We’ve all thought about it. Whether it’s because you bumped into her randomly in a bar, or very deliberately on Facebook, ex-girlfriends have a unique allure. Your current relationship status might make it awkward to admit, but you know which one you’d most like to have sex with again. Exactly which one. In fact, by now you can probably not only name her but also recall a precise occasion in graphic detail. The sound she made; the look on her face; what she was or wasn’t wearing at the time. Regardless of what prompted you to start thinking about it, once you do it’s hard to stop. Trust me.
In my particular case, it was a photo. While clearing out my wardrobe I dug out a shoebox of old university paperwork and found a few pictures from the pre-Instagram days among the stack of yellowing essays. There she was: Fiona. We were together for a year or so and she surprised me one winter’s evening, waiting for me in my bedroom wearing nothing but a bobble hat. She’d dyed her hair dark brown and we did it on the floor.
The relationships I’ve had in the 10 years since have all had their sexual highlights. Still, nothing tops Fiona and her bobble hat. Recently single again after an 18-month relationship, online dating and meeting friends of friends at parties is all well and good. Exciting, sometimes. But if no-strings sex is what you’re up for it’s a costly and time-hungry process considering it doesn’t always lead to that. And it’s fraught with uncertainty, game-playing and no small amount of anxiety.
But with an ex, all that hard work has already been done. More than that, the barriers along the way to sex – compatibility, self-consciousness and a bit of occasional embarrassment – have all been negotiated. You know what really turns her on and she you. There is far less confusion involved.
I wanted to know if rekindling old flames for sexual gain would be a viable way to get more sex, more often. I wanted to find out whether it was possible to relive those moments stored in the more private recesses of your memory. Most of all, I wanted to know if Fiona still looks that good wearing nothing but a bobble hat. So, I gave myself four weeks to have one more attempt with as many of my past girlfriends as possible. I start off by texting Fiona.
The art of ex communication
She doesn’t reply. It’s quite a blow but it doesn’t feel as awful as I thought it would. I’ve roped in a team of sexual psychologists and therapists to give me the inside line on having sex with an ex and Paul Ginocchio, a therapist who specialises in men’s sexual issues, explains why I’m less than distraught.
“Sleeping with an ex is a means of exercising some type of control. It’s a way of circumventing the threat of rejection and the vulnerability that may come with pursuing someone new.” Or, as Mike Lousada, a second sex therapist I consult about the proposition, puts it, “You could call it going for the low-hanging fruit. It requires minimum effort with the potential of high returns. And if you do happen to get rejected you typically won’t feel too bad, as you probably didn’t have any high expectations in the first place.”
It does make a lot of sense but it’s still a false start. I write down a list of all my other exes and realise that they can all be simply categorised by how things ended. There are the ones that finished relatively amicably, simply fizzling out for one reason or another. And there are those that ended less so, exploding in a tirade of vitriol and/or betrayal. I jump onto Facebook to check who’s single and send the following messages:
To Louise – a friend of a friend who was more into me than I was into her: “Been thinking about you.”
To Mary – a relationship that ‘fizzled’ when she decided to move out of town: “I really need to talk to you.”
To Sarah – the summer fling that ended pretty badly when I admitted to sleeping with another girl behind her back: “Are you in town?”
And then I have a wank. Best-case scenario, if one of them gets back to me, I don’t want to come off as horny and desperate as I now increasingly feel.
Real sex, fantasy women
Louise gets back to me a few hours later. We were an item for just a couple of months last year and we did it on the kitchen table once after a night out, while her housemate was asleep upstairs. She was always pretty open to sex but, once we started having lots of it and spending inordinate amounts of time together, I began feeling trapped. I told her that I wasn’t “in the right place for something serious right now”, avoided a few phone calls and that was that.
We arrange to have a drink that Friday evening, at the same pub that was the preamble to the kitchen table memory. I wonder if she remembers it. I reckon she does. We talk about our mutual friends and I struggle to remember the names of her colleagues and after an hour or so we’re starting to run out of conversation. I walk her home through the park and eventually we find ourselves face-to-face in the almost darkness, and I step in towards her for the sort of hug defined by a mutual pressing of pelvises. She kisses me – or I kiss her – and she pulls back and shrugs with a smile.
