How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 26-year-old woman, and for most of my adolescent and adult life I have only been able to reach orgasm when watching porn. I started watching porn when I was about 15. I’ve always felt stimulated from the visuals of sex and nudity, so naturally I felt completely bewitched by porn, and I shaped my own sexual experiences/behavior around what I watched.
When I met my current partner (who I’ve been with for three years), I was still watching porn and had never had an orgasm during any type of sex. I didn’t see a major issue with this until it started to weigh on me that it wasn’t okay to fake orgasms during sex, especially not with my partner whom I love, respect, and am attracted to. I also didn’t want to put on an “act” anymore based on what I’d seen in porn.
So, I’ve cut out the porn, which has been challenging and have had a few real orgasms with my partner now, always from oral sex. The problem is that I still need to conjure up sexual/pornographic imagery in my mind to facilitate my arousal and orgasm, but also to keep my mind focused on the pleasure at hand.
My question is, how do I tap into that pleasure and reach orgasm without any fantasy or visualization of porn? Is it possible and how to I keep my mind focused yet relaxed enough to orgasm?
— Don’t Fake It Till You Make It
Dear Don’t Fake It,
Keep at it. You already have made a considerable amount of progress—you’ve actually orgasmed with a partner when that seemed previously impossible. Try experimenting—see if you can derive any pleasure from a visualization-free sexual experience (even if you need to conjure up the images initially for the sake of arousal). Try a few minutes at a time focusing on sensation and not your mind’s eye, and see if anything moves. If it doesn’t, if you never get to where you want to be, at least you have the workaround that you do. I know it’s not ideal, but the visualizing has gotten you closer to your goals.
Also, take time to assess your actual level of attraction with your partner. It could be that this is just the way you are, but it could also be that this is the way you are … until you meet someone who really turns you on, rendering the pictures in your head unnecessary. All of this work is internal, and it’s part of a process, so patience is key. If you aren’t meditating, which can really help develop your muscle for thought-curation, consider taking up a practice.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a pan woman in my early thirties. With my previous serious partner, we were together for four years, and though our relationship had its ups and downs, I found him so stunningly handsome that it’s like I had lost the ability to notice other people were attractive. I just assumed this was how I operated in serious relationships, and didn’t think more of it. Now, I’m in a relationship with someone new and she’s wonderful, but I notice other people are hot, and often (I don’t stare or leer, but I notice). I’m really happy with my partner, but does this mean there are going to be problems? It freaks me out.
— Constantly Looking
Dear Constantly Looking,
Relax and take in the scenery … of extremely hot people. Being in a relationship doesn’t anesthetize a person from the other beauty that exists in the world. There’s a reason “I Only Have Eyes for You” is a song, not a personal essay. It’d be impossible to say for sure why you’re more attuned to external hotness in this relationship as opposed to your last, but it’s not necessarily an indication of connectivity issues. It could be that your sexuality is evolving (maybe you’re tilting toward nonmonogamy) or that you are otherwise less consumed. The latter case doesn’t mean you’re less committed, perhaps just more realistic about this wide world we live in (after all, your last relationship did end, so it’s not like your inability to notice other people’s attractiveness was that useful in terms of maintaining connection).
In any event, I’m a big believer in talking with my partner about whom I find hot and vice versa. This has been the case even in my monogamous relationships, though this kind of discourse is obviously crucial for the facilitation of threesomes in less-than-monogamous settings. I don’t know if you and your partner are there or will ever be, but keep in mind that your awareness of hot people not only doesn’t portend a potential fissure, but it can also provide another means of strengthening your bond with your partner. It’s the kind of thing that is only as big of a deal as either of you two make it. So don’t make it a big deal.
Dear How to Do It,
After witnessing something traumatic a couple months ago (not sexual in nature), my sex drive has all but disappeared. I used to spend most of my time fantasizing about sex and regularly got myself off, but that very suddenly changed, and I feel like I don’t recognize myself anymore. I still find people attractive and like the idea of sex in theory, there’s just no … spark? I’m seeing a therapist and processing what I’ve been through, but it hasn’t made my sex drive come back and I’m worried: For one, it feels like a strange reaction (not to mention overreaction) and two, I’m only in my twenties and don’t want to lose this part of me forever. I’m currently single but trying to change that, which of course has now become complicated. How do I even begin to come back?
