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He likes it, I don't. What now?

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turnwavesmile asks:

I don't feel anything at all when I touch myself. It just feels like nothing inside and doesn't arouse me at all. The only way I can masturbate is by rubbing the palm of my hand on my clit. When my boyfriend and I are together, he likes to finger me. But like I said before, I don't feel anything. It gets pretty awkward when he's just fingering me and it's not feeling like anything and it just drags on forever, while he has no idea. What should I do?!

Heather Corinna replies:

You should experiment and communicate with your partner and should do the things together and alone that feel uniquely good for both of you -- not just one of you -- at any given time.

In all truth, the answer to situations like this really are that simple, and there's not a whole lot more to it than that. But what is a little more complex is why many people don't realize or think it's that simple. Since we and other sex educators get these kinds of questions a whole lot, let me fill you and others in a bit more.

Let's start with communication. I probably don't have to tell you that many depictions of sex, especially in mainstream media, don't tend to show us a very realistic picture. One of the most common ways depictions of sex are often unrealistic is the total lack of communication. We don't often see presentations of people telling partners what does or doesn't feel good (and when we do, we tend to see more of the dos than the don'ts), people filling partners in on where they want to be touched, how they want to be touched, or even outright saying something like "Hey, I know you want to do that, and maybe you had other partners who liked that a lot, but that doesn't actually do anything for me. But this does..." We don't often see people having conversations about what works for them and doesn't before any sex starts. We also will not tend to see a realistic presentation of what many people enjoy, and other things that are part-and-parcel of some sexual dynamics that are common for people having very enriching sex lives.

Some of that it's the fault of filmmakers: after all, unless the whole movie is a sex scene, just like other parts of life in film or television, sex can get truncated and edited down to the smallest glimpse of what can go on. But even in a lot of porn, where the movie IS all about sex, a lot of this stuff is missing, because filmmakers and producers are choosing to serve the lowest common denominator, and also aren't in the business of providing reality, but of providing fantasy. Of course, why people fantasize about a lack of communication or individuality, or about sexual dynamics that don't tend to be very enjoyable in real life for everyone involved, I couldn't tell you, because both of those things are plenty sexy in my book. But as my friend Cory likes to tell me over and over again, I need to remember that I'm frequently non-representative.

That all said, most of the time in real life sex and sexual relationships where people tend to earnestly connect, earnestly get their needs met, and earnestly and mutually enjoy themselves, there is communication. In real life, people talk and also communicate in other ways during sex. We do. In a healthy, enjoyable sex life, everyone involved is active rather than anyone being passive, and people aren't just letting a partner do things that don't feel good or don't feel like anything without saying a word. That awkwardness you're feeling is about a lack of communication and about how weird it can feel to be doing something that's supposed to be about mutually interacting when interaction isn't actually happening.

To put this in a different context, it would be very awkward if someone came up to talk to me and started talking in a language I didn't share or understand, and instead of trying to communicate in some way that I didn't understand them, I just stood there, saying nothing or just nodding like I did understand them when I didn't. There might be a nanosecond of feeling awkward on both parts when I was able to make clear I don't know the language they do, but it'd be no big deal: there are a lot of languages in the world, after all, and few of us know all or even a few of them. The same goes with sex. There are a lot of different things we can all potentially do sexually, and a lot of difference in what people enjoy, both from person-to-person, partnership-to-partnership and from day-to-day. If someone just makes an assumption about what someone else likes, or people try something that's just a miss, there can be an awkward moment when we acknowledge that. But it's usually brief, not a big deal, and for people with any range of sexual experience, it may not be awkward at all because they've probably had that happen before and know it can happen. If neither of you knew that yet because you didn't have the experience to know, now you know.

But if that communication doesn't happen at all, and people keep doing something sexual and allowing something sexual to continue where they're clearly totally disconnected and nobody says anything, nobody checks in with each other to ask if what they're doing feels good? Well that would be really awkward. I'm not at all surprised it's felt awkward to you.

