Lovers' Ultimate Sex Hack: Karezza
Karezza side effects may include more energy and a healthier libido
Last year, there was a brief publicity flurry about a venerable, but little known, approach to sex called "karezza" (pronounced ka-RET-za). ABC ran a news story and karezza articles showed up from Argentina to India. The ladies of The View even grappled with it. A karezza subreddit gained steam, and Germany gave birth to a new karezza website.
Still, chances are good that you haven't a clue what karezza is. Before I explain, here's a bit of context. Human mating has some very un-Disney characteristics. True, new lovers are jacked up on thrilling honeymoon neurochemicals. For example, they have extra nerve growth factor and cortisol flowing through their veins. Dopamine-releasing areas of the brain are activated. Their serotonin is often as low as the levels of OCD patients—which is why lovers obsess over each other. In addition, odd things are going on with their testosterone levels: They're lower than normal in men during early romance, and higher than normal in women—bringing their libidos more into sync.
Yet all these potent neurochemicals return to base levels by the end of year two at the latest. Once that booster shot wears off, cracks tend to appear. That's when habituation can set in if couples don't learn to counter it. The standard sex advice for committed couples—which is to heat things back up to earlier intensity with more variety in the bedroom—often backfires. "Heat" can gradually numb lovers' response to pleasure, making vanilla pleasures even less fulfilling. Mates may end up on an unsatisfying, but very demanding, treadmill of seeking new highs while feeling less overall pleasure.
Karezza is an organic way to hack our pair-bonding machinery and remain attracted to each other. It has turned up in various cultures over thousands of years. In simplest terms, it's affectionate, sensual intercourse without the goal of climax. Intercourse is generally frequent, although not necessarily daily. But couples typically also engage in daily "bonding behaviors." These attachment cues are very powerful, and have been shown to reduce stress as well as strengthen bonds.
In this post, I'll address some of the natural questions people have about this unfamiliar practice. First up:
- How do you respond to the guffaws that accompany any discussion about karezza?
I generally laugh along, because years ago I had a similar initial reaction when I read a Chinese Daoist manual about cultivating sexual energy rather than releasing it in orgasm. Intriguing as the concept was, the book went back on the shelf for 5 years! Eventually, however, I began experimenting with the ideas and was amazed.
Eventually, I realized that my experimental lovemaking had evolved. It had drifted closer to the descriptions in some old karezza books and away from the more performance-driven Daoist lore. Mysteriously, harmony and karezza seemed to go together.
Part of the challenge with karezza is that we humans think we already know everything important about sex. Actually, we have a lot to learn about the subtle, lingering changes in the brain that follow the intense neurochemical event of orgasm—and even more to learn about the neurochemical effects of excessive orgasm (whatever that means for each individual).
These brain events haven't been studied much, but even the limited research that has been done makes it clear there's a lot going on that could have a subtle impact on lover's post-climax perception of each other as well as their moods. As this kind of information becomes common knowledge, the wisdom of karezza will be evident. For now, experimentation is the best way to see its benefits.
- What is the point of sex without orgasm? Wouldn't it be frustrating?
First, a bit of context. As a culture, we have trained ourselves that sex = orgasm, but for many primates this isn't true. Various apes and monkeys often copulate without ejaculation.
Even among humans, the karezza concept has cropped up repeatedly over the centuries, going by various names: "Taoist Dual Cultivation," "Cortezia," "Amplexus Reservatus," "Tantra," "Polynesian lovemaking," and so forth. Of course, cultures sometimes regulated sexual activity in other ways, too, such as kosher sex or taboos on intercourse after a wife gives birth until a child is walking.
The point is that a less fertilization-driven approach to sex is not as unnatural as we've been led to believe by the Church and today's sexperts. It's just unfamiliar. It may actually be more unnatural for lovers to exhaust their sexual desire for each other until they are as mutually appealing as canned ravioli.
Certainly, as I (and all of the women in whose weddings I participated) discovered, today's orgasm-centric advice isn't strengthening human pair bonds. As my husband quips, "If orgasm bonded lovers, every john would be in love with his hooker." And if orgasm alone were so beneficial, porn addicts would be the happiest, healthiest people on the planet.
In short, intercourse isn't just for orgasm/fertilization. In pair bonders such as humans and tamarin monkeys, it's also for sustaining attraction and for tapping intimacy's other subtle stress-reducing benefits. Climax not only isn't essential for those benefits, it can sometimes put stress on a relationship because of perfectly natural, post-climax perception shifts. (Think PMS.)
It seems like karezza would be horribly frustrating, but surprisingly it is not—provided lovers (1) learn what they're doing and why, (2) take a slow enough approach to intercourse, and (3) make love in gentle "waves." That is, when things heat up, they allow their arousal to drop down repeatedly, and end in a relaxed, perhaps even trance-like state.
Karezza definitely takes a bit of getting used to, however. You have to learn to stay back from the edge of orgasm—unless you want genital congestion. (If you learn this the hard way, cold water should ease the pain.)
- What benefits can couples get out of karezza?
