Enduring Unpleasant Touch
Do you want to know the most powerful thing you can to do transform your sex life? Stop enduring touch that doesn’t feel good.
In my somatic coaching practice, I help people create better sex lives, so I hear all about the experiences and worries that hold them back. A lot of folks tell me that they put up with, tolerate, and endure sexual touch that they don’t enjoy. The impact that has on their pleasure, their sexual desire, and their relationships is huge.
There are plenty of reasons people think they need to accept touch they don’t want. We live in a world that doesn’t value consent and bodily autonomy. There’s a big difference between telling a child, “Come give Grandma a kiss” and asking her, “Would you like to give Grandma a kiss?” How can we expect people to be able to make choices about their sex lives as adults when we don’t give children a chance to practice making their own decisions around touch?
Betty Martin points out that even if you were never explicitly taught that you don’t have control over who touches you, you still learned that lesson as an infant. When we’re that young, we experience people doing things to us that we don’t want. Hopefully, it’s in service to our health and well-being. But even then, we learn the lesson that we have to accommodate our will to someone else’s touch during a developmental stage when our nervous systems are wide open and receptive. On a fundamental level, we’ve all learned to endure touch we don’t want. The fact that it’s a necessary part of caring for a baby doesn’t change its impact.
Of course, most of us have that lesson reinforced throughout the rest of our lives. Maybe you had an older sibling who would wrestle or tickle you when you wanted to be left alone. Maybe you had a sexual relationship with someone who didn’t know how to ask you what you wanted. Maybe you experienced groping or sexual assault. But even someone in a hypothetical “perfect” situation, has absorbed the lesson that sometimes, they have to put up with touch that they don’t want.
Beyond the issue of touch and consent, plenty of people endure touch from a lover that simply doesn’t feel good. Maybe your partner is unskilled. And maybe, the problem is that your partner is doing something that might feel good at another time or to another person, but it doesn’t feel pleasurable to you in this moment. So you keep silent and hope that they’ll change what they’re doing. You endure something you don’t enjoy, rather than speaking up.
It’s easy to give the usual advice about how communication is important in relationships. While that’s true, I think it erases the many reasons it can be difficult to tell a partner that you want them to do something different. I hear stories about embarrassment and shame, wanting to avoid a fight, worrying that your sexual response is somehow weird, not knowing what to ask for, and thinking that this is just how sex is supposed to be. It’s not enough to tell people to communicate when there are so many hurdles in the way. So folks keep quiet, fake their pleasure, and wish things would get better. Here are some of the ways that I see this play out for my clients:
This is one of the biggest issues that can affect relationships. When we hold our anger in and don’t express it, it crystallizes into resentment. With each violation of our desires and needs, resentment grows and spreads until it shuts down intimacy and connection.
It’s difficult to drop into intimacy when you’re feeling resentment. Intimacy invites you to share how you feel with another person. Resentment requires you to hold your feelings in and not let them show. In the conflict between those two, resentment almost always wins. It’s hard to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open with someone when you’re withholding your feelings.
As if that wasn’t enough, the anger that’s bubbling underneath the resentment gets in the way of feeling pleasure. You can’t fully enjoy what’s happening in your body when you’re trying to avoid noticing your pent up frustration. Tuning out your emotions limits how much pleasure you can experience. Whether those feelings are the result of your current relationship or a past one, they make you dread and avoid physical touch. You mistrust your partner’s advances. And you start to see them as an enemy. Once that happens, enduring sex becomes the baseline and pleasure goes out the window.
That resentment ripples out into the rest of your life. You have less resilience when difficult things happen. When miscommunications and conflicts arise, you’re less able to assume that the other person has good intentions and you jump to conclusions about their motivations. Carrying the internal pain of resentment might make you lash out at others or it might make you pull away. However it plays out, the resentment that forms because of enduring unwanted touch affects everything else you experience and do.
When resentment and enduring sex become the norm, most people pick one of two choices. They avoid sex entirely or they dissociate. Dissociation is a protective strategy because it removes your awareness from the unpleasant situation you find yourself in.
