Viewing all posts on the topic of sex: relaxing into pleasure, both solo and with a partner.
I was recently asked how to go about dating and sex when PIV (penis in vagina) sex is often uncomfortable due to endometriosis. This question intrigued me because, although I don’t live with endometriosis myself, it speaks to the need for having authentic, vulnerable conversations about needs and desires with people you a) feel attracted to and b) likely don’t know very well. I had a hunch that any advice I could give would be relevant to many more folks than only those diagnosed with this specific condition.
I’ve spoken with people who do have endometriosis about which challenges come up most often, where the most anxiety is, and what their biggest fears are. And I’ve spoken with people who don’t have endometriosis (but who have sex with vagina-owners) about their expectations and needs if they were dating someone who did. If you were one of those people then thank you!
This guide combines this research with my own experiences and training as an intimacy coach, in helping people to connect more deeply with themselves and with others.
I’ll be answering:
- How early do I need to disclose my diagnosis?
- How do I talk about my diagnosis without saying too much?
- How do I have a conversation about my diagnosis without seeming uninterested?
- What if they get mad that I didn’t tell them sooner?
- How do I handle rejection?
How early do I need to disclose my endometriosis diagnosis?
The first thing to say is that this is a really personal choice, and you don’t owe anyone a disclosure. That said, from speaking with people who enjoy having sex with vagina-owners, the consensus seems to be that a good time to bring endometriosis up is when things start getting more explicitly sexual, whether over text on in person, and especially if you’re discussing desires or sexting.
There were also plenty of people who said they felt that PIV sex would never be expected, no matter what flavour of chatting had been happening beforehand. But if disclosing before you’re actually in bed together takes some of the pressure off for you, then it’s worth doing.
If the conversation isn’t going in that direction but you’d like it to, it’s up to you to start asking some questions. A good way to frame this could be to start asking about desires or fantasies, or sharing some things that you know you enjoy. These conversations are great to practice for all of us, but for folks who know that some activities are less pleasurable, it can be a really great way to take control of sharing your wants and needs.
How do I talk about my endometriosis without saying too much?
It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing when you’re first getting to know someone. You can mention that you have a chronic condition without needing to say what it is, or everything about how it affects your life.
If talking about your diagnosis comes up in relation to your everyday life (needing to change plans or otherwise manage your illness), it’s completely up to you how much you disclose. Discussing one aspect of how endometriosis shapes your life doesn’t mean that you have to start talking about sex if you’re not ready to – even if you’re asked about it. Being able to say, “I appreciate your curiosity, can I answer that later? It feels a little personal right now” can be really helpful.
It might also be interesting to open some self-enquiry into what ‘too much’ means to you. If you tend towards revealing all, what is your motivation for that? Is there some insecurity or anxiety that is calmed by telling the other person everything right away? This could be a good opportunity to explore your own boundaries and check in with yourself: are you wanting to disclose from a place of security and authenticity, or from a place of fear and uncertainty?
How do I have the conversation about endometriosis without seeming uninterested?
Sharing your diagnosis in relation to how it impacts the sex you have doesn’t have to be a big deal. The way we talk about things can have a huge impact on how they are received. So if you share your diagnosis with a focus on all the limitations and difficulties it may bring up, that’s what the other person will likely focus on too. If instead you’re able to share it with the perspective of all the other fun sexual activities you’d love to explore when PIV isn’t feeling right, then you’re framing the situation in a much more positive way.
So if things have started to feel flirty and sexual, and perhaps you’ve started talking about things you might like to try, it may be time to mention that PIV may be off the table for you – in a way that focuses on the positives.
This might sound like…
“Just so you know, I have endometriosis which means PIV isn’t always that pleasurable for me. I’m really curious to explore X though, and I really love the thought of trying Y with you.”
And if getting that explicit about sexual desires doesn’t feel quite right to you just yet, but things are still feeling flirty, it can be as simple as this:
“I’m really enjoying chatting with you! I have something I’d like to share that feels a little vulnerable if you’re ok with receiving? I have endometriosis which means PIV isn’t always that pleasurable for me, and it feels important to mention this in case it’s a deal-breaker for you if we do decide to meet up and explore together.”
Finally, if you’re already sexting and penetrative sex comes up and feels a bit weird for you, you can always take a pause for a moment and change the scene:
“Can I pause for a moment? Penetrative sex doesn’t always feel good for me so I’d love to try something different. How about you X while I Y?”
If you’re in the middle of sexting then you don’t need to go into detail right there and then. You can always request changing the focus of your discussion and coming back to the topic later to explain why.
Of course there will be people for whom this is a deal-breaker, for whom penetrative sex is a big part of how they want to express their sexuality. But filtering out these people is another benefit of having this conversation early – after all, if sex is important to you in relationships, then it’s also important to prioritise sexual compatibility.
