, what your fears are and dealing with them ... you need to become free of them to be totally human,'' adds a male, suggesting that's why sex is often better for older than younger people.
This makes sense to Perth relationship counsellor Rob Tiller, who looks back over the chronic performance anxiety that had such a bad impact on his early relationships. But even then he had some good experiences.
''My first girlfriend was as sexually keen as me and our deep affection for each other came out in our playful lovemaking.'' But often he'd become pre-occupied with the sensitivity of his penis - worrying that he would ejaculate too quickly - and sex became a source of ''great angst and self-disappointment''.
In 2009, Tiller embarked on an intensive 30-day Tantra teacher training course, which helped him process these ''years of painful sexual baggage''.
Tantra is an ancient Eastern practice that helps couples achieve more sensual and intimate connection in their sex lives. Tiller found the specific physical practices he learnt extremely helpful. ''They allowed me to retrain my sensitive sexual nervous system and build the skill sets of a great lover.''
This ultimately led to memorable sexual experiences, particularly in a long-term relationship with a woman who also learnt tantric skills.
Along with his private counselling practice, Tiller runs sex workshops helping both individuals and couples to enhance their love lives. He believes that although some people are put off by what they see as spiritual mumbo jumbo in tantric classes, it's possible to skate over that and acquire skills that set the scene for great sex. ''You learn to tune into your partner with hearts and eyes open.''
The person who has done most to promote ''eyes-open sex'' is the well-known American therapist David Schnarch, who is renowned for his interest not just in making bad sex better but in teaching couples to enjoy peak sexual experiences.
Making love with eyes open requires a degree of intimacy, openness and connection that very few couples manage to achieve, suggests Schnarch. In his international best-selling book Passionate Marriage he describes teaching couples how to ''f---''. He uses the word deliberately, to describe a ''unique tone of engagement and experience ... it is the opposite of crudeness; it is sex embellished with erotic virtuousity''.
Schnarch often asks professional audiences if they understand what he is getting at: ''Invariably, those whose answer is yes reveal themselves through an instantaneous though somewhat self-conscious smile.''
He reports a marriage and family therapy conference where only 8 per cent acknowledged having had this experience - which means many of the therapists have no knowledge of what makes sex really special.
Tiller recently attended a Schnarch workshop for professional therapists in Perth. ''You could have cut the air with a knife when Schnarch talked about these peak experiences and suggested we could only take our clients as far as we've come in our own relationships, emotionally and sexually.''
Kleinplatz makes similar observations. She found the therapists in her research were out of whack with the rest of her participants. Their perceptions were more negative, more focused on the role of erections, intercourse and orgasm. ''Sex therapists seem to be using narrower and less complex notions to evaluate the quality of sex.''
The lesson is that very few sex or relationship experts know how to help people achieve great sex. But there are ways of improving the odds. There's now a flourishing business in sexuality workshops: some are based just on Tantra and others use a mixed approach.
Gia Ravazzotti, who's attended many such courses, believes most people walk away from the better courses with a changed perspective, getting to know their bodies in a more intimate way. She mentions a range of more specific gains: increased sensitivity over the entire body, more whole body touch, increased orgasmic capacity, less focus on ''doing'' and more on ''being'', increased comfort in the plateau stages of sex rather than rushing towards orgasm - which makes for prolonged lovemaking.
Remember all that gossip about rock star Sting, who once boasted in an interview that he used Tantra to make love for five hours? ''Oh yes,'' laughs Ravazzotti. ''Tantric sex can mean you last for hours because it's all about the journey not the destination.''
The sexually reborn 55-year-old professor who wrote to me now attends occasional weekend sex workshops. ''Sex can be totally mind blowing. Why wouldn't I want to learn more about what makes it so special?''
Formerly one of Australia's first sex therapists, Bettina Arndt is a social commentator and online dating coach.
Sydney Morning Herald