When a friend of mine was considering engagement with her boyfriend about a year ago, she mentioned that, since she was saving sex for marriage, she wished there was a resource to help her prepare for what the experience would be like.

I was intrigued by what she said, and, since she was a close friend, and I’ve been married ten years, I seriously considered what to tell her. Should I dish all about how my experience had been? Should I give some tips for good measure? I ended up opening my mouth to say something, but no words came out. This continued for about a minute as I searched my brain for the words. Still nothing came—just a huge smile for how happy I was for my friend to be on the brink of this adventure.

I was truly excited for her. But I couldn’t bring myself to give her any preview or recommend any resources for further reading. All that I could muster was to pass along the same basic tidbit a sister told me on my wedding day (“you may want to have some lubricant”). After having sex for years now, I would honestly give no further advice than to recommend having some of that in supply, at least for the first time, should one need it.

Sex can be really good, it can be really bad, and everywhere in between. I believe that physical instructions have little do with how it turns out; instead, the quality of the relationship has a much bigger role here. This isn’t to say that if you’re meant for each other, sex will be fantastic on the first try. Not at all. But I mean that if I were to suggest techniques for sex, the truth is they could be used by a selfish person just as much as they could be used by a patient lover, and the quality of the encounter has much more to do with those factors about the person you’re with, than about the actual techniques.

What sex is like

You know what it is like to hold hands with someone you like for the first time? I do. I was walking toward the lawn seating of an outdoor music venue with friends, and the guy walking next to me took my hand spontaneously. We were at the tail end of our friend group so no one else saw—it was an experience just he and I shared. My heart skipped a beat and I felt like something very intimate was taking place. I couldn’t say a word; I could scarcely tell if I was breathing. I felt almost high!

I think handing-holding with a person you like is a great place to start when contemplating what sex will be like with someone you love. It can be a journey to get into your stride, but if you love the person, you feel loved in return, and there is a deep mutual respect and commitment to each other, beautiful things will happen.

The world of sex education

I remember well when I was first educated about the technicalities of sex in grade school. My best friend pulled me aside and said that, since we were having a big sex-ed talk in health class the next day, and our parents had received notes home about it, her parents told her what sex was the day before. In her kindness, she told me the physical basics. It seemed stranger than fiction. Then the next day, our health class validated what she said.

Unfortunately in the years that followed, my education on sex was, as it is for almost all young people today, influenced by the imagery in TV, movies, music videos, and songs. Take Titanic, for instance; a blockbuster that Celine Dion’s romantic ballad “My Heart Will Go On” all but made a classic. The fact that Kate Winslet had a fling in a car with Leo made me think that sex is something risky but worth it—and sweaty.

The number of sexual imagery in media I consumed is impossible to count, and I had a low-screen household. Now as an adult I’m reminded of it all the time: in Jim Carrey’s hilarious film Liar Liar, his boss seduces him into office sex while he misses his son’s birthday party, and asks him “was it good for you?” Comedy ensues, because the basic premise of the movie is that Carrey's character can’t lie for the die. But the impression this gave me was that sex is casual, pressurable, irresistible, and, at the same, not-so-great—and can be done with someone you don’t even like.

While the impressions of sex I received in media are many and diverse, what emerged is a common theme that sex is something you just do, and somehow your attractiveness or appeal depends on whether you can do it well, like a talent to practice and get good at. Who knows when you’ll be going down in a sinking ship or fielding advances from your boss—you’ll want to be ready!

Over time, this thinking led me to think that this media wasn’t so bad after all. I didn’t want to be completely dim-witted in the bedroom by the time I found the man for me. I read some sexual content online and even read up on how women experience pleasure. It seemed fairly straightforward how men climaxed (it wouldn’t really be called sex without it), but not so much for women. Knowledge was power, I thought.

But after finding Mr. Right, I am not sure that was helpful for me to read. I actually think it led to a selfish and self-conscious view of sex that was unhelpful to me when it came to actual sex and vulnerability in the bedroom, which is a necessary ingredient to closeness. I wish I could somehow erase these negative influences from my brain and go back and see how I would have encountered loving relations without having been influenced by these. Uninhibited by media scripts of what’s “exciting,” how much more exciting could things be if two people organically discovered this special experience together?

Since intimacy is about closeness between two people, and I deeply love my husband, I now strive to live with as few additives in my sex life as possible. I don’t want any outside idea of what’s cool or sexy by media standards anymore.

Most mainstream shows these days give a free pass to softcore porn on screen. Hardcore porn, which is everywhere on the Internet, increasingly eroticizes rape and sex where women appear passed out or in pain. Part of how it gets people hooked is its continuing to push boundaries to more titillating objectifying concepts. (That helps me understand my partner more, how?) And masturbation, porn’s common companion, trains people to prioritize sex that’s apersonal—that is, better when someone’s not even there—which is hurting many people’s sex lives when it comes to listening to, and being attracted to, a real-life lover.

In the bedroom, I want to feel loved and known and listened to. Like a good hand-hold or a good dance, when done best, sex involves two people being incredibly receptive to the needs and feelings of the other, and responding in the right way for the other to feel heard and understood. It requires patience and can be a journey for two people to find the right groove. But trying to rush good sex with cookie-cutter instructions risks hurting the greater benefit of good sex: actually growing closer together, with the unique human being you love.