If our bodies are built for pleasure, why is that so many of us struggle to enjoy sex? And how do we go about having a better time of it?
This was the question renowned scientist and sex educator Marie Stopes answered when she authored what was effectively the first sex manual for British women, Married Love: “In my own marriage, I paid such a terrible price for sex ignorance that I feel knowledge gained at such a cost should be placed at the service of humanity.”
In the first instance, not understanding the mechanics of your body – as married virgin Stopes found out – can massively hamper the pleasure you experience using it. Society frequently chastises youthful sexual exploration when we should valorise it. Masturbation is how you learn not only how to give yourself pleasure but how to teach someone else to give it to you. And if you’ve never masturbated with the help of a mirror, it’s worth doing; it will show you how your body responds from the angles to which you’re not usually privy – and teach you what pleasure really looks like.
What’s more, if you have got self-loving down, you know you are capable of experiencing sexual pleasure. What else could be turning you off along the way?
Whatever your gender, if you’ve ever suffered sexual abuse – and one in 14 British adults have as children – it will have affected your desire, even if you have come to eroticise a very similar scenario afterwards. Besides sexual trauma often being held in the body, arousal starts more regularly in the mind than in the genitals. So even if the trouble manifests itself physically – eg problems with ejaculation or vaginismus – if the thoughts that flood your head when you think of sex are attached to disturbing memories, you’re going to need to lay them to rest, probably with a professional therapist, before you can start back on the road to erogenous bliss.
If you have not been abused, but find yourself blocked all the same, what were the messages you grew up with about sex? Did you receive an overbearing religious or moralistic education that taught you carnal doings brought sin? Are you struggling with your sexual orientation? Was a primary caregiver a cheater whose actions hurt the family? If so, it’s entirely understandable that your mind is still inhibiting your body, even if you now believe these early learnings were wrong.
It’s also obvious but worth emphasising that physical health problems such as chronic pain or illness are going to impede your capacity for sexual pleasure, as are more minor conditions including preventable STIs ranging from syphilis to gonorrhoea (answer? get tested, use a condom). It is also well-documented that mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety drain libido, as do the most popular antidepressants used to treat them. And while alcohol and drugs might seem to serve as aphrodisiacs, what the majority actually do is to first disinhibit you, then secondly slow down your ability to connect with sensations in your genitals and your brain’s ability to perceive them. The only thing that’s better about sex on alcohol is the initial thought of it.
But if you’re fit, well, and mainly neurosis-free (emphasis, mainly) and you’re still not enjoying sex, what else could be up?
You might be asexual, although given this identity only applies to an estimated 1.5% of the male population, it’s not the most likely reason. You may also simply be doing it wrong. While the only unnatural sex act is one you can’t perform, to paraphrase Dr Kinsey, some of our most popular routes to pleasure simply don’t deliver.
Take foreplay. Given that the average couple spends just 13 minutes on it, while the average woman takes around 15 to 20 minutes to get warmed up, there’s clearly some recalculation to be done. Meanwhile, penis in vagina sex is still viewed by many as the definitive sex act – yet more than 80% of women can’t orgasm by penetrative stimulation alone – and many couples don’t have a penis that gets hard enough for penetration between them. And then there’s the 22% orgasm gap that exists between heterosexual couples (a number that rises among casual partners), drawn from the number of times men climax compared with their female partner during a sex session. Women’s orgasms are simply not taken as seriously – at least when men are involved (for lesbians, there’s no such gap).
That’s not to say that orgasm should be the measure of a good time – from foot massage to spanking, there’s so much more to the repertoire. Nor is it true that men don’t suffer from pleasure anxiety too. From premature or delayed ejaculation issues to performance anxiety often tied to too much porn-viewing, just over 50% of us are unhappy about our sex lives, and that’s equally split between men and women. Men are also more likely to fake an orgasm than lie about their height on a dating site. The most common reason? Not to save face but to save the other person’s feelings. Sometimes we simply care too much about the other person to communicate our own needs.
What sex is supposed to be generates a butt-clenching amount of anxiety for too many of us. Ever had a mutually satisfactory escapade between the sheets, only to feel it was sub-par because it didn’t “feel” either long enough or varied enough? That’s effectively all the propaganda you’ve ever learned about what makes for good sex ruining a perfectly pleasurable time for you. What let you down wasn’t your body, but all the shoot-to-victory words and imagery you’ve ever imbibed.
Your sexual desire is not static. What you masturbate to at 16 you chortle over at 36. What could blow your load with one partner makes you roll over and fall asleep next to another. So it figures that you can’t expect to be aroused by the same actions throughout your life. Your tastes mature. Your inhibitions loosen – or tighten – or loosen again.
But where you’re struggling to inject novelty, you can inject communication. It’s a cruel truism that desire, which is mysterious and cannot be summoned at will, can arise from many sources. But it’s entirely possible to harness its power through confession and to improve your physical technique by both asking for and taking instruction.
Indeed, one of the most frustrating aspects of my work as a professional dominatrix was that scores of men came to me because they didn’t dare reveal the scope of their most potent desires to their primary partners. What a waste, I would tell them – think of all the pleasure you could be having. But there was the sticking point. It wasn’t the sex that was hampering them, but their fear of revealing themselves. After all, not everyone has a receptive and open-minded partner willing to venture everywhere with them. And not every partner seeking such tolerance would reciprocate it.
Some desires – the non-consensual ones – may not be for the reckoning (and by that, I mean acts that are illegal, not those that explore force or domination with both parties fully willing). But if you keep losing yourself to one reverie in particular, why repress a potential source of joy?
• Nichi Hodgson is the author of The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder and a sex and relationships broadcaster