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Birds & Bees

For Some, Intimacy Beyond the Bedroom Adds a Thrill

April 29, 2002|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Earlier this month, Web sites and some newspapers carried reports about a German couple in the town of Porta Westfalica who hid in a furniture store until closing time to put the store's waterbeds to the sex test.

According to reports, after four hours of lovemaking, the pair, ages 21 and 17, were caught when they set off alarms while trying to leave the store. The couple told police that they didn't want to purchase such a pricey bed without trying it.

Were the young man and woman just meticulous shoppers or were they suffering from a severe bout of spring fever? Perhaps both, but the amorous pair seem to have followed what psychologists call a not-so-unusual human impulse to get physical in a strange, public or semipublic place.

In February, reports surfaced that some New York University students were engaging in sexual activity on couches in dormitory lounges, causing a stir among dorm residents who were trying to study.

Public sex is not only the province of the young. Last summer, the retirement community of Sun City West, Ariz., was aflutter when stories appeared in local newspapers about some retirees who were seen engaging in sexual activity in public places, including at a pool, in a park, on a bench, at a spa and in a parked car.

Why leave the comfort of the bedroom? For some people, public sex is charged with elements of irreverence and risk that can't be had within the confines of the boudoir, said San Francisco sexologist Isadora Alman, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of "Doing It: Real People Having Really Good Sex" (Conari Press; 2001).

"It is certainly very common," Alman said.

Exhibitionism, novelty and a desire to infuse dull sex with excitement compel some people to pursue intimacy in unlikely places, she added. "I knew a couple who kept a list of all the places they had done it where they might have got caught, and they were all places that were uncomfortable, but that wasn't the point," said Alman, who added that the mechanics of such sexual activity are often a huge obstacle. "The point was there was the possibility they would get caught. They had done it on top of a speedboat, under the bleachers during a major league baseball game and in a phone booth."

In January, the publisher of Harlequin romance novels released the results of an international survey that queried 6,600 people in 20 countries about sexual adventurism. Sixty-six percent of Norwegians reported having had sexual encounters in public places. Australians were second (64%), followed by Greeks (60%), Swedes and Argentines (both 55%) and Germans (47%). Twenty-one percent of Americans admitted to public frolics, while a mere 13% of French respondents did.

A 39-year-old Santa Monica woman recalls engaging in various sexual activities with the man who is now her husband. They used the bathroom of her mother's house while there for dinner, a theater bathroom, and her office, where someone could have walked in. "I did it because I liked shocking myself and him," said the woman, who asked not to be named. "The sex has a charge to it and heightens the senses."

The unpredictability of sex in unlikely places may even increase the pleasure payoff in the brain. Some recent brain-imaging research suggests that parts of the brain associated with pleasure exhibit a much stronger response to unexpected pleasure compared with predictable pleasure.

Research psychologists have also found that couples who engage in activities that are both novel and "physiologically arousing" report feeling more content.

"Doing unusual things and things that are physiologically arousing seems to increase couples' satisfaction and the love that couples feel toward one another," said Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stonybrook, who is the author of numerous studies and surveys examining how novelty and physiologically arousing activities affect couples. Adventurous sex he said, "would be an example of that, but there may be other things going on as well."

For instance, part of what makes public sex so thrilling for one 26-year-old West Hollywood woman is the exhibitionism inherent in the act. She once had sex on the balcony of a friend's New York City apartment where the point was to be seen by others. But to her chagrin, no one noticed.

She and her college boyfriend once had sex in her dorm room in New York in front of a window that faced a building where a class was being taught. "We wanted to be seen because my boyfriend thought it would be really hot," she said. "Nobody saw us, but we left a body print on the window."

Adventurous sex of this sort is not really about romance, according to behavior experts. "It is very arousing to have a certain level of daring and risk," said Shirley Glass, a clinical psychologist in Owings Mill, Md.

"These couples are looking for the erotic versus the romantic. They are not satisfied with the usual intimacy so they are manufacturing it. There is a sense of being partners in crime, too. There is compatibility there in spirit. The thrill has to do with getting caught but you don't want to get caught."

Especially in long-term relationships in which sex has become predictable, sex outside the bedroom may introduce an element of fun and outrageousness. "Many people who do this are rebelling against the sameness of their marital duties," said Alman. "If you are trying to have sex in the bathroom, you can't help but giggle."

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Birds & Bees, a column about relationships and sex, runs on Monday. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached by e-mail at kathykelleher@adelphia.net

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