You Need Help: Relearning Sex with Chronic Pain


My partner has chronic neck, shoulder and wrist pain after a car accident, despite a whole lot of physical therapy and massage. Any repetitive hand motion or any lengthy amount of time with her neck in one position is super painful, so many of the things two ladies can do in bed together are not feasible when it’s my turn. We’ve been trying to make it work with toys, which I’m happy with, but she feels like she’s not really involved in my orgasm when we use toys and doesn’t enjoy it. We’re then left switching activities and positions frequently to keep her comfortable, which makes it hard for me to stay in the, er, zone.

So I’m in search of help. (1) I’m really struggling with not feeling resentful about the limited options at my disposal and (2) Like, is there something we’re forgetting that can be accomplished without repetitive hand motion, toys, or keeping your neck in one position?


First of all, I am so glad you reached out about your situation. That was absolutely the right call, because this kind of thing, when left unchecked, can mutate into resentment and poison relationships. When you actually address them, you take that power away. So kudos to you for being up front about how you feel, both with your partner and here now. Seriously, go ahead and feel great about that. To me it says that you’re committed to finding new ways to make this work, and that’s key when it comes to bodies and how they change.

Let’s get this out of the way, because it seems like you might need to hear it: it’s okay that you’re frustrated. Your partner probably is too. It’s also okay if you’re both feeling resentful, sad, scared, or angry in any combination about how things are playing out. Ability is a spectrum, and when our position on that spectrum shifts, grief and anger and fear will follow. There’s no (healthy) way around that for you or for your partner; you both have to go through it in your own way. That reaction does not make you a bad person or an ableist monster. So if you haven’t already, give yourself permission to actually have those feelings and accept that they’re real and exist for a reason. Acknowledge them instead of piling on a layer of guilt to what’s already there (and let her do the same, either with you or privately). That’s the best hope you have of leaving them behind — which, yes, is what you need to do next.

There is a different conversation to be had here than the one it sounds like you’ve been having so far. Instead of reiterating everything that causes pain or “doesn’t work,” start over and only talk about what feels good. What does your body like right now, and what does her body like right now? Because that’s the thing: you both need to work with the bodies you have, rather than the ones you wish you had, or you used to have, or may have someday. The weight of expectation does not belong in bed with you. Rather than chasing a version of your sex life that does not exist at this moment, find the yes-es in your current situation. Literally list things you like back and forth to each other. We even made a worksheet for that. It doesn’t matter at this point whether what you say will “work” with the other person’s abilities; just being honest, and remembering that there are things your body likes and does well, can start to pull you out of this rut. (This conversation itself could get pretty hot, also.)

I highly recommend watching porn as part of this “what feels good” phase. Now’s the time to discover new stuff that does it for you, and porn can illustrate options you may not have considered. I know that sounds like people who say “I read Playboy for the articles” or whatever — but seriously, porn can turn you on and be informative. That’s allowed! If you can’t or don’t want to watch together, do some viewing on your own and then send each other your favorites. Once you’ve both talked about what you enjoy (and therefore confirmed that your bodies are great as they are), you can start filling in the center of your sexual Venn diagram. And you don’t only have to do things from the center; it’s okay if one of you likes a certain thing and the other one wants to watch, or if some of the things you each like don’t line up at all. That doesn’t mean they’re inadequate, or not sexy, or that they have no place in your life.

From what you’ve said about your partner, it sounds like she is most afraid of being insufficient and not giving you what you need. I can attest to the realness and terror of that feeling as someone who also has an uncooperative body. Even in queer communities our messaging on sex can be pretty one-note — so if “many of the things two ladies can do in bed together” aren’t available to you, it can feel like you’re just counting the minutes until the other person gets bored and you wind up alone. Especially because her body used to work one way and now it works another, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what she’s going through now. You can’t speed that process up or make it go away — but you can and should affirm her. When you talk about something she does that turns you on, make sure to tie it back to her. There’s a reason that pretty much all sex advice suggests starting a sentence with “I love it when you…” Remind her that you’re into certain things, but you’re also into her. Bodies with chronic pain have this reputation for being simultaneously “too much” and “not enough.” Instead of feeding that narrative, learn her body as it is today, and say what you like about it and the things it can do. Don’t be shy; she deserves to hear it. It’s easier to confront your daily body shame if you know there’s at least one person out there who’s on your team and thinks you’re hot. Be that person for her. Let her know.

In response to question two, I don’t know the physical particulars of your situation, so some of these suggestions may not translate in practice. But consider this: “involvement in” someone’s orgasm doesn’t have to be purely physical. If you’re comfortable, experiment with things like orgasm control (“You’re not allowed to come until I say”) or you “putting on a show” for your partner (or vice versa). The mental element can be extremely hot to play with. If you’re hung up on the feeling that it’s “less than” actually touching, I’d ask yourself how much of that reaction has to do with the guilt and grief I talked about before. If you’re not into psychological play, that’s fine — but if the reason you haven’t tried it is because you or your partner are resentful of her body, you’re not giving it a fair shake. The fact is you’re both going to have to relearn some habits as part of this process; that can take a few clumsy attempts, and it’s okay if a particular experiment doesn’t end up working. But you owe it to yourselves to actually run the experiment.

Keep in mind that you don’t exclusively have to use toys or your hands/mouth/whatever. They don’t have to replace each other. If, for for instance, your partner is craving touch but you want to keep going longer than her fingers will allow, try using a vibrator too, and keeping that on once she needs to rest her wrist. And that’s just one example! Either/or thinking won’t do you (or her) any favors in bed. Don’t be afraid to mix things up — especially in ways that can draw out the sensation. Also, yes, toys may not end up being your partner’s favorite thing; that’s okay. But if she’s having trouble because they make her feel disconnected from you, there may be ways to work through that. Check out Ali’s advice on getting comfortable with your first strap-on, which includes words of wisdom applicable to any toy.

Certain toys could also help close the sensation gap, like the Mustang Royale (which we reviewed here); thigh harnesses; the SpareParts La Palma, a hand harness that can hold multiple vibrators, a dildo, or both; and the Liberator Wedge for more comfortable positioning and angles. They’re all designed to work in conjunction with your body rather than cancel it out. So even if toys aren’t an every-time accessory, be sure to consider types you might not have tried yet. There may be the perfect something out there for you both.

Remember what I said earlier about discovering new stuff that turns you on? That’s how you should frame this entire experience. Yes, bodies change, and that’s often frustrating and scary. But the good news is you get to go through this together, relearn each other and build even more trust, plus try out new experiences that could become all-time favorites. The fact that you’re seeking out advice means that you’ve done some of the scariest internal work already. Now it’s time move forward with openness, honesty and compassion — and then comes the fun part.

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  1. Thank you for this! I also have a body with chronic pain, and the tips for embracing the now body are so powerful.

    My other struggle is that being in pain decreases my sex drive and its frequency, just as it does my energy. So not only is being physically sensual together hard when I want to be, so is wanting to be. I want to want to a lot. So we aren’t sexy often.

    And the idea of me being able to participate in psychological play with my partner is a new idea. I may not have energy to be physically involved, or desire to be touched, but often my pain is dull enough that I could join them in describing a fantasy or etc if I am still craving a new kind of connection with them. Love the idea!

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