You Need Help: My Partner Says I’m Awkward in Bed

Q:

Hi there,

I recently left a very long term relationship after it fizzled due to some family deaths and a non-existent sex life for years. I have endometriosis so sex wasn’t easy for parts of that, but once I had surgery to fix it, my partner still refused to have sex with me, only accepting sex herself. She has since told me that it was my mental health also and my breakdowns that made me “not sexy.”

Entered a new relationship. All going well, crazy chemistry; though found her batting my hand away or pulling me back up above the blankets for cuddles. I did end up in pain from my endo after sex (turns out it was a Mirena side effect that hasn’t existed since it’s been removed). She has since told me that she faked all early orgasms, that I’m not allowed to use oral until I can “master the basics” of finishing a girl with my fingers, and that I’m too awkward in bed so we stopped having sex entirely.

I feel so dejected. This is the third relationship where a partner has simply stopped having sex with me and stopped communicating about it. I’ve tried to have conversations and tried to open the dialogue but she believes talking about sex is awkward, if I need it spelled out to me or to be taught then I shouldn’t be having it, and to suck it up.

Part of me thinks this is unreasonable, but part of me also thinks that I should just stay with it and compromise. The relationship is good in every other way, and since this is the third time I’ve ended up in this situation, I’m clearly the problem and just don’t think I’ll find anyone else.


A:

If you take just one thing away from what I’m about to say to you, let it be this: You are not the problem. It may sound a little corny, but I even encourage you to maybe say those words out loud to yourself right now, okay? I am not the problem.

I am so sorry for the things your partners past and present have put you through. It breaks my heart that you’ve written this letter in a way that mostly absolves them from the harm they’ve inflicted, but I also completely understand that tendency. Sometimes protecting others is a way of protecting ourselves. But I can tell you with absolute clarity and certainty that the “problems” you’ve experienced when it comes to sex are not the result of your chronic pain. It’s because you’ve been with people who did not respect you or your boundaries and who exhibited very controlling behavior.

Now, from what I can understand, you’re still with your current partner who told you retroactively that she faked all early orgasms with you and that you’re “too awkward in bed.” I really, really encourage you to look at this relationship and decide if it is good for you. From an outside perspective, I can tell you that it’s a very concerning dynamic.The fact that she explicitly told you that you cannot do oral sex until you “master the basics” of “finishing a girl with [your] fingers” is not right for a whole slew of reasons. It implies a (heteronormative, transphobic, and ableist) hierarchy of sexual acts that is not real. It also sounds like she’s intentionally diminishing your self-esteem, bulldozing your desires, and stripping you of sexual agency.

Maybe you’ve convinced yourself that you deserve the way she’s treating you. You do not. Just because you’ve ended up in a relationship like this three times now does not inherently mean you are the problem. You! Are! Not! The! Problem! Sometimes when we see patterns in our relationship histories, we start to write specific narratives, often blaming ourselves for the things that repeatedly go wrong. But life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the narrative we tell ourselves is wrong. That can be really hard to work against, but I hope I can help by giving you permission to see things differently. If you have access/are interested in therapy, I also think it could help a lot here.

Please listen to the part of you that thinks your partner is being unreasonable. You say that you’ve tried to have conversations with her but that she shoots these down by saying it’s awkward to talk about sex. Of course it’s awkward to talk about sex, but the solution is NOT to just not talk about it! It is absolutely unfair—and wildly incorrect—for her to say that if you need to be taught things about sex that you shouldn’t be having it. Does she think people are born knowing exactly how to perfectly pleasure every single sexual partner they have? Sex with everyone is different, and it is never wrong to ask a partner what they need or want, to express what YOU need or want, to learn about a person sexually as a relationship unfolds. Everyone deserves to have the sex they want to have. And sex without communication can create so many problems—some that have a lasting impact on mental health.

On that note, your ex telling you that your mental health and your breakdowns made you “not sexy” is also incredibly harmful behavior that likely (and understandably) has impacted the way you see yourself and sex in this new relationship. Stuff like that sticks. But your mental health and your endo pain do NOT disqualify you from being sexy or from being able to have sex. Check out A. Andrews’ A Quick and Easy Guide to Sex & Disability for communication tips about navigating sex and chronic pain.

