Question: I'm a woman in her late twenties and I've been with my boyfriend for more than two years now. I'm in love with him and attracted to him, and I think our relationship is pretty healthy. Lately, though, I've been having a hard time getting turned on. It's occurred to me that it's related to my watching porn. Whenever I masturbate I watch porn, and I wonder if I've come to rely on it to get myself aroused. As you can imagine, porn makes real-life sex seem kind of underwhelming. My boyfriend does his best to get me off, and most of the time he succeeds eventually, but it's kind of a mental struggle for me to actually reach climax. I imagine he's not thrilled that he can't get me off, and I personally would like to feel more aroused in his hands. What do you think about all this? Should I try to break my porn habit?
Thanks for asking this question. Most public conversations about pornography fixate solely on men and how they watch (or over-watch) porn. But the truth is that people of all genders watch porn, and most of us have at some point questioned how healthy or unhealthy it is, particularly when we are also struggling with some aspect of sex with other people. If only we got to talk about porn and health in the way we talk about other forms of culture and its impact on our health, this stuff would probably be easier to figure out.
There's a lot in your question, and as always I want to start by saying that I'm not going to have any hard and fast answers (that's what porn is for) but hopefully some of the thoughts and questions I have for you will be helpful.
First, let's not jump to the conclusion that you need to stop watching porn. More on this later, but there's enough going on here without the porn, and I'd want to start with some basic questions before cutting porn out altogether.
You say that it's only lately that you're having a hard time getting turned on. And also that it's a mental struggle to get off when your boyfriend is doing the stimulation. So my first question is whether or not both of these things are recent, or have one or both always been the case? Was there a time with this boyfriend when you found it both easy to get turned on and easy to get off?
I ask because the truth is that lots of women don't have orgasms during partner sex, so before we go looking for another culprit, it's worth considering what your baseline is. I'd also want to think about what your experiences have been with other partners. Have you had partners where arousal and orgasm came more easily? It sounds like this is recent and the only thing you can think of that's changed is your porn watching. But because we aren't really raised to think critically or deeply about our own sex lives I always say it's worth going back and thinking on this some more.
Distinguishing Desire, Arousal, Pleasure, and Orgasm
Feeling like having sex and enjoying sex may sound like the same thing, and when it's all good they often feel like the same thing. But sex is actually pretty complicated, and multi-layered, and when we're stuck, or something doesn't feel like it's working, it can help to pull apart our sexual interactions a bit so we can have a look at the complexity of them in a different way.
Given your situation, we need to separate for a moment desire, arousal, pleasure, and orgasm. You say you're having a hard time getting turned on (desire). Does that mean you have a hard time wanting sex? Or does it mean that you feel like being sexual but you can't get your body into it? Or is it something else? I don't have a sense of where arousal fits in for you when you're having sex with your boyfriend. Do you get turned on at all? Do you feel yourself building in your sexual excitement? How would you describe your feelings of arousal during masturbation versus when you're having sex with your boyfriend? You have said that having an orgasm is a problem, but what about sexual pleasure more broadly? What do you like about the sex you're having with your boyfriend? Does it give you pleasure physically, emotionally, in other ways? Or are you not actually feeling much pleasure at all?
When Expectations Are Part of the Problem
Because it seems like you're happy with all of the above on your own, I do wonder if your expectations about what sex with your boyfriend "should" be like could be getting you stuck. First, you need to know that lots of women have difficulty orgasming without providing their own stimulation of one sort or another. There's nothing wrong with this at all.
The expectation that "real sex" means that the other person is touching you at the moment of orgasm is sort of nonsense. Which isn't to say that if you are feeling like it's creating a distance between you and your boyfriend it's not a problem worth working on. But know that you may have unrealistic expectations of sex (I can say this with confidence since we ALL have unrealistic expectations of sex).
You should also know that it is very easy for any of us to think ourselves out of an orgasm. For many of us, orgasm requires concentration and focus on ourselves. It's so easy to get distracted and lose focus, which can make orgasm difficult or impossible. If this happens a couple times (and it could be the result of anything from a stressful day to problems with family, work, relationship, money, the environment, global injustice, etc…), we can begin to worry about not being able to orgasm next time. And the next time we start having sex we focus on that worry, instead of being in the moment.
Feeling pressure to orgasm is an orgasm killer. It's a form of sexual performance anxiety, which usually gets talked about with guys losing erections, but it's way more than that. So that's another possibility. Of course a third possibility, which has nothing to do with expectations, is that it has something to do with the way he is stimulating you. Again, if you've had good sex in the past it doesn't make sense that technique would be the issue, and for most people technique is not what makes a good lover. But it's always a possibility.
To Porn or Not to Porn: Must That Be the Question?
You're not necessarily off base on the porn thing. We can easily get habituated in a sexual routine, that is, get into a sexual rut and stay there for a long, long time. If you're in the habit of always watching porn when you masturbate, by all means, take a porn vacation (not the kind where you go away to Hedonism with porn stars -- the other kind, where you don't watch porn for a while). If you've been able to masturbate to orgasm ever in the past without porn, you can do it again. It may take a while, but you can get back to that non-porn inspired place. If you're really struggling, using a vibrator may help. Some people say that's substituting one prop for another, and that the goal should be "natural" sex meaning "just the two of you." I have to preemptively, and respectfully, disagree with this idea.
Forget what you think you know about "natural sex." There's no such thing. Having sex with a vibrator is no more or less natural, legitimate, or pleasurable than sex without one. It's true that you're adding something into the sex play, but few people balk at the idea of adding music, or clothes, or food to sex. There are legitimate complaints to be made about the sex toy and porn industry in terms of workers' rights and narrow-minded representations of bodies and sexuality. But that doesn't make the use of them more or less "legitimate."
