Several times in the last two weeks I’ve received a couple very similar questions. They weren’t submitted to Ask DeAnn, so I didn’t feel comfortable sharing them, but they’ve been nearly identical. Inexperienced couples have come to me desperate for help because one or both of them are experiencing performance anxiety.
What is performance anxiety in the bedroom?
Performance anxiety is an interruption in the arousal process when engaging in a sexual activity for the first time or with a new partner, specifically when there is no known history of a medical issue or sexual trauma (in those cases, please consult a doctor or therapist, respectively). It often takes the form of erectile dysfunction, but can also affect vaginal lubrication, lead to pain during intercourse, and prevents orgasm. Performance anxiety is experienced by all sexes and genders.
What causes performance anxiety?
The recent questions I’ve received have come from heterosexual couples with little to no sexual experience. They typically have preconceived notions about what sex is or should be, but no idea how to get where they think they want to go. The problem is twofold: cultural myths and lack of medically accurate, evidence-based sexuality education.
Think about the last movie you watched with a romantic plot element. Whether drama, comedy, or action, the story is the same. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl don’t admit mutual attraction. Boy and girl have an adventure in which boy saves girl. Boy and girl are magnetically drawn to each other and vaginal sex is implied. We’re led to believe they both had orgasms and if there’s a love scene, they both know exactly what to do to make the other breathe hard. If you’ve never had sex, that might seem completely reasonable.
It’s so reasonable people often assume if it’s not like it is in the movies, something is wrong with them. We learn a lot from the media we consume because we are social creatures, and no one is modeling healthy sexuality in most spheres of influence. It’s not just entertainment media. These messages are usually perpetuated by family, friends, and even doctors and other trusted knowledge sources.
Most of us don’t get accurate sex ed, so we never question these messages. When no one is teaching us sex in terms of reality, we have to fill in the gaps with assumptions. Assumptions are expectations. The human brain likes to predict. Predictability has always been safety to us, so we look for patterns. When expectations aren’t met, we experience stress, frustration, shame, and fear.
Forgive me, but I need to directly address problematic attitudes and jokes surrounding the wedding night, specifically. It’s damaging to make assumptions and comments about the sex lives of newlyweds. It puts wedding night pressure on them whether they waited or not. Part of sex positivity is recognizing that it’s not your business what other people do in the bedroom unless a) they tell you, b) you’re there, too, or c) you’re in the business of helping them have the most pleasurable sex possible for them. It is not okay to comment on what you assume someone will do on their wedding night. Some people have sex. Some people don’t. It’s not your sex life. Butt out.
What can I do if I’m experiencing performance anxiety?
Take a step back, think, and communicate. Take a deep breath. You love each other. You want to pleasure each other. Is that the only goal here, or are you really trying to share intimacy? The hard part for us is recognizing that our culture trains us to fear intimacy.
Intimacy is vulnerability. I don’t care what your religion is, what your personal beliefs on sex are – this will always be true in relationships romantic or not. Knowing, and being known by, someone else make true intimacy possible. You’ll learn far more about sexual intimacy from Brené Brown than you will from Masters & Johnson.
Acknowledge that Hollywood lies, that our culture lies, and that you and your partner are not a hero and leading lady! There is no perfect, no normal. Let go of goal-oriented sex. Let go of a time table for having experiences. If you’re in it for the long haul, you have the rest of your lives to explore your sexualities together. It’s perfectly okay to be nervous!
Remember the pizza model? Talk about what you’ve never done that you want to share together. Talk about your favorite sensations. Talk about how you like to be kissed, caressed, who takes whose clothes off. If you’ve ever had a Passion Coaching session with me, you know this is where we start. This sets a healthy prediction that when you are vulnerable, your partner will accept you. Refuse to be offended when your partner does something unexpected.
Then, work up to what you want to do. If your partner isn’t quite comfortable pushing the envelope, respect that consent boundary. Once there’s no longer any pressure to define sex as one narrow thing, to even have an orgasm, it’s a lot easier to relax and go with the flow. Make out. Trade massages. Wash each other in the shower. Shave each other. Masturbate in front of each other. Teach each other how to stimulate your bodies. Use hands & fingers. Use toys and other products. Make sure you and your partner are as turned on as you want to be before asking for more. Hetero ladies, I’m talking to you – ask your partner to do something that makes you feel good!
When there’s no longer a need to perform, performance anxiety usually corrects itself. Plus, you’re not alone! If things get weird, laugh it off and just love on each other. Try again tomorrow – no pressure. Have fun with it! If it doesn’t correct itself, make sure you talk to your doctor and/or therapist and make sure something more serious isn’t getting in the way of intimacy.
Have you experienced something similar? Share your story below in the comments!