Hi Jake,

I’m pretty new to the gay scene. I’m out to my friends at college, but not yet to my family. For the first time, I’m venturing into the world of dating apps. I’ve had a handful of hookups this school year that have been hot and fun, but also…surprisingly stressful.

Even though I practice safe sex, I freak out after every encounter, and can’t relax until I get an STI test. I literally lie awake in bed at night and start imagining symptoms, convincing myself I’ve contracted something, even though I never have (yet). At this point, I’m practically on a first name basis with the nurse at my campus clinic, since I’ve been in almost a dozen times since September. It’s getting embarrassing.

I’m really not sure how to deal with this. I’m loving getting to experiment in the ways I’ve always fantasized about, but every encounter is tainted by my anxiety and shame that I might have put myself at risk. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth it or not.

How can I hookup, have fun, and not feel fear I’m going to catch something? Does it ever get less stressful?

Sexually Transmitted Unease

Dear Sexually Transmitted Unease,

It’s a good thing to be cautious and wary about about your health during sexual encounters, especially if they are casual or anonymous. Having some concern about your safety means you’re practicing self-care. While condoms are still the most effective in preventing STIs, things things like PrEP, PEP, and even antibiotics taken the day after an encounter are also available.

That said, since you’re already playing it safe, it seems like what you’re experiencing is worry that goes beyond what is actually warranted. Though not my place to diagnose you, what you describe exhibits flavors of anxiety, or OCD-like thinking.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) thinking is characterized by persistent, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) aimed at reducing the anxiety these thoughts cause. In other words, you may be overly ruminating about getting an STI, and compulsively testing, in an attempt to reduce the anxiety caused by the idea of getting infected.

Unfortunately, this kind of pattern can negatively affect not only your sexual experiences, but impede your day-to-day functioning.

At the end of the day, if you’re doing what you can to be safe, you’ve taken all the action you can to protect yourself, and the rest is out of your hands. Unfortunately, anxiety is more emotional than rational, so letting go and surrendering isn’t always easy.

It your case, it might really help to talk to an LGBTQ-affirmative counselor or therapist about your anxiety, either on campus, or online. There are coping strategies you can learn to help manage it, such as identifying and challenging irrational thoughts, practicing mindfulness exercises to bring you back to the present moment (where everything is fine), and stress management techniques like breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. For some, even medication can be helpful.

I would also encourage you to explore if your fear and anxiety has anything to do with shame, which you mentioned in your email.

What would it mean to you if you did contract an STI? Does that mean that you’re “dirty” or “wrong” for being a “promiscuous” gay person? You mentioned you aren’t out to your family yet, so I imagine there’s at least some fear of judgment from them about being queer. Perhaps, on some unconscious level, you worry that if you were to contract an STI, it means that everything your family (or others) think about being gay is right, and it’s somehow shameful.

As long as you’re taking care of yourself both physically and emotionally, and acting in integrity, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a sexually active gay man, and exploring what excites you.

I encourage you to continue your exploration, while practicing positive self-talk, and working to reduce your anxiety. If you notice anxious thoughts creeping in, sometimes the best thing you can do in that moment is to just witness them. By labeling them as simply “anxious thoughts”, you’re already distancing yourself from them, and lessening their impact. After all, not all thoughts are helpful, and you don’t have to identify with them.

Sex should be something enjoyable and fun, rather than a source of stress and emotional pain. I’m hopeful you can get the support you need to manage your anxiety, and reduce its effect on you.

Now, if only they could create a vaccine for that!

Ask Jake is our advice column by Queerty editor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Jake Myers. If you have a question for Jake, please email [email protected], or contact him through his LGBTQ therapy platform.

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Queerty’s licensed mental health professional helps readers navigate questions related to relationship dynamics, sex, gay culture, and more, all through a lens of releasing shame and living authentically.

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