Sexual anxieties can dampen the mood in short-term or long-term situations. And yes, those anxieties affect all of us at one point and a time. For some people, these sexual-performance anxieties can plague relationships and interfere with sexual satisfaction. When a looming cloud over your sex life exists, it can contribute to a variety of other issues, like depression and low self-esteem. There are entire books and articles published on how to have better sex and how to achieve an orgasm, but what about dealing with the topic of anxiety and how that affects your time in the bedroom?
A 2016 study conducted by Superdrug Online Doctor found that American and European cisgender women and cisgender men actually share many of the same anxieties, the most common being STIs, body image, achieving orgasm and unintended pregnancy.
Sexual issues or sexual dysfunctions are common, which oftentimes leads couples to seek out therapy, psychotherapist Dr. Keisha Downey tells SheKnows. “Common sexual-performance anxieties that individuals with a vagina have include but are not limited to: not having an orgasm from sexual intercourse, stress or worries about being naked or how their bodies may appear to their partners and worrying if they will perform well enough to maintain a healthy sex life with their partner,” she explains.
These anxieties create a conditioned response in the body in which those experiencing any sexual stress feel as if they can’t live up to social expectations, which will ultimately affect relationships and self-esteem. Here are the four most-common sexual anxieties and how to overcome them — with some help from experts.
The Superdrug study found that for cis women, fear of contracting an STI was one of their top concerns. Whether you have an STI, which could cause you some anxiety when telling your new partner, or whether you’re scared of picking something up from a new partner, it’s best to open up a dialogue around sexual health before having sex with someone for the first time.
Since 80 percent of sexually active adults will have HPV at some point in their lives, a talk about what STIs are, how they can affect you and what the outcome can be is very important. Moreover, the dating app PositiveSingles welcomes people who have herpes or other types of STIs.
Being naked makes some people feel vulnerable. And with a society so rich with body-shaming and body image, people with vaginas may wonder if their body looks normal and compare their body with those they see in popular media. Labiaplasty — which has increased in popularity by 39 percent in 2016 alone — is a surgery that attempts to give people a “designer vagina” by lifting or trimming the labia.
Low self-esteem can significantly affect your sex life with your partner, as someone can be far too focused on how they look instead of how they feel. Researchers at the University of Guelph found that the cisgender women who felt more negatively about their bodies had lower sexual desire, lower sexual arousal and reported more difficulty achieving orgasm.
According to a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2011, 80 percent of people with a vagina fake an orgasm during intercourse at least half of the time. The study also found that they became more vocal when they felt that their partner with a penis was about to climax. They did this in order to boost self-esteem, sacrificing their own ability to orgasm. This is important to note because thanks to the pleasure gap, people with a vagina may not feel as confident achieving an orgasm as someone with a penis does, especially since this person’s orgasm is prioritized.
“Folks with vulvas are often overwhelmed by contradictory messages that are shaming, blaming and often just biologically inaccurate," Shadeen Francis, a marriage and family therapist specializing in sex therapy and social justice, tells SheKnows. "As a result, a lot of people have performance anxiety around things like whether or not they will have an orgasm, what their partner(s) will think of their body or the smell of their vulva and whether or not their drive or desires are normal.”
Performance anxiety impacts a lot of people, not just the person experiencing it firsthand, but anyone they might be interested in having sex with, Francis explains. Given that a lot of performance anxiety could be addressed with better sex education and fewer shaming messages, she notes, "It really is a cultural issue.”
Unintended pregnancy or condoms
For both cis males and cis women, pregnancy is a major concern according to the Superdrug survey. Broken condoms or not using one is a fear that overlaps between the two. Especially if a broken condom has happened to you before, the anxiety can be overwhelming as you’re worried that it may happen again.
Having an IUD or taking some form of birth control on top of wearing a condom can eradicate the anxieties over STIs and pregnancy. In the era of hookup culture and dating apps, no one wants to worry about an unintended pregnancy. It’s important to be open and honest with your partner (even if you’re only sleeping with them once) so an understanding is established over using protection.
When to get professional help
Seeking out sex therapists and educators is a way to look into receiving treatment. “If you're struggling with this or the feelings of anxiety overall, I would recommend folks schedule an appointment with a sex therapist, who is a clinician specially trained to help people overcome their sexual concerns,” Francis advises.
The most important aspect of involving a professional is to acknowledge the issue, Downey says, adding that many of her patients who are in relationships aren’t even aware of their partner's anxiety.
“Once in therapy, concerns of this nature and more can be addressed, later leading to identifying alternative ways of being intimate and connecting both emotionally and physically," Downey explains. "This helps to strengthen the sexual intimacy, which can lessen or reduce anxiety within the individual person.”
Sex isn’t one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t appear in the same shape and form. Everybody and everyone is different. Addressing the issue firsthand with yourself and again with your partner can help an individual overcome obstacles within the bedroom. Including a professional in your dialogue can help guide you or your partner to understanding that you aren’t broken, that you can be mended and you can tackle your sexual anxieties.