Advice

On how to stop dissociating during sex

Every time I go to sleep with someone, or when it becomes evident that it’s a real possibility, something in my body always recoils and shuts down. It’s less shame and more abject terror. Even if I’m the one who initiated. Something in me can’t handle the reality of sex with another person. I always fake it through and give it my best shot, but my shit is numb and it doesn’t feel like anything for me. And there’s no connection; it’s like my head is at the bottom of a well somewhere. Then before I know it I’m some dirtbag’s sexual servant because he catches on to the fact that I’m never gonna get off while he’s in the room, and he stops caring. Therapy isn’t helping. If you have any advice for me, I would greatly appreciate it. Love you.

 

You’re describing two distinct problems. The first is that you dissociate during sex. The second is that you fuck dirtbags. These problems are interrelated, and you have to solve them both or you’ll stay stuck in this larger pattern of unhealthy intimate behavior.

Here’s the question: Do you feel safe enough with any of your current or potential sexual partners to openly discuss the terror, recoil, and shut-down you experience during sex? If the answer is no, then do yourself a favor and stop having sex until the answer is yes. If the answer is yes, then do the hard thing and have the discussion. Be vulnerable and ask for help from your safe partner.

To be clear, a safe partner is one who cares about you enough to help you work through this, one who is willing to set his needs aside and do what takes to slow things down, remain connected, and allow you to experiment through your sexual response cycle until you figure out how to stay present.

One place to start might be allowing your safe partner to be present while you masturbate. Literally see if it’s possible to get off while he’s in the room. Start out with him just laying next to you with no physical contact. If that works, move on to masturbation with some kind of physical contact. Keep testing your ability to stay present with ever increasing amounts of intimacy throughout each stage of your sexual response cycle until you figure it out.

Now, if you’ve read this far and you think that sexual experimentation with a safe partner sounds like a ridiculous impossibility, that’s fine. After all, you do have a problem fucking dirtbags, so I can imagine how that level of intimacy and vulnerability sounds like advanced math in a foreign language. I promise you, though, it’s not impossible. This is the part where you’ll need a damn good therapist to help you understand your process of sexual parter selection.

You say therapy isn’t helping, but I wonder, are you doing the hard work? Are you addressing any past history of trauma that might be contributing to your problematic partner selection and subsequent sexual dissociation? Would you feel comfortable talking with your therapist about how best to discuss your dissociation with a safe partner? Be brutally honest about how much effort you’re putting into the process, and if you really are doing your part, then be willing to go find a different therapist who is a better fit.

This is a complicated question with lots of ways it can go, so feel free to meet me in the comments section for a deeper discussion about how to move forward.

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20 thoughts on “On how to stop dissociating during sex

  1. MindBodyDisconnect says:

    Coke, I have a related question if you’re listening.

    I’ve done a lot of work with my own issues with dissociation and numbness during sex – stemming from sexual trauma.

    What works for my body is slow, intimate, present sex.

    However, I don’t find that kind of sex sexy! After a while I start to get bored. I’m mentally turned on by a rougher, faster, harder approach to sex.

    Do you have any ideas about how to integrate the slow-and-safe with the sexy-and-dangerous?

    • The Coquette says:

      You seem to be associating sexual intensity (slow vs fast, soft vs hard) with sexual intimacy (connected vs disconnected, present vs dissociative). Intensity and intimacy are not the same thing. You can absolutely have rough, fast sex that is intimate and present. The trick is staying tuned in during the rough stuff. There’s nothing inherently safe about slow, and there’s nothing inherently dangerous about hard or fast.

      Also, learn what works for you during each stage of your sexual response cycle. Your arousal phase has different requirements than your plateau phase which has different requirements than your orgasm phase. Take the time to break down your physical and emotional needs during each phase, and I think you’ll learn what you need to know about integrating intimacy and intensity.

  2. Lo says:

    I went through this and a big problem for me was that my circle of friends were the kind of people who shamed each other for not getting laid enough. Sex was a series of achievements and another benchmark through which we were supposed to evaluate each other as women, as “cool feminists.” What that turned into for me was tolerating sex with shitty people just to be able to say I did it, so much that sex and shittiness became one and the same for me.

