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Letting Go of the Wrong Stuff to Get a Hold on the Right Stuff

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Kyra asks:

I am 22 years old and have been with my one and only boyfriend for over 2 1/2 years now. I love him very much and we get along well, but our sexual life has always had problems. These are the main issues: 1) I cannot orgasm except through the use of a vibrator, 2) I'm often not interested in sex/don't really feel anything enjoyable from sex, and 3) I never initiate anything, which makes my boyfriend very frustrated. We've been having sex for about 2 years now, and these issues are as much of a problem as they were when we first started. Regarding the problem #1 (no orgasm except with vibrator), my boyfriend has tried everything. He will pleasure me for long periods of time, try to make me feel sexy, but NOTHING happens--I don't even come close to orgasming (in fact, I usually just get sore from the contact). I've tried to pleasure myself, but this is even worse--I hate the feeling of masturbating and don't derive any pleasure from it. When we discovered that I CAN orgasm via a vibrator, we were both thrilled; however, it usually takes me a good 15-25 minutes to orgasm from the vibrator (on the highest setting), and the orgasm usually lasts only a few seconds--it just feels like a lot of work for barely any result to me. Because I'm not interested in sex very often and I cannot orgasm via penetration or manual stimulation, my boyfriend believes I'm not sexually attracted to him and is quite upset. I don't know what to do and it is ruining our relationship. I am religious and come from a home schooled background where sex was not talked about much, and so I often feel awkward when my boyfriend tries to discuss it with me (and going to a sex therapist is out of the question).

Heather Corinna replies:

I don't think a relationship can be ruined by a person not having the kind of sexual responses, sexual feelings, desires or sexuality a partner wants.

Unless. Let's say people in a relationship with those things going on won't accept that that person, try as they might (or not, if they don't want to try), just can't give the other those things, and they both don't stop trying so hard, don't stop pushing, and won't just figure out what kind of relationship is a sound fit for them and go for whatever that kind of relationship is instead. A relationship can be ruined that way.

Or, if a person not feeling, experiencing or being the way their partner wants them to be sexually can't or won't accept themselves in this department, and keeps agreeing to continue to try and do things that just aren't working for them and don't feel right; keeps agreeing to a sexual relationship when they're clearly just not wanting or feeling that themselves: that can certainly ruin a relationship.

If and when we drive ourselves up a tree endlessly trying to be something or someone we are not, to feel things we just aren't feeling, or to make something happen at a time in life when it just isn't happening for us, and refuse to put a real limit on that for ourselves and with someone else, that can ruin a relationship, for sure. That can also ruin the relationship we have with ourselves, the most important one of all, as it's the foundational relationship all our other relationships lie on. If that's a crappy relationship, then all of our other relationships are very likely to be crappy, too.

In other words, I do think that if you two keep approaching this the way you have been, then yes, you might ruin your relationship, and will probably also both continue to feel worse and worse as the days go by, both about yourselves and about each other. Something has got to give in a situation like this, and give in a way where everyone gets to be nothing else than exactly who they are.

I want to make sure I'm clear what I mean when we're talking about relationships, since I often find that the young people I work with mean something different when they use the word relationship than I do when I use it.

When I say "relationship," I don't mean just one kind of relationship, like only romantic relationships. I mean any kind of ongoing interaction between people, animals, plants or anything else with the capacity to interact with someone, something else or between parts of ourselves. So, a friendship is a relationship; relationships we have with our parents, siblings and other relatives are relationships. We can have relationships with our pets, our healthcare providers; relationships with our gardens, with food, with our bodies, with our creative work, with sex and our own sexuality. I also don't figure that any one of those kinds of relationships is automatically more important or meaningful than another based on what kind it is: which of our relationships has meaning and value to us, and how much or how little, isn't usually just about what kind of relationship it is. So, just because a couple of people are married, for instance, and some folks think that kind of relationship or agreement must mean it's the most important one of all the relationships those people have, I'm never going to assume that must mean that's the most valuable, important relationship they have, because I know relationships and our experiences in them vary a lot, and none of this is that simple or predictable.

