Arlene, a 27-year-old writer who lives in Philadelphia, recently went to Paris for a weeklong vacation with her 30-year-old boyfriend, a chef in the Philly area. The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and the Tuileries all lived up to their advance billing, but one aspect of the getaway scored a clear "better than expected": the after-hours activities. "Even though we were running around like crazy seeing all the sights," Arlene recalls, "we still had sex almost every day," compared to an average of once or twice a week back home. "And the sex was better; we both seemed more relaxed."
It never hurts to be in the most romantic city in the world, "strolling home every night to our hotel near the Champs-Élysées" and drinking fabulous French wine, recalls Arlene (not her real name; it was changed at her request owing to the intimate subject matter). But even if your summer vacation is in (fill in the blank with some C-list place; we're trying to avoid angry e-mails from, say, the good people of Cleveland) chances are that being away will do wonders for your sex life. In fact, in Arlene's case the Parisian part of the experience wasn't even crucial. "It's not the only time our sexual connection has flourished on vacation," she says. "Something about leaving the laptop behind, turning the cell phone off and relaxing makes the sex better. Not only that, but being in a totally different environment sparks a sense of adventure and boldness," all of which can add up to sex that is more frequent, more fulfilling and more memorable than what couples have at home.
As more and more Americans weigh canceling their summer vacation because of the highest gasoline prices since the dinosaurs gave their lives to form the stuff, while airlines--charging to check a bag, interminable delays, planes as packed as the Tokyo subway--seem determined to make getting away as unpleasant as possible, psychologists recommend doing all you can to preserve at least a short getaway. Especially for couples who are extra frazzled this year due to financial stress, the renewed intimacy can help power through the anxieties that will be waiting for them back home, whether it's rising food prices, the threat of layoffs or just the usual marital strains.
According to researchers at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, sexual response and desire reflect the relative power of two competing and relatively independent systems within the brain: an activating one and a suppressing one. The balance between the two determines a person's sexual response, something Kinsey's Erick Janssen likens to the gas and brake pedals in a car.
One factor that presses on the gas to increase sexual desire and responsiveness is, not surprisingly, mood. For most people, negative mood--sadness, anxiety, anger--acts as a sexual brake, leading to loss of sexual interest and impairment of arousability. Vacations tend to improve mood, if only because you have left the immediate demands of home and office behind; with the brake disengaged, interest and arousability rise like Fourth of July fireworks. Depression and anxiety lower sexual interest and arousability for women even more than they do in men; if the female half of the couple is feeling down in the dumps at home, a vacation that pushes sadness and anxiety aside will be an especially potent way to warm things up. That seems to do the trick for Kristin, a 31-year-old real-estate agent, who says vacation sex is better than at-home sex because it's the only time she and her boyfriend don't argue. "Plus, you can really focus on the relationship and remember why you were attracted to each other in the first place," she says.
When it comes to sexual response, of course, there's plenty of variation. New research suggests that some people experience an increase in sexual interest when they're in a negative mood. About 9 percent of straight men are more rather than less interested in sex when they're depressed, Janssen and colleagues recently reported, while 21 percent are more rather than less interested when they're anxious. In the case of depression, the greater interest in sex may reflect the greater "need for intimacy, for self-validation, or simply for sexual pleasure" when you're feeling blue, the scientists speculate. Meanwhile, anxiety can fuel sexual desire in people for whom "the post-orgasmic calming effect" is Nature's own Valium. If you or your partner fit into either of these categories, then vacation sex will likely not be better than the at-home variety, where you're surrounded by stress.
Unless, that is, you construct your vacation to produce an environment conducive to sex. Denise, 30, a stay-at-home-mom from New Jersey, says her vacations are just as hectic as life back home, even when she and her husband Richard, a software developer, leave the kids behind. "I feel I have to soak up as much grown-up fun as I can," she says, "so we're running around like crazy, trying to see and do as many things as possible ... But we'll have sex like every night," compared to two or three times a month back home: "We are just more at ease, we can stay up later and get up later without feeling guilty or hurried, so of course the sex is better."
Sex also gets a boost when you don't have to worry about your 7-year-old barging into your bedroom (this advantage is lost, of course, if you book one hotel room for the whole family), or about being late for work if the mood strikes at dawn. And at the risk of falling into gender stereotypes, experts say that "better" can mean different things for women than it does for men. Women wax euphoric about the quality of vacation sex; men like the quantity. Adam, a 31-year-old office manager (and Kristin's boyfriend) says all sex is good sex, but what makes vacation sex better is that there's more of it. In fact, several men told NEWSWEEK that their wife or girlfriend tends to drink more on vacation, becoming less inhibited. (On the other hand, one 30-year-old women suggests, "maybe it's just that men are less annoying after a few drinks.")
The vacation effect is certainly not limited to those under 40. In a 2007 study, middle-aged women (median age: 47.6 yrs) recorded physical affection, sex, stressful events and their mood every morning for 36 weeks. Physical affection or sex on one day significantly predicted a better mood and less stress on the following day. That suggests that just as feeling relaxed and happy does wonders for responsiveness and desire and hence sex, the arrow of causality can point in the other direction, too: sex improves mood. And lo and behold, "positive mood on one day predicted more physical affection and sexual activity with a partner, but fewer solo orgasms, the following day," scientists reported in a 2007 study. Sex "and physical affection improve mood and reduce stress, with improved mood and reduced stress in turn increasing the likelihood of future sex and physical affection," they conclude--exactly the situation on a typical vacation.
Being in novel surroundings can also improve the quality as well as the quantity of intimate relations. A 2005 study found that gay men engage in 11 times as much risky behavior when they're at a vacation resort than they do at home, for instance. That reflects the sorry fact that sex--especially for long-term couples--can get dull, predictable and boring when it happens within the same four walls and on the same bed year after year. "When your midcoital view changes from a grimy New York street to a sweeping Pacific horizon, it's hard not to sense an improvement," says Jeff, 27, a Web-site manager. Being away from home also means being away from neighbors, which can vanquish inhibitions. Greg, 31, a staff sergeant with the U.S. Marines, attributes the improved quality of vacation sex to the fact that you can make more noise: "Who cares about the neighbors? You're never going to see them again."