We’ve all been there — in a conversation after a few too many cocktails, loudly reminiscing about incredible sex moments with a bunch of friends (or, let’s be honest, some random person in the bathroom). Sex becomes mythological — I saw stars when I orgasmed, their touch felt like fire, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. It’s easy to become disillusioned with your own sex life when you hear about everyone else’s. But if we break it down, what does incredible sex actually look like — and does it have anything to do with the act itself?

I have thought a lot about this (can you tell) and have drilled it down to two people I’ve slept with. The first is my current partner. The reasons for this are obvious — we communicate, we care for each other and want pleasure for one another, and we’ve had a lot of practice. It’s actually not really about instant physical chemistry with us. Our compatibility grew as we became closer, and we’ve now been together a year and a half.

But my other “best sex” wasn’t even good sex, from a technical point of view. There was a guy I had been crushing on for months. Oh, my god, the obsession I had with this guy. We ended up hooking up one night — we were drunk, and out with mutual friends. I ended up at his place and we had the hottest, most anticipated kiss. I was sitting on his kitchen counter, he had his hands in my hair. I still think about it sometimes — he carried me to the bedroom, and while the sex was mediocre at best (the clunky, drunk kind; I did not come) the emotional high it gave me was incredible.

So, two very different examples of great sex. But when I think about any of the times I had wildly exciting sex outside of a relationship, there are always other factors at play besides physical pleasure. The thrill of someone new. A lack of inhibition because I’ll never see that person again. The freshness of sex after a long-term relationship breakdown. Make-up sex that means more than the act itself.

“Great, casual sex is often not great sex at all — it’s a great experience.”

I asked other people about the best sex of their lives, and got some interesting responses. “Sex with my partner is amazing,” Hannah (she/her, 33) told me. “But the best sex of my life was probably with this 22-year-old a few years ago.”

Hannah tells me she was on an overseas trip after ending things with an on/off situationship. She was about to turn 30 and the fact that this 22-year-old guy was so keen on her made her feel “alive, just really attractive”.

They did it in hostel showers. In hostel beds when everyone was asleep. All their sex was thrilling in that way only sneaky sex can be.

“Honestly, if I think about it now, it was good sex, but I remember it mainly because it was just so exciting. I’d met this guy at the perfect time to have that kind of sex.”

Vivianne (she/her, 33) had gotten a divorce three months before she met a “musician, long hair, tattoos, really fun and unique personality”. She slept with him on the second date and says that her maturity was a major factor in why the sex was so good. “I was confident enough to give in completely and be present,” she explains, saying she came three times really quickly, something that had never happened to her before.

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Anna (23, she/her) met a Canadian guy on a dating app, went to his hotel, and they had sex all night. “It was the most connected I’ve ever felt to someone during sex, and he felt the same way,” she says. He left the next morning and they never saw each other again.

Phone sex was the best sex for Kate (35, she/her). She was a teenager in her MSN phase, and had an American online boyfriend. They would come up with fantasies over the phone and always debrief afterwards, so the fantasies just got better and better. They never met up, and things fizzled after a year.

“Great sex is less about who we are doing it with, and a lot to do with ourselves.”

These stories made me realise that the concept of “the best sex of your life” is contextual. Was Kate’s phone sex incredible because she was young, had never met her online boyfriend and got to explore her fantasies anonymously? Would Vivianne have enjoyed her fling with the musician if she hadn’t just exited a marriage? Would Anna’s incredible connection with the Canadian have fizzled out if they got bogged down in the admin of life?

We’ll never know, and while none of this diminishes how hot these experiences were, it’s also worth remembering that those sexscapades live in a bubble — great sex is less about who we are doing it with, and a lot to do with ourselves.

One insecurity I have struggled with (and I’m sure a lot of you have, too) is the idea that maybe we’ll have the best sex of our lives, and then never experience that again. What if we end up with a partner who doesn’t give us that all-consuming chemistry?

A story I’ve loved forever comes from my friend Ella (35, she/her). She has always been honest about the best sex of her life being with this totally terrible guy she was sleeping with casually before she met her now-partner. “I’d just come out of a decade-long relationship,” she explains. That relationship had ended long before the actual end date, so Ella hadn’t really had good sex for years. “I felt really unwanted towards the end, in a sexual sense,” she says.

She met Dom on a night out after the breakup, and there was an instant physical attraction. “I can’t really explain this, but I just knew that he knew what he was doing,” she says. “It was a combination of bedroom skills and him getting off on me having a great time, plus he was seven years older than me and had a lot more experience.”

Because it was a casual hook-up, she just didn’t care if she never saw him again.

“I wasn’t self-conscious at all. I didn’t care about what my body looked like, how he saw me, what positions we tried.”

They dated casually for almost a year, and it never got old. “It was always 100/10, I don’t even know how to explain it,” she says. She laughs and says it’s not like that with her current partner, but her relationship with Dom wasn’t sustainable.

“With Dom, it was like an intoxicating chemical attraction but I actually think that made for a toxic relationship beyond the bedroom,” she says. “He was really jealous, he was trying to control me to a degree and really lock me down. So it was great, but it wasn’t healthy.”

She says the sex she has with her current partner (they’ve been together ten years and have a child together) is fantastic, just in a different way.

“The sex I have now in some ways is the best of my life, but it goes beyond the physical. It’s knowing somebody and having been through ups and downs, it’s more intimate than casual sex was for me. We’re almost ten years into our relationship and it’s not burning passion and desire, ripping each other’s clothes off, it’s love.”

This is the crucial difference between relationship sex versus casual sex. Both can be incredible — I loved my years of hookups and wild flings. But it’s easy to discredit relationship sex because it becomes so comfortable. When you’re scheduling fucks and ensuring you tie your hair up first so you don’t get split ends, it’s natural to compare what often becomes a clinical approach to the free-wheeling chaos of random hookups.

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Yes, the hookups probably were more exciting and titillating. But does that make them the best sex of your life? It comes down to what you really want, says Ella.

“Sex now is about connecting with my partner, and that’s what I want these days. I want to feel loved and connected over having the biggest orgasm I’ve ever had.”

For Ella (and for me, and maybe you if you’re in a long-term partnership) great sex has changed in definition. There is magic in the kind of sex you have with a partner who has seen you at your worst, has been in the valleys and on the mountains with you, has listened to all the little cues — physical and verbal — you’ve given them over the years, so they know exactly what you like and when you like it.

Yes, it can easily become stale which is why it’s always good to communicate and mix things up from time to time, but don’t confuse comfort with boredom, or organisation with the mundane.

There’s a good chance that the incredible sex you had on your Eurotrip years ago was incredible because it was temporary, hot and heavy in a way it wouldn’t be if you saw that person again.

Cherish those memories but remember the context of them, too.

“Sex with my partner is a physical expression of love,” says Ella. “It might not blow me away all the time, but it’s magic in its own way.”

Names have been changed.