Why can't I get off with someone else (or just my girlfriend)?

ellie
asks:
I am 18 and can't seem to find sex pleasurable at all. I am in a lesbian relationship and my girlfriend has a bigger sex drive than me so I want to be able to have a healthy sexual relationship with her. Every time she tries to finger me or penetrate me at all it hurts so badly, She says it's normal and we have to do it a few more times until I get used to it but the pain is unbearable. Even if she just stimulates my clit or does oral on me I can't really seem to get off, I can really only ever orgasm when I'm alone and even then it takes a lot of concentration for me and I have to think about very specific things, mostly I just think of some male gay porn I read and that's really the only thing that can turn me on. Is there something I am doing wrong? Why can't I seem to orgasm with someone else?
Heather Corinna replies:

I want to first reassure you that I'm sure you're not doing anything wrong, and that this isn't about something being wrong with you. That includes whatever level of desire — or frequency of desire — you find you have for sex in general or with a partner. I also don’t think this is probably just about — if it is at all — that you can’t get off with a partner. We don’t know that. It sounds like we only know that you haven’t been able to with this partner. How things go with one person almost never are how they will go with everyone, and how things go sexually with a partner can often be pretty unique to that partnership.

And I’m not at all surprised that you haven’t been getting off in this particular partnership. I’d be surprised if you were feeling very excited during sex with your girlfriend or if you were reaching orgasm with her, given some of what you’ve said and described here.

It seems like you feel from the front that the amount or frequency of sexual desire she has or wants has you feeling like you owe her not just a sex life, period (you don't), but one on her terms. You seem to be experiencing pain often, and your girlfriend is suggesting that's as it should be (it isn't), and is still doing the things to you that hurt instead of feel good (not cool). She is suggesting you have to tolerate pain or discomfort or dislike (you don't). She keeps doing things that are painful for you even though you both know they are (bleck). All in all, it sounds like a setup for pretty lackluster or crummy experiences on the regular to me.

For the most part, the experience of pain is our bodies' way of telling us to stop doing something; that something is the matter. No one has to go through pain to create a sexual life or to be able to do sexual activities; having been in pain isn't something that will get you to things feeling good instead of painful. There are a bunch of old, old myths about that — and almost entirely about women's bodies — but they're myths, not facts. It's just not true that you need to be in pain with these activities to get to pleasure. In fact, if you keep doing something again and again that causes you pain, you're more likely to keep experiencing pain with it, not start feeling pleasure. That's because you will come to expect pain when you do that thing, and both your brain and the rest of your body remember that and act accordingly.

Here are a few pieces of advice and strategy I've got for you with this:

1) I strongly suggest you be clear with yourself and your girlfriend that anything that hurts you (or her!) stops now. You can gently let her know she's just incorrect that you have to be in pain or that pain is what you or anyone else needs to tolerate to get to pleasure. That's wrong, and so is either of you doing anything you know hurts you and doesn't feel good. Make an agreement that if you're going to keep being sexual together, everyone only needs to be doing things that feel good for both people. If something hurts, everyone needs to stop and not do that thing anymore, or adjust whatever it is so it doesn’t hurt.

It might also be helpful for her — and yourself — to get current information about this anatomy and how it works when it comes to sex and pleasure. If she thinks any of this has to hurt, that tells me her information is either very outdated, or she's assuming because it hurt for her and stopped, pain is fine and this is just the way things have to be (again, nope). My book, s.e.x., has loads of information about the anatomy of the vulva and vagina and pleasure, as well as how to address and avoid pain. Emily Nagoski's Come As You Are is another I'd strongly suggest for this, as is the Boston Women's Health Collective's Our Bodies, Ourselves, which has great information on this and just about any other body or health concern you could have in this arena. Online with us, you might want to read and pass on With Pleasure: A View of Whole Sexual Anatomy for Every Body, Let's Get Metaphysical: The Etiquette of Entry, From OW! to WOW! Demystifying Painful Intercourse (applicable to a bunch of pain-with-sex scanerios), and, while I'm linking you up, this might also be something helpful for you rightabout now: When Sex is Just a @#*&!ing Bummer.

