Help me want to have sex
March 22, 2015 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Mid 30s heterosexual man wanting to learn how to desire and enjoy sex with a partner (not masturbation). While I have a healthy libido/masturbate regularly/etc, I have little emotional interest in having actual sex. Let me first say that I understand therapy is likely needed, but I would very much appreciate feedback beyond go see a therapist. Throwaway email:

While I have had and do have sex, it is extremely infrequently (at this point it is maybe a few times a year) and only with someone with who I previously have had sex. I have the physical desire to have sex but little emotional desire to have sex. There are likely a variety of factors that are likely at play, but most notably:
(i) My Own Experience (or lack thereof). I have never been very sexually active and except for a few brief periods, I have never had sex on a consistent basis. Opportunities have and do present themselves, but I have generally avoided them. I have never had a one night stand and tend to only have sex with someone that I know and feel very comfortable with. I have not had sex with anyone new in about 9 years. The idea of having sex with someone for the first time again sounds terrifying.
(ii) Others' Experiences. I have felt that sex has been a consistent cause of pain for many of those that I love the most (eg. divorce with being the major reason, abortion, etc.). At times I feel the potential long term negative consequences of sex outweigh the short term pleasure.
(iii) Other issues. I have intimacy issues with sex. I think that it is extremely personal and makes me feel very vulnerable, which is not something I am comfortable being even around the people that I know and love the most. I have had some self-worth/self esteem issues in the past and I am still working through them.

To my knowledge, everything is okay physically. I am in fair to good shape and I have had blood work done showing tested levels are all normal. I was on effexor in my mid twenties and I had erection issues while taking the drug, but they went away when i stopped taking the drug.

That said, except with specific people and/or in specific scenarios, I have a hard time getting an erection now with someone else but I am pretty sure it is all mental as I have little sexual desire when I am with another person beyond wishing that I wanted to have sex. I feel like it seems like I am asexual, but I have desires just no desire to act on those desires if that makes sense.

This has obviously been an issue for a while, but I am now at a point in my life that I really want to want to have sex with people. Hoping that people may have some recommendations or anecdotes that would be helpful. Again, I know I need therapy (and have been going).

Here is the throwaway email again:

Many thanks
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I really want to want to have sex with people

Your question is really confusing, and it might be best for you to discuss in person with a therapist even though you don't want to. I'm not sure I understand why you suddenly want to have are with people when you're probably going to enjoy masturbation more?

I don't think it's fair to just use someone else's body for sex to get off unless you're explicit about it being that--that you don't know how or can't be emotionally present. Whoever your sexual partner is deserves to know that it's not an emotional experience for you, because it can be very hurtful for the other person.
posted by discopolo at 1:45 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't think your post is confusing at all, nor do I get the impression that you want to use people for their bodies. You are asking for help in developing an emotional connection during sex, and for not feeling intimidated by the notion of having sex with new people.

I'm a woman, but I have struggled with this as well. In fact, I think a lot of women go through something similar. Probably men too, but they tend to not talk about it much. The first thing I wonder is what your dating history is like. You don't have to have sex after every date but going on dates will definitely help you explore this space and move forward as you become more comfortable. Also, practice making sex playful - flirt, say goofy things, stop and make a funny face. This will remind you to not zone out and that is the key to finding emotion in sex, from my experience.
posted by joan_holloway at 1:56 PM on March 22, 2015 [16 favorites]

Other issues. I have intimacy issues with sex. I think that it is extremely personal and makes me feel very vulnerable,

There is nothing at all wrong with feeling that way. For some people sex is like a handshake--it's fine with whoever. For some people it's only something to be done with someone emotionally close. Most people are somewhere in between--it's a spectrum, and as long as you're safe and healthy, wherever you fit on that spectrum is okay!

which is not something I am comfortable being even around the people that I know and love the most. I have had some self-worth/self esteem issues in the past and I am still working through them.

