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I’m a 24-year-old lesbian in one of the most stressful situations: graduate school with my girlfriend. We met at the beginning of our master’s programs and are about to finish our first year and the stress of school, work, life, family and life has taken a toll on our relationship and on us as individuals. This isn’t surprising. Our romantic relationship has held up relatively well — I think we communicate pretty well with each other and are very loving and supportive, even though we have our fair share of arguments. That’s good and it makes me feel very hopeful for the summer (whoo!) and the coming year (boo).
What is stressing me out is that our sex life has died. I know this is for a variety of reasons — my mental health issues, my partner’s mental health issue, her sexual assault history coming up recently, arguments, stress, etc. — but we’re reaching a point where it’s been gone for so long (basically nothing for two months, on the decline for the last five or so) that I’m wondering if or how we can ever get to a good place in our sex life together. It seems like we are unable to be intimate with each other and I have no idea how to start rebuilding our intimacy from scratch. It’s really damaging our relationship and it makes me feel like my girlfriend isn’t physically or sexually attracted to me even though she insists she is. I really do not know what to do.
It’s interesting that you’ve named yourself “Clueless,” because you sound anything but. You sound incredibly self-aware, and I want to commend you for being able to hold so many things at once – where you’re coming from, where your girlfriend is coming from, how past traumas are weighing on this situation, and how your current environment is contributing to you and your girlfriend not being able to connect.
Stress is probably one of the biggest obstacles to desire and pleasure out there. In Come As You Are, sex researcher and educator Emily Nagoski says: “Stress is about survival. And while sex serves a lot of purposes, personal survival is not one of them […] So for most people, stress slams on the brakes, bottoming out sexual interest […] To reduce the impact of stress on your sexual pleasure and interest, to have more joyful, pleasurable sex, manage your stress.” Nagoski acknowledges that this is easier said than done — but lucky for you, one of the main causes of the stress that is getting in the way of you getting down is about to be out of the picture for a few months once school is over.
Mental health issues, too, can take many forms, and most of those forms similarly impede sex, desire and pleasure. (And, if your partner’s history of sexual assault is getting in the way of her life, and she has the means to see a therapist, that can be the best way for her to address it.)
Our cultural tendency to devalue pleasure is an added impediment, and is one that is so pervasive it often feels unconscious. Capitalist society dominates everything we learn about sex, sexuality, romance and relationships, from before we even consciously engage with them. You and your girlfriend are both working hard in demanding programs. Of course you want to devote yourself to your goals, and everything in society tells you that you have to work work work (work work) to be productive, worthwhile members of society. Under capitalism, pleasure, if it is thought of at all, is like dessert after dinner. But pleasure of all types is part of dinner itself — central to our existence as human beings, and as social creatures that frequently get into all sorts of messy, squishy, wonderful relationships with each other.
Be gentle with yourself and your girlfriend as you try to prioritize pleasure and revive your sex life. You’re both bringing a lot to the bedroom, and since it’s intimacy you’re after, rather than — or in addition to — instant sexual gratification, rebuilding that sense familiarity with each other should be what you focus on, at first.
Since both of you are coming off of a busy, anxiety-inducing semester, think about what you want to do with all your newfound free time. Think beach dates, picnics in the park; dates where you get to reconnect with each other on multiple levels. Actually make plans to woo each other again. Commit to it. Sext, especially on days when you have to spend a lot of time away from each other. Let her know that even when she’s not around, you’re still crazy about her. Allowing yourself to be giddy over your girlfriend again is incredibly intimate in and of itself. There will be vulnerability. You might feel shy. You might also feel exhilarated when you let her see just how much you want her.
Get intentional about creating these kinds of experiences. This intentionality can feel counter-intuitive to common thinking about sex as something that’s spontaneous, but try to let go of that judgment, and do some reframing. Instead of thinking about how your sex life is dead, for example, think about how it could be reborn. Spend nights out dancing up on her until you’re both sweaty and eager to get home with each other. Support your local strip club and make it rain on beautiful, hardworking ladies in lingerie; then take your girlfriend home and perform a strip tease just for her. Or do the things you know she likes best — break out your favorite toys, and have a night that’s all about her, or all about you, or both. Take turns spoiling each other.
Before anything else, though, share your fears with your partner, exactly the way you’ve written them here. It might be vulnerable — “I’m wondering if or how we can ever get to a good place in our sex life together” is packed full of doubt and trepidation, and it can be so lonely to feel like you’re the only one in the relationship feeling that way. It’ll take guts to open up that conversation, because after a long sex drought, you may feel like strangers to each other. But remember that it’s normal for sex to ebb and flow in long term relationships, and as long as you’re both willing to reach out to each other when the ebbs start to make you unhappy, rekindling your sex life shouldn’t be too far out of reach. It does sound like you may have to make the first step. But there is so much love and tenderness in your letter, and it is so clear that you care deeply for each other, that I don’t doubt that she’ll meet you there.