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.
In my junior and senior years of high school, I experienced severe anxiety related to anything romantic or sexual. A guy would invite me to a party, make any sort of move on me, and the all-too-familiar symptoms would take hold.
A cascade of cold, shivers up and down my arms, sweeping pain in my stomach, severe nausea, vomiting, weakness. An anxiety attack of that kind could wipe me out for a weekend. Drained, shaky, unable to eat and regain my strength.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I had no idea why my body was producing such intense physical reactions to something so seemingly simple.
Didn’t I want him to invite me to a party? Didn’t I want him to like me? Didn’t I want him to want me?
A simple text message would send me reeling.
I tried talking to a therapist and my school counselor, but they redirected my concerns and insisted that my body was acting up because I was in a time of transition: I was about to graduate and head off to college. This milestone would be overwhelming for anyone to handle! It will get better soon!
But I knew myself better than that. I knew these attacks that ravaged my body unexpectedly were not caused by my impending graduation.
It got to the point where I never thought I’d be able to have a real relationship. I was convinced that the anxiety attacks would always be debilitating, that they’d never allow me to get close to someone. I felt powerless, beholden to my body. I had resigned myself to forever experience intense and unpredictable physical pain.
When I got to college, the severe anxiety attacks decreased, and I got mostly what could be characterized as “normal nerves”—the butterflies-in-the-stomach, prickly, sweaty feeling that most people deal with in romantic interactions. But if I ever got close to having sex with someone, the familiar rush would return.
What Is Sexual Anxiety?
The only type of sexual anxiety I’d ever heard about was performance anxiety, and only men get performance anxiety, right? I soon learned that my preconception was wrong.
In researching this piece, I learned that sexual anxiety can impact anyone, of any gender or age, regardless of their level of sexual experience. This wasn’t exactly a comforting thought, but it did mean that I wasn’t alone and that my lack of sexual experience at the time wasn’t necessarily the factor causing the anxiety.
Sexual anxiety often stems from a fear of disappointing our partners. We’re taught to attach a lot of our worth to our sexual prowess, and if we can’t perform then we believe we won’t be able to have a successful relationship, or our partner will leave us for someone who can.
According to Medical News Today, "In women, sexual performance anxiety can show up as difficulty getting interested in sex, difficulty getting aroused, or difficulty with orgasm. In men, we know what it looks like—difficulty getting an erection, keeping an erection, or coming too soon.'"
Another factor which contributes to performance anxiety is body image. A Journal of Sex Research study found that one-third of college women felt unhappy with their body’s appearance, which was detrimental to their sex lives because they felt too self-conscious to truly enjoy time in bed with a partner.
Additionally, a study which examined young men in the military discovered that over one-third of participants had negative perceptions of their genitalia, leading to erectile dysfunction.
Women may experience sexual anxiety as a result of previous painful sex, anticipating that all experiences will be like the initial painful one. Also, experiences of sexual violence can lead to difficulties in future sexual relationships, as sex can trigger symptoms of recurring trauma.
I hesitate to characterize my own experience as “performance anxiety.” Of course, I wanted to be good at sex (no one wants to be bad at sex), but I spent a lot of time reflecting and finally pinpointed the exact cause of my anxiety: intimacy.
Pinpointing my Sexual Anxiety
My high school was incredibly insular. As the saying goes, everybody knew everybody else’s business. There was barely any dating, only casual hookups and relationships. If two people had “a thing,” everyone knew. To date someone, you had to be sure that you were all in because your friends and classmates would discuss and dissect the relationship at length, in all its specific physical details. Nothing was ever truly private or casual.
And this put a lot of pressure on every physical act. It all felt incredibly high stakes, as though one misstep could send your social life spiraling. Everything was high stakes, every move a potential landmine, every act open for judgment and ridicule. That’s an unhealthy pressure to put on sex when teenagers are just starting to figure out their bodies and their sexualities.
College gave me some space to figure out what I wanted. I didn’t know everyone on my campus, and they didn’t know me. I could be anonymous. The complete opposite of high school.
That’s not to say that all the regular, pre-existing societal pressures and standards regarding women and sexuality suddenly disappeared. Of course, they still existed. But they had less power over me because there was more opportunity to escape them, to escape someone if things went wrong. I worked hard to convince myself to lower the stakes, to detach myself from interactions as a method of self-preservation.
Having Sex Despite the Anxiety
But then I met my first real boyfriend, the first person I ever got both emotionally and physically close to. When we were finally ready to have sex, I was actually comfortable. I felt safe, respected, loved.
Don’t get me wrong—I still had a sexual anxiety attack. This isn’t some perfect love story about how the right boy makes everything sunshine and rainbows.
My boyfriend didn’t live at the same college I did. We had met that summer and began dating long distance. He came to visit me at school and stayed over in my room. The next morning, before anything physical happened between us, I woke up with those familiar shooting pains in my stomach. I had tossed and turned all night, my thoughts consuming me and his presence overwhelming.
