Usually when people ask me about sex, they’re concerned with mechanics (how to make the tingly feelings happen) or communication (how to have good sex). The other day, however, I was asked a question that wasn’t as easily categorizable: “Why is it so awkward when you see someone you’ve had sex with?”
Truthfully, I have no clue. In an ideal world we wouldn’t feel awkward; we’d be able to acknowledge our sexual experiences, learn from them, and then move on. That’s certainly how I try to operate. But even so, seeing past partners often makes me feel weak-kneed, ill, and over-caffeinated. My stomach feels like it’s about to implode. My linguistic powers dissolve into a particularly unpalatable form of word soup and the most I can muster is usually a forced, “Hihellohowareyouokaynicegoodbye.”
I think this happens for a few reasons.
The first reason is that sex means something. It’s popular to say that sex should be no big deal, but the fact is that we’ve all grown up in a society in which sex has become deeply linked to conceptions of romance, gender identity, gender roles, body image, health concerns, and all manner of other very personal, very emotional subjects.
When we see people that we’ve had sex with, all of those emotions are liable to come to the fore. What do these people know or think about our bodies? How did they validated (or not validate) our gender identities? How did they respect (or not respect) our physical health? Without meaning to, we begin to associate their presence with all of our anxieties, discomfort, and sexual shame. And that, understandably, can have the effect of turning us into stammering fools.
Beyond that, however, we also don’t know if these people hold the same views on all of these subjects as we do. Perhaps what we learned from the sexual encounter – about ourselves, about our partners, and about the world – runs completely opposite to what they learned. That leads us to second-guess moments of eye-contact, read into things that they say in our presence, and generally freak out. We’re caught off-guard by anxiety or self-doubt, and that can lead to stilted, awkward conversations.
The second reason we might feel awkward is because we don’t know how to categorize the experience – especially if we don’t want to repeat it.
Society tells us that the three major categories of social interaction are friendship, family, and romantic partnership, with the implicit assumption that sex should be reserved for lifelong, monogamous romantic partnership. In today’s world (and, honestly, in yesterday’s world), however, that assumption is almost never correct. The line between friendship and partnership is fuzzy at best. For instance: some people have multiple romantic partnerships at the same time while others have some highly sexual friendships. This is totally normal and healthy, but it doesn’t stop us from feeling the internal stigma of having had sex with someone who is not our one, true life partner. In other words, we might feel awkward because our relationship with this person violates unspoken social rules.
What happens when we violate social rules? Well, for one thing, we open ourselves up to criticism from those whose ideals do line up with society’s. Our significant others may express jealousy and resentment over the fact that we still encounter – and even talk to – people we’ve had sex with, and they may justify these emotions by pointing to society’s definition of when and with whom we should have sex (i.e. you should only ever have sex with your one, true life partner).
Another thing that happens when we violate these unspoken social rules is that we go “off-script.” All of the movies, plays, books, and television we consume as children have taught us how to have conversations about sex and romance, but only in the context of long-term, monogamous relationships. We have very few good models of how to interact healthily and positively with past sexual partners, so when we see them we’re forced to improvise, to come up with our own rules of engagement.
Improvisation may be difficult, but it can be very, very rewarding. When we take ownership of our sexual values – when we accept that we’re allowed to make choices for our bodies and our relationships, even if those choices fall outside the societal norms – we cultivate confidence and teach those around us that there’s nothing shameful about being sexual.
Learning to improvise may take time. Like I said earlier, I still find myself tripping over my words and going to great lengths to avoid seeing my ex-partners. But the benefits of learning to having healthy, positive relationships with these people (at least, the ones that I want to have relationships with) far outweigh any of my reasons for continuing to be a stammering fool around anyone who’s ever touched my nether regions.