Back at hers, she unbuckles my belt and drops to her knees. It feels good but it’s short-lived. In the meantime she’d unbuttoned her shirt and we have sex on her bed with the lights off. Afterwards she tells me that I shouldn’t stay, so I call a taxi. We hug on the doorstep (less pelvises this time) and she seems somewhat shameful. If I’m honest, so am I.
The following morning I consult my therapists. “With this sort of woman, there is always the risk of them thinking that you’re interested in more than the physical connection,” says Lousada. “At first glance this looks like an easy option – however, this is probably a lose-lose scenario.” His point is taken. I feel like I’ve done something wrong and I’m pretty sure she does too. The sex itself can best be described as familiar; we followed a very similar pattern in terms of sexual positions – missionary, doggy and then her on top – and even disposing of the condom in the bathroom afterwards gave me an eerie sense of déjà vu. The pedal bin banged loudly against the tiling along the walls, making the same echoing ding as it had done previously. I could imagine Louise tutting to herself back in the bedroom.
Most crucially, the sex wasn’t as good as I remember. It certainly wasn’t at all like having her spread out on the table top. That was much better. Consultant psychologist Professor Glen Wilson tells me that this feeling of disappointment is only to be expected.
“It’s psychologically very difficult not to remember past sexual exploits better than they actually were. This is extremely common in men and it has a name – it’s called ‘fantasy incubation’. The negative aspects that might have been operating at the time drop out and are forgotten. It’s just that bit of sexual excitement that remains and you modify it, refine it and build other things into it that make it the perfect turn-on.”
Louise was the ideal candidate in theory but there was a danger of leading her on or, worse still, having to go through the process of distancing myself from her all over again. She knew that too. Sex with this sort of ex is high risk for an OK reward but I resolve to leave Louise alone.
The no-strings relationship
The following Wednesday, I’m waiting outside a restaurant for Sarah. We haven’t spoken since the fireworks of our split over four years ago but her messages over the last few days have been pleasant enough. More importantly, Wilson has told me that this ex is exactly the one you should focus on.
“A highly charged termination of the relationship allows for a much greater chance of reconstruction than if you had just drifted apart. Once you move onto a footing of friendship it becomes increasingly difficult to recreate the sexual attraction you once had.”
Mechanically I pull out her chair from the table and just like old times she smiles at me and slumps into it.
Within moments we are comparing our adult lives. Not my favorite topic, but I feign interest – she was engaged but it didn’t work out. We finish dinner and go our separate ways with no real promise of more to come. “It was So good to see you tonight. Again. Soon.” She’s used first-letter capitalisation for emphasis as long as I’ve known her. “Really good to see You too,” I reply.
The next day I send her an email: “Before you find your husband, maybe we can spend a weekend in the country together. It just wouldn’t feel right once you’re married.” It’s my last shot.
A fortnight later we meet at the hotel; she specifies one bed. We reprise our old roles and I am utterly surprised and confused when, as we are lying next to each other afterwards, she begins to cry.
She explains that our sex reminded her of her youth and how much happier she was then. Compared to this moment, I was happier when I was younger too.
Nevertheless, we end up having decent enough missionary-style sex at every possible opportunity over the course of the weekend. At the end of our stay we split the bill and leave things open-ended. I get the sense that she got what she wanted out of the weekend as well.
I feel a bit cheated, not by her, but by the experience. While I succeeded in having sex with two of my exes, that sex was not of the fantasy-grade I had put so much time and effort into remembering over the last decade. I had thought that time apart would have led to more excitement. But the reality of sex with your exes is that they are exes for a reason and, however things ended, the sex is different as a result. “It’s true that the sex is probably not as good as your adjusted recollection of it,” says Wilson. “But one of the most important factors is a very simple one – you both got older.”
If you’re willing to confront an older version of an ex then rekindling old flames works. It might be a facsimile of the past, rather than a recreation, and it’s certainly easier than starting all over again with someone new.
It does have its dangers, though. Most of all that your ex could well become an ex-ex. No-strings this is not. Fewer-strings would be more accurate. Which is still preferable to full-strings, mind.
On the drive home I think about Fiona in her bobble hat again, this time contemplating the reality rather than further polishing my own picture. It was a decade ago but in my mind she hasn’t aged at all. She exists in that moment on my old bedroom floor at university. If she does get back to me, I think I’m going to leave her there.
This article was originally published on MensHealth.co.uk