Advice Sexuality

Get Real! What to Do When Sex Has Only Either Felt Painful or Like Nothing?

Heather Corinna

It either hurts or feels like nothing. You don't know what to do, or what's wrong, and your partner is handling it really poorly. Here's some information and advice to the rescue.

yougivemefever asks:

I seem to not be able to feel any sort of pleasure from anything sexual. I’m 17 and have never been able to achieve an orgasm. It hurts being fingered. I’ve never been able to masturbate, because I could not keep focus or it started hurting. It also feels too awkward. When my boyfriend tried doing it, it hurt. He tried giving me oral sex, but that was painful. I tell him it hurts, and he tries to go as gently as he can, but it still hurts. I’m frustrated because I get no satisfaction, and my boyfriend’s self esteem is damaged because he thinks it’s his fault. We lost our virginities to each other a couple of months ago. It hurt a lot the first two times. After it stopped hurting, it just felt like nothing. I didn’t have the heart to tell my boyfriend until recently that I don’t feel anything. Now he’s really upset because he feels like a pig and that he used me. He says I subconsciously don’t love him, and that’s why I don’t feel anything.

It seems like I’m the only one with the problem of not being able to feel anything during sex AND clitoral stimulation hurts.

My boyfriend was hesitant to try to please me in the first place because he’s inexperienced and gets frustrated. He gets upset he can’t reciprocate. I don’t expect him to just know what I like. I should be comfortable enough with my body to be able to show him what to do, but if nothing feels good, I have nothing to show him. It is extremely frustrating, because I do get turned on and wet, but end up disappointed, dissatisfied, and annoyed.

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Is this more likely to be a psychological or physical issue? I am a little insecure. I also suspect a reason might have been because we had unprotected sex and I might have been nervous, or the fact that we might have gotten caught so I was distracted. Our relationship is in no way sex-centered, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t effect us. We love each other a lot, and my boyfriend would like to be able to give me the sensations that I am able to give him.

Heather Corinna replies:

I want to start with the idea that you are the only one who is having the troubles you’re having. You’re not.

We often hear from folks so sure they are 100 percent alone and unique in whatever is going on with them, though almost always, we’ve not only heard from someone before with the same or similar issues, but from plenty of someones. It’s so easy for people to think their sexual issues are unique because most have so little candid and truly diverse talk about sexuality in their lives, but those of us who work in sexuality know the truly unique sexual issue, which only one person has, is basically a unicorn. It can help to remember that there are billions of people in the world, and there’s probably not any human experience or state totally unique to any of us, including with sex. To give you an example, here are a few other folks’ questions posted recently at our website alone (some similarly convinced it’s only them):

evilekat asks:

I don’t get pleasure out of sex (oral or vaginal). It just doesn’t feel good at all, sometimes it’s just downright uncomfortable. Even when I am aroused, I get no pleasure whatsoever. Masturbating does nothing for me either. It sucks because I want to be able to have an orgasm and I want my boyfriend to feel like he is actually good at sex. It makes me feel like a freak, do I have faulty nerves or something? I don’t know anyone with my problem, some don’t like to have sex, some can’t orgasm, but no one has problems with all of the above and gets no pleasure at all out of sexual activity. Is there something wrong with me? Help!

nzchick asks:

My boyfriend and I had anal sex but neither of us felt anything once he penetrated or while he was in. I felt him go in but that was it. I’m a virgin and neither of us has had anal sex before we were both left really confused. This can’t be normal!

Nmik63 asks:

Me and my boyfriend decided to have sex for the first time. But anyway, while he was doing it, I didn’t feel anything, like anything at all. I was aroused and all that good stuff, but I didn’t feel any pleasure… please help!

SweetAddiction asks:

When I finger myself its real tight but I either feel nothing or pain? Does that mean I’m putting my finger in the wrong spot?

See? It’s so not just you.