Dissociation can take a lot of different forms. For some people, it looks like “going blank” and tuning out. Maybe you hold still and are unresponsive during sex. Maybe you hold your breath and wait for things to be over. But it doesn’t always look like that.
Dissociation can mean cultivating such a rich and detailed fantasy that you’re hardly even aware of what your partner is doing. Don’t get me wrong- fantasy can be a really fun way to heighten arousal and enhance intimacy. But it can also be used to check out and not pay attention to what’s happening in the moment.
When fantasy becomes a tool to avoid the present situation, it can actually increase your body’s sense of enduring unwanted touch. Your body is still receiving something it doesn’t want while your mind is elsewhere. That reinforces the somatic programming that says that this is something to be expected, rather than something to be changed.
One of my clients cultivated such a strong fantasy life that she could have pleasure and orgasm during sex, even when the physical touch wasn’t what she wanted. As a result, her partner kept doing what he thought was “working,” thinking that it made her feel good.
In our work together, we unpacked the messages she’d received about her pleasure, talked about the relationship habits that kept the two of them stuck, and explored some somatic practices to help her tune into her arousal. She was surprised to discover some new things that made her feel good. Once we’d done all of that, we were able to start looking for ways for the two of them to talk about her newfound sexual self-awareness. It wasn’t a quick fix, but it was much more sustainable. The last I heard, things were going great for them. The first step was identifying how her fantasies were actually dissociation.
Another way we dissociate during sex is by using alcohol or drugs. I’m not saying that having a glass of wine before sex is inherently a problem. But if you’re using it so you don’t have to pay attention to how you feel during sex or if you’re using it as a way to tolerate touch that isn’t what you want, it’s not actually helping. Alcohol or drugs can make it easier to endure during sex, but you’re telling your body that this is simply how sex is supposed to be. Your body learns those lessons well, and sex becomes even more unpleasant.
Enduring unwanted sexual touch doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If your sexual arousal patterns don’t look like what you or your partner imagine they “should” be, that’s a recipe for shame.
Unfortunately, a lot of people think that sex is supposed to look like what they see in porn. But sex in porn is designed to look “good” on camera, in much the same way that a cooking show makes everything look easy. When a TV chef says, “have a cup of chopped bell pepper,” it’s magically there on the counter. There’s no work to make it happen, there’s nothing to clean up, and it looks perfect. A similar thing happens in almost all porn. Nobody has to change positions to alleviate a leg cramp, nobody needs warm-up or lubricant before intercourse, and everyone loves hard, fast, pounding sex.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with liking that kind of sex, but it’s not what everyone wants. In fact, my experience as a sex coach tells me most people want other kinds of sex, at least some of the time. Unfortunately, if you compare your sexual desires with what you see in porn, you might assume that there’s something wrong with you rather than realizing that there are a lot more ways to enjoy pleasure than what happens on the screen.
It’s not only porn that does that. We sometimes learn those lessons from our past lovers. One guy I worked with was upset because his girlfriend blamed him for not responding to her oral sex moves the way her previous lovers had. She was convinced that there was something wrong with him since the other guys she’d had sex with had enjoyed her blowjob techniques. But this particular guy was less sensitive around the head of his penis than average, and he preferred to have his balls played with.
Rather than understanding how sexual response varies, his girlfriend shamed him for it. That put him in the position of enduring touch that didn’t work for him and pretending he enjoyed it in order to avoid getting into an argument. While that seemed to him like a good way to avoid being shamed for how his body was wired, it created more shame because every time they had sex, it reminded him that he didn’t meet her expectations. He started to avoid sex, rather than deal with that.
In our work together, we talked about how diverse sexual response really is and explored some ways he could talk with his girlfriend. I also met with the two of them to unpack some of her expectations around sex and what she thought it meant if he had a different response than her previous lovers. Once they found the places where their sexual patterns overlapped, things became much easier. He could be fully present and enjoy sex with her again. And she stopped taking it personally that her oral sex skills didn’t work the same on him as on her previous partners.
