What you need to know:
The cause of sexual numbness can be biological, psychological or relationship-related.
It was the first time Alice was revealing a secret of her life. She had lived with the secret for the 13 years of her marriage but she was continuously feeling frustrated and unable to cope. The fact that she already had three children in the marriage and that everyone assumed that she was happily married did not help the situation either.
“What it means is that I can’t just walk out of this marriage however frustrated I am,” she explained.
The more difficult issue, in fact, was that hers was the perfect husband. Gideon, the hubby, did everything a responsible man was expected of. He worked hard and provided for the family. He loved and cared for Alice’s parents who were ailing and showed genuine love and cared for his children.
“Sometimes I wish he could do something unusual; like get into an affair so that I can find a reason to walk out of the marriage,” Alice lamented.
Alice’s problem was sexual. She had never discussed it with any relative or friend. In fact, it took her close to one year to amerce the confidence to come to the clinic for consultation.
“My problem is that I feel nothing, totally nothing during penetrative sex. I thought getting married would sort the issue, but it hasn’t resolved,” she revealed.
I delved into understanding Alice’s problem. There are people who, for one have no sexual thoughts. They have no sexual fantasies. That is the first level of feeling and if it is numbed, one feels nothing from foreplay to penetrative sex. A psychological test in a person with this first level of numbness yields a diagnosis of asexuality, a situation where one has no sexual attraction to anyone. Such people may also be aromantic, meaning they have no ability to be emotionally attached to anyone.
“I do have sexual thoughts and fantasies so that for me is not an issue,” Alice interjected.
But then there are those who will have the thoughts and fantasies but when it comes to foreplay, nothing really feels pleasurable. Some may even feel irritated instead of pleasure. As a result, they may never get ready. As such they get pain during penetrative sex because of a lack of lubrication.
“Well, I actually do enjoy foreplay and I get ready but that marks the end of anything pleasurable,” Alice said, “I feel no pain, I feel no pleasure.”
And so, it was the penetrative bit that was a problem for Alice.
“It is like am frozen down there, I do not know what orgasm means,” she said.
For all the years she had been in marriage Alice pretended that all was well. She faked pleasure and orgasm. Gideon knew nothing of what she was going through.
“My first problem is that my husband will be very hurt to know that I have lived a fake sexual life,” she said, her eyes wetting with tears, “I feel so bad that I have disappointed a man who loves and cares for me.”
The cause of sexual numbness can be biological, in other words, some physiological or anatomical problem or illness that affects sexual response. This is commonly a hormonal problem but could also be a disease of the nervous or blood system. Other symptoms can accompany sexual numbness depending on the disease. Sometimes medicines used to treat other diseases can depress sexual feelings too.
The second cause of sexual numbness is psychological. There are a number of stressful situations that one goes through while growing up that can lead to numbness. Sexual assault is an example but there are many other situations in the family and community that can impact sexual feelings.
The third cause of numbness is relationship-related. Sexual satisfaction comes from the emotional connection as well as physical satisfaction with the act. Where either of these is lacking, sex can be meaningless.
“What do you mean by physical satisfaction?” Alice asked, avoiding eye contact. She was shy.
Physical satisfaction is achieved when the sexual process is satisfactory. Where sex causes pain or where the man has a problem such as premature ejaculation the woman is left dissatisfied. Repeated experiences of dissatisfaction can lead to a lack of interest. Pleasurable feelings then go and are replaced with pain or numbness.
The first step into deciphering sexual numbness is a thorough medical evaluation that includes laboratory tests. Psychological and relationship evaluation are also done. The aim is to find out the root cause of the problem. Alice underwent the evaluation and at the end of it there was only one clear finding: she grew up in a highly conservative family where sex was highly stigmatised. Her values around sex were disturbingly negative. Her sexual development at the psychological level was inhibited at a certain point and so full development was not achieved.
Alice’s treatment called for therapy but there was one catch: we needed to involve her husband in the process. She asked for time to reflect on this but as fate would have it, she absconded treatment, possibly the thought of her husband discovering that she had been pretending all along was hard to bear.
Two years later she called me. She had walked out of the marriage. At a certain point, she refused to have sex with her husband. Gideon got frustrated and cheated. Alice was only too happy to walk out of the marriage using infidelity as a reason.