This right here is the thing you want to talk to a therapist about. Sounds likely that not wanting to feel vulnerable is what's making you not desire sex all that much even under the nominally 'right' circumstances for you.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:56 PM on March 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's good that you're already exploring therapy because that will probably help you the most.

First, I think you need to accept and embrace that you are the type of person for whom sex is both an emotional and physical experience. That's okay. You're not going to a person who jumps into bed with a lot of people or have one night stands and that's a perfectly valid approach to sex. Keep telling yourself that there's nothing wrong with that attitude, because there isn't.

You are right to feel like sex makes you feel vulnerable. It does. You are exposing your body, giving over to feelings that you can't entirely control. You are physically and emotionally naked. But so is the other person. You're both in the same boat. Getting comfortable being in that state is something you need to work on.

One thing that might help is to remind yourself that the person you are having sex with generally wants you to feel pleasure, feel desirable, and feel safe. If you're having sex with someone who cares about you and your feelings and experience you can and should talk about this.

You don't say much about your approach to dating, but the best way to find someone who you can feel comfortable getting physically and emotionally intimate is through dating. It will not be hard for you to find someone who is also willing to wait to develop some level of comfort and emotional connection before having sex. You don't have to have sex on the third date, or the fifth date, or the tenth date. You get to choose when you're ready to have sex. You just need to be upfront early on in your dates that you want to wait.

You can also do other things besides intercourse...make out, massage, masturbation, hold hands, flirt, get develop physical intimacy and comfort with getting physical before you have sex.
posted by brookeb at 2:19 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I feel like it seems like I am asexual, but I have desires just no desire to act on those desires if that makes sense.

I just want to add that having a libido, but no particular desire to act on it with other people, is a valid way of being asexual, if that is how you ultimately choose to identify. (Type "A" and "C" Asexual, or Gray A)
posted by wrabbit at 2:30 PM on March 22, 2015 [9 favorites]

I have the physical desire to have sex but little emotional desire to have sex.

As long as you and your partner(s) are on the same page, there is absolutely nothing wrong with sex as a physical release. I may be have this wrong, but there seems to be a sense of shame when you explain this. There is nothing you've written to be ashamed of, but perhaps a misplaced sense of shame is impeding the emotional connection you seek.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:05 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think that it is extremely personal and makes me feel very vulnerable, which is not something I am comfortable being even around the people that I know and love the most. I have had some self-worth/self esteem issues in the past and I am still working through them.

You're working on these issues. I'm not going to go on at length about what specifically you should do about these issues, but I am going to say that I think you've got a good head on your shoulders for having a sense that sexual contact with others right now is something you're uncomfortable with and for having identified these self-esteem issues. As you work through the process of dealing with those, I think this part will essentially fix itself, and I think it's just a sign of maturity and good sense that you don't want to get into a sexual relationship at this current point. It's okay if taking care of yourself means that you end up doing this sort of thing later instead of right now. Once you feel more secure in yourself, this will ease up. It's easy to confuse not being "normal" with the idea that it's somehow unhealthy for you to not be interested in this right now, but sometimes good self-care and healthy behavior when you already have some problems involves not doing the things everybody else is doing.

Like many things related to insecurity and self-esteem, once you start feeling generally a bit better, just ease into it, don't force yourself to rush, and you'll be fine--but maybe right now, not being ready for it and being able to identify some of the reasons why are actually a good sign of your progress.
posted by Sequence at 3:15 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know you said you don't think are asexual, but I think it sounds like you might be. You have a libido but not the desire to have actual sex (at least not often). It could be something that "needs" to be worked on with a therapist, but at the same time it could just be your natural sexuality. If it's okay for both you and your partner I don't see why it needs to be changed. You can have the emotional connection you're craving with someone without forcing yourself to have sex if you don't want to.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 3:24 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have never had a one night stand and tend to only have sex with someone that I know and feel very comfortable with.
The idea of having sex with someone for the first time again sounds terrifying.
I think that it is extremely personal and makes me feel very vulnerable, which is not something I am comfortable being even around the people that I know and love the most.

