If stress or anxiety about sex is intense, then ignoring that and going ahead anyway can make sex emotionally unsafe. The stakes are very high under these circumstances. Some stress is okay, it can co-exist. Loads pulls you into a place where you’re not listening to yourself or keeping yourself safe when all your internal sirens are screaming. You may be safe – with a loving person you trust, in a beautiful safe environment, in a situation where you are very keen to have sex such as a night away you’ve been planning together. But if you’re screaming with distress inside and not doing anything to settle that, you’re at risk of blowing your circuits – whether that’s through a big overload like a panic attack, short circuiting through major dissociation and numbing, or a subtle effect such as exhaustion from working so hard to suppress such strong emotions so often. Being overwhelmed emotionally makes it harder to connect with and be sensitive to your partner, and often more difficult to focus on the moment and feel pleasure. Anything that is experienced as a failure to protect yourself or a betrayal of yourself is risky.
What brings down the stakes? It depends on what things are driving your anxiety. It might be one thing or a whole knot of them. A lot of what drives up the stakes in sex are when we are using it to answer a whole bunch of questions about our lives – Am I too damaged to have sex? Are they really attracted to me? Is our relationship on the rocks? If I really want it does that make me a slut? Does not liking this particular thing mean I’m weird? Am I ugly? Marty Klein goes into this in excellent detail in his book Sexual Intelligence. His assertion is that sex is about pleasure and closeness. Everything else you can’t answer through sex – you have to work it out in your head, with your shrink, a good friend, or by talking it through with your partner. You bring down the stakes and help sex to be safe by getting back to those two things – pleasure and closeness – and clearing the rest of the clutter out of the way.We stop having sex, or wind up having sex that doesn’t feel safe or good when the stakes are too high. If you’re terrified your partner won’t like your body, or won’t be comfortable with your disability, or will be hurt if you ask them to stop, or might have a panic attack… if there’s a whole bunch of ways you feel like you could ‘fail’ at sex, and the outcome would be really painful – rejection, distance, an argument, embarrassment, then sex is scary. It doesn’t take many of these experiences to shut us down. People are left thinking longingly about how wonderful sex might be, but bitten once and twice shy about how painful it can also be. Even between caring partners, when the stakes are high, sex can be lonely, depressing, humiliating, and miserable.
Part of what’s raising the stakes is this idea of failure. Sex is not a sport. You don’t win or lose at it. This is another area Klein explores in his book, and something I found very useful to think about. It’s worth thinking your ideas about what sex is ‘supposed to be’, and what ‘failure’ means to you. If you can expand the first category, and collapse the second, you bring down the stakes. If there’s lots of ways sex can happen that are good outcomes, and the idea of failure is reduced to the Big Deal stuff – coercion, manipulation, belittling, cruelty, then sex becomes a whole lot safer. If you can’t fail through any of the things that make you anxious about sex – your appearance, ‘performance’, confidence, stamina, and so on, sex can become something fun to explore instead of a stressful ‘moment of truth’ where you succeed or fail. If you can’t fail (because you’re not about to harm your partner) then sex isn’t risky. You can go chasing that good feeling and that closeness, and however it works out it will be okay. The stakes are back to something manageable and the outcome isn’t so potentially frightening.
This has been a helpful concept for me, and now whenever my anxiety spikes I think about what’s raising the stakes for me and what I can do to bring them down. Some really helpful conversations have come out of this and I’ve been able to ease that frozen place inside me and find lightness and joy. Bringing down the stakes feels like being able to breathe again, being able to fly again. It brings me closer to delight and helps me to nest sex into a space that is very safe, very intimate, beautiful and fun.
This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading