I have a phobia of penetrative sex

I enjoy sexual contact and am now starting a new relationship, but I don’t know what to do about this problem

I’m 38, male, heterosexual, and have always experienced a phobic reaction to penetrative sex. I lose any semblance of an erection. I enjoy many forms of sexual contact and have normal erections with and without a partner, but most intimacy has ended in depression, humiliation, sometimes ridicule. Viagra produced mixed results. When I’ve sought help I was told that nothing much could be done outside a steady relationship, but I’m now starting a potential one.

There’s no need to feel hopeless. A good sex therapist could identify the cause, then create a treatment plan. You would not necessarily need a partner, although it could certainly be helpful if you found an understanding person who was willing to participate in your treatment (in the US, professional surrogate partners are sometimes used for such cases). There are individual techniques such as guided imagery, visualisation, relaxation, progressive desensitisation, hypnosis, or psychodynamic psychotherapy. First, try to reframe the importance you place on penetration. Intercourse isn’t necessarily a woman’s favourite part of lovemaking, so the shame you feel about your erectile failures is really unnecessary. After all, it’s direct clitoral stimulation –not penetration – that helps her achieve orgasm. Once you realise you can be a fantastic lover without erections, you will be well on the way to sexual health.

Pamela Stephenson Connolly is a psychotherapist who specialises in treating sexual disorders.

If you would like advice from Pamela Stephenson Connolly on sexual matters, send us a brief description of your concerns to private.lives@theguardian.com (please don’t send attachments).

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I got married very recently but I don’t find my wife sexually attractive

I think the world of her, but I have been avoiding sex with her for a year. What should I do?

I got married in June to my girlfriend of four years. We are expecting our first child soon. I love her very much, but I am not sexually attracted to her. For the last year or so I have avoided having sex with her and when we do (only a couple of times since we returned from honeymoon at the start of July) I find myself withdrawing from even her passionate kisses, before during and after her climax, though not her affectionate closed mouthed kisses at other times. I care for her deeply, but this just seems deeply wrong and it is not something we can talk about so soon after getting married and just before the birth of our child. It would upset her too much.

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If you would like fellow readers to respond to a dilemma of yours, send us an outline of the situation of about 150 words. For advice from Pamela Stephenson Connolly on sexual matters, send us a brief description of your concerns.

All correspondence should reach us by Wednesday morning. Email: private.lives@theguardian.com (please don’t send attachments).

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I’m shy about having sex but would like more experience

A young man wishes he’d had more sexual experiences, and worries he is held back by shyness. Mariella Frostrup says the important thing is quality, not quantity. Email your dilemmas to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk

The dilemma I am a 20-year-old man, but I still get terribly insecure about my sexual experience. I’ve not been with many women and I often get jealous of partners whose number is higher than mine (in some cases much higher). I’d like more experience, but I feel I’m held back by my shyness in public situations or my feeling that women generally won’t be interested in me. I listened to someone the other day complaining about the burden of having had too much sex too easily. While I don’t want to become that, I wouldn’t mind somewhere in between.

Mariella replies Ah, the much-lauded middle ground. It’s not an agony aunt you need to find but a Google map. Forget the Amazon or Antarctica, the steppes of Siberia or the wilds of Namibia, the sort of places that promise exotic or individual adventures, you are asking me to point you in the same direction as everyone else: Ibiza, perhaps, or southern Spain. When it comes to sexual excitement you are looking no further than the home counties, where just over your picket fence the neighbours are keeping up appearances.

Your letter isn’t focused on the complications of your relationships, or the pleasure of them – it’s all about maths. But your ambitions appear to be based on an average that doesn’t exist. How much sex you have depends on everything from your religion to your location, your age to your libido, the length of your relationship, the stress in your life, the number of available partners in your vicinity. Looking for common ground on lovers accrued is a particularly unrewarding pursuit. I’ve got girlfriends who’ve been married for 30 years and girlfriends who’ve been having casual sex for almost that long. You certainly can’t tell which is which when you’re pressed up against them in a nightclub!

Why do you care about the sex levels of strangers? Physical attraction is such a primal instinct that reducing it to basic accounting seems entirely to miss the point. Sex is textured terrain – not a croquet lawn, but a wildflower wilderness where taste, smell, touch and other exciting sensations are out to play. When you’re in the throes of passion, it’s pheromones and bacchanalian instincts, barely remembered but instantly recognisable, that rule the day.

Instead of celebrating the experience you’ve already shared with a few individuals, and no doubt hope to carry on enjoying through life, you’re looking at it mathematically. You want to elevate your seduction score. But if more sex makes better sex, we’d all be trying to date porn stars. The old-fashioned truth is that really great sex normally occurs with people we consider equally inspiring before and afterwards.

