Sunday, March 7, 2021

50. Sex Doesn't Have To Be Scary

My own “spring awakening” woke up in the summer of 1985, much thanks to the incredible slew of hairy hunks on NBC’s daytime line-up. From Bo Brady, to Perry Hutchins, to Ted Capwell, there was no shortage of troubled scruffy heroes who somehow found themselves in various states of unclothed mayhem. At age 14, I started becoming aware of my impulse to be underneath all that fur and muscle, and conscious of my urges to do something about it.

However, in the midst of being ensconced in these soap worlds, a real-life drama was playing out on the news. Rock Hudson, whom I was familiar with more for his work on “Dynasty” then from his rich movie career, was being talked about everywhere after coming out as having AIDS. Nearly every network seemed to find it necessary to contrast the images of a young, healthy, vibrant Hudson, to the gaunt, ill, and frail man whose body was ravished by the cruel disease. It became embedded in my mind in this vulnerable moment that sexual impulses led to illness and death, and if I acted on my desires, that would be me someday.  

Every intimate encounter, every sexual moment was interrupted by the inner thought, “Is this the time something is going to go wrong? Is this the time I’m going to have pay for it?”  No matter how good it felt, no matter how satisfying the sexual experience, I couldn’t subtract the terror of believing that pleasure would ultimately kill me like Rock Hudson. Although my partners, both HIV positive and identified-negative, used condoms in every encounter back then, I still lived from HIV test to HIV test in complete and utter fear that something went wrong and I would be next. Every cough, every sore throat, every fever and every night sweat was accompanied by the paralyzing thought, “This is it, I’m seroconverting.” I lost sleep, I lost concentration, and I lost time worrying.

After twenty years of coping with the never ending juggling of pleasure and panic, a news story caught my attention. On November 24, 2010, the initial results of the iPrex study were released, which revealed that a medication called Truvada could reduce risk of HIV transmission by 44%. Initially, that number was not impressive to me. I didn’t think less than half would be enough to assuage my fears. But six months later, GMHC in NYC held a forum where it was explained that people who took Truvada daily had a protection of 92% or greater. I took that information to my doctor, explained why I thought this could be an ideal way of reducing HIV risk, and began using this medication for PrEP at age forty.

To be completely honest, my fears were not immediate allayed. The FDA hadn’t yet approved Truvada as PrEP, and I had my own disbeliefs that a pill could actually prevent me from becoming HIV positive. I still carried the burdened angst that PrEP was too good to be true and HIV was sure to be the result of enjoying bottoming without condoms. I remember thinking, “How could HIV risk have shifted diametrically without it being on the front page of the New York Times? How could any of this be for real?”

After a year of using PrEP I finally began to fathom the reality that PrEP prevented HIV.  But a new panic took over:  What about STIs?  Somewhere in my sexual conditioning I had integrated the idea that condomless sex would lead to infection and transmission of STIs.  I began having sleepless nights and fears worrying about bacteria and discharge - what if someday I had to tell a partner I had an STI?  I was consumed with this worry and realized, “I have replaced my fears of HIV with fears of syphillis and gonorrhea. Why does fear have to be there in every sexual experience?


Through the Facebook “PrEP Facts” group, I began seeing that these experiences were not uncommon for gay men of my generation.  We have been devastated and traumatized for decades by the AIDS crisis, many of us never had sex without it.  Our minds and bodies developed with the conditioning that intimacy and skin is a one way road to pain and anguish.  That fear and terror doesn’t go away even if HIV does.  Fear just get sublimated into new monsters like STIs or COVID19.  

Once I became cognizant of this synaptic connection, I resolved to let it go.  Some might call it aversion therapy, others might call it being a slut.  Either way I made a commitment to myself, “You will eventually enjoy sex without fear of pain or trauma or death.  The more sex you have without pain or trauma or death as the result, the closer you will get to that goal.”  

By the time I was 42-years-old I finally reached the ability to enjoy intimacy, connection, and sexual touch without pervasive sleep-depriving fear.  I still had an occasional panic around an STI-related symptom, but by talking it out with friends and partners I realized how common and pervasive these occasional hiccups could be.  They are hardly deserving of time and energy I had afforded them.  

When COVID hit last year, many people I know went back to square one.  They used COVID as a self-fulfilling prophesy, a synaptic confirmation, “See I knew touching humans was dangerous!”  

I for one refuse to ever go back.  COVID19 definitely made me hesitant and reticent to touch other people as I took a step back to evaluate what was happening medically, what the dangers were, and how or if connection was possible.  Ultimately I adapted a harm-reduction approach to sexual connections that seemed to adequately protect myself and my partners from acquiring and transmitting COVID19 to one another, so that we could provide each other with touch and intimacy while reducing risk.  

Bringing fear back to sex was the last thing I ever wanted to see happen in my lifetime.  But I noticed that this time I was able to respond from a much calmer, centered, rational synaptic reasoning than the panic-induced reactions from 1985-2013.  This time I committed:

I will not allow fear to control me.  I will not allow fear to dominate my body.  I will mitigate medical risks in the most informed, rational, and loving way possible.”

As I approach turning 50-years-old  I realize I am finished living in fear of sex.  I have let go of associating pleasure with punishment, connection with consequences, and delight with disease.  Having the agency to make these decisions helps me to age with more empowerment, play, and sleep.  


Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707.

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