Sensitive Spots

The dangers of feeling numb—physically or psychologically—during sex

Anal Eze is my archnemesis. Superman has Lex Luthor, Spider-Man's got Venom, but my enemy number one comes in a tube and retails for less than 10 bucks. Nearly every day, someone asks me about using Anal Eze or a similarly named desensitizing lube to make backdoor sex easier. "It says on the package it's made especially for anal sex," they tell me. Uggghhhh. I counsel these wayward souls to steer clear of it. Anal Eze and lubes like it contain benzocaine (or a similar ingredient), a topical anesthetic—think Ora-Gel for your butthole. They numb your butt so you can't feel what's going on; when you use them, you're more likely to go farther or take something bigger in your ass than you're ready for. The result: a sore ass, possible tearing and damage to the delicate lining of the anal canal and rectum, and pain—all things that won't exactly make you want to rush right out and try anal sex again. Plus, on the off chance that the anal penetration is pleasurable, you won't be able to feel that either. A sticker on a bottle of Rear Entry lube says it all: Numbs your most sensitive spots. Who wants that? Wouldn't you rather be able to feel someone touch, tease, and torment your most sensitive spots?

Anal Eze's very existence undermines my mission to teach people about safe and pleasurable anal sex. It propagates the myth that anal penetration has to be painful, that discomfort is inevitable. Anal sex does not have to hurt, not even a little. If it does, stop. Pain is your body's way of saying, "Hey, that's not working for me right now," and you should always listen to your body. With relaxation, lubrication, and proper warm-up, anal sex can be not only pain-free but extremely pleasurable. With Anal Eze, people are encouraged to disconnect from their bodies (or one particular part of their bodies), so in broader terms, Anal Eze helps promote muted, medicated sex to the masses.

It got me thinking about a comment a woman made in one of my sex workshops recently. She said that when she first started having anal sex, she had to "think about something altogether different" and go to her "happy place" in order to get through it. She maintained that she now loves it and doesn't have to do that. It sounded to me like hers was the "grin and bear it" method: She was disassociating from her body, numbing her brain instead of her butt. It reminded me a little of the people who say to me, "I can enjoy anal sex . . . after six shots of Tequila!" After all, alcohol has its own desensitizing properties, helping people to relax, lower their inhibitions, and even detach. In fact, in large doses, it has been shown to literally numb the nerve endings of the genitals.

The brain is our most important sexual organ, and it's one of the hardest ones to figure out; unlike other parts, you can't simply make it happy with a good hand job. What we think about, the images we conjure, and how we feel all affect our physical experience of sex. And this is where things get tricky. Sometimes, we fantasize during sex; we don't always think about the actual person, place, or thing we are playing with at that moment. Her fingers can be a rock hard cock, his tongue can be the tongue of a goddess, or that dildo could be a cop's nightstick. In erotic role-playing, the ability to fantasize is crucial. You know that "burglar" is really your lover, and you're not in actual danger. You need to suspend disbelief and go there for it to work. Fantasy is healthy; you want to feed your inner headmaster, nurse, or pervert, but you also want to connect with your partner and feel like you're in your body. Where's the line between using your imagination and checking out?

I've seen the issue of dissociation addressed in work on sexual-abuse survivors, like in Staci Haines's book The Survivor's Guide to Sex and movie Healing Sex (healingsexthemovie.com). But all of us, survivors or not, can engage in dissociation out of fear, insecurity, a desire for self-protection, or other reasons—and it can be entirely subconscious behavior. How can we counteract this psychological form of Anal Eze?

I look to the rising popularity of practices like tantra, bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM). Though on the surface they seem completely different, tantra and BDSM share some of the same principles: being present, focused, and deliberate; connecting with your body and mind and that of your partner's; and achieving altered states of consciousness.

In BDSM, the stimulation you experience can be so intense or the power dynamic so highly charged that it's pretty hard to ignore; your brain often goes into overdrive as it attempts to process unusual or extreme physical sensations and emotions. Your body follows suit, since activities like heavy flogging or temporary piercing trigger the release of endorphins (painkilling chemicals produced by the brain) and adrenaline that flood the body. This chemical reaction can give you a feeling of being high—not a typical high, but one where all your senses are heightened, sensations and emotions are magnified, and you can become hyper-aware. In tantra, there is an emphasis on connecting mind, body, and spirit and attaining greater consciousness. The intention, the pace, and the ritual of tantra work to heighten a practitioner's awareness. Some people say they get into a particular headspace when they do BDSM or tantra play; they describe this as being "in the zone," and it's the opposite of zoned out.

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