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The Vulnerability Hangover: A Fresh Take on Modern Eroticism

A sex therapist explores the 'vulnerability hangover', a new sexual phenomenon.

Note: From time to time, I will use this blog as a platform for new and emerging voices deserving of a broader audience. This is a guest post by psychotherapist Amanda Luterman, based in Montreal, in which she analyzes and critiques the state of modern impersonal sexuality (specifically what she describes as the 'vulnerability hangover') and differentiates between sexuality and eroticism.

Amanda Luterman, used with permission
Source: Amanda Luterman, used with permission

To call the current state of casual sex empowering for most is like calling potato chips salad because they contain a vegetable. Just because you had casual consensual sex certainly doesn’t always mean you are left feeling empowered. In fact, if you had casual sex last night, upon reflection, you’d probably agree that the passively dreaded morning after ‘down’ isn’t caused by substance use or lack of sleep. It’s the 'vulnerability hangover' — the harsh realization that you have no faith in the person you just had sex with to acknowledge your vulnerability with care or compassion. That is the harshest form of “I-cant-get-out-of-bed”. Vulnerability is the new debilitating indigestion we are carelessly medicating with the junk food of sexual encounters.

The big question here is, why are there vulnerability hangovers after consensual sex? Why are people feeling so alone after connection they thought they wanted?

Here goes a hypothetical hetero-example (without intention to generalize to all orientations or gender identities for the sake of this article). Jane and John match on Tinder on Monday. They text back and forth for a few days expressing shared sex-positive values, discussing Netflix shows they watch and current events on their news feeds. Initially, their response times are immediate. At first, it all feels flattering and exciting. There is wit and banter and sexual innuendo without blatant late night invitations. How promising!

Stock photo of apple iphone, labeled for reuse, Pexels
Source: Stock photo of apple iphone, labeled for reuse, Pexels

Now it’s Thursday. Jane begins to wonder if there will be a weekend plan; she contemplates initiating but feels concerned it can be seen as forward. She figures he’s texting with other Tinderellas since the texting slowed today. John doesn’t want to screw anything up. He figures if he asks her out too quickly she will think he’s a creep. He assumes she already has weekend plans and a slew of other dudes writing her. Finally, he asks if she is doing anything tonight. She confesses she almost asked the same thing. Two people are smiling at their phones. How promising!

The date arrives and Jane presumes because she finds John attractive that she should be as chill as possible while still being dynamic and engaging. She is wearing slightly more makeup than she usually does. She focuses on whether or not he’ll like her and not on whether or not she likes him. John has a hard time reading Jane but finds her attractive. He’s out and hasn’t had sex for a while so he feels pretty good. Manscaping has been taken care of just in case, but he hates that he wore a sweater that clings to his middle a bit more than he’d like.

After a few drinks, John mentions that he lives close to the bar and Jane smiles, “Ok." That remains the only conversation in which Jane and John discuss anything about their imminent vulnerability exchange and looming sexual encounter. Upon walking through John’s front door, they defer some awkwardness by locking lips right away and readily allow the very predictable sequence of scripted sexual acts to unfold.

John’s erection validates Jane, and Jane’s lubrication reassures John. Jane has never loved her labia and is self-conscious of body hair. Her lubrication stems more from tactile stimulation than arousal. Though John is grateful he is taller than Jane, he struggles to feel confident until they’re horizontal. Neither know anything about how they’d each like to be touched nor do they sexually guide one another at all. There is no mentioning of recent STI testing. There is little eye contact, foreplay prematurely begins at the genitals for both. John matches the vulnerability inherent in Jane’s noticing his erection with the permission to touch her vulva.

Jane is relieved John uses a condom. John reaches orgasm, though rather mechanically, and wishes he’d lasted longer. Jane does not orgasm and is unable to request or continue clitoral stimulation. John leaves the room to dispose of the condom and they briefly lie together. Jane mentions grabbing an Uber and John walks her out, saying “I’m happy we did this. Let’s talk soon.” No promises.

They don’t see each other again.

