One of the most common complaints I hear in my sex therapy practice: “I feel stuck in my head when I’m having sex!”
Since this is so prevalent, is there a way to reframe this dilemma that would actually help us have better sex? What (and how) you think during sex can profoundly impact your sexual experience, including genital functioning (!) and if/how you orgasm.
A big part of erotic liberation is the ability to CHOOSE where you are placing your attention, and then to maintain it there. For example, I can choose to place my attention on the sensations that are happening in my body while I’m having sex.
You may not even realize that your mind is wandering during sex, because it happens so frequently. There are many distractions; it can be hard to give ourselves permission for the time it takes to have sex, to have sex even if all of the things on the to-do list aren’t crossed off. Fantasy can be a distraction, especially if one isn’t sharing what’s going on inside one’s head with one’s partner.
“In society’s rush to assure people that sexual fantasies are “normal”—meaning okay --
If the ability to choose where we place our attention is a facet of liberation, then living and feeling inside one’s body as opposed to dwelling in one’s head is an emancipatory practice.
In this way, sex is like meditation; bringing our attention back again and again to what is happening now; we are developing the capacity to be with ourselves and our sensations.
If you are like many people, you are greatly able to be with your suffering. We ruminate and worry, and think repeatedly of our troubles. Our capacity to be with our own pleasure is often much less developed. Staying with sensations that occur during sexual play without attempting to increase them is a challenge.
We rush towards orgasm for so many reasons; habit and conditioning, fear that we won’t get there, unconscious desire for the intense feeling to be finished, unknown wish to retreat from the primal animal body back to the ‘safety’ of the thinking brain are just a few.
I am not advocating for backward growth away from the permission we have worked for to enjoy fantasy and porn.
Instead, take a stand for freedom through choice; meaning, YOU choose how you get turned on.
YOU choose how long you hang out with your pleasure, and YOU choose to feel all the sensation that is available for you to feel.
All that said, you may want to know that there are different ways that folks connect with their sexy.
Donald Mosher was a psychologist and sex researcher who developed a matrix of sexual engagement. His work is a constructed paradigm that can be overlaid your sexuality, to help you better understand how your mind influences your sexual experiences.
Understanding how your sexual mind works can also help you navigate your sexual relationships with partners. Having language to put around experience makes it easier for partners to see how they are alike and how they differ when it comes to getting turned on and feeling pleasure.
Here’s how Dr. Mosher breaks it down:
Each person has a primary mode of accessing their arousal; through erotic trance, partner engagement or role play.
Each of these modes has an energetic tone, communication style, and physical technique. Your psychological preference determines your fantasies, your definition of hot sex, and the types of touch you like. While we each have a primary mode, these aren’t hard-and-fast definitions. Also, we can learn to access arousal through other modes with practice over time.
Partner Engagement focuses on emotional connection with your partner.
This is the sex we see in Hollywood movies. Affectionate sharing and mutual pleasure get you hot. Eye contact, verbal communication, full-body contact and face-to-face positions.
Observing your partner become aroused arouses you, as does their pleasure. There are different levels of partner engagement that run a spectrum of experiences, from predatory to loving.
Erotic Trance focuses on body sensations.
If you prefer this mode, you most likely prefer private sexual encounters with minimal distractions. You may prefer taking turns rather than mutual sexual contact. Even being asked a question about what you like may be quite distracting.
You want to be able to focus on the experience, and not on communication. The normal world falls away. Fantasies are often wordless, just visual images or feelings.
There are varying depths of erotic trance, and at the deepest level you lose awareness of everything except the sensations. You can experience erotic trance either as a giver or as a receiver.
Role Play focuses on sex as a stage.
Performative aspects are important, such as costumes, acting out fantasies, porn, online sex, props that are chosen for their appearance rather than for their sensation, visually interesting positions or settings.
You like to become the role you are playing, and have the flexibility to step into many different sexual selves without shame shutting you down.
Considering which of these descriptions fits you and your partner/s the best gives you valuable information about the mental dimensions of how you access arousal. But the problem that many of my clients face is actually HOW to get into the body so that arousal and pleasure can happen. How can we practice embodiment?
We have all of the tools at our disposal. Breath is an important element. Paying attention to our breathing is a direct route to the body. Practicing bringing our attention back again and again as it wanders is an important skill. We know how to do this, even if it’s hard. So perhaps the real question is this: why is there often so much resistance to being in our bodies? Why do we struggle so with inhabiting our pleasure?
Does this question ring true for you? Instead of beating ourselves up with the “why,” perhaps it is enough to know that we do resist living fully in our bodies and our pleasure, and that we can choose to engage with ourselves gently here.
If indeed it is a goal to be able to get out of your head and into your body during sex, each sexual encounter becomes an opportunity to practice, to make the choice of pleasure again and again.