Not feeling anything at all, or feeling very little, with any kind of genital sex where the most sensory parts of the genitals are being stimulated is typically an indication someone is just not very aroused or as aroused as they need to be. We don’t all need to be turned on to the same degree to have various kinds of sex feel pleasurable, but sometimes or for some people more than others, being as amped up as possible is key. And whenever we are highly aroused, every kind of sex, including touch with parts besides our genitals, is always going to feel more intense.

Our genitals are incredibly sensitive, but how sensitive they are has a lot to do with if we’re very sexually excited or not, which is why when we, say, wipe after toileting, wash ourselves in the bath, or have a pelvic exam, we’re not usually in wild throes of ecstasy. Most of arousal, pleasure, and sexual response are about our brains and central nervous systems. If there’s not a whole lot of the good stuff going on upstairs and throughout those systems, there’s not going to be a lot going on below. When we are aroused, our whole bodies, including our genitals, get way more sensitive and responsive than when we’re not, so when we’re not feeling anything at all with genital touch, it really is very unlikely we are earnestly and strongly aroused. Also, when we’re sexually excited and really feeling good emotionally—rather than anxious, fearful, insecure, or frustrated—because of how our brain affects our biochemistry, things that might normally hurt more hurt less, and we’re more likely to feel pleasure, when otherwise we may feel pain.

In terms of your genitals specifically, a bunch of different things happen, beyond just self-lubrication (which can also happen as part of your fertility cycle): The cervix and uterus pull backwards, the back of the vagina tents and becomes more spacious, the walls of the vagina fill with blood, and the vulva looks different, with a puffier mons and outer and inner labia and a deeper color. And like the penis, the clitoris becomes erect, and not just the glans and hood you can see on the outside, but the internal portions as well, which make the front of the vagina feel more compact, full, and a lot more sensitive inside (inside the first third, anyway—the back portion only gets so sensitive). And those are just the parts about your genitals; there’s a whole lot of other stuff that often happens with your whole body and in your mind when you’re really turned on, like a faster heart rate and breathing, skin flushing, and pupil dilation. Also our intellectual and emotional sexual feelings can be headier, floatier, more spinny, loud and free-flowing, and sometimes even scary, depending on how comfortable we are with those feelings and who we’re having them with.

Being fully aroused takes a bit of an odd combo of being both keyed up but also relaxed, in our bodies and our minds, of being very in the moment and focused on the experience we’re having, but not too focused on any one part or on a given goal or outcome. If you’ve ever made Hollandaise sauce, it’s a lot like that; it seems like only a few simple ingredients that should be so easy to mix and make delicious, but it’s a very delicate balance that can turn on you so easily, leaving you with a weird half-coagulated mess instead of a delicious thick sauce if just one little thing goes amiss.

One tricky thing that often comes up with younger people, and more commonly with women, is a clear difficulty in correctly identifying what it really is to be and feel fully aroused. (And here’s a hint: the level to which we can become aroused is often lower in our teens and 20s, particularly for women, than it will be later for physiological, chemical, intellectual, interpersonal, and identity-based reasons.) It’s not just about loving someone, for instance. Sometimes that has absolutely nothing to do with love at all. There are a lot of messages in the world that say if women just love someone enough, the sex will be good and the chemistry will be there, even though things don’t play out that way much of the time. It’s not just about thinking a partner looks hot, or about a partner, period. How we feel about ourselves has as much to do with how aroused we are as how we feel about our partners. It’s also not just about someone doing the “right” things in how they touch us. How we feel before we’re even touched at all is usually a huge deal. What’s going on emotionally between us also plays a big part, so a skillful set of fingers can easily be of no use when they’re attached to someone with a crummy attitude.

There’s a lot to feeling fully, over-the-top aroused, from our own lifelong and present sense of self, body, and sexuality to being really excited by and comfortable with our sexual partners, to how we feel and what state our bodies are in at any given time. (Did we sleep well? Are we stressed out about school? Are we hungry? Having relationship problems? Do we have a bunch of zits making us feel not at all sexy?) I don’t mean to second-guess you when you say you are really turned on, but some of what you’re reporting here not only suggests you’re probably not, but that it’d be awfully hard to be.

