Q: If my partner is having trouble with sex and anxiety about “performing,” how can I be supportive without increasing stress or pressure around sex?
Performance anxiety during sex is incredibly common for folks of all genders. People worry about their erections, their wetness, the way their body looks, their oral technique, their dirty talk skills—so many different things.
That worry can stem from a few different places. For many folks, performance anxiety comes from unreasonable expectations that we place on ourselves because of things we’ve seen in porn and movies. We think sex is meant to look or go a certain way, and we try to model what we see on the screen instead of focusing on what is actually enjoyable.
For others, performance anxiety can stem from past experiences. If a previous partner has said, for example, that you don’t last “long enough” or that you haven’t satisfied them in some way, you might feel embarrassed or ashamed, and you might carry those feelings with you into future situations.
In general, worries about our performance are rooted in not feeling “_______ enough” (go ahead and fill in the blank with whatever adjective you want). The thing is, there’s no such thing as a universal standard of “_______ enough.” Every person’s pleasure points and desires are different, and if you spend each sexual encounter trying to satisfy from a past sexual encounter, you’re missing the point.
Performance anxiety can be alleviated by two seemingly simple things: communication and reframing your sex life.
Most of us tend to talk about sex either right before we start having it, while we’re having it, or just afterward. But in order to have pleasurable and fulfilling sex, you should be talking about it well before sex ever starts. Set-up a sex date with your partner so that you can each talk about your desires and boundaries. You can use tools (like the survey on We Should Try It or the Sex Talk game) to get started.
This is a great opportunity to talk about the things that really bring you pleasure and to address their worries about performance. For example, if someone feels stressed that they can’t get “wet enough” you can remind them “hey, that’s what lube is for. It’s cool.” Or, if someone is worried that their erection won’t last long enough, you can talk about the other types of play that you enjoy and ask if they’d be interested in trying cock rings.
When you try to have big conversations about sex while you’re in the bedroom, emotions can run high. People might feel like they have to respond right away or in a certain way, or they might simply feel extra self-conscious. So, plan for this conversation to happen outside of the bedroom. Set a date for your talk and make it as comfortable as possible. That might mean getting snuggly on the couch and drinking a glass of wine or cup of tea, or it might mean going for a picnic in your favorite park.
Wherever you choose to have it, make sure it’s private enough that you can really talk (and feel some feelings) without feeling like you have to adjust your language for others nearby. And critically, plan this date with your partners. If you just spring a sex talk date on them, they might feel overwhelmed and unprepared, and that doesn’t lead to free-flowing, helpful conversation. Work together to find a day and time that will work for you. In other words, treat it like an actual date, even if you don’t leave the house.
Reframing what you consider to “count” as sex can be helpful here, too. Many of us have been taught that the only valid type of sex is penetrative sex, but that’s not true. Sex is much more than that narrow definition, and it can include fingering, hand jobs, oral sex, using toys on each other, mutual masturbation, sexting, penetration, and so much more.
Take some time to think about the sex acts that bring each of you pleasure. What would your sex life be like if you focused more on pursuing pleasure rather than following a script of what sex “should” look like? How might that alleviate some of the anxiety?
Remember, sex isn’t a spin class, so you don’t need to concern yourself with your performance or stats. It’s a mutual experience, and that means openly communicating about what you like, trying new things, and working together to create fun and fulfilling experiences. When you start to design your sex life around that ideology, performance anxiety can begin to fade into the background.
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