Why doesn't sex feel good? Because of How Your Partner Acts

Candy
asks:
Hello. I turned 18 in November and I had sex for the first time in February. I had had my chance to do so many times before but a little voice in my head always told me it wasn't time or the guy wasn't "the one" so I always stopped. I was stimulated at a very early age due to sexual abuse so I unfortunately knew what it was to reach an orgasm since I was very very young. I began taking SSRI's when I was 15 and it threw off my hormones a bit. After that I could still reach a climax but it was sometimes just uninteresting to me. At about 16 I was finally off of them and things were okay. I was able to produce natural lubrication and things were "normal" so to say. Well, when I tried having sex with this guy who I never would have seen myself with. He's just so different than me. It hurt a lot. We finally got lube and it still hurt. I bled a few times after we kept trying and it just wasn't fun for me at all. And then he finally told me after we had unprotected sex that he had had relations with a stripper (his ex) and a sex worker (his ex before his stripper ex) and it changed me a lot. He had unprotected sex with them. I wanted to die. I was so scared and begged him to get tested. He never did and it's been 6 months. I have tried to push it out of my mind but literally EVERY TIME we have sex I don't enjoy it. We use lube because I can't get wet and it's so great for him but boring and at times very painful for me. I don't know what to do. What's wrong with me? Is it my hormones being off from the medications or is it the anxiety from his past partners? What do I do?? I thought sex was supposed to be fun but it isn't. I can only pleasure myself but when he's involved vaginally it's not fun. It feels like nothing or painful.
Sam W replies:

I can spot one big thing that's making sex unpleasant for you, and it has zero to do with your brain or body being "wrong". It's got everything to do with your boyfriend.

Before I go into why that is, there's something else that needs addressing. You mention someone abused you as a child, and I'm so sorry that was something you went through. Abuse is awful and scary and all sorts of other terrible things, and it can have lasting consequences for the people who survive it. Some of those consequences can be that you find being touched or having sex anxiety provoking, and it's quite possible some of that aftermath is happening here. If you haven't been to counsellor or similar to talk about the abuse, it's worth checking in with one. You may find that there are still threads of the abuse tangled up in your brain that are affecting your life, sexual or otherwise.

Back to your boyfriend. As I was reading your story my shoulders started inching towards my ears from your description of him. If reading about sex with him is that stressful and unpleasant, I can only imagine how unpleasant it must be for you to actually do it.

Let's start with the elephant in the room: the STI question. I do want to say that his previous partners being a sex worker and stripper does not automatically mean they had STIs. Plenty of sex workers do not have STIs, and plenty of non sex workers do. But, if he and his past partners had unprotected sex, you're absolutely right that he should have gotten tested prior to becoming sexually active with you. The fact that he hasn't in spite of you asking him to and knowing that not doing it upsets you is a huge red flag. It shows that he does not respect your needs, well-being, and desires as a partner. For whatever reason he's decided that his desire to not get tested trumps your desire to feel safe when having sex.

There's also the huge breach of trust that comes with not being honest about his sexual history until after you'd agreed to have unprotected sex with him. I'm guessing that was a deliberate omission on his part because he figured you'd be unwilling to have unprotected sex if you knew the details of sexual past. In other words, he kept information that directly impacts your health from you so you'd make the sexual choice he wanted you to make: that's red flag number two.

There are a few things you can do to ease your fears around the STIs. The first is that, if you continue to be sexual with him, use a condom every time. If he whines or bargains to try to get you to go without one, leave the interaction. That may feel scary and awkward, but you'll find that awkwardness is preferable to the anxiety that unprotected sex causes you.

Next, get yourself tested.  We've got this article to help you with that process. Knowing your own status will give you some peace of mind and ensure you get any treatment you need. If the tests comes back positive you may feel scared or anxious. It can help to remember that STIs, while a pain, are not the end of the world (if you don't believe me, I suggest reading works by Lachrista Greco and Ella Dawson on living with STIs).

