Femintimacy: Having Sex After a Breakup

Femintimacy explores sex— and the many topics that word encapsulates— from a young feminist’s angle. She doesn't claim to have all of the answers, but will be talking about how culture and society have impacted sex and intimacy for young women, figuring it out with you.

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How do I find new intimacy after a breakup?

As it gets closer and closer to a year since we split, it becomes increasingly difficult to use our relationship as an excuse to close myself off. The shards of that fracture have pierced the past 11 months, but it’s time for me to really move on.

Last spring, after we broke up, I pursued a few casual flings. I convinced myself they were separate from any feelings I had for you, and that was true to an extent. The first time was really physically painful, which was unsettling and confusing, and the second time became way too intimate way too quickly. But I realized then that I could separate a physical relationship with one person from a conflicted emotional relationship with another. I didn’t owe a new partner any emotional investment, especially if we agreed that the relationship was purely physical. I didn’t have to be over my ex to pursue something casual with someone else.

I went home over the summer and spent that time with friends or burying myself in work, trying to earn enough money to travel during my semester abroad. While accomplishing those goals, I tried to forget, placing myself in romantic and sexual hibernation.

Then, I spent the fall in Dublin. I’ve realized that the stereotype of semesters abroad is that people just sleep their ways through Europe or meet a nice *insert country here* boy who whisks them away on a romantic odyssey a la Lizzie McGuire.

Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.

Self-diagnosed situational depression left me isolated and exhausted. If a guy approached me at a bar, I’d maybe have a nice conversation with him and possibly exchange numbers, but then when he texted to follow up and asked me out for drinks, I’d ghost. No response, no explanation.

I don’t think there’s any logical reason why I didn’t pursue a no-strings-attached Irish romance. I just couldn’t motivate myself to do it. Sex and romance are messy, complicated, and anxiety-producing. If I was already feeling so down a lot of the time, so lethargic, so homesick, so unattractive, then how could I even think about any type of relationship?

But at the beginning of that semester, I did have a short-lived fling with another student. Intimate nights sleeping in each other’s arms. It felt good, if a little strange, to kiss someone new. But at the so-called moment of truth, I froze and stopped him. I made excuses which were partially true, but really, I didn’t have sex with him because I wasn’t fully comfortable.

He’s not the first person I’d been with since you. But he was the first one who sparked a slight promise of something more. Of course, it amounted to nothing, which is undoubtedly better in the long run knowing what I know now. But that experience, coupled with being back on campus this semester, leaves me asking the question: how do you get intimate, in every sense, with someone new after a split?

Of course, I know people do it. People get together and break up and move on all the time, even if it’s difficult to do so. But how do I replace that intense level of trust, of connection, of comfort with being vulnerable, that I shared with you? And is that really what I want?

Long story short, I don’t really know. But this is how I’m trying to move on from you.

Advice I Give Myself

The first time you have sex with a new partner, it might not be the best sex ever. Especially after being in a long-term relationship, if your next sexual partners are more casual, you won’t know each other’s bodies the way you and your previous partner used to. A random partner won’t know all your quirks and intricacies. This can be off-putting and discouraging, but I try to think of it more like trial and error. Putting myself out there at all, in a position to be vulnerable, is a victory in and of itself, even if it doesn’t end in anything spectacular.

And if you have sex with a new romantic partner and it’s not great, I’ve found that remembering the first time you had sex with your previous partner can help put it in perspective. In most, if not all cases, partners learn over time how best to please each other. So just because it’s not magical at first doesn’t mean there’s no room for growth.

Some people share an instant, unexplainable spark, but sexual chemistry can intensify over time. As they say, comparison is the thief of joy. Comparing previous experiences to current ones is generally unhelpful and often painful, so I find myself more consciously refocusing myself on the future rather than dwelling on the past.

Sex usually doesn’t just click like it seems to in the movies. A reciprocal relationship takes figuring out. It’s a give and take, a mutual effort. But if it doesn’t work at first, it’s often still worthwhile to continue trying if both partners are still dedicated to pursuing the new relationship.

All sex should be enjoyable, but it’s okay if not all sex is the absolute best sex you’ve ever had. And it’s okay if sex is different from what you’re used to, as long as you’re comfortable with the change. Getting to know a new person can be scary and messy and strange and wild, but it can also be eye-opening and fascinating and exhilarating and invigorating.

Even still, falling asleep next to a different body can be strange and alienating. It can be fun to explore sex with a new person, but also exhausting to explain your preferences and sexual complexities all over again to someone new. I often found myself wishing that they just knew to do x, y, and z that you used to do, if even to just feel something familiar and reliable again. My instinct was to retreat into my comfort zone rather than expend the energy to let someone in.  

It’s lonely and a little sad to reflect on the loss of something that has been built over time, the body of knowledge shared only between you and your former partner, the loss of something only the two of you can ever have together.

But I keep reminding myself, as cheesy as it may sound, that there are new combinations, new potential pairings, on the horizon.

And there are multiple different forms of intimacy. After my breakup, I found myself craving sexual intimacy, and I sought it out in others, with varying degrees of success. But it was mostly artificial, manufactured for a night, and then gone the next morning.

In some cases, it’s more fulfilling to pursue intellectual or emotional intimacy. Having a great conversation with someone, or sharing an emotional connection, can be a more comfortable way to explore intimacy after a breakup, rather than jumping right into sex if that scares you.

Putting too much pressure on someone else to measure up or on myself to find another person to open up to is ultimately unproductive. The same goes for pushing myself to get intimate, whatever that means, before I’m ready. For now, I’m getting intimate with myself, with my friends, and with my family, and the rest may follow. I’m no longer trying to recreate the past. Instead, I’m looking for intimacy in laughing with my friends, in eating with my family, in relaxing by myself. I’m looking for intimacy in the everyday, in the seemingly mundane, and internally as well.

By Sienna Brancato.