LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: Performance anxiety

It’s a big day in a man’s erotic life the first time he loses his erection in the midst of a sexual encounter. It can feel like a tragic self-betrayal, a terrible humiliation, proof that he’s broken and can never have sex again. The good news is that if he’s lucky and he hangs in there, he gets to the red-letter day when he discovers that he can lose his erection AND stay connected to his partner. In fact, that’s where the good stuff begins.

It takes some maturity, some practice, some support, and a little bit of a leap of faith to view erectile dysfunction simply as a mechanical failure, not a comment on your masculinity or a referendum on your worth as a human being. It’s a life-changing experience to realize that being a wonderful lover isn’t just about what you do with your penis but what you do with your hands, your mouth, your voice, your sense of humor, your energy, and your heart.

Erections are great and fun and super-pleasurable. But it’s exhausting and challenging to operate under pressure to Perform Like a Porn Star, constantly worrying – to put it bluntly – about your dick: is it big enough, is it hard enough, am I doing it right, am I going to come too fast, am I taking too long? Performance anxiety is the enemy of erotic intelligence, at least the way I understand it, which is the ability to be present for pleasure, to tune into your partner and what’s going on right here right now, without getting wrapped in trying to make something specific happen.

It’s not just men who struggle with performance anxiety. Social media has ramped up perfectionism for all of us. We spend a lot of time fixated on Getting It Right. We’re constantly tailoring our appearance and our behavior for each other’s approval. It’s an existential challenge to let all that go and leave reserve performance anxiety for people who are onstage performing.

In my work and in my life, I’m all about healing through pleasure, learning for myself and teaching other people how to turn down the volume on Pressure to Perform and be present for pleasure.

In workshops or in sessions when we’re focusing on intimacy, sometimes I will have partners spend time gazing into each other’s eyes, exploring the notion of the eyes as gateway to the soul, “into-me-you-see.” This can be beautiful, and it can also feel really vulnerable. We take in A LOT of information visually, and we live in a culture that has become hyper-focused on evaluation, stirring up equal amounts of judgment and fear of being judged.

So if we’re working on cultivating the capacity to be present for pleasure, sometimes it makes sense to close the eyes, to turn down the volume on incoming visual stimulus.

If you want to practice being present for pleasure right now, one way to do that is to let your eyes gently close and go inside. With your eyes gently closed, the idea is to take a moment to breathe, go inside, and take a break from processing visual information, judging and being judged.

As you let yourself breathe, bring your awareness to the way gravity works on your body. Let your face muscles rest, let your jaw soften, let your shoulders rest. Feel your buttocks on the seat of your chair, your feet on the floor. You don’t have to change anything or do anything special. Just take a moment to breathe and make space for what happens when you withdraw the sense of sight. Do things quiet down inside, do they rev up, do they stay the same? Try it now and just let yourself notice what happens.

Part of erotic intelligence is expanding your awareness of your own body. Notice the temperature of the air in the room against your skin. Notice the places where your clothing touches your skin, whether it feels soft, constricting, comforting, annoying. Notice what sounds you’re aware of in the room right now. Notice which sensations are pleasurable, what you’d like more of, what you’d like less of.

With a trusted sensual partner, closing your eyes or using a blindfold can be a simple tool for cultivating erotic intelligence. Removing one sense can heighten others. Light touch and pleasant sounds can be amplified, as can tastes and fragrances. The uncertainty of what happens next can create a luscious experience of anticipation and seductiveness. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, but be right here right now, taking in whatever sensory information is available.

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Note: this was part of a talk I gave November 9, 2019, as part of “Sessions Live,” Esther Perel’s online salon for sex therapists and coaches.

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