Your subject line for your letter includes the phrase “bad in bed.” Being bad at sex is a fear a lot of people have, but it often has less to do with actual sexual skills and more to do with internalized feelings that are rooted in things we’ve been told by others. If you ask me, the only people who are “bad in bed” are the ones who refuse to communicate, say messed up things about other people’s bodies, and use sex to control or manipulate others. By that definition, it’s your ex and current partner who are “bad in bed.” Say it with me now: You are not the problem.

I know that you say your current relationship is “good in every other way,” and this is another tendency a lot of people have: putting sex in its own box when it comes to relationships. If everything is good but the sex and you’re someone who wants to have sex, then shouldn’t that be a dealbreaker? Furthermore, I think that even though I’ve heard plenty of people describe their relationships as being good in every department other than the sex, in reality, I think that there probably ARE more problems going on. The sex stuff might just be the most blatant. Sex requires a negotiation of boundaries that’s more explicit than it is in other contexts, so it can be easier to see it when those boundaries are broken. But if people communicate poorly during sex, they probably communicate poorly in other contexts, too. If people are controlling when it comes to sex, they probably are controlling in other contexts, too. Also, our sex lives inform so many things: self-esteem, our relationships with our bodies, the ways we set boundaries and access intimacy. I find it difficult to believe that your partner’s behavior when it comes to sex doesn’t have a more widespread impact on you and the relationship. In fact, I think the fact that you’re blaming yourself at the end of this letter is indicative of how much control and power your partner has over the way you see the relationship and sex with her. Your partners past and present have turned sex into a weird power game, and it’s an understatement to say that that’s not fair to you.

I hope you can shift toward a mentality where you do not see yourself as a burden or as the root of the problem, because you are neither of those things, and you deserve to be with someone who respects your body and desires. You are not the problem.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is currently a fiction editor at TriQuarterly. Her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Catapult, and The Offing. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 273 articles for us.

26 Comments

  1. I second, third, fourth everything Kayla says here — especially the second-to-last paragraph about how sex can’t always be partitioned from the rest of the relationship. You deserve to be treated with respect and like you and your partner are on the same team with the same goals (having a fun and sexy time together that works for you both) rather than you having to pass secret tests without their help. Sex is a team sport!!! Talking about sex frankly with a partner is WAY MORE essential to “mastering the basics” than some particular approach to fingerblasting.

    I want to emphasize one more time that the issue here is not you needing to ~master~ more ~skillz~. That said, I’ve been in similar situations to yours, and when I eventually moved on to better relationships and partners, that anxiety around sex definitely lingered. I’m a particular brand of neuroatypical that really likes structure and information, so for me it was really helpful to do stuff like read Autostraddle’s sex ed articles and also get myself a copy of Girl Sex 101 by Moon & Diamond. This isn’t because I needed to “fix” my knowledge in a Rocky-style montage; more that re-grounding myself in healthier understandings of sex helped my confidence a lot going into my next hook-ups and relationships. So if that sounds like how your brain works too, those resources are out there!

    I can tell from your letter that you’re caring, thoughtful, communicative, and willing to be vulnerable and take emotional risks. That sounds like a person who is great in bed. You are not the problem.

    • Your comment is kind and wonderful and awesome – but what I’m especially taking away from it is the absolutely fantastic image of a Rocky-style montage training for queer sex. Finger strengthening pushups, fisting practise, running up steps at the end and cheering but doing that limp wrist gesture instead…thank you for this gift.

    • Thank you for your wonderful comment. I just ordered myself a copy of the book you suggested because I recognized myself in some of your words, especially when it comes to feeling more comfortable with plenty of information and theory at hand.

      Although I have been out for a while, I have a hard time meeting new people and an even harder time falling in love or actually meeting someone I’d like to have sex with. I am just quite shy and insecure when it comes to physical contact and have always put all my hobbies, travels and work before anything else. And using those things to justify why it just wasn’t the right time to”get into a relationship” or go through the hussle of dating or hooking up. Either that or I was in the minds of pining for someone who wasn’t interested in me for 4 whole years. So it was never the right time. Then the pandemic hit. And now I feel that I am too old to still be this woefully inexperienced. And the more insecure I feel, the more I isolate myself. Since I am highly aware that most of my reasoning is bs and that I am an idiot, I have decided that the time for my excuses is over and that it’s ok, to maybe act on my desires when things have calmed down a bit and meeting people is an option again. Your comment made me feel a bit less angsty and more optimistic about all of that. So thanks again.

