Sexual anxiety — or sexual performance anxiety — is something that affects men and women of all ages, regardless of how much experience they have with intercourse.
For some, this type of anxiety is short-lived and may appear briefly in the wake of a new sexual encounter.
Other people, however, might find it difficult to enjoy a wholesome sex life because of it, and they may experience this type of anxiety with more regularity.
But how does sexual anxiety manifest? Well, according to sex therapist Claudia Six, it has different expressions among men and women, though in most instances, it is related to the fear that some aspect of their presence between the sheets may be disappointing for their partner.
"In women, sexual performance anxiety can show up as difficulty getting interested in sex, difficulty getting aroused, or difficulty with orgasm. In men, we know what it looks like — difficulty getting an erection, keeping an erection, or coming too soon. I put all that under the umbrella term of 'sexual performance anxiety.'"
And why do we feel sexual performance anxiety? Here, the matters get a little more complex, but to simplify: we tend to become insecure about how well we do in bed or what we may look like to our partners, or we may simply be daunted by the idea of becoming so intimate with someone.
In some cases, sexual performance anxiety stems from a past traumatic experience — perhaps related to sexual violence. If that is your situation, please do not hesitate to seek out specialist advice. If you are based in the United States, your first port of call should be the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network hotlines.
But, in most cases — as sex educator Amy Jo Goddard explains — this response is conditioned by the way in which we were brought up to think about certain aspects of sex and our own bodies, and by social expectations that impact our relationship with our own sexuality.
Below, we give you some tips about how to tackle these moments of uncertainty and worry both before and during sexual encounters, so you can enjoy a happier, healthier sex life.
Own your body
Body image is often an important factor in achieving a healthy sex life. If we feel insecure about the way that our body looks, we may worry about whether or not our partner finds us attractive. This, needless to say, is not at all conducive to enjoyment.
Studies have noted that a significant number of men and women have body image issues, which might lead to all manner of anxieties when the time comes to slip between the sheets with that special person.
For instance, a study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that about a third of college women feel unhappy with how their body looks, and that this self-consciousness was detrimental to enjoying their time in bed with a partner.
So, what can be done if you're worried that your body isn't "supermodel quality," whatever that may mean? According to sex educator and researcher Emily Nagoski, you should take steps to get comfortable in your skin by actively acknowledging everything you like about your body — repeatedly.
She advises doing the following exercise. "You stand in front of a mirror, as close to naked as you can tolerate. You're going to look at what you see there, and you're going to write down everything you see that you like."
"And then do it again tomorrow, and then do it again the next day, and the next day." The key, says Nagoski, is in repetition, so that you can begin to get comfortable with your body and love it for its unique beauty.
Learn more about (your kind of) sex
Another obstacle that may be contributing to your sexual performance anxiety — although you may not like to hear this — is simply a lack of appropriate sex education.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you don't yet know which bits go where, but perhaps that you haven't been fully prepared for the realities of a sexual encounter. The reality is that everyone functions differently and has different needs.
Maybe you're not sure about the techniques of achieving — or giving — pleasure. Or, perhaps you've heard myths about pregnancy, or how your body is "supposed" to react during sex.
Or, you may even be worried that your wants and needs aren't "normal."
If you have any worries at all about sex, it may be worth speaking to a healthcare professional to get reassurance, reading a book (or two) exploring this topic, or joining workshops led by sex educators.
As Goddard explains, "[A]dults need sex education, too. If we didn't learn it somewhere, then how can we have the fulfilling sexual lives that we really want to have?"
"Stop telling yourself how broken and unfixable you are, because you're not. You just didn't get the education that you need, you just didn't get the resources that you need."
Amy Jo Goddard
On that note, you may also find it helpful to self-educate simply by exploring your own body and what gives you pleasure. Take the time to learn what turns you on and how you like things done.
Despite the fact that masturbation is — unfortunately — still typically portrayed as a shameful or even dangerous act, research points to the contrary, explaining that it can actually improve our relationship with our bodies and with our sexuality.
Express what you enjoy
Once you know what you enjoy, it's very important to learn to voice your needs when in bed with an intimate partner, and to explain what's going through your head.
If you trust this person enough to want to get it on with them, why not tell them if something isn't working?
You could also encourage them to do more of something that is.
Open communication may just be the best way forward if you are worried about taking a long time to orgasm, being unable to stay aroused, or being afraid that you won't even become aroused in the first place.
A study published last year in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy worked with 142 committed couples and found that intimate partners who freely communicate their sexual needs and desires have a more healthy and fulfilling sex life.
In their paper, the authors explain that "women who communicated about sex more reached orgasm more often," and that speaking openly about sexual needs in a couple was linked to better relationship and sexual satisfaction among both men and women.
Six urges anyone who is experiencing sexual anxiety to reflect and embrace the awareness that they are "not a disappointment," and that "there is room for [their] needs." She also explains that everyone needs to "find [their] voice" in order to "have a good time in bed."
"So how do we set ourselves up for success?" Six asks. "Gentlemen, please let go of 'performing.' 'Performing' is 'entertaining an audience.' And ladies, know your bodies and what brings you pleasure."
To dispel any unwanted tension in the wake of a sexual encounter, she advises people to "[o]pen [their] mouth, say what's happening in the moment, it takes the charge out of it."
And remember: whoever you're getting into bed with really wants to be there, with you, and that they are looking forward to the time you're about to spend together.
So, take advantage of this moment of connection to acknowledge that your partner welcomes your presence and your sexual needs, and that they want you both to be comfortable and at ease with each other.