When Self-Pleasure Habits Get In The Way of Partnered Sex

If I could give one piece of sex advice to everyone, it would be this: “Switch it up on a regular basis!”

The more ways you can develop for experiencing sexual pleasure, and the more pleasure you can generate, the more likely you are to reach orgasm, whether alone or with a partner. The more different routes you have to orgasm on your own, the more likely you will find a way to reach orgasm with a partner. And the more different routes you have to orgasm with a partner, the more likely you are to experience pleasure even when life throws a wrench into things and certain activities aren’t possible for one reason or another.

Most people who reliably reach orgasm have one primary way of doing so. It is perfectly understandable that people go with what works; why argue with success? Our cultural expectation seems to be that sex isn’t “real sex” unless there is an orgasm, and not only that, an orgasm that someone else “gave” us. So once we figure out how to “give our partner an orgasm”, we tend to stick with that strategy rather than continue to explore and risk not “getting it right”, “being a bad lover” or just missing the orgasm entirely some of the time.

Here’s the problem: the more you focus one just one way of reaching orgasm or experiencing pleasure, the more likely you are to get stuck in a rut. When you bring yourself to orgasm in a specific way, you’re strengthening a neural pathway in your brain. Every time you do the same thing, that pathway gets stronger. Unless you switch it up and cultivate other ways of reaching orgasm, it becomes harder and harder to do so in any other way.

There are lots of ways this might look:

  • I self-pleasure by rubbing myself against something, and I can’t get that same feeling and reach orgasm with a partner
  • I self-pleasure while watching porn, and find it hard to reach orgasm with a partner
  • I can’t reach orgasm without a particular fantasy, and that makes me uncomfortable; I’d rather be able to do it without that particular fantasy
  • I self-pleasure dry (or with a tight hand), and then when I have penis-in-vagina sex with my partner, the sensation just isn’t strong enough to get over the edge

All of these examples point to a particular pathway to orgasm, involving a combination of thoughts, images, novel stimuli, types of touch, amount of slipperiness, amount of pressure, broad versus specific stimulation, etc.

The key to shifting a habitual neural pathway to orgasm is to start to change it up. Let me be clear; this is not always easy, nor is it something most people can accomplish quickly. That’s why an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! If you already have multiple ways you can experience high levels of sexual pleasure, make sure to use all of them to get to orgasm, not just the easiest one.

And if you are in a rut, consider what is different between the way you most easily reach orgasm and the way you and your partner have sex. Think about all the components of the interaction. Then begin experimenting with shifting one or two things more toward a sensation or visual stimulation that partnered sex can match. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • If you watch porn, watch just one video all the way through rather than clicking between many. Get used to arousal ebbing and flowing, and returning, even when the “action” is a little slower and less novel
  • If you touch yourself without lube, try using lube. Partner sex is often slicker than solo sex, although not always. If the opposite is true, try using less lube.
  • If you rub against something, try placing your hand between the object and your body. Gradually shift how much of the sensation is coming from diffuse pressure versus your hand moving, or specific touch.
  • If you have a favorite fantasy, see if you can develop a second-runner-up fantasy. See if you can come up with one that has some things in common with sexy aspects of your partner, or the way you and your partner have sex.

The strategy is to, very gradually, use the new way more and more during any given sexual interaction. Most people like to start this experiment solo, but there is no reason you can’t do it with a partner too if you’re both comfortable with some experimentation.

Start getting turned on the “old” way. But once arousal is building, switch it up. If arousal begins to fall and it is hard to get it to build again, shift back to the tried-and-true, but when possible, shift back again to the new way. Most people starting this experiment need to use the old way to tip over into orgasm at first, but the goal is to become able to get over the orgasmic threshold with the “new way”, which ideally is in some way significantly more similar to partnered sex.

This is necessarily a gradual process, because it takes time to build a new neural pathway. And it generally feels frustrating; neurons have to literally find one another and connect in new ways.

Having a therapist who can support this process can be very helpful. It is important to strike a balance between building the new neural pathway, and experiencing sexual pleasure without too much frustration. You can’t rush this process. Finding ways to stay steady, find patience, make it fun, and keep clear on why you’re doing this in the first place will be crucial.

Whether you are thinking about this from the viewpoint of a therapist helping others, or a person wanting to increase your experience and ease with orgasm, ask yourself what neural pathway issues may be at play, and how you can start building diverse pathways towards more connected, satisfying, and flexible encounters.

Putting Clients At Ease With Sensitive Topics

A lot of my clients come to me specifically to work on sex-related issues. Nonetheless, I find that even those clients are often quite uncomfortable talking about their sex lives.

That’s perfectly understandable. Most people were taught not to talk about sex openly–not even with lovers, in some cases, let alone strangers or therapists. Because of this, lots of people don’t have comfortable or accurate language to discuss sex, and some don’t know enough about sex to be specific about what is going on when things go amiss.

At the same time, I am a much more effective helper when my clients are comfortable enough to share unreservedly.

I’ve developed a few strategies that help put my clients at ease when talking about sensitive topics, including but not limited to sex. Whether or not you frequently work with sex issues in your practice, these tips may come in handy with clients who struggle to discuss topics that are sensitive, emotionally charged, and/or somewhat taboo.

  • Remind clients that you’re comfortable. Often, a client’s discomfort comes from a fear of freaking you out or putting you off. I see this all the time, even when the thing they’re afraid of sharing is far from freaky! I can’t tell you how many clients have told me that they were too afraid of being judged by their previous therapists to bring up the topic of sex. That, to me, implies that you need to be proactive. Reassure your clients that you want to hear whatever they have to tell you, or else they are likely to assume otherwise. Personally, I like to tell my clients that I’ve pretty much heard it all, and that they’d have to work pretty hard to shock me. That might be more true for me than it is for you. But even if you think your client MIGHT tell you something that could shock you, get clear in your mind why it is important for you to create a safe space for honest disclosure, and don’t make a big fuss. Probably you will hear things that are very easy for you to hear, but in case you hear something that rocks you a little, control your facial expressions, stay calm and normalize (or at least remain neutral and don’t pathologize). Get some consultation or supervision if you need to (certainly before deciding there is a problem). If you can tell you’re way out of your depth, you can always refer the client to a certified sex therapist.
  • Focus on the process, not the content. This is one of the most useful strategies in my toolkit. Focussing on process–by which I mean how an interaction plays out, and how both participants feel about it, rather than what specific activity is involved–keeps clients from feeling pathologized, while also keeping therapists from getting overly unsettled by uncomfortable explicit information. It also means that often clients can share just as much as they’re comfortable with, telling you everything you need to know about a sexual interaction, without going into details that feel too personal.
  • Ask permission before asking a question about specifics. Although focussing on process rather than content means that I let clients determine how much they’re comfortable sharing, sometimes I need to know something really specific in order to understand an interaction or figure out what the problem is. In those instances, it helps to gain consent for the deeper conversation, and explain why I need the information. I might say something like, “Would it be ok with you if I ask you some very specific detailed questions about this? This is a situation where some specific information will help me figure out what is going on, and then I’ll be more likely to be able to help”. Once in a while, a client is quite reserved and says they don’t feel comfortable. I always let them know that is fine with me. We can continue in vague terms, and focus on process, and probably make some good progress. However, this doesn’t stop me from gently inviting deeper or more specific disclosures, never with any pressure. My comfort with the topic, combined with this absolute permission not to tell me anything they don’t want to reveal, often ends up making my client comfortable enough to open up.

Unscripting Sex For More Connection and Pleasure

You may have heard me use the term “scripted sex” or “linear model of sex” before. By “scripted” or “linear” I mean a concept of sex that follows a widely-accepted progression: first base, second base, third base, home.

You could add more bases, but, according to the model of scripted sex, if you are having a “good” sexual interaction, you’re moving forward from one base to another. What I mean when I say scripted sex is what most people think of as just “sex.” But in my opinion, the model of scripted sex creates a lot of mischief and bad feelings.

The scripted model of sex labels most sexual activities “foreplay,” and accepts only PIV (penis in vagina penetration) as “sex.” This means that a lot of people feel really bad or broken if they can’t have PIV or don’t want to have PIV–even though there are a whole lot of sexual activities, besides PIV, that generate pleasure and connection between partners and have the potential to lead to orgasm.

These words and ways of thinking about sex are very linear and very restrictive. They don’t leave any room for unique experiences, varying function, and perfectly normal differences between people.

What if all pleasurable sexual activities ranked the same? You could make a mutual decision in the moment about what activity you want to participate in. You could feel free to shift between activities according to what you each want or would find pleasurable in each unique moment. No meaning would be made about how things unfolded. “No PIV? Fine! What shall we do instead?”

This improvisational way of experiencing sex is more workable than the linear way in about a million ways. But it does still present some challenges. It requires some kind of verbal or non-verbal communication of desires and preferences in the moment. It also requires an ability to be flexible about expectations, and not make negative meaning about how things unfold.

For example, the scripted model creates problems when one partner wants to go from “third base” to “first base” (which is what I call downshifting). According to the scripted model, you’re supposed to go “forward”, not “backward,”–which means that people often experience a lot of negative emotions and meaning-making when their partners ask for a downshift.

“Did I do something wrong?” “Does my partner still find me attractive?” “Am I bad at (whatever activity you were just doing)?” “Am I taking too long?” These are just a few examples of very common fears that tend to rear their ugly heads when we have expectations about what sex “should” involve and how it “should” progress.

Does this ring true with your experience? Can you think of a moment when your partner asked for a downshift? What meaning did you make of it in the moment? Can you think of a moment when you asked for a downshift, and your partner made negative meaning out of the moment?

For many people, the possibility of a negative reaction to downshifting means that they hold back from expressing their preferences in the moment, for fear of hurting their partner’s feelings. But hiding your real feelings and desires during sex is a recipe for disconnection, and over time can result in diminished sexual desire overall.

A better solution is to recognize that downshifting isn’t going backwards; it is just a change of subject. If you embrace flexibility and subject changes as ways of exploring what feels best for you and your partner in the moment, rather than seeing it as a sign of failure, it can mean more connection and more pleasure, not less.