She's afraid of sex

I think I love her but we can't get past her fear

By Cary Tennis
Published August 21, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

My girlfriend is a sweet, kind and intelligent woman. She just graduated college and is a nurse. She is 22 and she is very inexperienced at relationships. I'm 29 and I have had a number of relationships over the years and I generally know what I want in a woman. My girlfriend has been good to me for the most part and she has almost every single quality that I am looking for in a woman.

We have been dating for over four months now and we have a sticking point in our relationship. Affection and sex are a problem. She isn't anywhere near as affectionate as I am and getting her to express her feelings is almost like pulling teeth. I am just the opposite. I am outgoing, personable, not afraid to tell someone how I am feeling, and I am very affectionate. I hug my friends (girls and guys), I hug my family, I am not afraid of contact at all. But she is back and forth with me on affection and the subject of sexual intimacy.

Some days she is very affectionate and we have these intense make-out sessions that would make many people blush. More often than not she will barely kiss or hug me in a night and get annoyed a few days later if I try to get her to be more affectionate. Then there is the subject of sex and it is all kinds of confusing with her. First of all I know she wants to have sex, she has told me as much. She has even said that she wants to "f--- my brains out" on more than one occasion (those are her words, not mine). But then she says she wants to wait until marriage.

I have asked her why she wants to wait until marriage and I have gotten a range of answers, but her fallback/go-to answer is always religious belief. This coming from someone who doesn't read the Bible, doesn't go to church and never prays. Once or twice she has used the word "scary" to describe things related to the subject including when we talk about being more serious. If I ask her about doing other things before marriage I have gotten inconsistent answers from maybe, to possibly, to not until the wedding night.

If I ask her to talk about sex she usually doesn't want to talk about the subject. But then will bring it up on her own from time to time, usually to ask questions about why people do this, that or another. Recently she asked me about why men go to prostitutes instead of masturbate. This led to a long discussion (we were drinking a little) and I found out that she (says) has never masturbated but has had a guy finger her once. When I asked for more info she said that masturbation seems "wrong" to her and after she was fingered it felt "wrong" to her even though she really enjoyed it when it occurred. That relationship "fizzled out" soon after (her words).

If I ask her why it's OK that her boyfriend, her mother and all of her friends have had premarital sex but not OK for her she doesn't really have an answer for that. She doesn't think we are wicked or evil or going to hell. She never judges any of us for it at all. For some reason the rules don't apply consistently.

I want to add to this that her father left when he found out her mother was pregnant with her and she has never met the SOB. I personally hate the guy just on this basis alone (abandoning your child is unforgivable to me). From this lifelong experience she definitely has some resentment.

I really care about her and on the days she is being affectionate I have gotten to the point where I almost feel like telling her I love her. The feeling isn't consistent enough yet for me to tell her that; I think it will get there soon though. Here is the thing, though: I am very very frustrated. I have been with multiple women (something she is aware of). I think waiting until marriage is insane and a horrible idea. I have intimate needs that are not being even addressed, let alone satisfied. I am still not sure that I can marry someone without having had sex with them beforehand. In fact, before her I used to make it an absolute must before marriage or engagement.

The thing is, she is a very high-quality, wonderful woman. I really enjoy her company and I am finally dating an intellectual and (mostly) moral equal. I can't imagine being able to find a better person to spend my life with and raise kids with. She tells me I have been more respectful of her than any man she has ever met by a huge margin. I buy her flowers about once every two weeks. I always ask permission to do something instead of just assuming I can and doing it (i.e., touching her in certain ways).

But I can't seem to get her past this and I don't know how long I can take this very frustrating wait. What do I do? How can I convince her that sex isn't scary or bad or wrong? How can I convince her that it is a normal, healthy part of an adult relationship and that waiting is a bad idea? How can I get her to be more consistently affectionate? And is there any way to just get her to be more consistent in general? Is she going through something that needs professional help?

Frustrated but Loving Boyfriend

Dear Frustrated,

My guess is that the choices your girlfriend is making about sex are her way of guarding against the existential threat of abandonment.

The message your girlfriend got as an infant, and throughout her childhood, is that men will abandon you. That's what happened to her and her mother and that's what will happen to her again if she allows it. Men you love, men who are important to you, men you have sex with, men who get you pregnant, they abandon you in a way that is painful and threatens your survival.

"Fear of abandonment is the hallmark of the fatherless daughter," writes Pamela Thomas, author of "Fatherless Daughters: Turning the Pain of Loss Into the Power of Forgiveness."

So she is never going to let that happen to her. That's the message operating on an unconscious level: Whatever she must forgo, whatever she must endure, she is never going to let another man come into her life and abandon her. So when you treat her kindly and want to have sex with her, she may feel a strong urge to love you and have sex with you. But she also feels powerfully conflicted feelings of terror and rage.

The thing about early life experiences like hers is that they're not available as conscious memories. So  they work on us in baffling ways. We fear things that others find pleasurable. We justify our fears in implausible ways. She says she wants to put off having sex for "religious" reasons. That doesn't make sense to you because she's not religious. Of course it doesn't make sense. She's not able to make sense of this because it is unconscious and irrational.

"Directly linked to fear of abandonment," Thomas says, "are many other emotional problems, including issues with intimacy, sex, trust, commitment, shame, and most of all, anger."

If she were to begin psychotherapy and then decide, at some time into it, that she's ready to try having sex, the first time might trigger powerful memories and symptoms. She might feel suddenly angry and frightened and not know why.  That would be a sign that her early experience is coming alive. It might actually be a good thing if it happened in the context of a supportive, ongoing relationship with a partner and also with a psychotherapist.

However, if she decides to have sex before she's ready, it could be rough going indeed. She could seem to come apart. So I do not recommend that you keep trying to help her have a satisfying sexual experience.

We can't force people to confront the awful pain of early abandonment. One generally begins exploring such things only after enduring enough pain and disappointment to force the issue. If she genuinely wants to explore the deep origins of her feelings about life and romance and men and sex then I would definitely recommend that she begin serious psychotherapy, of a psychodynamic variety.

You could gently suggest this to her. But you can't fix her. In fact, to assume that every woman must become sexually active and functional is a sexist assumption. If women are to be truly free, we must labor to free ourselves of these expectations. If we truly believe that a woman would be "happier" if she had a decent sex life then we must gird our loins and grant women the freedom to be "unhappy."

It's her choice. I have little doubt that she is living with discomfort and fear that could be alleviated through long and diligent work with a strong, protective, loyal and insightful therapist. But it's her choice.

In a nutshell, here is my thinking on your prospects for a satisfying sex life with this woman. It won't happen unless you and she have a shared understanding of how she was affected by her early abandonment and a shared agreement that you want to work on this together in an intimate therapeutic setting.

So please, don't just marry her and expect her sexuality to magically blossom. Instead, ask yourself if this is the relationship you want, now, today, the way it is. If not, don't marry her and expect things to change.

If you're not happy with the relationship as it is now, then do not commit to it. Marrying will not change her. She will change if and when she is ready.

Cary Tennis

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