You Need Help: How Do I Ask My Girlfriend To Freshen Up Before Sex Without Killing Our Sex Life?

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Q:

My girlfriend and I have only been together for about a month. She doesn’t have a high sex drive because of sexual trauma. When she does want to she’s not very vocal at all…and I just want to do what she would like or is comfortable with. We’ve talked about being more vocal and she’s opened up more and asked for more head. I’m happy to oblige but…since it takes her awhile to feel comfortable she usually asks at the very end of the day and she’s not very…fresh. I like sweat and salt…but it’s definitely more than that. We’ve talked about it, and her response is that my nose is probably too sensitive. Now when the opportunity comes up she says she’s too nervous to ask because I’ve brought up freshness. She hasn’t attempted to rectify it all. We’ve talked about what would make her happier and more comfortable in the bedroom and she would like ass play. That’s embarrassingly outside my comfort zone but especially since she’s often on the opposite spectrum of fresh.

What should I do? Should I mention it again? Our sex life is already hanging together by a thread and I hate that she’s not getting what she wants? With each passing day my confidence is dwindling as well…

A:

I feel like there are a few things at play here, so I’ll go in order.

First of all, my heart goes out to your girlfriend. There’s this commonly held belief that sex should be easy (and sometimes you get lucky, and it is!), but for those of us with sexual trauma, sex is unfortunately a lot more complicated. For us, it’s not just about desire and libido, though they do play a significant role. But there’s also safety and prior hurt and all sorts of body-memory things that people without trauma have the privilege of not considering when they have sex. Your girlfriend is putting a lot of trust in you, and that trust should be honored and celebrated.

It’s great that you’re respecting her boundaries by saying you only want to do what she’s comfortable with and what she’s into. But I hope you know these boundaries go both ways. If you’re not interested in a sexual act, you definitely do not have to do it. Remember this, because we’re coming back to it.

Okay, now. The pelvic region, just like any other damp, sweaty party of the body, will get a little funky by the end of the day. Think about your armpits, your underboob if you have breasts, or any other part of your body that’s usually hidden and gets sweaty. It’s just… normal. It sounds like your girlfriend doesn’t think there’s anything wrong (I’m assuming this is the case if she’s suggesting your nose sensitivity is the issue), so I’m not sure what you want her to “rectify.” It’s hard to expect someone to solve a problem they don’t see as a problem in the first place.

I am wondering about a few things, though. Does she smell different than she used to? If yes, then it might not be your nose. If she has a vagina, her vaginal microbiome (kind of like the gut microbiome) may have changed, or she could have a yeast infection, though I think that usually comes with other symptoms. There’s always the possibility you’re smelling something off, something indicative of a larger concern. But if this is how she’s always smelled, then it could just be that this is her smell. In either case, though, her body is her body and she, alone, knows her body best. You’ve raised the issue once, and she’s clearly aware, so much so that she’s nervous asking about sex because of it, so I don’t think you should bring it up again.

But like I said, sexual boundaries go both ways. If the smell is something that makes you not want to engage in a particular sexual act with her, you don’t have to do it! There are so many ways to have sex, and the two of you can create a list of sexual acts that feel good for both of you, that allow you to uphold your individual boundaries in the bedroom. Honestly, making this list together might be fun for y’all and get you thinking about new, creative ways to approach this.

That said, I’m curious about the comment that your sex life is hanging on by a thread a month into the relationship. Did you have a vibrant sex life in the beginning and is it slowly disintegrating? Or was it always like this, and are you hoping to build a stronger sex life where there currently isn’t one? If sex is important to you, then it might be worth considering if the sex you’re having — and the sex you anticipate having — is fulfilling your needs. Maybe there’s a way that you both can get what you want.

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ashni

Ashni is a writer, comedian, and farmer's market enthusiast. When they're not writing, they can be found soaking up the sun, trying to make a container garden happen, or reading queer YA.

ashni has written 45 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. bud have you tried messing around in the shower? and/or why doesn’t she just.. take a shower first?? also, if a shower maybe feels to her like too much pressure because of how directly it is about setting the scene for sex, at least stock your bathroom with wet wipes if you don’t have them already.

    i found this response confusing because–though i think the letter was too euphemistic for its own good and there’s some ambiguity about the nature of the problem–i read this as a hygiene question, and it’s just totally possible and not even uncommon for someone to be unaware of their own body odors, especially the scents and flavors you get when your face is right up in it vs. several feet away from the playing field. ‘everything’s fine you’re too sensitive’ is frankly a weird response? and the unwillingness to even attempt to freshen up to care for -your- sexual experience is really offputting. if health and hygiene are on point and this really is a natural scent issue, then okay, but that doesn’t seem to me like what’s happening here.

    lw, a month in i would be paying serious attention to what’s not working. i’m not saying ‘end it immediately’ but i do want to say that it is not shallow to break up because the sex you’re having with someone is unsatisfying or infrequent or, red alert, leaving you feeling bad. it is possible to hold someone’s trauma with care and have empathy for how it might be shaping their responses while also acknowledging that -regardless of the ‘why’ behind it- you are incompatible sex partners. you can care for someone else but you can’t let that make your own needs and desires irrelevant. good luck.

    • Agree with all of these kind and also very reasonable suggestions from hihello, which seemed more helpful and grounded in the LW’s questions than what the official response offered. I’d encourage the LW to re-read hihello’s final paragraph especially. and good luck!