You identify some things I suspect have inhibited you from getting as turned on as you probably can: discomfort with masturbation (which often is about discomfort with your own body or sexual shame), a partner who becomes easily frustrated, not protecting yourself from big risks, fear of being caught having sex, some insecurity of your own, and coming to any of this likely expecting to be frustrated, dissatisfied, and annoyed and also expecting your partner to be, since that’s what keeps happening. There are also some common threads in your question and some of the other similar questions, like having sexual motives about making an insecure partner feel validated, being new to partnered sex, and putting a lot on genital sex (rather than other whole-body or other-body-part sexual activities). Just one of those things could be a big inhibitor of arousal and sexual response, but all of them are a serious whammy. I’d be so surprised if you were feeling pleasure and were earnestly very turned on that I’d probably call the press.

But what we or our partners are doing in terms of touch does also matter. Not everyone likes the same sexual things, experiences pleasure (or pain) from the same things, or likes a given thing done a given way. Like anything else, sex is something we learn over time and get better at with practice—way more than a few weeks or months of it. We’re always learning anew with every new partner, and throughout our whole lives, we continue learning about our own sexuality and sexual response, not only because there’s a lot to learn, but because it doesn’t tend to stay exactly the same from day to day, year to year, or decade to decade. When you or any partners are new to sex, you’ve all got to be able to feel pretty OK with being a beginner and embrace that, rather than get pissed off about it. Everyone involved needs to be pretty creative and open to experimentation, as well as open and comfortable with the fact that some things will be easier than others, and some things will involve way more experimentation than others. If you have a partner who is profoundly uncomfortable with being new to sex and experimenting, and who also is clearly very product-oriented or goal-oriented, reticent to experiment because they want certain results or have a desperate need to be validated, rather than just wanting to engage in the process no matter what comes out of it, that’s going to be a huge barrier to having enjoyable sex with that partner.

The pain you’re having, and which it seems you have had in the past with masturbation before this, is something I would be sure to see a sexual health-care provider about. Sure, it could be psychological, in whole or in part. Since you mostly seem to be talking about clitoral pain, it could be about the way you’re touching yourself or the way someone else is touching you—that touch may be too rough, intense, or fast. There are more sensory nerve endings packed into that relatively small clitoral glans than any part of any gender‘s body, so a lot of folks find that less is more with that body part. You may need to experiment more on your own and with partners, trying things like more indirect stimulation (like rubbing through the outer labia or mons, or only rubbing lightly over the hood), and/or making sure that when you experiment, it’s because you have strong sexual desires, rather than doing it to appease a partner or to try and make something happen for you just because you think it’s supposed to. Alternately, you may want to check in about those feelings of awkwardness and lack of focus you’re having and see if maybe you’re just not feeling that sexual right now in your life, and if not, just let it go for now. No one has to masturbate or have sex. There can be times in our lives and sexual development when we don’t because it just doesn’t feel right.

However, that pain could also be about, or made more severe by, a health issue, and if it is, all of this stuff about arousal may not be very relevant. Conditions like vulvar vestibulitis, lichen sclerosis, an accumulation of sebum under the clitoral hood (clitoral adhesions), a compressed nerve or a Bartholin’s gland cyst can cause pain like you’re experiencing. Issues like those will require treatment for pain to stop or decrease. Even things that seem like they could be minor or which you may not even think to look into, like a borderline urinary tract infection (UTI) or yeast infection or a sensitivity to certain detergents, a partner’s toothpaste, or menstrual products can be culprits or contributors. So, I’d suggest you make an appointment with a gynecologist to see if anything is up before you have any kind of genital sex again. In the future, if you’re having pain anywhere in your body that clearly isn’t temporary, you always want to ask a health-care provider about it when you can rather than suffering without looking into why.