I’ve been asked how to spice up sex lives, not really my area of expertise (any suggestions from readers gratefully received…), but I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how to keep up with Casanova in conquest terms. Sex is definitely an area where you want to retain your own unique appeal rather than inhabit a no man’s land between the great and the bland.

Your letter is fascinating because it doesn’t for a moment mention the quality of the sex you are having, the characteristics of the individuals with whom you have sex or the ups and downs of your sexual adventures to date. All you tell me is that, compared to your contemporaries, your numbers are down. It’s curious that as members of a species unique for idiosyncratic and individual achievements, so many of us hanker for the humdrum. Children are particularly consumed by this desire to follow the crowd, and (until we bankrupted them) it’s what made teenagers such fertile quarry for advertisers in their catch-one-and-they’ll-all-want-one philosophy.

Confronted with the absolute certainty of our mortality, it’s senseless that so many of us spend our lives trying to slip through our allotted time without standing out. As you get to my age and the people you love start falling like flies, it’s easy to become melancholy about missed opportunities. With only one shot at the art of living why are we so timid when it comes to exploiting it? For many of us, the sum of our ambition is not to stand out from the crowd while we draw breath! You are apparently seeking, not better sex, or sexier sex or naughtier sex but just more of it. I suggest you focus on the quality of your engagements and let others boast about the quantity. You would definitely be the more appealing partner amid the chorus of sexual bravado that rumbles on around us.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow Mariella on Twitter @mariellaf1

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Tom and Beth Kerridge on a feisty, foodie marriage

A Michelin-starred chef and a sculptor admit that they’re not afraid to speak their minds. To appear in this column, email meandyou@observer.co.uk

HIS STORY Tom Kerridge, 40, chef-owner at the Michelin-starred Hand & Flowers

Beth’s first sentence to me was: “Will you give me £3 for the stripper, please?” We were at a club in north London and I thought: “This girl’s pretty cool.” We’d only known each other a few days, but she went to work and left me asleep in her flat. She had worried all day I was going to rob her. Instead she came home and I’d cooked her tea – a simple chicken dish. I’m not sure if she was more pleased with the tea or the fact that her telly was still there.

After that, Beth would come and meet me after work, we’d go out and party until six in the morning, go for breakfast somewhere and then go home. It was all pretty rock’n'roll. I like to think we still are a bit. I’ve just turned 40 and we’ve had the biggest party the world has ever seen. It was in a big converted barn up the road, just like a massive illegal rave from 1991, but with loads of 40-year-old chefs and our mates.

When we opened the Hand & Flowers, the idea was for me to be able to cook and for us to make enough money for Beth to afford to be a full-time sculptor. Three years turned into five, and now, after nearly nine years, the pub is hugely successful and Beth is now much more of an artist than a restaurateur. Which is just as well because, in the first year of running the pub, she left me three times! We both are passionate and outspoken – neither of us is afraid of saying what we believe in. Beth certainly isn’t a “yes” woman, which is great.

We both respect each other’s skills. I’m a huge fan of art. I like to buy it and I love visiting galleries. But to see Beth making art is one of the best things ever. I sent her to Carrara in Italy for three weeks, where they have the marble Michelangelo used for his sculptures. She made a fantastic piece – a serpent as a collar and tie – which is my favourite as it represents that she does what she loves now.

HER STORY Beth Kerridge, 43, sculptor and co-owner of the Hand & Flowers

I realised Tom was the one about three days after we met. And then it took me six weeks to ask him to marry me. When you find the one that’s it, isn’t it? I was in awe of him – he’s a hugely dynamic guy. I went and bought a ring with my sister, and then met Tom after work, late on a Saturday night. He said yes before I finished my sentence. We sat in Leicester Square with a bottle of champagne. It must’ve been about two o’clock in the morning because the guy that was sweeping the road came over and said: “I don’t know what you’re celebrating, but congratulations anyway.”

We’re like best friends, really. Our secret is just being honest. There aren’t many people whose opinions I respect when they’re saying something about my sculpture, but Tom is one of them. He’s the same with me about his food. There was one instance where he’d bought these beautiful plates, and he was very proud of the meal that was going on them. And I told him: “It’s great food, but I hate the plates.” I didn’t want him to put food out where the plate was more dominant than the food. He went in a proper strop about it, but the next day the plate had disappeared.

He’s the same: he’s very good at seeing the obvious stuff that I overlook sometimes with my sculpture. We’ve got a great understanding of each other – we’re not takers, as far as our relationship is concerned. Although I still do owe him that £3.

Proper Pub Food by Tom Kerridge is published by Absolute Press, £20. To order a copy for £15, with free UK p&p, go to theguardian.com/bookshop. Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food is on BBC2 later this summer. For information, go to thehandandflowers.co.uk

If you’d like to appear in this column, email meandyou@observer.co.uk

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