Q: I’ve been in a long-term relationship with an amazing man who I love and trust a lot. We communicate well and we’re very open about past, present, and future, in all regards. Two major life events have put a long-term damper on our sex life and I’m struggling with how to turn things around. One is physical: a hip surgery that has caused a drastic reduction in the quick, frisky, unpredictable motions of good sex. I’m down for being more of the mover and the shaker but I miss our old days of mutual rough-housing.
The second is both physical and emotional, and because the two events were simultaneous I can’t really decipher what led to what, but we both live under a little cloud of some past violence, and there was an act of violence (not between us!) just after the surgery waged against my poor man. So our selves and our bodies and our lives were in some turmoil for nearly a year after all this.
I think because it wasn’t my body that was inflicted with any issues I’m pushing a little, but I want to get us back to the fun, free, playful times we used to be at. I’m frustrated and sometimes I vocalize it. Sometimes I’m a little mean. If the tables were turned, I think I’d practically be in a convent where I might let a nice man French kiss me once or twice a year, so I’m trying to be patient. But I’m also a progressive-thinking lady who’s not afraid to vocalize her LadyNeeds. How can I get my man back to being “King of the Bedroom” without rushing him too much through the healing process? PS: It’s been two years!!
A: It sounds like you and your partner have gone through and been dealing with a lot the past few years. It also sounds like you understand the physical and emotional reasons that there has been a bit of a damper, as you say, on your sex life, and that you care about your partner but that you’re also feeling frustrated (which is understandable).
Did he see any kind of counselor or therapist after the violent act that you mentioned? If not, counseling would really help you both address and cope with what happened and what you need to have happen now. Your partner could do some on his own, or you could go as a couple, or both. If you do not have insurance (or even if you do), any local universities or medical schools might have resources available to you, and local social services groups should be able to give you information on therapists who take patients on a sliding scale. Persephone Magazine’s own Luci Furious is working on a series of posts about starting therapy, and you might find those helpful, too. Any counselor or psychologist ought to be equipped to help your partner deal with this traumatic event, but there are also people who specialize in post-traumatic stress disorder and other violence-related issues, couples therapy, and sex therapy, and you might have some luck searching for counselors by area of specialty on a site like this. If your partner and/or you decide to go this route and encounter a therapist one or both of you dislike, or even just one that you don’t really click with, don’t be afraid to seek out somebody new; from the friends we have spoken with who have some experience with therapy, it is extremely common and even expected that you will “shop around.”
Is your partner interested in sex but just isn’t as aggressive or confident as he once was, or does he not want to do anything sexual? If it’s the former, is he willing to and interested in helping you be sexual even if he cannot participate in all the ways that he used to? If he doesn’t feel interested in or able to (either physically, emotionally or both) have PIV sex with you, for example, would he feel okay with holding you and touching you while you touch yourself or even using toys with you? It’s difficult to know what to suggest, though, without knowing what’s going on in his head and how he’s feeling. If the incident you mentioned is making him feel alienated from his body and his sexuality (and your comment about how if it had been you, you’d practically be in a convent makes us think that this is something that could have had a profound effect on him), that could certainly explain why he’s not feeling or behaving the way he used to, and that’s where we see therapy as potentially being helpful; some people are able to work through and deal with traumatic events on their own, but other people very much need some help.
He might also be struggling with the pressure to be “King of the Bedroom.” Might you be able to frame it another way together, so he can feel good being in the bedroom in the first place without feeling that he needs to live up to certain expectations? (This is not meant to say that you are pressuring him, because it sounds like you’re working hard to be supportive and understanding, but he may feel that you have certain expectations nonetheless.) Any violent assault, especially one of a sexual nature, whether with or without lasting physical injury, is likely going to change how a person deals with sex and acts sexually. Rather than thinking about it as trying to return to what you had, it might be more beneficial to look at it as redefining and recreating your sex life together. It doesn’t need to be the same as it was to still be good and fulfilling for you both.
It’s also possible that your partner needs more time to feel ready to perform at the same physical level as he did pre-surgery. Although the physical process of healing may be more or less over by now, the fear of re-injuring yourself can stay with you for quite a while – Future Mr. paperispatient had knee surgery almost five years ago, and even though he has recovered pretty thoroughly, he’s still wary of activities and motions he never thought twice about before. Recovery – assuming this is even the sort of surgery from which he can fully physically recover – can be a very slow process, and patience may be your best option for now in that regard. Your partner might also feel reluctant to confront the fact that his body is different now than it was; he may worry that he would feel pain or lose his balance during an activity that he used to do with ease before, and even though you communicate very well and you would make it clear that you’re not judging him or disappointed in him, it may take a while for him to feel strong enough to try.
We also consulted some friends/fellow Persephoneers who are far more knowledgeable than we are about sex and disability. They recommended Enabling Romance: A Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships for People with Disabilities (and the People who Care About Them) by Ken Kroll and Erica Levy Klein and The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain, and Illness by Miriam Kaufman, Cory Silverberg, and Fran Odette; both books talk about building self-esteem and a positive self-image, communication, and intimacy, and they offer suggestions for figuring out how to make sex work for you and your partner, from positions to testimonials from people about their experiences and what works for them.
Because there are so many overlapping physical and emotional factors here, we ultimately come back to what we suggested at the beginning of the article; you two are dealing with a lot, and you do not have to go through it without help and support from a professional who has more experience with such complicated issues. It may take some time, but with the communication and trust that the two of you share, you’re off to a good start.
Got a question you’d like us to discuss, myth you’d like us to bust, or general topic you’d like us to talk about? You can e-mail us at FriskyFeminist@persephonemagazine.com, and we’ve also set up a Tumblr for the sole purpose of receiving completely anonymous questions at paperispatientsexqanda.tumblr.com.