What to do about it
With all of the ways that we learn to put up with touch that we don’t want, it can seem impossible to change things. But there are some effective strategies that can help us shift our relationship to touch so we can stop enduring.
First, you have to believe that there’s an alternative. That might sound obvious, but if your experience has been telling you that you don’t have a right to say “no,” or that it’s important to put up with something you don’t want to avoid rocking the boat, or that this is how sex is supposed to be, it can be hard to do.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that for many people, enduring touch may actually be the less bad option. If the consequences of speaking up include physical or emotional abuse, for example, you might make the decision to not say anything. The whole point of respecting other people’s ability to make their own choices with this means recognizing that there are lots of reasons people do what they do. It would be arrogant of me to suggest that anyone should do something simply because I think it’s the right choice.
Having said that, a lot of people who could choose to stop tolerating unpleasant touch don’t believe or realize that they have the option. For folks in those situations, the first step is to consider the possibility and be willing to move towards it.
Consent and touch
Once you’ve decided that you want to stop enduring touch, there are different skills that can make it easier to get the touch you want. One of my favorite exercises is a lesson in speaking your boundaries. I place my hands on my client’s hand and ask them to tell me to take my hands away. After that, I ask them to tell me to put my hands back.
It’s a simple practice, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’ve had a few clients burst into tears because I was the first person who stopped touching them when they said, without needing justification or explanation. The somatic experience of saying, “take your hands off of me” and having someone do it without anger or disrespect is a great way to start learning how to speak your truth during sex. I use this exercise with all of my somatic clients, and it’s one of the first things that we do in my Embodied Consent workshop. It’s groundbreaking, precisely because it’s so simple.
Another exercise I do comes from Betty Martin’s work. For three minutes, I touch my client’s forearm and hand in exactly the way they want. Circles, tapping, squeezing, scratching, gliding- whatever they tell me they want, I do my best to do it. There’s room for clarifying as needed: harder, slower, faster, etc. The purpose of this practice is to give someone the experience of telling someone how to touch them, which is different from asking them to do it.
This is a foundational piece because it’s the same basic skill as saying something like, “Do light circles on my clit” or “Squeeze the base of my cock during a blowjob.” Since it’s a lot more challenging to give feedback like that when there’s a lot of erotic energy, it’s helpful to learn how to do it in a non-sexual situation.
I like to follow that exercise up by switching roles and giving my client the opportunity to experience clear, direct instruction about how to touch my arm. Sometimes, it’s an easy experience. Sometimes, it triggers insecurity or embarrassment about “not doing it right.” A lot of people resist being told how to touch someone because it challenges their self-identity as a skilled lover. So it’s important for me to give them a chance to explore the feelings that come up while giving and receiving instructions. That makes it much easier to learn how to give and receive feedback during sex.
I’ve seen how powerful these practices can be. Talking about sex or boundaries or consent is important, but it’s not enough. And while we can explore some of these exercises with our partners, it can be much safer to do it with someone who’s not involved in the situation because they have a different perspective. It
Know your body
Something I’ve learned from talking with people about their sex lives is that we often know when we’re experiencing something we aren’t enjoying, but we might not know what to ask for.
One of my clients knew that she didn’t like the way her girlfriend gave oral sex. She knew that it was too intense and that she wanted something different. But she couldn’t say what she preferred because she didn’t know how to put it into words. She’d certainly had other lovers whose oral skills worked for her, but nobody had ever described what they’d been doing, so she couldn’t use those past experiences as a basis for giving her current partner feedback.
I gave her a list of ways for them to experiment with oral sex. The goal of this “pleasure lab” wasn’t to have an orgasm, though it would have been fine if it happened. Instead, the purpose was to discover what techniques felt good, so I let her know that an experiment is only a failure if you don’t learn anything from it. I suggested that they take some time to try different oral moves out, and her job was to rate them on a pleasure scale of 1-10. Since sensations can change when we’re turned on, I asked her to try each of the techniques again once she was more aroused.