Acknowledging that we have lots of baggage when it comes to sexuality, and that we are still standing in our commitment as beings worthy of pleasure is enough.
Sometimes we’ll get it, we’ll be in our bodies. Sometimes we won’t.
We succeed through our commitment to examining our resistance, being compassionate with ourselves about it, and gently steering the ship back to pleasure and sensation.
Triggers are powerful
Sexual aversion is a powerful somatic strategy for protecting oneself from unwanted sexual contact. In short, sexual aversion is a trigger state. Triggers arise from experiences in our past in which our capacity in that moment to cope was overwhelmed.
Triggers are, in effect, our brains and bodies caught in the past, although it can seem like the catalyst is in the present. Triggers always exist for a good reason, even if they have outlived their usefulness.
Our triggers can ask us to live small lives as we try to avoid being triggered. Sexual aversion is a trigger that can very much inhibit our expression of our sexuality. Shifting any somatic trigger is a process that requires commitment, attention, learning new skills, and practice.
It can become challenging when you want to have sexual contact with a partner and aversion is present. It is important to remember that the sexual aversion has a reason for existing, and it comes from a wise place.
Impact on partners
Dealing with sexual aversion can have painful impact on you and your partner.
It’s common for partners to feel rejected. It’s also common in couples dealing with sexual aversion for sex to become an area of high conflict, whether spoken or unspoken.
As with any somatic change, shifting sexual aversion requires a commitment of both partners to practicing a new narrative, new behaviors, and new choices. This means that both partners commit to finding a way through sexual aversion, together. It means that if as the partner of someone dealing with sexual aversion, if you feel rejected and shut down, you commit to your own work of tending those parts of you that are needing love and care.
What is healing?
Rather than expecting sexual aversion to go away as part of a healing process, success entails learning to work collaboratively with your body, allowing all of the sensations, emotions and experiences to exist, without judgment.
Exploring the trigger of aversion in a safe, supported and structured manner can help shift the experience, with practice and over time. When healing trauma, it’s important to learn how to stay within a a neurological window of tolerance. This means finding the sweet spot in between your own neurological edges of not-enough and too-much activation. This is where somatic learning can happen.
Before beginning an in-depth exploration of a somatic trigger, it is helpful to establish the new narrative that you are shifting towards. This is called a commitment. A commitment is a powerfully-worded truth, written in the present tense, that names the somatic shape you are consciously creating. It is worthwhile to take the necessary time to create the most potent commitment.
For example, in the case of sexual aversion, a potential desired shift might be having more choice and freedom in terms of your sexual expression. A possible commitment might be “I am a commitment to freedom in my sexuality.” Using the phrasing “I am a commitment to…” creates an embodied statement. The commitment statement becomes the new narrative you get to practice.
As part of the commitment process, it is crucial to know why you are doing what you are doing. This is the “for the sake of what”. In this case, it might sound like “For the sake of freedom, I am a commitment to self-compassion for my aversion trigger.”
Lastly, the conditions of satisfaction are worth enumerating.
“For the sake of freedom, I am a commitment to self-compassionate exploration of my aversion trigger. I will know I have achieved this when I am consistently kind to myself when I feel averse, and allow myself the full range of my humanity.”
Practices to explore and shift aversion
After you create the new narrative, the next step is to consider the practices that support the new narrative. Triggers make us feel like we have no choice, and it is powerful to begin to reclaim our choice as a practice.
One choice might be how we engage with ourselves around our aversion trigger. Do we speak harshly to ourselves? Do we blame our partners? Do you give yourself permission to make a decision based on the amount of bandwidth you have in the moment? Do you move towards or away from the trigger?
The great thing about aversion is having opportunities to try different practices, notice what happens, and collect data. The following is a collection of practices and choices you can experiment with when your sexual aversion trigger gets tripped!
Acknowledge what is
Acknowledge what is happening, preferably out loud, perhaps even to your partner.
Acknowledging what is is a powerful practice of being with truth. Shame often tries to silence this needed acknowledgment. Having an agreement with your partner ahead of time that you will share with them when you feel the aversion trigger can help them take it less personally, and be more available for loving support and connection.
Often people with sexual aversion have had experiences with unwanted sexual contact.
Re-establishing personal boundaries and an internal, felt sense of safety is absolutely necessary.
Being safe means having the capacity to act on one’s own behalf.
Safety is an internal felt experience that folks with trauma rarely have as embodied experience. Part of the return to sexual sovereignty is coming to trust that respect for one’s own boundaries will be honored. Choosing to not participate in unwanted sexual contact affirms a sense of self-trust.