  2. I’m a virgin so I don’t know crap about this sort of thing but Kayla gave this person some brilliant and very frank advice. I feel like sex and relationship problems are talked about quite commonly among heterosexuals and cis people, but we have problems to! Just as many if not more! I remember a couple months back I was hearing Kate Winslet doing an interview for Ammonite, she was talking about filming the sex scene and mentioned that ‘Women know what women want.’ And yeah, I agree with this to a degree but really lets be honest, sometimes we don’t even know what we want. Not every women magically knows what the other wants in bed, all women are singular in their own right. There is no magic formula for how to make a girl come. (Again, not like I’d know. But still.)
    The person who wrote this, listen to those words above. You are not the problem. Learn to love yourself. Learn what you need and want and make those difficult decisions if necessary.
    Also, this advice may be kind of separate, but maybe once you’ve got yourself in the right state, maybe you could try experimenting with masturbation? (If that’s for you.) It might help you to get more of awareness of what other future partners could do to bring pleasure for the both of you. Also, it’s nice to just hook up with yourself sometimes.
    Wishing you lots of love and luck!

  3. I jumped out of my seat and burst into applause at the end of this response! Thank you Kayla for your sage guidance. I hope it is impactful to the letter writer as it was to me <3

  4. Yikes. This is something that’s always haunted me and I could have written the letter. I wasn’t always like this, it came up over time and some relationships that varied from abusive to just not in synch. And now post-covid, it’s screwing with my head and even getting in my way from setting up hook-ups because I’ll go from confident to flailing in the same conversation. It’s so hard to get out of your head, even when you know that’s the problem, and I’ll be rereading this response 9,000 times.

  5. I came here feeling a little indignant about the pull quote (“But if people communicate poorly during sex, they probably communicate poorly in other contexts, too”), prepared to protest that I’m an example of someone who’s good at communication in other contexts but has sometimes struggled to find the same ease when it comes to communicating about sex, because it can be intimidating and bring up so many insecurities, etc. etc.

    Then I read this, and now I’m in tears, because it validated so many of my own past experiences, and made something really click for me – I was not the one who was bad at communicating about sex in those relationships. I wanted to communicate, and I tried tentatively to find ways to do that. But I got shut down over and over, and was made to feel awkward and broken, and that was the message I internalized.

    LW, in case you need more confirmation, I’ll chime in too: You Are Not The Problem. Here’s how I know: I could pretty much have written your letter myself in the past. But in the last few years I have met partners who don’t treat me that way – instead, they listen and encourage and share their own vulnerabilities. And I have found a whole community of delightful, goofy, sometimes awkward, sometimes poignant, sex-positive people who are helping me reshape my understanding of how this is all supposed to work. And while I won’t say that I’ve completely shrugged off the trauma and insecurities that plagued me for most of my life, things are already getting so much better.

    And Kayla, I have no words to formulate a big enough thank you. This is one of those moments where I’ve just read something that I know is going to cause deep and lasting internal shifts in my perceptions. Thank you so much for writing it.

    • Ok, apparently I still have many other things to say!

      Re your history with this pattern: It’s normal to feel like once you’ve had a string of similar experiences, that must confirm that that’s just how things are. But in this case I think it can be really valuable to remember how deeply fucked up mainstream society’s attitudes towards sex are, how we’re bombarded with Hollywood ideals about what ideal sex is supposed to look like (and it never! Ever! Involves communicating openly about it with actual words! It just happens ~magically~ as if both people can read each other’s minds). People see this shit over and over, and it becomes ingrained that your perfect soulmate will be able to naturally read and respond to your desires without any effort on your part to express what you want or show what works best. This is garbage, and while I have plenty of compassion for people who have internalized it, that’s not an excuse to emotionally abuse your partner when it turns out that things don’t work that way in real life.

      Re communication in the rest of the relationship: With my last ex, I would also at one point have said that everything else was good, even though our sex life was dysfunctional. Then we broke up messily, and I realized in retrospect that the truth was, everything else was good.. except I felt a little spurt of anxiety every time she came home from work. Everything was good.. except I had started smothering little parts of myself that I knew she didn’t like, like having a friendly connection with my exes and wanting to try burlesque and wanting to find queer community outside of our relationship. Everything was good.. except I was bending myself over backwards to live up to her extremely high standards of what I should be doing with my life, what our house should look like, how I should talk to other people about her, what I should be doing to make her feel loved. Everything was good.. except I was almost constantly walking on eggshells, dreading that I might say or do something to cause an argument which would inevitably lead to her questioning the whole validity of our relationship.
      I don’t know if any of that sounds familiar to you, but if it does, please know that none of this is good or healthy or normal, and you deserve better.

