It’s a common issue, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating: you can easily reach orgasm when you’re masturbating, but it’s near-impossible to get off when you’re having sex with someone else rather than going solo.
Why does this happen? And what can we do to sort it out?
First off, it’s important to say that if you’re someone who struggles to climax during sex with another person, there’s nothing wrong with you. As we said, it’s an extremely common experience.
It’s also important not to generalise struggling to orgasm with a partner as anorgasmia, which is the inability to have orgasms at all.
What’s happening in this scenario is not a problem, just the body and mind responding to a different method of pleasure. If you’re happy only having orgasms through masturbation, that’s perfectly alright – but if you are troubled by not getting off during sex with a partner, there are explanations for why this might be the case.
The first is that a partner simply doesn’t know your body the way you do, and doesn’t know the exact things that give you loads of pleasure.
Everyone is different, and what works wonders for you will do zilch for someone else. If you’re spending sex wishing your partner could read your mind and just do that one specific motion or movement, there’s an easy solution: tell them what you want.
‘What’s normal is for you to know yourself better than he or she does,’ explains Dr Mafe Godoy, a is sexual medicine expert, urologist and andrologist from the School of Sexual Wellness, Intimology Institute.
‘Women who explore themselves or masturbate and know their bodies better tend to have more satisfying sex. If the problem is that your partner does not know how to stimulate you, tell him (tactfully, you know).
‘Teach him/her how to make you feel pleasure, and remind him/her that times are different for each one, especially if your partner is a man. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s another way of getting to know each other, isn’t it?’
If you’re someone with a vagina, make sure that sex with a partner isn’t all about penetration – only a tiny percentage of women can reach orgasm with penetration alone, and you’re far more likely to enjoy sex with clitoral stimulation.
Be willing to experiment, try out what works and what doesn’t, and maintain open communication. It might help to literally show your partner what you do to yourself that works so brilliantly, so they can watch, learn, and repeat.
So, technique and actual physical action. That’s one reason why reaching orgasm with a partner can be tricky. But there are other potential causes, too.
There’s the mental side of things, in terms of desire, fantasy, and relaxation. It’s incredibly difficult (likely impossible, actually) to have an orgasm when you’re stressed out and not in the moment.
Masturbation tends to happen either when we’ve scheduled in some relaxing alone time when we can completely let loose, or as a reaction to feeling turned on. In both cases, you’re entering into solo sex in a mindset that smoothly puts you on the path to an orgasm.
Sex with a partner, meanwhile, can occur in a different setup. Maybe you just fancy being intimate with your partner and so decide to have sex, and thus need to actively get in the mental mood. Maybe you and your partner started kissing and getting cuddly, got turned on, and while your body is ready to go, your mind is still caught on whatever you were doing before things started getting sexual.
You might feel tense or distracted for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you’re self-conscious about your body, you know you have a massive to-do list building, or you’re not completely secure in the relationship.
Then there’s that horrible cycle of knowing you struggled to orgasm last time you had sex, worrying that you won’t this time around, and then having so much pressure built up that there’s no way it can happen.
Dr Mafe explains that all of this can make achieving orgasm especially difficult for women, for whom pleasure relies on a ‘circle of sexual response’ – meaning there are so many mental states we have to go through for an orgasm to be on the table.
‘All sexual relationships go through phases,’ she explains. ‘It has long been described that the sexual response of most women is circular and includes elements such as intimacy, physical and emotional satisfaction, as triggers of excitement and even desire; elements that feed the desire are included, which would also be triggers.
‘Desire feeds the excitement in women and vice versa, and these phases must have been completed to reach an orgasm. Orgasm is the climax and end of this response, although it does not have to be just one. That is how you can go back to desire/excitement or reach an orgasm.
‘If we do not go through the different phases it is more complicated to reach an orgasm. It’s like building a house beginning with the roof, although sometimes it can turn out to be pretty.’
Tackling all this is a little trickier than just guiding your partner on their fingering technique.
Problems with relaxing, letting go, and getting in the right headspace for achieving orgasm can be resolved through talking, building trust, and self-help techniques, but if they’re becoming overwhelming it’s best to talk to a professional – either a general therapist or someone specialising in sex and relationships.
It’s worth talking to your partner about how you’re feeling and working out what you can do to help prep your mind for pleasurable sex. That might involve scheduling sex so you can build yourself up long in advance (and you don’t have to worry about all the other things you should be doing), offering reassurance, or adding in more time spent on foreplay.
Think about the fantasy element of things, too. When you’re masturbating, you’re often free to immerse yourself into a fantasy, whether through your imagination or by watching porn. During sex with another person, the pressure is on to remain in reality, grounded in what’s actually happening – which can leave you feeling mentally unstimulated.
But you can incorporate fantasy during sex with a partner by using roleplay or just letting yourself build a backstory that works to get you off. It’s allowed.
Giving yourself permission to relax and enjoy is the crucial thing. That’s easier said than done, we know, but it’s worth remembering. Sex – whether with a partner or on your own – is meant to be fun, not a horrible slog that provokes endless anxiety over whether or not you’ll get off.
Dr Mafe puts it simply: ‘You must spice up intercourse.’ That means making things fun, trying new stuff, and chatting openly about what you like.
Focus on pleasure and try not to hold up an orgasm as a must-do goal. If you enjoy yourself throughout, it’s okay to not reach climax. Enjoy the ride rather than stressing out too much about the destination.