Sex is considered one of life’s greatest pleasures—but, for some people, it’s anything but. Instead, it can be stressful, awkward, painful, or simply off-limits due to certain beliefs or life experiences. But, just because penetration of any kind might be out of the question doesn’t mean that pleasure as a whole needs to be.
“Nowadays, the concept of pleasure is catapulted into the promise-land of physical-pleasure—not just the sensation of enjoyment; and sex is catapulted into the land of penetration—not the intimate expression of closeness,” says Emily Sauer, the CEO and founder of Ohnut, a brand that offers solutions for comfortable penetrative sex but focuses on pleasure as a whole.
By noticing this construct, and ultimately, putting it in its place, people are able to experience pleasure and sexual gratification beyond the norm. As radical pleasure-based sex educator Lateef Taylor reminds us, “All touch doesn’t have to lead to sex and just because sex isn’t going to happen doesn’t mean [you should] withdraw affection.”
To help uncover how to find pleasure beyond traditional sex, ahead you’ll find sections covering everything from the common causes of sexless relationships to how to achieve intimacy without performing any sexual acts at all. After all, as Sauer reminds us, “No matter how sex-full or sexless a relationship is, it’s the good stuff in between that keeps the whole thing alive.”
The most common causes of sexless relationships
We won’t pretend to know each and every reason that a relationship might be (or become) sexless. However, with the help of some of the industry’s top sex educators, we have rounded up eight of the most common causes. Check them out below.
1. Constant contact: “Desire is often fed by the sense of longing for the other, and when we are too merged with someone, that sense of desire and fire can feel like it’s diminishing,” Foria’s chief brand educator, womxn’s health advocate, doula, and somatic sex educator Kiana Reeves tells HelloGiggles.
2. Making assumptions: “When we spend long periods of time with someone, we can slip into habits, patterns, and ideas about who they are instead of continually seeking out their evolving self,” says Reeves, noting that how we’ve communicated our emotions and needs in the past can get in the way of what’s happening in the present.
3. Lack of communication: When there’s a lack of communication around needs and desires, Taylor says that stress can inch its way into the bedroom and lead to shyness or avoidance. “People have negative, false, and painful ideas surrounding sex that prevents them from discussing sex genuinely with a partner,” Taylor adds.
Sex educator and brand manager of Babeland, Lisa Finn, adds to this, noting that, “Having sex without talking—about what works, what can change, what you’d like to try, boundaries, and needs—can leave you and your partner falling into a routine that may not work as well as you want it to, ultimately, leading to sex becoming more expected and less exciting.” If direct verbal communication still feels nerve-wracking, (and if sex is the goal), she suggests breaking the ice with a Yes/No/Maybe list to get the conversation going.
4. Relationship insecurity: Taylor explains that when someone doesn’t feel safe and secure in their relationship (and even with themselves), it can put a strain on sexual compatibility and can inhibit sexual arousal.
5. Life stress: Speaking of stress, sometimes the reason for a sexless union has less to do with sexual compatibility and everything to do with outside stressors taking over. “Stress from work, financial concerns, politics, climate change, and family responsibilities are examples of common stressors that can squash sexual desire when your cortisol levels spike,” says Taylor. “There doesn’t seem to be time or, rather, the right time with everything going on. Thoughts like these allow people to devalue the role a pleasurable sex life can play in their relationship.”
When life stress kicks in and one or both libidos take a dip, Finn says to check in with other ways to be intimate with your partner that don’t involve sex and don’t rely on your partner for all of your sexual fulfillment. “Masturbating isn’t just for single folks,” she quips.
6. Religion: Some religions call for no sex until marriage, which can inspire sexless relationships for some people. Of course, that’s not to say that every religious person adheres to this principle. Rather, it could be a contributing cause if religion (namely Christianity) plays a major role in someone’s life.
7. Body image and function: “When our bodies don’t meet our expectations during sex, it can be hugely disappointing,” says Sauer. It leads to questions of: Why is this happening? What if it happens again? What if I can never climax?
She goes on, noting that no one wants to turn down sex or hurt a partner’s feelings if the small gestures escalate and sex is expected. As a result, this can lead to people avoiding any small gestures—holding hands, hugging, even kissing (aka the first signs of closeness at the beginning of a relationship)—in an attempt to avoid any feelings of discomfort.
8. Asexual unions: Believe it or not, some people are sexless by choice, without religion, body function, or anything else weighing on the decision. “If all partners have no desire for sex, have a lack of ability, and/or identify as asexual, they may choose a sexless relationship,” Taylor explains.
How to cultivate pleasure without sex
The trick to cultivating pleasure without penetration of any kind is to talk about what does (and what could) bring pleasure outside of it. Think: having intimate baths together, attending pleasure workshops, going to a sex shop together, sharing fantasies, watching porn, engaging in role-play, experimenting with bondage, and more—all of which, by the way, can occur without any type of insertion. Once you nail this down—and if the goal is to avoid penetration—you can explore your topics to uncover your ultimate pleasure.
How to discover pleasure without any sexual acts
Of course, for some people, any form of a sexual act falls under the category of sex, so it’s important to know how to find pleasure in those instances, too. Fortunately, Sauer reminds us that pleasure can come from everything—it’s not strictly limited to sexual activity.
As such, she says that it’s crucial to think beyond foreplay and penetration. “In every Ohnut package, we include a card with the ‘3 Minute Game,’ which starts by having partners ask ‘How would you like to be touched for three minutes?’” she says. “You think about it, answer with specific details, and literally just sit back and enjoy without the pressure of performing or reciprocating. It doesn’t have to be sexual either. And it’s insane how fast three minutes flies by and how sensual it feels. Oftentimes, we define our enjoyment of intimacy based on giving pleasure, so this is a simple way to articulate what we want and fully just receive.”
Pleasure in the form of intimacy
Pleasure has many definitions depending on who you ask, but for some, the most intense feelings of euphoria occur when intimacy is present. And, believe it or not, intimacy doesn’t require sex. According to Reeves, intimacy comes down to experiencing a connection and closeness with someone based upon trust. “This connection can come through friendship, familial relationships, and our romantic and sexual partners,” she explains. “Intimacy is not exclusive to sex—so keeping a feeling of heightened intimacy is really about continuing to build a connection to your partner.”
That’s where vulnerability comes into play. When you’re vulnerable with your partner, friends, family, whoever, it helps build intimacy by connecting on emotions, needs, and desires that you don’t share with just any person in your life. When you can open up about your insecurities, fears, past experiences, boundaries, awkward thoughts, and the like, you can cultivate trust and experience intimacy in your life—with or without sex.
Last but not least, while pleasure doesn’t require sex, it does often require touch. Finn explains that touching each other more (it doesn’t have to be sexy, romantic, or even intimate) can lead to the release of feel-good chemicals in our brains, the physical release of tension, and the fulfillment that comes with pleasure, which can create a deeper bond of intimacy. She says that having more body contact with our partners helps to maintain and invigorate a physical bond that, in turn, can lead to improved intimacy and could lead to an enhanced sex life (if that’s the goal).
There are so many ways to experience pleasure and intimacy with a partner. If, however, one partner is still dissatisfied with a sexless (read: penetration-less) relationship, Taylor explains that no activities are suitable substitutes in hoping for the relationship to thrive. “Solving issues requires addressing them with good resources, including therapy as an option,” Taylor concludes.