This week's question:
"I'm realizing that I experience little to no pleasure from sex, penetration specifically. I didn't start having sex until my mid-twenties, and am also on antidepressants. But I've found that in a meaningful relationship, or a casual one, when I have sex I feel nothing. Almost empty. I'm aware that I've built up some walls around the issue. I get stressed and nervous about it. It was a huge issue in my one real relationship, because I never wanted to have sex, as I didn't really enjoy it. Thanks, M"
Dear M, thank you for writing in to Humptown with your question. It sounds like there may be a few different things going on here. We'll tackle them one at a time.
Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is whether you'd like to be having sex. All of the experts I reached out to on this topic addressed the possibility of asexuality. Heather Woodford, who teaches social work and sexuality at Sacramento State University, phrased it in the most colorful way. Heather says, "Do you WANT to enjoy sex? Or would you rather go make a casserole and play water polo?"
If the effects of both depression and antidepressants are at play it might be difficult to tease apart what you're feeling and answer that question right now. But it's important to know that not being interested in sex, or having a very different definition of sex or intimacy than is represented in the mainstream, is totally valid. If you'd like to explore the possibility of asexuality and see if that identity resonates with you, you can check out the Portland Aces group.
Talking to your doctor is another important step, because a good doctor that you feel comfortable talking to about sex can help you figure out if there's something going on physically, or if these feelings could be a side effect of medications.
JoEllen Notte, a local expert on sex and depression says, "It's important to look at the role antidepressants may (or may not) be playing in all this. Many antidepressants can impact what is typically referred to as our 'sex drive.' [Also,] read Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. Nagoski does a lot to challenge the traditional notion of sex as a 'drive' and to help readers understand why we may or may not be feeling into sex and what we can do to help ourselves out."
Then it's tackle what you mean by "sex." You mention penetration not being pleasurable for you. You're not alone in that. "Whether you're talking about vaginal or anal penetration, it takes a fair amount of warm up for penetration to feel good, and for some people it's simply never a lot of fun," Notte says.
Notte suggests that you try exploring alone, without the pressure of another person there. "See if you can find things that are arousing to you. From erotica to porn to fantasizing, are there things that do it for you? When it comes to physical sensations try exploring on your own before adding another person to the mix. Masturbation is a great way to figure out what works for your body. If touching yourself feels difficult or uncomfortable try getting toys that can help facilitate the experience."
Even if these explorations aren't fruitful for you, don't despair.
"Working with a sex positive and trauma-informed therapist might be more useful to M than any sex toy or stimulating gel out there on the market," says Gretchen Leigh, a sex educator and strength coach with a background in DV/SA advocacy.
Gretchen's point is an important one, and it addresses the comment about feeling empty. While that could simply be a part of the depression or a symptom of general disinterest in sex, it could also suggest something more serious. "It suggests a mental and emotional separation of oneself from what the physical body is doing – a common, efficient, and effective brain trick for survivors of sexual, medical, psychological, and physical trauma."
Does this all seem overwhelming? Let's sum up a bit — there are lots of reasons someone might not be interested in having sex, or might not find sex pleasurable. If sex is something you want to explore for your own sake, rather than societal pressure or desire to please a partner, there are a series of steps you can take. Work with doctors and therapists to tease apart physical issues, medication induced issues, and potential psychological issues, so that you can pinpoint what you're dealing with.
If sex play is something you decide to continue exploring, start with a broader definition of sex. Keep penetration off the table for a while and find other things that feel good. Start by exploring your own body, and if there's a partner in the mix take a step back and discover other ways to experience intimacy and pleasure, maybe sticking with snuggling or massage until you can answer some of these questions for yourself.
Most of all, M, know that what you're going through is very relatable. My practice is full of people who have struggled with the mental and physical aspects of sex and sexuality. And like Emily Nagoski's book emphasizes: no one is broken. Please be gentle with yourself and continue to reach out for help and support as needed.
Have you got a burning question of your own? We're listening! Email firstname.lastname@example.org and keep your eye out for an answer in an upcoming column!