Right now it is very popular to promote the idea that it is cool and awesome to have a lot of casual, purely-for-pleasure sex. Preferably kinky, preferably with multiple people at once. This is on top of the stereotype that Real Men are all about the Sexy Sex Sex, and all any guy wants at any moment is to be doing it with eight woman at once. It's all well and good to not shame people about enjoying sex, but I think we often run the risk of alienating those people who don't enjoy anonymous sex and do want a deep connection with someone before having it.

Your need for trust and emotional connection before sex is a preference, not a problem. What if a friend said "I like blue more than red, but I think I should like red better. Could you help me turn red into my favorite color?" You would probably gently tell them that the issue was not what color they liked, but the idea they were supposed to like one color more than the other.

Let's be real: only giving birth hits the same level of mutual physical vulnerability and intimacy as sex does. Your feelings are not broken nor invalid.

At times I feel the potential long term negative consequences of sex outweigh the short term pleasure.
I have had some self-worth/self esteem issues in the past and I am still working through them.

These statements are more concerning, but I wonder if they aren't tied more to the way you're devaluing your sexual preferences. Divorce isn't caused by sex. Divorce is caused by lack of mutual love, respect, and intimacy. If you accept sex as one form of expressing those things, then sexual difficulties within a relationship is a symptom of problems with those things, not a cause in of itself. It is great you are working through your self-worth issues. I hope that part of that work might include whether some of those issues are driven by the feeling that your lack of desire for casual sex is a problem, whether that leads to feelings of inadequacy and brokenness.

It is clear this is causing you a great deal of anxiety and pain, so I hope what I wrote above does not come off as flip. I'm not writing it to dismiss your concerns, but to look at your desires from another point of view. Ask yourself why you feel you need to change your feelings about casual versus non-casual sex. You say you want to have more sex--but for what purpose? What do you envision casual sex offering you that non-casual, emotionally intimate sex does not?

Reading between the lines, is some of this tied to a desire to establish a long-term relationship? If that's the case then again, maybe think about this issue in a different way. First, understand there is absolutely nothing wrong with making it clear up front that you prefer taking things slow. A good relationship requires people be understanding towards each other's sexual preferences. Second, if the difficulty is that you date someone for months and they are breaking it off because you still don't feel comfortable enough to have sex with them, then your focus should not be on being comfortable with having casual sex, but becoming more comfortable with being emotionally vulnerable and intimate with another person. In that case the sex is a red herring, a symptom of the emotional issue underneath.


For people who are not asexual, sexual intimacy is absolutely one of the steps in establishing a relationship. A person who doesn't need an emotional connection may take that step sooner. And it can work out. But if they have trouble opening themselves up to other people it can be the first step in a line of self-deceptions that allow them to form what they tell themselves is a romantic relationship, but in actuality lacks any kind of meaningful emotional connection.

From that standpoint your need for that emotional connection prior to sex is a blessing. It means relatively soon into dating someone you are forced to really ask yourself how you feel about them, if the two of you share a the same feelings and values. Those who don't have your stopgap can go years into a relationship without that sort of self-analysis.
posted by schroedinger at 4:07 PM on March 22, 2015 [7 favorites]

I completely get that you are asking for help modifying where you are, emotionally and physically, and I don't want even to imply this isn't possible. Still, you might find what AVEN has to say useful, especially about gray-asexuality (i.e. the gray area between sexuality and asexuality). "Examples of gray-asexuality include an individual who does not normally experience sexual attraction but does experience it sometimes; experiences sexual attraction but has a low sex drive; experiences sexual attraction and drive but not strongly enough to want to act on them; and/or can enjoy and desire sex but only under very limited and specific circumstances. Even more, many gray-asexuals still identify as asexual because they may find it easier to explain, especially if the few instances in which they felt sexual attraction were brief and fleeting."

