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Erotophobia: when sex is scary

We often consider sex and pleasure as interchangeable, and yet erotophobia, aka the fear of sex, is real, and much more common than one would think.

By Aurelie | 31 October 2021
Painting by Francis Bacon showing an abstract figure on a bed
Francis Bacon, "Portrait of Henrietta Moraes"

We often consider sex and pleasure as interchangeable, and yet erotophobia, aka the fear of sex, is real, and much more common than one would think. Just like we might be shamed for enjoying sex a little too much, so are we likely to be if we shy away from it altogether. Damned if you do…

In what ways can sex feel scary and what are some of the reasons why that might happen?

Erotophobia explained

Erotophobia, the fear of sex

erotophobia
(ɪˌrɒtəʊˈfəʊbɪə)


[noun]
an abnormal fear of sexuality

How does sex turn from friend to foe? There are multiple causes and triggers, whether physical, cultural or as a consequence of trauma.

Physical causes might range from anything from vulvodynia and other conditions that make intercourse painful to erectile dysfunction and forms of performance anxiety. Cultural or religious factors might also come into play as the consequence of a sex negative education whereby sexuality was portrayed as either deviant or dangerous, or both. Erotophobia might also manifest itself as the direct result of a traumatic experience, be it abuse or other shocking events that might trigger a fear of touch and physical contact.

One word, multiple fears

There are as many variations on erotophobia as there are people affected by it. Sexuality is complex and encompasses a number of aspects, from the moment we take our clothes off to the actual physical interactions.

Gymnophobia

The fear of nudity is often complex. Some people are afraid of being naked, others of people being naked around them. This fear may signal body image issues or feelings of inadequacy, although it may also occur alone.

Genophobia

Also known as coitophobia, this is the fear of sexual intercourse. Many people with genophobia are able to begin romantic relationships, and may quite enjoy activities such as kissing and cuddling but are afraid to move into a more physical display of affection.

Fear of Intimacy

The fear of intimacy is often, though not always, rooted in a fear of abandonment or its twin, the fear of engulfment. Those who fear intimacy are not necessarily afraid of the sex act itself but are afraid of the emotional closeness that it may bring.

Haphephobia

Also known as chiraptophobia, the fear of being touched often affects all relationships, not just those of a romantic nature. Some people recoil from even passing contact by a relative, while others are afraid only of more protracted touching.

How erotophobia can help us rethink sex

The case against compulsory sexuality

Anyone can be sex-phobic, for a period of time or on a permanent basis. While people who have enjoyed sex or have a desire to do so might look at ways to cure it, some people on the aro-ace spectrum might consider that phobia an inherent part of their identity and actively claim their sex-aversion.

While aversion is more about disgust than it is about fear, both lead us to rethink the way we tend to approach sex. The Oxford University LGBTQ+ society defines compulsory sexuality as “the assumption that everyone experiences sexual attraction, and that everyone should desire sex and partake in it. Compulsory sexuality puts (usually heterosexual) relationships at the centre of the ideal human experience. It also includes the idea that romantic relationships must include sexual activity”.

By evolving past the idea that sex is an essential building block to any relationship, we can create a more inclusive space for asexuality to deserve the recognition and respect it deserves, and for erotophobes to feel safe to discuss their experiences (or not) without fear of judgement or pressure.

Not all sex was created equal

While erotophobia isn’t selective per say, some forms of sex can trigger much more negative feelings than others. Enter the fear of casual sex, a feeling often experienced by demisexuals. Somewhere on the aro-ace spectrum, demisexuality is a sexual orientation whereby sexual attraction is only experienced towards people an emotional bond has been formed with.

There is clearly nothing wrong with casual sex or the enjoyment that might be gotten out of it (although much could be said about the double standard that affects men and women in that respect). Demisexuality does however encourage us to address our sometimes consumeristic attitudes to sex, the extent to which we value sex without feelings and the almost cynical dismissal of said feelings as a sign of weakness.

Promoting a sex positive outlook and pleasure for all should never be misconstrued as pressure to have an active sex life or as lack of regard for anything who might choose not to partake in sexual behaviour, whether on a temporary or more permanent basis. In its most current and inclusive variation, sex positivity is nothing more than an ambition to remove any judgement or bias from the sexual sphere and give everyone the freedom and space to have plenty of sex – or none at all.

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