Sexual Frustration and the Fear of Rejection

Sexual Frustration

In a previous post we talked about the importance of trust as a building block for creating a fulfilling sex life. An often hidden cause of sexual frustration stems from unresolved trust issues. Trust is key to sexual intimacy because sex involves emotional vulnerability. When trust is a given in your relationship, it recedes to the background where it feeds your sense of security and allows for greater sexual expressiveness.

It’s only when trust is violated in some way—either because of something your partner says or does, or because of ingrained expectations that make judgment seem inevitable—that it becomes consciously relevant and in need of attention. When we trust ourselves and our partner, when the potential for judgment is minimized, self-consciousness dissipates enough that we’re better able to receive the moment-to-moment erotic joys unfolding between us. Without trust, there can be no sexual fulfillment—without trust, sexual frustration is a given.

When trust is tenuous we remain guarded to varying degrees—we cannot give freely of ourselves. Why? Because a lack of trust implies danger. Here we are speaking of the danger of rejection—a rejection from someone you deeply care about…and that can make the sting greater than other rejections.

But even under the best of conditions (where trust is established), sex is emotionally risky business.

Some of us feel this more overtly and as a result, intentionally protect ourselves through self-inhibiting calculations; for others, these dangers lurk as potentials that are vaguely felt, hidden shadows that have the power to mute our experiences and block self-expressiveness (sexual and otherwise).

Sexual Frustration and Sexual Inhibition: The Shame-Rejection Connection

We’ve all been rejected to some degree. And as experience teaches us, not all rejection is alike. There are the rejections that make us mad, the ones that lead to disappointment (both big and small) and still others that feel totally unjust and stir our defensive indignation (the “How dare you do that to me?!” reaction).

And then there are the rejections that reach in and shake us to our core—the rejections that seem to peel back our skin and expose the parts of us we’ve spent a lifetime shielding from others. Enter shame.

Shame is seldom experienced directly. Because of its cutting edges, shame frequently invokes a series of complex reactions (anger, defensiveness, depression, withdrawal) that dilute its purity, an altered experience that is more tolerable. To feel shame directly is to feel wholly and crushingly inadequate—most of us have spent the majority of our lives finding ways to feel anything but this.

Why is our shame-proneness heightened when it comes to sex and sexuality?

Despite society’s relative normalization of sexuality and sexual behavior (messages that directly or indirectly imply that it’s okay to feel and be sexual), when we’re children and discover that we’re sexual beings, that discovery usually occurs in isolation and is often shrouded in secrecy. The exploration of our bodies; discovering masturbation; encountering thoughts, fantasies and scenarios that erotically arouse us, are not typically developmental events comfortably welcomed in familial or public discourse.

The messages are clear that our sexuality and the expression of this sexuality are “private” matters—personal experiences that others shouldn’t be exposed to (except, of course, for the willing partner). It is clear that our bodies (and what are bodies are capable of) can make others uncomfortable if we fail to self-censor. At times, we learn these social protocols because of the insensitivity of others, shaming comments or feedback that sends our sexuality scurrying underground.

We become experts at shielding ourselves (parts of ourselves) from others.

Sexual frustration and the Uncertainty of Sexual Appropriateness

People tend to react strongly when what is deemed private and personal is placed before them. Seeing a display of public affection frequently elicits the “Get a room!” shout-out. There are certain private-public lines of decorum this openly affectionate couple is pushing against that make us uneasy, with our level of discomfort increasing in proportion to the social protocols violated (passionate kissing, versus groping, versus exposed genitals, versus explicit sexual acts).

Yet, if we’re really honest with ourselves, many would take voyeuristic pleasure in watching this “inappropriate” couple and, truth be told, it is the fear of getting caught watching that prevents further gawking. Watching turns us into the wrongdoer. In this role (as the watcher) we are the one transforming what is supposed to be a private act into a public phenomenon and therefore we become complicit in violating the private-public boundary.

What this demonstrates is that from an early age our sexuality gets encoded in a very rule-bound way, usually centering around handed-down criteria involving appropriateness-inappropriateness. (In these matters inappropriateness = wrong, gross, off-putting, abnormal, or morally-reprehensible). The “vanilla” and “kink” dichotomy exists because of this distinction (after all, isn’t the experience of kink fueled by the very fact that others would consider such behavior risqué or even inappropriate?). Kink ceases to be kink if and when it becomes commonplace. Certain fantasies and sexual turn-ons draw their erotic energy directly from the very existence and awareness of the improper. Approaching the inappropriate can be arousing as well as anxiety-provoking.

But it is also very risky, since the slippery slope of rejection exists right around the corner of the inappropriate. The problem is that one person’s turn-on may be another’s turn-off. And when we question or experience our own sexuality as inappropriate because of our partner’s reaction or feedback, the likelihood of shame is heightened.

In these instances, the formula for shame might look something like:

You express yourself sexually in some way + a negative-critical-withdrawing reaction from your lover = you now feel you crossed a boundary of sexual appropriateness, and shame is felt.

Your partner’s negative reaction might be subtle or somewhat dramatic, or it may exist solely in the theater of your mind, but in any case, once shame is involved, your partner is instantly transformed into judge and jury, and you become the helpless defendant.

As one husband shared during a therapy session,

“We were having sex and I totally lost myself in the moment. When I became aware of my wife, she seemed uncomfortable, so I asked her if she was all right. She hesitated and then said that I was making these grunting sounds she never heard before. The look on her face sent the message that I was acting oddly. I felt like apologizing. I also knew that I crossed a line that shouldn’t have been crossed. After that point, I was always very controlled with her during sex…” ~ Donald, married four years

Like Donald, we may control and restrain ourselves during sex out of fear of being completely seen. There are parts of us we believe should remain private, hidden even from our partner—a sense of our own inappropriateness that feels best kept locked away for the benefit of everyone. If laid bare, if allowed into the public domain of our relationship, we become fully exposed. Our vulnerability is all that will remain in these instances. In essence, we become powerless to the whims and reactions of the other. These are indeed dangerous waters to traverse.

Sexual Frustration and the Desire to Let Go

Why do so many people watch porn in secrecy? Why do so many have clandestine affairs or seek no-strings, anonymous sexual experiences?

Can the answer partly lie in our wish to escape the strangling effects of the self-containment and self-consciousness learned at such an early age? Could it be that we truly want to be seen and experienced fully by another without assessing our own appropriateness?

As one client expressed, “I yearn to be inappropriate and accepted by my lover in those moments.”

Maybe we all are seeking the same thing during sex: for the lines drawn around the appropriate-inappropriate to momentarily vanish without fear of reproach or humiliation.

As Maya Angelou so eloquently stated, “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

Does such a safe place exist in your relationship? Is there a safe place in your sexual relationship where trust has eradicated the potential for shaming and humiliating rejection?

If you are interested in practical sex tips to help transform sexual frustration, check out my sexual intimacy guide for couples.

Until next time,

Dr. Rich Nicastro