Does this sound familiar?
You’re spending time with someone you’re interested in — maybe it’s your first meeting, or maybe you’ve known each other for a while. Either way, you know you’re gonna get down to biz-NESS and you have been mentally preparing. You want to blow their mind! Be the kind of partner they do write home about. And as they touch you, a shiver of anticipation runs through you. I’m ready to do this, you tell yourself, and the shiver returns. Only this time, it lingers, and you realize it isn’t just excitement and anticipation: you feel stress, worry, and even a little bit of fear. Oh no, you think, not again!
Yup. Here we are.
It’s no joke: sex is a stressful endeavor. There’s so much wrapped up in it. Sex isn’t just sex, and the feeling you get when you hear the word is evidence of that — the cringe you feel at your parents haltingly mentioning it, the giggle you stifle when a teacher bashfully broaches the subject, the thrill you feel when you hear an illicit new story from a friend.
Sex is surrounded by a series of cultural scripts that exist that teach us how to feel about it. It’s something special to share with someone we are married to! It’s for procreation! It’s bad to do freely with someone we just met! It’s dangerous! It can spread diseases! It’s hella fun! If you’re not doing it, you are being left out! It needs to be perfect! You need to look good! You need to make it a good experience for a partner! It’s reserved only for the able bodied young white cishet folks! Right??
The thing is, the scripts and cultural values surrounding sex prescribe to us what it is we should be doing. And if we happen to deviate from that established norm, even in some small way, stress abounds. And stress causes our sexual responses to be all funky sometimes. When our body is stressed out, we can’t be in the moment: instead, we get in our heads, thinking about the situations, analyzing, action planning, and we get in our hearts, worrying, beating ourselves up, and stressing out about the situation at hand. We lose touch with an important aspect of our sexuality, which is being in touch with our bodies.
Gina Ogden was a pioneering force in the field of sexuality who developed a model which conceptualized sexuality into 4 distinct quadrants with the ultimate goal of integration to have a full, pleasurable sexual experience. These avenues include the body (physical), brain (mental), heart (emotional), and spirit (connection and meaning). Ogden proposed that there were light and shadow sides to each of the quadrants: the body vying between pleasure and dysfunction, the brain sending positive and negative messages, judgements, and thoughts around sexuality, the heart experiencing passion and fear, and the spiritual journey of connection and meaning, or disconnection and loss of control.
The importance of noting this, and walking the wheel, is to help to understand and differentiate the different aspects of your experience relating to sexuality. You may notice that even though you want to be feeling the lovey dovey feelings, you’re firmly stuck in your head worrying if your partner is enjoying themselves. Or you want to be feeling connected, but you can’t stop ruminating on how you really feel disconnected. Or, you can’t seem to access your body’s physical sensations and pleasure because you’re all bound up in whether your partner can tell you ate a bunch of tacos for lunch. Whatever the case, giving definitions to some of your experiences is helpful.
Developing insight into your own experiences surrounding, and during, sex is useful to being able to gain power over your sex life. The ability to take a step back and understand, Hey, I’m in my head right now around sex, is a small step, yes, but almost invaluable in separating yourself from a negative or stressful experience. It creates some distance between you, and the situation you are experiencing. It helps you to notice that you are the observer of the experience, you are not the experience itself. It helps to parse out the areas for growth and strength.
Surrender is hard. Sex is an inherently vulnerable act. Allowing yourself to experience sexuality, with yourself or with another person, is understandably difficult. Allow yourself to consider these things. Experiencing stress around sexuality is valid.
Through my work I’ve heard this story a bunch: folks want to please their partners. That’s great! That comes from a great place. The flip side of this is, that allowing oneself to receive pleasure from a partner can be very hard. There are huge cultural stigmas and taboos around these stereotypical stories of being a “selfish lover.” Being a “pillow princess” is a joke, being a “starfish” is a nightmare. These stigmas were built upon experiences that gost lost in the way somewhere: yes, sex is an important series of acts centered around sharing. This includes giving and receiving.
Receiving kindness, love, affection, and pleasure from others can be very difficult. Taking up space is difficult. There’s a certain guilt to receiving, a certain work ethic program running in the background using up so much RAM that’s like a little engine that could, constantly chugging away, I must make you happy, I must make you happy, I must make you happy.
There are rules we’ve learned: Selfishness is bad. Altruism is good. Taking care of others is good. My partner is important to me. I want to be viewed as hot and sexy and fun. Giving pleasure is awesome. I want them to feel good. I want to be the cause of that good feeling.
Cool, cool. But slow your roll.
You are a vital part of this sexual experience. Aaand, it’s likely that your partner is working with some of the same rules as you, wanting to please you and all. So part of your creating a positive sexual experience for them is to also allow them to make you feel good. And that involves you making space to receive pleasure as well.
Some of this work will involve rewriting these scripts around giving and receiving pleasure. As well as some conscious work around what space you are in during sexual activities with partners. That insight into your own messages around sex, your feelings during sex, the way your body responds, and the manner in which you feel connected or disconnected are all part of this big sex pie.
Recommendations around this are, of course, therapy (hey there), reflective conversations with yourself and partners, sitting with your own discomfort and noticing that, mindfulness activities, exposing yourself to experiences whether solo or partnered where you might receive pleasure, and sensate focus exercises to become familiar with allowing yourself into your body more. It’s all about experiencing your own thoughts and feelings and being an observer to them, as well as existing in your body and noticing touch, pleasure, pressure, temperature, texture, and other sensations.
You’re not alone, and you’re certainly not broken, if it feels hard to lie back and allow yourself to feel feelings or be in the moment. That’s OK. That makes sense if being vulnerable has left you burned before, so you’d rather not. And this also happens as a result of living in a sex negative culture, as well as a culture that dissuades folks from “selfishness.” I’m here to say sure, receiving pleasure is “selfish,” I guess, if we want to be pedantic. And, at the same time, it’s OK to put your self first. We are changemakers in our own lives. You got your own back. Show up for yourself, take up space, and make space for yourself to begin having these tough conversations with yourself (and maybe others!).