I’m hearing some clear statements that sound like it is simply not at all the right time for you and your boyfriend to be sexual together. You voice that both of you are having issues with insecurity. You voice that he seems to have an inability to separate love from sex, and is not understanding that how much someone loves someone else is not necessarily going to have anything to do with their sexual response. You could not love someone at all and still have the time of your sexual life with them, after all—this isn’t likely about love. Unless the two of you are trying to create a pregnancy, you are voicing that one or both of you isn’t ready to consistently reduce risks with the sex you’re having, or that you don’t have the assertiveness, support, or the comfort in your relationship needed to protect yourself from outcomes you don’t want and which I suspect he isn’t even remotely ready to handle well.

I’m a bothered by his saying to you that he he feels like a “pig” who “used you” in this context, because it kind of suggests that it’s your fault, and that if your body would just react the way he wants it to, he’d feel differently. That really isn’t cool. You only have so much control over your body, and a statement like that implies, to me, that he has his own sexual issues to work out that no kind of sex with you will magically fix.

Now, maybe he needs to work on his social and communication skills some to figure out how to voice things like that in a way that isn’t so crappy and accusatory. For instance, he could have said, “I’m worried that if I’m feeling pleasure and you’re not, I’m taking advantage or not being a good partner to you. Do you think that?” At the same time, a statement like he made seems to go with things like refusing to believe that you love him because you’re not digging the sex yet, that he knows your own heart and mind better than you do in that respect, and suggesting you’re making him feel like a pig because he’s feeling pleasure and you’re not yet. And all of that combined sets off my radar.

Self-esteem, to be clear, is about our value of our whole selves—not just who we are in a relationship, who we are as a romantic or sexual partner to anyone, or who we are in bed. I sincerely doubt that you not feeling something physically or not responding to sex like it was the best sex ever damaged your boyfriend’s self-esteem. If he feels it took a major hit because you aren’t feeling a given thing physically, that suggests his esteem was either incredibly low to begin with and that he is putting too much of it put into sex or romance, or that he’s, well, being a drama queen. Something a lot of people don’t account for with sex is how it really can dredge up some challenging, tricky emotional stuff we either may not have seen in ourselves before, or may not have felt as acutely. We’re not always ready for that or up to dealing with it at given times in our lives or relationships. Something a lot of people don’t consider in choosing who to be sexual with is where that person’s emotional maturity really is. Someone as insecure as he sounds like probably needs to do some growing before he can handle being a sexual partner.

It’s going to be awfully hard to get very sexually excited and stay very excited with some of the dynamics going on here. When we aren’t feeling what we’d like to in our bodies, or they aren’t reacting the way we think they should, that’s both frustrating and kind of scary. Good partners are able to comfort us at those times, rather than making it about them. I’m concerned about the dynamics you’re describing not just because it seems unlikely either of you are going to have enjoyable sexual experiences with them afoot, but because I suspect they’re going to leave one or both of you feeling bad or crappy, and emotionally and interpersonally precarious. If these kinds of dynamics are happening outside sex, I’m concerned this relationship may not even be all that healthy, but that’s not something I can assess without more information about the whole relationship. It’s certainly something you can look into, though, and you may find this link and this one helpful for doing that.

The best advice I have based on what you told me is to step back from sex in this relationship for now—not just intercourse, but all genital sex. Just put it on the back burner for at least a little while. Just because we have sex once, or twice, or however many times, we don’t have to keep on having it, and it isn’t always wise to. We’re always evaluating whether or not it’s the right thing for us at a given time and in a given context, not just for first times, but every time, because it won’t always be the right thing and we won’t always have all of what we want and need for it to be right for us.

I’d say some things that are going on here give clear cues that sex between you two right now isn’t a great idea. I think both of you have some things to do on your own first before you can potentially get to a place where it might be a lot more sound and feel better, physically and emotionally, for both of you. Personally, I have a strong feeling that a sexual relationship just isn’t what either of you are really ready for with each other, and maybe with other partners too. But that’s ultimately something you’ll need to figure out for yourself to reach your own conclusions.

