One person’s “Gross!” may be your “Oh, yes!” What freaks you out in bed might be just a typical Saturday evening at your neighbor’s house. Something deeply romantic to your friend could make you roll your eyes.
Everyone’s line in the sexual sand is different, but a lot of us have a mental note filed away about a deed we’d never do: an act too embarrassing, degrading, uncomfortable or perhaps even taboo. But, as the saying goes, “Never say never.”
In fact, “pushing sexual boundaries can create excitement that fuels other aspects of your life,” says Julie Holland, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.
Seven women (names have been changed for privacy) reveal what led them to take erotic leaps they swore they wouldn’t. Learn why breaking your commandments can be a source of growth and cause for celebration.
‘I grew to love sex toys’
The steamy scene. Natalie, 38, learned about sex from whispering classmates and Judy Blume’s “Forever.” As a teen, she began babysitting for a conservative family in her neighborhood. “I snooped around one night and discovered a dildo in the bedside table. It totally grossed me out!” All grown up 15 years later, Natalie developed chronic repetitive stress injuries in her wrists on her job as a data processor. When she told friends that the painful strain meant no more orgasms, one gave her a sex toy, in part as a joke. “I was weirded out by the gift, but they say necessity is the mother of invention, so I began to use it a little.”
How it felt. “It produced a little heat, which was arousing, and I liked how the broad, flattened top felt stimulating all over,” Natalie says. “It felt so good that I quickly got over my anti-toy feelings.”
Is she normal? According to a Self.com poll, 33 percent of you use sex toys, whereas 24 percent don’t own any now but would be game to give mechanical playthings a go in the future.
Want to try it? Consider adding a small gadget such as a pocket rocket to your repertoire and invite your partner. Natalie hasn’t used her toy with her husband yet, but says that’s “the next step, even though I worry he’ll think I feel he’s inadequate.” Introducing a toy “might actually please your partner more than you think,” says Sharyn Wolf, a clinical social worker in New York City. “It may feel illicit, forbidden and exciting for him to see you so turned on.
As long as you make it clear that it’s not about anything he’s lacking, but rather about bringing more play and eroticism to the relationship, you could find it’s not only you who reaps benefits.”
‘I had a threesome’
The steamy scene. “A friend of mine from work, Lisa, and I had spent a sexually charged Saturday afternoon vibrator shopping,” says Melissa, 37. “We were at my house afterward, and I decided to call a mutual friend — actually, it was her ex, on whom I had a crush. He said he was at a party and we should come over.”
How it felt. “I tried to talk to my friend about that night a few times, but she always shut me down. She repeatedly insisted that nothing had happened, as if I had completely imagined it,” Melissa says. “It permanently changed our friendship. Had I anticipated this kind of aftermath, I’d never have done it.”
Is she normal? Fourteen percent of Americans have had a threesome, and 21 percent have fantasized about having one, according to an ABC News survey.
Want to try it? “Threesomes almost never work out,” Wolf cautions. “One person always has a better time than the other two, and that leads to conflict.” Which is why, she says, it’s essential to talk things through, preferably before you’re in bed and without drinking, something Melissa and her friends failed to do. “Often, one person is trying to convince the others about how great it will be, but they should also talk about what could go wrong,” Wolf says. Melissa isn’t sure why she jumped into the experience so fast; she has learned to take more time making sexual decisions.
‘I tried back-door sex’
The steamy scene. “I was dating a French guy,” says Nina, 38. “French! Extra hot! One night he rolled me onto my stomach and started kissing my back and went lower and lower, and I thought, Wait! I didn’t know whether to be horrified, mortified, grateful that I’d showered or just turned on…. I was all those things at once! Then I thought, ‘OK, he’s a foreign guy! I have to do foreign things!’ I essentially gave myself permission to open myself up to try anal sex, something I swore up and down I’d never be into.”
How it felt. “I loved it!” Nina says. “It definitely hurt at first, but thankfully, my partner went slowly and used lots of lubricant, which I think is the key. If this person had told me in advance what he was going to do, I would not have been up for it. But it just happened and wound up being a pleasant surprise.… Well, I thought I’d won a Girl Scout badge in adult sexuality! I was proud of myself.”
Is she normal? Thirty-five percent of women have had anal sex with a partner of the opposite sex, according to a survey by the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland. But if this act is outside your boundaries, and you’re with someone who really wants to try it, “the most important thing is to talk about it,” Wolf says. Start the conversation with a few simple questions. How do you imagine it happening? How could we make it enjoyable for both of us? If you’re still not feeling it, be willing to say “no, thanks” — then describe what you do desire.
