[Content note: purity culture]
Dear Captain Awkward,
I am married. My husband is a very lovely, supportive man, very devoted and considerate, and a great father to our small child. We’ve been together nearly a decade, and married for most of that time. We are a good partnership. He was the first person I ever slept with – the first person who liked me that way that I wasn’t either freaked out or repulsed by. Before him, I was a total wreck every time I liked-liked someone and, thanks to my religious upbringing and eating disorder, severely neurotic about the importance of sex and being naked and all that crap. After him, I’m a lot more relaxed about it, thankfully, and I’m not sorry he was my first (though I am sorry he was my ONLY), because he made it really easy.
But our sex life is…problematic.
I have very little in the way of pants or OMG!CRUSH feelings for him any more. I’m not sure I ever did, really. I liked him enough to want to try it, and not so much that I was freaked out by it, and I enjoyed his company and being in a relationship, and I came to love him very much. I still do, even if I don’t particularly feel “in love” with him. But I also don’t particularly want to fuck him. Or rather, I can’t really be bothered to do the work of doing it the way we normally do it, because I’m tired and it’s not going to do much for me.
He was my first sexual partner, so I hadn’t ever had a chance to explore what I liked sexually except in the confines of my own head (more on that in a minute) or what it was like to have sex with someone I was burning with lust for. He, on the other hand, explored A LOT, so he came into the relationship knowing pretty well what he liked and what he didn’t, and what he likes is pretty vanilla. Admittedly, I haven’t been totally forthcoming on the things that might work for me, though when I’ve tentatively put out feelers for a bit more kink, he’s not really been keen. So I got shy and backed off, and we always default back to the same thing. I’m still really inhibited about talking about sex. And I hate to admit it, but I’ve faked orgasms for the whole of our relationship. I know, this is a bad, bad thing, but he was trying so hard, and at the beginning, it was all new and I just didn’t want to say “this is not going to happen” every single time. Or, you know, ever. So it’s become kind of self-perpetuating.
Additionally, my fantasy life has been fucked up in the extreme since I was an early teen. It was one of those “masturbation is bad, thinking about sex is bad, ergo the worse the fantasy is, the sexier it is”. I don’t put any moral judgement on the content of fantasies, so I don’t feel GUILTY about it, but I’ve found a lot of it incredibly disturbing when considered when not horny. I don’t actually want to play out any of my actual fantasies with him, because they’re more extreme than I think I would actually enjoy in real life. But I don’t get turned on with the stuff that we do, I don’t get turned on by him (though at least I’m not turned OFF by him), and I don’t know how to get that way.
And…I don’t want to spend the rest of my life never having pants feelings and never, ever really having great sex. But I don’t know what we would actually have to do that would result in mindblowing sex for ME, that could be a happy medium between what he’s comfortable with (and he’s NOT really comfortable with kink) and what actually turns me on, and I don’t know how to communicate that to him after all this time without completely destroying his trust and hurting his feelings. I don’t know how to talk frankly and comfortably about what turns me on without getting embarrassed because I’m freaky or how to deal with his reactions if he DOES think I’m freaky and doesn’t want to try anything else.
Captain Awkward, I really want to have pants feelings for him. I want to want to have awesome sex with him. I want to HAVE awesome sex with him. I want to stay married to him, I just want the sex part to be better. How do I move this forward so that I’m sexually satisfied without destroying our relationship as it stands?
Liar Liar Pants Sadly Not On Fire
Hi Pants! This is Corporal Dianna here. The Captain asked me to write a response to this question in her stead, as I write frequently about this area. I’m going to answer this as I would if it came through my email, as I do get these kind of questions from time to time.
This is…a big question. But you’re not alone, so take heart. You are not somehow freakish or weird for discovering that your husband and you have some incompatibility after the wedding, especially if you were raised in a culture that forbid exploration until then, and you’re certainly not alone in questioning it and wanting to be satisfied.
You mention a religious upbringing, and some negative sexual messages during your formative teenage years, but don’t say what your religious beliefs are now, so forgive me if I make an assumption that’s incorrect. What you were raised in sounds like sex-negative evangelical purity culture – no sex before marriage (especially for women), and then promises of mindblowing sex after (which often results in a lot of disappointment). Additionally, purity culture has the trappings of no masturbation or sexual exploration by yourself, which forces many people into sexual repression.
Through my research of interviewing women like yourself, I’ve discovered a trend – one which atheist blogger Libby Anne documents here – in which women who experienced purity culture growing up develop extreme kinks or “disturbing (to them)” nonconsensual fantasies that scare them a little when they consider them outside of the fantasy world. I want to assure you, first and foremost, that this is surprisingly normal for someone raised in purity culture, and there are all sorts of longwinded reasons as to why.
