Q: I know you probably get this all the time, but I have to ask someone. My girlfriend and I have been together for about two years and having sex off and on for about a year and a half. She never orgasms and says she can’t – never has, probably never will – and that she’s okay with this but it comes up in fights sometimes and my question is how do I fix this? If I suggest watching porn together, she’s offended. If I buy her a toy, she’s offended. I suggest “mixing it up,” she’s offended. She keeps saying she’s okay with it, but I’m not. What do I do?
A: There’s never a good way to say what I have to say. I could be “nice” and “generous” and beat around the bush, but your letter makes it sound like you and your girlfriend have both had it, so let’s do some real talk.
It sounds like the two of you are not sexually compatible.
I’m sitting here and wondering whether you are familiar with that term because many people hear it and think “sex” and “compatibility” and think they understand when maybe they don’t. For instance, one of the questions an online dating site I was on a few years ago asked was “would you need to have sex with someone before you married them?” and I was (mildly) surprised when women would comment on that. They would say they wanted to wait until after marriage, or they would say “hey, I see sex is important to you, it’s not to me” and I felt like what they were saying to me was sex was not a priority to them and they didn’t see it as an important part of a relationship. Sexual compatibility is more than just “are we able to orgasm when we have sex?” – it’s about how much you and your partners, individually and together, value sexual activity within the relationship. And right now, it sounds like you and your partner are not on the same page about the role and importance of sex within your relationship.
Naturally, I have a list of questions here. I’m wondering why sex is so important to you and I’m also wondering why sex is not important to your partner (other than the obvious, stated reason that “she says she can’t orgasm – never has, never will”) because we’re not just talking about meeting in the middle and stepping to one side – we’re talking about you’re stepping in one direction, she’s stepping in the opposite direction, and the space between you is increasing with each step. In fact, “it comes up in fights sometimes” is evidence there is a pretty big crack developing here that the two of you can’t seem to get past or leap over.
Well, you might just have been with the wrong partner for you. In the sex advice column I write for The Verge—and for Refinery29 before this—so many of the questions I get go something like: “I want X in bed but my partner wants Y. How do we fix our sex life?” But the truth is, they’re just not matching sexually, and I don’t know if that can be fixed. If you applied the same logic to anything besides sex—to music, for example, or religious beliefs—you would just accept that you have basically nothing in common. But when it’s sex, for some reason, we think: “I need to change who I am as a person so my partner and I can get on the same page.” When maybe the real answer is that you just aren’t sexually compatible.
I’m not sure I’m as pessimistic as Stoya, but I’m pretty close. I think the major addition I would make to her statement is to say again that sexual compatibility is about more than sex. It’s about the relationship’s attitude(s) toward sex. “Sexual compatibility,” like I said on my dating profile so long ago, “is a real thing.” And it’s difficult to fix something as long as one of the people in the relationship has given up and says they will “never” feel, do, or experience something. It doesn’t have to be about sex at all, because once the “never” card gets thrown, it sets up limitation. It’s a wall. And the person saying it is tossing at an implicit threat – “This will never happen, so don’t even try. If you test me on this, we’re going to have a fight.”
On some level, I agree with Dr. Chris Donaghue, author of the book Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture (2015) that “Sexual compatibility is the most important attribute for relational success, coming before psychological, emotional, and social compatibility.” So, I guess what I’m saying is that the two of you need to have a serious, sober conversation about where this is going and what the two of you are willing to live with because it’s going to be a tough road ahead, no matter what you choose. Ultimately, yes, I’m saying a breakup is something to consider here – or at least have in mind and talk about so that there’s no vagueness or passive communication. Say it, put it out there, but then talk about whether you want to work on this issue together and stay together. How you will be doing that is just as important as whether you will be doing it because (in case you missed it), a couple can still be compatible psychologically, emotionally, and socially. Sexual compatibility is, in fact, “the most important attribute for relational success,” but you don’t want to break off a relationship that is working in every other area.
Here’s what I want you to do right now: assigned values to these four areas: sexual, psychological, emotional, and social. Write it down on a piece paper. How much is sex worth to you in a relationship? Your emotional connection? The social – all of the things you do together; is it 25% of a relationship? 30%? Now how much are the other areas worth to you?
