For starters, even feather-light touch hits differently when you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Powerful physical sensations, plus a need for deep concentration and actual connection, are often hallmarks of intimacy for HSPs.
Here’s the deal: An HSP’s nervous system processes external stimuli much deeper than others.
Scientifically named sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), it’s a completely normal genetic trait brought to light by clinical psychologist Elaine Aron in the ‘90s.
Personally, I like to say it turns up the volume of life: emotions, physical touch, sense of smell, you name it.
And, yeah, it sounds fancy and all, but we’re really not uncommon. According to Aron, HSPs make up about 15 to 20 percent of the world’s population.
Of course, high sensitivity isn’t a sole determinant of one’s sexual experiences.
The HSP experience varies so much from person to person, and it’s often dependent on a number of different factors.
These takeaways are based on my own experiences as an HSP.
Without it, sex feels incredibly pointless — more like some bizarre type of disconnected, yet mutual, masturbation than an experience of embodied pleasure. Hard pass.
After some trial and error, I finally figured this out in my mid-twenties. Now, I’m just not down to be with anyone I don’t feel a connection with.
And, for that exact reason, I highly recommend keeping a vibrator (or two, or three, or, ya know, seven) nearby until someone you truly fancy saunters into your life.
We might get irrationally bothered over a scratchy clothing tag, but it’s made up for by the undulating waves of pleasure that douse our bodies during intimacy (when we’re with the right people — who can be hard to find).
“The heightened nervous system rewards HSPs with extremely powerful orgasms,” explains Megan Harrison, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Couples Candy.
“Particularly when slower and drawn-out sexual movements are made around erogenous zones with many nerve endings.”
Our physical pleasure is all in the details. So, that’s a resounding yes to starting slow, subtle, and with consent, as always. Delicate yet deliberate; I can’t think of a more winning combination.
The best sex, to us, is built up over time and ideally has a sprinkle of mystery. That’s not to say there isn’t room for daring adventures — it just takes the right combination and lead up.
And, honestly, at this point I’m having a hard time concentrating on writing this section.
Deep pleasure takes a lot of concentration for us. Sometimes, little things can throw off our sensual groove, putting us into a fog of “now I’m not really feeling it.”
“HSPs can move from deeply engaged to disconnected at a moment’s notice,” Harrison explains. “A single rough touch or distracting noise can totally ruin the experience.”
A self-identified HSP, Harrison adds, “we’re so aware of external stimuli and emotions that managing the personal experience can become difficult with interruptions.”
RIP to that one brewing orgasm ruined by my partner’s dog jumping on the foot of the bed.
Lesson learned: Never underestimate the power of a really good sex playlist to minimize background distractions.
The HSP tendency to overthink is rife. Sex is no exception. Even in the most, uh, engaging situations.
Not only are we analyzing every fiber of our own sensations, we’re simultaneously trying to imagine how it’s all going from our partner’s perspective.
Emily Stone, PhD, LMFT, the founder and senior clinician at The Unstuck Group, knows it well. Stone says that HSPs sometimes have a “tendency to endure” in their relationships.
It’s not uncommon for us to neglect our own needs because we’re more so thinking about our partner’s experience, which can lead to getting lost in a sexual sea of thought.
When it all lines up right though, Stone says “an HSP’s gifts can bring delight, passion, and depth to the sexual experience in ways that no one else can.” Damn straight.
A good orgasm can send us into a buzzy haze of indulgence, and we might just devolve into a complete blob afterwards.
In “The Highly Sensitive Person in Love,” Aron explains that HSP folks might “find it difficult to go right back to normal life after sex.”
That’s because we’ve just gone through massive amounts of stimulation, and it’s probably all we’ll think about for at least the next hour or so.
That project you were working on? Yeah, probs not gonna happen anymore.
Open dialogue really is the golden ticket here, and it’s a two-way street.
While it’s taken me time to learn how to speak up about what I like and don’t like in the sheets, that assertion has helped my relationships greatly. It’s something we can all benefit from, regardless of where one falls on the sensitivity scale.
According to Shari Botwin, LCSW, a licensed therapist who’s worked with many HSPs, “non-HSPs need to be open to understanding their partner’s experience.”
“They need to be open to listening and communicating feelings before, during, and after intimacy,” she says.
You heard her: Don’t be shy.
The same goes for HSPs. It’s our responsibility to tell our partners what’s working and what isn’t — without worrying about upsetting them. Again, assert yourself. Your desires are worth it.
High sensitivity is a unique gift, and I’ll always see it that way.
It may take some extra self-discovery and communication to ensure your sexual needs are met. But, hey, what would any sex be without those two things? Nowhere near as good, that’s for sure.
Sarah Lempa is a writer and creative media strategist covering the joys (and challenges) of travel lifestyle, mental health, and solopreneurship. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, VICE, and SUITCASE Magazine, among others. Currently based in Indonesia, she’s called multiple countries home and has ventured across six continents along the way. When she’s not chipping away at a piece, you’ll find her jamming out to groovy beats or riding a motorcycle. Keep up with Sarah on Instagram.