No matter your relationship status—whether you're trying to reap the benefits of being single or find yourself in a marriage that's lacking intimacy, feeling sexually frustrated is no fun, nor is it something to ignore. Satiating your sex drive is important, as experts say it’s closely tied to overall quality of life. So if you’re feeling regularly dissatisfied, here’s how to identify what might be happening—and how to fix it—so you can get back to feeling nothing but pleasure in between those sheets.
Let's start by defining what exactly sexual frustration is.
Simply put, it’s exactly how it sounds—any feelings of frustration or dissatisfaction with your current sexual interaction or lack thereof, says Shamyra Howard, LCSW, sexologist and author of Use Your Mouth: Pocket-Sizes Conversations to Increase 7 Types of Intimacy In and Out of the Bedroom. “[It occurs when the sexual experiences you want are not in alignment with what you’re getting.”
And yep, it’s 100 percent normal to feel frustrated (sexually or not, TBH). “Most people—regardless of gender, sexuality, or relationship status—will experience sexual frustration at some point in their life,” Howard says. “Those in non-monogamous relationships deal with sexual frustration as well, especially since not all open relationships involve sex.”
What are some symptoms of feeling sexually frustrated?
People experience and exhibit symptoms of sexual frustration differently, Howard says. Some, for instance, might lose interest in sex and consistently decline it, she explains, whereas others may seek more of it (potentially with someone who isn’t their current partner) or decide to masturbate when they’d prefer sex. Symptoms of depression may start to crop up as well, and changes in mood are common, she adds.
Physically speaking, “you might feel a sense of buildup or tension without the desired sense of relief,” says Jessica O’Reilly, Ph.D., sexologist and author of The New Sex Bible. “It can be as simple as experiencing blood flow to the genitals (or another region you’ve come to associate with pleasure or orgasm), and when you don’t experience the pleasure or orgasm, you might find yourself feeling frustrated.”
To help identify how you’re feeling, O’Reilly suggests asking yourself why you have sex. “What benefits do you derive, and how do you feel before, during, and after?” she asks. “Are those feelings overwhelmingly positive, neutral, or negative?” If your answer is landing more in the neutral to negative territory, you may be feeling a little (or a lot) frustrated.
That said, symptoms of sexual frustration are not the end-all be-all, as O’Reilly says sometimes it’s about resetting expectations. “Feelings are not permanent states of being,” she says. “They’re temporary experiences and you can make attitudinal and behavioral adjustments to change the way you feel.”
But what exactly causes these frustrated feelings?
There are a wide variety of experiences that could lead to sexual frustration. Anything from not being able to orgasm and not having your pleasure prioritized, to feeling pressured to have more sex or not having enough of it—all can be a major hindrance, O’Reilly says.
That said, there are a few common causes sex therapists often encounter. The first: unclear sexual boundaries and motives. “Sex is more satisfying to people when they feel they are getting what they expect,” Howard says. People in long-term relationships likely want to feel love and intimacy, for example, whereas those who solely engage for sexual pleasure may want more raw desire. “When these expectations are discussed and agreed on upfront, each person can commit to the outcome,” she adds. In other words, you can’t just expect someone to know how to please you—communication is key.
Speaking of communication—or a lack thereof—not discussing mismatched libidos and falling into ho-hum routines can also cause frustration. If you know what to expect and there’s no variety in your sex life, it’s tough to feel motivated to, well, keep doing it, Howard says. Same goes for feeling like you “should” have sex because society tells you to (we’ve all heard the “have sex at least three times a week rule”), or because you have a partner with a higher sex drive than you. To be clear, having mismatched libidos doesn’t mean your sexual relationship with this partner is doomed. But it does mean you have to talk about it so those feelings of sexual frustration can be put to bed.
Other experiences ranging from medical conditions and treatment side effects to sexual identity, relationship issues outside of the bedroom, and external factors (think work-related issues, child rearing, or societal stressors) could be at play. The key thread is to examine all areas of your life to help identify the root cause.
How do I deal with it?
Rectifying sexual frustration is one of those things that needs to be done with lots of care and consideration for both yourself and your partner. First up: identifying the actual cause of the frustration.
“Start by ruling out any medical issues or possible interaction from medications or supplements,” Howard says. Next, use your mouth—by talking to your partner. “Lots of people have sex, but rarely talk about it,” she says. “Create a regular sex check-in where you discuss what’s working well, and what you’d like to see change.”
From there, you may want to shift the way you view sex. “Frustration often results from outcomes not meeting expectations, but it’s important to note that when you have a specific outcome in mind, you may be setting yourself up for frustration,” O’Reilly says. “One way to avoid sexual frustration is to explore sexual pleasure for pleasure’s sake, as opposed to focusing on a specific goal.”
And again, talk to your partner—alone or potentially with the help of a sex therapist—as Howard stresses it’s important your partner knows, understands, and agrees on your sexual expectations and boundaries each and every time they shift. (And yes, it’s always OK for them to shift.)
If you're single, or just riding solo in the midst of a pandemic...
Partner or not, you don't have to be abstinent. If the sexual frustration you’re feeling is due to a lack of sex, Howard suggests practicing solo touch and solo sex. “Masturbate, take yourself out on dates, and appreciate all of the things about you that you’d want a partner to,” she says. O’Reilly agrees: “Don’t let the absence of a partner hold you back from lending yourself a hand or reaching for your favorite toy.” Don't know where to start? Here are our favorite options for beginners.
Regardless of your relationship status, remember to take care of you. “Oftentimes we complain about being sexually frustrated as though it’s someone else’s job to address our feelings—it’s not,” O’Reilly says. “You’re responsible for your own sexual fulfillment...It’s up to you to decide what works.”
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