When Self-Pleasure Habits Get in the Way of Partnered SexApr 11, 2023
The neuroscience behind our sexual patterns
If I could give one piece of sex advice to everyone, it would be this: “Switch it up on a regular basis!”
The more ways you can develop for experiencing sexual pleasure, and the more pleasure you can generate, the more likely you are to reach orgasm, whether alone or with a partner. The more different routes you have to orgasm on your own, the more likely you will find a way to reach orgasm with a partner. And the more different routes you have to orgasm with a partner, the more likely you are to experience pleasure even when life throws a wrench into things and certain activities aren’t possible for one reason or another.
Most people who reliably reach orgasm have one primary way of doing so. It is perfectly understandable that people go with what works; why argue with success? Our cultural expectation seems to be that sex isn’t “real sex” unless there is an orgasm, and not only that, an orgasm that someone else “gave” us. So once we figure out how to “give our partner an orgasm”, we tend to stick with that strategy rather than continue to explore and risk not “getting it right”, “being a bad lover” or just missing the orgasm entirely some of the time.
Here’s the problem: the more you focus on just one way of reaching orgasm or experiencing pleasure, the more likely you are to get stuck in a rut. When you bring yourself to orgasm in a specific way, you’re strengthening a neural pathway in your brain. Every time you do the same thing, that pathway gets stronger. Unless you switch it up and cultivate other ways of reaching orgasm, it becomes harder and harder to do so in any other way.
There are lots of ways this might look:
- I self-pleasure by rubbing myself against something, and I can’t get that same feeling and reach orgasm with a partner
- I self-pleasure while watching porn, and find it hard to reach orgasm with a partner
- I can’t reach orgasm without a particular fantasy, and that makes me uncomfortable; I’d rather be able to do it without that particular fantasy
- I self-pleasure dry (or with a tight hand), and then when I have penis-in-vagina sex with my partner, the sensation just isn’t strong enough to get over the edge
All of these examples point to a particular pathway to orgasm, involving a combination of thoughts, images, novel stimuli, types of touch, amount of slipperiness, amount of pressure, broad versus specific stimulation, etc.
The key to shifting a habitual neural pathway to orgasm is to start to change it up. Let me be clear; this is not always easy, nor is it something most people can accomplish quickly. That’s why an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! If you already have multiple ways you can experience high levels of sexual pleasure, make sure to use all of them to get to orgasm, not just the easiest one.
And if you are in a rut, consider what is different between the way you most easily reach orgasm and the way you and your partner have sex. Think about all the components of the interaction. Then begin experimenting with shifting one or two things more toward a sensation or visual stimulation that partnered sex can match. Here are some specific suggestions:
- If you watch porn, watch just one video all the way through rather than clicking between many. Get used to arousal ebbing and flowing, and returning, even when the “action” is a little slower and less novel
- If you touch yourself without lube, try using lube. Partner sex is often slicker than solo sex, although not always. If the opposite is true, try using less lube.
- If you rub against something, try placing your hand between the object and your body. Gradually shift how much of the sensation is coming from diffuse pressure versus your hand moving, or specific touch.
- If you have a favorite fantasy, see if you can develop a second-runner-up fantasy. See if you can come up with one that has some things in common with sexy aspects of your partner, or the way you and your partner have sex.
The strategy is to, very gradually, use the new way more and more during any given sexual interaction. Most people like to start this experiment solo, but there is no reason you can’t do it with a partner too if you’re both comfortable with some experimentation.
Start getting turned on the “old” way. But once arousal is building, switch it up. If arousal begins to fall and it is hard to get it to build again, shift back to the tried-and-true, but when possible, shift back again to the new way. Most people starting this experiment need to use the old way to tip over into orgasm at first, but the goal is to become able to get over the orgasmic threshold with the “new way”, which ideally is in some way significantly more similar to partnered sex.
This is necessarily a gradual process, because it takes time to build a new neural pathway. And it generally feels frustrating; neurons have to literally find one another and connect in new ways.
Having a therapist who can support this process can be very helpful. It is important to strike a balance between building the new neural pathway, and experiencing sexual pleasure without too much frustration. You can’t rush this process. Finding ways to stay steady, find patience, make it fun, and keep clear on why you’re doing this in the first place will be crucial.
Whether you are thinking about this from the viewpoint of a therapist helping others, or a person wanting to increase your experience and ease with orgasm, ask yourself what neural pathway issues may be at play, and how you can start building diverse pathways towards more connected, satisfying, and flexible encounters.
The blog is originally published on Psychology Today.