Sex Q&A With Shadeen Francis

Shadeen Francis, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist, professor, and author who specializes in sex therapy and social justice. She has been featured on numerous platforms like 6abc, CBC, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post to share her unique expertise on relationships and wellness. Because of her ability to tackle difficult subjects with warmth and humor, she is sought internationally to speak on topics such as sexual self-esteem, building intimacy, and boundary negotiation. Whether in her office, on television, or at a community event, all of Shadeen’s work is inspired by her commitment to helping people live lives full of peace and pleasure.

We asked our community to submit their questions about sex and relationships. Here are Shadeen's answers.


 

I can only orgasm in one position...how do I change this? Help!

First of all, I’m glad you’ve found a position that works for you! Coming in one position is really common – the majority of people have one or two go-to positions for orgasm. Our bodies tend to get used to the way we masturbate or the ways we have sex most – if we have a solid routine, our bodies learn that this is our route to pleasure. The angles, the muscle contractions, our attention, all work together to bring us to climax. 

The same way we can train our performance in other ways (think of shooting a basketball, or the Pavlov’s dog experiment where the dog salivated every time he heard a bell ring), our bodies look for cues that we are ready for an orgasm. Try to let your orgasm come in whatever form it takes without self-judgement. This goes for our partners as well, who need to make space for our sexual needs without shaming us. 

Depending on the position it may take a little creativity, but there is always a way to add your preferred positions into your solo and partnered sex experiences. If you’re still feeling curious about your body, make time for some experimentation – orgasm training, so to speak. Being alone can help if you may feel pressured to orgasm for the sake of a partner. Find your way to arousal and bring yourself close to orgasm.

As your arousal builds, try making one small, incremental change in your position. If you’re on your stomach, try gradually rolling over onto your side. If you’re kneeling, try leaning forward. You can also try adding another source of stimulation if you remain close but can’t quite get there (e.g. a toy, temperature play like ice or a hot water bottle, etc.). Don’t rush yourself or expect to find something right away – this is exploratory and is meant to be an opportunity for curiosity rather than urgency.

Again, the way you orgasm is absolutely fine, and learning about your pleasure can be a fun process too.

I am a sexual assault survivor & I do not enjoy sex. It hurts. And I’m scared. It’s been 5 years.

I am sorry that you’re feeling afraid, and that you’ve had your boundaries crossed. Our bodies are wired to protect us, so our physical and emotional responses are designed to keep us safe from harm. When we learn something for protection, ideally we learn it well and remember it for a long time. Fear is the feeling that lets you know your brain and or your body perceives there may be danger present. Check in with yourself – what are you feeling afraid of? Is there a way to lower the sense of danger? I imagine you may be afraid of the pain. Sex, regardless of our sexual histories, is not meant to hurt. Pain internally (such as during any form of penetration) may be a sign of something physical that should be looked at by a physician, particularly a gynecologist or urologist who has experience working with survivors. This is something you can ask the clinic when scheduling an appointment. Pain around vaginal or anal openings, or abdominal pain, may be related to muscular tension from being uncomfortable or afraid. Working with a sex therapist who has experience with survivors would be a great support in any of the above scenarios. 

Working with health professionals can be costly, especially if you don’t have insurance. I want to assure you that body memories of being unsafe can be lessened and unlearned. Start super slow with yourself. Practice what it feels like to have your own hands on your body and just breathe. Notice what causes pain, where the pain is, and what kind of pain it is. Stop anything that hurts, but notice non-judgmentally where you feel afraid or uncomfortable, and breathe. Over time, this practice can be shared with partners to build trust with them interacting with your body, to practice advocating with yourself, and to teach them what does or doesn’t feel good to you.

How can I move past the fear of intimacy, rejection, and shame that comes with painful sex?

Sex is not supposed to be painful. If you aren’t already, I want to encourage you to honor the message that your body is giving you that something is wrong, and seek the support of health professional,s beginning with a gynecologist who can do a physical exam. Other health professionals that may be referred to depending on the source of the pain are urologists, pelvic floor physical therapists, and/or sex therapists.

Shame is the feeling that tells us that we are bad, undeserving, worthy of rejection. It motivates us to hide, and thrives when we are self-critical. Just by asking the question, you are in the process of undoing the shame! Desiring to be beyond it enough to want to work on it is a message that you know you deserve different. We move through shame by being courageous and advocating for our worth. We unlearn fear by getting support and being prepared against the danger we are afraid of (in this case, maybe the risk of rejection). While disappointing, a partner who isn’t willing to work with you as you address the sexual pain you’ve been facing is not the right partner for you. 

