Fear and Sex
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, uncharted territory 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 sad), but we often fear the finest aspects of life – intimacy, sexuality, love – even as we rush headlong into war and less grandiose forms of brawling. In my sex therapy practice, so many men want to know how to deal with women who fear sexual intimacy. And so many 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 the prehistoric workings of our Reptile Brain. However educated or sophisticated we think we are, a part of our brain slithers through the shadows of our consciousness, like a snake. Our Reptile Brain is one of the older, more basic parts of us, making us all–no matter how moral or dignified we may think we are–driven by sex. In many cultures, sex is portrayed as a reptile–a serpent or dragon. Most famously, sex is personified by The Devil, the scariest and most seductive reptile of all.
Prehistoric sex often put lovers in dangerously vulnerable positions, in the midst of predators 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 anti-porn, anti-vice, Family Values-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 will 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 crave 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, exploitation, abandonment and destruction.
But, if you don’t mind generalizing, there are a few interesting 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. Men fear being tricked, rejected, and emasculated by women. Whole societies of men fear women’s sexuality so much that they demand that all fertile females in their communities cover their bodies from head to toe, and/or surrender their reproductive rights to the state.
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. We are generalizing. But to generalize just a bit 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? And don’t we all do foolish risky things in the name of love? 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. It’s too bad America’s current crop of leaders don’t practice such safe smart sex, instead of channeling their fear fetishes into chickenhawk wars and torture fests. But that doesn’t mean we should let our personal relationships sink into the same rattling snakepit as our government.
There are many relatively harmless ways to channel fear through sex. If a couple feels safe with each other, they can release their fears through fantasy. He can tie her up (consensually, of course; this isn’t Abu Ghraib, darling) 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. One could put the other on a leash or in a hood, though asphyxiation games and waterboarding are inadvisable.
Or you could forget the props and just whisper frightening but exciting fantasies, like that you’re both doing it in a hot air balloon soaring over a crowd, while actually in the safety and comfort of your own bed. Or she’s doing a soccer team, or he’s got a harem. Or maybe she’s got the harem, and he’s doing the 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 taxes and other resources to undermine, ridicule, distort and impeach it. There are reasons for this, and some of them are not unreasonable. But many are based on superstition, prejudice and cold manipulation. We all pay a price for society’s irrational fears of sex. We pay in forfeited pleasure and peace of mind. We pay in death and loss through the endless wars our leaders wage, wars we "support" because they excite our repressed libidos. We pay in the rage and shame we feel as we torment others and ourselves. Some of us go to jail for it, some lose jobs, marriages, dreams, lives.
Based on three centuries of Puritanism at our nation’s foundation and a religion-driven hysteria leading our current government by the cajones, our culture is, to quote Dr. Marty Klein, "erotophobic," afraid of sex. We are intensely afraid, and yet (or and so…), we are intensely curious, attracted, obsessed. One of the results of American erotophobia is Abu Ghraib.
Another 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 and teenage–masturbation, menstruation, desire – 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?" There is a deep desire to be seen as normal, and yet to experience something "special," maybe even a little kinky. So many of us are so afraid…and so horny at the same time!
Chemically speaking, it’s easy to mistake fear for desire, since both get your adrenaline pumping. 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, 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 or mistrust can inhibit and virtually ruin you sexually, turning you into a hapless victim of your own fear.
Then again, 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, feeling afraid is what often saves an animal from destruction, inspiring fight or flight. Physiologically, fear is a wave of excess 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, "brave" people turn fear into focus, excitement and power. This may get you killed (or rejected), of course. But it’s the only chance you’ve got to go for the gold. You can turn the fear that inspires fight (anger, frustration) into hot, dynamic power, the power of mastery. Turn the fear that inspires flight (helplessness, inexperience) into cool, magnetic power, the power of mystery.
And don’t forget to breathe. 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. If you held your breath and didn’t move, maybe T-Rex wouldn’t notice you. That’s a very good reason to hold your breath when you’re afraid. But there are no predators lurking at your bedroom window (unless you’re on Gonzales’ Anti-Sex Hit List), 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.
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–indicting the Scooters and sweeping up the Dicks and Shrubs with their magick brooms. Throughout the world, dark nights of costumed revelry like Halloween, Carnaval, and the old pre-Katrina Mardi Gras, are celebrations of bacchanalian passion, perfect times to do what you don’t normally do, especially in the realm of sex. This Halloween, ask your lover to dress up as someone or something you’re a little afraid of. Costume shops feature masks for every key member of the Bush administration, making this an interesting place to start. Roleplay away, and feel those tingling shivers of fear turn to passion and pleasure in the flick of a tongue. A kinky gay pairing might have the submissive wearing a George II mask and the dom dressed as Jeff Gannon, the hooker/reporter who specialized in tough guy military roleplay and White House overnight passes.
Should you expose your fears? To your partner? To the world? That is a question with no simple answer. Exposing your fears (especially your sexual 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. As must be apparent by now, one of my fetishes is helping people to deal with their fears. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you (unless you really want me to).
Dr. SUSAN BLOCK is a sex educator, host of The Dr. SUSAN BLOCK Show and author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure. Visit her main website at http://www.drsusanblock.com
Send all comments, love letters, hate mail, questions, confessions, endorsements, enticements and testimonials to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Oct. 28, 2005, Dr. SUSAN BLOCK. For reprint rights, please email email@example.com