How Mental Illness Is Impacting The Way You Have Sex

Discover the link between mental health and queer sexuality.

Sad woman in bedPhoto by iStock

I know what you’re thinking: why is this sex educator writing about mental illness right now? Did I not click into a sex ed article? How do the two relate? Well, how could they not? For queer people, our sexual desires are exactly what “other” us — of course our sex impacts our mental health and vice versa. For me, it all started when I began to truly ~get~ what mental illness is — at the same time I was going through puberty.

I viscerally remember the first time I understood what the word “depression” meant. I was watching the show The O.C. in middle school and the character Marissa Cooper (a lost and confused rich girl) had intentionally overdosed on pills, while her friends picked her limp body up from the alleyway she had passed out in. In that moment, I realized that much of what I had been dealing with in school — my friends self-harming, doing risky sexual things, and creating that middle school drama we all know so well — was coming from a place of pain. We were all struggling to put language to the f*cked up shit that was going on in our heads. And there wasn’t a single adult trying to help us with any of it.

“Corinne, stop crying all the time! You need to go to the bathroom, clean yourself up, and deal with that later, on your own time,” my seventh grade science teacher told me many times when she saw me crying in the hallway.

Around that same age, we were all going through puberty — gossiping about who wanted to 69 whom (meanwhile, I didn’t even know what that meant), passing notes in class about our crushes, and talking about when we each got our periods. While we had each other — and sometimes our older siblings — to talk about these newfound sexual desires and confusions with, the adults in our lives left us pretty much in the dark.

“Having sex is equivalent to jumping rope 160 times,” is all I learned about sex from an adult in these formative years. It was a statement from a cartoon sex education video my parents showed me in sixth grade. They never talked about or processed it with me afterwards, and to this day that’s all I remember from the video, which is hilarious in retrospect — but it’s also super damaging to not be teaching young people sex health.

The mental health struggles we were going through, plus navigating puberty created a perfect combination for strife relationships with our bodies, our sexualities, and our mental health. You see, the ways in which sex and mental illness intersect in our society are like a perfect cocktail for a dark and twisted storm. We’re taught deep-rooted shame around both of these aspects of our lives — while at the same time trained to keep quiet, remain in our independent silos, and stay isolated because no one talks about these things.

Fast forward to my early 20s, coming out as queer, and navigating my way towards becoming a sex educator — and I still carried these deep-rooted issues around mental illness and sex with me. As I stumbled through finding my own sexuality and feeling confident in my sexual desires, I realized how my mental health issues were playing a huge role, not only in my libido, but also in the shame I felt around my sex life.

Our sexual being is synonymous with our being. Period. But that’s not how most people understand and thus operate in their sexual lives. Our sex lives stand alone in many ways because we are a culture that feels deep shame around our sexuality. Erotiphobia manifests in different ways, one of them being that we don’t understand how all the various aspects of our lives interact with and inform our sexual being. Compartmentalizing sex is a way of ignoring how cultural shifts, societal norms, and identity issues play a huge role in how we understand our sexuality.

Mental illness is a messy and complicated monster. While so many of us are now afforded the opportunity to be safely out as our true selves, scientists are still finding that LGBTQ people are experiencing similar feelings of isolation and loneliness as we did when it was literally illegal to be LGBTQ. 34 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people under 26 have attempted suicide once in their lives. For bisexual and lesbian women, 21 and 12 percent, respectively, have reported experiencing long-term mental health problems. That’s compared to 4 percent of heterosexual women. More than half of individuals who identify as transgender experience depression or anxiety. 

The ways in which mental illness impacts marginalized communities is specifically referred to as minority stress. This is basically the way of explaining how stigma, prejudice, and discrimination create a hostile environment that causes mental health issues for marginalized people. The topic is made even more complicated for LGBTQ people because our identity was seen as a “mental disorder” until the 1970s.

I’m interested in how mental illness specifically impacts LGBTQ people, since our minority stress is so wrapped up in our sexual being. While mental illness has been directly linked to affecting your libido (whether making it lower or hyper-active), there has yet to be a study about minority stress and if it correlates to our sexual desires, how we navigate sexual communication, or how we relate to our bodies as sexual beings. What sexologists do know is that physical intimacy starts in the brain — when we feel desire and think about sex, our brain’s yummy chemicals, like serotonin, send messages to our body through a complex system of neurons and pathways that send blood flow to our sexual organs. Basically, the process of getting turned on. If these brain circuits are being intercepted by depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other mental illnesses then the ways in which your body experiences desire will be altered.

If you’ve always had mental illnesses, then the first time you experience sex and pleasure without the added weight of anxiety or depression might feel out-of-this-world — like you’re being transplanted to a completely different universe. The wiring of our brain can seriously impact the ways in which we experience intimacy and sensuality — it’s powerful how intertwined the two are.

