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From Russia with Gas


Halloween is almost here, so let’s consider sex and fear.

Isn’t that what it’s all about? Forget the candy, the costumes. It’s the fear that captivates your soul. Fear is one of those feelings that makes you feel really alive, your heart beating like a time bomb, your temperature rising, your senses on red alert. Fear can be erotic, in part because whatever we fear, it all springs from fear of the unknown. And the unknown, the new, the uncharted territory, the unexpected is one of life’s great aphrodisiacs.

At the same time, fear has a way of freezing you up. And good sex tends to require that you loosen up.

Fear and sex have had a complex, intertwined evolutionary history, ever since our amphibious ancestors first mated ecstatically in the midst of fearsome predators, up to our modern desire to expose ourselves in risky places, from the Internet to the Oval Office. Hot sex and a touch of fear–risk, danger, taboo–seem to go together. Why is this?

It’s funny (and also sad), but we often fear the finest aspects of life: intimacy, sexuality, love. In my sex therapy practice, so many men want to know how to deal with women who fear sexual intimacy. And most women want to know how to deal with men who fear emotional intimacy. And the more I hear, the more I feel that if men and women ever hope to help each other, we must learn to calm each other’s fears. That means listening, and trying to understand.

Of course, the relationship between sex and fear isn’t easy to understand, as it’s all wrapped up in our perhistoric workings of our Reptile Brain. However educated, sophisticated or cool we think we are, a part of our brain slithers through the shadows of our consciousness, like a snake. Our Reptile Brain, the oldest part of us, makes us all–no matter how moral or in control we may think we are–driven by sex. In many cultures, sex is portrayed as a reptile–a serpent, dragon or the Devil, the most famous reptile of all time, scary and seductive.

Prehistoric sex often put lovers in dangerously vulnerable positions, in the midst of predators always ready to pounce on them. Our Reptile Brain, locked in that mindset, often associates sex with fear. As for the civilized brain, well, that also gives us plenty to fear when it comes to sex. In childhood, almost as soon as we discover sexual pleasures, through masturbating or playing with another child, we’re caught by adults and punished or at least made to feel ashamed, that sex is something we should fear expressing openly.

This childhood blend of sex and fear has different effects on people. Some wind up fearing sex too much even to talk about it, or they go on Anthony Comstock/Ken Starr/Ayatollah Asscraft-style witch-hunts, determined to punish anyone enjoying nontraditional sex. Others find themselves thrilling to the fantasy that they are caught or watched in the act of sex, or maybe caught watching the act of sex.

So, what about you? Have you tamed the reptile in your brain, or do you fight it like the Devil? Have you locked it up in a dark cave of your soul, or do you tease it into playing like a snake charmer?

Fear and sex are deeply linked, even in the healthiest relationships. Even when sex is great and love is strong, you fear it will end, that your lover will leave you, or that one of you might die. That very fear can make you cling to each other passionately, heightening your desire. It’s no coincidence that in times of war and terror, people have more sex.

But what about those fears at the bottom of the Battle of the Sexes, our fears of the opposite sex? Everyone fears being hurt, of course. Men aren’t from Mars, and women aren’t from Venus. We both have the same down-to-earth fears of pain, failure, rejection, abandonment, destruction.

But there are a few critical differences. Most men seem to fear a woman’s irrational side: the hysterical premenstrual woman, the witch, the bitch, the nag, the unreasonable ex, the false accuser, the fatal attractor. These have been figures of fear and loathing throughout patriarchal history.

Perhaps even more than the blatantly ugly witch, men fear the beautiful secret witch, the beauty who is really a bitch, the adorable angel with the devil inside, the Circe who seduces men only to savage them (in the Odyssey, she turns them into pigs). Men fear being tricked, rejected, emasculated by women. Whole societies of men fear women so much that they demand that all women in their communities cover their bodies from head to toe.

And women? For us, it’s quite simple: Most women fear male force, rape, physical or mental brutality. Women also fear the more chronic form of male brutality: oppression.

So, that’s what the fear fueling the Battle of the Sexes ultimately comes down to: Brutes and Nuts. Women fear brutes. Men fear nuts. On the whole, of course. I am generalizing.

But to just a bit generalize further, aren’t men excited by a woman’s witchy wildness, her beguiling feminine mystery? And aren’t women attracted to men’s brute strength, fantasizing about being “swept away” by the irresistible force of a powerful man? You bet your shivering bootie, baby.

So, are we attracted to what we fear? Or do we fear what attracts us? Both, my darling, it’s inevitable, it’s reptilian. And it can be dangerous.

But, life is dangerous, and so is sex. Best to let your conscience and intelligence steer your personal “fear fetish” away from real danger and into safe, positive, nonviolent directions.

For instance, if two people feel safe with each other, they can release their fears through fantasy. He can tie her up (consensually, of course) and dominate her with his power, his strength, his mind over her matter. Or she can restrain him, and play the tantalizing witch, the dominatrix, the mad mistress, the wild woman. Or they could just whisper frightening but exciting fantasies, like that they’re both doing it in a hot air balloon soaring over thousands of people, while actually in the safety and comfort of their own bed. Or she’s doing a whole soccer team of guys, or he’s got a harem made up of her best friends and sisters. Or maybe she’s got the harem, and he’s doing the men’s soccer team. Fantasy has no limits, especially when you combine a pinch of fear with a serving of sex.