    I stopped. I slowed down. I fought the shame. I had a few rough conversations and even scared a few folks away. My friends sniggered a lot, eventually I started seeing them less too. It’s really not a coincidence that shitty friends, shitty sex and shitty partners were all issues in my life at the same time. Relearning honest, vulnerable intimacy is hard work, long term work, and definitely worth it.

    • KittyNinja says:

      This really inspired me on a day where I feel pretty low of a bar I have been setting for myself lately. Thanks for sharing so I can remember the willingness to be vulnerable while setting firm boundaries.

  3. The Asker says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to answer. I know how this sounds but it means the fucking world to me.

    It’s been three years since I’ve slept with anyone, actually. The last partner went through the above-mentioned cycle and then became increasingly rapey, so I cut him off and put myself on a sex hiatus till further notice. But I was recently in a situation where I could easily have had a new partner if I wanted (highly unusual and difficult for me) and I felt that same survival thing kicking in, which brought me here.

    It would never have occurred to me to label my experience as dissociation. I guess somewhere I always assumed for me to genuinely dissociate I’d have to black out. Dunno why.

    I’ll be honest with you, I live in one of New York’s several country armpits and the therapists I’ve had here that I can afford have been…not wonderful. Very highly recommended! Not big talkers. We get as far as establishing that I have a lot of textbook red flags for sexual abuse, among some other things, and then they’re like, “Do you remember what happened?” and I’m like, “Nothing sexual, no.” But I tell them as much as I do remember from that period of my life, which is quite a bit. And then…silence. A couple of them have literally shrugged and said to meditate or “Fake it till you make it.”
    I’m as engaged as I know how to be in therapy, but there’s obviously something I’m not doing quite right.

    I’ve tried EMDR a few times, which riles up the non-sexual PTSD I’ve had since I was three or four, and ultimately makes me worse. I’ve tried neurofeedback, which helps some things but does nothing for this particular problem. I took a break from therapy when I lost my job and couldn’t afford it. (Lost the job for health reasons but don’t qualify for disability as far as I know, so I’m currently researching my options.)

    You’re obviously right again that I have shit standards for sexual partners. I’ve got distinct codependent tendencies so I tend to put myself in situations where respect and dignity, as far as I know the meaning of the word, are earned. Which is obviously nothing more than a dangerous dead end. I don’t have a great sense of people and have always believed I’m in a “take what you can get and shut the fuck up and be grateful” situation, but while I know that’s idiotic, I can’t figure out how to swing it any other way.

    I’ve had the same thing as the first commenter too! I just read that, haha. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself thinking, “Maybe if I could get him to slow down, my body wouldn’t go into shock and this might actually feel like something.” Thank you for clarifying that it doesn’t work that way.

    • The Coquette says:

      Whoa, whoa, whoa… PTSD since you were three or four?! Please elaborate. What exactly do you mean?

      Also, EMDR is contraindicated for people who dissociate unless the clinician has formal training in treating dissociative disorders, so yeah, no doubt it riled you up worse than before. EMDR is great stuff when done properly, but when done by an inexperienced or unqualified clinician, that stuff can really fuck you up.

      • The Asker says:

        I did not fucking know that about EMDR! The woman who did it is supposedly an expert in that field, but she basically had no idea why I was reacting the way I did and kept pushing me when I said I wasn’t interested anymore. And she said, “Well, if you don’t want to do EMDR, I don’t really know how I can help you.” Mother fucker. Well, thanks for shedding light on that, hahah.

        Sooo, the story behind my situation is embarrassing and/or flat-out pathetic. And it has definite sexual connotations — to me but not necessarily anyone else — in kind of a sideways way. I’m happy to lay it out for you, just…not here. Can I email it to you, by any chance? (The PTSD isn’t a self-diagnosis, just for the record.)

