"Hi there Dr. Chelsea. I have always felt pressure to have an orgasm whenever I have been intimate with partners and I feel bad whenever I don’t. I have an amazing partner now and I really want him to know that I enjoy sex but sometimes I just don't cum. It’s not because of him not pleasing me well or him pressuring me, it’s just I feel like I’m supposed to orgasm and sometimes I don’t and it makes me feel like something is wrong with me and makes me anxious. Is there something wrong with me??”
Thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing your great question! When helping my clients with sexual and relationship concerns, pressure and anxiety always rears its ugly head. One of the big pressures that many of us feel when it comes to sex is that we need to perform, such as maintaining an erection, for example, or to orgasm every time. It’s as if during sex we are held under a spotlight on stage and we, sweating and nervous, are expected to follow the sexual script with perfection. No wonder you, like many others, often feel pressure and anxiety!
What does this sexual performance and pressure look like when it comes to sex? You might have learned, like many of us, what sex is “supposed” to look like from movies, magazines, and the culture at large. This sexual script often consists of the steps: hug, kiss, clothes come off, maybe there’s genital touching, maybe oral sex, and then ultimately penetration and orgasm, all within an appropriate time frame and with all genitals is perfect working order. With this script, not only is there the pressure for sex to include penetration and orgasm, the assumption also is that sex should not last too long, not too short, but juuuuuust right for the big finale of orgasm.
And if you don’t adhere to this Goldie Locks script many of us have been taught? (hint, most of us don’t!). What if you don’t get an erection or maintain an erection every time, or don’t have an orgasm, ejaculate quickly, or don’t like penetration? You might find your internal dialogue says something similar to “there is something wrong with me” or “I failed”. This is what often happens when we have sex with this performance-based model in our minds - there is the consistent feeling you are doing it wrong no matter what you do. Is this sounding familiar?
What if I said that instead of feeling like you are walking on a sexual tightrope with immense pressure to stay in line and “do it right”, you could find relaxation in sex? You can find this relaxation by transitioning your mindset from performance-based sex to pleasure-based sex. Already sounds a lot less stressful with that word pressure gone and pleasure in its place doesn’t it? Not only does it sound less stressful it is less stressful because with sex focused on pleasure rather than performance, there is no failing and there is no “doing it wrong”. If there isn’t an erection, no problem! If an orgasm takes a long time or doesn’t happen, no problem! If you focus on the pleasure, you are doing it right no matter what you do.
Here are some helpful tips I have included to help you to embody this pleasure-based sex model and limit your anxiety around having orgasm every time, as well as other common pressures many of us feel with it comes to sex:
Remove the expectation that everything intimate has to occur, or lead up to, sex and penetration
Many of us are filled with the expectation that intimacy always has to lead to sex. This might cause you to withdraw from any intimate contact. Instead of sex being the goal of every intimate situation, focus on pleasure activities that can happen before, after, and importantly instead of intercourse. Rebecca Chalker puts it nicely in her book The Clitoral Truth, when she says non-intercourse can be “exquisitely intimate” and that “intercourse is only one way to experience the rich banquet of sexuality” (138). When you make intercourse only one piece of the pie rather than the whole thing, you can then enjoy other yummy slices such as self-pleasuring, mutual self-pleasuring, oral sex, massages, sensual showers, toys, watching or reading something sexy, etc. Try making your own yummy list of pleasure activities that you can enjoy in addition to or instead penetrative sex.
Remove the expectation that sex has to include or end in an orgasm
Sexual pleasure doesn’t always have to be about “achieving” orgasm. Instead, focus on the pleasure of the experience rather than pressuring yourself to orgasm. Pressure and anxiety that comes with it is THE antithesis to pleasure and as an extension, orgasm. Rather than putting all that focus on orgasm, relax into the pleasure of what you are feeling and if an orgasm happens, great; and if an orgasm doesn’t happen, that’s OK too. Orgasm is not the determining factor of “success” or the end-all-be-all in sex, but rather a potential part of your overall exquisite experience.
Remove the expectation of genital performance
To indulge in the “rich banquet of sexuality” as Rebecca Chalker mentioned, move your focus beyond the genitals and consider the entire body as one big erogenous playground for arousal. This takes the pressure off our genitals to perform because there is no longer the expectation that an erection, penetration, or orgasm has to occur. If an erection goes down mid-play, that’s ok! Have some fun experimenting with the five senses to find what sensations your body enjoys and that really build your arousal. Tantalize your ears with music or even some fun, dirty talk. Discover what kind of touch feels arousing such as firm, playful, or sensuous. Even try some delicious smelling candles or oils. Also depriving one of your senses by covering your eyes with a light blindfold while tantalizing your taste buds with delicious strawberries can bring an arousing buzz to your body. The possibilities are endless!
Remove time expectations
Dump the Golide Locks concept of sex, where everything is juuuuuuust right and the timing is perfect for an erection, penetration, and orgasm to happen. If you focus on the pleasure, the time becomes a moot point. Pleasure can be found in 5 minutes of kissing on the couch and in reading an erotic story together. That isn’t to say you can’t enjoy penetration or orgasm, but when you take the pressure off of performance and instead focus on the pleasure in whatever form it comes in and at whatever length of time you can have relaxing, pressure-free intimacy.
Best of luck and I hope for many more orgasms to come,
Chelsea Holland, DHS, MS is a sex therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor Candidate (Number: LPCC.0014082) and Registered Psychotherapist (License Number: NLC.0104923) in the state of Colorado. She holds a Doctorate in Human Sexuality and a Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling. She also has completed the Associate in Sex Education and Clinical Sexology Certificate Programs from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, California. Her training includes counseling skills, resolving sexual concerns, sex education, clinical sexology and erotology. She is also an active member of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) and the American Counseling Association (ACA).
Dr. Chelsea helps individuals, partners, and groups, regardless of their sexual orientation, sexual interests, ability, and age with concerns and questions regarding their sexuality and relationships. Her approach is solution-focused and skills-based, along with the use of intimacy and emotionally focused therapy (EFT) to guide her practice. In addition, she integrates a person-centered approach with the supplemental approaches of cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing. Her approach is open-minded, sex-positive, and nonjudgmental to help her clients explore, embrace and enhance their sexuality, and also address any problems that may be hindering their fullest sexual expression.
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