So, step one with this is to stop being passive and to stop being silent. If a partner goes to do something we know we don't enjoy from the outset (or in a way we know we don't enjoy), we can just let them know we don't enjoy that, then fill them in on what we do like in a positive way. For instance, you can say "I know you like to do X with your fingers, but what I actually like and get off on is Y. Can we try that or some combination of both?" Then you explain in words what you like or show him yourself with your own hand, or by guiding his hand. People who are truly invested in sex of any kind being enjoyable or fulfilling for everyone will not take issue with this: quite the opposite, usually. Because someone earnestly invested in mutual pleasure does have that investment, hearing about what is likely to make that happen and what a partner likes tends to be very wanted information. I doubt your boyfriend is all that excited by the prospect of doing something to you that you aren't actually responding to, but if you're not giving him information and solid cues you aren't, he is going to have a very hard time knowing that's the case. The onus is on you to speak up and fill him in about what you like and don't, just like he hopefully does with you about his body (and if he doesn't, you being more communicative helps him to feel more free to do that, too, so it's a win for the whole team, not just one player).

Obviously, we won't always know what feels good or doesn't before we try something. So, it may happen sometimes that you two start doing something that just isn't working. In that case, you ask for changes, adjustment, or just for a pause or full-stop. Maybe you're saying something like "Let's try this angle," or "What if you put your fingers here, more like this?" Or maybe you might need to stop for the time being and fill a partner in about some things about your unique body you realize they don't know and could stand to know. Of course, sometimes things just feel like nada because we are just not feeling sex, period, and at those times,we just want to communicate that we want to do something besides have any kind of sex.

If you do feel like less talking is what you want rather than more, the good news is that over time, you'll often need to communicate verbally less with an ongoing partner. When you're very communicative as you two are learning each others bodies and responses, likes and dislikes, as you each learn more and more, there will tend to be less to communicate. I'm guessing that what's going on here based on what you're saying is that he's putting fingers inside your vagina. I can only guess because "fingering" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. But if it turns out, for example, that you just never really like fingers being put inside your vagina (more on that in a bit), you'll probably only have to communicate that once and not again unless you want to try it again, or in some other context. If and when he learns what works for you right now with your clitoris based on you communicating with him about it, and you two communicating more as you refine that together, in time, if that's what keeps working for you, you'll need to say less and less about it. Like I said, I personally don't find communication and talking during sex to be something problematic, un-sexy or undesired, but we all have our own preferences. If yours is to verbally communicate less, the way to get to that is to communicate more and very clearly now.

Next up? What one partner likes is not always the same as what another partner likes. What one partner has found has worked for other partners may not for others still, and what any person assumes someone will like is not always what they actually will.

It's fairly rare for people in a sexual partnership to find that everyone involved likes doing every single thing each person likes themselves or has enjoyed with previous partners, and that everyone involved shares the exact same level of enjoyment with certain things. In a sexually compatible relationship or experience, however, even if everyone doesn't like all of the same things, we'll tend to be able to have at least a handful of things we both enjoy pretty equally and mutually. Part of our learning process in developing a sexual relationship is identifying what those shared likes are and starting from there, which -- surprise, surprise -- we usually find out by communicating. So, he likes having fingers in your vagina but you don't. Twenty bucks says that if using his hand on fingers on your external clitoris or vulva -- something he may not even know you or anyone else likes -- really revs your engine and gets you off, he's going to like that even better, because it's a lot more exciting to do something our partner actually responds to. It may also be that in talking, you can work out what he likes about the way he has been doing fingering and find something else to do that meets those wants or needs. Like, maybe he likes how his fingers feel inside a warm, wet place, so sucking on his fingers could work for that, too. Maybe he likes moving his arm that way or making something be about your genital pleasure, so what you actually like may fit that bill even better than what he has been doing.

Sexual partnerships -- good ones, anyway -- are about a process of exploring and learning each of our unique bodies, desires and responses. That process is always ongoing, both individually and in relationships, because sexuality tends to be fluid are rarely stays the same for a whole lifetime or partnership for anyone, especially over years or decades. And that process should actually be pretty fun and exciting: it's never a drag to learn about something we're passionate about.

Since we have a LOT of information already here about female-bodied anatomy and sexual response, I don't want to reinvent the wheel. At the bottom of this page, I'm going to include a few links to help fill you in more on how the majority of women do NOT reach orgasm via intercourse or other kinds of vaginal entry alone, on why, physiologically, many women don't feel much or anything just by having fingers or something else inside their vaginas, and on why that doesn't mean anything is wrong with you or women on the whole. But the long-story short is: a) much of our vaginas (not our vulvas) don't have a lot of sensory nerve endings, b) feeling a lot of sensation in and around the vagina -- when we do -- usually has a lot to do with how turned on we are and what other kinds of sexual activity besides that has gone on or is going on, and c) a lot of people's ideas about what things or body parts are "supposed" to be enjoyable for female-bodied people are incorrect or incomplete, and often based in fantasy or myth. As well, often in order to experience a lot of genital sensitivity, we have to start any genital sexual activity already feeling very aroused, not start unaroused and only try and become aroused with genital stimulation.

