Recently at Ladies Night In (an infertility support group), we were finishing up, and I asked if there were any other comments or questions to cover. One participant opened up about a challenging subject. With obvious hesitation, she brought up the three letter "S" word.
Sometimes known as libido, interest, desire. Remember passion?
With Infertility, is Sex Still the Hardest Thing to Talk About?
Why don’t we talk about sex?
Look at the intimacies that are shared in our meetings, and all over the media—sperm count, follicle count, diminished ovarian reserve, depth of endometrial lining, is the vaginal mucous mucousy enough, the right underwear for a retrieval (yes, it’s really a thing), boxers vs briefs, not to mention where on and in our bodies clinicians look during fertility treatment, uteruses, ovaries, and so on...
All those topics are commonplace in infertility, but talking about sex? Gasp! That’s still a pretty hard no.
So, yes, sex still seems like the final frontier in infertility conversations.
Back to the woman from the other night, (let’s call her CourageWoman) who wondered if anyone else’s sex life or sexual desire was affected by infertility and fertility treatment.
She received another three-letter word -
CourageWoman gave it a name—functional sex vs. sexy sex.
4 Reasons People Give About Why Infertility is NOT Sexy
Infertility is not sexy. It might be funny, (check out Lori Shandler-Fox, Jay Palumbo and Hilariously Infertile) but it’s not “oh-so-hot, let’s-get-it-on" sex. Effing Funny Fertile Friday offers a way to talk to your fertility doctor!
Form follows function. Truth: our reproductive organs are intimately (pun intended) connected to our sexual (pleasure) organs. Not our lungs or our livers, at least not directly. When our sexual pleasure is all wrapped in procreation, including thinking about the best timing for a pregnancy to occur, it is not sexy. Or fun. Or hot.
The easiest and earliest lessons we learn about sex come through the birds and bees or health class (or our friends, the internet and even occasionally, our parents).
Another “supposed” truth: it’s through the act of sex that pregnancies occur.
Ha! That’s the hope... when you’re not the 1 in 8 couples trying to conceive without success.
Following along the dotted lines, when one is having sex, especially when they’re hoping for the pregnancy and it doesn’t happen, then four things happen:
It’s a quick way to take the fun out of sex. You feel like you must have sex, especially on certain days and times, whether you’re tired or not, in the mood or not, feeling sexy or not. Foreplay, pleasure, and orgasms (oh my!) cease to be the point of sex when procreation takes over. In fact, it’s often all about getting it over with, not about desire and lust (ahh, lust... remember that?). One woman shared this from her husband… “when we were TTC , I felt there were times when having sex felt like a hassle. Having to have sex on certain nights felt more like a chore and it was hard to get in the mood! Especially on nights we both worked until 11. Many months we would just bag it because we worked late and that definitely hindered success.” His wife added, “Personally, I felt sad about it and broke down at times because it took romance out of the bedroom. For us, it added stress, and we kept wondering what we were doing wrong, so to speak.”
2. We feel broken.
When we don’t become pregnant in a reasonable amount of time, we often feel upset that things aren’t working “correctly.” That might be the understatement of the decade! Damaged, broken, and less than are other terms I’ve heard more times than I can count in the 31 years that I’ve been in the infertility field.
3. We’re disappointing our partners.
That is a completely gender-blind statement, as it goes both ways. No matter whose biology is the “cause,” there’s often guilt about all the choices you’ve ever made, followed by shame. Not sexy feelings.
4. We see ourselves differently.
We don’t see ourselves as whole and complete. Our bodies sometimes do undergo some physical changes, but often it’s just a perception of how we look or, even more, it’s about how we see our internal selves. (Author Virginia Sole-Smith, in a recently published article in the New Yorker, dove down deep about the fat shaming that so many people experience when they enter fertility treatment.)
Think about the all the “what ifs” we experience…if I only lost weight, hadn’t had an abortion, hadn’t waited so long, put ha
ving a baby first, had been checked earlier, exercised more (or less), didn’t drink wine on the weekends… the list is endless. One woman faced with infertility and fertility treatment shared her thoughts during Ladies Night In… “once treatment started, I found I was hypersensitive while on the medications. They caused discomfort, loss of interest in sex due to not feeling sexy, and crazy mood swings which didn't help the situation.
We’re in the process of getting approved for our first IVF cycle and in the meantime, we’re working to build our relationship back up to a more positive view of sex before we start that next stage of our journey.”
P.S. The number one comment I heard when I asked women about their sex lives during fertility treatment was, “what sex life?”
3 Positive Messages About Sex and Infertility - Yes, Really
Is there anything about fertility treatment that improves our sex lives?
Well, actually, yes, thankfully.
1. Throw out the birth control.
(Unless you need to be on it, of course!) You are not alone if the irony and utter ridiculousness of all the care and birth control measures we took in not getting pregnant, sometimes for decades, smacks you right in the face. This one made me especially crazy. I wanted all the money back that I spent preventing a pregnancy that wasn’t going to happen anyway. Here’s the positive spin though, you get to toss it!
2. If sex is NOT going to cause a pregnancy… then what will it do?
Create some relief from trying! And not trying might create some unexpected intimacy. Intimacy doesn’t have to be sex, sex. It can be holding hands, snuggling on the couch, a lovely kiss. One thing does lead to another sometimes.
3. Off fertility treatment cycles? Enjoy each other.
This is the time to reengage, even if it’s not sex. Maybe it’s neither sexy sex nor functional sex; it might be sweet sex. Start by asking your partner, “are you available?” And remember, you don’t have to be in the mood for sex, you can be in the mood for foreplay. You don’t have to be in the mood for anything at all, and just give yourself and your partner a chance. Desire isn’t always the driving force.
A few words of hope from another woman who’s been there and is willing to share what happened after treatment was finished. “I will say when we were in treatment, we tried to make the best of it, tried not to make it seem forced... but it was once the pressure was totally off that our sex life definitely improved.”
So maybe, if there’s a healthy silver lining (sorry, Brene Brown!), it’s that one way or another, when treatment is over, our sexual selves recover. (Watch a great video on sympathy vs empathy, courtesy of Brene Brown.)
Sex After Infertility
I finished treatment over 25 years ago. My experience was that my sexual relationship with myself and my partner had a slow recovery, slower than I would have liked, but with an unexpected richness. What we had gone through together had made us more fully appreciate the rediscovery of ourselves and of each other. It turned out that sex, passion, and intimacy weren’t about eggs, sperm, and pregnancy.
And they probably never were.
Are these kinds of discussions or questions interesting to you?
Join us for Ladies Night In (or Couples Night In)—a peer support group, free and open to the public.