You say you want to have sex, but you don't particularly identify any people you want to have sex with, and you don't quite trust yourself or other people enough to have sex with them (not as new partners, anyway). Labels are only useful insofar as they help you figure out who you are and what you want to do, and present that information meaningfully to others when you want. You might find some support from AVEN, or looking through the site might help you firm up that you want to meet your sexual needs with another person, so that you feel more confident seeking a partner with whom you can work on your trust issues and build a relationship.

This is a total side-note: loneliness is a huge thing for people struggling with sexuality, and it makes trying to figure out what you want so much harder. Loneliness comes in at least three flavors. I identify sexual, companionate, and social loneliness as separate phenomena that have things in common. Sexual loneliness is self-explanatory; companionate is lacking a close friend; social is lacking a flock of friends to Do Stuff With; people experience different flavors with different intensity at different times. All flavors are only very rarely under the control of the lonely person, are very common, are sometimes-but-not-always very difficult and sad to deal with, and are the source of completely unwarranted shame. (That shame sometimes makes people really angry, which doesn't make it any easier for them to fix the loneliness.)
posted by gingerest at 7:24 PM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

The best way to heal, in my opinion, is to understand you are whole. You are a person deserving of whatever you want. You wanting an emotional connection with sex doesn't make you abnormal. You are absolutely fine. Once you own that, I guarantee you will start finding people you can make an emotional, intimate connection with. I'm the exact same way. I'm a female and I dated a guy who was that way, too. You are ok and a complete person. Start with that and slowly things will fall into place.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:49 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

Okay, first off, good for you! You are a man who doesn't see women as holes to be filled. Yay! We all thank you for that. It is perfectly okay to not have sex with everyone who will let you have sex with them. It is actually more normal and healthy to only want to have sex with someone that you are comfortable with. Discontinue your HBO and Cinamax and watch a few Lifetime movies. Date nice women. It will be okay.

You will have more sex when you find someone who you connect with. Someone who makes you feel safe, comfortable, and turned on all at once. This someone is difficult to find. Chemistry plays a huge role in who we are attracted to. Kind of a random thought but, how is your sense of smell? Do you smoke or have allergies? If so, get that treated and see how it goes. In the meantime, make a list of ten characteristics of your dream partner. Knowing what you are looking for in a person is helpful in finding that person.
posted by myselfasme at 9:46 PM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you're over thinking it. Perhaps you're looking forward at future hypothetical sex with hypothetical people and you're projecting the worst onto these hypothetical people, and that's the source of your anxiety/fear.

I personally think that the root of this is your self esteem issues.

I think this because most of my reservations about sex stemmed from my self esteem issues. I had hangups about my body, and my worth, and there was a lot of underlying shame there about myself, partly due to my upbringing.

I'd look forward and imagine having sex with someone and being vulnerable and showing them all of me, and oh gosh, what if they didn't like what they saw? What if they were indifferent to me when I got naked? What if they didn't like my bits or something? And what if he hates it and doesn't want to pursue anything with me? And what if I'm bad at it? It was terrifying and kinda paralyzing at times and I very often held myself back from experiences because of that fear. When I thought about sex with someone new, I'd build up the act in my mind, like it was a bigger deal than it actually was... or I'd dwell on what could go wrong.

Around this time, I had a bad experience with a particular guy who constantly reinforced societal stereotypes about beauty and body, namely that sexiness was parallel to perfect thin bodies-- constantly commenting on looks, his past conquests, physical attributes and body shapes, as well as attractive people who were into him... and even though he didn't mean to, this did a massive number on my already fragile self esteem. (Ergo, if I'm not thin, I am not attractive. Chubby =/= Sexy). This person was also very objectifying and critical and it was extremely difficult for me not to internalize because I liked this person a lot, and cared very much what he thought of me.

