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I'm worried that partnered sex won't be as good as masturbation!

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rose789 asks:

I have a question about the way I masturbate: it feels best when I am rubbing myself light and fast through a layer of clothing, like underwear or something, and tightening my inside muscles at the same time. I can orgasm easily like this, and have multiple orgasms if I keep going. I haven't yet had sex that isn't just me and myself, but I feel ready to do more physical things with my boyfriend, except I am worried that him touching me won't feel like it does when I masturbate. It feels really different when I touch my clitoris with bare fingers, not really good at all. Am I too sensitive? What is going on? I don't want him to feel bad about it. In fact I'd rather just not have sex with him at all if it won't be good for both of us. Please help, I am stressing out about this.

CJ replies:

It sounds like you've found an effective and pleasurable way for you to enjoy masturbation! There is huge variety in what people find pleasurable or comfortable. Lots of folks report that direct clitoral stimulation is too much or otherwise uncomfortable, and then there are plenty of others who enjoy direct stimulation. All in the variety of human experience and tastes! What you're describing does not sound "too sensitive" to me--it sounds like you know what you like and have an idea of what might not feel good for you. Masturbation and self-exploration can be a wonderful way to find out some of those things, and the more we know about our bodies the better potential we have to be able to communicate with a partner about those tastes, desires, and limits if we also have partnered sexual activities in our lives.

Partnered sex play often does feel different than masturbation. When we masturbate, we have complete control over how we touch ourselves, and you can respond to what feels good without necessarily even consciously thinking about it. When someone else is doing the touching, we need to tell them what feels good or how to change what they are doing if you're not enjoying it or you think it might be better. As connected as we can feel with our partners, they can't know our exact thoughts. That's one of the reasons that partnered sexual activity involves more vulnerability and can feel more emotionally laden than self-exploration. When there's another person in the picture, there are more factors to take into account and more explicit communication that needs to happen when things are just between you and yourself.

One thing to consider is what sort of expectations you and your partner have about what partnered sexual activity will be like. I totally hear your concern that you want it to be enjoyable and pleasurable for all involved people (and it should be! and can be!), but the reality is that the pleasure and other assorted goodness we can experience with partnered sexual activity does not spontaneously happen. Yep, it's work. It's work that many people enjoy, but it takes work nonetheless. Partnered sexual activities can be--to be completely honest--kind of hilarious and ridiculous. Just as it takes us as individuals time to learn our bodies and gain comfort with ourselves and what feels good, it's a new process to undertake with a partner. It can involve a bit of fumbling around, trying things out, and moments where people can feel a little uncertain or insecure. And sometimes there are moments of totally missing the mark and things just not working out in the ways you'd hoped. I don't think, however, that those moments need to be totally tragic.

Talking about expectations prior to moving into any kind of partnered sexual activity is key. I think it can be really helpful just to let your partner how you're feeling about it, or if you're worried about something. Few things can kill the fun, excitement, and potential pleasure in a moment more than a lingering worry in the back of your head. Recognizing that it might take some time to work out your chemistry and figure out what feels good in a partnered sexual situation, and having the skills to talk about these issues (along with topics like readiness, sexual safety, contraception, etc.) go a long way in assuring that the two of you have an enjoyable time together.

Remember, too, that there's a whole spectrum of sexual behaviors and activities, and that there is no one element that makes up "being physical" or "having sex" with someone. Also, orgasm does not always have to be the goal of sexual activities. Sometimes taking the performance pressure off--particularly as you are learning your own body and that of your partner--can free you to be more attentive and communicative while you are with your partner. Ideally, it won't be a situation where someone needs to feel bad about anything. There is no one proper or prescribed way to explore physical sexuality with another person, and so you two get to decide what will work for you.

As you're exploring more physical aspects of sexuality, you might consider showing your boyfriend what you like. That is sex play in and of itself, and it's pretty darn safe in terms of sexual risks. Not only would he then get to see at least one way that you receive pleasure sexually, mutual masturbation (masturbating for or with someone else) carries few risks of infection or STIs if there is no exchange of body fluids. Watching him pleasure himself would also give you some insight into what he likes. The act of talking about sex is pretty revolutionary, and can be one way to be sexual with someone, even without physical contact. Similarly, even if your partner is involved more directly with your pleasure, it's ok if during partnered activities you don't feel that you can reach orgasm (if that's what you want). You could simply let him know that you'd like to bring yourself to orgasm. If that's a part of your conversation then he'll know not to take that personally or feel like he did something wrong. As both of you gain more comfort, he'll likely get a better sense of what feels good for you and be able to take a more active role, again, if that's what you'd like.

There are lots of ways for you to begin exploration of partnered sexual activities. It is realistic to expect that you might feel different sensations with partnered sex versus masturbation. Some of that is physical (as another person learns about your body and preferences) and some of that is emotional (the vulnerability of allowing someone else to be a part of your sexual pleasure). That does not mean that one or the other experience is better than the other, but it might be helpful to go into partnered exploration with an understanding that it will take time and good communication to figure out what works. Though it is often the way language is framed, nobody really "gives an orgasm" to someone else. It's a collaborative process and so, in a way, you can take some pressure off of your partner and also off of yourself because there is no single responsible party when it comes to partnered sexual pleasure. If you give it time and space, along with a healthy dose of work and communication, you may find that you'll figure it out.

If you're reading over this and thinking, "Geez, I can't imagine talking about this with my partner," then that might be an indication that now is not the right time to begin partnered sexual activity with anyone else. The links I'm giving below will probably give you a hand in figuring out what conversations will be helpful to have with your partner before you two move ahead into new sexual ground, as well as some tips for how to approach those conversations. In the mean time, know that there is nothing wrong with the ways you're experiencing pleasure through masturbation. Letting another person be a part of our sexual and affectional pleasure can feel like a big step, but open communication and a sense of fun along the way can create great opportunities to explore, learn, and share a healthy sense of sexuality between people. Here are some additional resources to help you out with some of those conversations:

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