When I decided to become a professional sexuality educator, I had one particular goal: I wanted women to speak honestly about sex in order to maximize their physical and emotional pleasure. Sure, that may seem like a tall order, but I'm an optimist. Why is this an important issue? There are lots of women engaging in sex (of all kinds) but not having pleasurable experiences. That seems silly to me. If you're having sex (of any kind), it should be fulfilling on a number of levels. So here is just a small sample of the physical and emotional issues that can affect your ability to enjoy sex and in many cases, you can do something about it. But the first step is figuring out what is going on.
1. You're Just Not Ready
In order to really enjoy sex, your body needs to be ready. Not just mentally or emotionally ready, but physically, biologically ready.
Before a woman can experience orgasm, her body goes through a sexual response cycle (Masters and Johnson). During that cycle, a woman gets aroused, blood pools in her genitals and breasts, there is increased muscle tension, vaginal lubrication and expansion of the vagina. And that's not all: the labia spread and her breasts and clitoris swell. As the cycle continues, women develop a "sex flush" (a reddish blush over the breasts and genital area) and the labia spread even further ... basically the labia are saying "I'm ready!" Now, that's great, but most of us have intercourse before we get to that point. And you know what your body is saying then? "Wait -- a little more foreplay, please! Soon ... just not yet." But if we are not voicing that to our partners, we're not maximizing our sexual pleasure. Foreplay isn't just something that we like; foreplay is something that we need. If a woman isn't lubricated enough (and not all women produce enough vaginal lubrication; this is why we buy some at the drug store or specialty sex boutique), sex isn't going to be as enjoyable as it could be if we were really ready.
2. You're Guilty
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Other than our skin, our brains are our biggest sex organ. If our brain isn't into sex, it's extraordinary difficult for our bodies to be. Perhaps the biggest contributor to our brain's inability to fully engage and enjoy sex comes from years of mixed and unhealthy messaging about female sexuality. If during your childhood you were told about the "loose" girls or the (ugh, I hate this term) "promiscuous" ones, you were getting some insidious messages about female sexuality. You were being told (deliberately or inadvertently) about the sexual double standard. You were not supposed to want sex; you weren't supposed to enjoy sex. (Sadly, with the "slut" banter and anti-contraception movement going on today, it still seems like demonizing female sexuality is acceptable and a means of achieving political success.)
Guilt and shame surrounding sex creates a mindset where it's very difficult to be fully engaged in sex (of any kind). Perhaps if we stopped shaming we could get to a place of enjoying.
3. You're Not Into Your Partner
Okay, so no one really wants to be the one to say it, but if you're not enjoying sex, it may be because you're not really interested in the person you're having sex with. Maybe they are selfish lovers; maybe their hygiene is questionable. For whatever reason, if your partner isn't getting you excited, sex isn't going to be all that exciting. Of course, there's always the chance that your lack of interest isn't that extreme. Maybe you've had a fight with your partner and you're angry. In some cases, no amount of make up sex is going to make it okay. Think about your relationship and if it is playing a role in whether or not sex is satisfying for you.
4. You Have Negative Body Image
It's easy to get overwhelmed with negative body image when the majority of images of women are photoshopped and airbrushed (and those are the size twos!). But in all seriousness, if you aren't comfortable in your own skin it affects your ability to enjoy sex. If our self-esteem is low, we're less likely to speak up for ourselves in (and out of) the bedroom. We can't expect a partner to make us feel worthy if we don't see it in ourselves first.
5. You're Stressed
Stress can wreak havoc on our libidos, but having an orgasm is a great way of relieving stress. Quite an interesting dilemma! Any type of anxiety about work, family, home, finances (and the list goes on), can sabotage our desire to have sex and psyche us out of having an orgasm (and that's the cure, remember?). Finding ways to de-stress can positively affect the quality of your sexual experiences.
6. You Have an Underlying or Ongoing Medical Condition
Sometimes our inability to enjoy sex is out of our control, meaning, there are other medical conditions at play. Here are just some of the factors that may be contributing to lack of sexual pleasure.
Hormones: As we move through different stages in life our body chemistry changes, too. Estrogen and testosterone fluctuate during pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause and when we are on hormonal contraception. The ebb and flow of hormones can greatly effect our ability to become lubricated and enjoy sex.
Blood flow challenges: Sluggish blood flow (especially blood flow to the pelvis/genitals) can impact your libido. What would do that? High blood pressure, cigarette smoking and diabetes, just to name a few.
Side Effects from Medications: Lots of prescription drugs (antidepressants, anti-seizure meds) have sexual side effects. It is important to ask your doctor if these are associated with your particular prescription and if so, is there something else that you can try.
Chronic issues: Some women have ongoing conditions, i.e. vulvodynia (chronic pain/burning/itching around the vulva and entrance to the vagina that has no identifiable cause and may not have any visible symptoms) and vaginismus (a condition where the vagina involuntarily tightens or closes, making intercourse painful and sometimes impossible). If you feel like you experience either of these conditions, it is important to get medical intervention.
If you find that you fall into any of these categories, you're certainly not alone. But the real question is: What are you going to do about it? Can you deal with your own issues or any relationship hurdles that arise? Will you see your medical provider if you think that your lack of pleasure or desire has a hormonal or physical cause? I would hope so, because if you want good, enjoyable sex, you're going to have to go after it.
Follow Dr. Logan Levkoff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LoganLevkoff