— Some Kind of Temporary Asexual
Dear Temporary Asexual,
What you’re experiencing is not strange or an overreaction—the effects of nonsexual trauma on the libido have been documented in scientific literature, albeit not extensively. A study of 24 people with nonsexual trauma that was published in the journal Sexual and Marital Therapy in 1999 found that 15 of its participants had some kind of sexual issues following a traumatic event (most were involved in serious road accidents). These issues ranged from a reduction in desire to erectile issues to anorgasmia. The researcher pointed to several potential contributing psychological factors: depression, loss of confidence, anxiety, guilt, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, self-esteem issues, and physical pain. Sexual issues following PTSD from combat, torture, and the death of a child are also cited in the literature’s brief review of writing on this topic.
Another study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2015, provides a more extensive review of the literature and suggests that the relationship between PTSD and sexual dysfunction goes beyond correlation. Its authors point out that “the hormonal and neuronal networks activated in PTSD are also those engaged in normative sexual desire and behavior,” and as a result, a substance like yohimbe, “which increases [norepinephrine], can be conducive to sexual functioning in persons without PTSD, but induce panic attacks and flashbacks in individuals with PTSD.” Furthermore: “Sexual arousal mimics the physiological experience of fear, and once these associations have been forged in the intense experience of trauma, it can be difficult to uncouple them.”
Parts affect the whole. That said, effective treatment paths aren’t clear and are bound to vary. The authors of the 2015 study write: “When sexual dysfunction and PTSD co-occur, it is unclear whether these problems should be treated sequentially, together, or whether treating PTSD will resolve symptoms of sexual dysfunction even if they are not a treatment target.” Sometimes treating the PTSD does the trick to clear up the sexual issues, and sometimes the reverse is true: “If sexual intimacy touches so many core experiential aspects of PTSD, perhaps targeting sexual problems early will improve the efficacy of trauma-focused psychotherapies.” If you haven’t discussed the particular sexual issues you’re experiencing with your therapist who’s helping you with the trauma, now’s the time. You may want to seek the help of a sex therapist in addition. Above all else, be patient: You aren’t the only person to go through this and healing takes time. It’s only been a few months. Stick with it and be kind to yourself.
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Dear How to Do It,
My partner and I have been together for a very long time now. We have a very loving relationship and a very VERY sexual one; we love sex and have it very often. My problem is that my wife is a switch with a dominant lean, and I am fully submissive. It works out most of the time, but sometimes she really wants to “not have to control anything” and I get that, I really do, but I am NOT a switch and the idea of sexually dominating her makes me physically nauseous and very uncomfortable. How do I tell her I hate it without making her feel terrible or like her needs aren’t being met?
— Not a Dom
Dear Not a Dom,
It’s time to have a serious talk about your identity—make sure to emphasize that your identifying as a full submissive preceded her (it did, right?) and is no reflection of her. This is just who you are. Also highlight the success you do have in bed. Don’t be afraid to approach the topic of meeting her needs. Ask her what she wants to do now that you dominating her is completely off the table. A practical fix would be to open your relationship, so that she can pursue domination when she gets the itch. Of course, even in the most ethical of scenarios, nonmonogamy comes with its own issues, but to this immediate conundrum, it may provide some relief while allowing the relationship to maintain.
More Advice From Slate
I hate the sounds my boyfriend makes during sex. He just kind of whimpers as things start to get hot, particularly if I kiss him on the neck or elsewhere on his body, and he legitimately sounds like a small animal in pain. The strange thing is, he seems to realize these noises are unusual and off-putting—he constantly apologizes for making them, even midsex, but says he can’t help it; that’s just how he sounds when he feels good. I’m really turned on by him otherwise, but I can’t go on forever hearing the cries of injured wildlife when we’re getting it on.
Is it possible to manually adjust the sounds one makes during sex? Should I ask him to?