Sex is a space for creativity, vulnerability, respect, and consent. Not everyone has the emotional maturity to do those things, and if they are unwilling to learn, then they are not a good fit. You want a partner who will work with you around discovering what you need for pain free sex. Rejection from folks who will not be on that journey with you will help keep yourself from wasting your time with someone who will not participate in your sexual wellness (or pleasure!).

You deserve pain-free sex. You deserve the space to be vulnerable without judgment. You deserve partners who are supportive when you are hurt or uncomfortable. And you deserve to connect intimately with others, and with yourself.

If I had HPV in the past but no symptoms, should I tell my partners?

While even doctors are not in agreement about this, I would say yes. I am a firm believer that we all need the chance to fully consent to our sexual experiences. A big part of consent is to be informed about the activities and their potential risks. This can feel vulnerable or uncomfortable when the dialogue is about sexual health, because there is so much misinformation and stigma. As part of being informed, you may be giving a mini sex-ed lesson, maybe the first real conversation this person has had! While it is not your responsibility to educate others, the better educated you are will make it easier to have the conversation and negotiate for safer sex practices that could allow you both to have an enjoyable time together.

One way to bring up this conversation is to open up a conversation about sexual health where you both can share. It can be as simple and straightforward, like, “Hey, when’s a good time for us to talk about sexual health? I’d love for us to talk about the last time we were tested, and any previous diagnoses that we should make each other aware of.” This isn’t a confession, a shameful admission, or an apology, it is just providing information that will allow a person to provide informed consent. The more we talk about STIs the more we normalize them and lessen the social stigma.

Note: Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that's passed between people through skin-to-skin contact. It is the most common STI, with upwards of 80 million people currently carrying a strain of the HPV virus. The risks overall are low, with most people never showing symptoms. Research suggests that most people who test positive for genital HPV will test negative within a year or two. However low risk is not the same as no risk - there are some strains that cause warts, and some strains that can lead to cervical cancer. Anyone that has been exposed to HPV can pass the virus on to subsequent partners and lead to cancer risk for them, even if the initial carrier has never had any symptoms. So I believe that HPV needs to be disclosed the same way any other STI would.

23, no birth control, normal periods, healthy, VERY low sex drive? High-stress job like once per month. Maybe. My partner wants it any day. :( any advice?

Let me start by saying that you are allowed to not be as interested in sex! It is unrealistic to expect that we will want sex as much as our partners. In the same way that we aren’t expecting to need the same amount of sleep or to be hungry at the same time, in every relationship partners will have differences in how much sex they want, how long they want to have sex, or what they want to happen during sex. However, we need to be able to negotiate our differences in a way that supports everyone getting their needs met. It is easy to feel stuck. Here are 3 places to explore:

Another way to describe “wanting sex” is “sexual desire”. Stress gets in the way of desire. Stress overwhelms our nervous system and keeps us from feeling connected to our bodies. Stress can come from many sources whether from other competing responsibilities like school or work like you mentioned, mental health struggles like depression or anxiety, or pressure from partners, peers, or media. It can be hard to have opportunities for desire when you are feeling overwhelmed by stress or so burned out that you’re numb. Lowering stress is one way to make more room to notice your desires more clearly. What can you do to lessen the amount of stress you’re under? Thing about boundaries: are there things you can say no to? Is there help you can ask for? Can there be more time to practice self-care?

To lean further into desire, we need to be open to it. This requires some vulnerability. What helps get you interested in sex? And do those things happen regularly in your relationship?

Think of things that make you feel aroused, curious, excited, just good. This might be flirting, adventures, affectionate touch, compliments, romantic or supportive gestures, quality time. If the things that help you feel interested in sex aren’t happening, it can be hard to spontaneously generate desire. Is the sex pleasurable when you have it? Sometimes we don’t feel sexual desire when we don’t want the sex we can have. Talk with your partner about the things that you both would like to see happen more or differently inside or outside of the bedroom to create opportunities for desire. In same vein, if there are things that get in the way, like disrespect, dishonesty, resentment, and so forth, these will need to be worked on.

Lastly, the biggest desire killer is not feeling desirable. What is your relationship to you? Check your inner dialogue, how do you talk to yourself? Are you kind and loving, or critical and shaming? If you are more the latter than the former, you can increase your desire by treating yourself the way you want to be seen sexually. Pick a few words that describe how you want to feel sexually, like powerful or sexy or mysterious. Treat yourself that way.

Is this about sex or sexual pleasure? It is hard to want things that don’t feel enjoyable. There’s less flirting. There’s less romance. And that means there’s not as much buildup to sex.

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