How to Pick a Sex Partner

by Elizabeth Rae Larson, M.S.; D.H.S.; LMHC; Fellow, American Academy of Clinical Sexologists

WARNING: “The truth believed becomes a lie.” This article is full of overgeneralizations; pay close attention to your actual experience and draw your own conclusions. Then practice changing your mind.

What’s special about picking a sex partner in today’s world that merits a rewrite of the rules?

Simply put, it is that the environment of dating and mating has changed so profoundly in the last half-century that the old rules give little guidance.

Myriad voices have been raised in advice; subcultures (and sub-subcultures) gather in various ecological niches, each developing its ethics. Although these subcultures lack consensus on many social issues, they are building new institutions to replace the vanished ones of the older society. There are many disagreements on which models of relationship to follow. This situation is ripe for misunderstanding and sometimes for exploitation. There are possibilities here also, however, for extraordinary relationships built on innovative models. What is needed between prospective partners is conscious awareness and honesty about which models are being employed.

If you are contemplating romance, love, or sex, it is helpful to understand three basic guidelines: 1) Know thyself; 2) If it seems too good to be true, it probably is; 3) Remember to have fun. The rules for long-term commitment add one more: 4) Invest wisely.


Women and men who maintain a false image of themselves are probably in for a bumpy ride when it comes to romance. Most of what appears to go on in the early phase of romance we humans make up in our heads. (There is an entire discussion on “creating our own reality” that is too long to include in this article.) Many people who crash and burn at the end of the romance could benefit from help with reality testing as a treatment for their vicious cycle of romance, shattered illusions, bitterness (too often accompanied by viciousness), and despair (too often accompanied by violence).

Individuals can learn to be honest with themselves about “what I really want,” and to pay better attention to “what’s going on outside of me.” Giving up illusion is always painful, but the pain is briefer and the break into clarity so refreshing, people do learn to like it. Clarity can allow you to let go of a relationship that isn’t working and sometimes to build a new, more reality-based one.

These moments of increased self-awareness in relationship can go on for a lifetime together. On the other hand, if fear conquers you, you can remain indefinitely in the victim/perpetrator role living in a grim world. Sometimes in long-term relationships partners take up information management habits that create a deceptive relationship with each other. They avoid talking about the subjects they have conflict over. One or the other of the partners can assume a lack of conflict is a good sign. What has really happened, however, is that the honesty has left the relationship, and with it, the real feeling of intimacy.


This time-hallowed business advice is also true in sex and romance, particularly in the modern, alienated age. A colleague of mine, pondering how she could protect herself from involvement with “sociopaths,” first consciously applied this rule to sexual involvements.

Scientifically sociopathy, or psychopathy, is a human condition characterized by lack of emotional connection, i.e., empathy, for others. Successful psychopaths are the perfect dates. Their thinking uncluttered (by the common conflicting emotions between self-interest and the welfare of others), they often do perfect imitations of the ideal companion. They will tell you whatever you want to hear. They appear to share interests, values, experiences, life paths. Often they are extremely interested in you; too interested, too soon. If they appear to lack the annoying tendency of most people to be a mix of compatibilities and incompatibilities, that’s because they are not real. They are con artists; they are most likely scooping up money, sex and/or power while showing you a good time.

Now all of us humans feel tempted to behave sociopathically in small ways. But most of us also care about others, particularly those close to us. With those people we yearn to be real, so we are honest … and miracles do happen in intimacy.

It’s a shame to have to counsel caution. Usually in the thrall of romance your chances of spotting a con are nil. If any of your friends or long-term acquaintances express reservations about the person you’re involved with, think it over hard. Certainly don’t hand out the key to your life before you know who this dreme-cum-tru is.


Sex, in its many manifestations, is a form of play. All truly creative expression, solo or with others, is play. Making music together, spinning beautiful webs, these are play. Whether by yourself, with one other, or in a community ritual, play transforms even actual jobs into dancing with energy.

Unfortunately, at least in the dominant culture, people turn sex into all sorts of other things: obligation, promise of commitment, payment for the new drapes. When you do those things, sex becomes work and the spirit dies a little each time. Having sex when you do not feel interested is like eating when you are not hungry; it’s disgusting.

You can enhance your ability to be a playful sexual person. Sex, of course, is not the only place that playfulness is necessary; it is present in creating art or music. If you’re seeking to become more playful, remember this: play happens in the present, work happens in the past and future. There is every reason, however, to work at developing your playing skills. Musicians practice, take lessons, work gigs so they can play music. The exquisite things the human mind is capable of all take practice, discipline, integrity. These are the gateways to play.


Much of what has been discussed up to this point applies to the early (romance) stage of relationship. Successfully maintaining an erotic bond in a long-term relationship presents additional challenges. The erotic bond a couple has can be interrupted by childbirth, career, or any number of other stresses. Modern relationships often need to be self-renewing because old cultural support systems, e.g., the extended family, the church, the family doctor, no longer perform the function of renewal in people’s lives. Furthermore, these older systems often solved the problem of erotic breakdown in committed relationships by making sex a marital duty. As the common stereotype suggests, far more women than men grapple with loss of desire. In a committed relationship, however, the reversal of that loss requires the investment of both partners.