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Picture this: I’m on a date with one of the most attractive people I’ve ever met.
They’ve got this genderfluid easy androgyny, a crossroads between Mad Max: Fury Road and Elton John. They did burlesque, photography and had an intense piercing gaze that followed my every movement. I giggle, gay and happy, and they reach for my hand.
Oh no, I think. My stomach drops.
It’s not that I don’t like them. I like them a lot. I’ve spent the last week thinking about our upcoming date, worrying over if I was funny or entertaining enough.
Still, seeing them reach for my hand rocket shipped my anxiety through the proverbial stratosphere.
They squeezed my hand, and I turned away. I didn’t want to see their reaction to touching my hand. I knew my hands would be like the rest of my body; absolutely covered in a layer of sweat. Whenever I was anxious, I got irreparably damp. It was like a defense mechanism, some kind of defunct evolutionary remnant from a time when being slippery helped my ancestors escape from danger.
As the date went on, their body language was becoming more suggestive. When we were parting ways for the night, they playfully suggested I give them a goodbye kiss. I gave them a juvenile hug instead and awkwardly sped away. I must have looked like a city version of Dwight’s cousin Mose from The Office; awkward and unable to handle it.
I wanted to tell them why I was so anxious. I tried to, but what came out instead was a half-truth; I was feeling a little stressed with life at the moment. They were considerate but was eager for us to meet up. So, like any stressed millennial, I just stopped replying to their texts.
I know. I know.
At the time, I didn’t consider it to be ghosting! I wanted to hang out! I wanted to be closer! I just didn’t want the absolute-100-percent-assured-without-a-doubt rejection that would come along with opening myself up to another sexual rejection.
The anxiety around dating started happening with more frequency. Despite being an extrovert and extremely talkative, I was a deeply anxious person. As a child, I often found myself having miniature existential crises. My parents hoped my nerves would settle as I got older. Instead, my worries only grew to adult proportions.
I tried to do casual hook-ups or one night stands, but I couldn’t relax without sedating myself with weed. So, I decided to pull back from relationships as a whole. Eventually, I even stopped enjoying… self-love, to put it politely.
Everything began reminding me of my potential for sexual inadequacy and I just felt more comfortable reverting back to a time when it wasn’t in my vocabulary.
Sex, who’s that? Don’t know her.
It was like wearing sweatpants every day of the week. I felt so comfortable in my own little safe zone, that removing myself from that coziness felt more like a punishment than anything else. Being hit on made my blood boil, like being woken up from a nap.
It wasn’t until I googled, “I don’t want to date ever again” that I got hit with an epiphany light-bulb the size of Big Ben. The results came back with a term I hadn’t heard before: sexual avoidance.
This quick search on the internet showed me I wasn’t alone in my recent bout of sex avoidance. There were dozens of us, dozens! All Arrested Development jokes aside, it turned out to be an incredibly common but hidden problem for many people.
The first issue to consider: what was the difference between asexuality and sexual avoidance?
Asexual, aromantic or sexually avoidant?
Asexuality is a spectrum that’s defined by lack of sexual desire and/or interest in sex with other people. Folks who are asexual might have sex, but don’t necessarily go out of their way to hook up. They might masturbate to relieve sexual tension, or even have sex with their partners to increase connection. They could engage in BDSM and kink, maybe as a way to act out and play with feelings of dominance/submission, or simply for the sensory experience of being flogged.
There’s also aromanticism. Aromanticism is a spectrum, but for romantic feelings as a whole. These folks might have sexual desire for another person, but don’t entirely understand these “romantic loves” the average person describes often in flowery detail. They understand and feel love for family and friends, but don’t understand the difference between romantic love and platonic love. Aromantics may desire sex with partners but run away from romantic expectations. There are some that might even experience some romantic feelings but only after a deep sexual connection is established.
The difference between asexuality and sexual avoidance is not easy to spot, even for those experiencing those feelings first-hand. Someone can be asexual and sex-repulsed and also sexually avoidant. The distinction lies further under the surface: while some asexuals might want a sense of sexual desire in order to experience life closer to the “norm”, they aren’t avoiding physical intimacy as a way to bypass immense anxiety. They just simply don’t feel the need to get down and dirty.
Sexually avoidant people desire intimacy but become so anxious they are compelled to hard swerve away from it. Sometimes even the mere thought of sex can make them weak in the knees, and not in a good way. They might fantasize about blowing their crush, but the closest they can get to it would be blowing a paper bag while hyperventilating.
Sexually avoidant people desperately crave the ability to open up to sexual intimacy, but can’t get over the intense anxiety around it. It seems like an impossible task and one fraught with the potential for rejection… so they just abandon it altogether, despite the rising feelings of resentment and loneliness.
Why do we become sexually avoidant?
There are other reasons why people may lose interest in sex. There might have been horrific trauma from sexual assault or lasting feelings of betrayal from being cheated on by a partner.
Many people on medications begin to notice an unpleasant side-effect: they lose their sex drive. Most mood-altering medications like antidepressants or meds for pain management tend to lower someone’s libido or make climax take longer. It can lead to sex becoming more painful and emotionally can lead to them feeling disheartened.
I had recently started anxiety meds, so that could have certainly applied to me. Still, the avoidance had begun months earlier. It didn’t explain the whole story.
The first issue I had to consider: was I asexual? The internet seemed to think I was, at least at first. People suggested kindly that I was… maybe… a repressed asexual. Some even hinted that I might not be wired for romance, and somewhere on the aromantic scale.
I took the time to consider that possibility. At first, I embraced the term with open arms. I got the same rush of relief I got when I canceled plans for an event I was anxious about. Soon after, the feeling of being relieved quickly dissipated. Instead of that lasting relief, most people reported feeling after embracing their asexuality, I got angry.
