Big Guy and I had a lot to learn about my sexual response. Part of the problem was that neither of us understood female sexual response in general.
Even before our marriage began its long season of disconnection, I thought something was wrong with me sexually. Had I understood that my sexual response was perfectly normal, I could have prevented a lot of difficulties in our marriage.
Sex was supposed to unite us. Unfortunately, our lack of understanding of our sexuality became a barrier between us.
I thought my sexuality was supposed to look like what I had seen in my husband, in movies, and in magazines.
According to all these sources, sexual response looked like this:
- Desire precedes arousal. The thought of wanting to have sex is what makes your body ready. My husband, after all, could take just one look at me or have a passing memory flash into his mind, and his body was ready to go.
- Orgasm is easy. It happens via intercourse. It happens every time, too.
- Once sex has begun, you’re so intent on what’s happening that you wouldn’t know if the rest of the world fell away. The physical need for release is the sole focus of the mind.
Sexual response in me, however, looked quite different:
- Arousal preceded desire. Except for the fertile days during my cycle, I rarely wanted sex until I was already having it and was feeling aroused.
- Orgasm was difficult for me. Even when it happened, it took forever. Intercourse rarely did the trick.
- I was easily distracted—by kids, by traffic noises, by the presence of the dog, and by the to-do list in my head for the next day. Even if my body was physically aroused, if my mind wasn’t in the game, the desire was over for me.
My sexual response didn’t look like I thought it was supposed to.
I saw this as evidence of problems. I often wondered if I was broken, thought I was being punished for premarital sexual sin, and assumed that our relationship was in trouble.
Comparing my sexual response to my husband’s (and, I thought, to the rest of the world’s) left me feeling broken. It affected my view of myself, of sex, and of our marriage.
Sadly, my husband was making the same comparisons.
His sexual approaches often involved asking me if I wanted to have sex. I didn’t (because in me, desire happens after I’m aroused), so I would answer truthfully and say no. Or I would say yes, thinking maybe I could get into it, but he perceived that as little more than duty sex.
He was concerned that perhaps my lack of desire was because he wasn’t a good lover, thinking, If I gave her more orgasms or better ones, she would want sex more.
He thought that because I didn’t show desire like he did, either I had a problem or he wasn’t lovable.
Our lack of understanding of the fact that it is normal for my sexual response to look different from his led to so much heartache over the years.
Earlier this week, I ran across research that reminded me of how normal I was in my sexual response.
A 2003 study* of the diagnosis of female sexual dysfunction (published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology) drew conclusions that made perfect sense to me:
“It is apparent that fulfillment of sexual desire is an uncommon reason/incentive for sexual activity for many women and, in fact, sexual desire is frequently experienced only after sexual stimuli have elicited subjective sexual arousal. The latter is often poorly correlated with genital vasocongestion.”
In other words, here is what it found:
- The prospect of an orgasm is not typically what leads women to want to have sex.
- The desire for sex often comes only after the woman thinks she is experiencing arousal (in other words, only after her mind is in the game, not just her body).
- There is little connection between what is happening with her genitals and what her mind is experiencing regarding sexual arousal.
As for whether orgasm happens during intercourse? Most women don’t experience orgasm during intercourse. (This Psychology Today article has some things to say about that.)
All those things that I had seen as signs of brokenness, punishment, or relationship problems are quite common in many women.
It saddens me to realize how little I knew about what female sexual response might look like.
I often hear from women who are just as frustrated as I was with the fact that their sexuality doesn’t look like their husbands’. And, like my husband, many men feel deeply hurt by the fact that their wives don’t desire them in the way they think desire should look.
Many wives have said that their husbands pressure them to have an orgasm each time they have sex. Or they expect that orgasm should happen through intercourse. Or they think that orgasm itself should be enough reason for a woman to want sex.
I measured my sexuality against my husband’s and found myself wanting.
Admittedly, I did the same thing to him in reverse in some ways. I thought that because I didn’t want sex very often, the fact that my husband did want it so frequently was a sign that he was obsessed with sex.
I fully acknowledge that there is much individual variation and that not every marriage matches the generalizations. The problem comes when we have expectations of either our own sexual response or a spouse’s that are based on what we see in others—in ourselves, in popular culture, in friends and family.
My sexuality is not my husband’s. His sexuality is not mine.
We have come to realize that the many differences in our sexual response are part of the on-going adventure in our marriage bed.
For too long, though, we felt hurt and resentment because we simply didn’t understand that difference in our sexual response was normal.
Take a look at your own marriage. Do you or your husband have expectations of each other’s sexuality (or your own) that are based on a comparison rather than on what you have observed is normal for each of you?
Is your husband bothered by the fact that you don’t respond to the sight of his body the way his body responds to the sight of you? Does he think you need to have an orgasm in order to enjoy sex? Does he feel bad about himself when he can’t give you an orgasm through intercourse?
Do you think your husband is too focused on orgasms? Does it seem like he wants sex too much just because it’s more often than you want it?
Do you know what healthy, normal sexuality looks like for you? Or are you caught in the trap of thinking that you and your husband should have the same kind of sexual response?
Next time you notice a difference in how you and your husband think about sexuality or sexual response, stop to think that rather than being a sign of a problem, it just might be perfectly normal for both of you.
Let the differences be part of what you enjoy about the intimacy in your marriage rather than be a barrier between you.
Learn all you can about your sexuality and sexual response, and know that when you make love with your husband, you are loving him like the woman you are.
*Basson, R., Leiblum, S., Brotto, L., Derogatis, L., Fourcroy, J., Fugl-Meyer K., . . . Weijmar Schultz, W. (2003). Definitions of women’s sexual dysfunction reconsidered: advocating expansion and revision. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 24, 221-229.
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