It's date night!! You and your partner finish dinner at an amazing restaurant and head to a bar for some cocktails and maybe a dance or two. The night is beautiful but not as much as your partner and you can’t
help but be close to her. After a couple of drinks and a few moves on the dance floor, you both decide to call it a night and head home.
You both are feeling super connected with each other and so much in love! You both get in the car and start driving home. Your partner is dropping hints about what’s in store when you get home and you can feel her sexual energy in the way in which she is touching you.
You barely walk into the house before you both start making out. You are excited and very turned on until you begin to move beyond foreplay. That’s when you get hit with that familiar feeling again-your heart starts to pound, your hands are becoming sweaty, your mind is racing and you have that queasy feeling in your belly. By now, you are well aware of the fact that what you are feeling is not sexual arousal or desire but ANXIETY!
The first time it happened, you had no idea what was happening and when you could not get aroused even though you were in the mood to have sex, you chalked it up to being tired or having one too many drinks. All of which are valid reasons for not being able to get aroused but when it started to happen more frequently, on days when you were not tired or did not have too much to drink, you could tell that it was anxiety.
Most men have had some experience with performance anxiety at some point in their lives. Especially, in cases where no underlying physical cause can be found for erectile dysfunction, performance anxiety is the culprit. Contrary to popular belief, the brain is the most important sex organ for men and women.
If the brain is flooded with anxiety, the penis will not respond to sexual stimulation in an adequate manner. The reason being that the anxiety triggers the brain and body to be in a fight, flight or freeze mode- the emphasis is on survival because anxiety makes you prepare for a threat that is not there. Sex is very low or not even on the priority list when you are trying to survive and stay safe.
Personally, I am not a big fan of the term “performance anxiety.” Sex should not be and is not a performance for anyone- man or woman. Unfortunately, because of centuries of cultural & social conditioning, the man is often perceived as the “performer” in a sexual experience.
However, plenty of women experience performance anxiety as well but they are able to mask it better than men. Some women experience performance anxiety when they are giving pleasure rather than receiving it or when they are in a dominant role or when they are on top and also when they are coming on to their partner or initiating sex.
In most sexual situations, men feel like they are front and center of the sexual experience. They often have the feeling of being on stage, performing, in front of an audience. The audience or the spectators consist of not only their partner who is physically present but also ghosts of past partners, memories of past sexual experiences that didn’t go so well, societal & cultural stereotypes about men’s sexual prowess and misconceptions about masculinity. However, the spectator that holds the most influence is the man himself- critiquing, judging and identifying the flaws in his own performance even if the rest of the audience is not.
Another reason why men feel like performers is because of the pressure or demand to have an erection for penetrative sex. And the erection is there for others (the audience) to see- its firmness, how long it lasts, how quickly it becomes erect- all of it visible and available for the performer and spectators to assess and judge. This demand to be erect fuels anxiety because the erection or lack of it cannot be hidden.
Women who experience performance anxiety don’t have to contend with any outward signs of physical/sexual malfunction as a result of the anxiety. Any signs of low arousal such as lack of vaginal lubrication are also not readily visible and can be masked with artificial lubrication. However, men are unable to hide their difficulty with getting physically aroused leading to feelings of inadequacy, depression, self-loathing and even more anxiety about future sexual experiences.
In the next two posts, I am going to discuss the thinking errors that contribute to performance anxiety and some helpful tips for navigating the issue.
About the author: Nagma V. Clark, Ph.D., L.P.C.C., C.S.T. is an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and PACT Level II Certified Couples Therapist. She specializes in working with couples & individuals struggling with low or mismatched libido, weak or absent orgasms, performance anxiety, erectile dysfunction, sexual pain, sexuality & aging, general sexual dissatisfaction etc. She also works with people interested in exploring sexual orientation, gender identity, kink, BDSM & polyamory.