Performance anxiety – chances are you’ve experienced this at least once or twice in your life. It refers to a degree of fear or nervousness that a person can experience when they are expected to perform on a certain task. And this can occur in many areas of life - think public speaking, playing an instrument, presenting to a board room or making love to your partner. While these might seem somewhat similar in that they all require a degree of performance, the latter is in fact significantly different. This is because sex is not a performance.
I’ll say that again. Sex is not a performance.
Sex is actually about idiosyncratic pleasure and sexual satisfaction. It’s about being authentic in how you explore your sexuality. When you throw performance in there, it implies that there is a certain way that sex should be done. Truth is, there’s no right way.
Yet many people can get caught up in their heads about whether they are ‘performing’ the right way during sex. Thoughts such as ‘am I taking too long?’, ‘am I doing this right?’, or ‘does he/she/they think I’m inexperienced?’ are all hallmarks of performance anxiety. Behaviours like faking an orgasm or pretending to be aroused can also indicate performance anxiety.
Traditionally, this was a term used to describe men’s (or penis-owners’) experiences. When they are all ‘up in their heads’, they can struggle to achieve an erection. This has led many to believe that only penis-owners experience it, which isn’t the case. They are simply the ones whose sexual arousal can be more obviously measured. Women and vulva-owners can also experience performance anxiety and be equally unaroused, it’s just harder to notice!
So regardless of your genitals, performance anxiety doesn’t discriminate. And there’s many reasons that might lead someone to experience this phenomenon.
These reasons include general anxiety, life stressors, relationship issues, past trauma, internalised societal messages about sex, gender and sexuality norms, poor body image, goal-directed thinking, past sexual experiences, poor sex education and many more. The list is seriously endless and will be different for each and every person.
And while the degree of each person’s performance anxiety will vary, depending on the underlying reasons, there are a few processes that are very similar for each person that experiences it.