What’s Holding You Back from Great Sex?

by | Oct 20, 2020 | Uncategorized | 30 comments

What's Holding You Back from Orgasm?

Often what we think about sex gets in the way of great sex.

We’re in the middle of our orgasm series, and we’re less than one week out from releasing our Orgasm Course! I’m so excited (though I still have a ton to do!).

One of the things that we’ve talked about repeatedly this month is how a big roadblock to orgasm for women is THINKING the wrong way about sex–specifically thinking that intercourse=sex, and anything else is “extra” or “bonus”.

Intercourse does tend to result in orgasm for men virtually all the time, but most women do not orgasm through intercourse alone, and many don’t orgasm through intercourse at all, even though they can in other ways. Intercourse is actually the least reliable method of stimulation to bring a woman to orgasm (manual and oral stimulation tend to be more reliable). By stressing intercourse above all else, then, women often feel selfish when we want our husbands to do something “extra”. What brings him pleasure is the norm; what brings us pleasure is optional. When women believe that, and when men believe it, orgasm is elusive.

But that’s not the only way our minds can stop us from experiencing orgasm!

In our Orgasm Course, we’ve developed five different prototypes of women who often have specific struggles with orgasm based on what they believe.

In our survey of 20,000 women last year, we found a bunch of different beliefs that are prevalent in evangelical teaching that can keep women from having great sex–beliefs like, “he’ll watch porn if I don’t have enough sex,” “all men struggle with lust,” “I have to give him sex whenever he wants it,” etc. etc. And many evangelical books have also solidified other ideas, like Love & Respect blatantly said: “If your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have.” In other words, sex is for men. Not women.

We took all of these beliefs and put them together into five different “characters” for our course, to help women better see themselves and some of the roadblocks they may have.

These aren’t scientific (though the effects of a lot of these beliefs that we found in our survey are), but we thought they were a fun way of conceptualizing some of our issues.

I thought today I’d share one of those characters, to help us see how our approach to sex overall can stop us from having great sex.

The Engineer

The Engineer is a bit of a control freak. When she was younger, she may have been taught that boys will try to push her sexual boundaries, and so she started to believe that unless she was in control, she was in danger.

While dating, she learned to ignore her arousal cues and instead became a bit of a spectator, always watching to catch if he tried to do something bad. As a result, she never really got to enjoy the whole making-out phase. If she felt she crossed a sexual boundary, she may do some sort of penance to make it up–a kissing fast, a Bible study on purity as a couple, or just self-flagellation to make herself feel guilty enough to never do it again.

Now that she’s married, that emphasis of control over her own sexuality and doing sex “right” means that she sees sex as an equation to crack. She’s sure that once they figure out the right amount of clitoral stimulation, or the exact right sexual position combination, she’ll crack the code that is her orgasm. That means she can’t just “let go”, because she’s always looking for a step-by-step instruction manual. She tends to trust her mind more than her body–since she was taught that she had to silence her body and ignore her body and only listen to her brain.

Because of that, The Engineer’s mind is always going a mile a minute during sex. She has a hard time experiencing because she keeps thinking, “Is that right? Is this what the book meant to do? He moved a quarter of an inch–was that OK or should I tell him to go back?”

The Engineer is most likely to read every sex book she can and follow them exactly, having hundreds of long, drawn-out conversations with her husband about how to make sex better. When sex doesn’t work, she tends to see her body as the enemy–her mind needs to unlock why the body is failing and why the body isn’t working.

But the answer for The Engineer isn’t necessarily found in the brain. The Engineer has to re-integrate her brain with her body, and rediscover her sexuality within her body, and not just in her brain. 

Can you relate to The Engineer when it comes to sex?

Last weekend I was looking for a post to share on Facebook, and I decided to try to find the post this year that had garnered the most comments and share it. Now, I know the post with the most comments was my open letter about Love & Respect that I wrote to Focus on the Family, but other than that–what was the biggest one?