After this, I was even more paralyzed with the idea of 'showing' myself to somebody. I felt ashamed about myself. I also thought all men were like this dude, and all men cared about the things he did-- and if not all, then the majority. And I'd look around and self-reinforce these beliefs. Like see threads on reddit or from the point of view of a superficial guy or such, and my fears would be validated.

I seriously thought that finding a guy who could desire me was like finding a needle in fifty billion haystacks, and why even bother trying? It wasn't going to happen because I didn't look like those other girls. And I absolutely dreaded dating and intimacy to the point where I actively held myself back from it despite interest from men. I sat there and thought about every single way they'd reject me sexually/physically and the thought of being vulnerable around them was terrifying enough that I'd actively withdraw if they indicated they liked me. I'd question whether they truly liked me, or if I was imagining it.

The idea of having sex again for the first time with someone new was not just scary, it was freaking paralyzing. I couldn't even really fathom it happening on some level. Sometimes I just wished I was still with my ex again so it could be easy again. And I will say that at times I felt asexual when it came to the idea of having sex because when it came to sexual desire, it was all too difficult. And until you bridge an emotional connection, it's very hard to desire somebody on an emotional level; and I never let anyone get close enough to connect.

What changed? I was lucky in that I got a kick in the pants. Twice. I had my heart broken really badly, and in my pain I found solace in someone else. And while that had happened before, I usually withdrew before things got too scary. This time, I was lucky because he was persistent. He was the first dude that made it obvious enough I couldn't question it. And not only was he wonderful, he was really wonderful to me and how we interacted was great. Although we only got a little sexy together (I had to fly out like a week later) our fling was the equivalent of icy water in my face. "There are people out there who really like what they see when they see you. For realsies."

At one point I had known this, but I had forgotten it. And with this came the realization that these hypothetical men I was imagining in my future who were rejecting me, weren't actually real, and were a projection of my fears... and that I actually hadn't even been rejected yet.

Sure, some people won't like me or be attracted to me, and some guys will reject me. It's normal. But these are not absolutes, and it definitely wasn't the overwhelming majority of men, like I was wringing my hands over.

After that, I stopped being so scared to be vulnerable and to get out there. I kept reminding myself that even if I was an acquired taste, there's always someone who will desire that specific flavor. I tried to go out with confidence. I reminded myself about my good points. I focused on the awesome things about my physical attributes. I tried to look damn good. When I didn't feel it, I faked it. Moreover, I didn't look at people as potentials for romance, just people to connect with and make friends with. The lack of expectations helped me be more confident and personable. I tried to act like someone I'd wanna be friends with. The funny thing was that once I kinda mentally took sex off the table, it made me calmer, and others started connecting to me on a romantic level-- and other people were the ones escalating their interest.

And I took it really, really slow.

And then I met someone else, and 'myselfasme' has it. He liked me. A lot. And I started to like him. We connected, and he made me feel safe and comfortable and turned on all at once. And it wasn't terrifying, at all-- I mean, I was nervous, but mostly excited. Nothing about it was scary. And suddenly I wasn't thinking about my belly, or such because he wasn't-- and if he was, he kinda liked it anyway. He liked me.

I mean think about it, I'm sure the person you've been intimate with isn't physically perfect? And just because they aren't, doesn't mean there's something inherently wrong with them or their body. Even if you notice their flaws, do you even care about them much? My boyfriend is broad and strong, he's a lot stockier than the guys I've been with in the past. He also has a lot more body hair. These are not flaws-- they're just things, and they're things I really really love about him. I'd wager that it's the same way he thinks of me and the things that make me, me.

When you find someone like that, it's very easy to cultivate the emotional desire to have sex, especially if you desire them too. You gotta remember that people aren't judging you as harshly as you judge yourself.

I mean, occasionally insecurity rears its head: He's had more experience-- and all but one of his past encounters were thinner than me. Perhaps one or two were more conventional. There was a small voice inside that wondered if he missed that, or preferred that body type? But I've only thought about that once in a year and instantly dismissed it. Because he's never, ever made me feel less than amazing. He somehow looks at me as if I am the epitome of sexiness, that somehow I am it, on every level. He likes me, because it's me, and I feel it acutely.