        Edit, because it occurs to me you might not have just been asking for a blow-by-blow just now: The short version is I was raised in a house full of narcissists (or people with extremely pronounced and varied tendencies, god knows I’m not a professional over here) but one of them was covert and my protector 99% of the time. Every now and again she’d…I don’t know, turn? And punish me in a very specific way that exacerbated a very sexually-charged compulsive physical panic that I had. She was aware of it, but may or may not have been aware that my panic was sexual in nature. I sure as shit didn’t have the words to tell her. The event in question is the first time I remember her doing it, and it was at a time when I was already half fucking crazy with this thing I didn’t have words for. (She would continue, over the years, to punish me in this specific way, or threaten to, just to start laughing when I would immediately start crying and hyperventilating.)
        I didn’t get therapy till I was in my early twenties, and I described the rages and cold sweats and sexual claustrophobia and constant audio flashbacks on a loop of me crying and begging, basically, and landed the PTSD diagnosis from a few different therapists.
        Looking back on it, it definitely feels like there was something before that to kind of pave the way and make me that sexually anxious in the first place, but I have no idea what it was. Or who. My family was all twisted up back then, and it honestly could have been any one of them — if it happened at all! Half the time I feel like I’m just imagining some shit, even though I know I’m not.

        • The Coquette says:

          Yeah. Google “Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” or C-PTSD. That’s what this is starting to sound like. You seem to be searching for some singular incident of significant sexual trauma to explain everything, but that isn’t necessary, because you’re also describing a textbook example of prolonged, repeated interpersonal trauma during childhood. That’s all you need to wind up exactly where you are now, especially one that prompted a “very sexually-charged compulsive physical panic.”

          I mean, duh.

          Check out this article and this article, and if you maybe wanna find an EMDR therapist who is qualified to work with you, let me know.

  4. Iris says:

    This is really interesting to me, because I experience something similar, and I never hear it talked about.

    The tough thing about my issue is that I’ve never experienced sexual trauma. The only sexual experiences I had before I became officially “sexually active” were making out with a couple of guys I was close with, and there was nothing negative about it (aside from a little awkwardness). It’s like I was born with this fear of sex built in. I mean, of course, thank god I don’t have trauma to deal with on top of this, and I’m not trying to minimize the experiences of those who do, but it does make diagnosing and discussing the issue difficult because people always assume trauma is at its root.

    Coke’s definitely right about how to treat it, though. I missed a few opportunities to sleep with men I was really interested in because of this, and it took finally finding a stable partner to work through it with me. When I was briefly single, I only hooked up with one guy. It was someone I was already knew well, and it still took two or three times for me to actually enjoy it. The issue still hasn’t gone away though, and I really don’t know what I’ll do if I’m ever single again. Like, the idea of hooking up with someone you don’t know intimately is terrifying to me, and not for any moral or safety-related reason I can think of. It just is, and I just wish it weren’t. It’s so frustrating.

    • RocketGrunt says:

      I think fear of sex can be cultural for girls. The idea that our worth as human beings depends on sexual “purity” can get to you, even if you aren’t raised by a family that pushes those beliefs. Having the thought in the back of your head during sex that you’re being degraded and no longer pure is miserable. Then there’s the expectation that sex is all about the guy and his enjoyment combined with the fact that we’re expecting it to hurt the first time. Sex seems pretty terrifying if you’ve internalized all that.

      • Iris says:

        Yes, definitely. Being raised Catholic sure as hell didn’t help. For me, I’m not sure it’s a purity thing, but maybe a vague fear of vulnerability? It’s frustrating because no matter how sex-positive I think I’ve become my subconscious always shows up and makes a mess of things.

        • Skrr says:

          I know what you mean. I don’t/didn’t exactly dissociate, but I would frequently end up ‘going through the motions’, even with the few partners that I had that were actually interested in my pleasure. And I would sometimes (often) sleep with people I wasn’t particularly attracted to, but because they were interested in it. Not exactly a pity fuck, more of a lazy/convenience fuck I guess. I’ve had enough one night stands, a couple long term relationships and dated a few times. I didn’t orgasm until I was 21/22, and I didn’t orgasm with a partner until 5 years after that.

          Basically, I didn’t know exactly where this all was coming from – discomfort with pleasure? Shame? Fear of vulnerability? But I knew that I didn’t have the healthiest relationship with sex. It was a slow process to ‘reclaim’ my sexuality, and is still on-going. It involved leaving an emotionally abusive relationship, a lot of building up and support from friends, and focusing more on myself, sexually. I also started reading this book on women and their sexuality.