Have you written those values down yet? Great. Now throw that piece of paper away and do it again with the real values.
Again, there needs to be some direct, fully honest conversation for either one of you – and especially both of you – to work through this.
Would you mind if I made a few suggestions on what to talk about? I’m suggesting this, assuming you both want to work on your ‘ship, love each other, trust each other, and do not want to separate. If you want to break up, that’s a whole other thing. You’ll break up and move on. Done. But, assuming you will do some hard work and talk about things (rather than stay together and quietly resent one another), here are a few positive conversations.
What the relationship looks like, going forward.
I know couples who are sexually incompatible and are still together, still going the distance, and are very happy with one another. They are sickeningly in love with each other, monogamous, and after a decade of marriage are still deeply in love. What your relationship looks like going forward is really a fingerprint – it’s different for each couple. I know couples that “live together separately.” I know couples that have opened their relationship – meaning at least one partner is allowed to act on romantic and sexual interests outside the primary relationship – and are still together. I know couples that accept sex will always be difficult for them, even some that have been together for years and haven’t had sex. I know couples that, for the sake of the relationship, turn the tables over and follow a non-traditional path towards something especially creative.
Whatever you consider, don’t rush it. Changing the nature of the relationship will take time. Don’t think this can be done in one conversation. “Oh, my girlfriend says it’s okay if I sleep with someone else,” is not something that can *poof* be done just by talking about it once. You have to both commit, ahead of time, to doing this together and keeping the conversation going, being patient, making allowances for the new dynamic over a long stretch of time. I sometimes tell people, “Relationships are like shoes – you’re going to have to put in the time for it to feel comfortable. Don’t try and climb a mountain first day out of the box! Get comfortable first.”
The role of inevitability and hopelessness.
You know, one of the things that really stuck out to me in your question is how overwrought you sound. Your letter communicates overwhelming feelings of inevitability and hopelessness and I understand that because your partner is telling you that no matter what you do, no matter what alternatives you provide, you will never be able to help her have an orgasm. I’m sad just reading that, so I can only imagine how you must feel living in a reality like that. Things feel hopeless and, looking to the future, your partner is telling you “it will never happen. You will never make me happy in a way that is important to you.”
If you haven’t done this already, let that sick in for a moment and welcome all of the grief that comes with it.
You have a responsibility to bring attention to how this situation is making you feel. Sometimes, instead of saying how we are feeling outright, we bring band-aids to the relationship. We make breakfast in bed for our partner instead of talking about how our partner makes us feel insecure – we try to “win” their affection. Or we might agree and bottle up our frustration just to prevent an argument. It sounds like you’re doing this and it’s not working, so maybe it’s time to change how you’re approaching this relationship, especially sex, and say to your partner, “I hear what you’re saying, but when you say it, it makes me feel” whatever it is you are feeling. Give a name to it. Tell your partner how much you value them and how they are feeling, but don’t back down from saying where you’re at emotionally.
And also, where can you bring hope back? With every feeling and emotion that you name, try to come up with a solution and be prepared to share that with her. Don’t approach this topic with a list of “everything that’s wrong” unless you are also prepared to talk about the good things, why you want to stay together, and how you can support one another.
Quantity and Quality.
Be sure to take a step back here and focus on what is actually being said. What a partner says, and how we interpret what they say and feel about it are different things. That is – your partner might be saying they have given up, but are they asking you to give up with them?
You end your message saying, “She’s okay with it, but I’m not.” Well, take a look at the things she is okay with – all of the good experiences she is holding on to – and be honest with yourself and with her. Is that enough for you? Or do you need more? In other words, will this be a relationship of quality and substance, or a number of times you have sex, the vacations you take, and so on. What is meaningful for you? For her? And how are you responding to each other’s needs and outlook?
Sometimes, relationships can adapt and come back from something like this. “Hey, we can’t do this thing, but we have a full, happy life together otherwise.” Remember, as Dr. Donaghue pointed out, sex is important – but there are other pieces to a relationship. Instead of focusing on sex and dwelling on The Problem, focus on all of the good things the two of you have. Are you happy together? Do you feel loved and can you love fully? Are you safe with each other?
What you’re willing to give.