As lovers engage in karezza intercourse consistently, they tend to become more sensitive to pleasure. Therefore, even though orgasmic intensity is absent (or rare), overall pleasure (both inside and outside the bedroom) is often greater. Daily bonding behaviors tend to make their relationships more harmonious and flirtier. Because karezza helps protect a healthy balance in the reward circuitry of the brain (the part that governs our appetites, moods and cravings), it can make relationships less volatile and therefore more sustainable.
In addition, non-performance driven sex is very helpful in restoring erections in men with erectile dysfunction. It can even ease premature ejaculation—especially when combined with Michael and Diana Richardson's "soft entry" technique.
Men describe karezza with phrases like deeply satisfying, can make love often without fatigue afterward, feel more virile, feel welcomed into her heart. They report greater attraction to their partners—of any age, greater ease in giving up addictions and having sex more frequently than before. Said one, "I have fallen deeply in love with my wife really for the first time. We're like teenagers ... and are able to have intimacy and sex now that was simply unheard of before." More men's comments.
Women say things like blissful, easy, pure contentment, heart-burstingly loving. They report that their relationships grow more harmonious and playful. Some report less menstrual pain and feeling and looking younger. More women's comments. Paradoxically, women often report that they become more orgasmic, probably because they can relax more during sex. (The absence of vigorous thrusting means the vagina doesn't tense up to protect against the cervix being bumped painfully.)
It's likely that one scientific basis of the improvements men and women see is the increased emphasis on soothing daily affection, which may help sustain the release of oxytocin (the "cuddle chemical") or increases the brain's sensitivity to it. Not surprisingly, oxytocin is vital for erections and sexual responsiveness. It is released throughout affectionate touch and lovemaking. Oxytocin also plays a role in orgasmic sex—but karezza may sustain oxytocin levels better as it doesn't generally promote climax, which triggers a rapid drop off of oxytocin.
- Is karezza particularly suitable for particular couples or situations?
Karezza is ideal for couples who live together. It helps keep the romantic feelings flowing even without the hit of those extra new-love neurochemicals discussed earlier. It often gives mates something they may not even have realized they missed: a sense of being wanted, accepted and welcomed in by special invitation of one's beloved, consistently.
Karezza can also be very helpful for couples in which one partner is recovering from porn addiction. Here's what one man had to say:
I am a guy in my mid thirties, and I have been doing porn for getting my masturbation fixes, for years. Today I am 32 days off porn/masturbation. I have a lovely SO of long standing. She knew about my propensity towards P/M, but she thought (and so did I) that it was just a "guy thing." Once I told her my intention to rid myself of this drain on my wellbeing and our happiness, she said she would see me through this.
From my understanding, frequent orgasms can slow the reboot process. So we decided to take up /r/karezza as well, to help me get back on track. And it has been wonderful. We have bonded like we have never before in recent times. It is almost like we are again a couple of teenagers loving each other with our whole selves. And there have been no fights during this whole month; each time some disagreement popped up (and these have been less than the fingers on one hand), one of us would pull back and put the conflict in perspective. Result: no fighting, more love.
On to other benefits of the new lifestyle: I am much more alert than usual. I need much less sleep than before. Indeed for a few days I couldn't sleep for more than four hours or so before I would be wide awake. This has passed, and I now get six to seven hours of sleep and remain wide awake when I am not sleeping. This is in contrast to myself a month ago, when I would feel drowsy in the afternoons (and other boring times). I intend to keep this going, and not go back to my previous lifestyle.
- Are there drawbacks? Couples whom it won’t benefit?
One drawback is that karezza is unfamiliar and easily mischaracterized. It's therefore difficult to explain to a partner. It's off the radar of most "sex positive" mainstream advice. That's somewhat ironic because couples practicing karezza tend to make love more frequently than they did with orgasm-driven sex. Moreover, research is revealing that intercourse is especially beneficial (as compared with various other sexual activities).
Karezza is obviously more challenging for new lovers because of all those compelling honeymoon neurochemicals discussed above. For the same reason, it doesn't work well in casual hook-ups, where novelty is the prime aphrodisiac. It's also problematic for long-distance lovers. They don't have the option of daily bonding behaviors, and when they reunite after a separation there's understandably a lot of sexual hunger present that makes a relaxed approach challenging.
- What simple steps can you recommend to couples who want to try it?
Get educated. It's almost impossible to make any progress with karezza unless you have a clear understanding of why you both want to do it. It's a duet, not a solo. Both partners genuinely have to want to try it, and that's not likely unless both have read something about it and become inspired. In addition to our book Cupid's Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships, there are some inspiring old free karezza books available online.
Be consistent for at least three weeks. Postcoital neurochemical ripples can linger, so to see the true potential in the karezza concept lovers have to stay with it for a while. Best not to mix it with orgasmic sex during the experiment.
Start slowly, with playful, affectionate activities that don't involve intercourse, but will still ease sexual tension. Take turns finding out each other's favorite non-erotic touch. Cupid's Poisoned Arrow has a 3-week program in the back, but here are 31 playful, non-intercourse activities for inspiration. Cupid also has a lot of humor, stories from real people, and historical and scientific information about mating and bonding.
Gradually add intercourse to the mix. It can be good to schedule lovemaking during your karezza experiment, so both lovers can look forward to the occasions.
After a three-week trial, couples may want to return to conventional sex and see what differences they notice for themselves over the following weeks.