Purity culture isn’t one that lends itself well to women speaking openly about their sexual kinks, fantasies or even basic desires, and you’re probably remembering some ingrained parts of that when you try to speak about it with your husband. That’s okay. That happens. I decided to throw off the shackles of purity culture years ago, and I still have latent embarrassment about a lot of those related things (the other day, I spent twenty minutes waffling over whether to mention menstrual cups in a conversation on Twitter. Menstrual cups!). But, using your words is pretty much the only way to solve this particular dilemma.
You can’t predict or control how someone else will feel about information you give them or discussions you bring up. Since this is not a workable situation for you, it is important that you say what you need to say. It is better, in the long run, to work with your husband to get to a point where you can both be sexually satisfied and figure out ways to increase compatibility, than it is to protect his feelings and fake orgasms for the rest of your life. Honesty, as they say, is the best policy.
So how do you communicate this? First, determine what needs to be communicated. There’s a lot of stuff in this letter that needs to be discussed, and it’s all wrapped up and intertwined. But I’ve teased it out into four main points that might help you boil things down:
- Dissatisfaction with the current way your sex life operates, which leads you not having pantsfeelings for him.
- A fantasy life that gets you off but scares you a little at the same time, making you embarrassed and afraid to suggest new things – leading back to #1.
- A history with your husband which suggests that he may not be comfortable with the things that you think might turn you on, leading you to back off, and returning you back to #1.
- A personal history/religious upbringing that further complicates what you see as “normal” in the sexual world, making you scared of your own predilections, which makes you embarrassed to talk about them, which leads us straight back up to #1.
See how all these different levels ultimately result in dissatisfaction, and there are various reasons for it? So there isn’t going to be one simple solution or script that will magically solve all these issues.
If you have the resources, seeing a couples’ sex therapist (one who is not religious in nature) may be useful for the both of you. This places the conversation in a safe, guided environment that will allow you to become more comfortable with the discussion and for your husband to understand your side of things better.
If that’s too much right now, or isn’t financially feasible (therapy is expensive), try to start with a conversation, away from and outside a hot and heavy situation. There’s no easy, set script for a situation like this, but doing it in a way that doesn’t spring it on him mid-coitus is probably a good strategy. In the interest of guidance, here are some do’s and don’t’s:
- Don’t make it about how he “doesn’t satisfy you.” He needs to not see this as you blaming him for dysfunction, because you’re not doing that.
- Do: Be clear you love him, want to stay with him, and want to work on this to make an already good marriage better by bringing the sex up to a standard that matches the partnership you feel you have in other areas of life.
- Don’t feelingsdump. You hinted toward this in your letter that you try little bits here and there without success, so I think you’ll avoid this, but just as a reminder – don’t dump everything out all at once because that might be overwhelming and read like you’re asking him to solve all your sexual issues in a night.
- Do be honest and approach this as a problem that can be broken down into chunks and worked on, together. Start small. Ask if you can do a little something different – nothing big, nothing too out of the ordinary for him, just different – and ask if he would be willing to try and see if that works. As always, mutual consent is paramount, so if he decides halfway through that it doesn’t work, make sure that’s a decision he feels safe making.
- Don’t frame it as something where he needs to become comfortable with all your kinks or you’ll leave him. That’s coercive and makes for some very unhappy sexytimes.
- Do frame it as an exploration, a journey you guys are taking together to make this work for the both of you. Since you, yourself, say that you’re not sure what actually works for you or not (just that you know you want something more than what you’ve been doing), framing it as an exploration of your sexuality as it functions together. This is his sex life too and you are two separate people who are developing this together.
Now, you have understandable fear that he’s going to be disappointed/sad/angry/upset that you’ve been faking all this time. And it is okay for him to feel those things, and the initial reaction may need some time for him to get over, depending on what reaction he has. But you also shouldn’t beat yourself up about it – what you did then was what worked for you, and now it’s not working anymore and you want to change things in order to make your relationship better. Apologize, affirm that his feelings are valid, and make it clear that you are being honest so that you can move forward in this as a couple. This sort of discussion is going to happen over several conversations, not just one.
This is, at heart, a communication issue that has a lot of emotional/religious baggage attached to it. Evangelical purity culture makes discussing sex openly and honestly –especially talking about compatibility issues – hard. But remember that you are not alone in having these issues, and this is something that you two can work on, together, to work toward the awesome sex life purity culture probably promised you.
I’ve just scratched the surface, but a helpful book for further reading might be What You Really Really Want, by Jaclyn Friedman. It’s an exploration of how to figure out your own sexual proclivities and explorations aside from what various different cultural influences are saying. As the great prophets say, know thyself.
Dianna Anderson is an author and blogger from South Dakota. Her first book – DAMAGED GOODS – is an exploration of feminist theology and sex-negative American evangelical purity culture. It is due out from JerichoBooks in early 2015. She blogs at diannaeanderson.net and tweets @diannaeanderson.