Sexual performance anxiety is a common problem. According to one study, performance anxiety affects between 9–25% of men and 6–16% of women.1 In men, it may contribute to erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation2. In women, it can reduce sexual desire, interfere with orgasm and lead to a variety of sexual inhibitions. And regardless of gender, performance anxiety can create psychological barriers that interfere with intimacy and sexual satisfaction.
But performance anxiety is a complicated problem. It results from several fears commingling with the anticipation of sexual activities.
- fear of being inadequate or inadequately prepared,
- fear of being judged,
- fear that the judgement is final.
It’s natural to experience these fears when you know you’re inadequately prepared or when your success depends on a stranger’s judgement (i.e., job interviews, sports tryouts, talent competition, etc.). So when you realize that your sexual education is inadequate, or when you realize that your lover is a sexual stranger, it’s natural to experience these fears in the bedroom (or wherever you’re going to have sex).
It’s natural, and for most people it’s a minor problem. But some people develop the mental habit of dwelling in fear, expecting failure, and worrying that this failure will end their relationship. These mental habits are what lead to anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and reduced desire. But these mental habits often predate a person’s first sexual encounter.
The Origin of Performance Anxiety
From the elementary school through college, you mostly get one chance to solve a problem, write a paper, or take a test. The teacher grades (judges) your performance, and quickly moves on to the next subject. The whole process is done before the student gets a chance to really understand the subject. You succeed or fail based on single effort.
Parents, teachers, and ‘the system’ put a lot of pressure on students to succeed in their one and only opportunity. Students who are uncertain about their abilities then develop performance anxieties. And if not addressed, they can carry these anxieties into other aspects of their lives, like taking tests, speaking in public, interviewing for a job, going on dates, and having sex. This means sexual performance anxiety isn’t just a sexual issue. And it shouldn’t be treated like one.
You Need a Different Approach
Music education offers a much better approach. Every musician knows you don’t master your instrument the first time you play; not even the hundredth time. You build the skill slowly, through dedication and hundreds of hours of practice. Every time you start to learn a new song, you expect to make lots of mistakes: missed fingering, poor rhythm, wrong tempo, etc. So you break the song into sections, learn each section separately, and then put it together. You approach every practice session as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve your skill. You accept that mistakes are part of the learning process. So you don’t stress over them; you try again and again until you get it right. Even if you have to practice a measure a hundred times, even if you have to change the fingering, use a metronome, or ask for help, you keep trying until your satisfied with your progress.
Each little improvement helps build your confidence in your ability to learn. This confidence is important. But even more important is that learning becomes a pleasure. The more you learn, the more you improve your skills. The better your skill, the more you enjoy playing, and the more you want to learn and play — which is a good mindset for overcoming sexual performance anxiety.
If you can learn anything, you can learn to be a better lover — or a more responsive one. So address sexual performance anxiety by approaching sex the same way a musician approaches their instrument. Focus on learning. Every session is a practice session, an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. Accept the fact that you’re not going to get everything right, but you can learn every session, and enjoy the feeling of learning, and improving your lovemaking skills.
What to learn
Sex, like playing a musical instrument, is comprised of many skills. But one of the most important is communicating through touch. Your skin (including the lips) is your largest sex organ, literally covering your whole body. In every touch, kiss, caress, and snuggle, you can both express your desire and read your lover’s response.
Another aspect of music that applies to sex is variability. Some instruments (like classical guitars and violins) are sensitive to the weather. Changes in humidity affect how the instruments sound. Strings wear out and also affect the sound. Human bodies are likewise variable. Diet, exercise, sleep and stress can affect how your lover’s body responds to sexual stimulation. So its important to learn how they respond and what affects their responsiveness. And being a good lover means learning to interpret your lover’s responses and adjust your techniques accordingly.
Everyone is capable of this. But, as discussed in Reawakening your Sense of Touch, we get in the habit of suppressing this awareness. So you have to retrain yourself be more consciously aware of it. And then rebuild the skill through practice, practice, and more practice. Just remember: every lovemaking session is also a learning opportunity.
- Robert E.Pyke (2020). Sexual Performance Anxiety. Sexual Medicine Reviews
- Liu, M. (2002). Influence of sexual performance anxiety on erectile dysfunction. Chinese Journal of Clinical Psychology, 10(1), 47–49.