I’ve been with my girlfriend for more than three years; we are happy together, however, the long running issue is our sex life (lack thereof). We are in our 30s, but having intimacy issues around penetration – we haven’t actually been able to successfully have sex.
It all started from our first failed attempt, years ago. This has had a major impact on my mental health, self-esteem and also notions of masculinity and what it is to be a man; especially during the era of Covid when it plays on my mind all the time. I feel my wanting to resolve this sex issue is somehow detrimental to us moving forward, and I’m not sure how we can overcome this. Is it normal or healthy for a relationship to carry on in such a manner for so long? Can partners somehow be fundamentally sexually incompatible? Should we rule out any biological causes firstly? Am I too focused on a single element of our relationship?
We’ve built a strong, loving foundation and I don’t want it to end just because of sex. But we are stuck on how to proceed.
On reading your email, I wasn’t entirely sure which one of you was experiencing a problem during sex: you, or your girlfriend. Though of course, the answer is: when you’re a couple, it’s both of you. You’re in this together – please try to find that reassuring. You are not alone.
Whatever the specifics of your particular issue, it’s clearly giving you a lot of anxiety. If something is worrying you to the extent that you’re experiencing low self-esteem and poor mental health, it’s time to seek outside help.
You might not like this idea, but the first step is to see your GP to rule out any physical causes. Sometimes something can appear to be a physical problem but it actually has an emotional root; sometimes the issue can be biological but can lead to emotional side-effects. Either way, you’re suffering, so let’s get it sorted. Muster up the courage, have tests if you need them, rule out any medical issues. You’ll be surprised by how relieved you are once you begin to take control of the situation.
Once that’s under way, we need to look at what happened during your first “failed attempt”, as you describe it, years ago. It sounds to me like this has caused you significant trauma – which has led you to both fear and avoid sex, since; because you’re so frightened of it happening again. Let me tell you something: this is a perfectly normal response. Do not beat yourself up. You can overcome this.
The irony, of course, is that when we fear something happening twice, we simply cannot relax. We doom ourselves. I don’t know the specifics of what you’re experiencing – but if it’s something similar to performance anxiety, then worrying about it happening again almost forces the inevitability of it. To combat this, we really need to get you to a safe place where you can process what happened, forgive yourself – and practise ways to increase relaxation and minimise your very real, very physical fear response.
I would strongly suggest finding a therapist to work with to unpick the feelings you have around what happened that first time – CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) might be an option for you, because it’s based around changing the way you think and behave. Also, make sure you talk to your girlfriend about how you feel and what you’re going through – it sounds like you have a wonderfully supportive relationship that hasn’t been impacted by a lack of penetrative sex over the past three years, so I’d guess you guys love each other very much. This is great. Please don’t suffer in silence.
There are a couple of other points I want to unpick from your email. I want you to think about two things: one, how you define “sex”; and two, how you define “being a man”. Both, I think, are crucial here in helping you become more confident and to move forward.
Often, what is most commonly termed “sex” is a very one-dimensional and heteronormative view of “penis in vagina” intercourse, when there are so many other options out there.
There are also plenty of falsehoods floating around when it comes to the notion of what “being a man” means – and so many of them are toxic (I found this recent article – about how much men really want sex – fascinating). We hear these social fallacies all the time: that men “only” care about sex; that men don’t (or shouldn’t) have feelings, that your “success” as a man is based on how many women you’ve managed to smooth-talk into bed. These ideas are rooted in toxic masculinity and misogyny, and they affect us all.
Listen: there are plenty of ways to have sex. So, in the immediate term (while you book that GP appointment and search for a therapist – do see here for ways to find one), I’m wondering how you might feel if you took the idea of penetration completely off the table – ban it, if you will. If you remove the pressure of this singular activity from the bedroom, it might help to move your brain out of its current “threat” alert level and so help you to relax and enjoy it more.
After all, we already know that 81.6 per cent of women don’t orgasm from intercourse alone (without additional clitoral stimulation) – and only 18.4 per cent of women report that intercourse alone is sufficient to orgasm. Just think what a fun and wholly enjoyable process it could be: to “outlaw” penetrative sex and instead play around with textures and scarves and blindfolds; switch up your senses – try turning the lights off completely and make the room as dark as possible; or do the opposite and experiment with light and music, toys and role-play and costumes.
A change of scenery can work wonders for putting the “fun” back into sex when you’ve been dealing with so much stress: try booking a night in a luxury hotel, for no other reason than to spend time together. Go away for a naughty weekend. Here’s an idea: go and stay with your parents – you’d be amazed what a thrill it can be when you’re trying to keep quiet.
Vitally: remember that sex is supposed to be fun, and can be defined however you and your partner choose to define it – and it really has nothing to do with what anyone else says you “should” be doing.
Victoria Richards is The Independent’s advice columnist. She has a degree in psychology and a postgraduate diploma in counselling and psychotherapy. Having problems with work, love, family or friends? Contact DearVix@independent.co.uk