What you might have noticed about all of this is the necessary first step of knowing what you do enjoy. Experiencing pain during penetrative sex may make it difficult to identify the things that do feel good, because we’re socialised to believe that the only ‘real’ sex is penis-in-vagina. So it’s really vital to get to know your own body, and what brings you pleasure, so that you can offer these as alternatives – and teach the folks you date how you do like to play, touch, and connect. If you find yourself often getting stuck in your head during sex, learning how to come back to your body can be really helpful here, too.
What if they get mad that I didn’t tell them sooner?
You can always go at your own pace. If anything about your diagnosis will impact someone you’re dating – needing more flexibility around timing and making plans, for example – this is something you do need to communicate so that they know what to expect. It’s still up to you whether you tell them the reason for this, though, and you don’t have to disclose until you feel safe to.
It makes sense to fear that someone will be mad if you don’t tell them straight away, especially if it means you’re not available for the kind of sex they want to have with you. But even if this happens, all they have done is shown you that they are not capable of being in any kind of relationship with you.
How do I handle rejection?
Being rejected on occasion is an inevitable part of dating for all of us, but if you live with endometriosis then it may be harder not to internalise a message of being dysfunctional and undesirable. Because PIV is seen as the ‘norm’ in heterosexual relationships, disclosing that you’re not available for that may bring out entitlement or feelings of having been betrayed in the other person.
The first thing to know is that you are never responsible for another person’s feelings, you don’t owe anyone sex, and you never have to tolerate being insulted or belittled for expressing your needs.
The second thing to know is that you can learn how to feel more secure and resourced so that rejection doesn’t feel like a big deal. This may begin with acknowledging that the ways you do want to express your sexuality will not be compatible with people who place a high priority on PIV. And that’s okay! Focusing on finding people who are up for getting creative in how you play and explore together is an important part of this process.
It may also be interesting to explore the attitudes you have towards your own body and your endometriosis: are you fully accepting of yourself, your limits and your gifts? Or are there parts of yourself that you reject?
Often, when we are fully accepting of ourselves, rejection feels less harsh. When we can give ourselves unconditional love and care, by speaking our needs and honouring our boundaries, then it matters less what others think of us. We can do the work of accepting ourselves on our own without relying on validation from others, so while rejection may still sting, it doesn’t completely shake your self-worth.
Do you ever feel as though you’re just going through the motions? Perhaps it’s hard to enjoy sex because you’re always stuck in your head, feeling disconnected from your body to the point where it doesn’t even feel like it belongs to you.
It can sometimes feel like a physical block, a complete dissociation from felt sensation, where you enjoy sex and intimacy on an emotional level but can’t connect to the physical enjoyment.
Maybe you struggle to maintain eye contact, feeling a lack of connection to the person you’re with, unable to really tune into what you’re both feeling.
Feeling challenged by staying in your body during sex is a challenge with staying in the present moment. For whatever reason, intimacy feels scary and vulnerable, and so instead of staying with the experience you leave your body, which is where we feel the present moment, and come into your mind instead – and the safety of thinking about the past or the future.
In this way we move from feeling connected to feeling protected. We sacrifice connection in order to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of real, in-the-moment intimacy.
Because of this, the process of learning to stay in your body during sex is a process of helping yourself to feel safe again. When we feel safe, we can be with our whole experience, without needing to escape into the mind.
Here are some tools you can use to do just that.
1. Slow down
Slow everything right down. Give yourself time, without pressure: instead of trying to make sex work last thing at night, or when you know you’ve got something else you need to do soon, make some space for exploring pleasure at a time of day when you’re feeling energised and relaxed.
It can also help to experiment with practices to help you stay in your body outside of the bedroom, so that when you do want to have sex you’re doing so from a place of feeling yourself a little more. This means that when sex is initiated, instead of trying to connect to your body and to pleasure in a short space of time, you might already be halfway there.
2. Release expectations
Feeling the pressure of expectations is a really fast way to create insecurity. Reframing sex as playfully exploring pleasure, instead of needing to reach an outcome, can help here. What happens if you take orgasms off the table as something to be achieved? What happens if you share an intention to follow pleasure, rather than ‘have sex?’ What happens if you experiment with different forms of physical intimacy instead – massage, playfighting, watching each other self-pleasure?
Opening up to different ways of exploring sexuality and pleasure is a great way to begin to find what feels good for you. It might be that your body needs lots of physical closeness with another person in order to really feel safe enough to have sexual contact with them – and that’s ok.