Really, I was hoping someone would hold my hand and help evict out of the anxiety overlord that ruled over the Sexy Land in my mind. I didn’t want to feel okay with not feeling sexual, I wanted to feel okay and feel sexual. It was like discovering you had a food allergy, and couldn’t eat your favorite snack. I loved the taste of said snack, and wanted it back!
It only took me a couple of minutes of reading my teenage diaries to determine I was clearly not aromantic. I might have confusing feelings on romance (who doesn’t?) but the amount of connection I wanted to have on a romantic level was clear, especially when written explicitly on a page.
At this point, I’d like to underscore an important rule: never ever try to discredit someone’s asexual identity. It’s akin to telling a lesbian she just hasn’t met the “right guy”, or telling a trans person to just suck up their dysphoria. Remember the golden rule folks: don’t be a dick.
So what's the next step?
Now what do you do if you’re finding yourself at this crossroads between intimacy and anxiety?
Take the time to ask yourself some key questions: do I crave intimacy? Do I want to get to know another person better, and eventually well enough to feel safe enough to share physical displays of affection? Do I trust them enough to feel ready to be disappointed?
If your sexual avoidance comes as a side effect to medications, seeking your doctor’s help is crucial. Your doctor can adjust your dosages, so that you can balance a healthier libido with the mood stability you require. They can change your medication to ones with less sexually crushing side effects, although those medications can be few and far between.
Doctors can also prescribe medications to help increase your libido. We all know the most famous by color and shape alone: Viagra. Some studies have shown that Viagra ( and it's alternatives ) has become popular as a libido-enhancing drug, even for those without dicks as it also increases blood flow to the necessary bits.
There’s also a newly FDA-approved medication called Vyleesi (bremelanotide) that is being used, especially for women and AFAB people. It’s injectable and has been marketed towards post-menopausal folks. Addyi is another popular option, which comes in a pill.
Non-pharmaceutical alternatives are often less medically recommended but from the anecdotal evidence almost have a cult following. Popular nutritional supplements include Ashwagandha and Tribulus. Both lower the stress hormone cortisol which inhibits testosterone / your libido. Horny goat weed is another popular alternative, as it increases blood flow in the body which is necessary for feelings of arousal.
There’s also the other kind of weed, cannabis. Since the 70s, cannabis has been praised as something that creates an almost immediate feeling of intense sexual desire. It depends on the strain, and can easily become overwhelming for most folks. (This solution also depends on whether or not it’s legal where you live. Don’t get in trouble, friends!) It’s good to recognize that weed can, in some people, increase the body’s baseline for anxiety… which can be a major mood killer.
Therapy and self-care
But often, the most effective tool to help manage this fear of intimacy is therapy, and specifically with a sexual health specialist. A therapist can create a plan for you to comfortably address the fear in a way that is manageable. They can also help discern if there’s any reason for you to be feeling so avoidant in the first place, whether that be past trauma or medications.
If you can’t see a therapist, you can still take steps by yourself. Focus on slowly sliding back into the sexy waters of sexy land, but not in a way that causes you to be more anxious than you can tolerate. Small steps are helpful and achievable. You don’t have to go from sexual hermit to the most popular person at the orgy in one night, so don’t place lofty expectations on yourself. Sometimes unrealistic expectations are a form of self-sabotage and can trap us in a cycle when self-compassion is the best way forward.
Think of this as a chance to grow and learn. No one is expecting you to be the perfect sexual partner, and being able to confront that fear is key to getting over sexual avoidance. Start internalizing this idea: you are capable. Even if the absolute worst humiliation were to happen… you would be okay.
Take an inventory of your fears. Write them down, and write out how you’d be able to overcome those moments. What could you do to make yourself feel better afterward? What could you do to take responsibility for your behaviors in those moments? If you’re afraid that your partner won’t enjoy it, remind yourself that you can ask for feedback in the middle of sex. There are always ways of being mindfully active in your own sexuality, even if it takes a little thinking or planning to get there.
Ultimately, if you truly feel like sexual experiences are not on the menu for you at the moment… that’s okay too! Take time to experience other joys. You can focus on developing hobbies in your free time, or take a dance class to become more comfortable with touching other people.
There are events around the world for cuddle parties or even ones where everyone dances in the dark wearing glowy-stickers. You can connect with partners through sensual touch like massage, or if you’re single, focus on reconnecting through platonic touch with friends. Call a group of friends over and have a non-sexual slumber party and watch old movies!
There’s also the scariest possibility of all: being honest with potential partners. When the amygdala is screaming at you AHH RUN AWAY, giving in to that feeling will only fortify that response. It’s important to open up, and not reinforce your anxiety’s initial fear response. It’s terrifying but worth it.
The possibilities for growth are endless.
Back to the Future
I missed my opportunity to connect with the fantastic burlesque dancer, but I wanted to give myself the chance to grow.
I made a connection with someone new. This time, when I noticed that I was starting to be avoidant due to my fear of intimacy, I caught myself. If I was going to bail on someone, well... jeez, at least I wanted to give them the chance to reject me for who I really was. I wasn’t a jerk, just horribly scared.
So instead… I messaged them. I explained that I really liked them, but was working through some bad anxiety. I wanted to be honest, and make sure they were aware it was my responsibility to work through it all.
I didn’t hear back for a couple of days yet I felt relieved at my little act of courage. Suddenly, I got a message back.
“Oh, I was feeling the same way! I have such a hard time with expectations too…!”
This time, dear reader, I won’t bail out on our second date. I promise.