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All I want is to be held.... but that's not what keeps happening.

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earthworm asks:

I am in the predicament of wanting a man to hold me but suspecting that I have not yet mastered my ability to honor my boundaries. When I have asked men to just hold me, they never keep their word, and after becoming turned on from the contact, I lose the will to turn down their advances. These men have had partners, or condemned monogamous relationships, and so sex complicates things emotionally.

Also, all my sexually active life I have been dealing with what my gynecologist recently characterized as vaginismus. So even though I get turned on while cuddling, my vagina rejects a man’s penis. I have to do anal and/or oral, which increasingly fails to completely satisfy the man nor me. Afterward I tend to feel inadequate, used, and defective, especially if I don’t hear from the man again. Not to sound cliché’ but I need human contact! Masturbation doesn’t offer the comfort and security of relaxing in a man’s arms. Maybe I should just ask a female friend to hold me. But the same thing could happen with her. I am almost 23 years old. How do I learn to exercise self restraint, so this cycle will end?

Heather Corinna replies:

I'd like to focus this on the three primary issues you brought up here: your need for basic physical affection, your problem with upholding your own boundaries, and your ideas about how without intercourse, the sex you or anyone else are having cannot possibly satisfy either of you.

On all of those issues, I want to make this very clear: You are entitled to all kinds of relationships and a sex life that are uniquely about who you are, what you want and need, and the way your unique body and mind is at any given time.

You make clear you need more basic physical affection than you are getting, and that right now, a need to simply be held is very big for you. You are entitled to pursue that need, and entitled to have it met by others with whom you enter into, or are already in, relationships with. You are also entitled to pursuing what kinds of sex you enjoy when you feel aroused if and when you truly feel that desire and feel right in a given relationship to do so, and not just because someone else is going there, or because you're turned on. Mind, what you can't figure is a given, and what you are not entitled to, is any given person sharing your same needs, your same level of need, or wanting the same things you do.

If you keep finding that this need isn't being met, and that the relationships you are having keep being very discordant in terms of what you want and what someone else does, it's likely that some of why that is is a lack of enough communication about your needs, a confidence in your needs being completely valid, and enough time before getting close to someone in order for you to get a better sense of who they really are, and if you two really mesh. I suspect you might also be impacted by feeling a need for "normalcy," if you have the idea that it's normal to just give over to sex when someone else wants it.

I think it's safe to say that holding someone and be held by someone is often a very intimate thing, and something that tends to often come from real care, love and compassion. Many of us don't want to intimately hold someone we don't really care for, nor do we often have the same experience of that kind of intimacy without an existing intimacy and depth of feeling. While we certainly might find that now and then in our lives, we can find people who can and want to provide that without knowing us very well, out of a simple love and compassion for people in general, out of the kind of primate-urge many people have to have that kind of basic bonding, I'd say that more times than not, when it comes to being held platonically, that's something we're going to find happens most with very longtime friends, family and romantic or sexual partners who we have been with for some time.

I also can't help but wonder if, perhaps, you aren't dismissing your own needs and boundaries because you feel like if you do, you might still get what you actually want. If you think that might be the case, or some of what is going on, I'd very plainly suggest you realize that simply isn't likely to happen. In other words, if someone says they know you just want to be held, agrees they will just hold you, but then starts in with the sex, it's very clear they're being as dismissive of your boundaries as you are, and also aren't either particularly interested in the need you have for cuddles, or just want something else entirely.

I hear you say, too, that being held by a man offers you security, but since that has not been your experience, I'd also just caution you to be sure you are tempering your ideals or fantasies with reality. That isn't to say, by all means, that being held by someone who loves us cannot or does not leave us feeling safe and loved: it often does. But I also think that bit about the "someone who loves us," is important: often, we can't get those feelings of safety and security just due to that physical contact alone. Much like I think you're doing with your ideas about intercourse, I think you're doing with this, in terms of it seeming like you are looking for the physical activity itself to provide things that are really about what someone is bringing to any given activity. With anything like this, it's usually not about what we do, but about how we and others do it, and why we do it.

What I'm suggesting is that getting held alone is not likely to have you feel the kind of security you imagine it will if you are not already feeling that safety and security from the person holding you, overall, whether that person is holding you or not. It's not so much just that the being held isn't what you're getting, but that you are not yet in or accessing the kind of relationships which contain both that real intimacy, and that real care, or the capacity for those things.

