I'm not sure my girlfriend is enjoying herself during sex, and I'm feeling insecure about it.

Sam
asks:
So my girlfriend and I have had sex a few times by now in our relationship, but I can't help but feel insecure about myself. I can't seem to let go of this idea that she's faking everything just to get it over with or to spare my feelings. I don't want to ask her about it because I know that she'll be annoyed that a) I'm talking about sex and b) she'll be offended by the question itself. Is there any way I can get past these kind of feelings?
Mo Ranyart replies:

I'm sorry to hear you're feeling insecure in your sexual relationship. It's understandable that you'd feel a bit uncertain about your girlfriend's enjoyment of sex since it sounds like you aren't getting much, if any, honest feedback from her and are worried her responses during sex aren't genuine. While you and your girlfriend may share a mutual reluctance to talk about sex with each other, that just means it's well past time for the two of you to figure out a way to make it happen. This is so important, in fact, that I think it's a good idea to intentionally take a break from having sex at all while you sort things out.

A good ground rule to live by, as you move forward in your sex life, is that if you aren't sure if a partner's enjoying sex, the time to stop and check in with them is right in the moment. There's an image commonly seen in television and movies of someone asking their partner "was it good for you?" after they've just finished having sex; this always seems a bit late to be asking, in my opinion! The ideal time to ask someone if sex is feeling good isn't after it's over, but in the moment. Talking about how sex is feeling as it happens will make it more likely that this time it's feeling good for everyone - or that if it's not, you can make changes as needed. This doesn't have to be a constant stream of questions, but as you try something new, or change angles or positions, you can check in and ask how a partner's feeling in general, or how something specific is working for them. It's good to keep an eye on body language, as well: if you notice that your girlfriend's face looks pained or distracted, or that her body's gone from relaxed to rigid, those can be signs that it's a good time to check in and see how she's doing.

Some people, especially when they don't have a lot of experience being sexual with a partner or communicating about being sexual, have a hard time vocalizing discomfort, or speaking up if their big excited "YES!" has changed into "wait, maybe not" or "this was fun but now it's not feeling right" as time goes on. It's important for every individual to work on their own communication and assertiveness skills, and to be saying yes only to things they really do want, but it can be a harder process for people who haven't had practice being assertive, or whose current or past relationships have had an atmosphere of coercion around sexual activity.

If your girlfriend isn't enjoying sex for any reason, how comfortable do you think she would feel saying no? How have you been establishing, up to this point, that you're both in the mood for sex? If you need a refresher course on consent, we have a great one here. There's some good information on what active and clear verbal consent looks like, and why it's so important to seek it out early on in sexual relationships. It's also important to remember that consent isn't something that a person gives once and never has to address again; it's an ongoing process, and consent to one thing doesn't automatically mean consent to something else.

For now, the step you need to take to start understanding what your girlfriend is thinking about sex is simple, although that doesn't mean it'll be easy: you have to talk with her about it. It sounds like you're reluctant to open this line of communication, and that you think your girlfriend might not want to talk about sex with you either, but communication about sex is the foundation of a healthy sexual relationship - there's just no way to get around it, even if talking about sex sounds awkward or overwhelming.

The only way to know how much your girlfriend is enjoying the sex you're having, or when and if she wants to be having it, is to ask. We can't know a partner's desires or feelings without them telling us directly; there aren't any shortcuts or secrets to knowing what they want without some sort of discussion about it. This is especially true early on in a relationship, when people can't refer back to any data about what their partner has enjoyed or asked for in the past. Sometimes, folks who've been together for a long time can draw on shared history and on a partner's nonverbal cues to get a sense of how they're enjoying sex, but even then it's rare for a relationship to transition to a place where no verbal communication is needed at all. Early on, though, it's especially vital.

It might help your girlfriend open up if you explain that you don't want to be having sex with her when she isn't into it, and that having her say she's enjoying sex when she isn't is not a dynamic you want in your relationship. Sometimes when people pretend to enjoy sex, they do it thinking it'll make their partner happy, but in reality this often causes a lot of hurt feelings when the truth comes out. If she's faking her enjoyment, that creates a situation that isn't good for either of you. She might think it's easier or lower-conflict to clam up even if she's not really enjoying herself during sex, but in the long run that's just not the case. You both deserve not just to only have sex when it's something  you each want, but also to know that your partner's consent is both enthusiastic and honest.

If you haven't been talking much about sex before and it feels awkward, that's fairly common; talking about sex can easily be awkward or intimidating, especially if you don't have a lot of practice with it. Maybe you can start things off by talking about how it feels for you: what do you enjoy about sex with her? What's feeling particularly fantastic? What are you most excited or worried about when it comes to sex? The more you practice initiating and having these conversations around sex and consent, the easier they'll get.

It sounds like you're worried this discussion won't go well, or that your girlfriend won't want to talk to you about your sex life at all, and to be honest that makes it even more important that you go ahead and have that conversation with her; if she's going to be annoyed by or avoidant of a serious conversation about sex, it's a bummer but that's important information for you to find out all the same. I don't know if you have this worry because of how other conversations about sex or your relationship have gone in the past, or if she's said outright that sex is something she isn't interested in discussing, or if you have this suspicion for other reasons. If she doesn't want to have a discussion about sex at all, or expects you to know her feelings without actually telling you what they are, that's a sign that it's probably a good idea to step back from sexual activity for a bit, at least until you're able to talk about it.

It's okay if your girlfriend isn't comfortable talking about sex right at the moment you try to start this conversation; if she isn't used to having these discussions, or is caught off guard when you bring it up, she might want some time to prepare or do her own thinking before she talks to you. And that's normal! Many people do find sexual conversations intense or intimidating and don't always want to jump right into a big conversation. In fact, it may be a good idea to plan on giving her a heads-up that you'd like to find a time to talk about sex, so she knows what's on your mind and has some time to think about things without feeling blindsided by the conversation when it comes up.

If she doesn't want to talk about sex with you at all, though, no matter how much space or preparation time you give her, that's a pretty big sign that she's just not ready to be having sex right now; a huge part of sexual readiness is being able to discuss your sexual desires and boundaries with a partner. I think the entirety of this article on communicating with a partner about sex is a must-read in this situation - ideally for both of you - but this quote in particular feels particularly relevant:

There are some people who strongly feel that any kind of talking during or about sex kills their buzz. Trouble is, we just HAVE to talk about sex at least sometimes, and if we’re really fully present with sex, then talking about it shouldn’t be a huge bummer. Someone who feels that way may also not be in the healthiest headspace: maybe talking kills things for them because they’re trying to pretend something is fine when it really isn’t. Maybe they’re trying really hard to avoid being vulnerable or close (in which case it’s mighty silly for them to be having sex, which is all about that), or want the sex they’re having to be more about a fantasy than the reality. Maybe they don’t want you to talk because they don’t want to leave you real room to say no or have a say. Maybe they’re really just not ready for sex with someone else, because being able to communicate is a big part of being ready.

So, even though you've said it's not what you want to do, there's really no healthy alternative here; talking with your girlfriend about this situation is the way to go. It's ok to feel scared or intimidated by the idea; making yourself vulnerable by talking about something as intimate and important as sex can indeed feel scary and high-stakes, especially when feelings of insecurity or uncertainty are in the mix. But a big part of being in a strong and healthy relationship is finding a way to be open and honest with each other, and the good news is that while it might never be completely effortless, with time and practice it can certainly get easier.