Dear Dr. NerdLove: I’ve never written one of these, so apologies if it’s awkward or weird.
I’ve never had an orgasm. This is not the fault of my partner of 10ish years, he’s wonderful. It’s me; anytime I get close, I panic and shut down.
I don’t trust easily, due to a not-great upbringing, and for the same reason, being vulnerable is not a thing I do, really. I suspect that, along with an SA when I was young, may have a lot to do with this.
I enjoy sex with my partner, we have a good time, and our relationship is solid as can be, given that sometimes I feel like I’m at least 90% trauma response. I know that it’s not the be-all and end-all of sex. It’s just that feel like I’m missing something, letting my partner down, not experiencing one of the simple joys in life, and in this fucked up world, we should have those simple joys. But, like I said, anytime I get close, I panic.
I don’t expect there’s any easy answer, and therapy isn’t an option for me, due to financial constraints.
Any advice on not panicking, so I can get there?
Thank you very much,
Tired of Being Afraid
Hoo boy, TOBA, this is one that’s a bit hard to answer. This is the sort of thing that I would say “you need to talk to a sex-positive therapist about this”; if your upbringing and a childhood sexual assault are both in the mix, then you may well be dealing with some trauma issues that are well beyond the purview of a dating advice column. As I’m wont to remind folks: Dr. NerdLove is NOT a real doctor, I’m a loudmouth with an advice column and some clever branding.
But you’ve asked me, so I’ll give what perspective I can, but I want to be clear: if we’re talking about trauma or triggers, it’s important that you stick to what feels safe and right for you and not do things that you think are going to cause panic attacks or make things worse in the name of trying to go over the falls. Anything I suggest about what you might try is the advice of your friendly neighborhood busybody, not the advice of a mental health professional.
What I can give you advice about, however, is trust. And if you and your partner have been together for 10 years, you should know at least a little about trust. After all, you’ve trusted him with your heart, soul and your body… you should also be able to trust him with your inner life and inner thoughts. And hey, maybe you do and this is all down to a weird trigger for you, who knows?
I’m going to start this by saying it’s great that you’re enjoying the sex you’re having. You already know that good sex isn’t just about orgasms. That’s excellent – for you and for your partner. People who are anorgasmic – that is, they can’t have an orgasm for a multitude of reasons – enjoy sex with their partners, even without some form of climax. This is all a good thing; it means you and your partner’ve got a fairly solid grasp on communication in bed, physical and emotional intimacy, connection and so-on. These are all important because they’re also vital to being able to trust, be vulnerable and perhaps even getting off.
Now one thing that’s important is that you say that you’ve never had an orgasm. I’m honestly curious: do you have the same panic and shut-down response when it’s just you, or is this only during partnered sex? Is this primarily during penetration, or is it during any sort of sexual stimulation? These could all be important; if it’s an issue of not being able to let go during sex with someone else, then there’re a few things you could try. If it’s not being able to have an orgasm at all, even when it’s just you, your hand or your favorite toy and some really primo porn (or, hell, just some excellent Instagram thirst-trap accounts)… well, we may be right back to “this really is an issue to discuss with your therapist”.
Another thing that may be worth zeroing in on is exactly what happens when you have those panic attacks? What is it that triggers them? Is it, say, the onset of orgasm, when you can feel the climax starting to build? Is there something you associate with the moment, or an intrusive thought (or thoughts) that pop up in your head? The more you can understand exactly what triggers these for you, the exact length, width and breadth of those triggers, then the easier it may be to either address them or work around them.
So, with those questions in mind, let’s talk about possibilities. The first thing that may be worth exploring is some solo play. If vulnerability is part of what makes you panic or shut down, perhaps the start would be seeing what happens at a time when vulnerability isn’t necessarily an issue. That is: masturbating on your own, either manually or with some form of a sex toy. Depending on precisely what triggers the panic attack, you may want to start with some non-penetrative toy like a silver-bullet vibrator, a suction toy or other external or clitoral devices. Set up a time when your boyfriend is going to be out of the house. Maybe not far, in the event that you panic and need his help to cool down, but far enough that you know for sure that he’s not going to hear you. Then bring yourself as close to getting off as possible; if you start to feel the panic build, dial things back and wait for it to subside. If it’s not too bad or the panic fades quickly, you might try again and see what your response is. Again: if you feel the panic starting to build, just calmly dial things back, focus on your breathing and let the physical sensations of the panic and fear pass.
Depending on how bad that panic response is, you may want to try again, or you may want to give yourself a break. Either is fine; the point here isn’t to traumatize yourself in new and exciting ways, it’s to find out where your current limits are and what works for you. Letting the panic fade and starting again may well be what it takes. What I don’t recommend is trying to push through the panic, especially if you feel like pushing at it is intensifying things. It’s better to go slowly than to try to bulldoze your way through.
If that works for you, or you’re able to get off on your own already, then the next step may be performing the same routine while your boyfriend is in your place, but as far away from your room as possible. Or you might try it with him in the room, but with him blindfolded and with headphones on so he can’t hear. Hell, you may even try it with him restrained in some form, so you know he can’t be involved while you do this. If these work for you, then building towards partnered sex – starting with mutual masturbation, perhaps – could lead to your being able to orgasm without shutting down.
Another option that may work for you is… well, it’s pretty out there: you may want to look into BDSM and kink play and incorporate aspects of it into sex – or hell, maybe try some scenes with your partner. One of the points of BDSM is controlled vulnerability; that is, the submissive may be the person being acted upon, but they’re actually in control. While there’s vulnerability, yes, it’s vulnerability that is not only expected, but is being done so in a way that’s as safe and controlled. Call it faux-vulnerability, if that helps. Or vulnerability-lite.
(It’s not, but the framing may help you.)
