Fresh off of a Utah jury proclaiming her Gwynnocent in the ski trial of the century, Gwyneth Paltrow’s victory lap brought her to the millennial-pink studios of the Call Her Daddy podcast this week. There, host Alex Cooper prodded Paltrow to dish on some of her famous exes, and the starlet was all too happy to comply. Asked at one point whether Brad Pitt or Ben Affleck is better in bed, Paltrow called it a “really hard” choice, and then gave the world some vexing information: Though she had “major chemistry, love-of-your-life” sort of sex with Pitt, she said, the sex with Affleck was “technically excellent.”
Yes, the woman that brought us “conscious uncoupling” has now given us another bizarre new euphemism to unpack: “technically excellent.” Cooper, whose monster audience and $60 million Spotify deal continue to befuddle me, did not follow up, but I wish she had, because what in the world does it mean to be “technically excellent” at sex?
Is she saying Affleck had great technique, or is she damning him with faint praise? If you’re just reading the words, “technically excellent” sex sounds pretty inferior to sex involving major chemistry and the love of your life. But when you actually listen to or watch the podcast, Paltrow’s assessment of Affleck doesn’t come off as an insult. She almost sounds like a diner sending her compliments to the chef. So which is it? To get to the bottom of the situation, I decided to poll some experts.
My first stop was Slate’s own How to Do It advice columnist Rich Juzwiak. “When I think of ‘technically excellent,’ I always think of stamina and athleticism. It’s about form,” he said. “One could make the argument that it also includes consideration for one’s partner—say, a willingness to give oral (which many men do not consider a necessity) or to refrain from finishing before one’s partner does (in the case of men, whose orgasms tend to halt penetrative sex, at least temporarily) or, at minimum, to keep engaged after you come to assist in facilitating your partner’s orgasm (by manual or oral sex).”
These are all things that feel sort of objective and universal. But as Juzwiak brought up, does “technical” ability make sex less special, if he could do that with anyone? “I think that most people are looking for more than being done by a metronome made of flesh,” he said. “It’s about the connection, and in fact a real willingness to engage and please can go a long way to offset ‘technical’ shortcomings.”
Next, I consulted Carol Queen, who has a Ph.D. in human sexuality and is a “staff sexologist” at Good Vibrations, the San Francisco sex shop. When it comes to “technical excellence,” Queen said in an email, “I think Gwyneth used it to differentiate the experience of sex that’s driven by chemistry (when that’s the experience, we can have stunning sex with a person who isn’t really technically excellent, as long as the chemistry lasts, which sometimes it doesn’t)—and the experience of sex with a partner who has read allllll the guidebooks and really understood the diagrams.”
As fun as it is to imagine a young Affleck checking a tall stack of sex guides out of the Cambridge public library, this also raises another possibility I hadn’t considered: What if we’ve been so preoccupied thinking about how this might be a dig at Affleck that we failed to realize it could also be interpreted as a knock on Pitt’s technique? Does he get away with being just OK or passably good at sex on account of being Brad Pitt? Perhaps he could stand to check out a guidebook or two himself. But it sounds like he still must have been pretty good, mostly based on the fact that later in the episode, Cooper had Paltrow play “Fuck, Marry, Kill” using Pitt, Affleck, and her ex-husband, Chris Martin, and Paltrow handily chose to kill Affleck. (Killed over Chris Martin! Ouch.)
Still a little unsure, I sought the wisdom of Olivia Snow, a dominatrix and research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. “I feel like you can’t be ‘technically good in bed’ because there is no universal thing everyone likes in bed,” Snow said, pointing out Paltrow might just mean “a cis man who is good at fucking a cis woman, likely in the missionary position.”
Then again, “maybe he was just one of the three heterosexual men on the planet who are good at eating pussy.”
In Snow’s work as a dominatrix, she said, being “technically excellent” might entail knowing how to use a whip without hurting someone or how to do certain sex acts without giving someone a urinary tract infection, both of which seem like unlikely skills for Affleck to have picked up. (Though you never know.)
Overall, Snow said, she would be reluctant to trust any sexual wisdom from someone who endorsed yoni eggs. “It makes me think of the Olympics, like scoring gymnasts,” Snow said of the comment. I can almost picture Paltrow comparing notes with other women who dated Affleck over the years and them coming to this conclusion together, a panel of starlets all holding up score cards with 10s written on them.
Whatever the case, Cooper made one observation that had me nodding: “God bless J. Lo and whatever she’s getting over there.”