Whether you’ve been with the same partner for years or are single and looking, when it comes to a healthy sex life, you may occasionally wonder how your experiences stack up against other people’s. Just like with anything that’s based on personal preferences, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to what’s normal in the bedroom.
“What’s most normal of all is people wondering whether they’re normal — in terms of physical appearance, genitalia, sex drive, frequency and intensity, lubrication, orgasms… it goes on and on,” says relationship therapist Holly Brown. “What sex should always have is full consent and participation. That’s the only prerequisite, really. You should feel like whatever you’re doing sexually, you want to keep doing — or stop.”
While Brown notes it’s important not to be too preoccupied with comparing yourself to others, there are certain experiences in bed that are undeniably not healthy. From physical pain to emotional guilt, here are seven things that aren’t normal in bed and why.
If you’re not in the mood, you’re not in the mood—it’s as simple as that. While never wanting to have sex might be cause to reevaluate the state of your relationship or health, if your partner puts you down or manipulates or hurts your feelings when you decline sex, you’re in an abnormal (read: unhealthy) relationship. The same goes if you shame your partner when he or she doesn’t share your appetite at any given moment.
“If your partner is only having sex because they feel bad or were threatened or manipulated in any way, the relationship and sex will suffer.” says Angie Gunn, a sex therapist at Talkspace. “Instead, learn to accept no, manage feelings that come up like rejection or fear, welcome boundaries and be comfortable putting yourself out there again through future offers and initiation.”
As you do this, offering your partner choice and opportunities to connect with enthusiastic consent, they’ll be likelier to open up to you and offer you the same, creating space for exponentially more shared pleasure and connection.
While more than one orgasm in a single sex session is amazing, it’s not something that happens to most women every time they get between the sheets, so don’t put that unrealistic expectation on yourself. It can take the attention away from pleasure and make it about beating your own score.
“Chasing multiple or simultaneous orgasms can create performance anxiety rather than pleasure. Having benchmarks doesn’t tend to enhance your experience,” says Brown. “The wonderful thing about sex is it’s something that can and should be collaborative and not competitive.”
It may not sound super-hot, but discussing boundaries is a mandatory topic for sexual partners no matter how long you’ve been together. Mutual consent should always be reached, and even if it’s an implicit understanding after a decade of marriage, that consent can be withdrawn at any time. If one partner isn’t into it, the other shouldn’t be pushing him or her.
“The use of power and control can be problematic when couples don’t clearly negotiate or communicate consent and expectations,” says Gunn. “It can be scary to discuss your feelings and desires, but allowing a partner to push limits or engaging in activities inconsistent with your personal ethos is more damaging long term.”
In committed relationships and new partnerships alike, that means having open and honest communication about sexual experiences, fantasies and interests. If you can’t get onto the same page or if, God forbid, a partner chooses not to respect the boundaries you’ve clearly communicated, it’s time to GTFO immediately.
Climax tunnel vision
Take a gander through Pinterest’s cheesiest quote archives, and you’ll no doubt come across the oldie-but-goodie: “Life isn’t about the destination, but the journey.” Same goes for sex—dorky, but true! Couples who only focus on the sexual end game instead of savoring the sensory experience as it’s happening miss out on true intimacy, says Gunn.
“Pleasure is more nuanced and difficult to create for some; which makes normative ideas about sexual activity and the focus on climax problematic,” says Gunn. “As you’ve hopefully heard by now, penetrative sex is not necessarily the most effective way to create pleasure or climax for all partners. Many prefer hands, toys, mouths or stimulation of other body parts beyond the genitals.”
She suggests shifting the focus to enjoying the moment and noticing all your partner’s reactions, not just waiting for each other’s O face.
“It’s not normal to have regular sex without pleasure involved,” says relationship expert and author Dr. Dawn Michael. “Yes, sex has a practical function, but of course, it’s supposed to feel good.” While it’s normal for long-term couples to encounter a rut or two where sex is a little lackluster because the spark has faded into the everyday dealings of life, consider whether you need to spend more time or energy investing in reviving your lust for one another.
And yes, new partners often require a little tinkering and adjustments to figure out what works for one another. But if it’s been weeks or months and he or she still just isn’t doing it for you, it may be time to throw in the towel. Chemistry can’t be forced.
Though you might experience some discomfort on occasion, depending on the intensity level or how lubricated you are, if you’re having sharp symptoms, it’s time to talk to your regular doc or gynecologist, as it could indicate a deeper problem, says gynecologist Dr. Catherine Goodstein.
“I have patients who complain of painful penetration. Usually, this is because there’s not enough lubrication or a pelvic infection,” she says. “Longer foreplay and products can help with the lube issue, and it’s totally normal for natural lube levels to wax and wane over time. As for pelvic infections, something a simple as a yeast infection can cause painful penetration and can be easily treated. If patients have persistent pain with vaginal penetration then they should see their gynecologist to identify the cause.”
Orgasms every time
While the silver screen might make you think women (read: professional adult film stars) are having orgasms left and right with seemingly the slightest touch from their partners, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Brown estimates that only 30 percent of women can orgasm from vaginal intercourse alone. That means the vast majority can’t get there without extra attention to foreplay and maybe the use of toys. “When a woman’s partners assume she should be orgasming from intercourse and when women themselves buy into it, they feel abnormal and deficient,” Brown explains. “There are plenty of other ways to reach orgasm, either as a supplement or alternative to intercourse, and those are all normal. So it’s important for women and their partners to relax their expectations and increase their pleasure.”
And hey, if you are one of the ladies coming every time (or practically every time), more power to you—we just want to make sure no one thinks that’s what’s happening in most bedrooms because it’s not.
Trouble getting it up
A man’s ability to maintain an erection is typically a good indicator of his health and what’s happening in his body both physically and mentally, says Dr. Paul Gittens, director of the Philadelphia Center for Sexual Medicine. “Normal erectile function is a sign of good heart health, weight and sleeping habits, among other things.”
If it only happens every once in awhile—after a few drinks, for instance—it’s probably no reason to worry. “And don’t assume that men’s penises should always work the same, regardless of age, diet, stress or a million other factors,” says Brown. “It doesn’t mean he’s no longer attracted to you if he can’t rise to the occasion every now and then. The reality is, male arousal and female arousal are both variable. They can both use a little coaxing now and again or the awareness that it’s OK to say, ‘Not tonight, OK?’”
Maybe you like to tune into some X-rated clips with your partner or on your own. That’s a totally healthy addition to your sex life as long as it doesn’t desensitize you to what normal, unfilmed and unscripted intercourse and foreplay are really like.
“Porn is intended to titillate the viewer, not the participant,” says Brown. “Think of it this way: Do you want to eat the most beautiful food in the world if it’s made out of wax or a good, sloppy meal that’s made of real, delicious ingredients? Satisfying sex is often messy. It may or may not be acrobatic. It may or may not involve bodily fluids all over the place. But if you’re doing porn moves, let it be because both you and your partner truly enjoy them, not because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do.”
If porn is becoming too much of a focus or impacting your expectations, try switching up your sexy fodder. From reading erotica to taking a tantric sex or Kama Sutra class together, Brown says that by “diversifying what you’re watching, you can bring in new influences.”