I'd like to insert another statement, which I think you'd benefit from making into an affirmation for yourself: You are not inadequate, used or defective.

What I gather you are right now is someone who is not having her needs met, and who appears to feel that because one kind of sex -- of many, many kinds of sex -- is not doable for her she's screwed, and someone who seems to keep connecting with partners with different wants and needs than hers. Not better wants and needs, not worse wants and needs, just different ones. None of this means anything at all is wrong with you, nor that you are problematic or broken in some way. It just means the folks you have been trying to connect with don't seem to want what you do (and, I suspect, are also picking up the vibe that you don't have the best boundaries), and you seem to be stuck in a lot of push-me-pull-me with people where one or both of you know what the other's wants and needs are, and that they are likely not harmonious, but keep trying to make them so. Not a recipe for the good stuff, that.

I'd also like to challenge your idea that were intercourse an option, everyone would suddenly feel satisfied. While yes, a majority of heterosexual men feel that way about intercourse, only a minority of women do. I'm not going to go too in-depth here because we have a lot of information about that already at the site. If you want to find out more about that, I'd suggest having a read here:The Great No-Orgasm-from-Intercourse Conundrum.

Obviously, when something is unavailable to you, and other things aren't working, it can be pretty easy to leap to the conclusion that if you only had that something, it'd all be better. But in this case, as in many others, my feeling is that just would not be the case. If all other kinds of sex are not feeling satisfying to you and yours, it strikes me as very unlikely that intercourse would magically remedy that. In fact, both my personal and professional experience is that most of the time, if the other stuff sucks, it's all going to suck. It's not like the dynamics which exist in all other kinds of sex -- and it tends to be interpersonal dynamics and our own sense of our sexuality that most influence how good or poor sex is between people, far more so than what activities are being done and what techniques employed -- are not going to show up with intercourse.

There is no one kind of great sex life. There is only the sex life that best fits our own personal sexuality, our minds, our unique bodies, our hearts.

There is no one kind of body which can experience good sex, nor bodies which cannot: it's all about finding out who we are, how we work, what feels good to us, and pursuing those things, as well as letting go of any hangups or conditioning that -- falsely, and often with a not-so-great personal or cultural agenda -- tells us sex is one-size-fits-all rather than a uniquely designed and very personal expression of something incredibly diverse. There is nothing you "have" to do sexually, either. What you should be doing are whatever activities you WANT to do -- when any partners also share that want -- and nothing else. I think the kinds of sex you are having, and which your body is capable of having, would feel a whole lot better to you in different kinds of relationships, with different people, and in a different mindset: in other words, I don't suspect it's the activities that are the problem, but the dynamics and context of them, which certainly includes feeling incapable of having or asserting limits and boundaries.

One of the things that tends to make it hardest for us to assert our boundaries and require ourselves and others to stick to them is feeling like they are not valid, or that we are not worthy of having them met. Sometimes, we might also feel like we have to make deals or concessions we don't want to in order to deserve having them met. While you can certainly get some help and support -- and should -- in setting and keeping to your boundaries, this is something that is mostly about you. If you don't take your boundaries seriously, it's going to be mighty tough for anyone else to. If you don't present them as perfectly valid, sovereign, and never apologize for them (or present them as you being faulty in some way), you can't expect others to necessarily see them that way. It doesn't sound to me like you are at that point yet in terms of your own perspective, so you're going to have to do some work for yourself to get to that place, ideally before you do more dating.

This is what I think you may need, and what I think will best meet your needs. I'd say that even if I'm wrong in all of these suggestions, it's at least worth a try.

1. I feel that it is probably a good idea for you, if you are going to keep dating, to take things very slow, and to do some talking with someone you are starting to feel close to in advance about your needs -- primarily about the import of being held, feeling safe and not getting close if someone is going to blow you off -- about what does and doesn't work for your body -- that intercourse is, for now and who knows how long, not an option -- and about what your previous experiences have been like in terms of people not honoring their agreements to respect those needs and about your own troubles with boundaries. I recognize some of that is heavy, personal stuff, but it seems to me that it might be wise not for you not to get physical with someone else until you feel close enough to talk about those things. I'd also suggest you consider friends-first relationships, where you develop a core of friendship with someone to some degree before you go to a romantic or sexual place.