  6. Wow, great answer. I’m not big on the subtilities. Get the fuck out. I find the things described in this letter disturbing as hell.

    To the asker:
    You sound like an awesome person who has overcome a lot and you deserve someone who supports you, instead of breaking you down. Maybe you can’t (instantly) find someone another partner, that happens. But don’t settle for someone who hurts you. That’s never better than being single.

    Wishing you the best <3

  7. **Trigger warning**

    It is very rare that I feel like I’m understood. I carry a lot that I do not often share with people. I have never been comfortable with sex because of childhood trauma but I never felt my apprehension was acceptable.

    My 1st consensual experience was at 17 and that only happened because I felt pressured by my girlfriend (hmm so maybe not so consensual?). Well, damn. Needless to say it was awful and extremely triggering. Every relationship after that was much of the same. I would have involuntary reactions to things and always found myself apologizing for making the other person uncomfortable.

    Eventually I just stopped letting others touch me at all and that too became problematic. Again, I found myself apologizing for being difficult. Finally I just gave up. I don’t even date anymore and I’ve been celibate for 10 years. I wish this person the best of luck with finding someone more understanding and caring who doesn’t make them feel awful for being themselves.

    • This has happened to me for different reasons. Earlier in my life (I’m 64) I was very sexual and loved giving & receiving sex. I have had 2 husbands & 1 wife & all of them had issues around sex. First hub was abusive & I left to save my life. 2nd hub was a good person with a bad habit (drinking) and that totally impacted his sexual ability. He drank himself to death at 44. Then I met my wife and we seemed to be made for each other. But she had abuse issues and a physical injury from the military. I did my absolute best to be accommodating (sex in the daytime instead of at night, positions that were best for her, etc.) I was happy to do it. But while she was sexual, she wasn’t sensual. We did talk frankly about sex, and I told her many times I needed kissing and foreplay and did NOT like to be poked or tickled. She continued to poke and tickle saying she couldn’t figure out how not to. Finally I just stopped wanting her to touch me at all and other things happened and the relationship fizzled after 13 years. That was 6 years ago and I have to even thought about attempting to date anyone. I have a fabulous vibrator and an amazing imagination. I am not going through all the crap anymore just to be with someone who likely will just end up pissing me off. I’d rather just be happy with myself.

  8. Chiming in to say that the way your partner is treating you/talking to you is cruel and condescending. Telling yourself you won’t find anyone else is a great way to convince yourself to put up with all kinds of bullshit. You deserve better. <3

  9. Dude… I’m not going to mince words here, your partner sounds like a a douchebag. As a woman who has slept with around 50 other women, I just want to reiterate that everybody is different. If I’m sleeping with a new partner, I am definitely trying to talk to them about what works for them, for THEIR benefit!

    There are a million ways to talk about sex, either in the heat of the moment or outside of it. Tell me what you want in the form of commands or beg me for it, text it to me if you are embarrassed, send me some erotica or porn that you like, even small phrases like “yes” or “like that”. If your partner is not open to ANY of the above (or their own way of communicating) that’s on THEM not YOU!!!

    Also, some people are just sexually incompatible. Better communication can help, but not always solve the problem either. If I love Indian food and my partner hates it, it doesn’t mean that Indian food is bad! I promise you that her yuck will be someone else’s yum. TRUST ME.

    Don’t let this person get to you. You are not the problem. It’s not about skills, there is something going on with this person, and they have the gall to blame it on you! Run, don’t look back, and maybe try talking about sex with your next partner early in the relationship. Now you have the life experience to be able to catch this red flag in the future, and have a MUCH better sex life.

  10. Just wanted to say I completely agree with everything written by Kayla and in the comments.

    The idea that “if I need it spelled out to me or to be taught then I shouldn’t be having it” is particularly disturbing. Kayla’s absolutely right that people aren’t born knowing what to do. People are born knowing nothing at all, most of us grow up with sex ed that’s wildly inadequate especially for women and queer people. Spelling out what you do and don’t like is a healthy part of sex, which can feel vulnerable for some people to actually ask for what they want, and the idea that a partner should “just know” is really odd. People have different bodies and experience different sensations from the same things, communication is necessary.

