I’d like for you to imagine that you’re someone who is afraid of birthday parties.
Sure, birthday parties seem fine in theory. Safe in the comfort of your bed, you feel comfortable thinking about the excitement of it all: the cake, festive decorations, and friends who want nothing more than to bask in your birthday glory with you.
Heck, you might even want to be at a party more than anything else!
When your birthday does roll around and you do have a party, however, you find your attitude radically shifts.
Thinking about everyone watching you, your stomach feels like a tsunami, even though your friends are eager to make sure you’re enjoying yourself as much as they are. Eventually, you start to feel clammy and feverish, like you’ve eaten a big pot of dangerously lukewarm chowder from a discounted retirement cruise.
As much as you try to ignore the anxiety, you end up not enjoying yourself fully because you’re too preoccupied with the overwhelming sense of panic to ease into the experience.
You, my fine hypothetical friend, have “birthday party anxiety”.
Now, imagine that instead of finding celebrations anxiety-inducing, you’re nervous about sex.
Does it still seem so impossible? Probably not!
Why would someone have anxiety around sex?
Now for everyone’s least favorite game show: Why Is Anxiety!
Let’s tell the folks at home why someone could be feeling significantly anxious about sex. The reasons, unfortunately, are neverending but here are the most common ones.
As someone who grew up in the ’90s and ’00s, it’s hard to imagine anyone was able to escape those years with their sense of bodily confidence intact ( body positivity? What’s that? Doesn’t sound RAD at all ).
Getting naked and intimate with someone is, well, intimate!
It’s understandably a bit scary, especially if you genuinely care about what the other person thinks of you.
However, for some people, their discomfort around their body image is so distracting that it short-circuits any desire to get frisky. If you were anticipating rejection and/or humiliation after stripping down to your skivvies, you’d likely be weary of a Tinder date too!
You might have also grown up in an extremely sex-negative home environment.
It can be hard to reconcile your desire for sexual pleasure with the disapproval of your religious community (or at the very least with the fear of eternal damnation). If every blow-job from a handsome stranger on Grindr was accompanied by fear of hell, it would make sense that you’d start to avoid not just hookups but sex as a whole.
You could’ve experienced a marked shift in your attitude towards sexuality and intimacy after a negative experience.
It would be important to seek out a compassionate and trauma-informed therapist. They can help you process the trauma, and slowly build up ways to regain a sense of safety around intimacy.
Could you be asexual?
Anything’s possible, friend.
You can have any orientation and also have anxiety around sex. (It’s truly the jorts of the mental illnesses, anxiety can go with everything.) While someone can be asexual and also fearful around sex, asexuality isn’t the only reason why someone might feel avoidant around sex. While I want to encourage people to adopt labels that are useful in describing their experiences like “asexual”, I also want to be conscious that we’re not just cutting out the nuance around intimacy either.
It could be easy to confuse anxiety avoidance with asexuality, so don’t rush for a label just yet.
I’ve admitted it: I’m anxious about sex. So should I get drunk and just hook up with whoever?!
Heck no, please don’t push yourself into ignoring your comfort zone!
This is not the way. In my experience, this will only further cause you discomfort and might push you farther into avoidance than if you took things slowly. Numbing your fears will only lead you further into discomfort, and possibly a dependence on substances and going past your own boundaries.
Many people try this, only to wake up with a pounding hangover and heaps of regret. It just worsens the cycle! Instead, try to slowly ease yourself into feeling more open and curious about sexuality. While you might fantasize about going to that all-night kink party, try approaching sex with smaller bite-sized portions ( more on this later ).
And really, if you overwhelm your brain with feelings of discomfort, you won’t be present for when the good feelings finally roll around either.
Ok, I’ll be sober. But I should just try to shake it off, right? Get over it as soon as possible?
For the love of everything vibrating and silicone, please don’t pressure yourself to just “just get over it” overnight!
If you push yourself and force yourself to blow right by any signs of discomfort, you’re just going to feel worse later on when the thrill wears off.
