Researchers Have Identified A Big Reason Why Some People Don't Enjoy Sex As Much
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Some of the biggest things that can get in the way of good sex: performance anxiety, relationship stress, life stress, lack of variety, lack of time, physical conditions that cause pain, sexual dysfunction where certain parts don't work the way they should, mental health, antidepressants, orgasm focus, clitoris negligence, selfishness, selflessness, lack of communication, lack of lubrication, internalized shame about having sex…and those are just the ones that initially come to mind.
But here's one that we don't often hear or talk a lot about: childhood trauma. And that doesn't include only childhood sexual abuse (although that's a large and pervasive type of childhood trauma). It also includes being neglected by your parents, seeing aggressive or emotionally abusive behavior between your parents, getting bullied or mistreated by peers, dealing with identity-related discrimination, and more. These early negative experiences can psychologically shape us and the way we behave, think, and move throughout the world. And new research suggests those traumas can actually affect the way we experience our sexuality in a very specific way.
Researchers surveyed 410 people currently in sex therapy about their sex lives, childhoods, levels of psychological distress in the past week, and how mindful they are as people.
The results showed people who'd experienced more instances of trauma throughout their childhood tended to have less satisfying sexual lives than those without childhood trauma.
Why a bad childhood can lead to a less satisfying sex life as an adult.
It has to do with those other two variables: psychological distress and mindfulness. Predictably, the findings showed people with more childhood trauma tended to experience more daily psychological distress (that is, moments of fear, worry, anxiety, or other negative emotions felt throughout the day) than those without childhood trauma. That psychological distress was linked to lower mindfulness (i.e., the tendency to be attentive and aware of what's happening in the present moment as it unfolds), and that lack of mindfulness was what was making sex less enjoyable.
"Psychological distress (i.e., depression, anxiety, irritability, cognitive impairments) may encourage the use of avoidance strategies to escape from suffering or unpleasant psychological states, which may in turn diminish attentiveness and awareness of what is taking place in the present moment," the researchers explain in the paper. "The numbing of experience or low dispositional mindfulness may diminish survivors' availability and receptiveness to pleasant stimuli, including sexual stimuli, therefore leading to a sex life perceived as empty, bad, unpleasant, negative, unsatisfying, or worthless."
In other words, people who've experienced bad stuff as kids tend to deal with more stress, anxiety, and negative emotions, and because of that, they've developed a specific coping strategy that involves distancing themselves from being fully aware of their emotional and perhaps even physical senses. That lack of mindfulness, however, ends up making good things—like sex—also less enjoyable.
How mindfulness affects sexual pleasure.
Plenty of past research has demonstrated how important mindfulness is to enjoying sex. One study earlier this year found people who are more in tune with their senses tend to have more sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, a higher sense of sexual well-being, and even more sexual confidence.
This isn't just about woo-woo feel-your-feelings stuff—mindfulness is particularly key to physical pleasure. Here's how the researchers explain it:
A lower dispositional mindfulness may be particularly detrimental to sexual functioning. Namely, individuals who are distracted, less present, less aware, or unmindful might report lower sexual satisfaction because (1) they may show less awareness of sexual stimuli or less capacity to identify and experience pleasant states as they unfold, therefore potentially experiencing less sexual satisfaction; and (2) their lack of self-regulation of attention might preclude psychological distance from anxious thoughts and decrease their contact with moment-to-moment experiences, hence tempering arousal reactions toward sexual stimuli. … A greater disposition to mindfulness has also been related to one's ability to fully experience the sexual act.
What you should do.
If you're someone who had a rough childhood for whatever reason, it's possible that those experiences have shaped your ability to be fully present with your senses, which in turn can make sex just feel less good.
According to the study, the trauma-distress-mindfulness-pleasure connection accounted for nearly 20% of the variance in sexual satisfaction among people—in other words, these variables together were responsible for 20% of the difference between how good sex felt across all the people in the study, from the people with the lowest sexual satisfaction to those with the highest. That means this is something to seriously pay attention to if sex tends to not feel so great for you!
The researchers suggest people with childhood trauma consider spending time working to deal with their negative emotions via mindfulness—that is, learning to sit with those emotions instead of trying to avoid them. That practice, if mastered, can begin to seep into all parts of your life and change the way you tune into any and all experiences, good and bad.
"Higher levels of dispositional mindfulness may help to reroute one's focus away from negative, critical, or anxiety-provoking cognitions and onto sensations that are happening during sexual activities with their partner, as they unfold from moment to moment, therefore promoting satisfying sexual experiences among partners," the researchers write. "Partners presenting higher levels of dispositional mindfulness could be more aware of their internal (e.g., arousing sensations, thoughts, emotions) and external cues (e.g., erotic cues such as seeing the partner's naked body)."
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