As the skill of saying no is practiced and learned over time, while learning there may be mistakes. It’s possible to start a sexual activity feeling a yes, and then have that change, but not be able to extricate oneself from the situation. In this case, it is important afterwards to acknowledge what happened, and one’s role in it, with deep compassion for the learning process. Self-compassion is deep safety.
Make a choice
Make a choice about the best way to take care of yourself, right now.
That may mean leaving the situation. That may mean getting curious about your experience. The choice you make depends on how resourced you feel in that moment, and how willing you are to do the work at that moment. Realizing you do have choice is powerful, in and of itself.
If you choose to take care of yourself by leaving the situation, follow your impulse of what will establish a sense of safety. How can you act on your own behalf? Acknowledge the power of that choice, and honor the setting of a physical spatial boundary. Track what happens somatically as you come back to center. What physical sensations do you note?
Support the contraction
If you choose to take care of yourself by getting curious about what happens next, start by supporting the contraction.
Supporting the contraction means physically, emotionally and energetically giving yourself permission for what is. This may mean tensing the muscles of your body where you feel something happening, or moving your body into a protected shape.
Stay with the contraction as long as is necessary, or as is interesting. Pay close attention to what is happening inside. The practice of somatic awareness means learning to place your attention on the inside experience of your body. This is a crucial embodiment practice.
As you support the contraction, you may begin to lean into the physical sensations of sexual aversion you are experiencing. You may choose to name each, and express it aloud. You can also note emotions that may be present. If there are any stories that come, note these as well. Be on the lookout for the guardian emotions like anger and rage. Pay particular attention to the deeper emotions such as grief, powerlessness, and helplessness, naming each.
Staying present with yourself, affirming that whatever is being felt is just fine to feel. It’s interesting to pay attention to how our nervous systems return to regulation after being disregulated. It’s interesting to note how we come back into our bodies if we have disassociated. All of this is important somatic information; there’s no way to do it wrong. It just is.
Practice the new narrative
It’s also useful to practice the new narrative when you are not triggered. This can mean saying it to yourself, writing it down and putting it places where you see it, or any other creative means of reinforcing. Practicing when not triggered can support remembering the new narrative when you are triggered.
Practices using your imagination can be powerful. An advanced practice is to practice feeling attraction and desire for your partner, when they are not present. Start by placing your attention on your own body, noticing what you are feeling. Finding a place inside that feels neutral or positive is a good place to anchor. Allowing your attention to be on your own genitals, noticing what you feel or don’t feel.
Next, pendulate your attention to an imaginal gesture/thought/movement involving your partner. Finding the right gesture or thought is important: find something that is positive, and has a slight erotic charge. It could be something you are doing to them, or that they are doing to you. Importantly, Pay attention to staying well within your window of tolerance as you safely explore erotic content involving your partner in your imagination. With this practice, it is very important to not force or bully yourself into making anything happen.
Move your attention back and forth between your own body, and the imaginal erotic thought concerning your partner. Notice what happens. There is no “right” outcome from this practice, just allowing yourself to imagine your attraction and desire, while noticing what happens in your body, and staying safe, all at the same time.
Ultimately, it takes time and practice to shift deep-seated somatic responses like sexual aversion. It can feel like no progress is happening, which can frustrate you even further. A wise teacher said “To change everything, start anywhere.” I recommend keeping a log or journal of what you try and experience each time you find yourself in the midst of your trigger. Remembering to do even one thing differently can begin to shift the entire system. In reflecting on the experience in your journal, you can acknowledge the work you did, thus validating your practice.
Get professional somatic support
Additionally, having skilled and compassionate support is helpful. Erotic coaches, guides and even wise friends can assist you as you direct your somatic education. "In its purity, somatic education is self-initiated and self-controlled. However, somatic education has emerged during the twentieth century as a procedure whereby this internalized learning process is initiated by a teacher who stimulates and guides the learner through a sensory-motor process of physiological change," writes Thomas Hanna in Clinical Somatic Education. Seeking treatment for sexual aversion is an important first step.
Lastly, seeking expressions of sexuality that feel good to you and your partners. Often, when sexual energy is blocked in one area, like a river it finds its way around the obstacle. Where are you creatively expressing? Where are you sensuously enjoying? Working in collaboration with sexual triggers can require great creativity.
It’s a both-and approach: choosing not to live as small as the sexual aversion trigger demands, and simultaneously honoring the current truth and capacity of the body. It’s also true that we all limit ourselves with our habits and beliefs about what we define as sex. Can you and your partner be a team in exploring creative outlets for sexuality, that may look really different than either of you imagined?
If you or someone you love is experiencing sexual aversion, help is available.
Feel free to reach out to me for support. I work with lots of folks with sexual aversion, helping them find their way home to sexual freedom.
*I want to acknowledge the work of Meredith Broome, and Joseph Kramer, in informing this post.