I think you should start with that sexual health exam, to either rule out that they’re about a physical issue or find out that they are, and get some treatment so you stop hurting so much with genital contact, alone and with partners. You can spend some more time with your own masturbation, and some more time exploring what feels good and doesn’t, and what feels like something at all and what doesn’t, and what really turns you on in your head and heart, not just your body. I think you should also assess this relationship on the whole. Someone you love who refuses to believe you love them, who is deeply insecure and impatient, who is passive-aggressive in his communication just might not be a good person to be close to, period—not just sexually.

I think he should educate himself more about sex, your anatomy and what reciprocity is really about (and I’ll leave some links on that at the bottom of this page, which I think can benefit you too). He can assess the reality of where his esteem is, as well as if he’s earnestly confident and secure enough in himself to be sexual and intimate with you or any other partner at this point in his life. He can check in with himself very honestly about why he so badly needs your body to do certain things, and if he feels like he can’t do any of that, he can at least acknowledge his own big barriers to a working sexual partnership right now and give himself more time, by himself, to grow as a person first. He can read up on and work toward better communication, especially in situations like sex where the emotional stakes are high.

I also think it would be a great idea for both of you to do a sexual inventory worksheet like this, answering very honestly, then sharing each of your answers together. Same goes with our sexual readiness checklist. Then you two can circle back to each other and start by communicating what you’ve figured out about yourselves and where you’re really at, or stay in communication while you do that, hopefully communicating in ways that are patient and productive.

Maybe one or both of you will just realize you moved faster into sex than was sound. That’s OK. All you’ve got to do is step it back and go a lot slower. If you both find that instead, after spending some time with those things above alone and talking about them together, you do feel ready, able, and wanting to be in sexual relationship to each other, and want to work on being a better sexual fit, I think it’d be helpful to start at the beginning again. Stick with things like kissing, cuddling, making out, just being naked together, shared massage (petting) and talking more deeply about your sexual wants, needs, and feelings, putting genital sex aside for a good while or limiting it to mutual masturbation where you’re being sexual together, but only touching your own genitals. If and when you both get to a place where all of those things feel better, physically and emotionally, alone and together, then you can probably move forward and have this all go very differently than it has.

If it turns out one or both of you comes to the conclusion that you are really not ready for this yet, I want you to be able to accept and honor that without feeling crummy about it, or thinking that it means something that it doesn’t, about either of you or your relationship. You are still very young. I know some people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s who feel like they’re just finally starting to come into their own sexually, and it’s quite common for young women to have troubles with reaching orgasm, especially with partners, having satisfying sex lives with partners, and really feeling in touch with their own sexuality. We don’t all have the same pace, the same opportunities, the same kinds of interpersonal relationships, or the same relationships with ourselves and our sexuality. There is no one right age or right pace, just what is right for each of us as individuals, which won’t be in sync all the time with every other person we can be involved with sexually or otherwise. We’re just not all sexually compatible and in the same space, at the same pace, at the same time for sex to be sound. I know very well how much of a bummer that can be when it happens, but it happens and it’s going to happen in life at one time or another, probably to everyone.

I’m going to leave you with a batch of links to look at and to share. I think the pieces on communication and reciprocity could be of particular benefit when you talk together. Whatever your outcome with this, I hope you’re both feeling a whole lot better soon, better able to identify what you each need, together and for yourselves, and can feel more comfortable in accepting, exploring, and honoring whatever that is.

Commentary Race

Have a Problem With Black-Only Spaces? Get Over It

Ruth Jeannoel

As the parade of police killings of Black people continues, Black people have a right to mourn together—and without white people.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Dear Non-Black People:

If you hear about a healing space being organized for Black folks only, don’t question or try to be part of that space.

Simply, DON’T.

After again witnessing the recorded killings of Black people by police, I am trying to show up for my family, my community, and victims such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I am tired of injustice and ready for action.

But as a Black trans youth from the Miami, Florida-based S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective told me, “Before taking action, we must create space for healing.” With this comment, they led us in the right direction.