When you worry about ruining your relationship, you probably mean your romantic/sexual relationship, the specific model and kind of relationship you have right now. But when I talked up there about the things that I thought could ruin this relationship, I actually mean any relationship you could have with this person.

In my book, losing the capacity to have any kind of relationship at all with the people we care deeply about and who deeply care about us is a WAY bigger deal than, say, choosing to end, change or let go of one kind of relationship or one aspect of a larger relationship, and thus losing (even though it's more a change than a loss) just one kind of relationship or one aspect of a relationship. I think that it's much more valuable, important, healthy and sound to try and figure out what kind of relationship with someone is going to suit us both best at a given time in our lives than to have a specific kind that might not work, or work anymore, but which we or others decide is the one we should be having, or must be having for that relationship to be seen -- be it by us or others -- as valuable and important.

I think it's clear that a sexual relationship is not the right kind for the two of you now, hasn't been in a long time, and potentially never was the right kind, especially not for you. If this relationship is really important to you -- and your relationship to yourself and your sexuality is, too -- I think you need to make some major changes before you really do wind up in a spot even worse than the one you've been in so far.

I hear that you and your boyfriend are very sexually different right now in some ways, and it sounds like you always have been. You don't voice ever having felt strong sexual desires or ever enjoying most, if any, kinds of sex with him or alone. It sounds like you're in very different places with your sexualities and the development of your sexualities. It sounds like you want very different things.

I want to quickly let you know something so you can, hopefully, read through the rest of this without dragging any guilt or shame along with you. It is 100% okay for you to not have the feelings you don't have or haven't yet experienced. It is 100% okay for you not to have the desires you haven't had or hadn't yet experienced. It is 100% okay for you to not enjoy the things you haven't so far, and to enjoy the things you do.

If and when anyone has a partner whose sexuality resembles more of what we know or have seen presented as normal or typical (read: what you or others think is the way it seems like everyone has sex or is sexual), all that is really a statement of is how much more limited human sexuality tends to be presented than it actually is. In other words, it can be a lot like women being presented as nearly always wearing makeup, even though loads of women all around the world don't wear makeup often or at all. It can also be representative of people just doing and going along with what they learn is "right" sexually, even if it really isn't authentic for them, though that's not always what's going on: after all, plenty of people do very authentically enjoy things like penis-in-vagina intercourse, are heterosexual, do want to be engaging in sex regularly with a long-term partner. So, I want to make sure you're reading the rest of this, and moving forward with all of this, knowing there's no reason to assume you're "abnormal" because of any of this, or that what our boyfriend feels and wants is right, and what you feel and want (or don't feel and don't want) is wrong.

Human sexuality is very diverse, one of the most diverse things in the whole world. Our experiences with sexuality, sex and sexual relationships are highly individual and highly situational. There is no one normal and no one right way to be or feel sexual.

So. It's possible your boyfriend is right that you don't have those feelings for him, and he's feeling so upset and stuck on that idea because he's intuiting something that is true. You might not have those feelings for or about him. I see a lot of evidence that's so, which you've perhaps been trying to push away or be in denial about. It should be said that having sexual feelings for someone still doesn't mean a person will orgasm from certain things or always want to have sex with someone when they want to: having those desires still doesn't guarantee those things, since they're about more than those desires. However, you're reporting a long pattern of not experiencing those feelings for this person, yet still trying to be sexual with them. On top of being an indication you don't have those feelings, the more you try to engage in sex when you are just not feeling it is going to make feeling sexual, enjoying sex -- by yourself or with a partner -- and wanting sex more and more unlikely.

Are you strongly sexually attracted to your partner? Do you feel strong sexual desires for him? Do you strongly want to touch him, have him touch you, have him inside or on your body, and be inside or on his body? If and when he's not initiating any kind of sex, do you feel the desire to be sexual with him all by yourself? When you think about him sexually, or sex you've engaged in with him, do you have strong, positive feelings? If not, a big part of this issue could be that you don't feel or experience sexual desires for your partner.