In other words, don’t just make fear your friend, make it your lover.

Eroticism is, in part, an outlaw energy. Society spends vast amounts of our resources to undermine, ridicule, distort and impeach it. There are reasons for this, and some of them quite reasonable. But many are based on superstition and prejudice. We all pay a price for society’s unreasonable fears of sex. We pay in forfeited pleasure and peace of mind. We pay in the rage and shame we feel as we torment ourselves and others. Some of us go to jail for it, some lose their jobs, their marriages, even their lives.

Based on three centuries of Puritanism at our nation’s foundation and religion-driven hysteria topping the news, our culture is, to quote Dr. Marty Klein, “erotophobic,” intensely afraid of sex. We are intensely afraid, and yet (or and so…), we are intensely curious, attracted, obsessed.

One consequence of erotophobia is the withholding of accurate information about sex. This is the single biggest influence shaping childhood sexual development. Lack of sex information makes the typical sexual events of childhood, such as masturbation and menstruation, terrifying! Normalcy-anxiety, fear of not being what society deems “normal,” keeps us petrified of our own sexuality. The most frequent sex question I get, both on my show and in my private sex therapy practice, is “Am I normal?” So many of us are so afraid…and so horny at the same time!

A pinch of fear is good for sex, like salsa in your enchilada. But too much fear spoils the meat.

Chemically speaking, it’s easy to mistake fear for desire, since both get your adrenaline pumping, your heart racing. A classic psychological study was done on two sets of men and their attraction to one woman. The first set of men talked, one at a time, with the woman on a rickety bridge overlooking a steep rocky canyon. The other set talked with the same woman on a modern, very sturdy, stable bridge overlooking a short drop. The first set was measurably more attracted to the woman than the second, demonstrating that being in the fearful situation heightened sexual attraction. The moral of the story is: Never trust love–or lust–on a rickety bridge.

Remember this recipe: A pinch of fear is good for sex, like salsa in your enchilada. But too much fear spoils the meat. Nervousness, performance anxiety, insecurity, terror, panic or mistrust can inhibit and virtually ruin you sexually, turning you into a hapless victim of your own fear.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just because you’re scared doesn’t mean you have to be a victim. You can make your fear work for you, sexually and otherwise. In nature, fear often saves an animal from destruction, inspiring fight or flight. Physiologically, fear is a wave of energy pumped into a creature to help it deal with a crisis. If you think of fear as extra energy, you can use it to enhance your power, performing a kind of mental alchemy. As the old alchemists turned lead into gold, you can turn fear into excitement and power.

Fear tends to inspire one of two things: Fight or flight. Turn the fear that inspires fight (anger, frustration) into hot, dynamic power, the power of mastery. You can turn fear that inspires flight (helplessness, inexperience) to cool, magnetic power, the power of mystery. Fear can actually heighten your strength, sensitivity, and ability to do what you have to do.

But don’t forget to breathe. Too many of us hold our breath when we’re afraid, and breath is the basis of getting power from fear. You need to get some oxygen to your brain, so you can think!

Why do we hold our breath when we’re afraid? Maybe because in the old days, the main reason for fear was a large predator, some T-Rex type looking for lunch. So, you’d hold your breath and not move. That way, T-Rex might not notice you. That’s a good, practical reason to hold your breath when you’re afraid.

But there are no predators lurking at your bedroom window (are there?), and there’s no good reason to hold your breath. So, breathe! This is particularly important for women who have trouble attaining orgasm during intercourse. Let your breath flow through your body and relax your pelvis, and you’ll be coming before you know where you’re going.

Exposing your fears can be almost as sexy as exposing yourself.

Wherever you’re going, Happy Halloween! Halloween is the holiday of mastery and mystery, the mastery of the mystery, the night when the dark side rules, when the witches (wild women who have long been persecuted by the patriarchy for their renegade sexuality) command the air.

Throughout the world, dark nights of costumed revelry like Halloween, Carnaval, and Mardi Gras, are celebrations of bacchanalian passion, perfect times to do what you don’t normally do. This Halloween, or tonight, ask your lover to dress up as someone or something you’re a little afraid of (though dressing as a terrorist might be going too far!). Wear masks, and feel those tingling shivers of fear turn to passion in the flick of a tongue.

Should you expose your fears? To your partner? To the world? That is a question with no simple answer. Exposing your fears will, without a doubt, scare some people away. At the same time, exposing your fears can be almost as sexy as exposing yourself.

And remember, darling, you can always expose yourself to me (one of my fetishes is helping people to deal with their fears) and the other fine telephone sex therapists at the DR. SUSAN BLOCK Institute. Talk with us about your sexual fears, fantasies, fetishes and desires. Our telephone number is 213.749.1330. We’re available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and we’ll be here for you through Halloween and all the coming holidays and all possible terrors. And as those of you who know us know, we’ve got tricks and treats galore.

Don’t be afraid. We won’t hurt you (unless you really want us to).


Susan Block, Ph.D., a.k.a. “Dr. Suzy,” is an internationally renowned LA sex therapist and author, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels. Her newest book is The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace through Pleasure. Visit her at For speaking engagements, call 310-568-0066. Email your comments to her at and you will get a reply.

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