I took a look through the stats, and it turns out it was the one asking if you felt that you had to be a sexual gatekeeper when you were growing up. 

Here’s part of what resonated there:

From Did Being the Sexual Gatekeeper Affect You?

When women feel as if they have to be the sexual gatekeepers, to make sure that as a couple you don’t go too far before the wedding, it impacts your sex life after marriage.

That gatekeeper role is very hard to discard.  

Here’s what happens: you start making out, and the guy’s really into it. But you’ve been taught your whole life that guys can’t control themselves, and that they will want to push your boundaries. So you have to stay alert and make sure that doesn’t happen. You are the one who is responsible to make sure that it doesn’t get out of hand.

While you’re making out, then, he’s totally enjoying himself, getting into it. But she feels like she’s standing back, as if she’s an observer, looking at the whole thing from the outside.

Should I be stopping him yet? How about now? How about now? How about now?

And on and on and on it goes. She teaches herself to never give in to the moment, and to never allow herself to just feel. She must always be hyper-vigilant, or things will get out of control.

When she marries, that “observer” role isn’t so easy to toss aside.

She’s so used to always judging what’s going on–“am I doing this right? Am I doing this right? How about this?”–that she can’t just let go and feel.

That’s often why women can have such difficulty learning to be aroused, we found, in both our survey and some focus groups. When you’ve trained yourself to be on alert, your body doesn’t automatically relax.

The gatekeeper role doesn’t ONLY affect the Engineer–it has an effect on some of our other characters, too. But in the Engineer the gatekeeper role embodies herself in a very specific way.

Sexuality becomes so dissociated from the body that it’s very difficult to figure out what actually feels good, or even what arousal feels like. Combine this with messages that good girls don’t like sex (or, as Emerson Eggerichs said in Love & Respect, women don’t like or need sex as men do), and many women don’t understand how to relate sexually to their own bodies.

That’s why so many women get frustrated when I say, “You have to learn to listen to your body,”

Sex can’t be paint-by-number, and it can’t be “do A for 5 minutes, flick B 84 times, then move on to C.” It depends on YOUR level of arousal.

In fact, what feels good early in the sexual response cycle may just bother you once you become more aroused, or what feels terrible early may be quite appealing once you’re really aroused. Many women who hate their nipples touched, for instance, like it once they’re very aroused. Or women who love light kisses or light stroking on the arms find it very annoying once their body is saying MORE! MORE!

So no one else can completely tell you how to have great sex. It’s actually a process of learning how to listen to what your body actually wants.

As we’ve been writing up the exercises for The Orgasm Course, we’re trying to find ways to help women become re-integrated with their bodies, and discover what actually does feel good.

Recognizing how some of the ways that we think about sex hold us back, though, can also help us to deliberately think differently about sex.

When you know you’re being an Engineer, you can start to say to yourself, “I don’t have to be in control. I’m allowed to just feel. I don’t need to have all the answers or to have this all figured out.”

That’s scary. But learning what WRONG messages you believe can also help you believe some RIGHT ones.

Now, the Engineer is only one of our characters. But let me know–can you relate to her? Or are there other beliefs that are holding you back? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Jane Eyre

    Sheila, I really like that your team recognises and articulates that there’s more than one way (i.e. premarital sex) to have sexual baggage. There’s definitely a belief that if you successfully say “no” right up until your wedding night, you will be “pure*.”
    Always, always having to be the one to put on the brakes is exhausting. Always, every single time, being the one whose boundaries are pushed makes physical interaction a massive turn-off: in the brain, doing X means a fight about boundaries on a zillion other sexual things. It conditions the brain to really dislike X and anything leading up to X.
    *In a fallen world, the whole concept of “pure” drives me up the wall. So many things that are completely out of your control affect your openness, vulnerability, trust, and ability to love God. If your dad cheats on your mom or your mom walks out on your dad because she wants to “Eat, Pray, Love” her way through life, it damages the heart and makes your own marriage harder. If you get bullied in school, it makes you feel unlovable. If your crazy ex stalks you and pulls you away from your family and friends, trust becomes difficult. But, ya know, if you never “go to far,” it’s all fine.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Completely agree, Jane. We should never have made people think that if they do everything “right” sex will be amazing. It doesn’t work that way.
      When you say that you have to put the brakes on, are you talking about sexually before marriage? Or is it now, with what he’s asking you to do?