So if you really feel like porn is the problem, cut it out for a while. I doubt you'll have to stop watching altogether. But if the choice is really between great sex with a partner you love or porn…well, the choice is yours. Mind you, that is not actually the choice a lot of us face, and porn is often blamed for problems that are entirely of the human-relationship variety.
What Porn Is and What It Isn't
Now I also want to say something about your comment that porn makes real sex underwhelming. It was such a fascinating thing to share, and I'm so happy you did. We need to remember that porn is about performance. Even when you are watching "real couples" or the porn actors in the scene are genuinely enjoying themselves, pornography is a form of art or entertainment that is based around a performance of sex. In this way I want to suggest that porn is to your personal sex life as any Hollywood movie is to your daily life. There may be things you recognize in there, and you may be able to emotionally, erotically, or viscerally connect to what you're seeing, but your life will never be like that and, if you look behind the curtain, you realize that you'd never want it to be like that. When you say that watching porn is making your actual sex life boring or underwhelming, I get what that feels like, but I think it's based on a misunderstanding.
Let's say hypothetically that you like watching porn that shows people engaging in wild, rough sex. There's a lot of sweating and swearing and wetness and some pain, but it sure seems pleasurable to the people doing it. And what is happening in the porn seems out of control in a way that you find super hot. What you think when you watch this porn is that the actors are being pushed right up to the limits of what they can handle, to the limit of sexual pleasure, in a way that feels both dangerous and controlled.
When you think about the porn in relation to your real life it doesn't match up. They may be doing things that you don't regularly do, maybe things you'd be afraid to do. They may have bodies that look different and have different body parts than you or your partner. If this is where your thinking stops, than I can see how porn can make sex in real life seem underwhelming. Only this isn't a fair comparison. You're comparing a representation of something with an experience of something. Porn is a representation of something that is turning you on. The sex your watching is staged and the people you're watching doing it often have no connection to each other. They are actors. If they are good, then they are good at playing the roles of hot uninhibited sex partners (a skill that is worthy of respect and a living wage). But with the exception of people who want to be porn actors themselves, most of us wouldn't actually want to be on that set doing that thing.
Sex with a partner, in theory at least, is actually happening. And while the sex you have may not look anything like the sex you see in porn, you can feel the things you're feeling and explore some of the things you're watching when you're watching porn. This is possible. It won't look like porn (remember, though, that when porn actors have sex off camera it doesn't look like porn either). But everything you feel when you watch porn is something you are capable of feeling during sex with yourself or a partner. I'm not saying it's easy, or that it can happen every time or with every partner. But it is possible. The first step to getting there is to start thinking carefully and paying attention to what specifically you like about the porn you like. Is it a feeling that turns you on, a certain way of movement, an attitude. Is it what people are saying or doing, or not doing? Is it the luxury or sleaziness of the setting? Is it that watching porn makes you feel strong or week, proud or ashamed? Does it change the way you feel about yourself as a feminine or masculine person? I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea.
I offer all this just to say that porn doesn't have to be the thing that disconnects you from your sexual self or from your connection to your boyfriend. It can bring you closer together (which isn't to say that it will, and of course many people do use porn in a way that keeps them separate from their partners). Porn is what you make of it (again, I'm not talking here of the myriad problems with how it's made, who makes it, who profits from it, etc.). It might be that if you stop watching porn for a while, get back into the habit of having orgasms without it, that you'll be able to reconnect with your boyfriend. But it's also possible that in the porn watching you can discover seeds of something that would connect you and your boyfriend in a completely new way.
In terms of moving forward, so much depends on your answers the the questions I posed above. Start by thinking about where you're feeling most stuck; desire, arousal, pleasure, orgasm. Think about your history with him and with other partners. Is this situation new, or familiar? Think more about your relationship. You sound certain about your feelings for him, but less certain about the health of the relationship. Are you both getting what you need? Are either of you feeling hemmed in? Do you communicate, not just about sex but about you feelings about the relationship, each other, your life? When you've thought a bit, you may want to talk with someone you trust to bounce ideas off of. You're going to eventually need to talk with your boyfriend as well (if that sounds daunting, here are some tips on talking about tricky sexual issues).
For more sexual suggestions, if the problem does turn out to be one of technique, one way to try and change that up a bit is to masturbate for him. If that idea is embarrassing, you may find wearing a blindfold helps. You can also make it reciprocal (so you go then he goes). Watching someone masturbate can not only be very hot, it can be educational.
By all means, stop watching porn for a bit and see if that does anything. It can't hurt, you can always go back to it, and you might find it shifts your focus and attention. Alternatively you can watch together and see what comes of that.
If you notice that you are worrying about orgasm early on in a sexual interaction, it might be a problem of performance anxiety. There's no one way to solve this, but there are some things that may help. First off, change up your sexual routine. Agree that for a period of time you're going to be sexual and intimate, but you aren't going to do the three activities you usually do (so if you usually engage in intercourse and oral sex, you stop those for a bit). And then try things you aren't doing. If you're not sure where to start, here's a list of sexual activities. Try not to focus on orgasm. Using a simple breathing technique during sex can really help ground you and change the way sex feels. If orgasm is the bigger concern, you can also agree that you'll start by having an orgasm, and then enjoying sex time together without orgasm pressure (this only works for people who don't fall asleep right after having an orgasm!). I can't (legally or in good conscious) recommend using drugs for sex, but if there are things that help you relax without also taking away your ability to make good decisions and read your body in ways that you'll need to to have an orgasm, you could try those too.
And if none of these work or seem relevant, you can always email me back! Good luck, and enjoy the homework.