Performance anxiety is the leading psychological cause of erectile dysfunction (ED). Here’s how to call the curtain on it and improve your sex life in the process.
“To put it bluntly? Yes, there is definitely pressure on men to perform.”
Harry, 25, grew up watching porn. So when he started having sex, he had an expectation that he’d “be able to get it up whenever I wanted, last for ages and then come.” But he quickly found that wasn’t always the case.
“I couldn’t always get it up, for one thing. Or sometimes I’d be having sex with my boyfriend and I’d lose my erection. Sometimes I’d find it hard to come. It felt awful, like I was failing somehow.”
Harry describes it as a “vicious cycle. I’d be really anxious about my performance, so then I’d have a problem maintaining my erection. This would make me more anxious, and the cycle would start again. Eventually, I found the idea of sex anxiety-inducing.”
His experience is not unique — so-called ‘sexual performance anxiety’ is a problem for many men. One study from the American Psychological Association placed performance anxiety as one of the main factors linked to sexual dysfunction. Another from the University of Michigan Medical School placed it at the top of a list of psychological factors linked to ED.
“Guys who are in a partnered relationship often feel they can’t give their partner pleasure, which is not the case” explains Paula Hall, a therapist who specialises in sex and porn addiction. “In more casual relationships, there are also a lot of social expectations; the idea that men are always ready to ‘perform’, any time, anywhere.”
Denise Knowles, sex therapist at relationship support body Relate, also notes the increased social pressures on men.
“It’s not something that’s necessarily new, there’s now just more for people to compare themselves with and against,” she says. “That in itself means they’re perhaps feeling more anxious than they ever have before.
“The accessibility of pornography now is vast. You can get it on your phone, on your computer at home...” Knowles talks of clients who have “no problems with erections or ejaculation” until they find themselves with a partner.
“It becomes a situational thing — they’re not quite sure what’s expected of them. They know how to do it for themselves, but perhaps don't know how to do it for somebody else, or how to get what they want from a partner.”
Take the pressure off
So how do you have good sex when performance is weighing so heavily on your mind? For Hall, it’s about taking away the pressure. “As soon as you take away the performance pressure, the more chance there is you’ll have a more fulfilling experience of sex,” she says. Hall encourages couples to focus on “the pleasure of being touched. It should be about sensuality.”
This might mean taking penetration off the table — it could mean touching your partner for hours without any expectation or end goal.
And communication is key — for Harry, talking to an older and more experienced friend about his concerns is what first helped him break through his anxiety.
“It was like a weight was lifted, honestly,” he says. “He basically told me that what I was experiencing was totally normal — I wouldn’t always be able to get it up, I wouldn’t always come and I wouldn’t always be in the mood.
“My sex life wouldn’t look like a porn film, basically. And that that was okay.”
Harry has now stopped looking at sex as a performance altogether. “Performance suggests something false, doesn’t it?” he says. “Which obviously porn is. When you have a really good sexual connection with someone, you don’t have to hit certain targets, do certain things or come within a certain period of time — it’s multifaceted. Realising that has genuinely changed my entire sex life.”
“When we talk about sex, we need to put it in the context of a loving and healthy relationship,” Knowles adds. “As part of something, as opposed to a standalone event.”
It’s not all about the penetration
“Many people think about penetrative intercourse when they think about sex,” says Knowles. “But sex and sexuality and being sexy with someone is so much more. We need to move away from purely penetrative intercourse and start talking about the sensual side of relationships.”
To have ‘sex’ isn’t just an act of penetration, after all.
“We need to start thinking about sex on a whole continuum,” Knowles concludes. “A caress, a kiss, a hug, a massage... It’s a spectrum with penetrative intercourse at one end, maybe a glance at the other.”
The numan take
Sex is a connection between two people, not a one-man show. Taking the pressure to perform away from centre stage makes for a more enjoyable experience for both parties, leaving room for laid-back sensual contact, with or without penetration.