There was a time in my life when I was too afraid to ask for what I wanted while I was having sex. I was an award-worthy performance actress capable of moans, groans, grunts, and even staccato breathing. I’d learned how to pull off a convincing act by what I’d seen on the tv; women fake orgasms and sexual ecstasy on big screens all the time, but no book or film had ever shown me what it looked like when women guided their partners in pleasing them. So for the first decade of having partnered sex, I went along with putting in effort at mimicking sexual arousal with a partners, rather than developing skills to guide us toward mutual pleasure. They never knew why we weren’t connecting very much. Even though I was fun, I was experienced, I was sexy, but I wasn’t fulfilled. It wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t mine. After struggling through a long pregnancy and a difficult labor, I began healing myself with a different outlook: I had been wasting my time. I had been wasting my partner’s time. I wanted to learn how to advocate for my honest desires.
It can be difficult to feel sexually healthy after having a baby, or at any point in life. It can be scary and feel unsexy to ask something like, “Can you go more slowly please?” when all you’ve seen demonstrated is faster, harder, more. But here’s how you can reframe your ability to find pleasure, postpartum or any time.
Firstly, understand why you might be afraid to be yourself in the bedroom. Sexual shame impacts a lot of Americans and often stems from conservative religious upbringing, trauma regarding our sexuality or bodies, or bad messaging through media. Combine these factors with a general lack of inclusive sex education, and the result is a variety of obstacles that prevent us from seeking out information about our desires, about being honest with our partners, and with ourselves. Decades of studies have shown that people who receive negative messaging about sex from their parents, peers or society are less likely to report sexual satisfaction, feel comfortable with their desires, and less likely communicate their desires with their partners. Sex therapist Grace Ballard adds, “There’s so much shame in asking for what we desire. And this is especially true for people in bodies that don’t fit our culture’s templates of sexy. Stretch marks, bellies and sagging can feel like evidence that we don’t deserve pleasure.” Family therapy intern Halle Thomas adds, “Sometimes partners fake orgasms to protect or please their partners, and other times they do it to protect themselves. Given that many of us receive messages about how sex 'should' look, many people feel the pressure to maintain that picture-perfect image of sex.”
But your postpartum body has been through some changes, and will continue to change over time. It is silly to expect that things will be "the same” after pregnancy, and this is opportunity to capitalize on these changes.
If you were unhappy with your husband’s jackrabbit humping before, now is the perfect opportunity to say, “Can you slow down honey? Ahhh that feels better” without worrying as much about hurting his feelings.
“I never knew how to tell my husband that he thrusts too fast, too often, but the first time we had penis-in-vagina sex after delivery, I told him that I was still a bit sore, and he moved more slowly than ever before. I had my first actual orgasm because of this” says, Gina*, 31. Thomas says, “I’ve worked with many people who didn’t know that it was even an option to ask for something different when it comes to sex... some are taught that they have to accept sex as it is, or that they have to engage in sex in the way their partner wants to out of obligation or duty. If people haven’t been exposed to a model where they can ask, they may be fearful that they’ll cause discord if they do, and decide to fake orgasms and pleasure instead.”
If you were unhappy with your husband’s jackrabbit humping before, now is the perfect opportunity to say, “Can you slow down honey? Ahhh that feels better” without worrying as much about hurting his feelings. Your partner doesn’t need to know that you were faking it, because you’re about to learn new skills for asking for what you want.
Good sex and good parenting both rely on open communication without expectation. Think I’m joking? Using language mindfully will help direct your partner AND your baby toward the behaviors you’d like to see, because neither your partner nor your child is a mind reader. “Can you cup your hand over my vulva?” is specific request for your partner, just like “Can you put your crayons in the box?” is a specific request for your child. Neither of these things will likely happen if you don’t ask for them. As a sex educator, one of the most common questions I get is “how do I please my partner?” even though every partner is different, and you might not even know what you want because you too are mimicking what you’ve seen in performance like tv and porn. But don’t be mad at him for not finding your clitoris if you weren’t willing to give him guidance: it’s time to start talking toward sexual satisfaction.
Learn the proper names for genitals, and start using those terms. Your entire family will benefit from shame-free language: clitoris, vulva, vagina, nipples, areolae, frenulum, penis, scrotum, testicles — these are real parts of the body that like to be touched, and have multiple functions in everyday life. Practice saying them in the mirror until you feel comfortable because you don’t want to indicate shamefulness about these things in front of your child. Many of these words will come up when you begin teaching them to care for their hygiene and bodily functions, which happens years before any sex-education talks. You don’t have to use proper terms during sex, but I recommend it. For example, “I’d like my outer labia pressed on” is very specific, and helps communicate more than “Can you touch my p*ssy?”