I'm sorry for the length. It's a long post, but my journey was long. I mean, I feel like I know exactly how you feel because I was there too. And if you told me back at my most fearful that everything would be fine, that I'd be getting some regularly, that someone would desire me on the level my boyfriend does? I'd have never, ever believed it.

I was wrong. You are too. You'll be fine. It's not half as scary as you think. And the important thing is to cultivate that connection. If you cultivate a connection with someone and still have problems getting an erection, someone who likes you and you've connected with isn't going to make you feel bad about that anyway. If that happened to my boyfriend-- we'd work through it.

It's baby steps. You're already doing the therapy, and that's great. Keep doing that. But don't forget that intimacy is hard. It's supposed to be hard. Intimacy doesn't just happen. I had three weeks of intimacy with my boyfriend before something even stirred on my end. And I'm like you; I don't open up easily. But once I let myself trust again, everything else fell into place.

As for fear of sexual consequences, that's another thing to discuss in therapy maybe, but know that birth control is generally pretty effective, that condoms are too for preventing STI's and that once you get to know someone well, asking to get tested isn't going to scare them away, if they are worth their salt.

I'm not sure if you're actually asking us, 'how can I learn to have casual sex?' and the short answer is, if you're at all like me then you probably can't do that and have a good time. You kind of need to let go and give in to pure physical desire to do so, and I don't think you can rewire your brain to be the kind of person to just do it with anybody-- and even if you do, you probably won't enjoy it. Some people are just not that person, and that's okay. I personally need some kind of connection at least, and any time I have had something more casual present itself, I stiffened up and got asked why I was so stiff and awkward. Instant regret. By comparison, the times I did it with someone I connected with, it felt really natural.

So tl;dr: You work on your self esteem and worthlessness issues. You work on loving yourself. You work on learning to let someone in and trust someone. You get out and you get to know people until you click with someone. And you work up to knowing them. You work up to intimacy, being vulnerable, and letting them 'see' you-- and you them, to the point where you really really want to have sex with them. And then you do it. A lot.

Good luck.
posted by Dimes at 11:53 AM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you use porn frequently, that can cause a mental disconnect when it comes to sexytimes with real people. When I've stopped using porn for an extended period of time I've had "the hots" for my wife a lot more than normal.
posted by tacodave at 4:39 PM on March 23, 2015

I just wanted to sympathize with: I have the physical desire to have sex but little emotional desire to have sex.

FWIW I'm an early 30s woman, and I wish I had an encouraging story of triumph in this area like Dimes above. Instead I'll tell you about how I consider casual sex akin to biting every apple in the box in order to find the "ripe" one. Sure, you might find a good one after sampling for a while, but it won't be without also taking bites from the many sour, rotting, and possibly toxic apples out there -- some of which can leave you ill. To me, that's what casual sex is -- biting into many apples whether they're ripe out or not, and pretending that the unripe and/or bad ones magically don't leave any bad taste in your mouth.

I don't see what's wrong with refining one's senses to find just one perfectly ripe apple to meet one's sexual and emotional needs (no risk of passing on a bad taste from a previous experience to your prospective interest either!). I also like to think that if a person can be grounded within themselves about what they need to establish an emotional connection and how to cultivate the intimacy required to sustain it, then it's probably not necessary to have to go taste-testing en masse in order to be successful at this. Basically, if you know what works for you, will you really need to bite every apple you see in order to recognize the "ripe" one? Probably not. And even if you do find someone interesting but it doesn't feel like either of you are "ripe" for each other yet, what's the harm in using your skills at knowing what works for you to cultivate meaningful intimacy to ripen together, so to speak? Best of luck, OP!
posted by human ecologist at 9:18 PM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

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