3. Notice your breath
Getting stuck in your head means you may be triggered into a stress response, which is what happens when we feel unsafe. When this happens our breathing usually changes too: perhaps your breath becomes shallow and fast, or constricted. You may notice that you hold your breath on either the inhale or the exhale. This can be a great indicator that you’re not fully present any more, and for some people lengthening and relaxing the breath can help to come back to presence.
(It’s worth mentioning that often orgasms are associated with tension and holding the breath, and this common type of orgasm is also known as a peak orgasm. There are alternatives to this where orgasm can be experienced with relaxation and deeper breathing, but that’s a post for another day.)
4. Pause when you need to
One of my favourite tools is to ask for a pause. This works best when you have the conversation before sex is initiated, and explain that you might like to ask for a pause to come back to your body, so that you can feel connected again. Instead of placing blame or responsibility on the other person, this allows you to ask for what you need. If and when you do need to pause, you can take that moment to ask if you’d like something different: maybe to be held, receive some massage, or to try a different activity. Maybe it’s simply some reassurance.
This means that in those moments when you notice you’re not feeling fully present, you can take a minute to feel into what your body needs to feel safe again.
5. Trust your responses
The responses you have – whether it’s to numb out, escape into your mind, or dissociate from your body – are there for a reason. Chances are that there’s some fear showing up, even if it’s well hidden. Trying to push through or ignore the disconnection doesn’t help – it only serves to reinforce the experience of sex feeling disconnected.
Reframing the responses of numbing out and disconnecting as a protective behaviour is helpful here. What is that protection telling you? What does that protection want you to do, or say, or ask for?
6. Connect with the present moment
There are some simple, practical things you can use to reconnect to the present moment, too, some of which may be helpful if you have taken a moment to pause. I detail some of these in my free PDF of tools for feeling more secure in relationship.
One of my favourites is to consciously notice the textures you can feel with your hands: what are you touching right now? What can you feel? Texture, temperature, density? Taking in as many details as you can with curiosity is a great way to gently ground yourself back in the moment.
You can do this with all of your senses, too, not only touch. What can you notice in the room around you? What sounds can you hear? Are there any tastes or smells?
7. Ask for help
Finally, it’s most helpful if you can speak with your partner about your desire to feel more connected to your body during sex. Knowing that they’re on side can make those moments when you need to pause easier, and they may be able to help in offering things that can help you feel more safe.
If you’re not in the kind of relationship where you’re able to do this right now, and instead enjoying encounters with less emotional involvement, it can be as simple as letting them know your needs when things begin to escalate:
“Hey, just so you know, I might need to ask for a pause. If I do, it’s because I want to make sure I’m staying present with you, rather than getting lost in my head. Does that feel ok with you?”
Intimacy is often closely associated with sex – to the extent that the words are sometimes interchangeable. But sex and intimacy don’t quite mean the same thing, and one is not a requirement in enjoying the other.
Sex is an easy default when trying to create connection and intimacy. Enjoying sex with a new person is no bad thing, but it can be unhelpful if we’re using it as a way to cover up a need for intimacy which we are unwilling to address.
Why do we rely so easily on sex when we want to feel close to someone new? Do we find it so difficult to connect in other ways, to show our vulnerable selves without assuming sex is what we need to feel close to someone? Are our difficulties in connecting so hidden from us in our shadow that we don’t know how else to find intimacy?
It can be interesting to look into what our real needs are, and question whether we might be covering them up by defaulting to sex as our default way to generate a connection. Perhaps slowing down and feeling more feels good, or sharing play, touch, humour, and wisdom.
Then we have more options open to us: instead of trying to find intimacy through sex, we can create satisfying intimacy first and then use sex as a way to express and deepen that intimacy.
Sex is often such a shame-filled place, whether we realise it or not, that the easiest expression can be the least authentic one. When we feel a need to compete with others, try to imitate media or porn, or simply hide what we really want, our sexuality is not yet our own.
At best this can leave us frustrated and unfulfilled; at worst, not being in touch with our real desires can leave us vulnerable to having our boundaries broken or compromised.
Questioning some of our patterns of behaviour can be a good place to start. Are these things we’re doing because they are really things we enjoy, that really satisfy us, or because we’re following someone else’s script? In those moments, what’s keeping us from expressing ourselves more authentically?
We don’t need to give away our power by taking anything outside of ourselves as any kind of standard or ideal. In meeting ourselves with compassion and honesty, we can begin to learn that our pleasure and happiness must ultimately come from ourselves, and our sexuality can be our own.
Whether you’re into floggers and rope or vanilla as it gets, there’s a lot to be learned about communication, boundaries, and consent from those in the BDSM community. Although these may not be the first things many people think about when asked what makes for the most memorable encounters, they can make sex so much better if we get good at them.
So why is that?