A lot of people, especially women, were reared with and hold the idea that if we just love someone a lot, we'll feel sexual desires for them. But that's just not true. I love my dog and I don't have those desires for her; I love my father, we're as close as a parent and child can be, but those feelings didn't create sexual feelings for him; I love my two closest friends, and despite both of them being very attractive, spectacular people I'd take a bullet for, I don't have sexual feelings for either of them. I've had dates with people now and then where we both thought the other was SO awesome, where we both wanted the same things, where both our hearts were beating, but when we went in for the kiss or some other kind of sexual affection or activity, neither of us (or only one of us) felt squat. No zing, no rush, no holey-moley-please-don't-let-this-kiss-ever-end, no nothing. None of those things are about my not liking or loving someone enough or a lot: instead, they're about the fact that like and love don't automatically create sexual feelings, even though sometimes, we can like someone, love someone and have sexual feelings.

Just because you love this guy does not mean you have or will develop sexual feelings for him. That can be a lot tougher to know if and when we haven't experienced sexual feelings for anyone, when we don't have a good sense of our own sexuality, separate from others, and when we don't have previous experience with sexual relationships we have enjoyed to draw on and use as a basis of comparison.

It also sounds like you're still discovering what your own sexuality is, without a partner. Actually, it sounds like you haven't even had the chance yet to explore your own sexuality, on your own, when you weren't in this relationship. Or, that if you did, the experiences you had were not anything you enjoyed, and you haven't had the chance to find out what you enjoy. (We can reach orgasm without liking sex, feeling desire, or enjoying ourselves. It's fairly uncommon, but it happens sometimes. So, finding a way to reach orgasm doesn't always mean we found something we enjoy.)

I can't know why you hate masturbation, or even what you mean when you say you hate the feeling of it: do you mean the physical feeling? If so, when doing what? Masturbation isn't just one thing, it's a million ways we may be touching ourselves -- and not just our genitals -- to try to explore and express our own sexuality. Or, do you mean you hate how it feels intellectually, emotionally, spiritually? If it makes you feel unpleasant, in what ways? Do you feel ashamed? Grossed out? Like you're doing something wrong? Like you're doing something that doesn't feel true or real to you, but is fake?

You say your boyfriend has tried to make you feel sexy. I don't know what that's involved, but for us to feel sexy, for real, it has to start with our own feelings of whatever that is for us, uniquely. A partner can't give us those feelings, even though they can elicit them or make them feel stronger. Too, often when someone is trying to make someone else "feel sexy," they're usually applying their ideas of what's sexy, not that person's ideas of what sexy is and feels like. If and when someone tries to make us feel sexy through their own lens, and it doesn't match or reflect ours, that can feel very uncomfortable, like someone trying to put us in a costume then telling us we are or should want to be what the costume represents.

You say you're religious. What you don't say is what that may or may not have to do with your sexuality. There are so many religions in the world. Their approaches to and ideas about sexuality vary a lot. Not all religions or spiritual belief systems avoid sex and sexuality, police them, or suggest they are something shameful or scary. If yours is one which does or has done any of those things, then this may be also some of the issue for you, especially if you've been trying to do things your religion says are not okay or says are wrong.

You say you can't talk about sex comfortably. If we can't talk about something comfortably, especially with someone with whom we have established trust over a long period of time, it's very unlikely we can do that something comfortably. It's also always really important to pay attention to our own feelings of discomfort so we can work that out, and figure out what we need to be comfortable, rather than trying to just push those feelings away or avoid them.

I think you two aren't a good sexual match, and are even a toxic one. I think that so long as you're in a dynamic like this, your relationship is only going to degrade, and that you're also not going to be able to find out about your own sexuality and how you want to express it and feel right about expressing it. I think the negative feelings you already have about sexuality are only going to get worse if you stay in this relationship as it is, and keep doing things the way you have been.

