”Tell me what a person finds sexually attractive and I will tell you their entire philosophy of life.Ayn Rand
Intimacy is an emotional experience as much as it is physical and sexual. Sex and sexuality are as much a matter of the mind as they are of the body. “Skin hunger” and “loneliness” are about the heart and mind as they are about touch. The body executes and expresses sexual functions but a large part of an individual’s sexual life takes place in their mind. Since both mental health and sexual wellness remained warped in taboo and shame for centuries, for a long time no research was even attempted to connect the two. Curiously enough, sexual expression has become more open since the advent of
internet and social media and awareness about diverse identities and approaches to sexuality, but in June 2020 a pre-pandemic study in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association), consisting of thousands of American men and women age 18 to 44 years concluded that sexual activity is lesser now as compared to the earlier generations.
This is interesting because on one hand human civilization seems to be on the cusp of a sexual revolution in every way and on the other, the focus might have shifted from sexual activity to its other implications and projections like emotional wellbeing, to the growing anxiety, depression and angst among people.
It is often conveniently assumed that what happens in one’s sexual life has little to do with what happens in their head. However, the contrary has proven to be true in research and sexual wellness practices. Dr. Emily Nagoski has an interesting analogy about sexual response – “A car accelerator can move the car forward and the brakes can slow or stop the car. Just like a car, a person’s sexual desire may include a variety of accelerators and brakes, and they may be heavily influenced by external stimuli (sexual imagery, masturbation, foreplay, etc.) and internal stimuli (feelings and thoughts about life, perception of sexual stimuli, feelings and thoughts about body image, etc.). These can and are often tapped simultaneously.”
People also assume that sexual identity or activity happens only in the genitals but fail to understand that it begins in the mind and culminates there as well. The cultural taboos against masturbation like it leads to loss of manhood are plenty and also are detrimental to mental health. Female masturbation is in an even darker space and women are not supposed to be the “active” sexual partners culturally rather the ones making the “bad headache excuses” often and denying their own and their partner’s sexual needs.
Many people face arousal non-concordance. A state in which the mind and body are not in sync during sex. Either the mind is aroused when the body isn’t, or vice versa. This can be the case for people of all gender identities and sexual orientations if they are living with anxiety. Several studies on erectile dysfunction (ED) also link it to anxiety. Usually at the beginning of one’s sex life or during a mid-life crisis the anxiety related to “performance” has been a common cause of ED. Depression can adversely affect desire in most cases. This can change your arousal patterns, orgasm experience and self-image and confidence which in turn affect your sex life. Some anti-depressants also sometimes have such side effects. People who have some traumatic experiences in childhood often tend to have less satisfying sex lives in adulthood. This can purely be a trauma response nothing to
do with their sexual wellness directly but affecting it to a large extent. Then there are conditions like postcoital dysphoria (PCD). This leaves the person flooded with unreasonable negative emotions right after sex, surprisingly even if the sexperience is pleasurable and consensual. The roots are in the mind.
Often obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) overlaps with certain repetitive sexual fetishes and fantasies. Research in both hypersexuality (higher than usual sex drive) and hyposexuality (lower than usual sex drive) indicates the reason are not just physical or related to the genitals. The effects are not all bad though!
Sex is like a natural boost for mood and mind. It releases endorphins and oxytocin that are crucial for mental wellbeing. Consensual and pleasurable solo or couple sex releases “feel good” hormones that can instantly reduce symptoms of depression for some time. Touch is also therapeutic in many other ways for all beings. It can instantly lower the stress, improve sleep, help in expressing feelings,
reduce the feeling of loneliness, improve body awareness, and reduce minor sexual dysfunction also. The recent upswing of body positivity movement and greater acceptance for gender-diverse identities and LGBTQIA+ are also crucial in new light being thrown at sex and mental health.
Empowerment and Freedom
The old saying – Knowledge is power is only partly true for mental health and sexual wellness. Mere knowing isn’t enough, unless the knowledge is applied to the lives and circumstances actively. Sexuality is associated deeply with identity and pleasure and having agency in sexual decisions taken in a state of good mental health are the ultimate freedom any human being can exercise about their bodies. Sexual and mental wellness are two closely linked parameters of overall wellness and issues in either or both need to work at in tandem. Body positivity, sex positivity and mental health self-work has to all work inclusively and in an intersectional way for a person to experience optimum mental health and enjoy best sex life.
What can be done?
Often practitioners suggest sensate focus that helps people reconnect with their sensual feelings. These include “non-demand touching,” which means touching yourself or getting touched without the expectation of a sexual outcome. Solo sexual activity like masturbation can assist in knowing your body better and hence helping your partner understand your desire and body better too. In this century the purpose of sex is certainly more than “putting buns in the oven” and since pleasure is rooted in the mind, mental health can’t be separated from it.