          I thought it was non-fiction/essays but it turned out to be a self-help book. The first chapter, among other things, asked that you took 30 mins a week to do something, preferably alone, that you took pleasure in/felt good about. No complicated feelings like – “good, but…”. Just good. Going for a walk, to the gym, taking a bath, nails done, putting on moisturizer, whatever. The idea of doing something that I didn’t feel ‘good but guilty/nervous/resentful/etc’ about was pretty eye-opening for me. I told a male friend about it and he said, “that’s a really low bar”. AND THAT’S THE POINT. It also asked you to take 10-15 mins every day (or often as you could) to journal. To just fucking listen to yourself. Also a seemingly small task, but surprising when you think about it.

          Those things really helped me a lot (I lost the book in a move and never picked it up again – it’s called What You Really, Really Want. They know their demographic). Those combined with an incredibly loving, tender, patient new partner have allowed me (for the first time) to finally orgasm with someone else in the room, and slowly progressing from there. These things could help you, or perhaps they’re just something you might find interesting. Wishing you luck!

    • Mel V. says:

      Just double checking – you’re certain that you want to hook up with people, rather than thinking that you’re supposed to want to? I’m demisexual – I’m attracted to (some) people I know and trust, and have zero attraction to people I don’t. Pushing myself to hook up with someone anyway would be scary and uncomfortable as heck, so I have no plans to do that. YMMV, this may or may not ring a bell for you.

      Purity culture and general misogyny can warp stuff all to heck and back even without “actual trauma” for sure. Even after I fell in love and went ‘ooooh, so *that’s* why people make such a big deal about sex’, it took a long time to feel comfortable and safe with my partner. Even a decade into this relationship, I still find sex a lot easier after a couple drinks. I wish it weren’t so, but yeah. I suspect a therapist could help, but I haven’t been willing to touch that one yet.

      • Iris says:

        Yes, it’s not quite that. I’ve been in situations where I had the opportunity to hook up with guys I had massive crushes on, and I totally shut down. But then again, maybe it’s kind of that? I feel zero attraction to people until I know them at least a little.

        It’s not something I’m working out in therapy at the moment because I don’t have this problem with my partner, but I’d love to get to the bottom of it someday.

  5. G says:

    I struggled with similar issues for years, went to therapy, found safe partners, all of it helped, some, but I still had lingering issues of dissociation and I still occasionally slept with assholes.

    What worked for me is that I figured out I am transgender and started hormone therapy and now sex is great. I’m not saying you are trans – there is nothing in your letter that hints at that. But your dissociation during sex may be caused by something that feels very unrelated to sex to you: general anxiety, depression, low self esteem, who knows. If it feels like doing therapy strictly related to dissociation during sex isn’t helping, stop doing it. Go to therapy, but with a more general focus on being your best self and living a fulfilling life. Treat any issues that come up. Don’t have sex for a little while. Try it again later and see how things have changed (or not). Sometimes we try so hard to fix a specific problem that we forget the larger picture and miss something important. Good luck xoxo

  6. WrkrB says:

    I had an illuminating acid trip where I became aware that I was having sex with people who were expressing attraction to me but that I didn’t always feel the same way. (ftr I’m in the CPTSD boat too) Empathic reflection? Vicarious thrills? In any event, once I started exploring my desire and owning my sexual urges things got A LOT better. I still disassociate with new partners sometimes but with a little time and talk we figure out how to work with eachother. Drawing out boundaries and explaining limits really helps lay a foundation for safety and keeps participants mindful of their partner’s well being. There are specific ways that I don’t like to be touched and I let people know before we break the physical barrier. Once you invite them into the conversation they can become your sexual ally (I think of my cadre as the Justice League) and help you develop a repetoire of positive sexual encounters.

  7. Dahlia says:

    My current partner is really encouraging and helpful in this area, but boy do I still relate to this thread a lot. It’s still hard for me to talk about it. I’ve been realizing lately, though, that a lot of my issues with sex have to do with a general disconnect from my body. It’s less a matter of not feeling pretty and more of a matter of thinking that my body is generally terrible. Just going to a yoga class can release a flood of thoughts of self-harm, bitterness, hatred, etc. Sooo yeah, deep bodily discomfort definitely seeps into enjoying sex. There’s a lot I’m still unpacking, but I definitely agree that the most important part of sex is coming at it on your own terms. It’s so, so important.

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