Turn all of the lights off, really. Good sex often doesn’t look like porn that is performed and edited and filmed with expensive cameras and specified lighting: if you’re worried about how you look, you’re not going to be focused on how you feel. Sensory sight deprivation can greatly increase your skin’s ability to feel touches, your mouth to notice tastes, and your ears to hear the noises of your bodies moving together, your nose to detect their scent. “I don’t have to worry about my belly rolls that bother me, or my face turning pink or my neck bunching up when I play in the dark” says Tristan*, 27. I always left them on because I heard that men are visual creatures, but I always worry about my appearance. If I’m more comfortable, we will both have a better time.” Thomas adds, “We spend so much time worrying about how sex should look and feel for ourselves that we forget the other person/people might be feeling something similar. Unless you’re both voyeurs, indulge in some total-darkness contact.
Create ritual around your routine: “Often people reach a time in their relationship when they feel like the fire’s gone out, because they're not excited by their person like they used to be. This can be exaggerated when kids hit the scene, because they’re also fulfilling a very different role — one that doesn’t feel sexy," explains Ballard. "So getting in to the mood may require new habits of intentionally setting aside sensual time, and then preparing for it by transitioning out of the parent role and getting back in touch with the erotic body. Put aside adulting tasks and turn toward erotica, a warm bath, a favorite toy, sharing fantasies."
I recommend taking an hour to play with your partner, with no goal in mind. It doesn’t matter if he orgasms, it doesn’t matter if you do. Just play and see what happens.
Read erotica! Studies show that women who read erotica report less anxiety about sex, more pleasurable sex, and more frequent sex. Reading about fantasy sex will stimulate your brain into thinking more creatively, spontaneously and with less shame. If you like writing that is consensual, kinky, vanilla, queer or hetero, I recommend Cleis Press. Or start a sexuality journal — keep notes of what you want or things that feel sexy.
I was married 29 years, and hadn’t orgasmed many of those.
Give yourself permission to experience your changing body. Pregnancy and birth may have changed a lot about your body: your organs, skin, hair, body have changed in size, shape, appearance, or function! Some things that you liked before might seem torturous now: I didn’t let my daughter’s father touch my sore breastfeeding nipples for the entire 16 months that she breastfed, and then some. Nipples that are sore from nursing aren’t likely to feel the same during partner or solo play as they did prior to breastfeeding. If you leak while you orgasm today, you might not tomorrow. And please do not compare yourself to the hot moms on Instagram; we all have our struggles and just because Photoshop removes stretch marks doesn’t mean nobody has them.
Stop the sex-shaming. If it’s consensual and between two adults, don’t shame it. Despite all of our hyucks about anything other than hetero-penis-in-vagina-sex, foot fetishes are common, pegging is something lots of cis-men enjoy, and BDSM has been a life-changing tool for many people’s sexual self esteem. Don’t laugh or snark at other people’s proclivities if they are consensual; you never know whose shame you are reinforcing when you snicker. And it is quite likely that you or your partner have made fun of something that either of you actually have curiosity about.
Ask yourself: Do you feel safe with your partner? Or are you still processing past fears? It takes two to tango (safely) and sometimes you need a better dance partner. If you were previous shamed, coerced, or disregarded by a loved one, it can be even more challenging to feel supported and safe.
Thomas adds, “Trauma histories also play a role; sometimes people don’t ask for what they want because they have memories of past partners who were either abusive, or who didn’t attend to their needs. Without that memory of someone listening to their needs and taking action to meet those needs, it can be difficult to push past the discomfort to ask for what they want.”
There are resources for how to talk about sex. I recommend Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink, and Relationships by sex coach Stella Harris, and if you’re specifically having trouble finding your orgasm, check out Come As You Are by Dr. Emily Nagoski. People who aren’t suited to monogamy or are curious about poly-dating should look into More Than Two by Ricket, Gill & Hardy. Follow licensed, sex-positive professionals on Twitter like Dr. Eric Sprankle and Kait Scalisi and grow your network of information. And if you’d like to deconstruct shame in your ever day life, listen to my podcast!
Even if you're beyond the postpartum phase, past your thirties, or past your seventies, if you want to build a sex life that you can love, it’s never too late, and sometimes your current partner is actually holding you back.
Rose* is a 54-year-old divorcee and told me, “I was married 29 years, and hadn’t orgasmed many of those. My body was on auto and my brain was checked out, partly because of how he treated me outside the bedroom. It wasn’t a good relationship. After my divorce, I met a wonderful man. I have accepted my body as it is. It is not perfect by any means, but I keep my mind engaged. I feel touch and tell him what I want. We look into each other’s eyes. I have the attitude that my body helps him enjoy me and that I can be pleased. I do not hold back from telling him what I want in bed and what I need. He does the same. At first, after so long not enjoying it, I was worried that I could not ever enjoy sex again. I was very wrong. The fire is still there, but I had to make changes to find it again. It is possible, and it is worth making those changes. And it is better than it ever has been.”
You can grow your sexual self whenever you feel ready, at any time.