Not feeling any pleasure is a way of me punishing myself.
An interview with Olivia.
Olivia | Age: 42 | Location: London, UK | Occupation: Illustrator | No. of sexual partners: 15
Why did you take part?
I wish I had known sooner how many other people struggled with their sexuality. The more knowledge there is about the reality of it, the fewer people will struggle with it.
What events in your life shaped your sexuality? What’s your story?
When I was a child I remember stating I would never be naked in front of anyone, not even my husband. It seemed like the right thing to say and to want; to not engage in a dirty activity. I gradually went on to think that I would have sex but only with my husband. And finally that it’d be with a person I loved.
I didn’t properly mastrubate until my 20s. I shared a bedroom with my grandmother. There were lots of stupid erotic movies on TV. I found myself exploring my body but I didn’t really know what to do with that. I felt I had no one to talk to. So I talked to my priest and he told me I should never ever do it again. Masturbation is one of the core and selfish sins. That took it out of me for the following 9 years. When I grew old enough to want to fool around I asked a priest about why I couldn’t kiss a man or let him fondle my breasts; how it was god’s business or in any way hurting anyone. I went away with this sense of it being forbidden but no idea why. It made me resent the church and make me not want to be Catholic anymore.
When I was 11 I met a boy. He came from a very open family. He touched me and it was the first time I experienced pleasure. I felt it was wrong and didn’t know if I really wanted it. So I talked to my grandmother about it and of course she told me it had to stop. Later in my teens, I dated someone but I didn’t love him so although we did a lot of things there was no penetrative sex - after all, I wasn’t going to do it with someone I didn’t love. I started to think about masturbation again then. I remember thinking it was a strange for someone to know my body better than I did. I started and had a rational explanation. It was for myself but it was kind of in the context of ‘I need to do this to tell him what to do.’
At 20 I met my first proper boyfriend - Max. After about a year I thought it was ok to have sex with him, but we couldn’t. I had something called vaginismus - when you can’t be penetrated. We spent 4 years trying without success. Aside from therapy, moving to the UK helped change things. I met lovely, clever, successful people who did drugs just for fun and had sex for fun. It slowly changed a lot of my prejudices. After a while, I was able to have sex with Max for the first time. It’s amazing he waited that long (4 years) but it was a bit of an anticlimax. It was painful at the beginning and I felt very conflicted about it. I was afraid of my sexual energy. I had a healthy appetite but I was told that it was evil and I didn’t know how to control it other than putting a lid on it. I never allowed to have any fantasies - I was too afraid of what might pop into my head. Sex to please your husband or to procreate is ok with christianity. Fantasy is just for yourself and totally unnecessary. Then I found this amazing book called “Arousal - the secret meaning of sexual fantasies” by a psychologist who used them to understand patients. According to him, fantasy is a place to feel safe when aroused. He wasn’t judging it. It was so precious. It gave me ideas for fantasies. It made me feel that no matter what popped up in my head it would probably be explained and ok. I allowed myself to fantasise for the first time. I’d still go for things that weren’t really “up to me” or abstract enough like aliens abducting me. I wasn’t ready to think about things that could actually happen to me. With Zack I often didn’t want to have sex - and thought maybe I didn’t love him, and felt guilt because of that. Magazines tell you that when sex goes out the window it’s a sign of problems. Everything was about beating myself up. Back then it didn’t matter if it was the right relationship, what mattered it that he stuck around with me. After 9 years of being together he broke up with me. I felt so cheated - I tried so hard to repress my doubts about the relationship; I put it before me. I asked myself - “what was the point of being so perfect?” It was a very liberating new start. After 4 months of feeling angry and depressed I decided to write down a list of things to try and go through them. Chat up a boy, take drugs, one night stands. I tried to be bad. It felt incredible to allow myself to do that. You have to try these things - put a foot over the edge to know where the edge is.
I’ve been in a relationship for 3 years now. Things have been up and down over the years. We don’t really talk about it, but he wants to be open and I can’t see that happening. We had a baby last year after almost breaking up. I didn’t want to break up in the first year of having a baby and then things finally improved. Right now our sex is great but I went through phases of not being able to feel any pleasure. 4 years of therapy have been incredible. She taught me how to feel. I didn’t know how to feel a feeling before. When I get anxious my breathing stops - my body does that to make me unaware of a feeling. Sometimes during sex I’m not breathing properly, like I’m having an asthma attack. I’ll have to pause to catch up with my breath. It’s a feeling of not being allowed into my own body - it’s happening but I cannot feel it. Not feeling any pleasure is a way of me punishing myself. When things are going really well and I’m giving myself importance, I feel like I’m breaking the rules. It’s tricky for me to be in a relationship. I have 2 conflicting sides inside me - one is angry and resentful like my mother and wants me to destroy my relationship. The other side is like my father - it tells me I’m not important - that what matters is that the relationship continues; that I might be alone forever. When I moved in with my partner I almost thought of myself as a geisha. I would make myself have sex with him to keep him happy.
What does sex mean to you?
Sex has been a mirror of so many things inside me. It’s a way to connect to myself and to my partner, to get in touch with many feelings - good and difficult ones alike.
What’s difficult about sex?
Sex makes me feel exposed. I still find it difficult to touch myself during sex - it’s giving myself importance and being self-centred, and doing that with an audience. What might he think?
What do you most enjoy about sex?
These days our sex is great. Back in our first years our sex was ok but at some point I resigned myself to the idea that it would never get better than that. It was difficult to ask for things so I bought him a book. Then we got pregnant and had all kinds of reasons to not be great. But then in the recent months it’s just been working. His technique has improved, he seems like a natural and it’s easier to communicate.
Do you orgasm?
I orgasm in all sorts of ways. Oral sex or hands. Or penetration. I don’t always come. It’s not always the same. Sometimes it’s quick, sometimes it’s laboured. I need gentle stimulation to start with. If it’s not the right pressure or the right speed it doesn’t feel good.
How often do you have sex?
Once every two weeks.
Do you masturbate?
I go through phases. When I watch porn I tend to go for lesbian, I find it less abrasive. I don’t think it makes me gay though I have thought about being with a woman. It’s like the worst thing that could happen to me according to the church. I reckon most people are on a sliding scale between gay and straight anyway.
How do you see female sexuality portrayed in the society?
There is always an ideal that we should be like whether that’s a sexual woman, a mother woman, or a physical woman. We should all be striving to be as happy as we can, not strive to be like someone else. I feel like sex is portrayed without its complexities. As if it’s dissociated from our lives and the same for everyone. As if it’s thoughts-free, feelings-free. Both women and men are way more complex than that.
Being a mother made me feel really angry about how society says you should feel. You’re meant to be a selfless martyr and not exist anymore. You should enjoy every aspect even if you’re totally bored and it’s still taboo to say that.
What’s your advice to women?
Allow yourself to be sexually happy. Be yourself and love yourself. Sexuality is as important part of us as any other part. Don’t think of sex as a bad thing, or not important, or not allowed. It’s ok to put yourself first.
What’s your advice to men?
In order to enjoy sex you need to be selfish and to please the other person you need to be selfless. Reach the right balance. Make her feel safe, listen to her boundaries and don’t forget yourself at the same time.
Is there anything you want to explore?
I fantasise about pushing my journey further but it’d need to be in a very safe context. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the context or the guts to do things or if I’ll even like them. Sex with a woman, sex with more people. Being in an orgy, watching people. I don’t know who wouldn’t enjoy it.