This article originally appeared on VICE US.
If you scour the internet for sex stuff as much as I do, you come across countless pleas from women who "don't feel anything" when they have sex. Most of these women are new to partnered sex, but some of them have been going at it since Frasie__r was still on the air. Some of them have tried masturbating but still don't feel anything.
"Even when I am aroused, I get no pleasure whatsoever. Masturbating does nothing for me either," says one girl on sex ed website Scarleteen.
"[W]ere we made only to pleasure men or something,because im pretty sure 99.99% the guy feels good [sic]," asks a poster on Yahoo! Answers.
We tend to think of sex in pretty reductive terms—almost as though the human body were a vending machine. Insert the right coinage, push the right buttons, and out pops an orgasm. But what's a girl to do when that Snickers bar gets stuck inside the machine? Why do some women report feeling nothing during sex?
Read more: Learning How to Orgasm Without Any Touching
"The key thing for women to achieve any kind of sexual pleasure is that women need to feel like they're safe," says Dr. Tammy Nelson, author of Getting the Sex You Want, who has another mechanical analogy for women's sexual pleasure. "Women are like anti-virus protection systems; they'll shut down if they feel like something is threatening the system." Sexual response is regulated by a host of neurotransmitters, including cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP), which is the same substance that helps make boners happen. cGMP functions similarly in the clitoris, causing it to swell with blood and pop out of its little house. The body simply will not enjoy itself it is not getting the right instructions from the brain and endocrine system.
Extending this "woman-as-computer" metaphor even further, I asked Nelson and sex expert Dr. Emily Morse how they would troubleshoot a woman who's not feeling pleasure. "Masturbation is one of the best ways for women to get back in touch with primary sexual desires and fantasies," says Morse. "She has to stoke her own fires to remember what it feels like without the pressure from a partner. It's like getting back into a workout routine."
Finding out what feels good and what doesn't takes time. Your clitoris will probably be involved, as it is the only organ in the human body that functions exclusively to provide feelings of pleasure—but some clits are so sensitive that direct stimulation is painful. And, according to Nelson, many women forget to involve the rest of their body in the experience. "You're going in for the kill, gunning for the genitals, and you need to start on the outskirts," she says. "It's a slow burn instead of starting a fire." A 1994 study suggested that breathing deeply and moving more during sexual activity can heighten the sexual experience.
Your orgasm starts with your mind, not your fingers.
It's not just the body, of course: Nelson says you shouldn't forget to pay some attention to your brain. "Your orgasm starts with your mind, not your fingers," says Nelson. Your clit is like a non-player character (NPC) in a video game. It's only going to do something when the game wants it to. You can click on that NPC all day, but unless the quest has been started, nothing's going to happen.
Sex is all about context. You may experience some of the physiological aspects of pleasure without perceiving them as pleasurable. A 1994 study on pornography showed that physiological sexual response does not always correlate with feeling good. Participants in the study had a vaginal photoplethysmograph, a device that measures vaginal blood flow, inserted in them, and were shown porn created by both men and women. Women were physically aroused equally by the male- and female-created porn, but reported getting much more turned on by the woman-created smut. According to the study, "the man-made film evoked more feelings of shame, guilt, and aversion" for women, even though they simultaneously felt some feelings of sexual arousal.
"Anxiety is a leading killer of women's sex drive," says Morse. "When we're stressed, anxious, and our attention spans have been diluted to that of a gnat, the last thing on the mind is sex." Nelson also emphasizes the importance of a stress-free masturbatory experience. "Are they rushing? Are they worried someone's going to walk in? Are they feeling shame?"
Women who have had trouble achieving orgasm in the past might also feel some performance anxiety or put an anxiety-inducing amount of pressure on themselves to achieve an orgasm. Plus, not all women do reach an orgasm, and that's also okay. There's plenty to enjoy during sex without the big finish.
"Yes, all of us want to cross that explosive finish line," says Morse, "but a lot of women put so much pressure on themselves to reach that big O that they miss the turnpike altogether."