Sexual Performance Anxiety

How do I grow sexually without feeling bad about myself for not doing so sooner?

A CUTIE PIE:

Sex has long been a source of anxiety for me. I didn't lose my virginity until after college, in large part because of the unhealthy pressure I put on myself, as a young straight man in college, to have sex while it seemed like all my peers were getting laid. I found it much easier to date (and have sex) after college, but I was still woefully inexperienced in bed by the time I started seeing my ex-girlfriend. 

The chemistry was good to start, but we didn't have sex until a few months into our relationship because we were living at home at the beginning of our relationship. When we did have sex after I moved out, I had a lot of trouble performing -- first finishing at all, then lasting a satisfying amount of time for either of us. She made it clear she enjoyed giving and receiving head, but I was very anxious about going down on her and I didn't want to pull a DJ Khaled, so we never had oral sex. I realize now I was being just as thoughtless as his boasts, just in a different way. 

My ex was always thoughtful and communicative about her concerns with our sex life, knowing I was very sensitive and, frankly, personalized a lot of criticism to be a reflection of my worth as a boyfriend and as a person. I didn't take the steps to increase our sexual compatibility (seeing a doctor about how long I was lasting, seeing a therapist about my bedroom anxiety) until it was too late, thinking I'd have time to grow into sexual compatibility. 

We've been broken up for six months now, and I can't help but look back on our relationship without feeling like I failed her as a partner. My work schedule (I work nights and weekends) has made it hard to date since, and I've not had sex since we broke up. How do I continue to grow sexually without feeling bad about myself for not doing so sooner, and for what effect that had on what has been the most meaningful romantic relationship of my life to date? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. 

SOPHIA:

Hi hi hi! There is a lot of good news all around here—possibly hard to believe, but stick with me please!!! As a warning, one I give pretty often, this is going to take a good amount of work and patience, but you are in no way doomed or damned here. That’s great news!!!!!

A while back I wrote an article and interviewed a bunch of people who were later-in-life virgins and one thing that I found while doing research is that what you’re experiencing is SUPER COMMON. Losing your virginity later in life often coincides with sexual performance problems, likely because the two kind of go hand in hand. The longer you wait, usually the more anxiety and pressure you have built up around sex and the more anxiety and pressure you have built up, the harder it is to actually be able to perform and enjoy sex when you do have it. It is a VERY FUCKED cycle, and I apologize for that. There’s no way around the fact that you happen to have things a bit harder sexually. That blows (not a pun).

Not to be the biggest cornball of all time— you are also super not alone. Of all the articles I’ve ever asked people to write into me about, the one I wrote about later in life virginity got the most responses BY A MILE. I deleted my tweet asking for people to reach out after one minute and I still got almost one hundred responses. TONS of people wanted to talk about it because there are TONS of people who have gone through this or are going through this. And almost no one who lost their virginity later felt totally chill or unbothered by it all the time for their whole life. Societal pressure is a real brat.

But how do you combat this? Well, you’re right that seeing a doctor and a therapist (that you like) will likely be incredibly helpful if you can afford to do so. I would also suggest looking into a sex therapist or CERTIFIED!!! sex coach (do research; unfortunately, some people are creeps). All of these professionals are there to help you with this, and not in a general way, in a way that is specific to you, which is better than anything I can give you, honestly. You will need to talk to someone about what the anxieties that you have are specifically, where your brain goes when you’re having sex, what you’re afraid of, what you fantasize about, what your physical and emotional state is when you’re having sex, etc. The more open and honest you are, the better their care can be. I strongly encourage this! (Again, if it’s feasible in your life).

Ok, as for what I can actually help you with / tell you to do: the first thing— perhaps the most important thing— that you need to do is FORGIVE YOURSELF!!!! Ok, so you messed up a bit and thought you had more time in your relationship to address a very complex internal issue and you didn’t. You didn’t. That’s ok!!!! That does not make you cruel or evil. She was absolutely within her rights (not that she needs my blessing) to break up with you over this issue; sexual incompatibility is a hard issue to surmount, especially when you’re only having sex with one person. But you were also not a bad person for not magically having a solution to your sexual performance issues. You aren’t mean for not having “fixed” this fast enough. You both were in bad positions and you did your best at the time, and it didn’t work out. That happens!!! That happens in lots of relationships. You’re still a lovely person. Say to your self (out loud if you need to!), “Self, you did your best. You messed up, and humans mess up. But you tried, and you were kind, and you put yourself out there and did your best. Good job, Self.” The BEST thing you can do to honor your past relationship is to forgive yourself and learn the lessons you can learn.