Want to try it? “Take it slowly and let the receiver, not the giver, set the pace,” Dr. Holland advises. “If it is not pleasurable, stop. You don’t have to do it just to please your partner.” And until you’ve both been tested and are in a monogamous relationship, use condoms to protect against sexually transmitted diseases.
‘I had an affair’
The steamy scene. “Hugh and I married in a fairy-tale wedding when I was 23,” Fiona, 30, recalls. “I was swept up in all these romantic visions and was sure we’d have the happily-ever-after. Even though my dad cheated on my mom, I was certain that would never happen to us.”
But the marriage quickly soured over political and other disagreements, and their sex life cooled just as rapidly. “He always had an excuse for his lack of desire,” Fiona says. “He was tired or stressed at work; it was his antidepressants; he didn’t like to do it in the morning — whatever. At one point I sobbed to him, ‘What’s wrong with me that you won’t have sex with me?’”
How it felt. The night she got home, Fiona and Hugh were in bed, and she went in for a cuddle. “He said, ‘I think we’re both too tired,’” she recalls. “That’s when the piano fell on my head. I thought, I’ve done everything to make this work, and it’s not going anywhere.” The next evening after she got home from work, Fiona told her husband the marriage was over. They tried counseling, but it only solidified Fiona’s decision to leave. After the breakup, she accidentally-on-purpose met up with Kyle, “but my decision to split up wasn’t about wanting to be with Kyle; it was about realizing I needed out of my marriage.” Six months later, Hugh and Fiona divorced. Six months after that, she met Kyle at yet another music festival, and this time, a real romance bloomed. “We’ve been together a year now,” she says. “He’s much more like me than my ex. He’s funny, tolerant and intellectually curious. Our relationship started as a fling, but it’s become much deeper. I’m glad an affair triggered the end of my marriage, because it made me see that I deserved to be happy.”
Is she normal? About 15 percent of married women have had a sexual partner other than their spouse, according to “Sex in America” (Grand Central Publishing). “An affair isn’t always the cause of the demise of a marriage,” Dr. Holland says. “But it can be a critical symptom of its disintegration.”
Want to try it? Although infidelity spelled doom for Fiona and Hugh, Dr. Holland says that sometimes such indiscretions can strengthen a union. “If you address the fundamental problems in the relationship, and if both partners are determined to save the marriage, an affair can be a chance to reestablish trust,” she says. (Indeed, roughly 35 percent of marriages stay intact after infidelity, according to David Barash, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington at Seattle.) Still, she warns, “if you’re tempted to have an affair, you need to decide if you want to improve your marriage, make the affair into a real relationship or be alone to work on your self-esteem and goals.”
‘I fell in love with a woman’
The steamy scene. “I had never been attracted to women, but I just loved Emily’s vibe — she was so strong and direct and confident,” says Daniela, 42, a producer who met Emily, an artist, on a freelance assignment. “I’m pretty girly, and I was a little intimidated by her, but something about her resonated in me.” She and Emily ended up collaborating on various projects over several months, and “our connection was undeniable,” Daniela says. Finally, after a late night at a photo shoot, they went outside for some air and Emily kissed Daniela under the stars, kicking off a hot-and-heavy romance.
How it felt. “I’m not struggling with my sexual identity,” Daniela says. “I just know Emily is someone I want to be with. I don’t know what’s going to happen — I’m thrilled and a little worried, because this is all so intense and new.” There are speed bumps, of course. Daniela worries that Emily is guarded because Daniela has never had a same-sex experience. “Whatever happens,” Daniela says, “it’s been amazing to discover my own openness. I had no idea it was there. Whenever I’ve closed my eyes and imagined who I want to be with, it’s always been a man, and I’m still attracted to men. But sometimes, you have to take a leap. At my age, I’m not going to censor the scary, vulnerable stuff. I spent so much time in my 20s protecting myself from getting hurt; now I’m thinking, Let go!”
Is she normal? Twenty percent of Americans have had a same-sex experience, according to the Global Sex Survey conducted by condom maker Durex. A Self.com poll found that 16 percent of women fantasize about having sex with a woman.
