WOMEN’S SEXUAL EXPRESSION
BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 1998–2000
Revised versIon of article published in Siren, April/May, 1998
Have you ever wondered whether other women, lesbian or straight have problems with sex? Do you worry that you’re the only one who makes passionate love at the beginning of a relationship and then withdraws? Or perhaps you enjoy making love to your partner, but feel uncomfortable receiving sexual pleasure? If any of these sound familiar, you are not alone.
BARRIERS TO FEELING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR SEXUALITY
While we may believe that sex should flow naturally and easily, the reality is often different. It’s no wonder, given all that we’re up against–sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia; society’s repressed attitudes about sex generally and especially about women’s sexuality; messages we receive from families, religion, schools, and the media about women, lesbians, and sex; and the fact that so many girls and women are sexually assaulted. It’s remarkable that we feel comfortable with sex at all!
PATIENCE AND AWARENESS
If you’re having a hard time with any aspect of sex, the best thing you can do for yourself is to be patient and understanding. Freeing yourself of pressure, blame, or criticism is crucial to moving through any obstacle you face.
A good starting place is to simply pay attention to everything that you feel as soon as you are aware of feeling uncomfortable. If you are numbing, or shutting down, you’ll want to figure out how you felt immediately prior to that.
- How does your body react?
- What body sensations do you notice?
- Do you hold your breath?
- Does your heart quicken?
- What are your thoughts?
- Do you see or sense images, sounds, smells, or tastes?
- What do you notice before and during the point you start to feel uncomfortable or begin to numb yourself?
Being aware of your own experience and responses is an important first step. This awareness helps you be in your body and be present with yourself. These are important elements for being able to relax and enjoy sex. This does not mean that you suddenly feel comfortable with sex, in fact initially you may feel even more uncomfortable because you are more aware of how upset or scared you feel. Some may respond to this process by feeling calmer. If you feel more upset or about the same, continue to be with your feelings, let yourself breathe if you can, and remember this will help you to feel better about sex.
It is important that you and your partner accept how you feel and approach your feelings with tenderness and love. Awareness, acceptance,and compassion are probably the most important things you can do for yourself and/or your partner.
ARE THERE ANY CONNECTIONS TO THE PAST?
You may want to ask yourself:
- Have you felt this way before?
- Do you feel this way in other situations?
See if you can remember the first time you felt this way and whether there might be a connection. Does it make sense to you why this was triggered at this time? If not, try to remember the next time you felt this way and whether you can make a connection to your present feelings. Strong emotional reactions are usually connected to past experiences that have not been fully resolved.
You may have been sexually assaulted and coped by numbing out. Or you may have been raised in a chaotic household and feel a strong need to be in control. Directing your attention to what originally brought on these feelings or reactions, and finding ways to work through those issues can help a lot.
HOW IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP?
If you are withdrawing from sex, how are you feeling about your relationship?
- Are there areas in your relationship, apart from sex, that need to change?
- Are you spending too much time together, which can dampen passion?
- Are you not spending enough time together, which can lessen your intimacy?
- Are you carrying around “baggage” from a previous relationship, which may be blocking your ability to relate intimately with your partner?
- Are your childhood experiences coming between you?
You may want to ask yourself what happens when you withdraw from your partner. Does it reduce some anxiety or fear, or get you some much needed space. Maybe there is another way that you could accomplish the same thing. When you are aware of what is going on, you can let your partner know how you feel, and ask her/him for what you need.
WHAT CAN YOU DO: SLOWING DOWN
If you are going numb or shutting down, there are a number of strategies you can try. One strategy is to approach sex at a slower pace, spending more time at sexual activities in which you don’t numb out. Maintain a lot of contact with your lover by talking to each other and keeping eye contact. The idea is to stay present and in your body, and to stop when you begin to numb out.
ASKING FOR WHAT YOU NEED
You may need a stronger or softer touch, or to be in a certain position. Stop whenever you need to, and talk about how you are feeling. You might want to hold each other for awhile, then begin again unless you don’t want to. Only you can know how you are feeling and whether you want to continue or not, your partner can only guess. It is far better for you if you take charge of your own needs and that your partner respects that. At times, it may feel frustrating, for both of you, so remember that by being patient and taking it slow, your sex life can improve.
Partners who view each others’ difficulties with sex as something to work on together have the best results. In this situation a partner will ask how the other is feeling, what is wanted, and whether they need to stop. This sends a clear message that you care and that it is okay to stop at any time.
TALKING ABOUT SEX
Talking about sex, both inside and outside the bedroom, is important in any relationship. If you’re shy about saying what you like while you’re making love, tell your sweetie at another time. Have fun, it doesn’t need to be serious. You may feel more comfortable sharing sexual fantasies because it is less direct. Do what works for you, but find a way to communicate your likes and dislikes with sex.
STARTING AND STOPPING SEX
For the person who feels uncomfortable on the receiving end of sexual pleasure, try starting with just a little and stop. Talk about it, if that feels okay. Then try a little more, remembering to breathe. Take a break again. Keep trying this, receiving a little each time and then maybe increasing the amount of time each time. By going slowly, stopping and starting again, you can increase your comfort level with the focus on you. Both of you need to be patient because this can feel frustrating too but it is well worth it in the long run. You may find you even enjoy it.
To have an orgasm, we need to be able to ride the waves of arousal and let go–not always such an easy thing to do. If you find this difficult, begin outside the context of sex by thinking or talking about the following questions:
- What does letting go mean to you?
- What would happen if you were to let go?
- How do you feel about letting go?
- Do you know what those reactions, associations, and feelings are connected to?
- Are there other ways of your life in which you find it hard to let go?
- Do you like to be in control?
- Is there anything you are afraid will happen if you are not in control?
You might want to begin by finding opportunities to let go, to be in less control outside of sex. How do you feel about that? Start small. Find little ways you can be in less control throughout your day. See if you can relax more, take it easy. Remember this can help improve your sex life so let that motivate you.
During sex notice your reactions. If you start to tense up or pull back, stop right there. Notice that for a moment, breathe, and if you want continue. Trying to push on while you tense up will not work, backing off will. You’ll immediately relax some. Remember, you are tensing up for a reason, honour that and let your partner know you need to stop. Obviously it is crucial that your partner handles this sensitively and respectfully.
Additionally, you may need to let your partner know how to pleasure you just the way you like it. Give yourself permission to do that.
And most importantly, no one has an orgasm by trying to have one. Let go of that goal, and focus on the pleasurable feelings in your body. Some women need to hear gentle loving words or be held when they approach orgasm because for them it brings up all sorts of safety issues. Others like to hear something more raunchy.
Experiencing sexual pleasure involves being present; staying with your feelings, your breath and other body sensations; expressing yourself (talking, making sounds, moving your body); and letting go. Finding ways to feel more comfortable doing these things, in and outside the bedroom, will help your sex life. Try not to worry if you don’t notice any difference right away, be patient with yourself and your partner–your sex life can and will improve.