When we have sex, we are inherently engaging in compartmentalisation. For most of us, we're trying to let go of everything else that's on our minds to focus on the activity at hand and the other person (or people?). That means quieting down a lot of other thoughts.
Maybe you're trying not to think about how work is stressing you out. Maybe you're trying not to think about the fact that your roommate is home and your walls seem to be made of tissue paper. Maybe you're trying not to think about that weird patch of dry skin on your chin — Is it from under- or over-exfoliation?
It's hard to enjoy yourself sexually when your body is in the room, but your mind isn't. But hopefully the sex is so fun and feels so awesome that it's not even a decision to be in the moment. It just happens automatically. Particularly in the really intense moments, like right before you come. It is very hard to put together a grocery list in your head while you’re about to have an orgasm.
But lately, a mental grocery list may be the least of our distractions during sex. We live in an era when you could be killing time in line at the Post Office, unconsciously reach for your phone, and instantly get updates on every single horrible thing that is happening on the planet. It can feel even harder to unplug from the world and embrace the pleasures of sex and intimacy.
It's not just the disturbing news itself, but how immediately and comprehensively we can engage with it.
It's not just the disturbing news itself, but how immediately and comprehensively we can engage with it. We are able to scroll through infinite newsfeeds, which are like slideshows of the worst things imaginable: death and injustice and discrimination and abuse and suffering and anything remotely related to the Trump administration. To digest such devastation so easily, with just a swipe of the finger, allows us to consume without thinking and without realising when we may be too full.
It made me contemplate the actual impact of taking in the 24-hour news cycle and how that could hurt our ability to enjoy sex.
I talked about this with my friend Nina Rouhani, a PhD candidate in psychology and neuroscience at Princeton. I wanted to know the neurological, and perhaps sexual, impact of seeing so much stressful info online. She told me that reading particularly triggering information can "elicit a whole host of memories that can cripple you, by taxing your working memory and making you unable to shift gears and focus on the present."
Nina defines a trigger as "basically anything that elicits a strong internal state that refers to a previously experienced state." So, I was curious how looking at an upsetting personal text message might compare to looking at a barrage of negative tweets about the news. Nina believes this largely depends on the context. She noted that getting an upsetting text from a friend is "worse than 100 messages on Twitter," but "more is worse, especially when it's consistent and spread over time." In other words, reading triggering headlines and tweets every day could create permanent emotional damage and feelings of helplessness.
For so many of us, the initial trauma was Election Night 2016, when we felt incredibly distraught as we seemingly lost control of our country’s future. Thus, each news story that relates to the political changes caused by the Trump administration can trigger us. But what about news stories we don’t relate to on a personal level, but still upset us?
Our libidos are not immune to emotion, and it’s always okay to tell your partner you need to press pause.
Nina explained the difference between these two experiences: a trigger which calls to mind a personal memory versus the repeated exposure to distressing news. She pointed out that even if you did not live through the exact circumstances of the negative news story, it can still "trigger a bad feeling you have experienced before like fear or loneliness or threat." Those emotional reactions, repeated over time, can establish a memory of an internal state.
Nina gave an example of how this emotional process occurs based on watching a fictional TV show. She said, "If my representation of psychostalkers is only activated when I’m watching Pretty Little Liars, then that's the only context where I will be thinking of psychostalkers, But if psychostalkers start to emerge on my Facebook and Twitter and news, then my representation of psychostalkers has attached itself to many of my daily contexts, and starts to feel like what I imagine the characters on PLL actually feel. To put it more simply, the higher the number of contexts in which I am getting triggered, the more prevalent and stronger this representation becomes."
Additionally, Nina says that sleeping after consuming such info can also help make these upsetting memories or associations stronger — so scrolling through your timeline before bed only makes it worse. And, as for scrolling before sex, that's not great either. Nina acknowledged, "if stress is taking up your cognitive resources, it would be very difficult to have enough resources to enjoy sex. In other words, the two motivations would compete for the same cognitive resources." So what do we do? How do we navigate the news without destroying our libido?
I have some ideas that might help.
1. Resist the urge to ignore the news altogether. I don't think the solution is to take the ostrich approach and stick our heads in the sand. It's vital to understand how you exist in relation to the rest of humanity and to educate yourself as to how to be a better person, a better ally, and a better advocate. And, as Nina told me, a tiny bit of stress can actually be good. It can "help with cognitive function, making you more attentive and motivated. We basically think that for every individual there's a kind of optimal level of stress where too little can make you inattentive and too much can be destructive," she said. So, being a human and existing in the world means we are constantly on a quest to find this "optimal level of stress."
2. Limit the amount of time you are looking at this stuff. An obvious way of keeping your phone out of "your bedroom" is to literally keep your phone out of your bedroom. Sure, there has to be action and resistance and we cannot be complacent, but you are not a horrible person for choosing the moments when you engage. You are allowed to manage your stress level and its impact on your mental health and sex life.
3. Give yourself the time to process what this all means. Reducing your intake of news is a step in the right direction, but it is unrealistic and unsustainable to completely avoid what is happening around us. I believe in a two-pronged approach to dealing with this:
A) Figure out tangible ways you can contribute to the issues that matter to you. Maybe this means going to a Black Lives Matter rally. Maybe this means donating to Planned Parenthood. Maybe this means volunteering in your community or making sure people are registered to vote for the midterm elections. Focusing on concrete ways to address the problems you care about can alleviate some of the anxiety and helplessness you may feel.
B) Take stock of the underlying emotions the news brings up in you. Whether that’s done through talking with a therapist, practicing mindfulness meditation or any other activity to unpack how you feel and find emotional equilibrium, you will be able to analyse how some things may trigger you more than others, and how to deal with the emotions that arise.
In a time when the world around us can feel especially toxic and overwhelming, we need to embrace the powerful positive experiences sex can provide.
4. But it’s not just about processing this on your own. Don’t be shy about bringing your sexual partner into your process. Talking about this stuff enhances your closeness and confirms your compatibility — or, worst-case scenario, helps your realise there is none. For example, processing pivotal developments and revelations in the #MeToo era by yourself – and not with your sexual partner (especially if they are a heterosexual man)– is antithetical to what the whole movement's about. Talking about important newsworthy issues strengthens your relationship-- unless you want a sexual relationship where you truly don't talk about anything. That's cool too. That offers a therapeutic escape all its own. But I think if you're trying to have a sexual relationship with someone where the desire is to grow together emotionally, you can't avoid engaging in the news.
If you are having sex and you can’t get an upsetting news story like the bathroom ban out of your head, you can try to use some coping tools – but do not feel bad if you simply want the experience to stop. Our libidos are not immune to emotion, and it’s always okay to tell your partner you need to press pause.
Good sex is based in trust. And a way to engender trust is to be vulnerable and talk about the things in the world that matter. We should seek out partners who not only help us feel pleasure, but who also help us parse through what is painful. The more you are able to have full, honest conversations with your partner about the world outside of the bedroom, the more you may find it easier to focus simply on the task at hand when you’re having sex.
Sex is powerful. It allows us to transcend our quotidian interactions and exist in a space of vulnerability, deep connection, and pleasure. It allows us to devote our brains and bodies to caring for someone and being cared for. And it allows us to let go and surrender.
In a time when the world around us can feel especially toxic and overwhelming, we need to embrace the powerful positive experiences sex can provide. The intimacy, catharsis, and the simple fun of sex can restore and revitalise us, helping us have the energy and focus to take on the bullshit and support those who need us most.
Emma Koenig is the author of Moan: Anonymous Essays on Female Orgasm, published by Grand Central Publishing.