A woman’s sexual health — the state of well-being that lets a woman fully participate in and enjoy sexual activity — is influenced by a range of physical, emotional, social, and psychological factors. What drives arousal and desire for sex in one woman may actually dampen those same feelings in another. In other words, it — and we — are complicated.
Understanding the most important sex organ: your brain
As Anastasia Hallisey, a certified nurse midwife at Baystate Health, explained in a recent virtual event through the Baystate Health Every Woman Program, “There’s this myth that sexual desire is a biological response that you can just turn on and off like a switch. And while there’s definitely some biology involved, sexual response and satisfaction are driven most by what’s taking place — or not taking place — in our brains.”
She adds, “Literally every- and anything from how you feel about yourself and your body, how you feel about your partner, to what you were raised to think about sex and people who enjoy it, and where exactly are your kids in the house at this moment…these are all little emotional hurdles that your brain has to navigate on the way to getting aroused or not aroused. And they influence whether or not we actually enjoy sex.”
The important thing that Hallisey encourages women to understand is that “if you want to change your sexual experience, you can change your thoughts.”
Better sex through a better state of mind
In much the same way that who you are in life changes over time — maybe you’re a new (and tired) mom, maybe you’ve been through or are going through menopause — so does your desire for and thoughts about sex.
“What was pleasurable at 20 might not be the same at 60,” says Hallisey, “The nature of our relationships matures and evolves as we do. At some point, you may find your motivation to engage in sex is less about pleasure and more about feeling closer to your partner. But don’t misunderstand; pleasure is always an option. That said, it’s important to recognize that your sexuality is evolving with you and to not judge your current situation against what used to be.”
Hallisey says getting in touch with what’s driving — and inhibiting — your motivations today is key to good sexual health. “It’s important to consider your thoughts when engaging in sex with your partner,” she says. “Have you decided it’s not fun before it’s even started? Are you judging your body and thinking you’re not worthy? Whatever you’re thinking, that’s what your experience is going to be. Again, change your thoughts, change your experience.”
She emphasizes that changing your thoughts is not about talking yourself into something. It’s about recognizing what’s inhibiting you, working through it, and reframing your sexuality as something that exists for you to enjoy.
Using communication to get from Point A to “O”
One way to think of your sexuality is to think of your fingerprint. No one in the world has the same one. This is true of human sexuality, too. What gets you going, won’t have the same effect on someone else. By the same token, what proved so successful with a past partner, may not do much for your current one.
Hallisey says that a good sexual experience begins with good communication. “You can’t underestimate the value of having open and honest conversation about sex. If you’re not willing to say ‘that’s not doing it for me’ to your partner, it’s unlikely you’ll ever derive much pleasure from the experience. You’ll never get from Point A to “O.” More likely, you’ll both just end up frustrated and less interested in sex than ever.”
For couples who aren’t able to broach the subject on their own, Hallisey encourages talking to a sexual health professional. “A professional can help get an honest discussion going and even provide a questionnaire. It’s great tool for discussing intimacy with a new or existing partner and explore your own thoughts on sex.”
Understanding what’s not normal
While what drives and contributes to healthy sexuality varies dramatically between individuals, there is one consistent fact: sex should never hurt.
“Pain with sex is never, never normal,” says Hallisey. “If you’re experiencing pain, it’s important to see a medical professional. Very often, the causes of pain are treatable. But you have to address that before you can address any other issues related to your sexuality.”