One thing I’ve learned during my own explorations is that relaxation is everything when it comes to pleasure. And in order to relax, we need to feel safe.
If there’s one thing experienced BDSM enthusiasts know about, it’s safety. Knowing how to ensure everyone is as safe as possible is absolutely vital when experimenting with bondage, intense sensation, and other activities which could cause real physical (and emotional) harm.
Here are a handful of ways those in the BDSM scene ensure safety – and therefore also relaxation, and ultimately pleasure.
Talk About What You Want
Responsible BDSM players will only engage with others who are able to clearly speak their wants, needs, boundaries, and limits before they begin a scene. When people’s physical and emotional safety is at hand, it’s vital to be able to know that your partner knows their limits and has communicated them clearly with you.
Even when you’re not tying each other up or playing with extreme sensation, being able to voice your needs is so valuable. It can feel vulnerable and tough to admit to what you want, especially with those whose opinion matters most. But being able to do this can only make sex better; it’s unfair to assume that our lovers can read our minds and know what we want, or what our limits are.
Being able to be vulnerable and intimate in this way, and showing all of our desires, encourages our lovers to open up to us, too. This is how intimacy begins: by allowing all of ourselves to be seen by those we trust, our desires as well as our limits.
Talk About What you Need
Alongside being able to discuss your wants, you can also think about what you need to feel safe, to be able to relax and enjoy. If you’re negotiating a BDSM scene you might be asked by your partner about what aftercare you may need once it’s over. Do you need contact, cuddles, a particular food or drink? What about a check-in the next day?
This doesn’t only have to apply to experiences that include extreme sensation and power play. Perhaps we would like to request a text from the person the following day, or lots of cuddling afterwards. Maybe you need them to spend the night afterwards.
Being able to identify what you need, and ask for it, helps to remove anxieties over whether our needs will be met. And discussing these in advance also helps to filter out people who cannot meet our needs.
Establish Safe Words
It can be so easy to ‘tolerate’ touch; to allow our lovers to do what they’re doing without correcting them or asking for something different, out of fear of rejection, abandonment, or shame over our true desires.
Sometimes in the moment it’s far too much to specifically ask for something else. Being in this place of noticing you’re not enjoying what’s happening but feeling frozen or stuck and unable to ask for something else can be unpleasant and triggering.
In these moments it can be helpful to have a safe word. Many people who indulge in BDSM use a traffic light system, with red meaning stop and orange meaning a check-in is needed, and that can be helpful here. Or, to make it a little more gentle, I like to adopt the word ‘pause’ (thanks to Rachael Maddox for that one). I explain to my lovers that when I say pause, it means just that: we pause what we’re doing, we cuddle, we give me some space to feel in to what’s not working and figure out what I’d like instead. This might be a massage or a cup of tea.
Safe words are so helpful because they allow us to interrupt whatever pattern is currently playing out. Instead of getting caught up in the stories of what may happen if we ask to stop or ask for something different, we can use a different word to communicate that something needs to change, even if we’re not quite sure what yet.
Sex Can Mean Different Things
In the vanilla, hetero-normative world of sex, the definition of what ‘counts’ is often fairly limited. And if those few activities don’t work for you then it’s easy to feel like the sex you have isn’t valid or good enough.
We can learn from the creativity of the BDSM community. As a well-used saying goes, “Your kink isn’t my kink (but your kink is ok).” People come up with all kinds of ways to enjoy each other’s bodies and minds outside of the conventional narratives, and in doing so liberate themselves and their partners to enjoy sex on their own terms.
If the sex you’re having isn’t working for you, maybe it’s time to question whether you’re only engaging in particular activities because you feel it’s what sex ‘should’ look like. You get to decide what works for you (and it doesn’t have to involve kink).
Learn New Skills
If you want to be able to tie someone up Japanese rope bondage style, and do it safely, then you’re going to have to ask someone to teach you. Likewise, there are countless workshops teaching all kinds of skills in playing with extreme sensation and power dynamics. Within BDSM there are always new ways to learn new skills if that’s what you’re into.
Why should vanilla sex be any different? What skills could help us to make sex better with our lovers? And how could this attitude of wanting to learn help us?
Firstly, a keenness to learn about our partners’ bodies is a great place to start – without going with a fixed script or approaching the exercise with judgement. There are all sorts of other communities too who teach techniques you can use to help develop intimacy with yourself and the other, and relax into feeling more pleasure. Explorations into Taoist methods and neo-tantra can help us to feel more into our sexual energy, for example, and bring us more in tune with both ours and our partner’s needs.
Ultimately, all of these practices we can learn from the BDSM community are in place to keep everyone involved safe. And when we’re feeling safe, we feel more able to relax and open more of ourselves, which is key to deepening intimacy and more fulfilling sex.