      • Jane Eyre

        Prior to marriage with men I dated. There was a point in my 20s when I just stopped dating for about three or four years because the pressure was so awful. A lot of men were convinced that I would be totally into it if I were pressured into it.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Oh, wow, Jane. I’m so sorry.
          What we found in looking at so many Christian books, though, for The Great Sex Rescue, is that they primed women for date rape. They went on and on about how men couldn’t control themselves, and women had to be the gatekeepers, and you had to guard your purity. And you had to watch what you wore, of course! And then if guys did pressure you, and you said no, but they kept going–well, you could think it was your fault because you drove them crazy by allowing too much and by wearing what you wore.
          We want to do some videos reading some excerpts from some of the best-selling books, and ask the question; “Would a victim of date rape even recognize her story in this book?” I think the answer is often no.
          There’s so much wrong with how we taught both men and women. Men weren’t required to have self-control; women had to have it for both of them. It’s crazy. And then we think this is magically going to get better after marriage (let alone what the messages given to women about their own sex drives are. If men are out of control, and you’re not–it means that you don’t really want/need sex. I wonder if any of these authors have ever heard of self-fulfilling prophecies?)

          • Jane Eyre

            That sounds awful.
            It also creates the problem that it equates force and rape with (what should be) intimacy. “Saying that rape is your first experience with sex is like saying that being hit over the head with a rolling pin is your first experience with baking.” Heard that somewhere and like it.
            I was just driving at the point that a lot of things in life can mess someone up, and keeping the focus on sex as the standard for “purity” is narrow and weird. “Guarding your purity” is often a very hurtful and discouraging experience, and we pretend that as long as a girl isn’t “giving it up,” she can’t be hurt before marriage. That just isn’t true.

  2. JoyLiving

    I loved the analogy of the whole dinner out experience making a woman feel loved; and making her husband feel left out. Perhaps I have just missed it, but have you ever discussed redefining the term “foreplay” in the same way you attempt to re define sex and intercourse?
    It seems to me when we use this word to mean anything sexual we do that comes before intercourse ( sex) we are helping men and maybe women too, to view foreplay (appetizer) as optional, but intercourse as the main dish. For many women foreplay ( the appetizer) is just as important, or maybe more significant as the intercourse ( main dish) .
    When i go to “Outback “ a popular American steakhouse, i ALWAYS look forward to their specialty appetizer … the bloomin’ Onion. When my steak comes out, i eat a bite or too and take the rest home for my hubby to enjoy later. I go there bc i love the appetizer. Its the main event for me even though my husband enjoys his steak much more!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Love that!
      I haven’t redefined foreplay per se; but what we’re trying to do is redefine sex so that it INCLUDES foreplay. Like sex should be anything sexual that you do in marriage with the goal of being mutual, pleasurable, and intimate. So it’s not only intercourse; it encompasses so much more. I think if we keep sex as “mutual, pleasurable, and intimate” then we de facto include other activities other than intercourse, but the only way to be mutual & pleasurable for so many women is also to include those things. As long as we keep the goals of mutual, pleasurable, intimate, then WHAT you do isn’t quite as important. It’s the fact that it’s focused on both of you feeling close while enjoying each other. How couples get there isn’t the point exactly; everybody likes their own thing. But we need to see it that way.
      If we defined it that way rather than just sex=intercourse, then I think we’d see some changes. At least that’s what I’m really hoping! It honestly shouldn’t be rocket science, should it?