I had to run to the bathroom and be sick, waking him up.
But then, surprisingly, we talked through it. I felt comfortable telling him what was going on with me, about the sexual anxiety I had experienced since high school. I had never told a romantic partner about it before. And he got it. And, as a result, got me. He also experienced anxiety and could relate to the concept of an uncontrollable force taking over your body, causing intense physical symptoms.
When we had sex, my stomach was settled. No nausea ate away at me. I just looked at him and felt comfortable.
But this is not meant to be some cliche story, some “I shouldn’t have tried to have sex with anyone else, I should have waited for the right person,” narrative. Because eventually, we broke up. He wasn’t the “right” person in the long run, and he wasn’t my future husband.
I’m glad my first time was with him because I’ll look back on the experience and remember how well he navigated the anxiety that will probably always be part of me, hiding under the surface and bubbling up at unpredictable times.
Navigating Sexual Anxiety Through Connection
This experience brought me to the conclusion that, for me, sexual intimacy requires emotional intimacy.
I don’t have to have deep, romantic relationships with all my sexual partners—but I dated one, I talked to one for hours, I had a friendship with one, and so on. All of these unique forms of intimacy.
I have a very hard time feeling attraction toward someone I run into on the street. I need to talk to them, know something about them, connect to them on a semi-personal level before I feel comfortable being intimate with them. Sex is really personal for me, and it usually involves penetration, so before I let someone in, I often feel like they need to let me in a little bit as well. When I feel disconnected from someone, insecure about their intentions or the safety of the situation, the anxiety creeps up.
Along with the fact that I craved connection, I learned that another source of my sexual anxiety stemmed from an internal disconnect. I didn’t know who I was in a sexual sense, so I wasn’t comfortable sharing that part of myself with anyone else.
But the important thing to acknowledge here is that that’s just my personal preference. That doesn’t make it right or wrong for everyone. Many of us have been told there’s only one right thing to do. We’re fed one, inflexible narrative about what’s acceptable in a sexual or romantic relationship. You don’t love him? Well, then you can’t have sex with him. You’re not dating him? Well, then you can’t have sex with him. You can’t have casual sex. Everyone will know! Everyone will judge you, examine your actions, and fixate on the flaws. You just can’t! And that narrative is part of what held me back for so long.
What I’ve learned is that it’s essential to find or claim the space to figure out what you, as an individual, want.
Learning to Accept Myself Means Better, Easier Sex
Tackling my sexual anxiety can’t be done without a concerted effort at personal growth. I have recurring issues with self-image that have restricted my ability to be sexual, so I have to learn to accept and love my body first. If I’m too focused on my own thoughts about my body’s appearance, then I fixate on my partner’s thoughts about my body, which won’t lead to a comfortable sexual experience.
I need to focus on the aspects of my body that I love, rather than the “flaws” I’ve been taught to hate. I need to learn more about what works for me sexually, the technicalities and techniques. And I need to remember that penetrative intercourse isn’t the only way to have sex. There is a whole world of options, and dipping my toe into some of those may make penetrative sex more comfortable. I need to dispel misconceptions about how I’m meant to react and dismiss ideas of what’s normal or abnormal to desire. Finally, I need to communicate with future partners. I need to voice my thoughts while in bed in an open, honest way because communication makes everything more comfortable.
And if I need professional help in grappling with any of these concepts, then I need to be open to seeking it.
It can always be a good idea to consult with a medical professional, therapist, or doctor if you believe you may be suffering from sexual anxiety and don’t know where else to turn.
Having Sex Safely Helped My Anxiety
Practicing safe sex is essential to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. And open, honest communication with your partner(s) about protection and previous sexual relationships can be empowering and reassuring. Also, I’ve discovered that attempting never to enter into a sexual relationship without a baseline confidence in your safety, both personal and physical, is a big factor that alleviates sexual anxiety. At least in my case.
If you want to have sex with random people all the time, do that and be safe. If you want to date multiple people at once, do that and be safe. If you want to take part in an intense, monogamous relationship, do that and be safe. If you don’t want to have sex at all, do that and be safe. If you want to focus on your job/education/life at the moment, do that and be safe. If you want to try some combination of any of those options until you figure out what’s most personally fulfilling, do that and be safe. It doesn’t matter if your ultimate conclusion corresponds to the stereotypical relationship-centric narrative, even though that’s what we’ve been taught to want and aspire to.
When faced with a new, anxiety-provoking opportunity, I’ve started repeating to myself “I can, and I will be open to possibilities.”
Alterations of internal monologues alone won’t resolve all anxiety about sexual relationships. But I’m tired of constraints, of conforming, of putting barriers on what could fulfill me. And I need to consciously work to dismantle those pressures within my mind in order to have a happier, freer, healthier relationship with sex. Although the anxiety will always be part of me, it’s time to stop letting it hold me back.
Have you ever experienced sexual anxiety? If so, how do you combat it? Send us a message on Facebook, or comment below! We love to hear how other people are navigating this tricky topic.