Really though, the number one thing you can do to ease your worries is to stop having sex with this guy. Because you're absolutely right when you say sex should be enjoyable. Sex with him clearly isn't. Sex can be painful, but when it is that's a sign something is up (whether that something is "need more lube" or "need to talk to a doctor about medication side effects"). Painful sex should not be treated as the default. And it's true that sex won't always be exploding rainbow orgasms. It can be awkward or fumbly, especially if you're with a new partner. But if the words you're consistently using to describe sex are "painful", "unpleasant", and "boring" that's a sign something is amiss.

It's also concerning that he hasn't noticed how unpleasant sex is for you or tried to make it more enjoyable. Adding lube was a good start to addressing the painful sex, but lube can only do so much. If you're unaroused and tense for most or all of sex, that can lead to discomfort no matter how much lube you use.  Unless he's extremely bad at reading body language and facial cues, or you're extremely good at acting, odds are he has noticed your discomfort. People who are enthusiastically engaged in and enjoying an activity look very different from people who aren't. For instance, I bet your boyfriend can tell the difference between someone who is having fun watching a baseball game (cheering, watching the action intently, etc.) and someone who is bored out of their mind. Our ability to read people's cues does not disappear in sexual situations. He's noticed how you're acting, and his behavior indicate he's uninterested in what your actions mean . Like his unwillingness to get tested, that lack of care is a sign that he's primarily concerned with his comfort and satisfaction and concerned very little with your pleasure or desires. No wonder you feel anxious and unaroused during sex.

My hunch could be wrong, but I want you to consider some of these questions: When you two are sexual together do you do things other than penis in vagina penetration, like oral or manual sex, massage, etc? What does foreplay look like for you, or is it non-existent? Do you feel comfortable telling him what feels good and what doesn't? If you tell him does he listen? Does he check in with you during sex to see if stuff feels good? What would happen if you said "sex is off the table until we learn how to make it not suck for me?"

If the answer to those questions follow a similar pattern of him being focused primarily on his pleasure and dismissive of your needs, then you've got a bigger issue on your hands than uncomfortable intercourse.

You don't say what kind of partner this guy is when you're not having sex, and I'd encourage you to think about his behavior in the rest of your relationship. Give your relationship with him a check-up: you might notice a similar pattern of his desires being given far, far more weight than yours.

My full advice is to dump him. He may have qualities you enjoy, but he's proven himself to be untrustworthy and unconcerned with important things like your health (and his, for that matter). That's not a good foundation for a relationship and you deserve someone who treats you as a whole person and respects your needs and desires in and out of the bedroom. (And those people absolutely exist; there are plenty of people who will have all the good qualities you like in this guy who will also treat you well.)

If you don't want to dump him just yet, there are a few major things that need to happen aside from the "no more unprotected sex" ultimatum. For one, the two of you need to have a frank talk about sexual boundaries and needs. That includes activities that are off the table as well as activities that will make sex feel good for both of you. These two articles have a ton of information to help you in that conversation. Before, during, and after this talk you'll need to hold your boundaries. I'd start practicing how to do that using this article, so you feel more comfortable doing it during this conversation.

When you bring up having this discussion, and if you get as far as having it, pay attention to his reactions. Does he apologize for making you scared and uncomfortable or does he make a billion excuses for why he did what he did? Does he continue to treat his needs as the most important or does he actually look for solutions where you both get what you need? Does he engage with you earnestly or treat the discussion as stupid? And, importantly, does he make you feel guilty for even trying to talk about boundaries?

If the discussions go well, the final thing to pay attention to is how he behaves after you have them. It's easy to agree to something when it's talked about. It can be harder to actually do what you promised. If he makes a few missteps (except on the unprotected sex front. He gets no more chances on that one), that's okay. Remind him of the boundary. If he's acting in good faith, he'll correct and not make the same mistake again. However, if you're constantly having to remind him of your boundaries every time you have sex, that's an indicator that he's deliberately pushing them in the hopes that you won't assert yourself. If he does that,  "dump him" once again becomes the best option.

None of these solutions are easy ones, but I sincerely hope you try them. You deserve to have sex (if it's sex you want) that feels fun. And you deserve to have it with a partner who sees your comfort and pleasure as important.

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