Q: I've always had health anxiety, but the pandemic has definitely made it worse. Lately, my anxiety has been focused on sex and the fear of getting something from someone. I feel like I'm becoming sex-repulsed because of it. I'm in my mid-20s and want to sleep around and have fun (safely), but lately, I just can't even imagine kissing someone. How can I get over this fear and live like Samantha Jones?
A: Anxiety is, to be a fabulous writer, the worst. I have anxiety, and I also have health anxiety pretty badly (although weirdly not as much about the pandemic, just about other things). So please trust me when I say I understand how consuming health anxiety is. To me, it feels like being trapped inside of the thing that I’m convinced is going to kill me. Like if I were afraid of roller coasters (I am, too, duh), and then I was living on one. It feels like anything can go wrong at any time! And, I’m sorry to say, it can. Bodies are frustratingly failable. If all the stars align — specifically the ones that were aligned for Romeo and Juliet — a papercut could kill you. We’re fragile, life is precarious, and both of those things are incredibly unacceptable and very hard not to focus on. So again let me affirm: I feel you.
By my estimation, the best way to fight against the fear is to neither ignore it nor bend to it, however. I don’t think you’re going to look back at the end of your life and think “I wish I would have played it safer.” I don’t think that’s the case for everyone; I do think some people should play it safer. I am not suggesting that everyone needs to take massive gambles to feel alive — sometimes feeling alive is trying a really good chocolate chip cookie dough recipe. But if I had to guess, I’m going to say that you’re the kind of person who plays it safe, who makes careful decisions. And I think it has served you very well — you’re OK right now! Woo! However, I do think that if you don’t push yourself a bit to get through (not past) this anxiety, you are going to have some regrets.
Let me say, too, in case it’s not clear: You worrying about getting sick right now in a world that is still very much in the middle of a pandemic is reasonable. Please don't allow other people’s health risks, regardless of how common they are, to make you question your own. It doesn’t matter how many people get on a bicycle without a helmet; that’s still a foolish and unsafe thing to do. That doesn't mean that you need to never ride a bicycle. It doesn’t mean that riding one with a helmet on is without risk. Those possibilities are real, and like riding a bike, you should know about the consequences and then do your best to mitigate them. And then enjoy the dang bike ride and not spend the whole time thinking about how if a semi truck hits you you’ll be screwed.
OK, so how do you do this? First and foremost, I would suggest talking to a therapist. I know it’s a cliche for advice columns to suggest this, but it’s a cliche for a reason. I can’t logically argue against your anxiety and defeat it via this column because anxiety is not logical. (Sorry to you and me, but it’s not.) It’s pure pathos and fear. A good therapist will help you figure out the origin of the health anxiety, how and when it manifests, and what you can do to mitigate it via concrete steps. I know finding a good therapist can be time-consuming and expensive, but you’re weighing it against not getting to live your life, which makes it a pretty good deal.
As for other things you can do now, slow down a bit. Try to go out without kissing anyone first and get more comfortable there. Flirt with someone. If you have moments of anxiety, try to remind yourself that you have to go through them. The only way out is through, unfortunately. As you move closer to kissing or sex, educate yourself (even if you feel like you already know things!) about sex risks and what can be done to be as safe as possible.
I’m not sure if your worries surround STIs in particular or simply getting sick from someone because of the situation we’re stuck in. If your anxiety is specific to STIs, please, please, please let me tell you so clearly: STIs are not the end of the world or your life. Many are curable; all are treatable. Many of them are simply skin conditions that just happen to pass junk to junk. That is not to minimize the stigma that comes with STIs or the panic we’ve been taught to feel about them. Also, I again urge everyone to be as safe as possible while having sex! Wear condoms; get tested frequently; be honest with partners and ask for honesty from them. But also, so many people — ones you know and love — have or have had STIs and are living hot and horny lives. So many of the moral judgments we were given around STIs is a holdout from purity culture, homophobia and transphobia, and trying to scare teenagers into abstinence. Do research, learn what the risks are, and talk to a doctor if you still have questions! (Planned Parenthood is a great resource for this.)
Anxiety is very good at turning people’s fear sensors (for lack of a better term) up to 11. Seeing a therapist and working on your anxiety through things like meditation, exposure therapy, exercise, or medication can help turn the fear sensor down a bit and also help you learn how to navigate the world when your worries are, say, at a six, which is not ideal, but it’s where you’re at. Throwing yourself into the deep end and trying to hurry up and become a Samantha when you have no anxiety coping skills is probably not your best bet. But I do encourage you to, as often as possible, try to figure out if your feelings are realistic or if they’re your anxiety amping you up. It’s a good place to start. It’s going to take you time to get to a place where you feel OK going out and kissing someone or having sex with them. It’s very unlikely that a switch is magically going to flip and you won’t feel scared anymore. What you’ll have to work on is how to feel afraid and act anyway and how to differentiate fears that might be “unreasonable” or unwanted from fears that might actually serve you and be good intuition.
I promise you that if you want a Samantha Jones life, you can have it. It might take more work from you than it does from our famous horny New Yorker, but it’s very possible to have easy, breezy, beautiful sex with anxiety. But please also know that the best sex is the sex you want to have and feel comfortable having, not the kind you feel like is proving something about yourself. (I know because I’ve had a fair amount of both kinds.) Casual sex is fun and great. I am very, very, very pro casual sex. I also want you to hear, just in case you haven’t, that casual sex will not add anything to your worth or value. It’s just a fun activity like playing Uno. Only do it if you’re into Uno, OK?
It’s A Pleasure appears here every Thursday. If you have a sex, dating, or relationship question, email Sophia at BustleSexAdvice@gmail.com or fill out this form.