Right now, you know one thing that works for you with your own masturbation. That's a great starting point, and something to share with partners so that when you're having genital sex, you and they can incorporate that into your sex and also build off of that. In other words, chances are good that over time, there will be more than one specific way or thing you can do that feels very good to you. It may be that when you or a partner are doing what works with a palm on your external clitoris, and add other activities, the other activities start to feel a whole lot more interesting and exciting. It may be that you discover other similar kinds of pressure in the same area expand your horizons. It may be the WAY he's putting fingers in your vagina isn't what feels good, and that you two need to experience with how fast or slow he's doing that, how gently or aggressively, at what angle, in what position, with what curvature of his fingers. It may be that once you start talking about all of this, also accepting your body and the way you respond is not a problem, but just how your body and sexuality is right now in this regard, you can learn, alone or with a partner, more of what you enjoy you didn't even know about. It may also be that once you open the channels of communication, and your partner can find out about what to do that you actually like, it's a lot easier for you to get a lot more excited and aroused, you even find you DO like fingers inside your vagina when you're getting other things you like. Or not, and it's okay if you don't. None of us has to like everything: no one kind of sex is ever required.

We are all so, so very different in so many ways when it comes to embodiment and sexual response. What feels like the best thing ever for one person can feel completely ho-hum or downright awful for someone else, even if both those people have the same body parts or gender identity. Whether we're approaching sex with ourselves or sex with partners, it's so important all of us know that and understand that sex with anyone is always something we learn, very uniquely and individually, and every single time we have a new partner; in some ways, every single time we have any kind of sex. This is the central reason why, when people write in asking things like "How do I give a blow job?" or "How do I get my girlfriend off?" we really can't answer that question, especially since none of us have been the sexual partner of the person a given writer-inner is asking about. Even if we had, we could only say what we found in our experience with them, which could potentially be radically different than what they will experience with other partners or at other times in their lives. We also like to remind people that if any of us could learn how to perform or do a given sexual activity in a way that was exactly the same and perfect for every partner, forever, sex would get mighty boring pretty darn fast. It'd feel more like flossing our teeth than having whole-body and whole-self experiences which are physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, spiritual and social.

The way we learn what works for us sexually, what we like and dislike, what feels good and doesn't, physically, emotionally and psychologically is through individual experimentation and communication, honoring the uniqueness of our bodies and the bodies of others at the exact same time. If it wasn't, people would probably have stopped having sex a long time ago because the alternative, if it isn't a snoozer from the get go, gets old awfully fast.

I want to add one last thing: not everyone, at any given age, time of life, or in any given partnership, is or feels ready to be active when it comes to sex or to communicate openly and honestly. Not everyone's assertiveness skills are what they could be to make that a whole lot easier. I don't know anything about the whole of this relationship or it's dynamics, nor anything other than what you have shared here about your own sexuality and sexual relationships. But if a lot of what I have just said seems really daunting or very intimidating, I'd suggest you evaluate if this time in your life, or at this point in this relationship, it's really right to be having any kind of sex. Check in with yourself on if it feels like you both have the ability to be more active and to communicate, to advocate and ask for what feels good for you, or not. If you just don't feel there yet or like you can do that yet in this relationship, my best advice is to take a few steps back and put any kind of sex on hold, focusing instead on building self-confidence and trust; creating other kinds of intimacy and honesty in the relationship first that would support better sexual intimacy and honesty.

A lot of the time, when people talk to younger people about sex, communication and passivity, it's only about yes or no, about consent, safety or reducing your risks of unintended pregnancy, STIs or other unwanted outcomes. That's all really important, but what can get lost in that is how important communication ALSO is when it comes to pleasure and good, enjoyable, and for-real connected sexual relationships (including the one you have with yourself). If you're engaging in manual sex (any kind of sex with fingers or hands), since that can't create a pregnancy, I'm going to assume you two are doing that to seek out pleasure and potentially to also feel emotionally closer. If those are your aims, and you do feel like now's a right time and situation for you to be exploring this or any other kind of sex in, then vastly improving your communication and your own active participation in any sex you have are the best tools you've got in your toolbox to get there.

Here are those links I said I'd pass on, with a few others for good measure:

written 05 May 2010 . updated 22 Jan 2014

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