      • JoyLiving

        You are raising questions about a teaching around intimacy and sexuality that has been distorted for decades, perhaps over a century. So ,some of us who did not even know we were even being taught something unhealthy will take time to catch up! Thank you for all you do Shelia to help so many women think through these things💗

      • Anon

        Intercourse is not as frequent for us as we’d like, due to our health issues. And we know that things are likely to get worse in future, and at some point, intercourse will probably not be possible at all. Yet we love being sexual together (like, every day!), and we also love knowing that this can continue regardless of our health! Yet so many writers and speakers seem to view intercourse as the only ‘right’ way to be sexual. I love the way you are redefining sex – it’s especially helpful for couples like us who suffer physical limitations but who still want to celebrate this amazing gift of sex that God has created for us – without being made to feel that we have a ‘second rate’ marriage because we’re not doing it ‘properly’!

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I’m so glad I could encourage you in this, Anon! We do need to remember those with physical limitations when we’re giving advice, and make sure our blanket advice doesn’t heap burdens where they don’t need to be. I’m so glad you’re enjoying yourselves!

      • KI

        How do you relax and just let go? I’ve been married for nearly 7 months and only orgasamed a handuful of times. My husband is really kind and will spend as much time on me doing anything I’d like. While I enjoy our times together and do get very turned on, I find I eventually just get bored, it’s like my “turned on level” will get to a certain point and then just platto.
        I do feel like the engineer, and I get that I just need to let go.
        But how???

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Hi Kl! In some ways it’s a learned skill, like mindfulness or learning to be in the moment and not worry about what else is happening. In other ways, it may be examining some of your beliefs about sex. It really depends what the underlying issue is. But I think the more you can just BE without judging what’s happening or what you’re doing, the better it will be!

  3. AJ

    I think taking the statement “If your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have” and then drawing the conclusion “sex is for men” is not at all what was intended by the author. I think it would be a better statement to say “If your husband is typical, he has a desire for sex that you’ll never quite be able to comprehend”. The single biggest physical difference that gives men a very different (usually higher) desire for sex than woman is TESTOSTERONE. Men’s bodies produce 10-20 times more testosterone than woman’s. This is a primary factor in their desire and hunger for sex. Woman’s bodies do produce small amounts of testosterone and thus some woman who have undergone hormone replacement therapy take testosterone. I have read of several accounts of woman who have for one reason or another in the process of trying to get there hormones regulated taken a much larger dose of testosterone than intended. All have stated that it caused them to have an almost unquenchable spontaneous desire for sex like they had never experienced before. I also had a friend who told me his wife experienced this while trying to get her hormones regulated. When she told her doctor about it, it was stated “now you know what it feels like to be a man”. All receded back to “normal” when the testosterone dose was reduced. There are very distinct physical differences between men and women that can never be fully comprehended. This in no way makes men entitled to sex or means that sex shouldn’t be for and enjoyed by woman. It’s just simply a statement of men are very different than woman. Nothing more nothing less.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      AJ, this is actually a very toxic statement, which we show in The Great Sex Rescue. The belief that men have libidos and women don’t is highly correlated with lower sexual satisfaction in women. It’s also just not true. In only 60% of marriages do men have higher libidos than women.
      So let’s analyze what Eggerichs said. He said: “If your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have.”
      What he’s saying, then, is that there are two types of men: men who need sex (typical) and men who don’t (atypical). There is only, however, one type of woman: women who don’t need sex. He doesn’t even say that the TYPICAL woman doesn’t need sex. He intimates that all women don’t need sex. Most Christian books do this. This sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy, where women are told that they don’t desire sex. Combine this with women having a more difficult time reaching orgasm (even if they want to), and many women quickly give up on sex and believe it’s not for them.
      The Bible, on the other hand, always treats sex as mutual, and treats it as normal that women would desire sex, too.
      Besides, between 20-25% of women have higher sex drives than their husbands (In about 20% they’re equal).
      To tell women in a book that they do not have a need for sex, and then to tell them that they need to give husbands sex or their husbands will be tempted to have an affair, and then to never, ever even mention that sex should feel good for women is highly problematic.

