According to a PsychologyToday blog by Lisa Thomas approximately 25% of women have difficulty achieving orgasm or have never experienced one, and even for women who are orgasmic, the frequency is only around 50-70% of the time. Other researchers found that most women do not routinely (and some never) experience orgasm during sexual intercourse.
There are a number of physiological factors that can inhibit a woman’s sexual desire and her ability to reach climax: hormone imbalance, low testosterone, medications such as anti-depressants, her anatomy (the distance between the clitoris and the vagina), and, of course, partner issues. These can include the partner’s lack of appeal or insensitivity, and, in relation to a male partner, insufficient knowledge of the female body and premature ejaculation. To make matters worse, focusing on having a climax creates pressure in a woman that runs counter to sexual arousal; telling herself to “relax” simply doesn’t work.
Many developmental issues also affect women’s sexuality: Parents’ intrusiveness, emotional hunger, withholding of affection, indifference, hostility and intolerance of being loved leave lasting scars on their offspring. Women react to the resultant emotional pain by developing a poor self-concept or body image, distrust of their partner and other protective and pseudo-independent defenses that, in turn, predispose alienation in their relationships. Basically insecure (anxious or avoidant) attachment patterns they developed in childhood persist into adult life and strongly influence numerous aspects of sexual relating.
In this blog, we focus on seven psychological factors that tend to negatively impact a woman’s sexual desire, arousal and orgasmic capacity. The list is not meant to exhaust all possible psychological issues; however, in our clinical experience, we have found these to be fundamental and understanding them to be useful in helping women achieve richer, more satisfying sexual lives.
1. Critical thoughts toward one’s body: Many women experience intrusive thoughts or critical inner voices about their body that interrupt the smooth progression of sexual excitement that typifies the arousal cycle of approaching orgasm. They can have self-conscious thoughts about their breasts: Your breasts are small. They’re not like other women’s breasts. Your breasts are misshapen. Or they may have negative thoughts about their genitals. Your vagina is too large. You’re too dry. You’re not clean, so don’t have oral sex.
Many women have internalized their parents’ negative attitudes toward bodily functions during toilet training, thereby developing images of their bodies and sexuality as dirty. In particular, the genital area becomes imbued with an anal connotation and is confused with excretory functions. Women’s shameful feelings about this area are extended to anything below the waist, (including menstruation) and they end up feeling dirty or contaminated in a manner that can interfere with their becoming aroused or achieving orgasm. When women have negative thoughts about different parts of their bodies they find it difficult to take pleasure in being touched in those specific areas. If they feel critical about their body image in general, it is more difficult for them to fully enjoy sex.
2. Perceiving sex as immoral or bad: Many women have acquired distorted views about sex early in life during the process of socialization. In general, parents’ negative attitudes toward nudity, masturbation and sex play have a powerful influence on both male and female children’s feelings about sexuality and the sex act. As a result, people typically grow up viewing some sex acts as acceptable and clean, and others as dirty and bad. In addition, some religions, especially rigid belief systems, perceive sex as an expression of the baser or sinful nature of human beings. When women take on these attitudes, they tend to see sex as forbidden, shameful and bad. They feel guilty about wanting, seeking or experiencing pleasure in lovemaking, and expect negative consequences or actual punishment.
3. Guilt about breaking the mother-daughter bond with a mother who is sexually repressed: As explained in Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships, “Girls learn by observation and imitation to be like the mother and feel strange or uncomfortable when they are different from their role model.” Therefore, when a mother is held back sexually, it is very difficult for her daughter to go beyond her in terms of enjoying sexual fulfillment in her adult relationship. A woman’s guilt and fear in relation to surpassing her mother in this area are often transferred to other women in her life. Because of these feelings, women are often afraid of standing out from their peers as mature, sexual women.
4. Fear of arousing repressed sadness: For many women, feelings of sadness related to emotional pain in childhood surface during a sexual experience, especially when sexuality is combined with emotional intimacy. For women who were mistreated or rejected early in life and feel unlovable, the contrast of being loved, pleasured, and sexually fulfilled brings out deep and painful emotional responses. When women try to hold back their sad feelings, they become cut off from themselves, both emotionally and physically, and removed from the sexual interaction.
In Beyond Death Anxiety, I noted that “a close sexual experience can also cause individuals to become acutely conscious of their existence. They experience a heightened awareness of themselves and the value of their lives. Paradoxically, these uniquely positive feelings come with a price–the special appreciation of life makes them aware of deep and painful sadness that their lives are terminal.” For this reason, many women pull back after an especially intimate encounter.
5. Fear of being vulnerable:In my latest book, The Self Under Siege,I write, “Accepting love leads to a feeling of increased vulnerability and challenges aspects of the negative identity formed in the family of origin.” A woman may enjoy casual sexual encounters, but “as a relationship becomes more meaningful and intimate, being loved and positively acknowledged can threaten to disrupt one’s psychological equilibrium by piercing core defenses.” Depending on another person to satisfy one’s wants and needs breaks into the defensive posture of being self-sufficient and pseudo-independent. Being open and receptive to another person threatens an inward, isolated, self-soothing way of protecting one’s self from emotional hurt. Combining sex and love leads to a sense of vulnerability and is anxiety provoking because many women and men are afraid of being completely committed to a significant other, especially if they have been previously hurt emotionally.
6. Fear of arousing repressed memories of abuse and trauma:Being close sexually to a partner and freely experiencing orgasm tend to trigger unwanted memories in women whose histories include sexual abuse or molestation. Estimates are that one out of three to four women were abused sexually or experienced some type of inappropriate sexual contact with a relative or stranger before they were 18. In these cases, being sexual can be unconsciously associated with the abuser, particularly when the abuser is a family member, and sex becomes guilt provoking, tinged with emotional pain, and unacceptable in the woman’s mind. Any similarity between her partner and the family member increases the probability that these memories will emerge.
7. Fear of loss of control: Women who rely heavily upon maintaining control as a self-protective defense mechanism are prone to be resistive to a freely expressive sexual encounter. This can show up in an overall fear of losing control or in more specific fears, such as fears of making noise or moving, or even fears of urinating or defecating when letting go. Control is related to existential issues of life and death. Faced with issues of death anxiety, people tend to detach themselves from their animal nature and disconnect from a body that they know is mortal. This dissociation can inhibit feeling pleasurable responses in the here and now interaction during sex.
In the final chapter of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships, I wrote, “It is valuable for men and women to develop a compassionate understanding of themselves and how they function in an intimate relationship. It also is important that they come to realize that their problems in relating sexually and being close emotionally are not unusual in our culture.” My associates and I have found that many women have been able to overcome their fears and sexual inhibitions by becoming familiar with and working through the 7 factors noted in this article.