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A Sex Guide for Partners With Mismatched Libidos

The inaugural installment of our series The ‘Normal’ Couples’ Guide to Sex

Not ecstatic about your current sex life? Don’t have hours every day attempting to decipher all of the sanskrit in the Kama Sutra? Unable to bankroll a shopping spree (or a single purchase for that matter) at Jimmyjane? Here’s a sex help guide for you, fellow regular human who wants to be better in bed.

The Person

Violet, Los Angeles, California
Goal: A more active and more joyful sex life with her partner, despite pelvic pain and low libido.

The Sex Situation: “I’m a cis woman in my 30s in a relationship with a cis man in his 30s. We’ve been been dating for two and a half years,” Violet tells us. “We’re deeply in love and talk about getting married and raising a family. We cuddle and touch each other all the time, but we almost never have sex. Instead, we both handle our own business on our own, in a private and masturbate-y way. He handles things more often than I do.”

The Obstacle: “Sex hurts. A lot. Always has. It took three tries to lose my virginity because my then-boyfriend’s penis just wouldn’t go in. Also, it turns out college freshmen don’t always know about lube, so… awkward.

“Nor do I have much of a libido. I’ll use a vibrator occasionally but I’ve never felt overwhelming lust, even has a hormonal teenager. I suspect that’s tied into the pain: It’s hard to get excited about something that hurts like hell. When many of your sexual attempts have ended in tears and blood, it’s hard to get stoked about trying again.”

What She’s Tried: “I’ve been working with an amazing nurse practitioner on the physical aspects of this problem. I’ve done pelvic floor physical therapy, which entails a physical therapist stretching out my obturator muscles by putting her hands in my vagina. I use vaginal dilators at home and do non-internal stretches to get my butt, quads and abs less clenched. Finally, I foam-roll my butt every chance I get.”

The Goal: “We both want happy, loving, flirty, orgasmic sex. I want to walk into the apartment, start kissing him and walk backwards into the bedroom while we take off each other’s clothes and giggle because we can’t keep our hands to ourselves. Then I want to get in a ridiculous tangle of bedsheets.”

The Plan

Stop Focusing on What Hurts: “For starters, don’t do anything that hurts,” says [link NSFW!] Nina Hartley, a longtime sex educator, author and feminist as well as legendary porn star. “It doesn’t matter what the culture, the media [or] your mom have to say about what a couple’s sex life should be. Things are never as they ‘should’ be. They simply are, and that’s where we must start. Pain isn’t ‘wrong.’ It’s a sign from your body telling you to keep looking and digging, until you find its root cause.

“So for the foreseeable future,” Hartley continues, “I recommend you take vaginal intercourse off the table. It’s too fraught now, and it’s not necessary for a sexy good time. Your vagina and his penis aren’t going anywhere, so it’s always a possibility. Just stop making it a priority or a measure of how ‘well’ you’re ‘doing sex.’”

Enlist Help: “Bravo for working with a physical therapist on loosening up your tight muscles and looking more deeply into your muscle memory,” Hartley says. “I also advise finding a sexological bodyworker (they exist) who can help you more extensively with your pelvic floor issues. If you can afford it, conventional massage therapy is a lovely way to have compassionate, nonsexual therapeutic touch to support the mental [and] emotional work you’re doing to claim your birthright of erotic pleasure. You may also want to see a therapist who specializes in somatic (body-based) inquiry. Memories are stored in our muscles, and there may be something experiential behind your current issues.”

Don’t Blame Yourself: “I hear a lot of self-reproach in your story and certainly understand your feelings of inadequacy and worry that something great is passing you by,” says Hartley. “When [there’s] something that’s supposed to be ‘normal’ and ‘natural,’ to ‘flow’ from ‘passion’ to ‘bliss,’ and we don’t [or] can’t get there, it’s common to think we’re at fault. In reality, it’s the cultural messages about sex, sexuality and sexual expression that are at fault. Our culture both warps our relationship to our bodies and to pleasure, while at the same time saying how wonderful these things are, and how, if you just do [or] say the right things [or] date the right people, it’ll all just fall into place without having to discuss anything. Ha! Sexual discussion never ends, as sexuality evolves and develops over time.”

Nina Hartley

Make Feeling Good a Game: “One very fun game is that he gets to touch you everywhere he wants, as teasingly as he wants, except for your vulva,” Hartley suggests. “Massage, feathers, fur mitts, fingertips, lips, tongue, teeth, whatever he can use to wake up your entire body. He just can’t touch your vulva. When your body realizes that he’s not going to ‘go for it,’ it will be able to relax and you can tune in to how you’re feeling. An extension of this game is that he can touch your vulva, too, but he may not penetrate you. He can get thisclose to your vagina, pressing and teasing, but he may not go in. Pay attention to how this feels both emotionally and physically. Have him stroke your body while you buzz with your favorite toy and let him assist you in your orgasm.

“I’d also gently push to be included in his self-pleasuring — to show that you’re not rejecting him, as well as to take note of what he likes,” she adds. “Him jerking off while you read a sexy story is always a good move, especially if you’re wearing your best push-up bra.

“Finally, have you given any thought to anal pleasure? Butts are very elastic (and clean) when they’re properly prepared.”

Schedule, Schedule, Schedule: “Like you,” says Hartley, “I have a low physical libido, so my husband and I have to make time for intimacy. Because we value it (and all that comes from it), we make a date and stick to it. We may not know exactly what we’ll be doing, only that we’re going to show up willing to get [or] be gotten in the mood and see where it takes us. The only goal is: If it feels good, do more of it; if it doesn’t, stop and do something else.”

The Reaction

How Do Nina’s Suggestions Make You Feel? “This response is so understanding and compassionate,” says Violet. “I teared up! Overall I’m feeling grateful for Nina’s willingness to hear out my issues, and for her creative suggestions.”

Do You Feel Okay About Trying Sexy Games Instead of Intercourse? “I love creative approaches to problems, and usually, I’m a boss at coming up with them. But this particular problem is so fraught that it’s been hard to look at creatively, playfully and joyfully. That said, [I’ll definitely try] the games, especially the ‘very fun’ one where he doesn’t get to touch any places that hurt. I’m certainly interested in participating in that! And I can envision my partner enjoying it, too.”

What About Enlisting Even More Outside Help? “I’m going to have to do some more research on finding a sexological bodyworker or a body-based therapist. It’s good to know that there are specialists out there who may be able to help, and I’ll be hanging on to this advice so I know what search terms to use if I get to a point where I’m exploring these interventions. But I think I’ll start with some of the at-home suggestions before I bring in more professionals.

“I do, however, plan on getting a massage. Honestly, I’d never thought that getting a non-sexy massage could make a difference in the way my brain and body react to touch — I normally don’t like them — but I had a lightbulb moment as soon as I read that suggestion. Of course, that could be valuable!”

Will You Act on Her Suggestions for New Activities? “I’ve been wanting to get in on his me-time for a while now — I’m genuinely excited by the idea of watching him work — and I’m grateful to have an excuse to bring it up again, especially with the imprimatur of an expert! It’s something I’m confident we’ll try, and if we don’t like it, we don’t like it. But at least we’ll have tried.

“I’ve been inching my way toward starting to wonder if maybe anal is an area to explore, and her even [using] the word ‘anal’ in this advice tipped the scales. I’ll be bringing it up with my partner.”