Love & Sex

The Great Search for a Definition of Sexual Compatibility

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It's pretty dang important.

"Pisces is attracted to Capricorn's subtle but powerful sex appeal. Capricorn will learn what it’s like to date the homecoming king/queen with Pisces," I read on SexualAstrology.com, a site purporting to tell you which astrological sign you're most erotically compatible with. That is, according to celestial divination. I'm looking to see if my deskmate and I are sexually compatible, despite the fact that we've never slept together and have absolutely no interest in ever getting down to it. The verdict: we're very, very compatible. You might say this little search is arbitrary, but it may be the closest to the science of compatibility we'll ever get.

Sexual compatibility is a brunch-worthy topic. It's the ultimate in girl talk. It's the ultimate in guy talk. The idea is compelling because it suggests that some of us are inherently more sexually compatible with others and recognizing that also means, somewhere down the line, some of us have sorted through the limp heaps of just-lying-theres to find someone who especially speaks to our desires. I've heard men and women alike gush unabashedly to their friends, "We're so compatible in bed." It's a hard-to-find trophy that people love to earn. It's an immeasurable quality of eros, and if it comes with as much rhyme or reason in our lives as astronomical events or internet quizzes, does it really mean all that much?

To some, it means everything. In a recent blog post for Let's Talk About Sex, writer Jerome Stuart Nichols lamented the fact that people bandy around ideas that we need to work through the bad sex in our relationships. "Sex may not be the most important part of a committed relationship, but it's still pretty dang important. We deserve more from our most romantic relationships than martyrdom." He's of the school of thought that sexual incompatibility should under no circumstance be suffered. "In our culture, we have this idea that pleasure should be a reward for suffering. Run 6 miles, 'I deserve a cookie.' Eat a cookie because cookies are fucking awesome, 'that greedy, fat bitch.'"

"Sexual incompatibility should, under no circumstance, be suffered."

And suffer it we shall not. Sexual incompatibility has been legally recognized as a grounds for divorce for decades in the United States, centuries in some cultures. For this reason, some social behavior scientists have dared to define what lasting sexual chemistry is. In an important longitudinal study conducted by the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy in 1978, 60 married men in their early 30s were surveyed about maturity, and namely, how they measured their sexual compatibility with their wives. It was found that of the 400 measures of interpersonal relationships, sexual compatibility was linked to sexual pleasure and satisfaction, psychological maturity, interpersonal maturity, the mutuality of the relationship, the ability to fulfill various adult roles, and marital happiness. What it wasn't related to: sexual frequency, penis size, types of orgasms, or specific sex acts. The psychologists couldn't peg sexual compatibility to anything more concrete than "good vibes."

"There are a lot of ideas about sexual compatibility in the field of sex therapy, lots of ways to qualify different styles of lovers based on their needs, communication style, and that sort of thing," Dr. Timaree Schmit, a sexologist and doctor of Human Sexuality, told Nerve. When I pushed her on a hard and fast definition of erotic compatibility, she explains, "I think ultimately what is most important is that lovers as individuals really, legitimately know what they want — not just sexual acts or frequency or type of intimacy, but also what the underlying emotional need is that's being met through these things." Part of that comes with communication, as she notes, "someone may say they want sex six times a week and their partner only wants it once a week and that's the way the problem is identified. But what is it that they both really want? Just to get off? Or perhaps a sense of validation — that they are attractive to their partner? Maybe it's a wish for intimacy."

Corners of the internet are dedicated to parsing around these good feelings with no name. As the commenters on Reddit's r/sex, r/AskMen, and r/Dead Bedrooms forums will tell you, questions of sexual compatibility — this euphemistic, ephemeral embrace of frigidity, impotence, attraction, satisfaction, well being, and adjustment — can dominate the future of relationships. One Redditor, trapped in a wonderful marriage that lacked compatibility, complains that his sex life with his wife of over 8 years is unacceptable. "She is awful in bed. Sex is barely at once a month and she has all these rules." He is one of the many for whom the "opposites attract" adage is no good when it comes to meshing in the bedroom. Sexual compatibility, for him, is a non-negotiable and mainly relates to the frequency with which he gets to sleep with his wife.

An informal survey on Reddit's AskMen defined sexual compatibility by four criteria: sharing kinks, similar libidos, how often you have sex, and the well-being of your sex life in general. Of those on the chain that reported sexual compatibility with their partner, the vast majority claimed to share kinks (or, at least, accommodate their partner's), have very similar libidos, and have sex with a frequency ranging from once a week to multiple times a day. The respondents seem to say chemistry in the sack isn't about experience or even physical attractiveness as much as a person's entire sexual identity and how successfully we're able to communicate our needs.

Although sexual compatibility and wanting the same things in bed aren't necessarily synonymous, outlook is everything. A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that sexual compatibility is more about perception than any real concrete data. That "perceived" sexual compatibility correlates to just thinking you and your partners share sexual beliefs, preferences, desires, and turn ons and turn offs. Several other studies, like one from 2005 in the Journal of Sex Research, have proved that sexual compatibility (and therefore, satisfaction) is positively correlated to relationship satisfaction. We need the perception that we're a perfect match with our partner in order to feel sexually fulfilled. The secret to sexual compatibility might be more "I think she likes giving me head," and less "she gives me head three times a week, every week."

"She is awful in bed. Sex is barely once a month."

So what's to be done with suffering through sometimes inevitable incompatibility in an otherwise working relationship? "In many cases, both partners can find a common ground not by compromising in the literal way. No one ends up happy when you just split the difference. I often use this analogy: you want to move to New York, your partner wants to move to San Diego. Moving to Bristow, Oklahoma is not the answer," Dr. Schmit says. "Find out what specifically about each place is appealing and maybe you find an urban place near an ocean with lots of art and culture that meets the genuine needs of both partners. This piece also requires the ability to openly communicate one's desires in a clear and loving way."

If sexual compatibility is a determining factor in whether a relationship continues or flops, then check lists and negotiations might be necessary in long term relationships. Also, "being open to new things, approaching sex as a loving and collaborative endeavor where the people involved serve the relationship itself as a more important entity than either individual alone," Dr. Schmit offers.

Does sexual compatibility exist? Most definitely. I've felt it, you have felt it. But try as we might to nail down sexual compatibility — maybe it's attraction, ease of communication, complementary styles, fit, frequency, happiness, possibly pheromones — we might never have a firm definition.  Researchers have tried to capture sexual satisfactionalso a stubborn topic — as "the emotional experience of frequent mutual sexual pleasure.” In this same way, sexual compatibility is important but ineffable, needed but elusive. It's breaking and making relationships in such a way that we need to believe in it in order to sustain them. It's a concept that, as one Redditor put it, is "fundamentally fantastic."

When I turned to my other deskmate and asked him how he thinks we can find sexual compatibility, he shrugged. "I don't know, just try having sex with a lot of people out." It seemed as practical as any answer I'd found on my search. I quickly typed in Libra (his sign) and Pisces (mine) into my sexual astrology search engine and found out if we were a sex match. "You will drink, dance, and make music together." If you say so!

Image via The Weinstein Company.