One of the benefits of BDSM is that scenes are planned in advance, so not only does everyone know what to expect, but so that it’s happening in the way that people prefer. This foreknowledge is great for building anticipation, but it’s also good for reassuring folks that they know exactly what they’re in for, how long it’s going to last and also how to control the pace or to even shut things down as needed. These days, the idea of a safe-word is practically ubiquitous in the mainstream; folks who are as standard-issue as it comes with regard to sex will talk about safewords. What folks often don’t realize is that many couples or play partners have a couple of different signals or safewords: one to say “keep going”, one to say “stop” and one to say “slow down” or “pause”. Having not only the foreknowledge of what to expect and when, as well as knowing that you can say “ok, slow down, I’m starting to panic but it’s not bad yet” and “STOP NOW” may make you feel more empowered and less likely to panic in the moment.
And who knows, maybe something like being tied up or restrained (don’t use handcuffs!) may awaken something in you and you’ll feel like you can be vulnerable in this way because you “have no choice” in a way that lets you feel free to give in.
But, again: this is very much a case of “go slow, go careful, don’t hurt yourself or cause more trauma”; if you’re finding that the panicking isn’t easing up, don’t push at it.
I do, however, want to circle back to talking to a counselor or therapist. I get that finances are a factor here, and that is a major stumbling block towards getting help. I think it would still be good to look into finding a sex-positive therapist via AASECT’s referral directory and seeing if they’d be able to work with you on the cost. Failing that, Captain Awkward has a couple of great guest posts on how to find low-cost or even free mental health care in the US and Canada. There’re also self-directed therapy sites like MoodGym that help walk you through CBT exercises. It could well be worth your time to explore those options.
But one thing to keep in mind: if you’re enjoying sex in general and with your partner, even without orgasms? That’s fine. That doesn’t mean you’re doing sex wrong, nor does it mean you’re letting your partner down. Sex is a hollisitic experience, not just “what does it take to build up the pressure gauge until it pops. With the intimacy and connection and closeness you’re having is as important, if not moreso, than some grand crescendo leading into the finale.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
My wife and I have been married for the better part of a decade and have a 4 year old child. We’re also both over 40. Basically we’re tired all the time. Both of us would like to have more sex than we do, but we’re on libido killing medications, work full time, and have a child who will not to go sleep.
Basically the stars have to align for us both to be in the mood at the same time and for our kid to sleep long enough to give use time. The plus side is our sex is generally mind-blowing, but we both want more. The issue is neither one of us can really go from zero to ready without the build up in our own heads. We’ve tried in the past and the sex was just kind of “meh.” The same goes for when we tried to force doing it regardless of mood.
I don’t think we’ll ever get back to our pre-kid level of sexual spontaneity or frequency (nor do I want to), but I would like to reduce the friction leading to sex. I think the key might be to keep a base-level smolder going. In short, what are your tips for keeping desires up and aligned for long-term married couples?
Sleepless In Sexattle
You’re on the right track, SiS; a base-level smoulder is the right way to go, especially in your circumstances. But, just between you and me (and everyone reading this)… can I be real with you?
Spontaneity is frequently overrated when it comes to sex, especially sex in a long-term relationship.
I get why people focus on it; those initial days of the relationship, when the dopamine and the oxytocin are popping off in your brains and you can’t keep your hands off each other is incredibly exciting and feels like nothing else. But spontaneity is also the sort of thing that can’t last very long. Not only because the Coolidge Effect is a thing and the initial passion dies down, but because, well, it gets a lot harder to find time for it as you get older. You’re in the middle of it yourself; you and your wife have full-time jobs, a house and a toddler. That’s basically two full-time jobs and a little overtime to boot.
But you know what can be better than spontaneity? Anticipation. Spontaneity is a little like nitro; shake it up and BOOM. Anticipation, on the other hand, is all about the slow build – lighting the long fuse on the dynamite and waiting for it to explode. While the sudden burst of action can be amazing, there’s something special about knowing that something is coming, that it’s getting closer and closer while the tension builds and the excitement starts to grow because you know it’s almost there. When it finally does arrive… well, the explosion tends to be bigger and more dramatic than the more spontaneous and unexpected kind.
And the nice thing about anticipation? It can be built into your lifestyle as it currently exists, instead of either wishing for your younger, less encumbered days or looking towards the kidlet demanding less of your time.
So here’s my suggestion: schedule sex. Pick a day, well enough in advance that you can factor in things like child care or making necessary arrangements and block out that time for you and your wife. Maybe you can get your parents or in-laws to watch the kid for the day, or hire a babysitter so you can have a date night. Maybe you rent a hotel room or maybe you take advantage of the fact that you’re going to have the house to yourself for a few hours. Once you have the day picked and the logistics handled… start to tease each other. Flirt a little bit more. Send each other racy pics or talk about what you’ve got planned. Maybe your wife will casually mention the negligee she got recently, or you’ll whisper something in her ear about what you want to do to her later on. A little more physical contact, a little more teasing… all of these serve to highlight that the day is coming (as it were…) and keep the fact that y’all are gonna wreck some furniture in a few days, then hours and then…
While scheduling sex can feel like it takes the romance out of the equation, what it actually does is remove uncertainty and randomness. What you’re doing is saying “sex is a priority so we’re making sure we have the time, the place and the opportunity,” which is the opposite of unromantic in my opinion.
And in between those scheduled moments, those intimacy vacations, if you will? Keep up the flirting, teasing and the physical contact. You may not be able to bang out the way you would prefer, but getting your Gomez and Morticia on goes a long, long way towards keeping the spark alive in your relationship.
Plus, that constant slow burn, keeping everything simmering, even when a bang-out break isn’t on the schedule? It means there’s more likely to be a few spontaneous and unexpected sessions in your future.