Article By Phoebe Blogg
~ DECEMBER 2021 ~ LIKE ANY YOUNG WOMEN IN HER 20s, revealing the details of one’s sex-life to anyone other than close friends seems slightly strange, outlandish and just down-right unnecessary. That said, it was not until earlier this year — after overhearing two female colleges openly share intimate details of their sex life with each other — that I, myself, decided to share, not with a colleague, but with a sexologist.
What happens if I am not as good as I was?
This question, raised by one of my female colleagues, was something I, too, was asking myself. But the question I was too scared to ask was: is it just nerves or something more serious?
Pandemic aside, returning to the bedroom after any prolonged duration of time can prove daunting for even the most Samantha Jones-like woman in our lives.
But for many women, that hesitation and worry has transformed into something much more than “just nerves.” Many now experience what is known as sexual performance anxiety.
What is sexual performance anxiety?
Sexual performance anxiety — a state more common that you’d think — is a term referring to the stress or even debilitating anxiety, one feels around sexual activities. Generally speaking, this stress manifests into sexual performance anxiety, where an individual anticipates a problem during a sexual act and becomes panicked when thinking about or engaging in sexual activity.
The world of sex is definitely no Airbnb, there are no 5 star ratings, no reviews and most definitely no option to “recommend your host to friends” (although it would be convenient) — hence it is only normal to question one’s own performance… hell it’s expected. What’s not normal however, is when that questioning turns inwards and develops into extreme criticism and self-doubt.
For Melbourne-based sexologist Chantelle Otten, sexual performance anxiety is an issue many of her clients have dealt with and experienced temporarily. Although sexual performance anxiety can be (and was for myself) a brief lack of confidence, Otten explained it can quickly become something more serious.
“With many insecurities and questions entering the individuals mind about if they are good enough, will they function well, what will their partner think… and so on, these negative thoughts can severely impact a person’s ability to be part of a sexual experience and can lead to feelings of shame, sadness, disappointment and guilt,” Otten explains.
Typically, when we are anxious about our day-to-day stresses, it stems from a personal lack of self-confidence, therefore it is easy to understand why one’s stresses and lack of confidence in their everyday life can — and often does — transfer over to his or her sex life.
One very stressful situation we’ve dealt with Australia — and the world — is the pandemic. From the initial week-long restrictions, to state-wide lockdowns, the pandemic forced us (as a nation) to stay home and distance ourselves from others. For many, this meant a lack of opportunity to engage in any sexual acts — of any kind.
And for those of us who were not bound to the quarters of our home with a sexual partner, it may have been a while been a while since our last sexual encounter. But sexual performance anxiety isn’t only relevant to those of us who are single.
“I believe initially the pandemic gave the opportunity for many to connect because there was more time at home, however now research suggests there has been a decline in sexual activity solo and partnered,” Otten tells me.
“For many, there was a huge drop in desire simply due to the stress of the pandemic and being boxed in with a sexual partner, which leads to a decrease in desire because the mystery is zapped from a relationship.,” Otten said.
“When you have gone for a while without sex, it can be hard and awkward to jump back in. People are afraid of that awkwardness and unsure of how to engage again.”
According to Chantelle, this hesitation or reluctancy to engage in sex is something people — women in particular — have dealt with for decades. When it comes to physical performance in the bedroom, women tend to not only feel the pressure to improve, impress and intrigue, but also to upskill.
Undoubtedly, this kind of self-inflicted pressure and expectations, can (and does) lead to a build-up of worry and self-doubt. In most cases, this is not solely our fault, nor our partners, instead boil down to our society as a whole, and the level of importance today’s generation place on sexual performance standards and competency.
One’s sexual performance can be a decider when it comes to the question of whether a relationship will progress to the next stage, so it’s only natural the window of opportunity to impress, entice and engage our partner can feel small, and ever so fleeting. But while it is common to worry and question ones sexual experience, we must not over-analyse and obsess.
“Don’t look at sex as goal oriented, sex is about pleasure, not performance,” Otten informs me.
Now with the world — dare I say it — reopening, dating, dinners and awkward one night-stands are yet again, back on the table, and it seems so too is our inherent ability as women, to question whether our performance in the bedroom is at gold star standard — if there even was one.
Whether you’re dealing with a mild or severe case of sexual performance anxiety, Chantelle’s tips to regain confidence and combat nerves are a good starting point.
Chantelle’s top tips to combat nerves and regain confidence in the bedroom:
Be open and honest with your partner
Just as you would, when dealing with other sensitive issues in your relationship, be direct and open with your partner about how you are feeling. This will open the door for a conversation and encourage discussion. Ultimately, this conversation will help put both parties at ease.
“Just tell your partner you’re nervous, they can help you feel at ease and release some of that tension,” said Otten.
“Remember that it’s going to be a bit awkward and weird — lean in to this feeling and it will go with time.”
Try different things
Whether it’s role play, toys or a new position, spicing things up, might just be the answer to gaining some of that confidence back. Engaging in an act that you and your partner have not experienced together is a great way to create an evening playing field. Trying something new may also inspire you to take control and lead the situation. You’ll be saying a swift au revoir to that pre-sex anxiety in no time.
Chantelle suggests “engaging your senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and sound,” and focusing on which is the most pleasurable for you.
She also recommends practicing mindfulness and breathing or even “trying tantric sex, which involves focusing on breathing and mindfulness, rather than the actual physical act of sex.“
“It’s a great way to be intimate without worrying about the performance aspect.” Otten said.
Relax, and try not to overthink it so much
Rather than focusing on what we are doing wrong, Otten encourages us to lean into what we are doing right, and what our partner is clearly enjoying.
“Focus on your partner’s body and pleasure and don’t look at sex as goal-oriented, sex is about pleasure, not performance,” Otten said.
“Sex is sweaty, messy and awkward, it doesn’t look like it does in the movies, manage your expectations about yourself and stop judging yourself so much.”
Still can’t manage to relax? Chantelle suggests a “fake it till you make it” approach. “I mean, sometimes we must act a little. Just pretend you’re confident, and a little bit of confidence will come to you I promise”.
Perhaps easier said than done, but let’s trust the sexologist on this one — I mean there is no doubt we have all faked a little confidence in the meeting room so why the hesitation in bedroom.
Seek professional help
And finally, as is the case with any anxiety-related experiences, seeking help from a trained professional is definitely worth considering.
Sexual performance anxiety can occur at any stage in a person’s life and the impact this anxiety can have upon an individual’s life — and sex-life —can range from mild to severe. So the sooner those struggling receive help the sooner they can confidently engage in sex.
We must also remember that there is no shame in seeking professional help, “I mean, that’s what we as sexologists are here for— to help you move past this anxiety and enjoy a pleasurable and fun sex life.”