By Dr. Ruth Westheimer
March 29, 2018

After 30 years of working as a sex therapist, the legendary Dr. Ruth isn’t done sharing her wisdom. Here, she answers your most pressing questions on sex, relationships and life. Email your own queries to drruth@time.com, or catch up on previous installments of the Ask Dr. Ruth series.

Q: Why can’t I orgasm during sex?

A: There is no one answer to this question, as common as it might be. In younger couples it’s often a matter of being uneducated about sex. The expectation may be that if two people have intercourse, both the man and the woman are going to have an orgasm relatively quickly. That’s what happens in the movies, right? But even women who know that they need a lot of clitoral stimulation in order to have an orgasm, which intercourse doesn’t always provide, can still find themselves disappointed time after time.

Some women can have orgasms when they masturbate but not when they are with a partner, even assuming that this partner is a knowledgeable person who tries his or her hardest to please. Orgasms can be fragile, requiring a certain environment to produce themselves. If a woman is worried about having an orgasm then it becomes more likely that she’s going to be disappointed. Those very worries are going to make it impossible. But it can even be just the distraction of having someone else there that can be the stumbling block. That’s especially true of women who have developed a set pattern of masturbation. They can end up needing a very exact routine and just having someone else in bed with them makes that impossible.

That said, if a woman cannot have an orgasm with a partner but also has not given herself permission to have an orgasm, then masturbation becomes the key. She needs to learn what it takes to have an orgasm and once she’s discovered this for herself, hopefully she can teach her partner.

While vibrators can be problematic as some women become so used to the strong sensations that they can no longer have an orgasm provided by a partner, a vibrator may also help to break down any psychological barriers. So a woman who can’t even have an orgasm via masturbation with her hand or a stream of water, should try out a vibrator and see if that works. Once she learns to have orgasms, it should be easier to transfer this ability to a partner.

But let me finish by saying that even if it ends up that a woman always requires a vibrator, whether her partner uses it on her or she gives herself the orgasm, finding sexual satisfaction is the ultimate goal of a good sexual experience. So while I understand that finding yourself in such a situation might be somewhat disappointing, as long as both you and your partner aren’t left sexually frustrated at the end of love making, you should consider yourself successful lovers.

Email questions to drruth@time.com.

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