A big question that you need to figure out right now is whether you’re still willing to invest in this relationship. If you feel like this is a dead end and that there’s no hope for you two – that you will never be happy unless you can give her an orgasm – then you need to break it off immediately. Don’t drag this out. Be kind, be gentle, be an adult, but you owe it to yourself and to your partner to stop things before you’re married and miserable.
Then again, what else are you willing to do to help make things better? What are you willing to give here? Are you willing to fill the void in the relationship with something else?
In some sense, I’m asking how you are able and willing to grow. That’s not the same thing as suggesting you change. Rather, I’m asking how can you bring the positive qualities you already possess and make the relationship better, how can you bring your best self and use the good that the two of you share to make this relationship more stable, more loving, and more supportive of one another?
What you’re willing to give up.
In every relationship, there are trade offs. You would be selfish and a terrible person if you never “gave” and I believe that relationships are give-and-take. You’re always making trades for each other. Some of them, over time, are not expressed verbally. They become the routine of how your relationship works. I’ll cook if you clean the dishes. I’ll clean the bathroom if you wash the linens. I’ll walk the dog, but when I get back, I pick the show we watch. Whatever your trade-offs are, I feel it’s really important to do an inventory and seriously ask yourself what you’re willing to give up in this relationship and if sex is one of those things.
I feel it’s very important to point out that your girlfriend hasn’t denied you sex. She seems available and willing to have sex – the issue is her ability to have an orgasm. If she’s willing to have sex with you or participate in other activities with you, you’ve got a lot to work with right there. And it’s not a big deal for her, why is it a big deal for you? Maybe you feel like you’re not giving up an orgasm, you’re giving up your perception of what it means to be “a man” and “pleasure” your woman. Spend some time talking with each other about this, what the two of you are giving up for one another.
What sex looks like for the two of you.
You mention that you’ve made suggestions on “spicing things up” and have brought porn and toys into the bedroom but… did you talk about any of that? Or did you just spring it on her? When it comes to talking about sexual activity with your partner – talking about the sex you are having or would like to have, rather than “sex in general” – it’s important to work your way into the conversation. People have so many insecurities about sex, even “liberated” people, and so you need to be especially sensitive here. I mean, I’m unenthused about you “suggesting” mixing it up and using toys, and I’m not even the one having sex with you! So be sensitive in discussing sex with the person you are having sex with. The fastest way to guarantee you will never have sex with them again is to critique them; even helpful suggestions can come across as insensitive if you don’t proceed with a great amount of care.
Going forward, what does sex look like for the two of you? Do you want to open the sexual relationship? Revisit the discussion on toys,vibrators, etc? Maybe sex looks entirely different for the two of you, so be sure to talk about what kind of future you would like to see for your sexual activities in the future.
One of the couples I know who had difficulty early in their marriage found out after about three years that they didn’t need to follow traditional gender roles in the bedroom. They began to experiment and eventually experimented their way towards pegging, for example, where one of the partners found a new, more dominant side of themselves and the other partner found a comparatively more submissive side of themselves. In another example, I know a guy whose wife supports him having porn “to stop bothering me” because their sexual drives are different. Another couple I know took sex with each other off the table for six months to work on the other areas of their relationship, and still another couple has a “free pass” system where as long as neither one does anything too risky or that would jeopardize their relationship, they’re okay with either partner having a one-time sexcapade. In this case (which is, I need to say, statistically very rare) they say it helped their marriage and allowed them to have a sexual outlet.
Sexual relationships take a number of different forms and – speaking bluntly – I’m not convinced any of my friends or coworkers have a “normal” sex life because “normal” and “traditional” mean different things for different people, who often grew up in different places with different contexts. In other words, stop judging your sex life on what you think everyone else is doing and find what works for you and your partner. Just remember, you’re going to have to commit to working this out with each other over a long period of time – not just one conversation – for the relationship to work.
Those are just a few conversations you could be having. There are, of course, other topics that it sounds like you need to address with each other. Right now, you need to determine whether you want to stay in a relationship where you are feeling so frustrated and take an honest look at what that frustration is doing to the relationship. Sometimes we have good intentions even as we are doing intentionally bad things, so be positive, be proactive, and take in everything your partner is saying in response. Take a time-out and revisit the conversation after she has had a time to process what you’ve said and formulate her own thoughts and feelings. Listen. Then keep working through that cycle of listening, considering, and sharing.