It sounds very much like you have your own issues with sex, sexuality and your body to work out and find out about before a sexual relationship with someone else is going to be sound for you, and certainly before it will be something you'll enjoy. It sounds like you have some things to learn and get better at, like knowing how to recognize and opt out of sexual relationships you don't really want and aren't really feeling. For instance, if we're having a lack of sexual feelings and also having sexual problems right from the get-go, that's a strong cue, if not the strongest cue, that pursuing or furthering that sexual relationship isn't likely to be a positive choice with positive results. I'm wondering if you even know yet that you have these choices: that you know you don't have to try and have sex or sexual relationships just because someone else wants that, or you're in a romantic relationship.

What kind of relationship we're going to have with a given person should hopefully be based on what kinds of feelings we mutually experience and share, what kinds of things we mutually want, and how we really fit best together, based on who we each are, not who we wish we were or a partner wishes we were. You already both know that your sexual feelings and desires don't match, and have lots of evidence to show they won't match, so that's not a sound kind of relationship to keep pursuing together. Maybe you fit together as close friends? Maybe, at this point, you don't fit together at all, despite caring for each other and wishing you did. That's something you'll need to figure out and make choices with.

I think it makes sense to consider moving on, rather than trying to make something work in a way it has never worked and seems very, very unlikely to ever work, both as a couple, and for both of you as individuals. I'm much more concerned about your long-term relationship with your sexuality and your emotional well-being than with a first boyfriend who I am sure is very important to you, but who is and was most likely, however important, to be just that: a first partner, not a final partner. Very, very, very few people anymore who have a choice in who they have sexual or romantic relationships with wind up with their first partner for even a few years, let alone decades or more. While first relationships are often milestones, especially when they've gone on longer than most first relationships do, as yours has, they're rarely the end of the road, and are far more often just first steps in learning about how to have relationships and what we want in them. If in being homeschooled, your parents or guardians didn't provide you a lot of opportunities to socially interact with peers, you probably need some more time now than people who had those opportunities growing up just to learn how to have any elective relationships. not just sexual or romantic ones.

I'm sure some of what I have said here is hardly your best news ever. I wish I could tell you some really easy things to do to just change all of this all whiz-bang with the swish of a magic wand so you could be instantly happy... but not really, and I'll tell you why.

Conforming to what someone else wants sexually, and wanting to be a certain way sexually not because it feels like a real expression of YOU and your sexuality, but to make someone else happy, keep them from being upset or be sexual in the way you think you are "supposed to" be probably isn't going to make you happy at all, especially long-term. While it might deliver some short-term satisfaction your boyfriend, chances are good that in time, he wouldn't be feeling so happy, either. After all, in order to really be with someone, to really connect to someone, they need to be who they are, not who we want them to be. If there were a magic button to make you instantly be and feel what your boyfriend wants, and what you want because he does, you'd be robbed of the chance to find out who you truly are.

Here's my very, very best advice from me to you: I suggest you put the brakes on this as a sexual relationship. End that part of this relationship and any agreements or expectations you and your partner hare of this being a sexual relationship. Sometimes, in situations like these, myself and others who advise or counsel folks about sex will instead suggest taking sex off the table for a serious amount of time, while a couple gets counseling and other help to work sexual or other issues out. But when it's been a conflict for this long, it's about people who have not even explored relationships with others in their lives yet, and the divide seems this great, that just isn't very likely to work. I think in this relationship it'd be likely to only create further conflict and discomfort.

If you want to still have a close friendship with this person, that's cool. If you want to still have a romantic relationship and you are both okay with it not being sexual at all, that's an option, too, though it sounds like that's not likely to be what your boyfriend wants. However you want to do this, whether it's about changing the nature of, and expectations for, this relationship, or just separating altogether, I think you are both going to benefit most by no longer trying to make a kind of relationship work that is very clearly not working, not likely to and clearly making you both feel like crud.

Forge out on your own and explore this part of your life when all the possibilities are available to you. If and when you feel like masturbating (it might feel very different once the baggage of the sexual dynamics in your relationship aren't taking up so much real estate in your head and heart), do that, and take as much time with your vibrator or anything else as you want to take; touch whatever parts of your body you want to, and leave whatever parts alone you don't feel interested in. If and when it feels boring or like a chore, stop and go do something else you enjoy instead. As well, if and when it feels very unpleasant to you emotionally or intellectually, see if you can't figure out at least some reasons why. Those things are useful clues you can use to find out what you do and don't want, as well as what barriers you might have to feeling comfortable with your sexuality, and what you might need to do to get past them so you feel better, like by unpacking shame, choosing a very different kind of partner than you did before, engaging in different kinds of sexual activities or dynamics than you tried, making peace with your genitals or something else entirely.