    Also, in the context of sex, there are ongoing processes of learning about yourself, and emotions, and communication, and about the partners you’re with. Even if you stay with one partner for a very long time, you don’t just work these things out once and for all and that’s that. It’s lifelong, and the possibility of continuing to encounter new understandings of yourself and a person you care about is one of the emotionally fulfilling things about sex.

    I’d also argue that learning about these emotional understandings of self and others is more important to the quality of sex than working out what to physically do with your fingers. If your partner is treating you this way, as everyone has said, it’s a bad relationship, she’s choosing to behave towards you in ways that are emotionally damaging. She is the problem, and furthermore her actions are demonstrating that she has got a lot to learn about sex herself, because sex isn’t just what physical actions you do and how, the emotional and relational elements are intrinsically important to how we experience sex. If she’s refusing to communicate and behaving in ways that cause you emotional harm, that itself is a refusal to learn how she could be a better partner in sex.

  11. People who base communication on assumptions, “fortune telling” and goalpost-moving all the time are maddening in every context, and in sex (that is already a loaded subject for many) this is a cruel thing to do.

    “Guess what i want and I’ll acknowledge you” is basically what your partners said without saying it. Fuck guesswork, all my homies hate guesswork! There’s nothing “awkward” about being clear with likes and dislikes, it doesn’t even have to be a detailed explanation, small phrases are also valid communication.

    I’m echoing what’s being said, you are definitely not the problem! If anything, these people are the one who will live with the knowledge they’ve acted in a cruel way, if they ever gain awareness of it. Let go of any expectations of theirs, their premise had been invalid to begin.

    Wishing you the best!

  12. Let’s see, who’s more likely to be the problem here? The person with enough courage, humility and emotional maturity to admit they don’t know everything and the generosity to ask what their partner wants? Or the one who responds to their partner’s vulnerability with rejection, rudeness and cruelty? “Read my mind or you don’t deserve sex” is some next-level nonsense. I’ve been married more than 15 years and my husband and I still use our words.

    Agree with Chandra: is the rest of your relationship *really* wonderful? Or are your body and brain sending you little signals you need to attend to?

    You are not the problem. You, yourself, are enough, and you deserve people in your life who are unreservedly glad to know you, as you are.

  13. Agree with everything lesbians have a way of wesponizing “processing’ and being super abusive about it and then cry it’s about their trauma or identity. No babe it’s about them being shitty people who happen to be processing therapy speak lesbians. We have to talk more about the emotional terrorists in our community. I was a really confident girl before I started dating women and now I have new unique lesbian baggage that’s so insidious because it’s done in a quieter more mind worm way. I love being gay but the weapons action of processing under the guise of care is a big problem here.

  14. Years ago I remember crying to my therapist after an extremely distressing situation with an abusive boss and asking her why narcissists kept showing up in my life- what was it about me?

    Her answer was, simply, there are a lot of them out there.

    In other words, it was not me. It was a numbers game. And similarly, there are a lot of people out there (way more of these than malignant narcissists!) who have not developed healthy ways of talking about sex or working through issues in this area. That you happen to have dated three of them means.. not a whole hell of a lot. And! You deserve to talk about your sex life, and you deserve a partner who will try to meet you in that. Best of luck.

  15. Excellent answer. Truly. I thank whatever entity created all of us that I have the wife I do, because she’s perfect. No lie. We’ve been together since age 19 — and we’re both 40 this year. 21 years this year.

    I’ve had similar issues—endometriosis and persistent ovarian cysts that make sex painful. Hell even arousal most times is painful. We haven’t been sexual in a long while, longer than I’d like to admit, and I used to cry and beat myself up for it because it’s my body stopping it, nothing else. One day we talked about it (I’m bad at keeping things in) and she told me sex didn’t matter, she loved me and we’re intimate in our own way. It was a huge relief, like I stepped out of a room with no light and I finally saw the sun again. We cried it out and it made us closer and stronger.

    I truly believe there is someone for everyone that loves them for who they are and appreciates them as a person, a friend, and a sexual being, however that may be for them.

  16. For whomever wrote this or feels this way, you are worthy of so much more. It breaks my heart to this of people treating you this way. You deserve real love- that communicates, supports and values you.

  17. Please read- Please yourself by Emma Teed Terrell, it has changed my life.
    Recognizing a controlling partner is hard.
    The one who really loves you will always listen to you, no netter the subject.

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