  4. anon

    I so badly want to answer the title with a snarky, frustrated: “BEING A WOMAN IS HOLDING ME BACK FROM GREAT SEX” hehe. Because seriously, people can tell me all day that the clitoris is all about pleasure and it has so many nerve endings and women are capable of MORE pleasure than men, aren’t we lucky?! But like, there’s NO WAY a finger/penis/toy/tongue rubbing on a clitoris feels better than a penis in a vagina. The way my husband reacts to sliding it in is like he just won a million bucks (flattering yes, I’m glad he likes my bod) but it’s like, sure rubbing my clitoris is nice and having an orgasm is great but my entire body was designed to excite him and I get some friction from A FINGER? (btw does anyone else not really feel anything from oral? I mean, I can “get there” with enough time but it’s a real mental workout I tell ya, haha). None of it makes sense to me to be honest. We already get periods, pregnancy, labor, society telling us not to age or gain weight and not even sex gets to be equal? Ugh gimme a break.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I hear you. I really do! I know it’s frustrating. That’s also why we’ve got a whole module in The Orgasm Course on how to make orgasm through intercourse easier (because that is amazing). I do hear you!

      • anon

        I’ve done that, it’s not worth the effort. I have to be on top leaning forward and get contact on my clitoris that way or just use a hand/toy whatever during it. It’s just another way to get friction and tbh having a penis inside detracts for me. It’s distracting and doesn’t add anything. I want the penis to be the pleasure like the vagina is for my husband. WHY create it this way? I’ve heard the “oh my goodness just IMAGINE how painful childbirth would be if there were MORE nerve endings in there though?!” argument. Listen, I’ve had 3 kids unmedicated, it’s no picnic as is. But here’s the thing, I’m only going to do that 3 times and now I’m done. No more babies for me. But how many times will I have sex in my life? SO MANY TIMES. Why not prioritize that over labor (which hurts either way + drugs exist if you really want them)? God is not stupid and I’m sure there’s more to it, can’t wait to find out what it is.

        • MH

          After reading many of your articles this month, it has dawned on me that I have not orgasmed since I had to confront my husband’s foray into porn. Well we are mostly past that now, and he has changed his behavior and habits, I find I am still deeply wounded and do not trust enough to be completely vulnerable in the bedroom. I have no idea how to get beyond this. The only way I know how to “relax“ is to drink a little alcohol, And now an alcohol intolerance has remove that as an option. So sex is now what I do for him, and what I do to keep him from straying again.
          On occasion, he says he wants me to feel pleasure, and we work at it, but I have no idea how to do that anymore…because that makes me feel like it’s all up to me to figure it out! Talk about adding more stress to the sexual adventure. Sigh. Help.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            MH, I’m so sorry, but I also think it’s wonderful that you’ve had this insight. That actually will help a lot. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand.
            I think rebuilding trust is a huge part of this. And, yes, it has to be done without alcohol.
            One big thing: You absolutely cannot have sex to stop him from straying. You can’t. In our surveys of 20,000 women, we found that this belief and this intention wrecks sexual satisfaction in women and wrecks marital satisfaction, too. You need to know that he is faithful to you, regardless. That you can trust him. And so you have to talk to him about this. Tell him you want a passionate marriage, but right now it feels like you’re doing everything with a gun to your head. If you don’t have sex with him, he’ll stray. How can you feel relaxed and safe like that? How can you enjoy sex like that? Answer? You can’t.
            So he needs to work on himself first. He needs to reassure you that he is faithful. And then you can rebuild sex. Does that mean going without sex for a while? I don’t know. It’s different for every couple. I would recommend seeing a licensed counselor with a specialty in sex addiction issues. But this is HIS problem to solve, not yours. And the more you own it, the more you tank your own sexual response, which isn’t right. We weren’t designed to be our husbands’ methadone. We really weren’t. And when we try to be, our souls die a little bit.

