I have witnessed an increased development of performance anxiety over the last forty years. It is worth analyzing the social conditions that have created this outbreak. One could argue that men have always struggled with this condition. It could also be argued that the increase in recent years is only because men today feel more comfortable talking about their health problems. This is not the case. Powerful social and historical factors have contributed to, and continue to create, performance anxiety among men today.
The Stress of Modern Society
One factor that plays a major role is the increased level of stress found in modern society. Men in today’s business world work long hours without enough sleep, exercise, or relaxation. They are often psychologically drained and physically exhausted when they get home. Add financial anxiety; societal pressure; nervousness caused by the rapid-fire pace of modern life; traffic jams; conflicts with bosses, coworkers, or clients; and problems with spouses and children, and one can see a sum of conditions that are not conducive to either maximum sexual performance or maximum happiness!
Few issues have a more chilling effect on sex than anxiety. Stress, tension, and anxiety exact a heavy toll on any intimate relationship. These forces pollute the atmosphere and fill the bedroom with emotional toxins.
Stress has definite medical consequences that work against normal sexual function. During the stress response, blood moves away from the genitals to supply the large muscle groups of the arms and legs. Anxiety, including performance anxiety, can increase the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Anxiety can boost the flow of norepinephrine, a chemical that constricts blood vessels. This condition is precisely the opposite of what is necessary for an erection—a smooth flow of blood through open vascular channels.
This problem is compounded when men use alcohol and drugs in an attempt to cope with stress. As Shakespeare wisely observed, alcohol “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” The same is true of drugs, including nicotine and prescription medications. The craze over “Vitamin V” (Viagra) is hardly the solution.
Gender Differences and Expectations
To men who suffer from sexual anxiety, the women’s movement, for all its welcome advances, has also contributed to the problem. With increased awareness of female sexuality, female orgasm, and the generally open discussion of women’s sexual needs, men now have the added pressure of needing to know all of the intricate secrecies of female sexuality. They are expected to perform with the expertise of a twenty-four-year-old pornography star. For some men, this might not be a problem. Sex in general may still be smooth sailing. For most men, however, sex is an obstacle course—a track filled with snares and hurdles in which one scores points for technique as well as for getting to the finish line. The goal is not just to satisfy yourself, it is also all about satisfying your partner. And in many minds, the man has a responsibility not just to bring a woman to orgasm but to multiple, ecstatic, earth-shattering orgasms. Now that’s pressure!
Both men and women expect sexual satisfaction. Partners also have a responsibility to work together through communication and understanding to meet each other’s expectations and to achieve mutual satisfaction. Every man should cater to his partner’s pleasure if for no other reason than to enhance his own. It is important to acknowledge that both genders have been insensitive to the high level of performance anxiety brought on by the new rules.
Millions of relationships turn into no-win situations when people aim for some imaginary standard of satisfaction instead of attending to the unique nuances and preferences of their partners. From my clinical observations, the single biggest sexual worry of contemporary men is that they will not provide their partners with orgasms of spectacular quantity and quality. If a man has even one humiliating encounter with a dissatisfied partner, he can succumb to a vicious cycle of self-doubt.
What’s “Normal” Anyway?
Most men measure themselves against standards built on fantasy, not reality. They interpret normal, commonplace experiences as signs of personal failure. There is enormous variety among men with respect to sex drive, capacity, preferences, and standards of satisfaction. Yet men assume there is a state of being called “normal.” They worry that every little sexual idiosyncrasy they have is a sign of abnormality. Worse, if sex doesn’t go as desired, or if they have a disappointing or embarrassing experience, they usually panic. This experience can result in significant self-doubt. Self-doubt creates fear, anxiety, and inhibition. These feelings are bigger obstacles to sexual happiness than having a construction crew in your bedroom (maybe even bigger obstacles than having your mother-in-law in your bedroom!).
If you find yourself wondering if you are “normal,” please keep the following three important truths in mind:
- Every man I have ever known has, at one time or another, lost an erection or ejaculated sooner than he would have liked.
- Every man is, at times, not interested in sex.
- Every man has failed to satisfy a partner.
Men who take such events in stride know that they are perfectly normal. They march without hesitation to their next sexual encounter.