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.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: Coping with fear of rejection

There are many advantages to getting older, and one of them is the simple joy of growing up emotionally and outgrowing needs from childhood that no longer pertain. One of those is the constant need for approval, to be perfect, and the fear of rejection. When you are a child, you are dependent on others for crucial needs. It is a matter of survival. And it is understandable for a child to fear rejection or abandonment by his mother, lest he not survive.

As an adult, those needs are no longer essential for survival. Fear of rejection is a holdover from childhood. Perhaps something happened once, and we made it a rule. Then rule-making became a habit. If you know that fear of rejection is a major factor that holds you back from connecting with others, congratulations. That self-knowledge provides a golden opportunity. It is an invitation to spend the next year of your life making it a priority to get bigger than your fear of rejection.

One bold method is to make it a project to collect rejections. Go out asking for things and try to get ten nos. Make it a triumph to hear no. I promise you, you will survive and be stronger. Yes and no are matters of preference to a mature adult. They are a referendum on your worth as a human being.


But the task that is at the heart of Authentic Eros — real intimacy, true connection — is to show up with all your desires activated, for the sheer pleasure and joy and wisdom of honoring your desire body. It will bring your vitality to the forefront.

A lot of times we hang back socially, romantically, physically, thinking: If I just sit here and do everything right and perfect, somebody will notice me and love me and give me what I want. That is the child mentality, the good child, the best little boy, the seeker for validation. There’s a fear that if I display my desires and they go unfulfilled, then I look like a fool, or I feel like a fool, and I will crumple up and die.

What if that’s not so? What if your desires are indeed a show of vitality? More is possible if you show up ready to go, your desires radiating from your being like a peacock’s feathers. Then you give others a point of contract or several points of contact. Then you’re ready to share, to live.

Those desires don’t have to be the deepest or most intimate to be desires. They just need to be active, actionable. As the famous Mary Oliver poem says: You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.

To be an active receiver is to let the world know in no uncertain terms what pleasure or pleasures you are available to receive. Try it on. Let yourself be a love-dog. Dogs will let you know without words, without a doubt, when they want to be fed, walked, petted, left alone.


LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: a practical guide to “cleaning out”

Aficionados of anal sex appreciate the value of preparing for an encounter by douching, for the safety, comfort, and pleasure of both parties. Over time, most bottoms develop a system that works for them. But people who are new to bottoming or inexperienced and curious are subject to considerable amounts of fear, anxiety, and bewilderment about the process. I’ve met many young guys and people new to exploring anal sex who live with a huge amount of self-consciousness and concern about bottoming because they’re afraid of not being squeaky-clean and humiliating themselves in front of more experienced partners.

How do you learn about cleaning out? They certainly don’t teach it in school. It seems like a much more taboo or embarrassing topic than menstruation or masturbation. If you’re lucky, you might have a kind, patient, and generous friend or partner who will take you by the hand and lead you through the process. More likely, you turn to the internet and take your chances with whatever information churns to the surface from a Google search. I’ve looked at a lot of online resources and have finally found one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Someone who calls himself “blindjaw” on the Tumblr-like blog site called imgur has created a clever, knowledgeable illustrated instructional article forthrightly titled “How to Clean Your Ass Before Anal Sex.”

What I like about this comic-book-style article (see the first panel above; see the rest here) is that the instruction is very clear and plain-spoken — and, be forewarned, very explicit about buttsex and poop. And that’s what you want when you’re looking for information about cleaning out.

One of the misconceptions he clears up right away is that you have to do high-powered colonic hydrotherapy and fast for hours before having anal sex. He outlines two different methods for cleaning out, but newcomers need only pay attention to the “fast” type he describes (fisting is not an activity for newcomers). I love that his illustration features a bear-sized guy, and he’s very practical-minded about how to dispose of waste products. Plenty of people find the idea of peeing in the shower or bathtub a little edgy — pooping down the drain may seem beyond the pale. But his explanation is pretty solid and practical. It’s still probably too edgy for some people, so there’s always the toilet.

I’m not sure you need to repeat the process quite as many times as he recommends (once or twice will do the trick for many folks preparing to bottom), but I definitely agree that the shower hose with personalized nozzle is the superior method for cleaning out, and I can steer you toward what I consider the best model on the market: the ErgoFlow Portable Shower Shot. It clips onto any shower pipe, and it comes with its own travel bag, easy to throw in your suitcase when you’re on the road. The videos and still shots that I’ve seen demonstrating the product are a little coy, leaving much to the imagination, which is where blindjaw’s instructions come in extra-handy.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: advice for young men from New Zealand cartoonist

Auckland-based artist Toby Morris created and produces the webcomic The Pencil Sword. His latest post speaks frankly about sex to young men and delivers what he describes as “two things I wish someone told me as a teenage boy.”