So, what do we do when our mental illness is impacting how we have sex?

Be gentle with yourself.

Untangling the mess of your sexuality and figuring out what is genuine to you and what has been informed by our sex-negative and homophobic society will take time. It’s like when you toss jewelry in your bag and all the chains become meshed together — you don’t know where one necklace starts and where another ends. That’s the web you’re working through right now for your body and your desires.

There is no rush in figuring out your sexual desires. Take your time and be gentle with yourself. You’ve been taught so much shame, guilt, judgment, and negativity around your sexuality and embracing who you are. Of course that’s going to take a toll on your mental health, babe. It’s okay — we’re all going through it even if we aren’t talking about it publicly. You aren’t alone in how scary and isolating this feels. It might even help to start breaking the stigma in our communities and having these conversations with friends, lovers, and chosen family. The power of connection is strong and allows us to persevere through so much.

There is strength in your softness and tenderness. Allow yourself to gently come home to your body and your pleasures.

Over-communicate with sexual partners.

Come to every sexual scenario knowing that we all carry a lot of this baggage with us. It’s not just you! But your sexual partners might internalize it in different ways, so it’s important to talk before you have sex. Talk about the kind of sex you want to have. Talk about if you have “no-go” places on your body. Talk about triggers and hard no’s. Talk about what gives you pleasure. Talk about your boundaries and safe words. Talk about your kinks.

And just when you think you’ve covered it all, continue the conversation. Even after you’ve had sex — talk about what felt amazing, talk about where you’re at emotionally. These conversations help us bridge the gap that our parents, teachers, and caregivers dug in our lives. The gap of knowledge and resources and conversations on topics that can feel intimidating to tackle. If we don’t start these narratives, we’ll only be digging ourselves deeper into the darkness of sexual shame and lack of pleasure. These conversations not only help us empower our sexual beings — they also help us have better sex.

Prioritize taking care of your mental health.

If you’re struggling with your sexual self esteem, having a low libido or no desire to have sex, or a hyper-active libido and attraction to, like, every girl you walk past — the first step might be tackling your mental health. Therapy and counseling can be great places to start, if you have access to healthcare. If you don’t, maybe you can find a peer support group at your local LGBTQ community center, or a co-counseling option. Our generation has gotten so creative with how we deal with mental illness, since so many of us simply can’t afford the therapy we need or want to have access to.

When you prioritize your mental health, you’ll find more space in your mental capacity to be able to process your sexuality and your desires. Working through mental health issues will also have you feeling stronger and more confident in communicating with partners. If you’re in the midst of an anxiety spiral, how are you supposed to tell your new sexual partner that you don’t like nipple play? If you’re in the depths of depression, how can you communicate to your date that you’re only really ready to make out right now? These conversations lose a lot of the intimidating weight when we’re in a clearer headspace.

Taking care of your mental health will help you have a better sex life. I promise. Even if what you’re processing isn’t at all related to sex. Because guess what? Our sexual being isn’t compartmentalized and left untouched by the rest of our lives. It’s all intertwined.

Find resources that were built by and for LGBTQ people.

Because of the ways in which our mental health and sexuality overlap, it can be vital for our survival to find resources in both of these areas that have been created by and for LGBTQ people. Find a queer sex educator (hello! me!) to hire for community workshops on topics you want to learn more about. Find a queer therapist or peer support group to help with your mental health. Seeking out resources from within the community can feel so affirming of our existence, that we’re not alone, and that we’re not crazy for having these very specific struggles.

We’re so often told what our sex life *should* look like, and that’s usually based on heteronormative standards. I want you to start to deconstruct what it means to have a “normal” sex life. Whatever your sex life looks like is yours and yours alone. Don’t compare your sex life to anyone else’s — not how often you’re having sex, not the kind of sex you’re having, and not the fantasies you have. What matters most is your sexual satisfaction. Focus on you, babe.

When the shame happens, release.

Even with all this self work, sexual shame will find a way to seep back in. Whether instigated by a homophobic troll online or interacting with your biological family — but now you have the tools to cope and work through these deep-rooted issues. Adult sexuality is made up of seven components: gender identity, orientation, intention, desire, arousal, orgasm, and emotional satisfaction. The first six all swirl together to create the seventh. Because there are so many moving pieces to what makes up your sexual emotional satisfaction, it’s perfectly normal to experience shame around at least one of these aspects of you sexuality. But when this shame seeps back in, I want you to practice releasing it. Take a deep breath and allow the shame to exit your body with your exhale. You deserve to have shame-free sex. Know that you deserve uninhibited pleasure.

I know it might all seem very bleak right now, babe. But please remember that this world wasn’t built for queer survival, let alone for us to thrive. Where you’re at is normal and okay. Building the connection between your sexual wellness and mental health will only bring you closer to the sex life you deserve to have: one filled with pleasure, connection, and embodiment.