Additionally, it strikes me as wise to take some time to figure out what you really want sexually. I hear you say you just want to be held, but I also hear you say that you become aroused by other activities when they happen instead and "lose the will" to refuse sex. Is this really about not being able to have boundaries, or is this about you perhaps also wanting some kinds of sex in addition to being held (just perhaps on your terms, rather than when someone has promised to do something else)? I can't tell by reading, so if you're not sure yourself, I'd check in on that and get some clarity.

2. I feel that you need to make sure you are weeding out people who are not emotionally available to you the very moment you discover or suspect that they are not. I think you need a very hard limit on this.

One big part of healthy relationships as well as relationships that can contain the kind of physical affection you are looking for is both people being emotionally available to the others. For instance, men who talk a blue streak about how horrendous monogamy is? Monogamy is not right for or wanted by everyone, but usually those who know that about themselves and are healthy people don't need to demonize it either: those who go nuts doing that often do so to justify why all they want is sex. Men who already have partners? From the sounds of things, even if some of them have fully honest, negotiated open relationships, that's not the right thing for you right now. And I think we can agree that men who already have partners and are flat-out cheating are not a good choice for anyone. All these kinds of folks are also folks who probably are not likely to honor your boundaries or who want what you do.

The long and the short of it? Hold out for the good guys, for people who really feel -- over time -- to be in a real alignment with you, and for people who are both emotionally available and earnestly interested in being emotionally available to you. Ditch the toxic folks, the boys-living-in-grown-mens-bodies. You say you crave feeling safe and relaxed, so that means you need to be choosing people with whom you feel safe and relaxed in general, way before anyone is getting physically intimate. I'd suggest also taking some time to look at how you think of yourself before you start seeking out partnership again. So, so often, our own sense of worth has a LOT to do with who we pursue and get involved with. If we think we're substandard, our standards for others tend to be just as low.

3. I think you would benefit -- and this is usually suggested with vaginismus in conjunction with physical therapies, anyway -- from some talk therapy: about your vaginismus, the feelings it seems to be leaving you with, and also about your sexuality in general. When I hear you say things like, "I have to do anal or oral," some of what I hear is you giving voice to feeling like given kinds of sex are required from you, rather than things you earnestly WANT to do, physically and emotionally, for yourself as well as others. You'd hardly be the first woman with vaginismus to be voicing and feeling some of the things that you are, so this is not unfamiliar terrain to therapists who work with clients with vaginismus or other vulval pain disorders. As well, I think that some talk therapy, over time, with a good counselor might help you to find tools to have a sexual and romantic life in better alignment with your needs, and help with what I think may also be some self-esteem issues.

4. Lastly, we absolutely CAN ask friends and family to hold us. By no means is that something we can only ask of a romantic or sexual partner, or which will only feel beneficial to us when coming from a sexual or romantic partner. Again, a need for basic physical contact and affection is a very basic human need: nearly everyone has that need, and it is not something unusual about you. Maslow's hierarchy of needs puts the need for basic affection and safety before the need for sexual intimacy, and that makes a whole lot of sense.

The idea that anyone who would be physically close to you would automatically go to sex -- or that you would with them -- strikes me as very faulty. Given your experiences, I can certainly understand why you'd have some issues with trust in that department, but I do think that has a lot to do with who you are choosing to ask for that from, in what context and what you might feel you "owe" someone who experiences sexual feelings while holding you. So, by all means, ask a female friend or family member if they will hold you when you need to be held: chances are quite good someone close to you will understand that need, say yes, and not push or dismiss your boundaries. I also think it might be good for you to understand that need for affection and basic creature-contact as not just being about romantic relationships, and to experience that need not only actually being met, but being met with people where you don't have to worry about maintaining your own boundaries when it comes to sex because they just aren't interested in sex with you.

Another option for you to get the kind of contact you want, too, is through bodywork. If you can swing the expense, a regular massage might be something that helps meet your needs a lot, and where you can also feel very secure when it comes to things not going to a sexual place. As a side bonus, massages help out a lot with managing stress, and can also help with body image issues, which are probably something you struggle with just from the vaginismus.

I think any and all of those places would be great places for you to start, and I wish you the best in getting to a better place with yourself, your sexuality. Here are a few more links which might give you some more groundwork for that:

written 17 Dec 2008 . updated 17 Jan 2014

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