When Dan, 32, first met his girlfriend last year, he’d been single and celibate — “apart from [his] hand” — for almost a decade. But despite a high sex drive and no past trauma, he struggled to perform as soon as they started fucking. “I couldn’t stop thinking about everything!” he says. “‘Am I good enough? Is she enjoying this? Why am I not erect? Wait, is the dog eating something?’ I just couldn’t enjoy the moment. My brain wouldn’t let me.”
Over the last few months, Dan, a pseudonym, has been sharing these stories with similarly frustrated redditors around the globe, who often gravitate toward subreddits like r/sex, r/sexandrelationships and, in some cases, r/adhdwomen, to discuss their mental focus (or lack thereof) in the bedroom. Whether it stems from anxiety, sexual inexperience or mental health conditions like ADHD, they all share a common problem: They can’t stop their mind from wandering during sex.
“We see this issue everywhere, from the boardroom to the bedroom,” says Ani Manian, a mindfulness coach who co-hosts the podcast Untamed Intimacy with his partner, Lee Noto. “Especially with sex though, because in those moments of physical intimacy, someone else’s attention is completely on us — or so we hope! We communicate daily, but people aren’t really seeing us in any deep or meaningful way. That goes away during sex, which can be exhilarating — it’s why we love it so much. But it’s also terrifying!”
In his eyes, there are three reasons why our minds wander while having sex. The first is that being seen butt-naked, warts and all, ignites our “fight-or-flight” response, which either translates into butterflies in the stomach, or a nervous, jittery disaster. The next is anxiety about the past, which can be stressful if you’ve had shitty experiences. Manian has struggled with this himself — the first time he fucked was in a university bathroom with the lights out, an experience that led to a broken toilet and a whole lot of guilt. He laughs about it now, but at the time, he was terrified of punishment — a fine, or perhaps a burly, pissed-off janitor ready to throw down — and as a result, he associated sex with stress. His ADHD compounded this stress with an inability to focus, placing a huge strain on his early sexual relationships.
Lastly, he says that watching porn while we jerk off conditions us to see sex as a fantasy, a theory that resonates with some redditors who struggle to stay in the moment without either watching or thinking about pro scenes. “A lot of people use porn to hack arousal,” Manian explains, “but it comes at the cost of not enjoying what’s right in front of them.”
Luckily, there are several solutions. From slowing things down and talking more to eliminating the expectation of a cum shot at the end, anxieties around sex can be overcome. According to Manian, when we feel ourselves drifting away, the first thing to do is “bring awareness to sensations in the body. Take a deep breath and notice what you smell, the texture of your partner’s skin, how they taste when you lick and kiss them,” he advises. You could take this even further and experiment with sensory play — there’s nothing like an ice cube on your nipple to snap you back into the present.
It’s also important to understand that there’s almost always an underlying cause, and sometimes tackling it can fix the issue. Whether it’s past trauma, erectile dysfunction or a mental health condition, it’s worth delving deeper to understand what’s really going on. “I was suffering from performance anxiety and erectile dysfunction, which really fucked me up,” explains Dan. “It was a vicious cycle, but it’s been better for two or three months now.”
Dan’s handiest tip has been to ask his girlfriend to take the lead, but he also encourages men to ask for help if they need it and cast off the pressures of masculinity. “There’s shame attached to it, like it’s hard to admit you have trouble with ‘being a man,’” he says. Talking about it with his girlfriend has helped them to collectively recalibrate their expectations, and find different ways to please each other sexually. “Just aim for pleasure and fun, not complete intercourse or an orgasm,” he continues. In his eyes, it’s a process of gradual improvement — and one that, when done right, can be an exhilarating ride.
Sex therapist Diana Urman echoes the idea that stress and anxiety lead to lack of focus while fucking, but she has a different recommendation — weed. “It can give a sense of peace and calm,” she writes via email, “but it can also alleviate some symptoms of anxiety and take us out of our heads, which might then make us feel more embodied and grounded.” (It can heighten senses and increase sexual pleasure, too.) Personally, Urman recommends SpaceDrops, which are sour gummy edibles, but there are entire articles dedicated to the sexiest strains to experiment with as well. Start with a low dosage, though — in some cases, too much weed can actually heighten anxiety.
It also obviously helps if you know what you like. Eighteen-year-old Anna, who also asked to remain anonymous, hasn’t had any sexual experiences yet, and for a while, the idea alone made her body seize up with nerves. “Masturbation has allowed me to know my own body and desires more,” she tells me, “which makes me more confident in being able to communicate them in the future.”
She says online forums have been similarly helpful. Not only have they shown her that “everyone is anxious about their body and their genitals,” they’ve underlined the fact that “communication is sexy and, more importantly, critical for safe, consensual sex.” This might sound like it only works with a long-term partner, but Manian highlights that even one-night stands can be anxiety-free experiences if you slow things down and tap into your senses. “We feel like there’s this urgency to fuck, like if we don’t do it quickly, they’ll change their mind,” he laughs. “We rush, but that only exacerbates the stress, which makes it more difficult to be in that state of presence and enjoy it.”
If there’s one consolation, it’s that you aren’t alone; especially if you’re fucking for hours, it’s natural for erections to droop and minds to wander. The key isn’t to beat yourself up, and to switch things up. Try a new position, take a quick break or abandon the idea of penetration for a while. “If I couldn’t get an erection in the past, I’d think, ‘Okay, this doesn’t have to be about that,’” says Manian. “‘Let me just be here and enjoy my partner in all the other ways that I can right now.’”
All that said, it’s totally okay for your mind to wander to places — or people — that aren’t your partner. If it helps you feel pleasure and be in the moment to picture something other than what’s happening in the moment, why not let your mind go there and enjoy it? You’re allowed to think whatever you want during sex — your partner doesn’t have to know (unless you both want them to). So if something takes you there, don’t be ashamed to let it.
As for the fucking itself, we can’t all perform like porn stars — nor should we feel pressure to. In reality, sex takes time and looks different for everyone. Those brief spells of doubt, anxiety and awkwardness are all part of the process, as are the moments of distraction. Frankly, staying present and focused while you’re being eaten out for 30 minutes is a feat of mindfulness in and of itself. The key is to be kind to yourself and accept that you might occasionally lose focus. After all, there’s no bigger boner-killer than a serious bout of self-loathing.