Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a monthly sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Every month, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, will help you parse through your most heart-rending, complicated, morally ambiguous, or just plain confusing issues related to sex, dating, relationships, breakups, and everything in between. Submit your questions anytime via the form here or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This month, Moraya helps a reader untangle some complicated emotions that arose after she and her new partner experienced a miscommunication in bed, right before they were about to go long-distance. Have you ever had a long-distance relationship? If so, what was the biggest pain point, and how did you navigate it? Tell us your experience here to be featured in an upcoming Refinery29 story.
I’m in a fairly new, but serious, relationship with a hilarious, charming force of a woman. We’ve been dating monogamously for three months, and it didn’t take long after we met for me to feel comfortable, safe, and at ease with her. We see each other about four times a week. We once spent an entire weekend in bed, watching movies and engaging in the most passionate kisses. Our feet barely touched the floor for 48 straight hours.
The problem is, she’s moving across the country soon, and we keep having issues around sex and intimacy. Early on, there was a lot of miscommunication — we had to pause in the middle of hooking up because something inappropriate was said. I also have a history of sexual trauma. Another layer: I’ve been out for a few years and have only dated a few women, but she’s been out for almost a decade and has been in serious relationships with women.
At one point, my partner told me she wanted to try anal sex. In the moment, I was nervous, because it’s such a vulnerable position and our relationship was still new. After some time and thought, I decided I was open to exploring it, and told her so. But the few times I attempted to initiate it, she stopped it and said she felt I wasn’t truly into it.
Now I’m worried we won’t be able to try it until I see her again after the move, which won’t be for months. And more generally, I’m not sure how I can show her I’m comfortable doing something different. I don’t understand why she would tell me about it and then never let us try it together when it’s clearly something she enjoys. I feel secure in the relationship, but feel very immature sexually compared to her and feel like that is causing a block between us. But how do I experiment with something new to become more experienced without my partner? I’m also horribly sad to see her go and parsing through those feelings. What should I do?
Bummed and Anxious
Bummed and Anxious
I feel my screen buzzing with anxiety reading your question, and I understand: One minute, you're having fun with your new girlfriend, then bam — a block happens, and that disruption is jarring to the system.
There are a few things going on here: concerns about your sex life, concerns about the new distance, and concerns about your own experience.
Let me first validate that overwhelming craving to get all aspects of intimacy and sex on lock before you and your partner won't see each other in person for a long period of time. The good news is, our mind is a powerful sex organ. That means many of the same tools you will use to have a passionate sex life will support you in navigating a long-distance relationship. Both come down to clear communication, a little fantasy, and the willingness to be vulnerable. Blocks to connection come up in all relationships — it’s really how you reconnect and repair after disconnection that moves relationships to a more secure place.
Sex, specifically, is one of those topics that tends to draw out internalized shame, which thrives in secret, tucked-away corners of our minds. The more you can let it out, the smaller it becomes. But remember, moving through sexual shame is not done by saying “yes” to every opportunity to get more experience. It’s about voicing your fears, feeling heard, and being accepted by someone you trust.
Let’s open the back door (of your mind, of course) and talk about what I suspect is really going on: that the shame you feel about being more sexually inexperienced than your partner might be the real block you’re struggling to overcome here. In your question, you mention feeling nervous when your partner first suggested anal, and I wonder if some of this anxiety was coming from the proposal, rather than your thoughts around that specific sex act. It sounds like your partner's first time doing anal was with someone else. It may have highlighted for you the differences in your sexual histories thus far, and the complex emotions you have around that.
Is it nice to feel you’re on an even playing field with your partner sexually? Sure. But, B&A, having even drastically different experiences isn’t a deal-breaker. It comes down to how you navigate these differences. It can be appropriate to address the gap, especially if it has to do with age or if you come from different cultural backgrounds. Maybe one of you grew up in a more LGBTQIA-affirming and sex-positive environment, for instance. Sharing your coming-out stories probably happened early on in your relationship, which means you’ve likely gotten little glimpses into each other's family history already. If it feels safe go deeper, consider asking each other questions including, “Did you grow up with queer family members and friends?” “Were you given a ‘sex talk’ growing up, and what was it like?” “Where did you learn about sex?” Talking through these questions can help bring to light any shame one or both of you could be holding, and you can work through that together — while being sensitive to each other’s truths.
But, of course, some of your worries may have been about the thought of trying something new for the first time. While you ultimately decided you did want to try anal sex with your partner, it’s possible that her reluctance to move forward was a sign that she was picking up on some lingering anxiety on your end, B&A. I poke a little because this happens: Our partners are doing something healthy, but it contradicts the outcome we have envisioned.
With that in mind, I challenge you to reflect a little more about why you said you were open to this new sexual experience. Was it because you were genuinely excited about it, or because saying “yes” could make you feel wanted? Do you have any tendency towards people-pleasing or perfectionism? There’s nothing wrong with feeling more secure after sexual intimacy. Many of us do. But you want to be honest about your motivations when consenting to something new.
That said, it isn’t always so easy to know whether we want to try something for us, or if we’re doing it solely to please a partner, which can be ultimately damaging to a relationship. This patriarchal society we live in redirects so much focus away from female pleasure, to the point that we often feel guilty for even thinking about it. Even in same-sex relationships (when the male gaze is not in the room), gender roles, gender expression, and messaging that women aren’t allowed to try things simply for their own pleasure are still ever-present. If you have been socialized as a woman, you may find yourself prioritizing others' comfort first. If you are conditioned to always check in with everyone else before attending to your own needs when you're having sex, you can so easily miss subtle moments of pleasure or fly right by emotional or physical pain. We often don’t know how to identify what our bodies are feeling because we are not fully in our bodies. This takes practice.
To suss this out, now or with future sexual experimentations, I would start by asking myself questions like: “Does this act truly excite me?” “Am I curious what it will feel like for me?”
If your internal reflection confirms you are interested in anal, I recommend starting with solo play. Exploring your body on your own at first can be tender and nurturing, and is especially important if you have a trauma history. Move the goal away from achieving an orgasm to being curious about how things feel. Start slow, breathe, take your time, and remember: lube is your friend. The tissue in and around the anus is sensitive, so be gentle with it.
After you do some personal exploring and have discovered your likes and dislikes, you can decide if this is something fun you’d like to share with your girlfriend — the next time you see her in person, or over the phone.
It also sounds like there are more conversations to be had with your partner to get back on the same page about what happened, and how you will handle similar situations going forward. Consider discussing with her: Does she trust that if you don't want to do something, you will feel safe to directly say no? Would anything “bad” happen — including feeling disconnected or rejected — if you did say no? Perhaps your partner feels insecure about their sexual desires, so after they introduce something new, they began to pull away out of fear of feeling some rejection themselves, especially if they read your initial hesitation as judgment. Even if you ultimately decide anal intercourse is not something you want to try, these conversations can help you in the future, when you’re discussing other new experiences. A healthy sexual relationship is about feeling safe with your partner or partners so you can be curious and play together.
During a long-distance relationship, what draws people close is creating a safe little bubble of vulnerability and intimacy. You don’t need to be in the same zip code to do this. Having these open-hearted discussions and sharing new fantasies with your partner is a good way to grow closer, despite physical distance.
As you move into an LDR while repairing this sexual block with your partner, always come back to the three Cs: communication, connection, and curiosity. These are essential to continuing to craft a healthy relationship, where you both feel safe to be vulnerable and trust that the other person is listening to you. If you have that, you have quite a lot. That’s something we all crave — to be heard and understood.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specializes in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.