In that freer space, start paying attention to what, if anything, does elicit sexual feelings and desires in you, both with other people you see out and about or with certain situations, things you do, tastes, smells, ways of being ion your body. See if you can find out where you do feel and experience sexual desire in ways that feel real and right, even if and when they don't seem or feel like what others want, or what you thought sexuality and sexual desire were.

If and when you do meet someone you have strong sexual feelings for, take your time in experiencing them before you pursue or agree to be sexual with them. In other words, hold off on any kind of sex with anyone until YOU very much want to initiate, too, not just until someone else does. It's so hard to figure out what it is we want, what it is we feel, if we only do things in response to other people's desires and feelings. Give yourself whatever time you need, alone or with any potential partner, to figure out what you want, get to the point you need to be to feel comfortable with that, and to the point where you want to initiate yourself. And if that time doesn't come for a long time, so be it. There's way more to life than sex and sexual relationships, and crappy sexual relationships that feel like a struggle or a performance do not benefit anyone.

I think you could benefit a lot from some good sex education (which you can get at sites like this, through some books, in college or through local workshops), which it sounds like you didn't get. For instance, orgasm is something that usually only does last a handful of seconds, and which can often take the amount of time to reach you experienced, especially for women. However, people who enjoy both orgasm and the process of getting there -- on the whole, or in given situations -- usually do because the process of getting there feels very good to them physically and emotionally, including those few seconds. If and when none of that is enjoyable or feels like a chore, it usually means something is seriously amiss, like we really don't want to be engaging in sex, don't feel good about it, or aren't enjoying being sexual with the person we're engaging in that sex with. I think even just learning some facts like that could help you figure out what you want and like. I also think you need some more time and space without the pressure of anyone who wants to be sexual with you to become comfortable even talking about sex, let alone trying to engage in any.

I don't know why therapy is out of the question. I think that's something you might be able to benefit from, whether it's sex therapy or general therapy. But if you want to try all of these other things for a while first, and see how they go, I don't see any need to rush into therapy unless you find that you simply cannot leave a relationship or change it when it is not working for you like this. That situation, in my opinion, is something where some good, outside help is warranted. When things just aren't working, and they're making us and someone else miserable, but we have tried all we can to change things and they clearly just will not change, we need to be able to let go and move on. That's part of healthy relationships and healthy, necessary care of ourselves and others.

Here's what I think you owe yourself: the kind of time, space and environment to start finding out what your own sexuality is and entails, what you do and don't find exciting and arousing, what you do and don't feel good about, what you do and don't enjoy, what you do and don't desire, who you do and do not have sexual feelings for, and what does and doesn't feel true to you -- like a reflection of who you, Kyra, really are, not who someone else may want you to be or who you wish you could be for them. You owe yourself only relationships where no one (including yourself!) is expecting you or asking you to do things you aren't very interested in doing, and where you feel no obligation to do whatever those things are. You owe yourself only relationships and sexual interactions you don't feel guilty about, or like you can't be yourself in, and where who you are and how you are is not upsetting to someone else, but accepted. You owe yourself the space and place where whoever it is you are sexually is not a problem or a conflict.

I think to give yourself those things, the very first thing you'll need to do is exit this relationship as a sexual relationship. I think without doing that, you're unlikely to be able to even get started on any of those vital things. But these are your choices to make, so if you think there is a way to support all of that while still being in this relationship as a sexual relationship because you DO want this sexual relationship for yourself, then by all means, do whatever you need to in order to make that happen. But whatever you do, I strongly encourage you to make a real commitment to yourself -- not a boyfriend, not anyone else -- to seek out all of those things you, like everyone else, deserve and to make them all a real priority.

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