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Together, this trans young person, my fellow organizers, and I planned a Black-only community healing circle in Miami. We recognized a need for Black people to come together and care for each other. A collective space to heal is better than suffering and grieving alone.

As we began mobilizing people to attend the community circle, our efforts were met with confusion and resistance by white and Latinx people alike. Social media comments questioned why there needed to be a Black-only space and alleged that such an event was “not fair” and exclusionary.

We know the struggle against white supremacy is a multiracial movement and needs all people. So we planned and shared that there would be spaces for non-Black people of color and white people at the same time. We explained that this particular healing circle—and the fight against police violence—must be centered around Blackness.

But there was still blowback. One Facebook commenter wrote,

Segregation and racial separation is not acceptable. Disappointing.

That is straight bullshit.

To be clear, Black-only space is itself acceptable, and there’s a difference between Black people choosing to come together and white people systematically excluding others from their institutions and definitions of humanity.

But as I recognize that Black people can’t have room to mourn by ourselves without white tears, white shame, white guilt—and, yes, white supremacy—I am angry.

That is what racist laws have often tried to do: Control how Black people assemble. Enslaved people were often barred from gathering, unless it was with white consent or for church.

Even today, we see resistance when Black folks come together, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, in Nashville, Tennessee, Black Lives Matter activists were forced to move their meeting out of a library because it was a Black-only meeting. Last year, students at University of Missouri held a series of protests to demand an end to systemic racism and structural racism on their campus. The student group, Concerned Students 1950, called for their own Black-only-healing space, and they too received backlash from their white counterparts and the media.

At our healing circle in Miami, a couple of white people tried to be part of the Black-only space, which was held in another room. One of the white youths came late and asked why she had to be in a different room from Black attendees. I asked her this question: Do you feel like you are treated the same as your Black peers when they walk down the street?

When she answered no, I told her that difference made it important for Black people to connect without white people in the room. We talked about how to engage in political study that can shape how we view—and change—this world.

She understood. It was simple.

I have less compassion for adults who are doing social justice work and who do not understand. If you do not recognize your privilege as a non-Black person, then you need to reassess why you are in this movement.

Are you here to save the world? Do you feel guilty because of what your family may have done in the past or present? Are you marching to show that you are a “good” person?

If you are organizing to shift and shake up white supremacy but can’t understand your privilege under this construct, then this movement is not for you.

For the white folk and non-Black people of color who are sincerely fighting the anti-Blackness at the root of most police killings, get your people. Many of them are “progressive” allies with whom I’ve been in meetings, rallies, or protests. It is time for you to organize actions and events for yourselves to challenge each other on anti-Blackness and identify ways to fight against racial oppression, instead of asking to be in Black-only spaces.

Objecting to a Black-only space is about self-interest and determining who gets to participate. And it shows how little our allies understand that white supremacy gives European-descended people power, privilege, and profit—or that non-Black people of color often also benefit from white supremacy just because they aren’t Black in this anti-Black world.

Our critics were using racial privilege to access a space that was not for them or by them. In the way that white supremacy and capitalism are about individualism and racing to the top, they were putting their individual feelings, rights, and power above Black people’s rights to fellowship and talk about how racism has affected them.

We deserve Black-only community healing because this is our pain. We are the ones who are most frequently affected by police violence and killings. And we know there is a racial empathy gap, which means that white Americans, in particular, are less likely to feel our pain. And the last thing Black people need right now is to be in a room with people who can’t or won’t try to comprehend, who make our hurt into a spectacle, or who deny it with their defensiveness.

Our communal responses to that pain and healing are not about you. And non-Black people can’t determine the agenda for Black action—or who gets a seat at our table.

To Black folks reading this article, just know that we deserve to come together to cry, be angry, be confused, and be ready to fight without shame, pain, or apologies.

And, actually, we don’t need to explain this, any more than we need to explain that Black people are oppressed in this country.

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.