Want to try it? If you’re attracted to someone, male or female, and you’re both unattached, you might want to throw caution to the wind. “I believe sexuality is a spectrum, and very few people are exclusively heterosexual or homosexual,” Dr. Holland says. “Most of us are more omnisexual, or attracted to both genders, than we allow. So don’t worry so much about labels. If you give yourself permission to have an experience without shame, you might enjoy it!” In any case, whether your hookup is same-sex or heterosexual, it’s important to be aware that the infatuation stage of a relationship is often fleeting. “When you fall in love, your brain is surging in chemicals it’s not usually bathed in — dopamine, oxytocin and seratonin,” Dr. Holland says. “They cause feelings of connection and euphoric bliss. It doesn’t last, this kind of intensity, but research shows you can keep sparks of it alive by doing novel things together.” Try hitting an art event rather than the movies, take salsa lessons or test a new position in bed.
‘I had vaginal laser surgery’
The steamy scene. Nell, 29, had a boyfriend, who’d always told her she was beautiful, but she never felt that way. “I was self-conscious because of extra skin around my vagina. I would get infections from it always rubbing against jeans or thongs, and sex was awful because of the irritation — I’d have to wear sweatpants afterward. Over the years, I’d asked a couple of gynecologists if there was anything I could do, but their reaction was, Why couldn’t I just accept myself? But this was not a vanity thing; it was affecting my quality of life.” Then Nell heard about physicians who performed vaginal surgery. She called one of the doctors, and he referred her to Christopher Warner, M.D., founder of the Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation Institute of Washington, D.C. She went in for a consultation and quickly scheduled the procedure.
How it felt. “When I looked at myself right after surgery, I cried,” she says. “I felt normal for the first time. It took about six weeks for the sutures to fall out and the swelling to go down, and it hurt, but I never thought, What have I done? I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Is she normal? Operations such as Nell’s are currently on the rise. The number of vaginal-rejuvenation surgeries rose 30 percent between 2005 and 2006, the first two years the American Society of Plastic Surgeons tracked such procedures.
Want to try it? “If a woman has a physical problem that can be helped by surgery, no one could argue with that. I understand women saying ‘I did it to feel better!’ but I also worry about us as a culture,” Dr. Holland says. “Society is capitalizing on women’s insecurities to induce them to have surgery they might not need, which creates more insecurity.” Motives aside, vaginal rejuvenation is a complex, expensive surgery, which demands about six weeks of abstinence to heal, can cost up to $20,000 and isn’t covered by insurance, even in a case such as Nell’s.
Consult your doctor and interview several board-certified surgeons before undergoing any procedure.
‘I decided to join the mile-high club’
The steamy scene. “Despite my having serious reservations about doing it in a semipublic place, my boyfriend talked me into getting busy in an airplane bathroom,” says Karyn, 44. “It was cramped, but I laughed the whole time at the pretzel-like contortions required. At one point, I mistakenly flushed the toilet with my foot, causing that huge, airplane-toilet whoosh!, and I felt as if the two of us would be sucked out of the cabin and delivered straight to hell!”
How it felt. After their bumpy passion session, the two emerged from the bathroom to find another passenger waiting to use the facilities giving them the hairy eyeball. Karyn immediately exploded into giggles, but her boyfriend was horrified and began murmuring apologies, excuses and even self-recriminations. “Maybe it would have been more fun — and passionate — if my partner hadn’t been so prissy about it later. It was his suggestion, but afterward, he said it made him feel ‘cheap.’ He was drawn to being naughty and then felt guilty.” Unsurprisingly, she and the guy broke up shortly thereafter. Karyn says she’d try airplane sex again, but with someone who has a decent sense of humor.
falsefalseMore stories from SELF
Is she normal?
Four percent of Americans have done the deed in flight, according to the Durex Global Sex Survey.
Want to try it? Wolf advises hatching a specific plan with your lover: when you’ll do it (after drinks are served vs. when the movie begins), where (in roomy first-class seats vs. the lavatory), etc. More important, check your inhibitions after takeoff. “When you’re doctrinaire, you resist feelings,” Wolf says. “You’re reluctant to have desires and emotions that aren’t the ‘right’ types of feelings. A mass of wild inconsistencies is being human.” Yes, you may end up feeling embarrassed or alone or wrong after you’ve “explored.” But you may also emerge enlightened or satisfied or with a richer life behind you when the final tally is added up. We needn’t embark on one continuous voyage of discovery. Sometimes, it’s fun to stay home and watch “Lost,” cuddle on the couch or make pizza together — there’s nothing wrong with that. Rather than thinking, “I can’t imagine doing something so bold!” try asking, “Is there a compelling reason not to?” It’s virtually impossible to predict where life will take you. Never is just a word.