Here’s the first page:


Check out the rest of his comic here and let me know what you think.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: how teenagers view pornography (well, Swedish teenagers, anyway)

I recently came across online a blog post that’s five years old but nevertheless intriguing to read. On the website for Psychology Today, Michael Castleman summarizes the results of a study in the Journal of Sex Research that explored how 73 middle-class Swedish teens, age 14 to 20, actually felt about pornography.

psychology today
Castleman found the researchers’ conclusion reassuring: “Most participants had acquired the skills to navigate the pornographic landscape in a sensible manner. Most had the ability to distinguish between pornographic fantasies on the one hand, and real sexual interactions and relationships on the other.”

Read his article online here (or check out the original journal article here) and let me know what you think.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: Getting to the Bottom of It

Bottoming is theoretically one of the prime joys of gay men’s sex lives. And it’s true that for some people it’s absolutely the center of their erotic universe. For them, anal sex is the epitome of “going all the way,” the top prize when it comes to intimate companionship. In reality, though, anyone honestly investigating the relationship between men and their buttholes will quickly discover that, in Facebook parlance, “it’s complicated.”

In my practice as a sex therapist, I counsel many men whose ability to participate in the pleasures of bottoming is compromised by several flavors of fear and shame. I think it’s important right off the bat to acknowledge that there are plenty of myths and fears about butt-sex, and it’s normal to feel them. People who are new to anal pleasure typically face 1) fear of pain, 2) fear of disease, and 3) squeamishness about shit. These are understandable fears to have, and they can be addressed with practical information and communication. Having a sensitive partner or teacher can make a big difference.

But let’s face it – you can equip yourself with all the information in the world about safer sex, douching, lube, breathing, and pillow talk… and still be phobic about bottoming. That tells us that shame is in the picture.

There are two varieties of shame I see a lot. We might call the first one “competence shame”: Gay porn makes it look like all gay guys are experts at fucking and getting fucked, and if I’m not, or if I don’t enjoy it, then that means there’s something wrong with me. Then there’s what’s commonly known as “bottom shame”: If I like to get fucked or even fantasize about it, that means I’m less than a man. Bottoming brings up deeply held, often unexamined attitudes about gender roles, power, desire, being gay, being yourself. What stops men from embracing the pleasure of bottoming almost always has to do with the meaning we attach to the experience. Where do those meanings come from? And is it possible to shift those meanings?

First of all, even to talk about bottoming requires running the gauntlet of casually brutal colloquial speech, where “getting screwed” or “getting fucked in the ass” means to be exploited, humiliated, or otherwise degraded. That language stems from the stereotypical straight male’s horror of being penetrated, which gets exclusively associated with being gay. “Virtually all men in our society learn negative attitudes toward homosexuality early in life,” writes Jack Morin, a San Francisco-based psychologist, in his valuable book Anal Pleasure and Health. “Those who turn out to be gay internalize the same anti-gay messages, sometimes to a greater degree than straight men.” As Morin points out, men’s fear of homosexuality conjures the more basic fear of being viewed by oneself and others as unmanly and feminine. “A great many men try to suppress, at all cost, the soft, receptive aspects of themselves. They fear their masculinity will be compromised and, therefore, their value as people reduced.”

“For men, weakness and vulnerability and need are negative qualities associated with women,” says Michael Cohen, a gay psychotherapist in New York City who teaches classes on anal pleasure for the Body Electric School. “Being submissive for someone else’s pleasure may feel like being passive, like our long-suffering mothers, whom we both love and despise. And sometimes just the desire for love, for attention, to be opened up can feel humiliating and helpless, the opposite of strong and self-sufficient.”

Gay guys who’ve been tormented in childhood for being sissies learn that it’s bad enough to be considered effeminate. If you believe that the only real man is the stud who gets hard and does the fucking, then getting fucked threatens to make the fear I’m not a man come true. “There’s a surrender of what we think masculinity ought to be when we take a man’s dick into us,” says Keith Hennessy, award-winning performer and sex educator in San Francisco. “That’s why so much porn shifts that moment to rape, to being taken, to not being responsible, to not choosing. The top knows that the bottom can’t willingly give in to his desires, so the top forces the bottom for his own good.”

The internalized homophobia that Morin described shows up in the way gay guys, even among ourselves, adopt a smirky attitude toward bottoming. To call someone “a big ole bottom” is usually a put-down in the form of a comic punchline. The drag queen working the crowd picks out an audience member and asks, “Are you a top or a bottom?” And before her target has gotten two words out, she howls, “Bottom!” The essence of the joke is: Don’t kid yourself, honey, nobody thinks you’re a man, you’re just a Big Girl. (That kind of joking strikes me as surprisingly hostile, as when straight guys use “cocksucker” as an insult. Shouldn’t a word that means “pleasure-giver” be the highest praise?)

Working with sex therapy clients, I often notice that all roads lead to the same conclusions: “There’s something wrong with me…I’m not man enough…I’m weak, I’m no good, I’m foolish.” That tells me that we’re not just dealing with sex; we’re really talking about existential shame. Who I am is bad and wrong. At the core of bottom shame is the very human struggle for self-acceptance, and it can be a lifelong task to work through it.

