There is no place where egos are more fragile than in the bedroom. Sex makes one vulnerable. Both genders worry about how they will perform, especially early in relationships and, most intensely, during a sexual venture with someone new.
Men and women obsessed with their body image are anxious about what a lover will think of their physique. The physical exposure in the act of sex is twinned with a less tangible baring of emotion. With all these raw nerves and heightened sensitivities, is there a place for humor in the bedroom?
"It is not as important as a woman wanting to sleep with me," said Pete Frontiera, a graphic arts student who describes himself as a "30-year-old male with an 18-year-old libido and the common sense of a 5-year-old."
"Actually, it depends on how you got into bed in the first place. If the basis for being in a sexual relationship is that she thought you were funny, humor will play into it," he said. "But I have found that in the beginning of most sexual relationships, it doesn't have a place."
Humor doesn't usually work at the inception of a relationship because no one knows if it will last or if a feeble attempt at jesting will kill its chances of success, said Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist and author of "The 6 Secrets of a Lasting Relationship," (Putnam, 2001). "Humor in the bedroom is like a lot of things in life," said Goulston. "You know if it went over well or poorly by the reaction of the other person."
Humor that hurts (sarcasm, laughing at a partner or mean-spirited teasing) can backfire. Nervous laughter also can derail foreplay. "Trying to be funny when you are nervous sexually generally turns the other person off," said Goulston. "When you try to make a joke to cover up performance anxiety, you are being evasive."
One of the bedroom's most painful and awkward moments is when physiology fails. Levity can cut the anxiety. "This is a good time for poking fun at yourself," said Goulston, warning that it shouldn't turn into an ugly self-roast. "You can say, 'Look's like the ship won't sail tonight.' This actually is a turn-on because you are being gracious about it instead of moping." (Viagra ahoy?)
Playful jests in long-term relationships are less risky. Couples are secure and know from experience what humor tickles a mate and what bombs. Laughter builds intimacy, makes sex less boring and less formulaic and, frankly, makes intimacy more fun. Shared history provides a broad palette from which couples can construe funny innuendo and inside jokes.
Hope DuFour, a 32-year-old Santa Monica mother of three small boys, thinks that humor in a relationship exists in direct proportion to its levels of goodwill, trust and love. "To be able to laugh at how your body looks and how your body sounds in the bedroom with someone you have been with for years brings you closer and heightens the level of trust," said DuFour, who has been married for seven years. "And it goes beyond the bedroom. It means you trust each other that much that you can be vulnerable, and that you can give and take a tease." DuFour said she and her husband can joke about each other's bodies because the humor comes from a deep love for one another and is "an extension of our adoration for each other."
But, of course, timing is everything. According to a wide but unscientific sample of men interviewed by University of Connecticut English professor Regina Barreca, "Men are furiously worried about a funny woman in bed not because they fear being ridiculed but because they fear they can't maintain an erection and laugh out loud." Barreca had interviewed the men while researching her book about women's strategic use of humor, "They Used to Call Me Snow White--but I Drifted," (Penguin, 1991).
Indeed, uproarious laughter can ruin an erection, conceded Linda De Villers, a sex therapist and professor of human sexuality at Pepperdine University. Laughter leads to loss of focus. "A little bit of laughter won't make a man lose an erection, but intense laughter could interfere with erection as it can with a woman's ability to get aroused."
Or as Frontiera so aptly put it: "There is no place for humor in bed if things aren't getting done right. You have to cut out the chitter-chatter."
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.