  5. B

    I DEEPLY identify with the Engineer. Gatekeeper while dating the one and only human I’ve ever had sex with. Failed, by most counts, as we had a child out of wedlock. Gatekeeper while married because his porn addiction pushed him to push me for things that absolutely did not sit well with my conscience. One of a handful of reasons we are divorcing.
    Now, as an almost-divorced woman looking at the possibility of dating in the future, “letting go and just feeling” scares the daylights out of me. I cannot yet fathom trusting a man so much as to believe he will honor my boundaries without me guarding them fiercely. I hope for it, though.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I hear you, B. I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through! I’m glad you’re inf reedom now.

      • Still Newlyweds

        Hi Sheila,
        I’ve been married a year and a half. Both of us were virgins on our wedding night, and my hubby is a loving and patient partner, who wants to help me get to climax, although I haven’t yet. It frustrates him and makes him feel like a bad lover, which in turn makes me feel pressured and like I’m broken.
        He has tried clitoral stimulation, however for me that doesn’t turn me on, it feels very uncomfortable, and I don’t like it. I thought maybe this was a virgin thing and I just needed to push through it, but the longer he does it, the more I don’t like it. I end up wanting to beg him to stop, not begging for more.
        Any advice on why this would be, and what to try?
        I’ve already read the Good Girl’s Guide.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Hi there! It likely is that you’re missing the arousal piece. We talk about this a lot in our Orgasm Course. If you go to clitoral stimulation BEFORE you’re aroused, it actually feels quite off-putting. and one of the things that many couples experience where they are both virgins on their wedding night is that frequently that arousal step is missed, and then we never quite know how to get it back, so we go through that in The Orgasm Course. 31 Days to Great Sex may help as well, since it has exercises just on arousal and not just on orgasm. I hope that helps!

  6. San

    I’m basically just tired of giving directions lol. All day I’m telling the kids what to do, making sure things get done at work and then every time we have sex I’m in charge again. Plus… I don’t actually “need” my husband (everyone will be up in arms about saying that but come one, we all know how anatomy works) I’ll never get over how bizarre it all is. If intercourse just felt like literally anything it’d make more sense but truly, I have hands. And let’s be honest they’re obviously better at knowing my body than my husband’s. I just wish sex could be a relaxing fun time but it’s just more work. This is why it feels like a chore, not because I don’t orgasm. I do, every time. But man! If only my pleasure was a natural part of the experience like my husband’s gets to be vs stopping to include my dang clitoris and constantly communicate.

    • K

      God did design it that way. Unfortunately, humans have interfered and most American men are circumcised, causing them to move differently. As women, we then imitate their same incorrect movements.

  7. L

    It is very interesting to read that even some women who regularly climax (compared to those of us who haven’t ever or rarely) can still become bitter. I’m a little shocked by that, to be honest. It is easy to assume that if I could, our relationship would become instantly lighter.

    • Em

      Yeah I assumed once I started orgasming it’d be perfect! But no because it still felt like I had to do all the work to get myself there + sex got to be fun for my husband from the beginning and continue to get more fun for him, it never feels even. Which I get, life isn’t fair. Be happy he’s happy and I’m getting an orgasm. But all those feelings don’t just disappear.

      • L

        I feel for your frustration.

  8. Anonymous

    Thank you for mentioning disassociation in this blog. I just figured out this week that I’m dissociating during sex. We reach a certain point and it’s like everything turns off. I don’t know what happened, nor can I tell you what happened later when discussing it.
    I resonate with “the engineer” so much!! Purity culture, obligation sex and gate keeping during dating has meant that my body doesn’t know how to enjoy or continue enjoying things. Sometimes it’s better if we’re out of the bedroom (which must be a trigger for me).
    Also, another piece, one of my siblings used tickling as a form of control- she would tickle me until I couldn’t breathe and not stop. It felt very threatening. I’ve realized as an adult that has impacted other areas of my life, as I learned how to shut down my body so she couldn’t control me anymore.
    Please speak more about disassociation, if you’re able.


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