"My boyfriend and I have been together for 10 years. We were hot and heavy for 5 years and then I got chronically ill. The drugs I was given destroyed my sexual desire and ability to orgasm. I told my boyfriend many times that I really enjoyed sex with and without orgasm and would like to have sex. He was upset and said he didn't want sex if I didn't "enjoy it." I feel stuck and unhappy. We are very close in many other ways and I don't think either of us wants to end the relationship, but I am at my wit's end with this. Suggestions?"
Sex is such a loaded topic - one weighed down by a lifetime of misinformation, years of guilt and sexual shame, and for many of us, experiences of sexual coercion and violence - that when a sexual problem arises in our relationships, we can sort of freeze, emotionally and psychologically, in a way that makes it hard to start making things better. We get defensive, we get angry, we feel disappointed without knowing how to express that disappointment in a way that doesn't feel like we're demanding our partner to be different. Probably the last response we have to a sexual problem is to feel open minded, open-hearted, or creative.
It's no wonder that you, and so many of us, feel stuck and at our wits end.
In my experience, when a relationship has enough good stuff to sustain itself, when people genuinely want to stay together, the solution is not some brilliant intervention or technique that comes from an expert. The solution is usually there in the relationship. What's needed are some ways of getting to it. Starting different kinds of conversations about sex.
I describe these as conversations because I don't think it's helpful or will ultimately work if your goal is to convince him of something. It sounds like he isn't able to believe you when you say that you enjoy sex without orgasm. But I don't think the solution is to figure out a way to make him believe you. In fact I'd say that the origin of the problem has very little to do with you. But you still need to be part of the solution.
If I had to guess at some of the things going on for your boyfriend, they would include things like:
- He believes that great sex always includes orgasm, that sex without orgasm isn't successful or satisfying sex.
- His understanding about what makes a good sexual partner, which are inextricably tied up with his ideas of gender and sexual orientation, include the idea that he is responsible for your pleasure.
- His experience of your chronic illness, which is tied to everything he's ever been taught about health, disability, and illness, has changed the way he thinks about your body, his body, and the obligations that exist between your bodies in your relationship.
- His experience of his own aging body (you mentioned he is in his 70s) and the way that he may have been ignoring his own body in favor of keeping your sex life the same prior to your illness.
I could keep going. And I have no idea if any of this fits for him or your relationship but my point is that whatever is happening, it isn't one thing. And I don't think you can shift it or make change by only addressing one aspect of it.
So where do you begin?
Rather than having what I imagine would be a repeat of a dozen conversations you've had about "the problem," what would it be like to start by taking a step back and having a conversation about other things you do, together and apart, that bring you joy in your life.
For some, making lists is a good place to start. On your own, make one list of things you do alone that you enjoy and that bring you pleasure of some sort. Make another list of things that you think the other person does on their own that they really enjoy. And finally make a list of things that you do together that you enjoy. Don't try to rank the lists by amount of joy or kind of joy. These can be things that make you smile for a second, or leave you feeling relaxed and warm for hours afterward. It's neither feasible nor even desirable that everything we do bring us the kind of intense joy or satisfaction that comes from an orgasm. We need lots of different kinds of joy in our lives.
If list making doesn't work for one or both of you, maybe try drawing, or making a collage. The idea is to share something, to communicate something, but not to start with the problem and where you're feeling most stuck.
Being stuck is also an opportunity. It may be an opportunity for some education. It's possible that your boyfriend is under the incorrect assumption that most women orgasm during sex. Research in this area tends to focus only on intercourse, but based on that, we know that many women do not have an orgasm during intercourse.
It's also an opportunity to deepen your relationship in other ways. If you haven't done this before, now might be a good time to share with each other something about how you came to know what you know about sex. One way to do this is to share with each other a kind of sexual history, not just about your previous sexual experiences, but about the information, people, and experiences that came together to form you as you are today, as a sexual person.
Having these conversations won't necessarily get you to where you want to be. It sounds like what's needed is some more understanding on each of your parts about what you get and what you want to get out of the sex you have together. So there will be a time when you have to talk directly and concretely about what's happening when you have sex, or when you don't have sex. But the likelihood of that conversation going well will improve dramatically if it comes from a place of greater understanding and can bring in not just what's happening in the moment for either of you, but all the things that we all bring to sexual encounters.