I think that before you get into a new exclusive relationship, you should take a little break. Use this time to do some work on your sex life with a professional if you have the resources to, and to work on forgiving yourself. That does not mean that you need to be entirely celibate (although you may be). You may find that having casual sex with someone feels less pressure-filled, that you can look at it more as a mutually pleasurable activity like playing tennis with a doubles partner rather than a high-pressure form of intimacy. Conversely, casual sex may really freak you out. Either is fine!!!! I just think that a relationship where you are someone’s sole sexual partner is putting a lot of pressure on yourself right now. Slow your roll.

Regardless of whether you’re having sex with other people or not, you are still in a sexual relationship with yourself, as dysfunctional or functional as it may be. You need to nurture that relationship. You need to find out what turns you on. You need to get comfortable with your body. You need to learn how to enjoy your body sexually without someone else there. Work on removing or interrogating shame. Do you feel shame? Why do you feel shame? What brings it up? Ask yourself hard questions, even if you don’t have the answer right away. Get curious about yourself rather than being so angry and frustrated with yourself.

Not having sex doesn’t make you uncool, undesirable, or unworthy, despite eons of messaging that says otherwise. Please trust that I am WAY MORE CORRECT than every movie / tv show / book you’ve ever read. Give yourself a break if you aren’t having sex for a few months; you don’t need to catch up with anyone. There is no one to catch up with. More sex does not make your life more full. Especially not sex that you’re pressuring yourself to have to feel more complete or to prove a point.

Relatedly, not having had sex until you were older doesn’t actually mean anything in a vacuum. It only has societally prescribed meaning. Societal constructs are still real. You still are feeling the effects of pressure to have had sex earlier, and you’re still feeling like you’ve missed out on something. And you did. You did miss out on having sex when you were younger, and you can be sad about that as much as you’d like. You should absolutely allow yourself to feel sad about that— FROM TIME TO TIME. I do not think it will serve you to ruminate on it, to make it the one and only narrative of your sex life. While other people can have whatever opinion they want on your sex life, ultimately you get to decide how you view it. Frankly, most people are not that concerned with when you first had sex.

The next time you DO have sex—and you will!—I encourage you to try your best (and it’s hard) to actually feel what is happening. Focus on what’s going on in the room, rather than in your head. Do what feels good as much as possible. Be open with partners if you’re feeling uncomfortable or too in your head—people will absolutely understand. You can say something as simple as, “Sorry, can we slow down a bit? I’m getting really in my head about this for some reason.” And then do a little laugh. Good sex is generally pretty funny and lighthearted. Most people have a good sense of humor about smashing two naked bodies together because it feels good. It’s a funny premise. You’re allowed to make light of yourself.

You’re also allowed to have sex that doesn’t involve having a dick go into a vagina. A WHOLE LOT OF PEOPLE ARE HAVING SEX WITHOUT A DICK GOING INTO A VAGINA. Masturbate next to each other while making out. Go down on one another*. Dry hump one another. Use hands. Use lube. Use a vibrator if you can’t stay hard. Use a vibrator even if you can! Shower together without having sex. If you’re only chasing P in V dual orgasm sex you setting yourself up for a very limited, likely-horrible sex life. The fun of sex is (perhaps paradoxically) not about an orgasm as much as it is about having flirty fun with someone you like. Good sex is playful and creative much more often than it’s very serious banging-against-the-wall, massive-dick, rose-petals-on-the-bed theatrics.

In the meantime, before you have your next sex, work on forgiving yourself and getting to know yourself sexually. You will have good sex. You will have good relationships. You will also have performance issues and fears and insecurities. Guess what? We ALL do. You’re in good company.

*I strongly encourage you to try going down on your next partner, rather than assuming that you suck at it and therefore avoiding it. Watch a tutorial on pornhub (or wherever you find porn). There are good ones by people who have vaginas and know what they’re talking about. And THEN LISTEN TO YOUR PARTNER. You will get better at sex, and then you’ll have a new partner and have to re-learn a lot of things, and then you’ll get better again, and then you’ll have to relearn things. That’s the fun part!!! But absolutely do not avoid going down on someone because you might not be the best at it yet.

Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tweets about everything else at @1followernodad, is a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at 1followernodad@substack.com.