    • thank you! I was also really put off by the impracticality of the response – some people are more sensitive to smells, some people do just get smellier (or may struggle with hygiene), and it’s not being mean to acknowledge that! the response is so avoidant and focused on emotional strategies instead of practical ones.

      shower sex is a great idea, so are wet wipes. I’m autistic and struggle to shower sometimes, but when a full shower is too overwhelming, washing a few key areas (“bits and pits”) with a washcloth over a sink can make a big difference and is much less overwhelming. even wiping without soap can help! you could also consider a bidet – there are some that are fairly cheap and easy to install that have a “feminine wash” option, or ones that have a short hose you can move around. (bonus: this is also fantastic if you’re menstruating.)

      not being open to small adaptations to make your partner more comfortable (while also expecting them to take on 100% of the discomfort) is shitty, even if it’s due to trauma. if someone isn’t able to make small changes like this, perhaps they aren’t ready to date at the moment – which is also totally ok and valid!

      but dismissing the problem as being”just LW’s nose” isn’t ok. LW isn’t bringing up the problem as “this is a problem with you as a person and is objectively wrong”, but as “this is an issue for ME specifically, can we do something about it?” it may well be LW’s particular sense of smell that is unusual here instead of a hygiene problem, but I don’t think that framing is helpful. the focus should be on a collaborative solution that they figure out together so it can work for both of them. but that requires both of them to be open to making small adaptations instead of dismissing each other’s needs.

      also, I’m sorry, but if you’re interested in ass play you sort of need to be able to have a conversation about hygiene.

  2. This might be an issue of her freshness at the end of a day, but it also could be that your chemistries just don’t agree. Things can smell weird to one person and not bother another. If a shower at the end of the day doesn’t address the smell (and is this something a shower would eliminate? does she smell like this in the AM?), maybe you two aren’t compatible in this way. And then you and she can decide what you want to do about it, together or separately.

    • Agree – a month into my current relationship I was convinced her morning breath and farts smelled amazing because of how sexually obsessed with her I was. That’s calmed down now after five years, but I would be suspicious of the quality of the chemistry if you don’t feel even a bit like that a month in

  3. 1. Maybe a hot take, and maybe harsh, but to be frank, if you’re having to write to a “relationship help” type of thing *one month* into a relationship….i dunno man. I’d venture to guess it’s not likely to work out. Obviously I may be missing context (lifelong friends turned gfs? Etc), but if it’s *that* new of a relationship and you’re seeking the advice of an internet stranger…I’d probably start looking at the realistic viability of the relationship.

    2. I’m pretty concerned that the author giving advice just wrote off the OP’s (very valid) concern about the scent.When the advice-giver says “I’m not sure what you want her to ‘rectify’”, it comes off very flippant. It’s okay for people to ask their partners to freshen up for sex. It’s a healthy boundary, if that’s something that’s important to a person. From the OP’s letter, it seems as if their partner is unwilling to even try that. If that’s the case, the partner sucks. Yes, we all know- as everyone on this site loves to bend over and state- the vagina has natural odors. Cool. But if OP is implying that, at the end of the day, those ‘odors’ aren’t so great, to the point where they are reluctant to perform sexual acts…would it be too much to ask the partner to freshen up? Pretty f***ing absurd that OP is being made to feel bad about a standard [boundary] of not wanting it to reek during sex 🤷🏼‍♀️ Of all the other sexual preferences/boundaries, this seems like a low bar that OP is setting.

    • Just jumping in that it’s not unreasonable to ask someone to freshen up or take a shower before sex. One of my first consistent sex partners brought this up to me. While I was pretty embarrassed, I ultimately realized I was missing a hygiene step.

  4. Hmmmm I agree with other comments that this is disappointing advice in one respect – a desire for freshening up before sex is entirely reasonable. Not all of us are Napoleon! As long as the desire is expressed politely and as non-judgementally as possible, it’s fine. Naturally such a message would still be hard to receive but good delivery makes a world of difference. Unless there’s a trauma-related reason for the GF not freshening up, following what sounds like an acceptable request, I’m fully onboard with the OP. I respectfully suggest you disregard this aspect of the advice.

  5. I have some OCD- related sensory issues, including aversion/ reactions to some strong smells, and I’ve found that dental dams are really helpful for me in this situation! there’s still some smell, but to not have compounding smell and taste is a game changer for me.

  6. it might be worthwhile for the partner to see a doctor — sometimes a bad smell is the only symptom of BV and it can be going on for a while without a diagnosis. (someone wrote in to formspring a million years ago with this same question, and i threw out this same suggestion, and they followed up after to say yes indeed, it turned out their girlfriend did have BV!) however i am not a doctor. but i am a super-smeller so things smelling good is v important to me

  7. In your position I would work the freshening up into the foreplay – have a pot of warm water and use a cloth to rinse the legs and cracks and nether region in general
    It can be nice and sensual, and help you feel like everything is clean

  8. In addition to the wise, comprehensive AutoStraddle answer, and the many good reader comments, I want to also let you know that if this issue (well, multiple issues at play in one scenario) leads you to end the relationship, that it’s ok. You’re *allowed* to have any reasons, even superficial, subjective, or selfish reasons, to end a relationship that is not working for you. There’s no judge and jury measuring the validity of your feelings. I used to compromise, forgive, and shrink my needs until the point of a joyless existence that it turned out nobody wanted, so I’ve been taking a different approach lately and am much happier. So I just wanted to make sure you know you have permission, and that you don’t need to suffer in silence if that’s what it feels like. Sometimes just being aware of your available choices can make things feel more light.

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