In his book The Velvet Rage, Alan Downs suggests that gay men have their own specific journey when it comes to working through shame. “It was early abuse suffered at the hands of our peers, coupled with the fear of rejection by our parents, that engrained in us one very strident lesson: There was something about us that was disgusting, aberrant, and essentially unlovable,” Downs writes. “To experience such shame, particularly during our childhood and adolescent years, prevents us from developing a strong sense of self.” That sense of self develops from a strong identity that is validated by your environment. However, a gay man afraid to show himself for fear of rejection may create a “best little boy in the world” persona just to please others. Paradoxically, the validation earned by that persona ultimately doesn’t feel very satisfying, Downs notes, “since authentic validation can only occur in the context of one’s true, authentic self.”

The good news is that it is possible, with patience and support, to work through shame and early conditioning to arrive at a place of authentic self-validation. (The Velvet Rage closes with a smart list of “Lessons on Being an Authentic Gay Man, Or What Mom Didn’t Know and Dad Couldn’t Accept.”) Virtually every gay man who enjoys the pleasure of bottoming has encountered the same cultural prohibitions and potholes of shame as everybody else but has assigned a different meaning to sex, power, and pleasure, usually by focusing on his own body rather than someone else’s opinion.

“There’s power in rejecting rules and expectations of what others think a man should be,” says Hennessy. “The hungry or willing bottom definitely has power. Getting fucked is generally very active. You want it. You ask for it. You let it happen. Often you prepare (cleaning outside and/or inside) and even rehearse (with fingers or dildos).”

cartoon fucking
Pornography isn’t always effective as sex education – it can be intimidating and misleading – but you don’t have to look far to discover men getting fucked without sacrificing their masculine identity. In fact, some consider getting fucked to be the hallmark of “taking it like a man.” Scott Smith, webmaster of BillinExile.com, has written extensively about serving in the US Marine Corps, notoriously if surprisingly tolerant of rampant man-on-man sex. “With Marines I always found a willingness to play either role with a high degree of comfort and definitely without shame,” Smith told me. “In the Marines, sex is what men do together. It doesn’t matter if you’re top or bottom, you’re still having an extremely manly experience.”

To view sexual role-playing as a multiple-choice question rather than an either-or proposition is another way that men learn to enjoy bottoming. In other words, welcoming your feminine side as well as your masculine side, the giver and the receiver. Clinging to masculinity and fleeing from femininity leaves you cut off from half your humanity. There’s wisdom in finding a balance.

My favorite example of how that plays out in the arena of buttfucking comes from Tom Spanbauer’s novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. The hero of the novel, Dellwood Baker, tells his young protégé a fable about a mythological character he calls the Wild Moon Man.

“Story goes he takes you to the bottom of the lake to his home, and teaches you how to breathe water instead of air. If you don’t trust him and do what he says – you drown and they find you floating the next morning. But if you do trust him and do as he says, story goes, when you start breathing water, that muddy old hairy goat turns into a beautiful, strong warrior and he teaches you many secrets about the true power of being a man.

“When the Wild Moon Man takes you underwater, to the hairy rusty mud, he’s taking you to your asshole. To the place that’s as female as a man can get. You find your natural male power through your asshole, not your dick. You find your prostate. Fire down there under all that mud and hair and water. You find in yourself what most men love women for: their ecstasy, their hole into the other world. By receiving a man into you, by receiving a man like a woman, by being as female as a man can get, what you find — if you don’t drown — is the beautiful warrior in yourself who knows both sides.”

“Men like us are lucky,” Dellwood says, “We’ve learned to breathe water.”
This article was first published online by Gay.com, October 1, 2010




LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: Neil Bartlett on sexual fantasies

neil bartlett
Neil Bartlett
(above) is an exemplary British man of letters — novelist, playwright, performer, stage director, adaptor, and Shakespeare scholar, to name his best-known talents. On the occasion of publishing his most recent novel, The Disappearance Boy, he has mounted an art installation at the Wellcome Collection in London called “Excuse Me, Would You Mind If I Asked You a Few Personal Questions About Sex?” The installation is part of a larger survey of the history of sexology, including such giants in the field as Sigmund Freud, Margaret Mead, Masters and Johnson, and Alfred Kinsey. At the end of the gallery, visitors are invited to fill out a questionnaire and drop it into a locked box. Each week Bartlett reads and analyzes the results. In this entertaining article for the Guardian, Bartlett discusses some of his findings so far. Check it out and let me know what you think.

His questionnaire asks things like:

  • Would you say you are generally frank about sex — while you are doing, when you are talking about it, or both?
  • What do you think your life would be like without sex?
  • Would (or could, or should, or does) being a feminist make you have better sex?
  • Which would you say has had the greatest influence on you, your best sexual experience or your worst sexual experience? And what was that experience?
  • What’s the biggest problem you have with sex these days? Would you say this is your problem, or a problem caused by Society in general?

At the end, visitors are invited to submit the questions they would like to ask others or answer for themselves. Any suggestions?