Yana, I need your expertise!
I’m a 19-year-old guy in a hetero relationship. I was pleasuring my partner last night and I realized I stopped being present and could not become present again. She picked up on it and, well, I really wanted to be present for it but I seemed to be stuck in my head, which didn’t make her feel good and wanted. Do you know how I can become more present while sexually active?
— Spaced Out Sexually
There are many reasons why someone might check out during sex: sometimes it’s for reasons like sleepiness, boredom, or nervousness. Other times it’s for bigger reasons like fear, anxiety, or trauma.
Do you feel a similar kind of non-presence or stuck-in-your-headness in other areas of your life? Is it similar to the glazed-over feeling you get during a long lecture at school? Maybe you’re bored with your sexual activity. Is it similar to when you’re about to give a presentation or take a small risk? Maybe you’re having performance anxiety about being in the “pleasurer” position.
If this spaced-out feeling is accompanied by or preceded by racing thoughts, a quickened pulse, tightness in the chest, or the desire to flee, perhaps your non-presence is more closely related to your mind shutting down to protect you from unresolved trauma, high anxiety, or fear.
Doing some self-searching — whether independently or with the help of a therapist, mentor, or spiritual guide — is an important part of this. If you’re feeling bored or nervous due to performance anxiety, this can be helped by speaking frankly with your partner about the sex you have together. We aren’t often taught that good sex requires conversation before, during, and after, so this can feel awkward at first — especially if you’re new to sex. However, the outcome is always worth the bravery and initial awkwardness. A worksheet like the Yes/No/Maybe list (on my website yanatallonhicks.com) can be a great way to break the ice.
Taking steps to discover what you’re both really excited about can go a long way in squashing boredom and nerves, and it is also a key component of keeping it consensual! You’re more likely to get that hot fantasy fulfilled if you put it out there, and you’re more likely to feel confident in the pleasure you’re dishing out if your partner has stated before, during, and after the act-du-jour that “YES that feels so good and is exactly what I want!”
Practicing enthusiastic and well-informed consent is extremely important and will likely inspire you to become more engaged in the sex you’re having on-the-whole and in-the-moment.
If your non-presence is even simpler still, characterized by feeling distracted or easily sidetracked, make some environmental changes to help keep you in the Bone Zone. Turn off your phones and put them out of reach (Fun Fact: 1 in 10 Americans admit to regularly checking their phones during sex!) To help set it aside, take a few moments before sex gets started and jot down that pesky To-Do list that’s running circles in your head. Increase intimacy by making eye contact, talking dirty, kissing more, or whatever feels intimate to you both.
If your non-presence is defined by dissociation, trauma, or emotional/mental/physical shutdown, seeking professional help from a therapist can help uncover and address root causes. Most can collaborate with you on a customized plan that’ll help you identify and manage triggers, increase positive coping strategies, and communicate these things to your partners.
A great way to initially explore what’s behind the space-out is with Emily Nagoski’s “Sexy Contexts & Sexual Cues Assessment” worksheets, which can be found on her website thedirtynormal.com or in her must-read book, Come As You Are.
Once you have a better idea of what’s contributing to your lack of sexual presence, you can better collaborate with your partner on addressing this issue together so that both you and her can feel more in the loop rather than out in space.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sex advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.