How Practicing Semen Retention Made Me a Better Lover—And a Better Man
Photo: Sean Gladwell and Sebastián Crespo / Getty Images

How Practicing Semen Retention Made Me a Better Lover—And a Better Man

I knew tantra would be a challenge. What I never anticipated is how it'd transform my entire life.

I had my first real orgasm in Costa Rica, just four months after my 38th birthday. Please believe, I've busted my share of nuts in my teens and 20s. But none were like this. I remember neither the suspenseful Before nor the delirious After of those prior. But in that room, under the ephemeral chime of 50 Black women coming, I, too, arrived. The rolling chorus of ecstatic cries invited me to a hidden part of myself.

Unlike every eruption before that, nothing came out this time. That is to say, I didn't ejaculate; I wasn't even hard. I wasn't ginning up heat in my loins or having sex. Just drawing deep breaths led me to another plane. I felt pleasure surge from my toes into my spine and through my behind. It was like getting massaged from the inside. A 10-watt electric purr swirled from cells to skin.

I was learning tantra, the ancient art of breath control and lovemaking. At the yoga resort, the adult students traced historic trauma. We set down parental pains and bawled over romantic regrets. We shared our hopes in love and life.

"I thought this was about coming," I blurted during one session. "They got me telling family secrets and shit."

My partner wanted to show me she was trying to jumpstart our dulling sex life. Seven years had parked us in a shadow of malaise and resentment. We argued all the time, knocking trust loose, battering faith.

"You don't love me,” she’d complain. “I'm not enough for you, and I never was."

"Here you go pointing fingers,” I’d jab back. “I need physical love. Maybe we're not compatible that way."

When I felt that first real orgasm, I started to awaken from the bitterness that turned away our shoulders before sleep. I'd never known my body, and she'd been taught to fear hers. So we sought out a sex coach and tantra guru to find paths we weren't sure existed.

Now relieved, I chased curiosity to the tantra teacher's website. There was a class for men.

"Humble Warrior: Learn Tantric Sex and Healing for Men"

I signed up, half-believing if I became a sex god, I could forget the past two years of opening the relationship. I could forget that I was too old to have "girlfriends" but not kids. Polyamory had stunned me into a new existence of several lovers who wanted my full attention, loving gaze, laugh, and orgasm. I lacked the supply for that demand.

The group was more like a workshop dedicated to breathing deeper, appreciating ourselves and our partners, mourning what it was like to obsess and compete for more manliness, more power, more stamina.

In the first men's tantra class, I looked around my computer screen like it was the first day of virtual middle school. Each Zoom square showed a Black man, looking a little dubious or tough or hesitant. The Atlantan was walking around his condo, adjusting the Bluetooth headphones atop his well-shined baldie. The driver was in his delivery truck, on mute, soon to drop irreplaceable gems on how he looked 10 years younger than his actual age. The instructor, Amina, opened with her bright smile and glowing skin—if her demeanor was any indication, good sex really does uplift you.

Amina started with the basics: We were not here to learn endless orgasm. We were here to learn about pleasure, or "eros" as Audre Lorde put it. As men, Amina explained, we'd accepted that feelings didn't serve us, and had locked off useful sensors.

"I have two brothers. Have y'all ever seen yourselves put on lotion?" Then Amina pantomimed the haphazard way we smear the cream on our skin, like we're trying to rub the color off.

"You are your best caregiver. I know it's hard to hear that so I'll put you in a safe space where we can say it together." Her background as a sex worker had granted her insight about men—an understanding that many of us feel uncomfortable with verbal expression and embracing our physicalities. That captivity shutters our 'qi,' the finite life force of breath, the source of vigor.

"My second husband almost died from colon cancer because he didn't want a doctor coming close to his booty hole." Amina had a way of lightening the subject matter of rigid male expectations of sex.

The group was more like a workshop dedicated to breathing deeper, appreciating ourselves and our partners, mourning what it was like to obsess and compete for more manliness, more power, more stamina. For our first challenge, we had to abstain from ejaculating for a week. That's when my dilemmas became clear.

I took the class for the wrong reasons. A man with four lovers, in any physical condition, will wear down. There's no order or arrangement that preps men for the limitlessness of women's bodies. I'm no different. I rued the dates I set and built up ideas of sexual glory I couldn't live up to. I thought by retaining my essence, I'd please them.

This practice is simple, I thought to myself. Each morning, I'd wake up and do what I did anyway: shower, stretch, and grab my dick. In the Taoist tradition we learned, there were a series of seven routines for penis health. I'd first "warm the stove," swishing my hands together vigorously to create heat, and then rub my lower belly with the right hand while cupping testicles with the left. Then, I'd switch hands and do the same thing. At least 20 rotations. Then, I'd do a series of pulling, slapping, and swinging motions to loosen the tensile tissue in my member. The ancients loved to play with their noodles like an air guitar. After drinking a quart of water, I had to massage my inner thighs, and take 10 breaths followed by 240 quick breaths.

