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Did abortion make me unable to orgasm?

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poonamdeshmukh asks:

I had to go through an abortion at the age of 18 of a 20 week fetus. I had experienced orgasm just once in my life before the abortion. I have not experienced orgasm after my abortion through any sexual activity or masturbation. Have the abortion made me unorgasmic? I am getting married soon and I'm worried whether I'd be able to satisfy my partner, since I m doubtful whether my partner would have the same experience he used to have before abortion and whether I'd ever reach climax. Kindly help.

Heather Corinna replies:

Hi there, poonamdeshmukh.

There isn't any data that I know of which associates abortion specifically with troubles with orgasm, and I keep pretty good track of these things.

However, here are a few things we do know to be real and which have been verified:

  • There certainly are some sexual problems or issues, as well as some mental health issues, linked to pregnancy and post-pregnancy. In other words, regardless of how a pregnancy ends, be it with birth or a termination, it's actually quite common to experience things like post-partum depression (which, like other kinds of depression, often impacts sexuality and sexual response). After all, no matter how a pregnancy ends, there are big chemical changes to the body both during and after pregnancy. However, looking at your profile, it looks like it's been about five years since you were 18, so it's not likely that any of this is physically or chemically related to that previous pregnancy at this point, unless you have feelings about that pregnancy you think may play a part here.
  • We also know that in our predominantly anti-choice world, plenty of people feel guilt and shame about abortion, regardless of whatever circumstances were part of making that choice. If you don't feel resolved with or okay about that abortion -- or if it wasn't your own choice -- those conflicted feelings, again, may be part of this.
  • It sounds like your history around orgasm is consistent here, in that, save the once, orgasm isn't something you tend to experience.

My best guess is that your inability to experience orgasm probably isn't related to your abortion or to having been pregnant. I think the most relevant thing you've shared here about orgasm is that you have a history of not experiencing it.

In other words, it doesn't sound like anything changed in that regard with your pregnancy or abortion. It sounds like things have basically stayed the same in regard to orgasm: you weren't experiencing orgasm before, save the once, you're still not now.

I'm not sure why you're concerned that your partner's sexual experience with you will be different post-abortion. Certainly, pregnancy can create some usually-temporary changes to the body, and can certainly also impact our hearts and minds no matter what choice we make. And if abortion wasn't a choice you truly wanted to make, then, like any reproductive choice that isn't really what we want, we can get hit pretty hard emotionally, sometimes for a long time after. As well, if your pregnancy was unwanted in any respect, you might be feeling some negative impact on your sexuality still from whatever circumstances got you in that position. But abortion, at any stage of a pregnancy, rarely creates any permanent changes to the body: so if your worry here is that your body is somehow going to feel different to a partner because you had an abortion, know that's not a reality. They can't and won't: that's just not something real.

Sexual satisfaction is a term people tend to use pretty casually, but also often think about in ways that aren't reflective of people's real experiences with sexual satisfaction. A lot of people think it's only or mostly about orgasm, only or mostly about enjoying certain kinds of sex or sexual frequency, or only or mostly about a body feeling a certain way. Some people even say "sexual satisfaction" when all they mean is orgasm, as if orgasm were the only way to find sex satisfying (it's so not).

In reality, what we know as people who work with folks around sexuality, as well as from broad study, is that sexual satisfaction is not only typically about a lot more than other things, the things most people will say are the core parts of feeling sexually satisfied often aren't those things at all.

In 2011, the Kinsey Institute did a study on this published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. That study focused on long-term couples in their 40s and up, but I'd say, as someone who has spent the last 15 years listening to what younger people say about feeling satisfied with their sexual lives and relationships that the results are pretty reflective of younger people, too. Since you're asking about this in the context of a relationship it sounds like you want to be very long-term, these results from couples who have been together 25 years or more might also be of particular interest to you.

What did it find? That frequent cuddling, caressing and kissing -- pretty basic, ongoing, physical affection, in a word -- was one of the most major components of sexual and relationship satisfaction for people of all genders. Being in good health was another big player, as was sexual functioning (mostly on the part of the person with the penis: in other words, that their penis worked the way they wanted it to), and frequency of sex, that couples engaging in sex with a frequency they both wanted, was also a big part of satisfaction. Valuing orgasm when a partner experienced it was another player: not exactly whether or not someone had orgasm, or how often, but valuing it in general as something important. It might also interest you to know that that study found that for the women in the study, sexual satisfaction tended to increase over time: in other words, more women who weren't initially highly satisfied became more so over time in the relationship.

There's also the Durex Sexual Wellbeing Survey, which last surveyed over 25,000 people of all ages to get its results. In its most recent findings, it found sexual satisfaction most linked to things like feeling emotionally close to a partner, having a sex life that felt exciting and less inhibited, low stress, the ability to have one's own orgasm, mutual respect between partners, and then similar things we saw in the Kinsey study, like good health, physical sexual function, frequency of sex. Apropos of things I'm going to mention in a little bit, over 30% of people stated they would feel more satisfied with greater communication and love from their partners.

I'm telling you about those surveys in the hope that they will allay some of your concerns here, and let you know that, on the whole, you reaching orgasm or not, or needing more time to get there, isn't very likely to be a sex life killer. Stress about not reaching orgasm, or having this be something that you or your partner put as a barrier between you, however, certainly could have a negative impact.