2) Try keeping your focus just on pleasure instead of on orgasm. Orgasm can be a lot like trying to find true love. If you focus on it too much, if you look too hard or too often for it, if you aim your whole attention like a laser-beam at it, it tends to become more wily, more elusive, and way less likely to happen. But what usually most gets us to orgasm (and big love, for that matter) is paying attention to and focusing on what gets us both comfortable and excited, and what brings us enjoyment and pleasure. The good news is that we can usually focus on pleasure all we want, and invest a lot of energy in seeking and exploring pleasure all we want, and will tend to experience more of that when we do it, rather than less. More good news for people who want to experience orgasm is that if you stick with, focus on and follow what just feels really good, physically and emotionally, you’re very likely to find out what gets you to orgasm. If you’re really focused on pleasure with sex, you also may find you often still feel highly satisfied, even when orgasm doesn’t happen.

3) You might find it helpful to see if you two can’t go all the way back to square one: just start over with sex, almost as if you just started dating. Maybe that means starting just with looking at each other a lot, holding hands and kissing, and only over time progressing to things like making out, like getting naked, like stroking each others bodies and exploring more — and potentially all — your parts with hands, mouths, other parts and/or toys. Sometimes a reset like that can help you go back and really give yourselves a better chance to learn what really gets both of you excited. Too, making yourselves hold off from doing things can create extra excitement and anticipation (which can, by itself, be one helpful ingredient you're missing: it's can be easier to get a lot more excited and to stay that excited when we make ourselves hold off longer from certain kinds of sex). Extra excitement usually = more fun which usually = a better chance of having sexual experiences you enjoy.

Too, taking a break from anything that has been causing you pain allows your brain and body to start to reset itself so they can both, hopefully, stop associating those things with pain and start associating them with, and anticipating, pleasure instead.

4) If you haven't already, how about sharing the things with her that you know excite you — like what you're saying you like in porn or other kinds of sexual fantasy, for instance — and the ways you find and explore pleasure alone, including how you get yourself off? She can watch you, which is usually exciting for people anyway, and you two can also talk in depth about all of this. Too, since it sounds like you might be doing some things without pain alone that are causing you pain doing them with her, maybe she needs some guidance about how to do them in a way that feels good to you instead of hurting you. Or, you might have ideas about what it is you like about gay male porn, for instance, that can be translated into sex with your girlfriend, whether that's about watching it together or engaging in sexual activities that are or mimic what you like watching.

5) I think it would be a good idea for you to have a talk with her where you try and unpack your feelings about the differences in the level or frequency of your sexual desires or wants. If you're feeling like you have to have more sex than you like, or only do things the way she wants to, even if they don't really work for you, if you feel like you have to keep up, that's not likely to result in a sexual life that's great for either of you. When there's this kind of difference, the way it generally needs to work is that the person who wants sex more often just needs to match the person's level of want who wants it less. If you're worried that's some kind of torture, or something huge and terrible to ask of a partner, please know it's not. It isn't a big deal to have sex with a partner somewhat less often than we'd like, especially since masturbation is always there for us. No one owes a partner an answer to their every — or any! — sexual want. You say you're after a healthy relationship: in those, people aren't having any kind of sex unless everyone involved really wants it -- including whatever someone is doing, or how they're doing it, at any given time -- for themselves as much as for a partner.

6) You probably are already doing this, but in the event that you and your girlfriend are not using generous amounts of a good lubricant during any sexual activity where she's putting her fingers or anything else that isn't soft like a mouth inside your vagina or on your vulva? Change that. In your case, I don't think it's as simple as just adding lube if you aren't already, but if you've been going without, that's certainly something that's probably added to your pain or discomfort.

7) In the event that you do most or all of this and are still experiencing pain, no matter what, with certain activities, be sure to check in with a sexual healthcare provider. Most often, pain from the sexual activities you're talking about isn't about something being physically wrong (especially if it doesn't hurt when you do it by yourself), but sometimes it is. In the event that you change your thoughts and behaviors but things still hurt, it may be that an infection or another kind of health condition is part of the problem.

Lastly, you didn’t say anything, at all, about your feelings about your girlfriend in this post, sexually or otherwise. I don’t have any real sense of how strongly you feel attracted to her, physically or emotionally, nor about how you’re enjoying (or not) the rest of the relationship. In the event the rest of the relationship hasn’t been that great for you either, or you maybe just feel like you’re not feeling the sexual part of your relationship period, you might need to look at the bigger picture. Most of the things I suggested probably won’t help if you’re just not that into her in the first place, or if the dynamics in your sex life that haven’t been so swell are also in other partners of your relationship. In other words, be sure and check the whole relationship, not just the sexual part. If you aren’t getting off with her emotionally, either, then the problem may just be that this relationship, period, isn’t right for you.

I hope this helps turn things around for you, and that, however it turns out you resolve this, you start feeling good way more often and feeling pain far more rarely very soon.

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