The principle was to call up awareness and budget my energy more thoughtfully. Intercourse, however, was the real challenge. We were taught to squeeze the pelvic floor muscles to withhold releases, while also inhaling deeply. Unlike the patriarchal standard of sex concluding upon a man’s ejaculation, intercourse would end when coming felt nearly unavoidable.

With slower strokes, I could linger in the sensations coming up. The lack of ejaculation had reignited sensitivity I hadn't known since I was a teen.

In one recorded class, Amina suggested we inform our lovers that they'd need to be support arms if we were to progress. "Women have egos, too,” she said. “And many times, your ejaculation provides evidence they did their job. That will take some undoing, and open, loving dialogue."

My lovers had questions.

"Does this mean you can't have sex?

"No, I should be having sex, she told us. But it might be a lot slower. And I'll stop when I get to what's called The Point of No Return."

"Do you want me to stop, too?"

"You never have to, but it helps me if we stay in sync. I want to do this together."

"I'm here for you to succeed and I know this is important to you, so whatever help you need, just let me know."

While everyone held me up, I kept falling. After the first week-long challenge, I reported back to the Zoom class.

"I failed. Multiple times. I don't think I have it in me to go a week."

"Bro, just because you didn't make it this time don't mean you failed."

More of my classmates chimed in about how difficult it was to rewire themselves sexually. Without ejaculation, we felt incomplete and unworthy. "I nut therefore I am" would've shook Ancient Greek philosophers to their cores.

The next 10- and 15-day stretches were unlike any in my life. I was more intentional about my hookups. Instead of coloring schedule slots with one date after another, I explored books from my reading list. I went on walks. I became aware of how I’d previously been shuttling from one partner to another. I was ruled by women in my life in that way. I had given up the self-discipline they often remarked admiring me for.

I remembered bringing up a sense of disappointment in myself and love life with the group. Jay, a New Yorker who’d expressed some of his marriage struggles and how the class was helping him to understand his brooding reticence, told me it was all right to feel disappointment and shame. But he reminded me to realize I’d inspired him and others in the group to be more vocal about time we’d lost to blind anger. I was speaking very openly about encounters where I hadn’t held my nut and the crashing waves of failure pummeling my psyche. Drew, a talkative, light-hearted dude from Atlanta, said he was struggling big time with the one-week push to retain. There had already been a few more classes since it was assigned.

In my sexual encounters, though, I noticed a key change. With slower strokes, I could linger in the sensations coming up. The lack of ejaculation had reignited sensitivity I hadn't known since I was a teen. When I fucked, I could feel fingers running down my back or along my waist. When I laid still and let my lovers control the pace, I allowed the shudders to soothe my hips and ass and the bottoms of my feet. I could feel again. Or rather, I could feel for the first time.

After the 10-week class was complete, I took a trip to Ecuador with Amina’s husband, Jay, and another classmate, Frank, the OG of the group. Meeting and departing from Atlanta, our flight soared between South American mountains, shaking from storm cover. In the stone-laid, five-bedroom house where we stayed, four valleys met the sea, and over the horizon you could see whatever God you acknowledged.

Amina had found the home on Airbnb at the start of the pandemic, staying there for one month in 2020 and vowing to return no matter how she did it. The floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors were a nod to its late owner and builder, a disabled woman from Sweden who said the structure of this place came to her in a dream. The woman’s friend and his ex-wife took over the property once she died and led groups on psychedelic journeys with Indigenous and other guides, hoping to impart that tradition to lost souls like me, another city boy on a vision quest.

There are books I need to write; that will never happen if I hold on to an obsession with being the best lover to every woman I'd ever met.

I had completed one week of semen retention. Then two weeks. During that voyage, I was on Day 12 through 18 of my longest stretch without ejaculating. We took a hike while under the influence of a plant medicine called San Pedro that revealed the secrets of our consciousness and sorted mental ordeals. I told myself I needed to let go of others' problems. I realized my pleasure was a birthright. There are books I need to write; that will never happen if I hold on to an obsession with being the best lover to every woman I'd ever met.

Besides the clarity born from psychedelics, I adopted physical cycles. A rich inner life stems from good habits. I am imperfect but humble. I am motivated but realistic. I see myself in mistakes and in advancements. My love doesn't rely on sex or stamina. My love needs my conviction and discretion more than that.

Since exploring tantra, I've become more compassionate to others' struggles, knowing how hard we tend to be on ourselves. I've found the useful peace in measured breathing and meditation. I don't allow sex to be the sole site of emotional and physical release, instead choosing time for daily reflection. I haven't "mastered" semen retention. But I know what it feels like to serve my creative purpose.