Background Previous research has demonstrated that the neuropeptide oxytocin modulates social behaviors and reduces anxiety. However, effects of oxytocin on startle reactivity, a well-validated measure of defense system activation related to fear and anxiety, have been inconsistent. Here we investigated the influence of oxytocin on startle reactivity with particular focus on the role of trait anxiety. Methods Forty-four healthy male participants attended two experimental sessions. They received intranasal oxytocin (24 IU) in one session and placebo in the other. Startle probes were presented in combination with pictures of social and non-social content. Eye-blink startle magnitude was measured by electromyography over the musculus orbicularis oculi in response to 95 dB noise bursts. Participants were assigned to groups of high vs. low trait anxiety based on their scores on the trait form of the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI). Results A significant interaction effect of oxytocin with STAI confirmed that trait anxiety moderated the effect of oxytocin on startle reactivity. Post-hoc tests indicated that for participants with elevated trait anxiety, oxytocin increased startle magnitude, particularly when watching non-social pictures, while this was not the case for participants with low trait anxiety. Conclusion Results indicate that effects of oxytocin on defense system activation depend on individual differences in trait anxiety. Trait anxiety may be an important moderator variable that should be considered in human studies on oxytocin effects.