I'm almost 23 and still afraid of sex

I'd like to relax, but traumatic memories come rushing back.

By Cary Tennis
Published June 9, 2008 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm almost 23 and I'm still afraid of sex.

It's not that I don't want to do it or that I haven't had the opportunity to with nice and normal men, it's that I full-out panic whenever a guy reaches to unbutton my jeans. It doesn't matter if I love them, they love me, or any combination thereof. The thought of anyone touching me (including doctors -- well, perhaps particularly doctors) sends me into a full-blown panic attack. Why doctors, you ask? Because I was molested by my pediatrician and never quite got over it. Hell, I can't even go to the gynecologist (which rationally I know I need to) because the terror is so strong. I've tried therapy and the therapists just give me a look like they have no idea what to do.

Most guys just assume I won't sleep with them because I'm Catholic and so I let them believe religion is holding me back -- or that it comes from bad body image or something. Truthfully, I'm tired of being the über-virgin. I want to stop fearing sex. From what I hear it's fun and not intended to traumatize. I want to stop leading guys on, letting them think they're going to get sex because we obviously both want it ... and then denying them. I've tried to just make myself calm down and do it and I can't. I really can't.

I need help. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.


Someday to Be a 40-Year-Old Virgin

Dear Someday Virgin,

One of the things trauma does is deprive us of trust. If we have been traumatized by a doctor, then anyone who resembles a doctor will be difficult to trust. That would make sense. But I feel confident that if you continue looking for a way to heal from this, and find the right person, the right setting and the right methods, you will gradually heal from this earlier incident. Your body and mind want to heal. This past trauma is like a wound. It needs protection and cleanliness and care and time, and it will heal.

Healing from this kind of trauma is a miracle in a way -- in that we find one day that what seemed hopeless is no longer hopeless -- but it is not magical. It doesn't happen in an instant. It happens gradually.

You say you have been to therapists and noticed something on their faces that indicated they didn't know what to do. So you may want to continue the search for the right supportive partner in therapy who will help you through it. Or, if you like the people you have been seeing, you may want to open discussions with them about this. You may want to say, you know, I see this look on your face that tells me you don't know what I'm talking about. It's possible that they do have solutions but have not been able to make it clear how those solutions will come about.

You know, I should level with you, as I am not a doctor who keeps the focus off himself, but a writer who keeps the focus on himself. And I just have to say, I have had panic attacks. After I quit drinking I started having them. Well, to be more precise, after I stopped drinking I started noticing my panic attacks. Before I quit drinking I would not call them panic attacks. I would call them "I need a beer."

What I mean to say is, without having all the answers, I know what it is like to have panic reactions. I still freak out. What's so crazy about that? Our bodies remember things. They do it for our own good. Our bodies remember the threats to our minds. It's something like that. Our bodies remember the threats. Our bodies remember the threats to reproduction. That makes sense, doesn't it -- that we as animals, before we gained the capacity to plan and organize and analyze, before we had minds, as organisms committed to sheer survival, would imprint on ourselves powerful, lifesaving reactions to any threat to our ability to reproduce, any threat to our sexual organs, anything improper, anything untoward, and anything suggestive of incest? Isn't it reasonable for an organism to respond with intense, instantaneous fight? And isn't it reasonable that as we grew ever more sophisticated and evolved safe, highly controlled social systems, these primitive adaptive mechanisms would for the most part no longer operate except in the most covert and quiet ways? But they would certainly be there, and in instances of threat they would naturally arise and imprint us in ways to protect us our whole lives from similar threats.

So let us say that your panic attacks are the body's wisdom. They are nothing to fear. So thank your body for these panic attacks. Thank your body and recognize that it is lifesaving. Your body is trying to protect you.

But do this with a very smart and intuitive doctor, OK? And don't let me pretend as if I can cure you. I can't. I'm just a writer. I happen to believe that writing can cure many things, by taking us places we can't get to any other way. But I also happen to agree that writers are not to be trusted with the mental health of readers. There are too many variables. What you need is the regular, systematic, gradual approach of a clinical setting. Not just one shot of insight from an Internet columnist -- that won't do it. It takes practice to re-imprint new reactions and carve new pathways in the brain.

So I hope you will use what I say to motivate yourself to either open further discussions with your current therapist or continue your search for a new therapist with the right kind of process.

And I hope you can think of it this way: You are a survivor. You were, in a sense, saved by your animal nature -- this trauma response is part of your animal instinct, your survival instinct. It is your friend. It will protect you throughout your life. It is protecting you now, one might say, by preventing you from having sex until you have healed from past trauma.

One more thing. In the course of doing just a little reading about trauma, I came across this remarkable document by Edward Schmookler about working with trauma victims in Bosnia. You are not a trauma victim from Bosnia. But you have experienced trauma and violation. And what I notice in reading this remarkable document is certain things -- for instance, how when we are healing from things we fall silent. I have noticed lately in my therapy sessions that I am falling silent occasionally. It is nice to fall silent. It is strange, though, to be silent in a room with another person. Schmookler suggests that in these moments of silence, when one is recalling an incident and finds it hard or impossible to talk, healing is taking place. One takes comfort in that thought. You might find, if you begin talking about this early experience, that when you come close to it, you fall silent. That, in my experience, would be a good sign. But this is just an aside.

I know this, too: As Schmookler says, speaking to his audience of therapists and people who would like to help trauma survivors: "Nature heals, not you."

So I hope you will set for yourself a course of healing. It may take longer than you think it should. But think of how long it can take to heal a deep wound, how you carry the wound around, what happens as it is healing. It is delicate. If someone bumps it, it hurts. So you protect it. You protect it because it is healing. But you can overprotect it so that it does not heal; if you bind it too tightly you can cut off the blood. Or if you keep exposing it, thinking it should already be healed, you can reinjure it, and then healing has to start all over. So think of it like that, like a wound that has to heal, and find the right pace and the right setting for the healing to take place.

The Best of Cary Tennis

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

Get on the mailing list for Cary Tennis Books.

What? You want more advice?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice. Letter writers: Please think carefully! By sending a letter to advice@salon.com, you are giving Salon permission to publish it. Once you submit it, it may not be possible to rescind it. So be sure. If you are not sure, sleep on it. You can always send tomorrow. Ready? OK, Submit your letter for publication.
  • Or, just make a comment to Cary Tennis not for publication.
  • Or, send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Love And Sex Sex Sexual Abuse Since You Asked