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Performance Anxiety: Why is it so hard to stay hard?

It is common to experience anxiety about one’s ability to perform sexually. Many see sex as following a specific trajectory, where the couple makes out, then in heterosexual encounters the man gets hard, the women gets wet, and then (hopefully after some oral sex) the couple engages in penetration for a respectable amount of time before both partners experience simultaneous orgasms.

What could be stressful about this sexual script?

Firstly, although this is the standard trajectory everybody has had different experiences sexually and may have different expectations regarding what consists of a good hookup. When one is first with a new partner, they often don’t know what their partner's expectations are, and that can be scary.

As well, there is serious pressure for our genitals to pull through. As our brain has a massive impact on our sexual functioning, often the more we focus on our sexual functioning, the harder it is to function sexually. Specifically, many men have anxiety regarding their ability to get hard and stay hard and some women have anxiety about getting wet. The pressure is slightly less for women, as one can use lube to make penetration easier if a woman isn’t wet, but a hard dick is necessary for penetration. Women are a lot more likely to experience performance anxiety regarding their ability to orgasm, as female orgasm may be more difficult to achieve than male orgasm.

The overlying theme of performance anxiety is the fear of what sexual partner (or partners) will think if you are unable to perform to some standard.

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What are some ways to combat performance anxiety?

Instead of fighting the anxiety that you are experiencing, take a moment to listen to your thoughts and think about what the underlying fear is. Are you worried that you will be unable to satisfy your partner? Are you worried that your partner will think you aren’t into them because your genitals don’t stay hard or wet? Do you really want to be having sex right now?

For me, once I voice my anxieties they immediately lose power. Sometimes it is strategic to name the elephant in the room. For example, I take a really long time to orgasm, and I often worry that when my partner is eating me out, that they are bored or think that I am dysfunctional because I take too long to cum. Of course, once I start thinking these types of thoughts it makes orgasm almost impossible. I recently talked with my current partner about it, and he assured me that although I do take a long time to cum, he enjoys the process and if he no longer wanted to eat me out he would tell me. After this talk, I was so much more relaxed and came way faster as I wasn’t so in my head about it.

I highly suggest communicating with your partner about your anxieties. Perhaps you are worried that you won’t get hard and therefore won’t be able to please your partner. If you voice that concern, your partner may reassure you, saying that in fact they experience more pleasure from oral sex and don’t require penetration. This conversation, may relax you and have the effect of making you hard. Similarly, perhaps you are worried that your cock is not as big as your partner's past lovers. If you voice this most women would say that penis size is not all that important to them, as men are much more concerned about penis size than women. In almost all situations voicing your anxiety will be the first step towards moving past it.

Educate yourself.

A lot of our anxieties about performance can be alleviated by proper education, as we are all anxious about the unknown. For example, it may be helpful to learn that pornography shows men with dis-proportionally large cocks, lasting far longer than sex usually lasts. In reality, one study found that intercourse lasts an average of about 5.4 minutes. As well, most women can’t orgasm through penetration, so educate yourself about female pleasure. Knowing the facts about sexuality can help you walk into an encounter with more confidence and less anxiety also helping you have the skills to please your partner better.

Forget the standard, goal-oriented sex narrative! Perhaps you have learned that in homosexual encounters both men must be raging hard the whole time, or that a woman must have an orgasm to enjoy an encounter or that intercourse is needed for a positive sexual encounter. This all or nothing thinking can make sexual encounters stressful and in most cases, the standard narrative is simply not true! I have had great hookups where I didn’t orgasm and there was no intercourse and shit encounters where I did orgasm and have intercourse. Instead of having any goals, think of sex as something that is malleable and can involve many things. Spend your energy enjoying the sensations and do what you can to relax your mind. Sex is kind of the greatest, and I bet you are pretty awesome, so if you enjoy being with your partner, it’s hard for it to go too badly, whether you have trouble staying hard or not.

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written by our sex safer and resident blog writer, Niki Davis