When your body is telling you that it doesn’t feel safe, your job is to listen and take that feeling seriously. Then you can reason with your brain: your increased heartbeat isn’t a panic attack, but just a fantastic orgasm!
Sometimes we can push ourselves to try and have one night of meaningless sex in order to shake off the nerves that have been haunting every date.
Yes, you might really want to have less anxiety around sex like some of your friends or lovers, but expecting yourself to “just be normal” will cause you to spiral into doom and gloom, not hedonistic heaven.
All my friends are kinksters with a burner phone full of sex friends. I want that! Why am I so broken?
Baby! Darling! Dollface! Honey! You are not borked.
In fact, our Lady of Perpetual Teaching (sex educator Emily Nagoski & author of Come as you are ) explains that whatever feelings you have are likely extremely normal.
The more pressure you put on yourself, the less likely you are to succeed at truly being present in your body for pleasurable experiences.
It’s the pleasurable experiences that hook your brain into being curious and then actively participating in intimacy. It’s thrilling and exciting, but only if you can remain in your body and not yeet your soul from pure discomfort and panic.
Paradoxically, try to remember that sex is just sex; it’s playful, intimate, and sweaty but it isn’t the be-all-end-all for your life. Even if you never ever get comfortable with sex the way you’re comfortable with other activities, it doesn’t have to be some kind of depressing admission of defeat. Sex is just sex!
Ok, so what can I do to be more present and less anxious about sex then?
First thing: breathe.
Literally, though, begin paying attention to your breath. Feel your in breath rise in your chest, pause and feel how your lungs expand to hold what’s necessary, and breathe out.
Whenever anxiety wants you to speed up and hurry through something terrifying, slow down instead. Mindfulness is one of the best ways to begin to reduce the anxiety, even if it does require some practice.
If you’re looking for something a bit more structured, you can come up with a plan to build up a tolerance for discomfort.
Take a sheet of paper and write a numbered list from 1 to 10. In the tenth spot, write down whatever your top sexual anxiety is: maybe it’s being sober and hooking up with your FWB, or having sex with the lights on.
Now, what are some easier steps you can take to get to that stage? Maybe your first step is “hang out with my FWB sober”, or “send one flirty DM to someone on Grindr”. You don’t want to rush the experience! Take your time and feel okay, there’s no pressure to be a certain way. This is all for you and your pleasure.
Once you start to feel less threatened by the first step and it becomes easier, try the next step on your fear ladder. Maybe that’s kissing your FWB sober or holding hands with someone you find really handsome. Keep practicing and cultivating a sense of safety until both your mind and body feel secure.
This approach is called the “fear ladder” technique. It’s a kind of exposure therapy and one of the best tools we have to reduce the threats we feel whether it’s from flying or fucking.
Zack, I’ve been practicing being mindful and reducing my fear but I’m still too scared to have casual sex!
Who says you have to have casual sex?
Hookups aren’t a prerequisite for a fulfilling adult life, like a credit card or persistent back pain.
Sex is intimate. You are LITERALLY mixing your body parts up with someone else’s body, that’s a vulnerable thing to do! Why would you want just any ol’ stranger in your bed?
And if I haven’t totally grossed you out by calling sex “mixing up body parts”, I want you to know it’s ok for you to seek out intimate experiences that are, well, intimate and personal.
Find someone who is interested in you and you are interested in them.
Have an honest conversation about your fear of sex, and you’ll see that the right person will hold space for your fears.
The right person won’t push you past your limits, they won’t ignore your fears or make you feel guilty for not fucking them on their schedule.
You’ll also find that being open about your anxieties can reduce them greatly, if not obliterate them completely in some cases! A burden shared is a burden halved, my friend!
Sex is Sex
It isn’t magic. It isn’t a drug. It’s just two people (or more) who are connecting with each other and themselves with a sensual activity.
If you’re exhausted by the idea of approaching your anxiety around sex, and feel like it is truly not worth the hassle, that is okay. If you feel differently one day, you can try getting back on the saddle again when that time comes.
Pleasure is power, so if pleasure means not having sex, so be it!