Have you been avoiding sex because of an issue that feels uncomfortable? If so, you’re not alone and there is a ton of hope to be had.
Low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, lack of orgasm and sexual pain all commonly fuel the sexual avoidance cycle, according to sex therapist and couples’ counselor Jessa Zimmerman, who coined the term to describe what she commonly sees in her practice.
“It starts when sex doesn’t work the way you expect it to work,” she told me during our Girl Boner Radio chat. “And if that happens every once in awhile, it’s not that big a deal. But if it’s a recurring problem, it starts to feel like something’s really, really wrong… And then it’s human nature when things make us feel bad to avoid that, so we start avoiding having sex or talking about it.”
From there, sex becomes the elephant in the room, Jessa added. And as with so many challenges, sexual issues we don’t address don’t diminish, but grow stronger. Meanwhile, any sex that does occur is likely to ignite more stress than pleasure.
“If they do have sex, all of a sudden it’s like ‘Wow, we don’t do this very often, so this time better be okay… There’s so much more pressure on that one encounter, which then, of course, sets you up to probably not have a very good time.”
If you’d like to relieve this pressure and begin truly enjoying sex—whether for the first time or as you used to—consider the following steps.
3 Ways to Stop the Sexual Avoidance Cycle
Know that reactive sex drive is normal.
Everyone’s desire for sex is more responsive than spontaneous at some point. This is especially common as we age, Jessa pointed out. Societal messaging is a huge factor I see making sexual desire more on the responsive side in many women. Regardless of the cause or your gender identity, reactive sex drive—meaning you desire sex once it’s somewhat in motion, versus seemingly out of the blue—is completely normal and nothing to be ashamed of.
“There’s proactive drive where you know, you think about sex, you maybe get spontaneously interested, you fantasize what you know you’d like to make this happen,” Jessa said. “That’s what we think of as sex drive or libido. But lots of people have what I call reactive drive, so they’re starting from zero. They may not think about sex at all. They feel like they don’t have libido… That’s what they’ll say is, ‘I have no sex drive.’ But if they got going, if things were good, they took the time they needed, they got the touch they needed, they start to respond, their body starts to get aroused and it’s like now you’d like sex.”
Stop trying to measure up to how you “should” engage in sex.
Given limited sex education, taboos around talking about sex, mixed societal messages and the abundance of porn being accessible in private, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that sex should involve looking, sounding and behaving in not-often-realistic ways.
When I asked Jessa if she feels mainstream porn’s popularity contributes to sexual avoidance, she said yes: “It’s a huge part of the problem of where we’re getting expectations for sex because it, you know, porn is not sex ed, right? Porn isn’t even sex. It’s fantasy or entertainment… It’s probably a lot of things, but in no way does it represent, you know, real sex.”
Seek support and shift your expectations.
Many sexual dysfunction issues that contribute to sexual avoidance, from erectile dysfunction to pelvic pain, can be treated. And when a physiological or mental health condition is at play, seeking a proper diagnosis and care are important.
If what you’re experiencing isn’t treatable, and regardless, shifting your expectations can go far.
“I’ll have people forget about an erection or penetrative of sex,” Jessa said. “How are you going to expand what you can do, how you can find pleasure and joy and connection with each other? And really explore that. So that instead of the walls sort of coming in on you, you’ve got a lot more room to play. It’s really about redefining what sex is and giving yourself permission to have those experiences. And then if the [dysfunction] is psychological out of stress and anxiety, sometimes that’s enough to sort of clear it up.”
For much more about sexual avoidance and turning stress into playful fun and pleasure, stream the full episode above or your favorite podcast app! The episode also features awesome thoughts from Dr. Megan Fleming, for a listener who considers herself and her partner very “vanilla,” and wants to plan a sexy adventure in celebration of her 25th wedding anniversary.
For a deep dive into overcoming stress and disappointment around sex, check out Jessa Zimmerman’s book, Sex Without Stress.