What does sex feel like for those with a deeper central nervous system sensitivity, aka highly sensitive people?
Sex: we have it, but we don’t tend to talk about it, and when we do it can often be on unconsciously narrow or exclusionary terms.
According to research by Dr Elaine Aron, who coined the term, 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive people – HSPs – meaning that they feel ‘too deeply’ but often hide their emotions from others.
This often impacts every part of their life, from work, to friendships, to dating to their sex life. So while we all experience intimacy differently due to our orientation, libidos and sexual preferences, for HSPs, sex can range from intense to anxiety-inducing to indifferent.
In an interview with MedicineNet, Dr Aron also expressed her belief that HSPs are “ideally designed for close relationships”.
“They are conscientious, good listeners, loyal, aware of little signs that the relationship needs work. They tend to be spiritual, so that love and close relationships have a deeper meaning for them,” she explains.
She goes on to say that while HSPs are no more likely to have any sexual dysfunction, guilt, or anxiety, they do find sex to be more mysterious and powerful than non-HSPs. However, because of the culture, HSPs often enter relationships feeling dependent or not quite as good as a non-sensitive person.
How is sex different for HSPs?
“The relationship between HSPs and sex is often a complex one,” Bex Traynier, The HSP Coach on Instagram, tells Stylist.
“As deep feelers with high levels of emotionality, sexual intimacy can feel like a whirlwind of passion and intense connection, seeming almost magical at times. With both positive and negative memories being more salient to HSPs, their sexual history can have a stronger impact on their current levels of intimacy and willingness to partake in sexual activity,” she says.
In her role as an HSP coach, Traynier shares that her clients have often reported feeling “overstimulated” during sex, which can sometimes lead to difficulty climaxing.
“One client confessed to me that she had cried after almost every sexual encounter she had until she eventually met her life partner in her 40s,” Traynier says. “The confusion and misunderstanding from partners would often lead to the breakdown of the connection and she would have long periods of avoiding intimacy and relationships as a result.”
But like Aron, Traynier explains that HSPs are relationship people who thrive on close bonds, deep connections and intimate exchanges. Therefore, it’s is common for HSPs to abstain from sexual relations until a deeper connection or emotional bond is formed.
Having high levels of empathy and emotionality make HSPs very caring, understanding and emotionally aware romantic partners. They care deeply about how their partner is feeling and will actively work to make their significant others’ happy and fulfilled.
“Our ability to notice subtleties lends itself well to picking up on and reacting to subtle shifts in a partner’s energy, small suggestions or cues, and changes in body language and behaviour. This makes HSPs very good at predicting what a partner needs sexually and/or emotionally, sometimes before they know themselves,” she adds.
What can HSPs find challenging about intimacy?
Getting in the mood
While this can be also barrier for non-HSPs, Traynier says that setting the mood for intimacy requires more work from HSPs.
“Modern society is not set up for the highly sensitive person,” she explains. “Arriving home feeling overstimulated is very much the norm, and many HSPs report that they’re often too overwhelmed or exhausted to get in the right headspace to be intimate.”
Many of Traynier’s clients report a low sex drive, painful sexual experiences and little to no desire to be intimate, especially during stressful periods of life.
On the other hand, holidays, where HSPs can truly relax and unwind, seem to be a good window of opportunity for sensitives to engage in enjoyable sex. Traynier also says that planning sex for ‘down’ days when stimulation is low can be beneficial.
Traynier says that the fear of being ‘too much’, ‘too different’, difficult and fussy, or just straight up ‘weird’ can often lead HSPs to put their partner’s needs before their own.
However, this can sadly also lead to HSPs saying yes when they really mean no, something Traynier says she has experienced herself.
“I remember feeling both emotionally underwhelmed and yet physically overwhelmed all at the same time, being completely unaware of my temperament, and thinking that this was the experience that everyone had around sex,” she shares.
“I would be so concerned with the other person’s wants and desires that I wasn’t even connected to my own. My thoughts would distract me from the moment, oftentimes making the experience feel empty.”
How to enjoy sex as an HSP
Tune in to how your nervous system feels around your significant other
Traynier suggests that HSPs should prioritise that feeling of calm and safety when in the company of someone they intend to be intimate with.
“This is hugely underrated and should be one of the first considerations for an HSP looking to engage in a sexual relationship,” she says.
Come to terms with the fact that your needs are valid – and learn how to effectively and confidently communicate them
“Learn to turn off your people-pleasing tendencies and stop neglecting your own needs,” she says. “Spend time connecting with the self; learn your sensitivities and limitations, likes and dislikes, wants and desires.”
Her top tip? Start small to slowly build up your confidence.
Minimise sensory input before, during and after sex
Lights, textures and smells can impact HSPs more directly than non-HSPs. Traynier says spending a bit of time creating the right ambiance and atmosphere will help you to ensure you feel relaxed and comfortable in your environment.
“Allow enough time for a slow build and lots of foreplay. Jumping straight into it can be a massive turn off for us, as we find the suddenness of it all almost abrasive on our system. Many HSPs need time to warm up and get fully in touch with their sensual side.”
“You may also want to pick a day when your stimulation levels are low,” she adds.
If you don’t want to have sex, don’t
“Refrain from doing it just for your partner’s sake,” she concludes. “Make it clear to your partner that it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with your highly sensitive nervous system.”
However, Traynier is clear that identifying as an HSP does not mean that the above will hold true for you.
“Slow and steady with a gradual build-up works for a lot HSPs, but if you’re also a High Sensation Seeker you may find you need to strike a balance between high intensity, daring and novel sexual experiences, and at other times find a much softer, more delicate approach to being intimate,” she explains.
“Spreading awareness and educating people should help people to learn what works for them, leading to more fruitful sexual experiences and relationships in general.”