Not reaching orgasm certainly may well have an impact on how satisfied you feel in your sexual life, more than the impact it's likely to have on your partner, but you probably already know that because you're probably already feeling that impact. But because you haven't gotten there yet also doesn't mean you probably won't. It doesn't mean something is wrong with your body, either: it's probably not, as most of the time, when people can't or don't reach orgasm, it's not about anything physical, but more about thoughts, feelings, and, in sexual relationships, the quality and dynamics of those relationships. And those are all things you and yours can work on and create as something awesome.

We have a lot of content here on the site about orgasm, sexual response, and challenges some people have experiencing orgasm. Rather than reinventing the wheel here, I'm going to link you to some of those:

Too, don't forget that feeling desire to be sexual in any way is not only typically a huge part of reaching orgasm, but a huge part of enjoying any sex you engage in, by yourself or with a partner. So, if you also haven't been feeling any desire to be sexual in the first place, including with yourself, this link might be a good one to check out, too: Where's my sex drive driven off to?

As you'll see when you read those links, there are a whole lot of things which can bring a given person to orgasm, and a lot of things that tend to inhibit orgasm. Ultimately, though, one big thing to know is that most people who are orgasmic -- who can and do experience orgasm -- first become so through masturbation, not sex with partners. (And this is probably one of the biggest players, for the record, in the orgasm divide we often see between men and women, even though it's certainly not the only factor.)

So, I'd suggest that if you want to become more orgasmic, your best bet is to spend some time and energy focusing on yourself and your own body. I mean that literally -- through masturbation -- but also in a bigger way. Rather than getting yourself in a pickle that your partner won't be able to have a sex life he wants and likes with you, see if you can't set a good deal of those worries aside for now. Focus instead on yourself, on your sexuality all by yourself, and what feels satisfying for you, alone and in your relationship (and not just sexually). Worrying about fulfilling your partner is just going to be a stressor, which makes orgasm (and feeling good about your body and sexuality, period) less likely, not more likely. Same goes with, if you're doing this, thinking of your body as something that doesn't work or is broken in some way. On the other hand, really focusing on the things we know truly do both make people's sexual lives feel more satisfying for them and also do make orgasm more likely best supports all of what I hear you saying you want here.

If you enjoy your sexuality, all by yourself, and you can nurture more comfort and peace in it, as well as learning how to satisfy yourself -- orgasm or not -- you get a double-bonus here. You get to be more likely to reach orgasm, and learn how you, uniquely, get there, but you also will be more likely to create a sexual life with a partner you're both a lot more likely to experience as one that satisfies and enriches both of you in much bigger ways.

Talking together about the concerns you have here is something else I'd say is a must. This would be a pretty darn big elephant to have in the room in your relationship, and not letting it out is something I'd absolutely say is likely to have a negative impact on any sexual or intimate relationship. if you're keeping all these worries to yourself, rather than sharing them with a person you're planning to spend a life with, I'd say that silence is probably having a pretty big negative impact on you, too.

Communicating openly about sex and sexuality with our partners -- including with the hard, not-sexy stuff -- is vital for happy, healthy sexual relationships we all feel good about, and sexual relationships that are truly intimate in the real sense of the word. I assume that if this is someone you're choosing to marry, you must love and trust this person a lot, and hold them in high regard, and the same is true per his feelings about and regard for you. Filling him in on all of this will not only likely make you feel a whole lot better, just talking all of this out may well, all by itself, play a huge part in building a great sexual life together.

You also said that you did once experience orgasm. That was clearly memorable for you, so in experimenting with masturbation and partnered sex, I'd see if you can't go back to what that experience was like, and what you were doing, thinking and feeling when you did experience orgasm that time. If you can identify some of those things and lead with them, they can probably be a big help to you in discovering how to experience orgasm again. And, as those pieces I linked you to up there all mention, just focusing on what feels great for you -- physically, emotionally, psychologically -- not only is what's most likely to get you to orgasm, it's what's most likely to make sexual experiences satisfying for you and your partner whether one or both of you reaches orgasm at any given time or not.

lastly, in the event, too, that you do have hard feelings about your abortion, know there are people you can talk to who will understand. just like with any pregnancy outcome, people have a wide range of feelings with abortion, but sometimes they're tough ones, and it can be hard sometimes to find anyone to talk to openly about those feelings.

We're always happy to talk with users here -- on our message boards, or in our new chat service -- who are having any kind of feelings they want to talk about with any reproductive choice, including abortion. Or, you can call or otherwise connect with the wonderful folks over at exhale, whose whole work is providing this kind of support and engaging in, supportively, these kinds of conversations: https://exhaleprovoice.org/

P.S. Given where you're located, in the event this is about a marriage that you didn't choose for yourself, I'd say most of what I've said here still goes. In other words, you both likely still want a relationship based in mutual respect and accord, and a sexual relationship that's satisfying will still probably be based on all the factors I've talked about here, including communication. However, if this marriage isn't one where it's safe for you to disclose that you've had an abortion, I understand: not everyone has those safe circumstances or the those options in their relationships or cultures. If that's the case, I think you can still talk about your concerns about sexual satisfaction, and your concerns about orgasm without also talking about your previous sexual relationship (if it was with someone else: I can't tell if it was), pregnancy or abortion.

written 22 Apr 2013 . updated 23 Apr 2013

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