What they discovered is that she liked light circles on her clitoris at the beginning, and that she liked suction when she was more warmed up. Once she had that information, she could let her girlfriend know when she was ready to shift from softer to more intense, and her partner could give her what she wanted. None of that had ever happened for her before because she didn’t know what to ask for. There’s a tremendous difference between saying, “do that thing you did that time” and “make little circles on my clit with your tongue.”
One of the tricky things about knowing your body is that your sexual pleasure will change over time. You’ll become more sensitive or less sensitive than you previously were. You’ll like deeper touch or lighter touch than you used to. Just as your food tastes and preferences will change, the kinds of sexual touch you like will change. Knowing your body really becomes an ongoing exploration.
Paying attention to those shifts will make it much easier to adapt to them. One of the best ways to do that is to notice when you feel like you’re enduring touch, even if it’s a kind of touch that used to rock your world. When that happens, it’s time to go back to the lab and recalibrate. Trust me- it’ll happen sooner or later, so you might as well be ready for it.
Where’s your breath?
Holding your breath when something unpleasant is happening is one of the more common reflexes. We often tighten up and contract when we’re in a situation we don’t like. When I’m at the dentist, I usually discover that I’m squeezing my fists or tightening my legs. Maybe you clench your jaw during annoying phone calls. Maybe the muscles in your neck or lower back pain squeeze and cause pain when you’re stressed out. However your body reacts to discomfort, you probably also hold your breath. The irony is that this reflex usually increases the discomfort.
When I mindfully unclench my muscles and start taking long, deep breaths, the dental cleaning becomes less painful. That’s because breathing can help the body relax. It takes some practice to be able to tune into your breath when you’re enduring something you don’t want, and it’s a practice that starts to pay off pretty quickly.
As a first step, you can pay attention to your breath when you’re having sex. If your partner is doing that thing that you dislike or that you find uncomfortable, take a moment and check: how’s your breathing? Are you holding your breath? If you are, that’s a good sign that you’ve shifted out of pleasure and into enduring. It’s a signal that something needs to change.
Get some help
Learning to stop enduring unpleasant sexual touch isn’t easy. You’ve probably received all sorts of messages that told you that it’s better to put up with it, to pretend that you’re enjoying it, or that you don’t have any other options. If you’ve tried to talk about it with a partner, that conversation might have turned into an argument rather than helping you find a better path forward. Even with the best of intentions, it’s hard to talk about these things with a lover without one or both of you getting triggered, lashing out, or withdrawing. No wonder so many people simply put up with it.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is get some outside support and perspective. Unfortunately, while some therapists are quite skilled at navigating these kinds of concerns, far too many of them get almost no training about sexuality. If you want to work with a therapist, I suggest that you ask them about their experience with sexuality topics. It can save you a lot of time and effort.
As much as I value therapy (and I’ve worked with therapists quite a bit in my personal life), there are limits to what they can offer since their scope of practice doesn’t have room for many of the somatic exercises and approaches that somatic sex coaching brings. Even somatic therapists have to work within different limits than my colleagues and I work within.
If you’re ready to really dive deep and learn how to create an embodied, pleasurable sex life, get in touch with a somatic sex educator (also known as a sexological bodyworker). The Association of Certified Sexological Bodyworkers has a list of practitioners from all over the world. You can also find some wonderful folks here. Many of us work over Skype, so we can be of service to you, anywhere in the world.
If you’re in Seattle, I would be honored to offer my support as you discover new ways to give and receive pleasurable touch. I work with folks of all genders, sexual orientations, and relationship styles, as well as with people from many different communities of erotic affiliation such as the BDSM and polyamorous communities. I also travel across North America and I’m always happy to meet up with you while I’m on the road. And of course, I work with people over Skype or FaceTime so no matter where you are, I’m available for you.
Get in touch with me for a free 30 minute Get Acquainted call. We’ll talk about your situation and what I can do to help. If I’m not quite the right fit for you, I’ll help you find someone who will be. My goal is to help you make sex easy. I look forward to hearing from you.