Couple in bed, by tinafranklindg, labeled for reuse, Flickr
Source: Couple in bed, by tinafranklindg, labeled for reuse, Flickr

When you don’t think you’re attractive or adequate, or when you’re behaving from performance and a fear of being compared with, talked about, or abandoned the moment you are no longer there for the purpose of immediate sexual gratification, chances are you quiet your needs, go with the organic yet superficial and societally scripted flow of mediocre assisted-masturbation unlikely to be satiating for anyone involved. What these two were missing wasn’t a lack of chemistry so much as a lack of mutually communicated vulnerability. And tah dah – just like that, you have the disconnected sex barely meriting a proper g’bye, nevermind a second date.

And considering it is possible to see how long ago someone was online most of the time, their presence haunts like the smell of condom on your fingers – a necessary but nonetheless residual displeasure. A reminder of proximity minus accessibility; we are all incredibly close and yet extremely far. Ghosting is occurring live in front of you every time you look at your phone in the wake of physical insecurities exposed in an interaction that held illusory hopes of future intimacy.

Is there a deeper sense of loneliness than that which occurs immediately following a taste of togetherness? Is there a deeper more profound feeling of vulnerability than that which arises from being ‘certain’ it is ‘bad’ to contact the person whose pleasure-seeking body was just exploring your imperfect parts?

Post-coital etiquette is so often dehumanized if not simply absent of empathy. As a clinician, a psychotherapist specializing in sexuality, I find explaining the difference between sexuality and eroticism to be relevant to the level of gratification folks are striving for.

Sexuality is physiological; it’s a basic physical need often satisfied or ‘quieted’ temporarily by the point A to point B model. One notices their desire to have an orgasm (point A) and thus finds a place, a visual or imagined ‘inspiration’ and method of releasing those urges (point B). It is the masturbation model. Masturbation does not require the subject to think about anyone else’s pleasure. Sometimes, often, in fact, this model occurs in place of a craving of an interpersonal need to connect, to be thought desirable, and/or maybe even to arouse another. In those situations, the basic point A to point B model of sexuality chosen isn’t very satisfying.

Naked Eroticism illustration, labeled for reuse, Pixabay
Source: Naked Eroticism illustration, labeled for reuse, Pixabay

The idea of eroticism is distinctly different. Eroticism is sexuality plus empathy. It is the notion that in order to get to the satisfaction of point B, you care to arouse who arouses you. You choose to think about what it would be like to be in your own sexual company. It interpersonalizes the desire for sexual satisfaction. It makes someone else’s experience of pleasure just as important as your own. Not to be confused with love or commitment, eroticism is a series of sexual and communication skills that serve to meet the need for deeply craved, physically and emotionally safe, vulnerable, sexual gratification. Specifically, pre- and post-coital feedback is exchanged. Conscientious, thoughtful communication asks, “How was it for you? What can I do differently next time?” the next day and possibly days later, decreasing negatively felt vulnerability, and increasing the level of satisfying arousal for the next time. Eroticism is the interpersonal exchange that is incomplete without mutual vulnerability and the communication of care.

Prospects on Tinder, for example, are like gourmet delicacies in fast food vending machines; what’s the point if the conditions ruin it upon delivery and no one bothers to ask how it was? Casual sex has nothing to do with the actual quality or depth of each person. It is how we choose to value the exchange as worthwhile, vulnerable interactions that makes the difference. By seeking short-term gratification within which little effort is placed, we are building long-term relationship scar tissue. Sure, we may enjoy being less emotionally accountable to another person (who wants to be held responsible for another person’s feelings?). It just must not be forgotten that we are also enabling a lack of care in return.

How is it that people feel exposed and vulnerable after consensual sex? Consent is intended as an ongoing, reassuring and kind conversation not a good-for-one-use ticket to admission. Giving and receiving consent is about each partner caring that they’ve been granted an opportunity to be an intimate witness to another human being's wonderfully imperfect sexuality, even just for a night. Even if just briefly and casually, it is important to provide each other the interpersonal generosity that might motivate the desire for erotic encounters again with the same person, or someone else. Hydrate and get some sleep; hangovers can be prevented.